Category Archives: cleaning

The Yarn Sale

He who dies with the most toys wins.        Malcolm Forbes

Now everything ‘s a little upside down,  As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped.  What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good, you’ll find out when you reach the top.  You’re on the bottom.
                         Idiot Wind (Blood On The Tracks) Bob Dylan

Existence is bigger, deeper, more profound and meaningful than the following revelation.  Life is like a card game. Early on the strategy is to win all the “pots” and collect all the stray cards possible.  Many years ago a tea set left by a great aunt spurred a fierce family competition.  Decades later the ubiquitous tea set is still rattling around the family.  No longer coveted, it is too fragile and memory-filled to put on eBay, but no one wants to dust and display it.  The hope is to foist it off on an unsuspecting newly married young niece. My generation is realizing extra cards (and sugar bowls) are a burden and count as points against in the big game.

My wife JoAnne is a fiber artist and president of the Southern California Handweavers’ Guild. To suggest she enjoys collecting yarns, silks, linens and fine fabrics is like saying Marco Polo liked to travel.  She has rescued yarn from Miss Havisham-like estates, garage sales of too-busy hobbyists, and countless church basement rummage sales.  We used to joke that she’d been in more churches than Billy Graham.  Our two car garage has always been given over to her passion.   The result has been many beautiful pieces through the years. Along the way she has also mentored and given freely to beginning weavers.

About a month ago she made the decision to divest.  Her goal was to sell 25% of her accumulation.  With the tireless help of her sister, Donna, she turned the garage into a store-for-a-day.  Thanks to Craig’s List and numerous Yahoo groups, word got out that things would be priced to move.  At the opening bell at 9:00 AM the line was thirty people long. The flurry of shoppers continued unabated for three hours before tapering off, followed by a rally in mid-afternoon. The sale left JoAnne and Donna in equal parts exhausted and euphoric.

In the afterglow it looked like orderly locusts had come and spirited off much of forty-plus years of collecting.  I asked JoAnne if she missed the 600 pounds of yarn. “No, I had more than I could possibly weave up in a lifetime.  It was time to let other people enjoy some of it.”

She had the look of someone who had just located the card they needed to complete a winning hand.

The Yarn Sale

Tom H. Cook was not swept up in the whirlwind of cathartic energy enough to part with his Mad magazine collection.  To view previous columns and even comment visit         


My Collections Are Under Attack!

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar            —Sigmund Freud

My collections are under attack by those closest to me. I suspect my editor (JoAnne) is behind the plot. She has been encouraging me to ask friends and family members how they really feel about my stuff.  This is a touchy subject.  I have always taken their feigned indifference for petty jealousy.  Now everywhere I search for an ally I hear the same thing:  A clear differentiation between their feelings for me (lukewarm), and their impression of my “hobby” (stifling, excessive).  I am warned to not take their pointed criticism personally, which is difficult as they are my CDs, books, and old radios.

These inquisitions/interventions give me pause.  Could I possibly be this shallow?  Have I no soul? Didn’t I understand Citizen Kane? Why do I need a non-operational Grundig Majestic radio looming over the family room?   When is the last time I listened to a Tijuana Brass boxed set?  Am I likely to watch Hill Street Blues DVDs, or re-read Jimmy Breslin’s account of Watergate? My friends intones words such as public library, Internet, Netflix, Kindle, and Pandora, all rational solutions.

For decades I have enjoyed collecting media and odd bits of Americana like an autographed picture of Miss Rheingold 1951.  The hunting has been fun, but I have also unknowingly been constructing a two-way Rorschach test.  My insecurities fairly screamed, “Look at all the cool stuff I’ve got… won’t you like me?” If my sparkling wit did not make me friends, perhaps my Hot Tuna album, or my Lone Ranger board game would.  It cuts both ways.  If someone were too unhip to get the joke of a prominently displayed autographed photo of Henry Kissinger, perhaps we were not meant to be friends.

I have reached the age and stage when I do not feel the need to attract new friends.  The message that I am getting from those closest to me is that they care for me despite, not because of my Frankie Avalon albums, and Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox.  They say my stuff is weighing on me and wouldn’t a much smaller collection be more practical and easier to appreciate?  They warn that I am drowning in stuff.

I may be ankle deep but I am certainly not drowning.   All the constructive criticism begins to blur and soon I am in a buzz of friends all nude, they are led by my 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Reese.  Chanting and dancing, they implore me, “Break free!”  “Throw away your crutches!”  “Break free!” (Repeat incessantly).  I have to admit it is catchy and with the drums and the bonfire I find myself caught up in the frenzy.

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer and garage sale habitué.  A current home renovation project is calling into question all that he holds dear.       

