Category Archives: family

Old Friends

…what do we talk about? give me some direction. serious or light? politics or religion verboten? sports? hobbies, dogs, gardening? d.e.     (David E. PHS ’66)

There are innumerable tales of people long out of high school using Facebook and tragically or joyously reconnecting with old friends and classmates.  My experience has been less dramatic, but more satisfying.  With the safety of cyberspace and 2,800 miles I was able to confess my attraction to Karin, the attractive, bubbly girl I was in awe of forty-plus years ago at Pennsauken High School.  Still radiant in photographs, she is happily married, a grandmother, and a teacher, living in North Carolina.  I can also add modest and gracious.  In her reply, she even pretended to remember me although we never spoke.

Dave and I were friends from seventh grade homeroom until driving age, when we could actually have visited each other.  Dave was a wickedly smart “good student” with a subtle sense of humor weened on comic books and Mad magazine.   I knew him as a very good bowler, but I did not know he was a bowling alley mechanic who bowled for free and racked up over a hundred games a week.  Nor did I know he and a mutual friend had a math study group that could have saved my life in Algebra.

We got back in touch this past June and it is fascinating to share remembrances with him.  In my adolescent haze, I did not even know about the South Jersey jazz club Dave patronized.  He wrote recently, “…i drove there in my ‘58 ford. a beautiful girl kissed me during a concert, precipitating a lifelong interest in music. we saw jazz legends like buddy rich, gene krupa, woody herman, cal tjader, lionel hampton, erroll garner, chick corea, cannonball adderly, dizzy gillespie, dave brubeck, pete fountain, stan getz, and others with their attendant bands and entourages. we sat two or three rows back from these giants and legends for the price of a few dollars.”

He studied medicine while in the Air Force and was somehow able to keep his subversive wit under control for an entire career in the military.  “when we went into Iraq the second time i spoke out against it. i saw the photos Powell showed the U.N. and i was not convinced they were what they said they were. i was told to shut up.  i’m not sure running around Afghanistan constantly killing the number 3 Taliban leader is doing us any good.  Sad when soldiers would rather go back to the war because they find it more meaningful than life in america. america seems so angry and empty. hard times used to engender a pulling together and a positive approach to solving problems. now everything proposed is enveloped in roiling invective.”

“….we are in iran/afghanistan to prevent terrorist attacks on the u.s. we’ve been there for 9 years and there is no end to the threat. with the military maxed out in their efforts, one can extrapolate a forever war. sort of one like the british fought while maintaining their colonies in india and elsewhere. to leave the mideast , we are told, would lead to numerous and more severe attacks on the u.s. earlier in our lives we were told that losing in vietnam would lead to a victory for communism and, in keeping with eisenhower’s domino principle, a toppling of one country after another to the red menace. we got out and now we can buy clothing from vietnam, and from our greatest trading partner, china. we knew who the terrorists were before the tower attacks but we fell victim to our own bureaucracy. we know who the likely suspects are now, which makes the job of subverting their activity easier. i just hope the huge increase of government security and intelligence layers doesn’t create a wall against information transfer. we seem to be horizontally challenged at crucial times. in regards to the economy and the solutions offered. we are hamstrung by  political party rhetoric and posturing. look at the oil spill as an example. the company and its engineers fashioned a solution that has apparently worked and nature is seemingly working its magic in erasing this mistake by man as it will ultimately do with mankind itself. did the  political visits to the site or  the various beaches, or speeches screaming this or that provide anything of substance? except now the conspiracy theorists now think obama and the government set fire to the oil rig. i’m going down to louisiana to apply for compensation to offset the damage done to my brain by listening to all the crap spewed into the airways. i guess we should be thankful there can only be a 24/7/365 news cycle. thank god we don’t live on pluto. one hell of a long year and a horrible climate. ( i do not agree with the current lack of planetary status for pluto. any heavenly body named after a lovable dog is a planet in my book ). will stop for now. i’m getting winded. cya. d….

