Category Archives: history

Kakistocracy

What fresh hell can this be?*

                                —Dorothy Parker

 

But who will bell the cat?

                                —Ancient fable (predating Aesop)

 

Stupidity does not consist in being without ideas. Such stupidity would be the sweet, blissful stupidity of animals, mollusks and the gods. Human stupidity consists in having lots of ideas, but stupid ones. Stupid ideas, with banners, hymns, loudspeakers and even tanks and flame-throwers as their instruments of persuasion, constitute the refined and the only really terrifying form of stupidity 

                                 -– Henry de Montherlant, Notebooks, 1930-44

 

Kakistocracy— government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens,

                               —Thomas Love Peacock, English novelist 1829

 

 

It is meager solace having a name for the condition that is afflicting 63,000,000 of us.  Like chronic fatigue syndrome or sleep apnea, a diagnosis may help provide understanding and treatment.  Knowing you are not just a lazy person who snores loudly is some comfort and legitimacy.  Months after the election our nation is still in shock.  Many of us have physical symptoms like sleeplessness, irritability, and free floating anxiety,  We are worried, and feel powerless, cynical, and pessimistic.  We compartmentalize and become tearful thinking about the future. Literate readers of this space (oxymoronic) may already know the term kakistocracy.

 

Amro Ali a Middle Eastern scholar at the University of Sydney, posted a blog entitled “Kakistocracy:  A Word We Need to Revive.”  (Gotta love that Internet.) He encourages a more widespread application of the word kakistocracy to describe the current government of the United States.  Professor Ali warns that an overuse of the term by applying it to any unpopular government weakens its meaning.

 

Sadly that day is here.  We are full-on Captain Quieg, and James Comey smells of strawberries. We have forsaken democracy and its ideals and are currently living under a kakistocracy.  In further bad news, we likely have a comorbid condition kleptocracy, or rule by thugs and thieves.  Russia, always in the news, is a kleptocracy.  Putin and his cronies are amassing vast sums of money and precious resources but they are not stupid, they are not kakistocrats.


This is not a sore loser, aw shucks, “get ’em next time” partisan rant (see Bush v Gore HLP March/2001).    We have endured the leadership of racists, paranoiacs, simpletons and jingoists while still cramming ourselves into the bulging leisurewear of democracy.  Now we have split our pants.


How we got here is for better minds.  What happened to the Constitution?  Checks and balances?  Our current state is horribly embarrassing, like borrowing money from a relative, having a credit card refused at a busy supermarket, or making body noises on a first date.  We do not have death squads, though Attorney General Sessions is ramping up the penalties for drug offenses. We are closing the gap on the banana republics we once scorned. First World nations are treating us as if we have ceased bathing regularly.  

 

When I was a kid I wondered what color the sky was during The Great Depression, because all the newsreels and pictures were in black and white.  I catch myself feeling happy and then I remember the president and his minions are oblivious to the principles of Jefferson, the life of Frederick Douglass, and the sacredness of democracy.  Our past and our future are being looted.  Steve Bannon lurking around the White House is a greater threat than voter fraud or even foreign terrorism.  We are living under a kakistocratic form of government.  It is mind bending; the sky is still blue but we have all been diminished.  

 

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer still spry, terrified for the republic, and writing from a beach in California. 

 

Autocorrect

There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.
—Steven Wright

There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.
—Simon Sinek

Tommy, how many times do I have to tell you? Do not interrupt when someone is talking!
—Mildred Cook (mother)

The no-longer-new technology can be flattering. After a few key strokes Amazon and their like are ready to make rather heavy-handed suggestions. One of the goals of living is to be understood, and they know me! Like a very solicitous butler, their educated guesses can be eerily insightful. Their memory is long and persistent. If you have ever, even in passing, considered a move to Buenos Aires to become a gaucho, or be in a gaucho-related field (rustling, branding or pampas real estate), beware. Years later, despite switching computers, changing passwords and altering my name, there are still sites convinced I need a bolo tie.

