Category Archives: creativity

Writing an Advice Column

I am living with my husband and ex-husband and their girl friends.  These women sneak their red underwear in with my whites in the laundry and now we all have pink clothing!  I try to talk to them but they gang up on me.  Don’t suggest I leave; it is my house! 

(signed) Pinky

One of the many ways I irritate those closest to me is by occasionally speaking with a heavy Scandinavian accent, though it is not my heritage.  I do it only as an homage to the original movie Fargo.  Think Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), trying to impress his wheeler dealer father-in-law with his business acumen:  “I tell you, Wade, this is really sweet deal.”

While I was dining out with friends recently, the server offered us the Happy Hour Special (two for one hors d’oeuvres) despite it being 9:00 pm, three hours after the happiness was to have ended.  To the embarrassment and chagrin of all I replied in full accent, “That would be a really sweet deal.”

fixit

I have always thought writing a nationally syndicated advice column would be a really sweet deal.  I’d call it Talk to Tom, with an accompanying picture of me caring about others (it would need to be Photoshopped).  To get started, I planned to solicit or make up a few letters from troubled souls.  I’d have one a bit spicy (PG-13), such as an inquiry from a newlywed whose husband insists on bringing a pet goat into their bedroom.

Some letters would not even need much of a response.  Take “Marilyn of Widows Peak, Georgia.”  She enclosed a powerful poem she found tucked in a Gideon Bible at a truck stop motel where she was about to throw away her sacred vows and, as she put it, have “carnival relations” with a dried fruit vendor from Cincinnati.  I only need thank Marilyn, extol her bravery and reprint the poem in its entirety.  Boom, another whole column. (Ka-ching $$$)

I was getting excited about helping the downtrodden, lonely, and misunderstood. The rewards of syndication barely crossed my mind. A fancy degree is not required to give advice to the lovelorn, just a little common sense, which admittedly is not my strong suit.  Mostly you need to be kind, caring and genuine, which I can fake

Another helpful ingredient is a collection of wise but vague sayings and parables.   Don’t sugar coat the truth but wrap it in a pithy, humorous but knowing manner.  To close, suggest the writer seek out a therapist/counselor/clergy person.  That is the “playbook.”  The referral is the safe, middle of the fairway, don’t get sued response.

Before I could begin my venture I was disheartened to learn Dear Abby, Dr. Laura, Miss Manners, Dr. Ruth, Ask Amy, Dear Ann and the rest have large staffs working tirelessly to help lost souls. They have offices, copy machines, consultants, accountants, lawyers and a staff handling thousands of requests.  My bubble was burst.  Suddenly it was looking like a real job.  I opted to take a nap and remain a fan of the genre.

I enjoy my guilty pleasure, and freely admit to reading the Dear Abby letters in the newspaper on a daily basis.  To clarify, I call all the advice mavens Abby as Minneapolis’ Abigail Van Buren (Pauline Phillips) was the gold standard.  JoAnne and I attempt to guess “Abby’s” response and verbally craft a better one.  It is not one of my stellar traits but I feel a tinge of smugness comparing my problems to those who write in to the paper.  I do on occasion wonder where all of the concupiscent young women with poor judgement and raging libidos were when I was much younger.  They certainly didn’t live in Pennsauken, New Jersey in the 1960s and frequent the Cherry Hill Mall, or the Nassau Diner.  Unless my friends and I were not as cool…Nah.

When the upper crust mother of the bride thinks the new in-laws may be stealing her silver and it is a month before the wedding, I have to chortle.  One woman wrote that her boyfriend played around so much she did not know if the child she was expecting was his.  My favorite was a young man who rationalized that because he had delayed choosing a career; at 28 he worried that he was too old to start medical school and face ten years of training.  Expecting sympathy he concluded, “After all, I’d be 38 when I finished, isn’t that a little ridiculous?”  Dear Abby responded, “If you don’t go, how old will you be in ten years?”

I find myself muttering incredulously at the unfathomable and exasperating situations out there.  “No seventh chances!”  “Leave the lying weasel immediately.”  “Run!  As far and as fast as possible!”  I cannot believe some of the “writers” are in the same phylum as the rest of us.  It does however help explain the ascension of Donald Trump.

Tom H. Cook feels like he is playing “Whack A Mole” with the medical profession.  No sooner does he complete an appointment than another arises.  