     Dave and Sylvia, his wife of 38 years, recently retired and live in San Antonio, Texas.  My admiration grows for him with each correspondence.  I do my best to keep up, but his rants and pearls reveal his wisdom and irreverence.  It is a delight to turn on my computer and receive an Andy Rooney/Will Rogers dictum.  What follows are a few more of Dave’s reminiscences occasionally combined and edited for space.

my dad used to take me to the park across the street from camden high and hit many a baseball to me when i was 7-8 yrs. old. eventually i caught some. my first dog, topper, a border collie, got the rest and would run them back to my father. afterwards we would walk to the top of a rise where he showed me the tomb of walt whitman. he said he was a great poet and that i should read his poetry. i did, in college. i always was taken back to the times on that hill. i’m there now.          

i never complain. i have no right to do so. my childhood and adulthood have been more than satisfying. i wish i had done more for others. part of the catholic ethic i guess. thinking of my parents and friends i will see no more stops me in my tracks. i am inadequate to the task of describing their greatness. when he was dying, my dad asked me whether he had been a decent father. i was stunned and burst into tears. how can you put into words the importance people have on your life? 

i loved comic books. i had spiderman #1 that my brother bought me when i had the flu. i gave it to my brother to pay for college tuition.

“…the social security system is solvent. leave it alone. medicare has been tweaked. do people want to return to the times of dickens. okay, i guess, as long as you’re not the kid in the bootblack shop researching plots for novels. if the tax credits expire, we all sacrifice very little. the very wealthy would theoretically pay 3K more b.t.c., before tax consultants. i had a next door neighbor who owned a summer house, a boat, and put all his kids through large universities, took European vacations AND always paid less income tax than me. why do people who have the most complain the most. year. a sign of divine intervention?. maybe our situation in life is a sign of the existence of a mediocre being. peace bro’. cya. d…….

i always think back to english class when we were told to write 500 words about an ash tray. i could never do it. and now i can’t help but do it.

8.5% unemployment is ok. 9.5% is politically catastrophic. 90% of the population is employed. not happy, but employed. a short time ago the stock market was 8500. now it is 10,500. nobody is happy. growth is 2.5-3.0%. a disaster. 2.5-3.0% during the previous administration not even mentioned. tax cuts had a seven year run followed by an economic collapse. answer to the economic crisis; more tax cuts. trillions spent to outweaponize russia during the cold war. trillions spent to prevent terrorists from crashing a plane into a building. in the future build more spread out, smaller buildings to house command and control of the government, finance and military. we have computer systems now people. we borrow a billion dollars a day from china to use for defense against china. we buy everything from china. we are supporting china to be our adversary. things are blown up out of all proportion. everything will end our society as we know it. it must be true because everybody is saying it. other than leading to changes of faces in congress, i don’t really see any realistic actions being taken. since i see no sense of urgency being taken by our leaders, i can only assume things aren’t that bad. so when somebody gets into your face about our country becoming socialist; our economy collapsing; attending the wrong place of worship, just smile and go to the park with a good book. take a deep breath; it’ll all be over soon.cya d..

Tom H. Cook is returning for his fall pilgrimage and hopes to go to a Twins game, and bore the life out of as many old friends and neighbors as possible. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Got To Have Friends

But you got to have friends
The feeling’s oh so strong
You got to have friends
To make that day last long                          Friends written by Klingman and Linhart, sung by Bette Midler

In our lives we cross paths with thousands of people.  At some level, particularly when we are young, we seek to define ourselves by those who will be our friends.  We have childhood playmates, school chums, Little League teammates, Camp Kowahitchi sisters, fellow thespians, fraternity brothers, work cube colleagues, or next door neighbors.  We meet through our children, the Twirling Circles (square dance) Club, Young Life, Habitat for Humanity, Girl Scouts, Kiwanis, B’nai B’rith, the Junior League, the Anchor Bar bowling league, Toastmasters, the Army Reserve, or a county-run third strike diversion program.

We may find each other on-line, or at an Anti-Satan Book Burning and S’mores Rally, or while attending a local school fundraiser on “All You Can Eat Kelp Night!”.  There are many occasions to meet new people, but the pace of change is daunting.  We grow up, enroll, matriculate, transfer, graduate, re-up, remarry, resign, relocate, and retire.  Alas we grow apart.

In my twenties it felt like there would always be a new crop of people to meet and annoy.  As I get older, even without altering my routine in any way, budding relationships tend to expire.  Months after an initial meeting, if I see my new friend out of context, there is usually mutual confusion, guilt, and a wane awkward handshake followed by uneasiness and painful banter.  We frequently part ways with each of us muttering, “Who the hell was that?”