Shirt Collection

I Have Always Been an Acquirer

I have always been an acquirer.  An acquirer is a collector, without a plan.  It is only recently that I have begun to question the origin of this habit, and more importantly realize the exhaustive counter productive energy I have devoted to this activity.  A true collector, whether it is of Rembrandts or bottle caps has developed a “file philosophy”, a guide that helps them set limits and define what they value, making it easier to separate these items from the sea of pretenders.

I have never been able to resist people that seem to like me, literature on a cause that I should be more knowledgeable about, or 25-cent books on the discard shelves at the library that always I meant to read like, U. Thant, The Batter From Burma.  I never questioned the premise that if stuff is good, more stuff is better.

As a random chaotic thinker, I have always viewed the world as a rather length scavenger hunt, or an Indiana Jones movie.  A mysteriously produced gas receipt from a home I sold ten years ago may turn the tide of an IRS audit.  An airline ticket and luggage claim would prove to a Grand Jury that I could not possibly be behind the latest coup in Paraguay.  Scary as it seems, I actually think like this.  When in doubt save it, it may come in handy in establishing an alibi, although I have not done anything illegal or even interesting.  The problem is that if the situation ever arose it would be easier and considerably less painful to go to the gas chamber rather that dig through an attic and basement filled with old records that might exonerate me.

The serious reasons for becoming an acquirer are probably buried in self esteem issues (see SAND…HLP May, 1992), suffice it to say that having a lot of stuff on a low budget might have been a scrawny kid from Pennsauken’s way to fit in.  There have actually been times when having an extensive Frankie Valli album collection has been socially helpful, but in retrospect it may not have been that necessary.  I no longer feel the need to hade behind possessions.

The habit of picking up brochures, and getting on mailing lists has been a difficult one to break because the goal is moderation not abstinence.  Crime and pollution aside, there are other reasons to consider small town life.  Perhaps people in remote areas have a better perspective on the Arts.  The Amish for example wear only black but display a wonderful color sense in their quilts and other hand craft.  In Pine Scruff Falls, Minnesota (population 338) Maynard Ferguson plays at the consolidated regional high school every four years.  Everyone goes, next subject.

The fact that I am fifteen minutes from six galleries, twelve live theater spaces, and a coffeehouse run by Jungian biker still does not get me out of my comfortable chair on most nights.  My compromise is to keep believing that I would attend these happenings if I remain on the mailing list and have sufficient notice.  Part of me wants to believe that I really am a “player” in the culture scene.  Even if I do not plan to attend the John Greenleaf Whitter lecture series, JGW:  Was he Two Women?, perhaps I could at least pick up the information for a friend.  The result is that my life is continually cluttered with missed opportunities and good intentions.

I could not care less that the Jolly Martin Performance Company based in Wheaton, Illinois is doing a nine show run at the Homely Oak Theatre in Spring Lake Park of Guy De Maupassant’s The Necklace.  That it is in Finnish, with Burl Ives’ niece (fresh out of Hazelden) playing all of the female roles is not a lure.  Yet I accept the brochure and stack it up in my pile of things I feel guilty about not doing.  Granted the above example is less tempting than a host of other worthwhile projects that I have also not attended, but I feel a secret joy weeks later when I realize that because of my procrastination I have managed to miss all nine performances and that, alas it is now permissible to discard the handsome four color brochure.

Walking into a Realtor’s open house with friends out of idle curiosity, I have always been the one to take the literature even though the home is selling for twice the GNP of Micronesia.  Six months later I still have it, because I was intending to mail it to a friend because the roof line in the picture is similar to the renovation they have been doing to their home.  So I have found myself accumulating things that I now I will never use, but are also of dubious value to others.

My professional life is equally muddled.  I am constantly receiving notice of limited enrollment workshops that would help me crisis manage, teach me to both delegate and accept more responsibility, get me out of a dead end job, solve my current problems in halt of the time, acquaint me with the new technology, or ease me into a stress free retirement a lot sooner that my chosen path.  They hint strongly that my current level of expertise in probably the equivalent of a physician sing leeches, and that if I want to help my clients, the organization, and avoid getting sued, I better get to the Ramada Inn in Brooklyn Center next Thursday and bring $135.00.  How can I blithely throw these opportunities away?  Obviously I can not, so I save them, both at work and at home they stack up.  If I went to even a tiny fraction of the inservices offered I would be fired for dereliction of duty.

My vow is to collect only what I am able to use, and cease to be indiscriminate acquirer of well intended things that do not fit my needs.  I am still a sentimentalist, but I feel less inclined to clutter my life with playbills and scorecards of past events that I have attended.  I have been guilty of mistaking form for substance and grasping at tangibles to validate my experience.  I have been reluctant to exclude opinions, fearing that I would narrow myself, forgetting that sometimes we are better defined by what we are not.  The adage, “if you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there,” contains well worn truth.  My goal is to return from a relevant “night on the town” with a full heart and an empty hand.