Aging Perceptions

belanko by Tom CassidyDon’t worry; it gets worse.
—Barbara Amram (on aging)

Young women get changed in front of me.
—Jay Leno (on being old and invisible)

Why do seniors get a discount? They’ve had more time to make the money.
—anonymous (possibly Homer)

* * * * * * * *
“Are you comfortable?”
“I make a good living”

My very young dental hygienist (fresh from a small town in Idaho and trying to catch on in the glam world of L.A. dentistry) directed me into her chair and asked me the question. Granted, it’s funnier with a Yiddish accent, but it helps to be of a certain age to really sell the line. My response made her giggle and then laugh hard. There is a new audience, a whole generation that has never heard the classics. It is small recompense for getting liver spots, but too much is written about the downside of the whole aging process.

What is under-reported is the perks. I am no longer asked to help people move, (“We’re gonna have pizza and beer, its just a few things, it’ll be fun…”) I used to feel ethically challenged by party invitations. I was clumsy and awkward declining or accepting as I would almost always prefer to spend a quiet evening with dogs. Marginally interesting activities would torment me. I could go and be miserable, or stay home and feel guilty because I was not really too busy. Now I get far fewer social invitations and it is much easier to reject them. I politely but firmly say I am not coming, it is too far, too late, or I don’t want to.

Another advantage of aging is perspective. I was too often impulsive and short sighted throughout much of my life. I gnashed my teeth and lost sleep over roads not taken, mistakes I have made, hunches I did or did not follow, and decisions that, in hindsight, would have been better left to a ouija board. I am no Leo Buscaglia (how is that for a name from the past?) but I stress less and am more accepting. I did not get rich, but I never had to do hard time. The good news is that at a certain age it doesn’t much matter. My habits are set and more money would not appreciably improve my life. It is delightful to not be looking for a job, or answering to anyone.

People would rather be naked in front of each other than discuss their finances and I will not do either here, but the question that drives us most of our lives is “Why is there no parking at Trader Joe’s?” Oops I meant “How much money do I need to be able to live out my days warm and indoors?” I had always hoped that one of my splinter skills (writing, public speaking, stand up comedy) would thrust me into the public eye. I was never discovered but it’s nice not having to spend all that time in the harbor waiting for my ship to come in.

It is interesting to watch a coach who has prepared and practiced maniacally, forsaking friends, family, food, and sleep for a supreme effort in the big game. A close contest is more exciting but there is a melancholy bittersweet relief in a lopsided blowout. Up or down by thirty points in the waning moments, the contest is decided. It is time to be magnanimous: play the scrubs, avoid injury, don’t argue calls, congratulate your opponents, and let your players know how proud you are of them. My wins and losses have not been as dramatic. I never caught the brass ring, found the pot of gold, made it to Easy Street or [insert your favorite cliche here]. I hope to have many years left but I feel myself letting go of needing to keep score or watch the clock.

Tom H. Cook will likely have a third grandchild by the time you read this. He listens regularly to The Tony Kornheiser Show podcasts and is a “loyal little.”

The New Guy

Inquisitor: So, if you don’t mind my askin’, ya got kids?
Victim: No, just haven’t…
Inquisitor: We’ve got four.  They are gifts from God.  You and your better half church-goers?
Victim: We’re kind of lapsed Druids I guess…
Inquisitor: (crinkling her nose in skepticism and simultaneously pleased to have solved the mystery) Well there ya go.  They’re a lot of work but they bring so much joy.  Can’t imagine life without them.  JIMMY, GET DOWN FROM THERE AND GET OVER HERE NOW! QUIT YOUR SNIVELLING OR I’LL GIVE YA SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT!

Stranger Inquisition, or S.I., is a little understood malady which strikes relentlessly and without warning.  One in five Americans over the age of 21 are subjected to stranger scrutiny if they are unmarried, childless, or without grandchildren.  Possible side effects include mood swings, anger, rage, homicidal thoughts, and jaw discomfort due to excessive teeth clenching. The Diagnostic Statistics Manual (DSM-5) has chosen not to address S.I..  There is no government or private sector funding, nor are there any current studies underway in the United States.

Stranger Inquisition literature worldwide is also sparse.  There was Bachelors level research being done in Antwerp, Belgium and summarized in The Daily Twerp, a weekly shopper (June, 2006), almost a decade ago. What we do know is Stranger Inquisition is a result of close proximity of an inquisitor and a victim.  Actual physical contact need not occur, but quite often (59%) the inquisitor will squeeze the arm of the victim and on occasion (22%) pinch the cheek.