I am not a socially adept person.  To learn the name of a new acquaintance, I will need to give up something, perhaps the words to the Kingston Trio song Tom Dooley, my locker combination at the “Y” I no longer belong to, or Chico Fernandez’s lifetime batting average.  Consequently most of my friendships predate 1995.  I use that year because it is approximately the time we began forwarding pictures of cats doing the backstroke to each others’ personal computers.

Since my friendships were essentially set in the pre-Internet era, I had no way of telling who would emerge as a Facebook friend, a Twitter devotee, or a fanatic forwarder of Congressional ineptness.  I am uncomfortable with upbeat, well-scrubbed, self-righteous, glass is half-full, Hummel figure-loving, whistle a happy tune people.  Thankfully, I receive very few too-cute-for-Hallmark messages reminding me of my specialness.

I seem to have always been attracted to wary, sarcastic, cynical, black humored, glass is half dirty types.  We have enjoyed many years of gallows humor over fools in high places and, until recently, the wardrobe of Emperor Bush.  It is no surprise that most of what I receive from friends is skeptical, irreverent, sardonic, or about dogs.

Now I worry that because I rely so much on my peer network, I am not receiving a good cross section of the really cool and hip stuff being forwarded on-line these days.  JoAnne urges me to quit complaining and strike out on my own. Find what interests me, and not wait for others to send me the link. Do not be a passive receiver, but an explorer!  I’ve done some poking about on the Net, and let me tell you, it is not all rainbow colored ponies.  As much as I want to be “out there,” I am more comfortable with prescreened forwards from old friends.  So keep those links coming.

Tom H. Cook is more Internet savvy than he lets on, but then he would have to be.

 

 

 

There Are Places I Remember

There are places I remember all my life,
Though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain                                 –Lennon/McCartney

The daily newspaper is a shell of its former self.  If you hold the Star Tribune up to your ear you can almost hear the ocean.  I have clearly not gotten smarter, but I can finish the morning paper before a cup of tea.  A friend suggests that she is paying 50 cents a day for a hand delivered sudoku.  The paper has become an advertisement for its website.  The few stories I am interested in are teased in print but only available on-line which means going into the other room and wresting the computer from JoAnne.  Invariably she is doing something important with megapixels that makes my curiosity about Alex Rodriguez and Kate Hudson’s relationship seem almost trivial.

Smart, literate, young people of my acquaintence look at me as if I still have a telephone landline (which I do) when I suggest subscribing to the paper.  My generation is the boorish guest, finally herded to the front door but still in search of their keys and fiddling with their galoshes.  There may only be 87 of us, but we want our newspaper (by cracky)!

I will miss the daily paper if it goes before I do.  I am nostalgic for the days of a morning and evening newspaper with actual news in it.  I even miss the printers ink that in my youth found its way up my elbows and face while I pored over the sports section.  As a kid, I was a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies.  The morning Philadelphia Inquirer went to press before the conclusion of night games played on the west coast.  There would be a hint, “After three innings the Phiilies trailed the Dodgers 5-1.”  It did not look good for the “Fightin‘ Phils”, but they did not lose until The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin arrived at 2:30 PM.

It was summer and no school and the wait was somehow enjoyable.  If I finished my chores and walked Smokey (the first in a long line of insane boxers) perhaps the Phils would rally.  In hindsight the Phillies were by far the worst team in the National league when I was growing up and they lost a lot, but I believe the wait helped me learn to delay gratification which came in handy when I got my first thirty year mortgage.

In those days, some news stories were slow to develop and filter down to us.  If a celebrity had a satanic navel ring collection or was involved in a steamy affair with a notary public we were blissfully unaware.  If there was a problem in Borneo or Tierra del Fuego eventually the local paper might pick it up it from the New York Times, or the AP, or UPI.  As it turns out the “Fightin‘ Phils” fought mostly with each other.  They were a racially polarized, hard drinking carousers.  Fortunately the stories of my heroes heartlessly taunting Jackie Robinson did not become common knowledge until my illusions had been shattered in other places.

There was a not so benign paternalism at work in my youth and it is good that there is no returning.  I do not want that country back.  We are exposed to much more information in a seemingly instantaneous manner and that ought to render us not only better informed, but somehow smarter.  Speaking only for myself, I find the drumbeat of a 24/7 newscycle more overwhelming than helpful.  I have more “news” than I have places to put it.  I am also troubled that a decent web design can almost mask quackery,  and those prone to illogic and xenophobia seem to be able to access “information” that allows them to get crazier, faster.  I am not sure this is progress.