Tom H. Cook is a local mystic.  He is continually amazed by how little of the Sunday Tribune is actually necessary. 



The Challenge

You make things harder than they need to be.  You think you are saving time, but you’re not.     —JoAnne Cook

For argument’s sake, let’s say JoAnne was referring to me.  She was alone in the kitchen when I returned from the supermarket.  I was carrying a gallon jug of milk in each hand, a large cottage cheese in my right armpit, and two 32 oz. yogurt containers nestled in the crook of my left arm and pressed against my ribcage.  She opened the door and half listened while I raved about my bargain hunting coup.  She was gone before hearing my epistle on the virtue of shopping on discount dairy day.

In hindsight it would have made sense to put all of my purchases on the kitchen counter, cleared space in the refrigerator and then calmly (perhaps after I went to the bathroom) shelve my purchases.  I can never tell when I will be overcome by The Challenge.  Suddenly before me was the belief that I could hold onto all of my shopping and somehow use my patella and chin to pry open the refrigerator.  After considerable struggle, I was actually able to accomplish that. I peered inside.  The fridge was more crowded than I remembered.  The cottage cheese was falling fast, and the bathroom trip was rising on my priority list.  I began to sweat and perform contortions not seen since the 1950s game show Beat The Clock.  It occurred to me that I was putting myself through this with no chance of winning a new washer and dryer.

The Challenge makes you do crazy things.  In haste, I managed to half flip, half nudge the cottage cheese into a prime real estate location on a lower shelf previously reserved for a milk gallon.  The center could not hold; both lemon yogurts, balanced briefly against each other before their inevitable tumble, landed in a manner that somehow broke their protective seals.  I may have stepped on one of the cartons as I completed a spin move, designed to prevent (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) a large, not quite sealed Tupperware container of gravy from hitting the floor.  Surprisingly the newly cleared space was not roomy enough to accommodate even one upright milk carton.

The noise brought JoAnne back to the kitchen, and while she did not slip on the gravy, I do not believe that cheered her.  She witnessed with a look that was not awe, my attempt at squeezing two milk gallons into a spot that already contained a large pot of soup stock.  The sides were drawn.  To put the milks down (take a minute to go to the bathroom) and rearrange things would have meant that the gravy, yogurt accident had been in vain.  I yearned to be finished with this task.  As it turned out, replacing the fallen yogurt (before it went off sale), and cleaning up a surprisingly pervasive gravy spill took longer than it might with a more conventional approach. I am not one to assign blame.  Let’s just say, the job became more complex than it initially appeared.

Why go through all of this?  If workaholics are driven by fear of their inner sloth, then I live a corollary. I seek short cuts and will go miles and hours out of my way in pursuit of one. I will labor tirelessly (albeit at cross purposes) for hours to steal an opportunity to nap.  Freud be damned, my most basic drive is to lie down, either on a couch or a backyard swing.  I curse The Challenge, because it exposes my inner laziness.


Tom H. Cook may still be paired with LeBron James and offered in a package deal to The Minnesota Timberwolves.  If not, he will remain a columnist living in a far away land writing about stuff. 

Empty Nesters

JoAnne and I have been official empty nesters since our son Ben left for the University of California/Santa Cruz in the fall of 2000.  In his freshman year he met Erin, a wonderful young woman.  Since then they have spent their junior year abroad together in Edinburgh, Scotland, graduated from college, moved to L.A, and have each found jobs in their respective fields.  It is beginning to sink in that our little Benny Two-fingers is not coming back home for anything other than a visit.  My vigil is ending, and the light I keep burning in the window is only attracting raccoons.

We call him “The Boy” and JoAnne knew seven years ago that he would not be back.  I realized on a practical level that little Benny was now Ben, and despite the hours of wisdom I had yet to impart, he would not be receiving it at my knee, or while bivouacked in the guest bedroom in our rather small California home.  Still, when Ben and Erin informed us this winter that they were house-hunting, it seemed like such a big step.

During the search, thanks to modern technology, JoAnne and I received copies of the listings and could make suggestions. We would frequently receive a bemused or bewildered call from Ben.  He and Erin had wisely ruled out vast acreage, iffy neighborhoods, and zip codes that were too pricey.  Still, viewing what they could almost afford was an education.  Erin was surprised by what a clever realtor defined as a breakfast nook.  Like the Henny Youngman line, at one open house they saw a closet that was a nail. They walked through houses that would need to be painted before they could be condemned, and depressingly, they were a financial stretch.