Inquisitors are generally women over fifty (84%) and gum chewers (97%).  They need only a few minutes of questioning to irritate a victim.  Being an inquisitor may have a genetic link, and seems to grant one immunity.  Two inquisitors alone in a confined space, an elevator for example, will quickly attempt to top each other with their quantity of grandchildren and the breeding prowess of their offspring.

Inquisitors would much rather attack what they see as an unbalanced molecule, namely a well coiffed person not bedraggled and frazzled to the point of exhaustion.  Telltale signs like gum in the hair, Silly  String embedded on suede shoes, or Happy Meal toys dangling from pockets signal a fellow parent.  Inquisitors are relentless proselytizers.  They attack early arrivals at business meetings, anyone not in a pack at social gatherings (pot lucks, community fund raisers, religious retreats), and in banks and grocery checkout lines.

JoAnne and I were married for almost ten years before having our first of two children.  We endured the questions and unsolicited advice.  Our daughter Rachael and then her brother Ben brought us not only great joy, but temporary relief from S.I. As I aged, the drumbeat for grandchildren began. Curiously, it was never sounded by anyone in the family.  Only a woman with the tattoo Born To Raise Children, driving an SUV with decals of stick figure children in the rear window, and sporting a bumper sticker “Ask me about my grandchildren,” had browbeaten me.  The arrival of granddaughter Charlotte a year and a half ago has not only been a wonderful addition, but has also silenced the inquisitors.

Now I am waiting for someone to say, “Only the one?” because by the time you read this we will hopefully be reveling in the arrival of Charlotte’s little brother, tentatively named The New Guy.

Tom H. Cook has never felt the need to wear a giant button with a picture of his children. He has never knowingly advised random strangers about their private business.  

belanko 1 by Tom Cassidy

belanko 1 by Tom Cassidy

I Cannot Write Straight

I cannot write straight.  Even a simple task like a three sentence letter to a mortgage lender confirming the residency of friends gets complicated.  I envision a wily, cigar chomping bank examiner (Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity) pouring over my submission.  I feel the need to establish motive.  Why would these people live with us rent free for months while they are waiting for their house purchase to close?

Although I was not the subject, I felt the need to establish context.  I began with JoAnne and me leaving Florida and moving to Minneapolis.  I barely touched on the difference between Naples and Calhoun/Isles.  From there I segued (quite cleverly, I thought) into how this wonderful couple had, much like Native people long ago, adopted JoAnne and me.  We were not Pilgrims, but we were unprepared for the winter of 1977, which was the coldest ever until 1978.

Admittedly, mention of our friends’ steadfastness and loyalty was not what the bank was seeking.  I thought our friends’ presence at the births and (much later) marriages of both of our children would help me wrap up the letter, which was heading north of six pages.  I was about to “bring it on home,” which I thought a mortgage broker, if steeped in the blues of Lightnin Hopkins, would appreciate.

JoAnne interceded.  Grabbing the computer, she dashed off a couple of quick sentences listing our names and address, and stating that our friends were living with us rent free from one date to another.  There was no arc, no character development, no plot points!  I felt badly for her.  Our friends must have also as they chose to present her version to the bank, to not hurt her feelings.

This highlights a major philosophical difference between us.  JoAnne contends that office workers forced to engage me by phone, e-mail or in person do not want a long, circuitous, “clever” response.  She claims I am not as funny as I believe myself to be and, that workers, like Jack Webb on Dragnet, just want the facts!  “These people have quotas to reach.  They do not have time for your foolishness.”

Whereas I believe that the more bureaucratized and routine the job, the more people enjoy and even need a little humor to break it up. (S)he who laughs, lasts.  Long ago, as a baby boomer with ho hum credentials searching for my first job, I needed a way to make my resume memorable.  I printed it on brown steak paper.  It not only stuck out in a sea of white, but the paper was so slippery, no pile could contain it.  I cannot say it got me a job, but on a number of occasions when I went for an interview the secretary referred to me as “the guy with the resume” and called her colleagues in to see me.

Nowadays a form asking — for the third time — for my relationship to a next of kin deserves the response “Frosty.”  Someone who reviews records and loan applications in a Kafkaesque cubical may look favorably upon someone who makes him smile.  When I hear “This call may be monitored for quality control purposes” I want the supervisor of this poor frightened bureaucrat to know what kind of wing nuts their representative has to put up with!  When I am prompted to pay attention “as the options have changed,” after I get a live person, I inquire when the options changed.  How are people enjoying the new options?  Did you get to vote? Do you foresee the options changing again?