Autocorrect can sometimes produce strange results. A humorous example in “Damn You Auto Correct” is between brothers. One is asking to borrow $300 dollars for Mott’s Apple Juice. His sibling is ready to lend the money, but is concerned that there is an apple juice problem. Alas, the money was for a mortgage payment. Be very careful if you are writing about Swedish cars or pencils.

But this is not an anti-technology rant about privacy lines being crossed and trampled in the name of expediency and commerce.

After being presumptively bullied by my computer as if herded by a border collie (if you have one, you know the feeling), I began thinking about how I often steer conversations with friends. The more I reflected on it, the more uncomfortable I became. I often interrupt, under the guise of empathy and identifying with the story or emotion. I try to be an active listener. (“Wow I would have been terrified if I’d been there!”) Sometimes I am viewed as a true friend, someone who understands a fear of rodents or lavender soap. Too often, however, I have acted like a rabid autocorrect, finishing sentences for others and leaping to conclusions the speaker was fully capable of reaching without my help.

I am likely to volunteer the name of the actress, restaurant, or song before my friends can come up with it. It is a bad habit to presume where a story is going and beat the teller to the punch to show off under the guise of being helpful. I have made progress in letting others finish their own ideas and anecdotes. In a group setting it has been interesting to purposely step back and let the conversation go in a different direction. I still step over the line and become a nudge now and then, but any progress I have made is attributable to the example set by the bossy people at Amazon.

by Tom Cassidy

Earby owl by Tom Cassidy

Tom H. Cook has two border collies and has not had to make an independent decision in four years.

Cedar Water

The swimming season is coming to a close. Whether in Cedar Lake or the Pacific Ocean, the subtle shift has begun. Pockets of very cold water, previously a refreshing anomaly, are now asserting themselves like Trump followers. The vanguard will soon become the establishment and while “The Donald” will likely leave the race entranced and distracted by a new shiny object, the water will turn cold.

This saddens me because swimming is what I laughingly refer to as my exercise. I splash, guy4paddle, and tread water with joyous abandon. Between pretending I am Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt” and frolicking underwater, I feel energized, youthful and refreshed. A jogger friend scoffed at the number of carbs I burn and how little cardio effect I gain from my water play. I was going to let his criticism pass or more correctly roll off my back, but when he added I looked childish, I was stung enough to retort, “At least when I finish my workout I’m not all sweaty.”

One of the few things I took from Camp Ockanickon (aside from a lifetime hatred of oatmeal and singing “Mamma’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin‘ Bread”) is feeling comfortable in the water. Camp was deep in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey on a dark, picturesque, spring fed cedar lake. Even at 4’ 4” I could not see my feet standing in waist deep water. This unnerved me and I failed the deep water swimming test (jump in and swim 25 yards any stroke) I was sent to remedial swim class every day after breakfast. As a non swimmers I could not join any other activity until I passed. Too terrified to leap into the ink colored water, I generally needed to be pushed. After splashing around frantically I would grab the pole and be fished out in tears.

In the afternoon during compulsory free swim time my stigma, wearing a red non-swimmer string around my wrist, confined me to the shallow area. Much worse, the caste system carried over to the mess hall, the cabin, and all non-water activities. Blue stringers (50 yards) and white stringers (100 yards) heaped scorn on us (“Red stringers, red stringers why are you here? Red stringers, red stringers have some beer!”). We would then be doused with whatever non-beer beverage was available.

I have been dancing around the most embarrassing part. I was the lowest of the red stringers: I wore nose plugs! Decades later I have difficulty admitting it. Even other non-swimmers scorned me. The plugs, pink to simulate a flesh tone I have never seen on a living person, was the only way I could navigate in the water. Blue and white stringers might deign to come into the shallow end but I quickly and painfully learned they were on a mission to pull back and snap the rubber strap. The sting subsides long before the red mark on the back of my neck. Perhaps that is why I never became a bra snapper in my adolescence.