 

Tom H. Cook would like to remind everone that the last day to wish someone a Happy New Year and men it is January 27th.

Compartment Syndrome

I awoke one morning this past October with the forearm of a bodybuilder.  My slight frame was suddenly weighted down with a solid and treelike appendage.  I inexplicably possessed an arm the post-spinach Popeye would envy.  All I was missing was a tattoo of an anchor.  My left arm remained frail and unimpressive, but my right, at three times its normal size, felt like a club.

What followed was a lightening quick trip through my version of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages.  I remember denial, wonder, panic, and fear.  My physician immediately diagnosed it as compartment syndrome (the compression of nerves and blood vessels within an enclosed space) and dispatched me to the nearest hospital.

Fortunately I did not realize how limb threatening my condition was.  I remember thinking that Compartment Syndrome lacked any panache and that it sounded like I had fallen out of the upper berth of a train, or dropped a file cabinet on myself.  I figured doctors’ would use the medical equivalent of a keg tapper to drain my arm.  Instead it required two surgeries, and a rectangular 3”X 8” swatch and a skin graft from my thigh to close the opening.  I am in the process of recovering and am thankful to have full use of my hand and feeling in my fingertips!  I would be even more grateful if it did not hurt so much.

What has been interesting has been the reaction of friends, neighbors, and curiosity seekers.   Do not get me wrong, people have been wonderfully solicitous and caring.  I have received cards, calls, candy, and prayers.  If there is any humor in this, it is the reaction of visitors who are game to “Take a look at it”.  It is like the Seinfeld episode “Bubble Boy” where George will not concede that he is unnerved by the situation. (“Ah my uncle’s in a bubble, I’ve had a lot of bubble experience”).

To cheer me up friends will suggest they are prepared and have witnessed plenty of gore, either live or on TV…until they see it.  My arm looks as if I gave birth to an alien.  Experienced nurses said they had never seen anything like it.  My arm could work for Barnum&Bailey.  I have creature from the black lagoon/alligator skin on my inner arm.    Still most people will choke out an “it’s not that bad” before turning away in horror.  There is a disconnect between what I know to be true and the reaction of well-meaning well-wishers.

One friend, tired of witnessing the discrete reactions I was drawing, decided to shake me out of my self pity.  “Tom, I just want you to know your arm is hideous.  It is grotesque.  Don’t listen to all the people telling you it’s not that bad, it looks horrible!!!”  There was more, but I was laughing too hard to hear it.

Tom H. Cook enjoys surprisingly good health in between bizarre medical maladies.  Breaking character, I want to thank you for indulging me for another year.  “Sand Upon The Waters” began in the ECCO News in 1979 and came to HLP land with our family in 1985.  Somehow the column has survived the move to California without gaining wisdom, humor, or relevance.  Here is wishing you a fulfilling, and meaningful 2010 (and beyond).           

 Nurse Hannah

 

Visiting Henry

Our family does not go in for Christmas miracles and apple-cheeked cherubs gathering around a Yule log and counting our blessings while toasting the elusive dream of world peace.  We are a crusty lot. Therefore visiting Henry this past December lacked an over the river and through the woods feel.  For starters, JoAnne’s dad can be a sharp-tongued codger, who at 87 has lost only a bit of his vinegar.  His divorce from JoAnne’s mom after sixty plus years (HLP May, 2004) had strained relations and shifted alliances in the family.  Furthermore, his Naples, Florida home has not conjured cozy holiday images, and in the past his full blast blaring of the Fox News network has provided an ambiance more akin to George Lincoln than Norman Rockwell.

We temporarily put aside whether we would be welcomed and the wisdom of going to Florida, and concentrated on if it were even possible.  JoAnne’s two sisters were in Sacramento and Philadelphia when the idea of a quick visit to “Pop-pop” was launched sometime after Pearl Harbor Day.  It began with our daughter Rachael (in L.A.) who wanted to see her grandfather but was pressed for time.  She invited JoAnne and me to join her for this very short visit.  We asked Donna (Philadelphia) if she would like to join the venture, and she and her three adult children, Geoffrey, Sean, and Lauren (Seattle, L.A. and L.A.) were all game.  The elusive Sacramento sister Mikki, not wanting to miss the fun, then marshaled her two kids, Andy and Aaron, both living in San Francisco.  Our son Ben (L.A.) was a last-second addition, as was Rachael’s husband Daniel, who arrived home from Columbia on Thursday night, just in time to catch the Friday morning flight.