When I call to dispute a claim or request service I hope to be connected to someone not totally beaten down by the faceless, gut wrenching, soul stealing system that engulfs us all.  A fellow traveler able to at least momentarily step back and view the existential absurdity, and glimpse the chasm between their envisioned future at six or seven as a cowboy or ballerina and the reality of grown-up life as a gate keeping, no-saying, customer service hotline representative. None of us aspired to long shifts with hovering supervisors and enforced cheerfulness in a windowless cubicle.  I offer humor, sympathy, and a brief respite from a day mired in a loop of co-pays, eligibility, and exclusions, or widgets, waivers, and warranties.

Tom H. Cook is happy to be out of the rat race, although he wishes he had gotten more cheese.  

I am a Noodge

Noodge  verb, noun (Yiddish)  To nag or pester

I now believe we live by miracles, not improvements.      —Garrison Keillor

A classic Mary Tyler Moore episode features an exasperated Lou Grant pushed to his breaking point by news anchor Ted Baxter’s latest gaffe.  Barely able restrain himself when confronting the blithe cluelessness of his on air “talent,” Mr. Grant, with mayhem in his heart and a firm grip on Ted’s lapels, glowers at his prey.  Initially Lou is too angry to speak.  Finally through clenched teeth he snarls, “Ted, you know the way you are?”  Ted, still oblivious but fearful of being pounded into the ground like a tent stake, vigorously nods his head.  Grant, only slightly appeased but realizing the futility of his rage, entreats, “Don’t be that way!”

Writer Sydney J. Harris suggests that our personality is more than a set of independent traits that can be freely “shopped out” or exchanged.  The way we organize and integrate our collection of traits into a complex structure makes up our personality.  Changing one trait requires a reorganization of the whole personality.  Viewed dynamically, certain defects are the cost we pay for our virtues.  An ulcer or migraine may be the price of perfectionism.  Our positive traits are often intertwined with the unflattering.  A fearless gridiron pass rusher may not be good at waiting for a table in a crowded restaurant.   A dedicated research chemist may lack a scintillating wit in social settings.

This is a somewhat fancy rationalization for a behavior I possess that can drive others crazy.  I am a noodge. I show JoAnne the Harris article that suggests that being a pest is a core personality trait and that I would not be the “Self” I am without it, and that my identity was fragile.  The no-nonsense person that she is suggests that my remaining friends like me despite this trait rather than because of it, and that I better knock it off!   I have been known to hector, goad, needle, infer, harass, badger, browbeat, suggest, cajole, bribe, con, plead, hound, annoy, bait, browbeat, pester, tease, torment, plague, flatter, induce, bother, inveigle, urge, coax, and wheedle to get my way.  In my defense, I am rarely out to benefit myself directly.  I limit my practice to family and close friends.  All of them are immune to my charms.

I will not claim to be particularly gifted at managing my own life, but I am savant-like in my understanding of the needs of those around me.  Call it a gift, but if you seek to buy a house, select a pet, have a child, plan a vacation, tangle with a family member, choose a college, or make a retirement decision, I am a huge help.  Sadly I am not one to accept, “You have given me a lot to think about…thank you!”  For me that is not closure, it is merely blood in the water.  Polite indecision is an opening.  I flash to the salesman’s edict in Glengarry Glen Ross: A.B.C. Always Be Closing.

Pop psychologists would suggest that I must have deep-seated issues of my own that I am avoiding.  I have examined my inner life and found it neither troubled, complex, or even interesting.  That my closest friends from our Minnesota days are planning a move to California and will soon be house hunting…now that’s entertainment!  In the spirit of helpfulness I may have dropped by a few open houses (27), collected some realtor business cards (55), chatted with a neighbor or twelve, and forwarded a couple of listings (114).  Mixed in may have been a phone chat or two.

JoAnne is a disciple of the nonintrusive school of quiet support, ready to listen and offer her opinion if solicited.  She is more directive with me!  “Our friends are able to blah blah blah let them blah blah blah own decision blah blah know better than blah blah blah lived successfully all these years without you blah, blah blah if your advice blah blah blah it’s not your business blah blah blah how would you like it blah blah blah let them blah blah blah!!!”

Talk about clueless!

Walkin the Dogs

Tom H. Cook is a now far away writer who misses everything Minnesota except the newly added May snowfall.  It is probably no coincidence that his two dogs are noodgey border collies. 

 

 

 

 

Tom at the loom

Weaving

This would have been a great column twenty years ago.  Much like my breathless exhortation on the world of podcasting (HLP May 2011), I am late to the dance with this revelation (to me only) of the puzzle-solving power of Internet communities.  Other than bemusement at Lindsay Lohan’s multiple escapes from justice, I do not follow any topic closely enough to grasp the full force of the axiom that everyone is smarter than any one.  That changed when JoAnne was stumped by a weaving problem.