Some of the counselors were college kids ready for “Hi Jinx” (it was the 50s) like sneaking out to the girls’ camp across the lake after lights out, then regale us with their exploits the next morning. Joey was different. He was an east Camden (N.J.) tough guy who someone (possibly a judge) thought could benefit from a summer of sunshine and fresh air. Even as a child I sensed his anger and despair marooned in a wholesome woodsy setting with a cabin full of brats. His surliness made what happened all the more surprising.

Joey was on lifeguard duty, supervising the shallow (red string/loser)area. Standing on the dock he beckoned me over. I’ll never forget his words. “Hey squirt! Yeah you, dum dum with the nose plugs. Blow a little stream of air out your nose when you go under. Just a trickle. Then you won’t need that stupid s_ _ _ on your nose.”

It was not a Hallmark moment, but I did it and it worked! It might have helped knowing Joey couldn’t care less. Other counselors had more patiently told me to blow air out. When I tried for them, I either panicked and, seeking to please them, blew all the air out at once, or I accidentally inhaled. With the breathing mastered my fear diminished and I was able to enjoy the water. Thanks to Joey I left camp a blue stringer.

My “instruction” was a momentary distraction for a bored, sullen teenager. Joey, if he is living could not possibly comprehend that I still give him thanks every time I wade into the water. “Blow it out your nose slow, dum dum!”

I am not talking about mentoring, adoption, or huge life changing sacrifices and good deeds. My focus is “Joey moments.” Serendipitous chance encounters where a word, an act, a small gesture made a huge difference. The classic is “The Lone Ranger” leaving before he can be thanked unaware of how he has altered history. I am not so grandiose but I really hope I have done small anonymous kindnesses that have been meaningful to others.

Tom H. Cook has often imagined writing a letter of support for Joey to his probation officer or appearing in court on his behalf

Where Are My Keys?

The game I play most frequently is, “Where are my keys?  I just had them!  They were right here!!!”   As amusing as that can be for neighbors and casual passersby, the activity I much prefer is referred to as “If I could see me now, then.”  I certainly did not invent it and most of us do it, often without giving it a name.   In my version, I am an “Our Town”-like observer, able to witness but not influence events.  The scene of my present to be viewed in my past only lasts for a minute or two.  It is an opportunity for my much younger, more judgmental self to get a peak at who I have become.

The present me will often smile at how the teenage me would roll his eyes at how I have sold out.  I take a perverse pleasure at getting my old self in situations that would totally baffle my early self. To play the game you must find yourself in an incongruous spot, and conjure the age you were when you would find the event/activity the most confusing or vexing.

If my editor (JoAnne) is with me and we are not in harm’s way because of a wrong turm I made, taking us from a dicey/sketchy neighborhood into one where people are actually exchanging gunfire, she will often play along. We had a game just last month.  My college self is watching for clues to his future.  I am driving a very large Jeep vehicle.  A much older woman is with me. It is JoAnne.  On closer look, I have aged a bit also.  JoAnne and I are yawning as we leave the city of Atlanta by highway at dusk.  We are in a massive traffic jam and somehow lost at the same time.  My young self, after getting over the short hair, decides that I/he must have moved to Georgia, which was never in any of my five year plans, if I had bothered to construct any.  JoAnne is waving around something about the size of a deck of cards, but it looks like a cross between a television and a scrap of one of those free roadmaps from the gas station.  She is urging me to move three lanes to the right in the next eleven feet.  Now the scene changes and I am sound asleep in a hospital atrium. I am wearing the same clothes I had on in the car, but now it is morning.  I have become way too comfortable in the lobby, which is showing signs of life. The day people have come to visit patients and watch insipid cartoons, or they would if I were not sleeping on the remote. JoAnne wakes me.  I follow her into a room where we must know the young woman in bed.  She looks tired, but beautiful and happy. A young man by her bed smiles and hugs me.