In football they call it the seam in the zone, the spot where a quarterback can throw between defenders.  Apparently the second weekend of December is such a vortex in the airline world.  Thanksgiving folks are safely home and the Christmas/New Years rush is just gearing up.  On three days notice but with a willingness to stay over a Saturday we were all able to get on reasonably priced flights that allowed us to rendezvous in Florida by Friday evening, December 14th.  We wisely decided to warn Pop-Pop that the low key visit he was told about initially was turning into a near invasion by The Gang of Twelve.

Donna, ever the planner, realized that fourteen people (including Henry and his neighbor   friend Kurt) may get hungry, and brought enough groceries to allow everyone to graze and laugh all day.  Her thoughtful gesture provided the social lubricant for the festivities.  Saturday day and long into the night was a wonderful mix of the generations.  It was resolved that last minute plans are sometimes the best and that if we had begun to organize months ago it would have been more difficult to get a quorum.

We staggered our arrival times so that Pop-pop could greet each of his children and grandchildren separately.  Although he had not seen some of the kids in more than a decade, he knew little things about them made them glad they came.  I was overjoyed to watch the seven cousins, all in their twenties, banter about their work and their lives.  Grandmom Teresa, who died in September, was in many conversations, as her kind heart and lovable eccentricities brought forth fond memories and gales of laughter.

One of my favorite parts was the spontaneous game of “Who’s Taller?”  Played back to back with a builder’s level as the final arbiter, anyone could challenge anyone else.  The game has a Mozzone twist, as Henry the patriarch is 5’4”, the sisters all hover around 5’ and the seven grandchildren average about 5’5”.   At times the house looked more like a jockey convention than a family reunion.

Sometime after 11:00 PM Henry’s friend Kurt (at 6’1” a ringer in the height contest) unearthed the 8mm home movies.  There on the living room wall was projected the Philadelphia childhood of the three girls.  The pool parties, dances in the basement with the six foot ceiling (see height contest), and holiday party and special occasion footage of so many of the relatives.

The climax was the 1943 wedding of Henry and Teresa.  After the obligatory Sopranos jokes about an Italian family (some of the men really did look like Uncle Junior), it was amazing to watch so many Troncellitis and Mozzones. There was Merk, Charlie Horse, Eva, Manrico, Vince, Gilda, Rudy, Stella, Emma, Florindo — all in their prime.  I do not know what the young cousins took from it, but to Henry, being “the last man standing” of thirteen brothers and sisters, it must have been sobering and bittersweet.

As we hugged him goodbye long after midnight, each of us had a $50 bill pressed upon us and the order to have some fun on him.

Sunday morning, sitting in the airport, JoAnne and I attempted to recap the memorable moments and found them too numerous and overflowing.  Weeks later it is still hard to fathom how much life took place in a single day.

 

Tom H. Cook is a local writer wishing you a joyous Primary season and a short winter.

 

 

 

 

Retirement Pursuits

Well-meaning folks who barely know me seem to think I would be happiest playing golf every waking moment of my retirement.  Many seem disappointed almost to the point of belligerence—and that’s without me launching into a PC rant about the geo-ecological water and land resource usurpation that the game requires.  I could claim that moral high ground, but the real reason is more mundane.  It is too clichéd a solution for what to do now that I retired for the third and probably final time this past February.

I have good friends who golf, and a few that may even have the patience to play with me, but aside from their company there is little that draws me to becoming a links man.  And just a look at me tells all but the most obtuse observer that I am no Mark Trail.  I would rather watch an entire golf match on a grainy black and white 7” television while standing up than to hunt or fish.  Most of my inquisitors are well-intended and simply curious as to how loitering, reading, and wandering around with my dogs can provide me with sufficient stimulation to sustain life.