I have watched her chase the two sirens Curiosity and Creativity for four decades.  As a serious artist and president-elect of the Southern California Hand Weavers Guild, and even with decades of experience, she continually seeks challenges.   Being temporarily over her head attempting to refine the weave structure on a project is a normal state of  affairs.  The goal is creation not extension.  Following a pattern is merely replication.  The art and anxiety comes from bringing together your own vision with the wisdom of other artists.  Being a “fiddler on the roof” at times is the price of originality.

When she is off in her own world, a bobbing, riffing, weaving John Coltrane, I usually grab a good book and the nearest dog and retreat.  But, her latest caper intrigued me.  She had a copy of the not totally obscure 1926 text How To Weave Linens by Edward F. Worst.  Using Worst’s instructions, charts, and black and white photos, JoAnne used her weaving software to digitally represent one of the cloth designs. Her computer program revealed the same weave structure except it came out sideways.  Analyzing 17 other weave drafts in that chapter, she discovered all were inexplicably a quarter turn off.

Rather than just rotate the patterns 90 degrees, JoAnne wanted to know what had gone wrong.  She needed to understand Edward Francis Worst (1869-1949), unfortunate name and all.  Worst was a manual arts teacher, a leader in the Arts and Crafts movement, and the author of four books on weaving.  By 1926 Edward Worst was America’s foremost authority on hand weaving. Surely the man knew what he was doing. JoAnne, after blaming her own reading of the instructions, the software, and briefly me for hovering, turned to WeaveTech, an international 2,000 member Yahoo group, for answers.

A WeaveTech member from Sweden solved the mystery.  The photos in Worst’s chapter were lifted directly from Nina Engestrom’s book Prastik Vavbok, published in Sweden in 1896.  Nina or a careless typesetter had turned the fabric photos 90 degrees in her book, and Worst had included them (unattributed and still sideways) along with instructions in How To Weave Linens.

I was ready to write an expose on “Fast Eddie’s” grab for the gold when I began to read other posts and articles.  Worst, a Chicago, Illinois native, looked like Daniel Day Lewis looking like Lincoln.  Rather than a quick-buck plagiarist, he was more of a saint, committed to reversing the divorce between the hand and the brain.  He was a school principal and early advocate for nascent programs in occupational and physical therapy.  He taught weaving and other arts that emphasized the therapeutic value of handcraft to staff at state mental institutions.  He pioneered handweaving as a resource for low income people suffering the effects of The Great Depression.

Worst was so taken by the early efforts to establish a weaving cooperative in North Carolina that a feel-good made for television movie could be made from what happened next.

Worst, the Yankee school principal, traveled to the Blue Ridge Mountains town of Penland, North Carolina to teach weaving in the summer of 1928.  His classes were so popular the community committed to building a studio.  A visionary local woman, Lucy Morgan, “borrowed all the money they would let me have” and led grass roots efforts to finance and construct the log “mansion in the sky.”  In May 1935 the locals came  together like an Amish barn raising (but with liquor).  They cut logs and used their mules to drag them into place.  The women cooked the noon meals, which became a community event.  In August of 1935 the last nail went into the roof of the four-story 50 X 80 foot Edward F. Worst Craft House the day before Worst’s arrival.

If this is a movie, the locals will be lining the streets of Penland as a deeply moved Edward Worst (Tommy Lee Jones if Mr. Lewis is unavailable), and his wife Evangeline (Holly Hunter?) slowly motor into town.  Prominent in the crowd would be Lucy Morgan (Meryl Streep?), the driving force behind the school.  The closing credits reveal The Penland School of Craft has become internationally recognized, and the Edward F. Worst Craft House and particularly the Chicago Room is a cornerstone of the campus.  The next to last visual would state “Edward Worst began teaching summers in North Carolina in 1927, and returned every year until his death in 1949.”  Then the last screen: “During his more than twenty years of teaching at Penland, he never accepted compensation.”  There will not be a dry eye in the house, and I am misting up as I write this.  It is amazing what you can learn on the Internet.

 Tom H. Cook is an adept blogger and the host of four sites dedicated to Philadelphia Athletics left fielder Gus Zernial.    

 JoAnne adds: You can read more about  Penland, Lucy Morgan and Edward Worst at http://www.wcu.edu/library/DigitalCollections/CraftRevival/people/edwardworst.html     

By the way, my handwoven linens came out beautifully.  Still sideways, but lovely.  