I need to ditch the old hippie and be totally in the present.  It is September 28th and our daughter Rachael has just given birth to our first grandchild.

 

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer.  He cannot wait to show Lake of the Isles to a little girl named Charlotte Easton Gillies.

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.  

    

 

 

My Big Idea

I would like to issue a manifesto!  Alas, producing such a powerful document seems to require not only a bedrock commitment to a cause, but a will of steel, piercing black eyes, and huge ham-like hands with hairy knuckles.  Let me instead respectfully point out that our electoral process is deeply flawed to the point of embarrassment. Years ago, the erudite wit and social commentator Dick Cavett was asked by an interviewer whether he planned to vote in the coming election. Cavett responded in mock horror, “Heavens no, it just encourages them.”  The recent Supreme Court decision allowing unlimited campaign contributions has only made the election spectacle worse.

The New Yorker magazine suggests that the two Presidential candidates will together spend over one billion dollars in television advertising alone before November 6.   A close election is a windfall for television and radio station owners.  Instead of coquettish commercials for male enhancement, or gold merchants trolling for suckers, stations can charge a Super PAC top dollar to run attack ads implying a wrong voter choice will likely mean the end of the republic.  

To those who say it is private money or, in Latin no harmus, no foulus, I disagree.  One fat cat may invest $10 million to save $50 million in taxes, and another may contribute in hopes of having a pillow fight in the Lincoln bedroom.  Either way, you and I will pay.  Media advertising may be powerful but it is less satisfying than if we were to invest our national 401K on Silly String and a giant fireworks display.

Imagine you are an overworked or out of work rust belt resident. Because you live in a swing state, candidates are continually popping in.  They travel with their own entourage, but create traffic jams, false expectations, and a hefty bill for local police overtime.  Your mailbox and front porch are buried in campaign literature on a daily basis.  Answering the phone subjects you to robocalls or live pollsters.  When the doorbell rings you hope it is Jehovah Witnesses, rather than another freshly scrubbed volunteer.  

When you go to the grocery store, at least one news affiliate is sure to interview you on how it feels to be downtrodden.  Even when watching television, the last affordable respite, you are inundated with thirty-second spots of a candidate standing in front of a boarded up factory proclaiming a need for new clean, green, high paying, wacky fun jobs!

Campaign funds come from Super PACs, fat cats, corporations, billionaires, foreign investors, movie stars, unions, and you and me.  The money goes primarily to advertising agencies, media moguls, consultants, and seemingly everyone except “the plucky widow I met in Hattiesburg, Mississippi who has three sons in Iraq, recently had her spleen repossessed by an insurance company, and needs new batteries for her iron lung.”

Here is my big idea, and I admit it is fraught with peril and possible abuse, but look where we are now.  Currently we spend a billion dollars and only serve to annoy the target audience.  There are people with heartbreaking stories and documented needs.  They are hungry and we are giving them four color glossy pictures of food!  

What if political parties were encouraged to “one up” each other by using their bulging coffers to champion good works?   Candidates would receive public recognition for aiding hard hit states and municipalities. They may get naming rights like corporations and individual donors do on sports venues and university buildings. I know this sounds like buying votes, which is as unethical as attempting to disenfranchise our citizenry.  I admit the idea needs tweaking — but here are two examples.

 Candidate #1  “I could release a series of venomous TV attack ads aimed at my narcissistic, bat-sucking, cretinous opponent.  Looking into the hearts of people of this great state, I have instead decided to direct those funds to be used to keep every public library in the state open on Saturdays!  Furthermore, for young people and families, I have authorized my campaign to make a contribution that will ensure that every recreation center and community swimming pool will have extended hours!”

Candidate #2  “My staff was ready to place four hundred likenesses of me on billboards all over the greater metropolitan area.  I said, ‘People already know what I look like and we do not want to scare the children.  Let’s do something else with the money.’  Because I believe in scratching where it itches, I asked, ‘What do the people want?’  Turns out y’all would like a continuation of the bike paths begun the last time my party was in office.  We are gonna pay to extend the path from Fox Hollow Creek, all the way to downtown! And that’s good jobs for the local economy!”

