Category Archives: education

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.  

Making Friends

Me:  “Wow, Brick, three goals in one period!  That must be some kind of WESAC scoring record.  Your son Caesar is some soccer player.”

Brick:  “Your boy out there?”

Me:  “Yup, old number 87, he’s a sparkplug.  He’s left safety defense rover back…”

Brick:  “He’s eating grass.”

Me:  “At first glance, yes, it appears that way, but he’s just decoying them down to his sideline, and he’ll get up and steal the ball and boom it up to Caesar, you’ll see.  Say Brick, since our kids are teammates and we’re neighbors…”

Brick:  “You live on Mount Curve?”

Me:  “Not exactly, we’re more down the hill and the other side of the park and closer to Hennepin.  We looked to buy on the hill but we needed the access to the busy streets… Besides we’re up here all the time, sledding in the winter…”

Brick:  “You’re the guy with that rusty old Datsun that parks in front of my house.”

Me:  Actually it’s a Nissan, Brick.  Anyway, my wife and I were thinking since the boys play on the same team that you and your wife may want to come to a little dinner party we’re throwing, nothing fancy mind you, local caterer…it’s on the 17th …”

Brick:  “Pick it up, Caesar…shoot…”

Me:  “I know a month is kind of short notice. I’m gonna go check the Gatorade supply now, it must be almost halftime. You can get back with me on that dinner thing… It’s kind of a hectic time for all of us…”

Maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, but I will spare you my high school stories that are worse.  My point is that making new friends can be tricky.  Dr. Phil would probably call it a leap of intimacy, or a step of trust building, but getting to know another person requires an element of risk.  Whether during high school (“I thought you just wanted help you’re your algebra.”), or inviting a work colleague out for a beer and finding out they have more than a passing interest in Scientology, you are taking a chance.

How to make friends is the fodder for self help books, Sunday supplement articles, and really boring masters level theses.  For JoAnne and me, many of our close friendships evolved through activities of our children. The babysitting co-op, play group, skating lessons at Parade, or Barton School.  Our kids led us to events where we had something in common with other parents.  Granted, with some the only other things we shared were opposable thumbs, bilateral symmetry, and living on land.  Nonetheless, sports and school gave us a base to work from.  In hindsight I realize that having a boy and a girl provided us with many opportunities to get to know some wonderful people.

Even when they were very young, our kids were unerringly accurate at forecasting the parents JoAnne and I would like.  The dad might have been almost bald and the mom a corporate lawyer, we often discovered that we were kindred spirits.   When the subject of college years came up, we could begin to tell if they had been in SDS or sang tenor in Up With People, whether they had followed the Grateful Dead or had been a “Goldwater Girl”.  Still, inviting our children’s classmates’ parents to a no kids dinner party or an R- rated movie can feel like a bait and switch.  On occasion I felt more like a stammering teenager than a confident, worldly, erudite, stammering thirty-five year old getting to know the cooler parents at Barton.

As the kids grew and became more independent, JoAnne and I were launched.  Fortunately we had gathered enough left-leaning, tree hugging, acoustic music playing, New York Times reading, Chomsky quoting, film loving, Guthrie going, and letter to the editor writing types to last us a Minnesota lifetime.  These dear people are still our friends, as loyalty– even to sunshine patriots such as ourselves who flee to California after twenty-five years– is perhaps their paramount virtue.

Making friends without our children as entrée took an unexpected turn when JoAnne’s mother moved to a nearby, medium-sized (140 apartment) senior residence.  Since then we have met many of her neighbors and their families. Their children are about our age, and I see budding friendships. Thanks, Mom.

 

Tom H. Cook is a local writer on a long leash.  The scariest trick or treaters he saw last month were dressed as Karl Rove and Dick Cheney

 

  

 

 

Multiple Choice

Now that I am teaching English in a high school, every situation is a potential multiple-choice question.  For example:

  1.  Tom and JoAnne live in a small beach house near the Pacific Ocean.  What would most enhance their appreciation of Southern California living
    a.  two one-speed bubble tire “beach cruiser” bicycle
    b.   a six-person hot tub set in a secluded back yard
    c.   a blue Miata convertible circa 1990
    d.   a backyard chimenea (fireplace) for ocean-cooled evenings
    e.   Teresa, JoAnne’s mother, taking up permanent residence in the guest room

If you answered “e” to Question 1, please proceed to Questions 2-10.

2. Teresa is a sweet 80 year old grandmother whose hobbies include

a.  folding plastic bags
b.  ironing
c.  collecting string
d.  cutting strips of cloth into string
e.  all of the above

3.  Her ideal room temperature is

a.  98.6
b.  the same as curing ham
c.  not calculable in Celsius
d.  warm, for anyone not living directly on the Equator
e.  one that would produce Cumulous clouds and aerographic precipitation

4.  As a child of the Great Depression she is

a.  thrifty
b.  economical
c.  adverse to throwing anything away
d.  able to find multiple uses for old stockings
e.  so tight she squeaks

5.   A hearty lunch consists of

a.  the bruised portion of a pear and one half of a Grape Nuts individual cereal pack
b.  the heel of a loaf of whole wheat bread with every seed carefully removed
c.  the doggie bag from a restaurant meal
d.  the doggie bag leftovers Part II
e.  half a breakfast bar carefully saved from an airplane flight (2002)

6.   If you need a calendar (to keep track of your medication) it is best to

a.  attempt to draw one on scrap paper
b.  have someone drive you from bank to bank to see if anyone is giving them out
c.  use a discarded one from 2003 , figure out the formula and hope it is not Leap Year
d.  wait until they are almost free in April and look for a damaged one the store will deep        discount
e.  work clockwise and find seven flat surfaces.  Put a day’s worth of pills on each.  If this is      the dresser it must be Tuesday

7.  If  I am napping soundly on the couch, Teresa will

a.  tiptoe and hover about so quietly I wake up
b.  wake me to ask if I am comfortable or would I like a firmer pillow
c.  state that I do not look comfortable and would I like my feet tucked in
d.  wake me from a dead sleep to ask if I want the television turned off
e.  wake me to ask if I know I am sleeping as she wouldn’t want me to get in trouble for            missing something.  She does not realize it is Sunday because the cat has knocked her        pills off of the end table and I forgot to bring home a calendar from work.

8.  If you spill a small amount of salt it can be saved in

a.  a square of wax paper
b.  an empty pre-rinsed individual mustard container
c.  a corner of aluminum foil
d.  a tiny Tupperware container
e.  almost anything.  The problem is someone else finding it and not knowing what it is and throwing it away only to be asked the next time you are taking a nap where the little bit of salt that was in the cabinet could be.

9.  Teresa is saving her money for

a.  her old age
b.  my old age
c.  the Chinese Year of The Dog
d.  the Apocalypse
e.  the next George Bush administration

10.  A bowl of ice cream must be eaten until

a.  sparks fly from the eating utensil
b.  much of the glaze in the bowl has been loosened
c.  DNA testing could no longer determine the flavor ice cream
d.  the bowl is cleaner than most dishwashers could get it
e.  the bowl is forcibly wrenched from her hands and filled again with ice cream

Tom H. Cook, a long time Minnesotan, has escaped to sunny California, along with his wife, his mother-in-law and the two boxers Stella and Cowboy.