    

 

 

Great Finds

On most Saturday mornings I wander around looking to see what my neighbors wisely or foolishly have put out for sale.  Some weeks it is stained Hello Kitty sheets, a three (formerly four) legged particle board laminate table, a used possum trap, a scratched Tijuana Brass album, a Kelvinator (I don’t know either but it requires 220 current), a collection of vintage margarine tubs, a not that clean stretched out plumbing snake, a Chevy muffler, a pile of enmeshed bamboo blinds, a mostly complete game of Sorry!, and a water-stained collection of Danielle Steel novels.  But some weeks there is nothing but junk!

Every collector has a “great find” story, told with the same gleeful chortle as Bain Capital executives over drinks at the club as they recount outsourcing an orphanage and shipping 900 children to be raised in India. The wily dealer came upon a pair of autographed Elvis socks for a dime and is later besieged with offers in the thousands.  Why he is still driving a rusted out, twenty year old Dodge van is never explained.  My tale is not of stealth, deceit or enormous gain, but rather impulse, regret, acceptance, and inconvenience.

A few months ago at a nearby apartment building I was early enough to witness the beginnings of an interesting looking sale.  A nondescript but pleasant accountant type in his 40s was bringing out boxes of model trains.  I have many weaknesses, but fortunately Lionel trains are not among them.  I asked if he would be bringing anything else out, and he replied that he would be selling his baseball cards.  I believe the term is feigned nonchalance and I am not very good at it.

Soon he began to bring out boxes of neatly organized baseball and football cards.   These were not the valuable Topps cards of my Ted Williams/Stan Musial childhood.  This younger neighbor collected in the 1980s-90s after other companies joined the “hobby” and proceeded to flood the market.  So this is not going to be a gloating, how I got rich story.  In truth, I was ambivalent. The owner of the cards was selling under a stress that I did not yet understand.  He was such a meek, likable guy, I did not want to take advantage of him.  Additionally, there were suddenly more shoppers; the hint of a real bargain can make an already unattractive crowd to turn ugly.

A sensible person might have said, “I’ll take one complete set.”  That would be about 770 cards in pristine condition, in number order, smartly boxed, and easy to carry.  I could look forward to many hours of reminiscing and did I mention the easy to store box?  Instead I heard myself saying, “How much for all of them?”  The now-crowded sale grew quiet.  People clutched their train sets and gasped.  “The crazy guy is going for it,” said one.  “He doesn’t know what these trains are worth,” said another.

In this bush league Las Vegas, I was “the most interesting man at the sale,” going all in with a pair of 7s showing.  Motioning me aside, he lead me behind a four foot tall potted plant.  His lips barely moved as he said quietly, “Look, I have a lot more cards.  We just got married and it’s a small apartment, and she wants my cards and trains gone.”

I was picturing my new best friend’s spouse: also early 40s, glasses, quiet, mousy, cautious, practical.  I imagined the quiet dinner where she summoned her courage and tentatively at first broached the subject of his collections.  She may have suggested that giving up baseball cards and model railroading, pursuits of a solitary man, might be a testament of their commitment to a new life together.  Perhaps she had coquettishly suggested other things they might do…

As if on cue the bride awoke and came out to the sale sputtering, “What are you doing talking to one guy in the corner when people are ready to buy the trains?”  She immediately struck me as someone who had not seen 7:00 AM in many years.   Braless, in very tight jeans, she may have lived forty years, but she had not spent her evenings setting up train switches or studying the Baltimore Orioles roster.  She made Janis Joplin look like a Junior Leaguer.   She had a very large eagle tattoo on her upper chest and many others tats on her forearms.  I believe her sleeveless T-shirt said something about being property of the Hell’s Angels.  Her boots, black leather belt and chains suggested that she was not the software designer I originally imagined.  I felt like asking her about John Belushi, and what it was like partying with Keith Richards.

Instead I held my tongue as she stormed off.  I watched him for reaction.  All I saw was love.  “Whatever she wants,” he shrugged.  He again asked if I wanted all the cards.  I assured him I did and we agreed on a price of $70.00.  As i loaded the 60,000 baseball cards into my car, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever love someone that much.

Only kidding, JoAnne.

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer.  His collection, discretely covered by a tablecloth, occupies a corner of the living room.