Tom H. Cook is a writer and former HLP resident.  We have no idea where he gets the audacity to continue to submit his ideas to this publication.  There is a chance that he is really three women.   

 

Minneapolis in Mid-September

What a wonderful week to come home.  Minneapolis in mid-September has always been one of my favorite times.  The lush trees and cool air, the young families (many with requisite lab or golden retriever), and most everyone’s pace is of hurried optimism.  Winter is coming, but not yet.

I have always loved to show off Minneapolis, whether to stray relatives, old friends from college, or friends of friends.  Even driving somewhere alone I would frequently play tour guide in my mind.  When Rachael returned for a wedding along with her husband Daniel, a New Zealander who had never been to Minnesota, it was the ultimate challenge.  I wanted him to see everything.  Working against my rapidly evolving plan was Rachael’s mortification at me dragging him off, and Daniel’s desperate need for sleep, something he had had almost none of for three days.  The kids also had a commitment with friends and a dash to the airport.  I had one hour.

We began at the old house.  It pays to sell to friends.  Barb and Alan welcomed us to 24th and Humboldt.  Poking around, showing off the still preserved height marks of growing children, and seeing the changes and improvements through Daniel’s eyes was fulfilling, but Tom the Taskmaster had more to point out, and the clock was running.

Flying out the door, we passed Walter and Joan Mondale’s house.  I wanted the Kiwi to see that at least one former U.S. vice president doesn’t need guards, a gated estate, and opulent surroundings.  The lakes impressed him immediately.  By the fourth lake and despite my running narrative and erratic driving he was ready to call a realtor.

JoAnne would have wanted to stop at the elf tree at Lake Harriet, or just walk peacefully around Isles, but she was visiting friends, and I am a quantity over quality guide.  We passed the beautiful mosaic at Lakewood cemetery, but it received short shrift compared to the Lake of the Isles dog park.  We raced and chased on a beautiful late summer afternoon.  Daniel was impressed by the number of people smiling (unlike in LA).  Dropping them off in Uptown as I pointed out Magers and Quinn and the Apple store, the kids forgave my exuberance.  I called out that Minneapolis has free WiFi as they sprinted away.  It is hard to do twenty-five years in an hour.

*                     *                   *                      *                       *                    *                     *

The rest of the week was spent more leisurely.  Reminiscing, seeing old friends, going to garage sales, biking the lakes, it was great to be back.  JoAnne returned to The Minnesota Textile Center which has become the finest in the nation in our nine years away.  As a fiber artist it brings her as much joy as I feel watching a baseball game at Target Field.  On the flight back to LA, JoAnne smiled wistfully and said,”I miss Minnesotans.”

 

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer now stationed in southern California.  He realizes that he occasionally needs to abandon the bloody pulpit for more local observations.  He was particularly impressed that the (Cursetown) Crosstown/35W no longer does. 

Fall Reflections

An amazing invention, but who would ever use one?

                                                                 –President Rutherford B. Hayes

The smell of Fourth of July fireworks is still wafting in the air, and the last black chunk of ice gunk in a Fridley parking lot has been vaporized by the heat.  Bring on summer, the season of rampant hedonism, too loud music, coconut sunscreen, and burnt burgers.  Winter is a time for introspection.  In July if there is navel gazing to be done, it is other peoples’.  Fall, around Thanksgiving, is a time for reflection.   Sitting around a campfire with a bunch of wholesome, toothy, jocular people, that is when you count your blessings.  Nestled in a woodsy cabin trying to figure out who these people in expensive sweaters are, and what they have done with my friends is the more typical time to be thankful.  