We laughed about the Woody Allen bit from his early film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.  The vignette featured emcee Jack Barry and panelist Robert Q. Lewis trying to guess “What’s My Perversion?” a parody of “What’s My Line?.”  I suggested similarly that any house they could approach affording would have a giant quirk.  The game would be to identify the hideous flaw.  The scoring rules were vague, but if you could spot the weirdness on-line, no one had to visit the property.  If the photos and enticing language fooled them, they would have to explore this too good to be true home.  If they were able to drag me all the way up in freeway traffic to see a place that hadn’t been inhabited since the Manson family, points were awarded.

Whether it was seven foot ceilings, being directly on a fault line, or the added expense of purchasing monthly protection from the Crips/Bloods, Erin and Ben would have to compromise.  Particularly in California, finding an oddity that can be re-framed as charming, unique, or at least tolerable was their only chance.  As one realtor suggested, “Sometimes you gotta kiss a lot of frogs.”  They were not deterred.  They considered everything from a downtown L.A. industrial loft to a house built on top of a giant rock with a fifty-step switchback front entrance and chickens in the back yard. (No exaggeration.)

Finally they found a 1930s Spanish style house with a large deck and a sweeping vista of the surrounding hills in Silver Lake.  The character flaw: it was only 800 square feet.  Easy to clean they decided. Ben was smitten.  Silver Lake reminded him of home.  Like South Minneapolis, it is near downtown but with a neighborhood feel.  It is artsy, tree-lined, hilly, and filled with eclectic architecture from the 1920s and 30s.  Erin, a Californian from the Bay Area, loved the winding narrow streets and the intimacy of the neighborhood.

The kids wisely chose to paint the entire interior of the house before moving in any furniture.  JoAnne and I were both on the painting crew, along with a number of their friends.  On occasion I found myself watching and not working.  Granted, I am fairly lazy, but I was observing the easy banter, affection, and the hard work everyone was putting forth.  It was bittersweet hearing Ben share inside jokes with friends on topics I cannot grasp.  While it was wonderful to witness the support system he and Erin have built in the big city, it was also a time to realize I will not be pushing Little Benny in the tire swing I never got around to setting up on Humboldt Avenue.


Tom H. Cook, lacking cable, may be the last person to have discovered “Countdown with Keith Olbermann” on MSNBC.  Thanks to YouTube, Olbermann’s sagacious, well reasoned, and fearless commentaries are preserved.  When our national nightmare ends he is one individual who will not have to be embarrassed or feel guilty for not having done enough.  If you have not already done so, please check out his stirring missives. 

Mantle Clock

Question:  “What possession would you save in the event of a disaster?”

In the late 1990s I remember a resurgence of people wanting to get to know each other better.  Either through parlor games or questions like this one, the art of conversation made a brief comeback.  Now we are cynical, terrified, politically polarized hand-wringers, with satellite cable, high definition television and nothing to say to each other.  Still I would like to answer the question.

I first met JoAnne at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1970.  We seemed to hit it off immediately.   I liked that expensive outings did not seem to be a priority with her, and that a long walk from her dorm to the arboretum seemed to constitute a Saturday night date.  It was on one of these forays early in our relationship that we found ourselves looking at a charred campus building.  I do not remember the name of the fraternity, but there clearly had been a fire and now there was a large dumpster filled with the contents of the house.  Many items were smoke-damaged or broken, but on the top of the heap was a mantle clock, made of wood, that appeared to have survived the fire and been purged in the clean-up.

We spoke in general terms about what would possess someone to throw away an attractive and apparently intact clock.  The discussion was completely hypothetical because a person on their fifth or sixth date was not going to dirty themselves and go fishing in the giant receptacle.  It is a matter of conjecture and family folklore how the subject was finally broached and I ended up in the dumpster.  I was not only forgiven but seen as resourceful when the clock, after cleaning, proved to be in working order.

We have kept our Revere Telechron Westminster Chime clock for thirty-six years.  It was made in the U.S.A.  On the bottom is a plaque that reads “Class of 55”.  It has moved from Michigan to Florida to Minnesota to California.  It has been on prominent display everywhere we have lived, and has always worked perfectly.

I thought having a camera in a much-loved clock would be an interesting premise for a film.  I remember looking at the clock before I went off to my first real job. A clock captures anticipation: waiting for a phone call, a favorite show, or a child to come home.  Every time we view the unblinking clock we are older. 

That is everything I know about our clock on the mantle. When the Big One hits (and of course out here it is all about earthquakes), if JoAnne and the pets are safe, I’m going for the clock.


Tom H. Cook is a wayward local writer who is missing out on the improvements to Lake of the Isles, the new Guthrie, Block E, the decline of Calhoun Square, the Twins post pennant fever, and the current heat wave.  He is reasonably content watching the Pacific Ocean and counting the days until we have a new president..