 

 

 

 

Words With Friends

Playing “bop” is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.      –Duke Ellington

I was peacefully enjoying the prime of my senility.  Content to watch the carnival of politicians wreathe, contort, and embarrass themselves, turning into figures of pity and scorn as they shamelessly pander and grovel for the highest office in the land.  A friend, perhaps concerned about my increasing interest in my other hobby (looking for two identical salt crystals), challenged me to play WORDS WITH FRIENDS, a bastardized form of Scrabble.  WWF is an app for those who find talking on the phone, shaving, and making breakfast, all while driving, not challenging enough.  Young Type A multi-taskers may squeeze in games with up to twenty opponents during spare seconds of their busy days,or at night as a way to unwind during the slow parts of action movies, or romantic dinners.

For me it is all I am able to do.  I have become frustrated, enthralled, and addicted to this silly exercise.  I live in a world where vice ((11 points) is better than nice (9 points). and a quarter (17 points) is worth almost twice as much as a dollar (9 points).  You can play with strangers of all skill levels to sharpen your game.  I prefer to be humiliated by those closest to me.  I am not being modest when I say I am not very good.  “The Scrabble Book” by Derryn Hinch states that the game is only 12 percent luck, I prefer to believe that I have just been slow to adjust to the bare knuckles reality of WWF.

Hinch suggests there are two approaches.  With thinly veiled disdain, he describes expansive play, laying down long words that may impress your partner but produce few points.  The rest of the chapter is devoted to playing tight which sadly does not involve drinking.  A tight strategy focuses on hooks (like plumbers’ elbow joints) that redirect the game to triple letter and triple word squares.  The point total of a well placed pluralizing “S” or a prefix or suffix can dwarf the original offering.  Just yesterday my cleverly arranged CAVORT (13 pts.) was eclipsed by my opponent’s added “S” in a triple word square.  The skillful player then sandwiched my word with parallel two and three letter words. I am not sure if “words” like (EF, TA, XU, EFS, PFT, SUQ) are vocabulary building, but 93 points later I was in no mood to cavort.

The tight approach is more than making words/points; it features a defensive plan of attack.  Like the game Stalingrad (which I have never played but witnessed a roommate’s two year battle in college), WWF requires blocking your opponent with words that cannot be added to, and capturing the triple letter and triple word squares. It is also imperative to memorize small obscure words that do not come up in polite conversation like crwth (an ancient stringed instrument), phpht (an alternative form of pht), and cwm (Welsh for valley).  I have yet to use glycls (a residue present in a polypeptide), or thymy (fragrant smell of thyme) but I am ready.

WWF also records when moves are made.  I know more of the sleep and work habits of my friends than I care to.  The game is something of a Rorschach test.  Liberal arts majors lay down different words than engineers.  I play with my son Ben, whose final scores almost double mine.  This is fine with me as he will someday be providing my care.  I watch the window for my neighbor.  She and her kids are blithely unloading their Costco run, not realizing I have the drawn the “Z” to make the word SYZYGY!  One friend called to make sure our relationship would survive our fervent long distance war of words.

Besides working my brain a little, playing has helped exorcise some negative feelings I had buried about competition.  Scrabble games of my youth began with harmless bluffing and degenerated into loud altercations.  Some boor would think that if you slowly enunciated the word but in a sufficiently loud and menacing tone it would jog the memory of the other players.  Invariably Noah Webster’s name would be impugned, and the dictionary thrown across the room. A pleasant element of WWF is the immediate (no appeal) scoring feature.  This is not Scrabble, there are word discrepancies, omissions and head scratching inclusions, but the resulting peace, as the commercial says, is priceless.

Tom H. Cook currently holds a record of 5-12 (single play high score of 76 points) since devoting most of his waking hours to Words With Friends.  He is beginning to like non-Scrabble playing people better.

Empathy

We have now done 12 separate studies measuring empathy in every way imaginable, social behavior in every way, and some work on compassion and it’s the same story.  Lower class people just show more empathy, more pro-social behavior, more compassion, no matter how you look at it.        –Dacher Keltner PhD, University of California-Berkeley

It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either.           –Zero Mostel in “Fiddler On The Roof”

This is not an attempt to glamorize poverty and the “noble poor.”  Yet how can a class of people be so powerless and yet responsible for much of our economic collapse as many politicians would have us believe?   The carousel of life is picking up speed and more of us are being tossed roughly to the side every day.  That is why I found Dacher Keltner’s research so interesting.  It goes against the alarming undercurrent of blaming the victim and demonizing the most vulnerable members of our society.