My seasonal clock is off kilter.  Despite the blur of fast cars, painful sunburn, and a record heat index, I feel grateful.  I want to thank those of you who wade through my column regularly, and friends and family who put up with my tortured logic in person.  If you know me in print, you may notice a certain circuitous line of reasoning that does not always find its way to the point.  Even after skillful editing (thank you JoAnne) I can begin a column with the perils of skiing and end up on Rutherford B. Hayes, the first president to make a phone call.   

In real life I begin too many conversations with obscure references and fractions of sentences posing as questions.  I am likely to begin out of context with a question. “Who’s the guy?  You know, the one in the film about the woman.  She’s in love with her doctor, or her landlord.  He may not be in that one, but you’ve seen him.  He always plays a corporate type.  He was in cahoots with a counterfeiter.  You said you thought he was real scary…  Come on you know it!”

Thank goodness for family and old friends who understand the thin connection I often have between disparate ideas.  Someone (sane) not schooled (subjected) to my way of processing the world is likely to back away from my stream of (un)consciousness.  Citing a forgotten heart surgery appointment they must run off to, an untied shoelace that may require considerable attention, or a sudden need to convey something to a passing squirrel, many strangers become very busy just when I am getting to the good part of an anecdote.

Ideas, information, and media (social and otherwise) are swirling around.  We all continually have more to take in, and later attempt to recall.  I remember fragments of things and my links are often tenuous.  Thank you for continuing to make the effort.

Tom H. Cook is a law abiding citizen who still practices making up fake names for when he is stopped by the police.  His latest is Hal Lester, a conveyor belt salesman from Ripple Creek, Illinois. 

Can You Keep a Secret?

Three can keep a secret if two are dead.           —Ben Franklin

To keep a secret is wisdom, to expect others to keep it is folly.                                     —Samuel Johnson

Listen, do you want to know a secret, do you promise not to tell…                                               —Lennon/McCartney

Details, including Rodriguez’s denial, were disclosed by a person familiar with the meeting who spoke on condition of anonymity because no announcements were authorized.   —ESPN April 2, 2010

 

Is it just me, or are an increasing number of news stories littered with disclaimers?  “A source with intimate knowledge of the negotiations but not given permission to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the subject revealed under condition of anonymity…”       The unconfirmed rumor could be that Moammar Gadhafi is condo shopping in Miami Beach, or Apple’s futuristic iPhone 7 will run on grass clippings,  or the Minnesota Vikings will play four home games in the Mall of America parking lot in 2014. 

A half-century ago in Mrs. Reese’s third grade class at Roosevelt (Theodore, not FDR) Elementary School (Pennsauken, New Jersey) we had a “source” who ratted us out on a regular basis.  Enough time has passed that I am, while noting the irony, going to reveal his name!  Tommy Connors (the other T.C.) was the snitch who told on us to Mrs. Reese.  He supposedly had asthma and often stayed in at recess to (allegedly) erase the boards and clap the erasers — although neither activity was good for an asthmatic. 

This gave him the opportunity to snitch on us.  We are sure he spilled the beans on whose idea it was to lead a class cough at 11:00 AM (Jerry Chicone).  He probably told about dropping our pencils at the stroke of nine when we had a substitute.  He also refused to back us up when we attempted to convince the same substitute that we routinely got an hour for recess.

We did not like Tommy because he ate paste and stuff he found in his nose, but his worst trait was tattling.  Being a fink (thank you, Mad Magazine) got him pummeled on a regular basis by Mike Fawn and Jimmy Esposito, who were fifth graders but always up for a melee.  Mrs. Reese would give us ultimatums: “You have till the end of the school day to tell me who left the lid off of the tempera paints and dried them all out.  If you don’t want to say it to my face leave the name on my desk, or the whole class will be punished.”  Tommy would always crack at the threat of after-school detention or a parent phone call.  I was not as angry at him as some of the vigilantes, but we all knew squealing was against the code. 

Newspaper stories have become a gauntlet of legal catechisms.  The modern day Lois Lane and Jimmy Olson need to write with a lawyer on their shoulders.  Is the unnamed source a whistle blowing patriot or merely someone with an axe to grind?  Are we suckers, receiving only the supposed “inside information” the principles want us to know?  Are we being fed a steady diet of trial balloons and limited hang-outs?   The original Deep Throat was a hero, but I question the motives of some anonymous tipsters.