I was not on a quest for fulfillment, and long ago gave up the notion of an examined life, but I have stumbled onto two things I enjoy.  One is my version of gardening or, more specifically, plant rescue.  Since Monday is Trash Day, Sunday is Trash Eve, and a good opportunity to adopt plants, pots, hoses and brooms, as well as umbrellas, lawn furniture, fountains, and so forth.  I do not have a green thumb or know the plant name of anything that is not a rose, but I enjoy picking up discarded plants and nursing them back to health.  JoAnne often accompanies me on this Sunday sleuthing.  Our back yard, while not yet old people scary jungle eccentric, does show promise.  We take much of the furniture and other goods of value to the local Salvation Army, forestalling its date with the landfill.  I am now on a first name basis with some of the intake workers, and while none have ventured to ask where all of this stuff is coming from, the consensus seems to be that I am a conscience-stricken cat burglar with very bad taste.

The other role that I am growing into is neighborhood anchor.  In 1977 JoAnne and I moved to the East Calhoun neighborhood of south Minneapolis from Naples, Florida.  Knowing no one, we were clearly in need of good neighbors.  The two families right out our back door were wonderful to us.  They were each Austin, Minnesota natives and only a bit older than we were, but wiser, and more established professionally than JoAnne and me.  Jay and Joy Dean had two young angelic children, Mike and Margo, and Linda and Lance LaVine had the equally sweet Nicky and Natasha.

We resisted the impulse to alliteration, but started our own family in part because of the happiness we observed in these helpful, mentoring families.  When our kids came we were often too busy to take full advantage of the guidance and acceptance they offered to us.  I owe my career choice to Jay.  Regardless of how frazzled we would be, Lance had the remedy: “Come on over for a cup of tea.” Many times we declined, begging off due to this imagined crisis or that.  Lance was wiser but knew we had to chase our own windmill.

We now have neighbors with two very young children and high stress jobs.  One is an attorney, the other a corporate recruiter.  I am not smart or worldly, and I have never been a head hunter for a Fortune 500 company, but I have made lots of mistakes, and I have time to listen. He is generally gone and she is running here and there.  Frequently they are too busy, as we were twenty five years ago, but in the spirit of Linda and Lance LaVine, I have extended to them a standing invitation for a cup of tea.

 

Tom H. Cook hopes that you will say hello to the LaVines and Deans for him.  Thank you for the great response to Keith Oldemann.  I am glad to see he has so many fans.  Please add the work of film-maker Robert Greenwald.  He is also able to cut through our national political pea soup in an entertaining manner.  His four documentaries (Out Foxed:  Rupert Murdoch’s War On Journalism, Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers, Uncovered: The War On Iraq, and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices) are sobering and informative.  He validates our greatest fears, but does it in a manner that is pointed without being pedantic.    

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. 

Elderly Divorce

An elderly couple shuffles into a marriage counselor’s office.  The therapist can barely contain her astonishment but asks, “How can I help you?”  “We want to get a divorce,” they reply.  The therapist apologizes for being so forward but feels compelled to ask their ages.  “I’m 88 and Stella here is 86” replies the man.  “And you are just now considering a divorce?”  Stella replies sweetly, “We were waiting for the children to die.”                              —Old joke

“Divorce is hardest on the children.”  Coupled with a reassuring pat on the back, these are the calming words I impart to JoAnne when she is struggling.  While I do hope she feels better, the intent of my seemingly patronizing advice is to make her laugh and at least momentarily step out of the quagmire of this unusual situation.  She is wallowing not so much in grief as in financial records, real estate questions, and the thankless task of dividing household tchotchkes.  After sixty-three years of marriage her parents are slogging toward a divorce.  Unlike in most circumstances the three daughters, (all in their fifties) have been saddled with the task of undoing their parents’ nuptials.

The end of a long marriage is not funny.  There is humor only because the pain has mostly been replaced by absurdity.  JoAnne’s only ground rule about me writing about this deeply personal event is that I not take sides.  This is easy to do since both parties seem happier and more alive than they have been for at least the last decade.  If life is a feast, they have both cavorted off and stuck the children with the dishes (and the furniture, and the accounting).

JoAnne’s father does not trust the stock market.  Consequently he has divided his savings into smallish lots and moves portions of it from bank to bank every time the interest rate goes up a fraction of a percentage point, or a toaster is offered for opening a new account.  What he lacks in capital he makes up for in sheer chaos.  He has opened and closed twenty-six accounts in just the last four years.  Normally this would be his business and from what I hear interest rate shopping is a recognized sport and hobby of retirees in Naples, Florida.