To be poor is to be reminded every day of the need to lean on others.  Their survival is based on reading other people’s emotions.  People in poverty lack social buffers and the luxury of independence.  Perhaps realizing the fickleness of the future, they are more willing to share today’s small good fortune.  According to Keltner, individuals from a lower-class background ask for help and provide help to others more frequently.  “When poor people see someone else suffering, they have a physiological response that is missing in people with more resources.”   Keltner sees a strength in lower class identity: greater empathy, community, more altruism, and finer attunement to other people.

As we get wealthier, Keltner suggests, we are able to insulate ourselves from others.  A country squire with a fleet of cars will be unlikely to join a carpool or need to call a neighbor for a last-minute ride to work.  Finding a babysitter is not left to the whims of neighborhood teenagers (no, I am not still bitter). Wealth grants us independence, and according to Keltner, diminishes our empathy for others.  The wealthy have the freedom to focus on the self, and consider their opportunities to be earned.  In psychology experiments, wealthier people often miss the nuance, and don’t read other people’s emotions as successfully.  As we rise in the classes we become less empathic and more likely to hoard resources.

Keltner’s work legitimizes what I have felt to be true, anecdotally, for many years.  If I needed a favor, or a rule bent in the name of common sense it was often someone laboring for minimum wage who would go out of his way to help me.  Our family has felt deep connections with compassionate home healthcare workers during vulnerable times.  When I have needed a break, like a difficult home repair or roadside assistance, individuals without very much have helped me and on occasion refused payment.  Invariably I have been impressed by folks with a good heart and a feeling that we are all in this together.

A number of years ago my daughter Rachael, inheritor of the Cook gene for sense of direction, was driving late at night and found herself lost in south central Los Angeles.  Panicked, tearful and in need of a bathroom, she walked into an all night diner and began to cry.  The counter man wanted to shoo her along, but the cook came running from the kitchen.  This saintly woman calmed her, gave her directions, and made her promise to call when she arrived home safely.  Rachael called.  Fortunately it was years before I heard the story, but it has always stuck with me.

There are benevolent empathic people of means, as there are cold, selfish poor people.  The wonder is that there are not more of each.

 

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer.  He is performing, if you can call it that, at The Black Forest (26th and Nicollet) with four really talented spoken word artists September 17th, at 7:30 PM.

How About Them Apps?

Isn’t it irritating when a vapid acquaintance breathlessly and with great flourish presents as new, information you have been aware of for quite some time?  It may be a shortcut through town, a new Bulgarian restaurant, or a television show you have been watching for years.  They expect you to share their zeal and congratulate them on being “with it” and ahead of the curve

On another topic, how ‘bout them apps?  In my defense, I knew there was something going on with iPhones, but with no interest in watching full length feature films on a “2X”3 telephone, or a game on any screen.  I ignored the buzz, and missed Apple’s iPad 1 entirely.  The ads for iPad 2 created in me and millions of other lemmings a fervent desire to acquire one immediately. I catapulted from oblivious to obsessed without stopping at rational or reasonable.

My fanaticism was poorly timed.  The first days after the release, demand for the iPad 2  far exceeded supply.  Despite the $500 price tag and me having no idea what I would do with it just served to whet my appetite.  Arriving a mere three hours before the Apple store opens gets you nothing but scorn from the hundred plus faithful already in line.  I slunk away consoled that while others may be more tech savvy, they could not out crazy me.  The next “day” (4:30 AM) I was eighth in line.  Five hours later I was clutching my purchase and comprehending almost nothing of the mini-orientation the “Apple Genius” was patiently walking me through.

I am not interested in taking infrared pictures of the dogs, playing guitar, or making a movie on my iPad.  I have become fascinated by all the free or 99 cent apps (short for applications) available for download.  Because I missed the iPhone boat, the world of apps caught me off guard.  There are between 65,000 and 250,000 iPhone/iPad, Apple sanctioned and rogue apps.  Most of my waking hours are spent strategizing how to procure interesting apps.  Alas this leaves little time to enjoy my new little friends as hundreds of apps are being minted every day.

Staying away from the superb but well known apps (Netflix, Pandora, Wikipanion, Kindle, Movies by Flixer) here are a few of my new favorites.  Crackle (free movies and TV, History of Jazz, Politico, The Hill HD (inside the Beltway politics), Pulse (news and videos),60 Minutes (huge archive of full shows), The Young Turks (politics/lifestyle), Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, TuneIn Radio (50,000 stations), 3D Brain, The Huffington Post, Slate, (new/culture), Taptu (news), ESPN (sports in many incarnations), Zite Personalities (news), Qwiki (reference), Brainshark (business) and TED education/future trends).