I admit I am a fan of gossip, but I am concerned that many modern day leakers are simply self-serving opportunists.   Leaks happen so routinely now, I have trouble believing that an insider who has been vetted to the inner sanctum would leave a top secret meeting, have an attack of conscience and go rogue.  More likely what happens in the boardroom is a clandestine confab devoted to deciding how much has to be divulged and who can get the company the most sympathetic spin. 

Applying revisionist history, perhaps the other Tommy C. was merely an information sharer, ahead of his time and not the two-faced rat, suck-up, wimp, snitch, stoolie teacher’s pet we thought he was.  

Tom H. Cook is a fairly local writer.  He knows who wrote the note Mrs. Reese has weasel breath that found its way to her desk. 

 

Learning the Hard Way

Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.              —Michael Corleone (The Godfather III)

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nathaniel West, Natty Bumppo, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry James, James Thurber, James Joyce, Joyce Kilmer.  The Crucible, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, The Mill and the Floss, Silas Marner, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, J. Alfred Prufrock.  Bret Harte, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving, John Irving.  It is all mushing together.

In my fourth final retirement, someone with a sense of humor thought it would be amusing for me to teach English full-time for three months while the bonafide teacher is on maternity leave. I just finished my second month and am totally immersed in the curriculum of high school juniors and seniors.  We are cramming for the SAT’s, reading short stories, and beginning The Great Gatsby.  Soon I will be worrying about acne, passing the road test for my driver’s license, curfew, and getting a date for the Spring Fling.

I am not quite sure why I am here.  Perhaps my function is to serve as a placeholder because I have no ambition or designs on a tenured position.  A younger job seeker may not have wanted to commit and risk losing out on a steadier gig.  It may also be the work of the mischievous gods and sprites that hide car keys, cell phones, and important papers.  I also suspect that I have, as the psychologists say, “unfinished business” around this stage in my life.

When I was sixteen, only a few close friends knew that my mother had become bedridden with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder that, combined with cancer, would soon take her.  High school was the lowest point in my life.  As a self-absorbed adolescent, I felt my mother’s illness made me different, and I was the holder of an embarrassing secret.  Many wince at recalling their high school years, but I squint, grimace, and change the subject.

It is odd but cathartic to walk the crowded, locker-filled hallways, albeit 3,000 miles and light years away.   It feels wonderful to be surrounded by so much youth, hope, energy, and anxiety.  I feel empathy for my students and the complexity of their lives. Searching for an example of irony in honors literature, I shared that my first foray into any kind of an advanced class was as their teacher.  It is great to have age, experience, maturity, and the teacher’s edition of the text.  Like returning to a long-neglected crossword puzzle with fresh eyes, I am able to interpret poems, short stories, and novels that were a jumble to me when I was in school.

In high school terms, athletes talk about when they are “in a groove” and playing well: the game “slows down.”  They feel poised and confident even when the ball and other players are moving at breakneck speed.  Teaching can be that way.  Thirty young people in a small room for 55 minutes can feel chaotic.  Mastering the curriculum and presenting it with appropriate respect and more than occasional irreverence is a challenge.  Apologies to William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” but I feel that in football jargon, I am the wizened, grizzled quarterback.  “My head is bloody but unbowed.”  I am now able to call a smart play, and deliver a floating spiral to the right spot downfield.  My students are running mental patterns everywhere but toward Willa Cather.  I do not control the outcome but often above the din and indifference…touchdown!!!

Sharing what I have learned the long hard way is very fulfilling.  It also doesn’t hurt to have the answer key.

 

Tom H. Cook is still befuddled by Booth Tarkington, Thomas B. Costain, and Eudora Welty.   He is able to distinguish Sinclair Lewis from Upton Sinclair.