When JoAnne drew the short straw in the family and got power of attorney for her mother she inherited the task of making sense of the labyrinth that is her father’s accounting.  He is a Michael Milken of numbers, an Enron of efficiency except that the decimal points are four or five places to the right.  Hundreds of hours and many spreadsheets later I found JoAnne slumped over clutching a calculator, muttering something about Silas Marner.  I am glad that she is renewing her interest in classic literature.

She has also been spending an inordinate amount of time talking with her mother’s attorney, and the realtor who is supposedly helping them sell their Florida home between hurricanes.  (“Beneath the plywood those are leaded glass windows…”)

JoAnne and I were able to remain blissfully unaware of most of the personal aspects of her parents’ lives until her mother came to visit us and stayed for five months.  At our wedding a friend pulled me aside and in amazement said, “Your mother-in-law is Edith Bunker!”  If we become caricatures of ourselves as we age, begin with Edith and 1972 and connect the dots.   She is delightful, well meaning and warm, but indirect to the point of teeth gnashing when you need a direct answer.

JoAnne:  “Mom, do you want to ask for the crystal goblet set?

Mom:  “That set came from Gina’s house on Wynnewood Road.  We were over for Sunday dinner and I was in the kitchen with Josephine and Tootsie and we were talking about the set and how nice it looked next to the breakfront.  Well Gina came in and I guess she was steamed at Frederica and Uncle Vince because they had said that her manicotti was more stiff and not like the way Vince’s mother made it.  So I thought I would cheer her up and so I started talking about how much I liked the goblets although they were really not my taste because they were a little top heavy…although they did look nice; I was telling the truth about that part…

JoAnne:   I am trying to finish this e-mail to your attorney.  Should we be asking for the goblets?

Mom:   She started opening and shutting drawers real hard like she was looking for something and Tootsie and I were getting embarrassed so I asked her how Frank was doing.  You never met Uncle Frank; he died when you were little.  He was more like a cousin. We used to call him Uncle Frank because he looked so much older than Joe or Albert…

JoAnne:  ##@$%^** (sob, growl, whimper).

Mom:  (stroking, JoAnne’s head) “You seem upset.  Why don’t you take a rest?”

So JoAnne spends most of her time making sense of financial records, talking to lawyers, estate appraisers, realtors, moving companies, her siblings, and parents.  Out of angst and frustration she is wont to bellow through clenched teeth, “This is not my divorce!”  If she is irritable and distracted, I try to be understanding.  After all, it is hard to be the child of a broken home.

Tom H. Cook is a not so local writer and orphan.  The best bumper sticker he has seen in southern California is “I love cats and I vote.”  He urges you to hug your cat and vote.

 

 

   

Getting Ready for the Wedding

To:  Jean Deatrick/Jane Johnson

Editors Hill and Lake Press

My life is a pleasant blur and, given the rush of activity around me, I am unable to submit a column for this month.  I know that the graduation issue is much appreciated by the community and I am sorry to miss the opportunity to participate, but things could not be more hectic around here.  Our daughter Rachael is getting married in a few days and her fiancée Daniel’s parents just arrived from their home in New Zealand.  We all decided that a civilized first meeting would be a dinner at our house.  Cooking, cleaning, shopping, I do not know how JoAnne did it all.  You know I’m kidding. It was a team effort, except for the bathing of the dogs.

It is the morning after and we are still basking in the glow of a wonderful evening.  Daniel’s mother Heather is warm, friendly and gracious, and his father John is perhaps even sillier than I am.  The night was uproarious, momentous, and satisfying.  How does it happen that your children become friends, adults, and good dinner table company?  It seems so recent that we had to struggle to get both Rachael and Ben to eat with us without the distraction of the phone or the TV.  To have both of our kids, with their partners, and everyone laughing, talking, and eating together, was just not something I could have imagined.

Rather than get married in any of the numerous churches, parks, botanical gardens, halls, arboretums, community centers, beaches, sweat lodges, vacant lots, bowling alleys, or private homes in Los Angeles County, Rachael and Daniel are wisely ignoring my advice and having a destination wedding in Napa Valley.  The rationale, as I understand it, is to spread the inconvenience about and have the ceremony in a spot that no one can easily access.  The hope is that it becomes a vacation getaway for everyone.  Rather than have people adjourn to a moose hall with a cash bar and dance by jukebox (my suggestion) we will all be out in a vineyard hundreds of miles from home, bonding and eating grapes.

I am glad that Rachael and Daniel made up the guest list.  They attempted to balance New Zealanders with North Americans, relatives they have never seen with close friends, and still keep it under 75 guests.  The Kerry and Bush strategists would have understood the dilemma.  Can you invite one cousin and not another?  When the dominoes start falling you can end up with a total stranger (someone’s date) taking the spot of an uncle.  I think in the first draft guest list I was on the bubble.

If  you think that others have been through similar wedding preparation madness, use this as my column and I will provide an uncensored account of the festivities next month.

 

Thanks,

Tom

 

Orphan

I am an orphan.  Alas, I do not have curly hair, freckles, and a winning smile.  I do not make nervous gestures with my cap as I toe the ground, nor do I wear neatly patched clothing or call people “Guv’ner”.   Nevertheless my father died more than twenty years ago, and my mother more than a decade before that.  My wife and I moved to Minnesota in 1977 alone.  My sister tried living in Wayzata for six months during the winter of 1978 before the cold drove her off to western Canada where it is significantly warmer.  I have written many times about how welcomed JoAnne and I have felt and that our children know Minneapolis as home.

Ice fishing and snowmobiles aside, one of the things I never understood about Minnesotans is the longevity of their families.  My mother died young and tragically after a long illness.  My father was a chain smoking, work obsessed, driven “Type A” man in a gray flannel suit.   Except for the drugs, groupies, roadies, and trashing hotel rooms, my dad was as self destructive as a 1970s rock group.  His fervent actions made Sammy Glick look like Gandhi. He astonished those who knew him by somehow living to the age of sixty.

When I began my work life in Minnesota as a twenty- something, I was horrible at guessing the ages of any colleague over 35 — particularly women.  I knew better than to ask, and it was not a day-to-day question. But occasionally a co-worker would mention a grown child or an anniversary that suggested they were older or younger than they appeared to my inexperienced mind.  There were a few gaffes, but generally I learned to listen and volunteer very little.

I still grimace when I recall a casual Friday afternoon conversation I had with a co-worker in the late 1970s.  We were chatting idly about our respective plans for the coming weekend.   She mentioned that she was driving to Bemidji to visit her parents.  Since I pegged my colleague as being somewhere between 85 and 140 years old, I was astonished and unfortunately showed it.  The best I could do to cover my surprise was to mutter “Bemidji” six or seven times as if the absurdity of the sound of her hometown was rendering me nearly incoherent.

Soon after this experience I became aware of how many people my age and considerably older still had active vital parents.  Now decades later, as I hit my fifties, more and more of my friends have become primary caregivers and decision makers for elderly family members.  In the ‘80s the buzz was real estate, and in the ‘90s money. I could contribute to cocktail party chatter about the economy.  (“My broker was so astute in anticipating the 2000 crash that he lost my money in 1999.”)  The new topic aside from what happened to my ‘90s money has become nursing homes.

From what I was hearing at work and in social gatherings with friends, the challenge of finding a good care facility for mother is tougher than getting their “C” student child into Madison.  As the competition heated up in this geriatric Super Bowl I was almost envied for my orphan status. I heard the horror stories of baby boomers with sharp elbows wrangling for the last spot at Happy Acres for their aging parent.  Instead of discussing George Bush, my friends were suddenly debating the relative merits of a board and care facility as opposed to assisted living, or a life care community.  All I was hearing was that the best places have a two-year waiting list, and if you can’t make your own bed and feed yourself, Walden Pond won’t consider you…

Until the arrival of JoAnne’s mother last November, I thought I could sit out this developmental stage.  Last month I wrote humorously about my mother-in law Teresa joining us in California.  Suddenly I wished I could recall some of the advice I heard over the years.  Whether its SSI, SNF’s (Skilled Nursing Facilities) versus Residential Board and Care, we are learning the language.  It looks as though Teresa will stay with us.  She is a delight to have.  If she needs more care, we will make the tough decision together.  Characteristically I am worried about me.  After studying the glossy brochures I fear the people in the pictures all appear spryer, healthier, and more full of life than I am right now.

 

Tom H. Cook is a rapidly aging writer who, unlike Rhoda, thought he would keep better in California. Contact him at tomjo@minn.net.