Category Archives: hobby

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.”


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.  

Great Finds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only kidding, JoAnne.

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





Words With Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

House Finish Man Die

You must never stop building the house.  If you continue to build you will live forever.  But if you stop, then you will die too.                                –The Boston Medium


It was on the advice of her psychic that Sarah Winchester contacted The Boston Medium. Winchester had lost both her young daughter and husband.  The medium suggested that the souls of those killed by her husband’s rifles were angry and that she seek a way to appease them. Rather than establish a relief fund or a charity for the victims’ families she abandoned the comforts of New Haven, Connecticut in 1844.  Armed (no pun intended) with a mere $20,500,000 and half ownership in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the plucky if delusional widow moved west to San Jose, California.

The mansion she built is renowned for its size and utter lack of a master building plan.  Begun on her arrival, it has approximately 160 rooms (ample quarters for the spirits of the dead), 10,000 window panes, 40 bedrooms, 47 fireplaces and doors and stairways that lead nowhere.  A paint job required 20,500 gallons of paint and could never be finished because the early work would need re-doing before the last portion could be completed.  Crews needed to work around the clock to forestall Mrs. Winchester’s death.  The second ballroom was under construction when the aged and arthritic matron passed away in 1922.

I do not believe I have the same quest for immortality.  I have not even added a bird feeder in the seven years I have been in California or adopted an exercise regime that will extend my life, but I have no other explanation for my growing collections.  Like Mrs. Winchester, I can not see dying before I have read all of the books that line my walls.  I have hundreds of CDs, many that I have yet to listen to because the cover art does not look as good as the twelve I play for all occasions.  Still I plan to enjoy each and every one of them someday.

I am currently 306 podcasts or one week and 37 hours of non-stop This American Life and The Dan Patrick Show behind on my iPod, with more being downloaded everyday.  I will listen to them.  My DVR is set to record everything from old Bob Newhart episodes to Countdown with Keith Olbermann.  I watch just enough to keep the recorder at 90 % of capacity, but not overflowing. I rarely play any of my 500+ DVDs that I plan to watch, as the Netflix shipments cut into my available viewing time.

At this point you may be thinking Sure, he has a lot of books, music, and videos, but he has not crossed that all important line that separates the collector/hobbyist from the obsessive pack rat.  You are probably thinking nothing of the sort and I am being easy on myself. But if that were the extent of my “collections” I could rationalize it as a remnant of misplaced 1960s reverence for the media.

What catapults me over the line and into a world of delusion is my shirt collection.  I am ready to come out of the closet and admit to owning over 300 shirts.  I worry that I will spill things on my shirt…things that will not come out. (You would think I lived on grape juice.)  Or I will have another laundry mishap (see HLP May, 1999).  Consequently, when I am at a garage sale, I feel the need for backup, so I browse the men’s shirts.  I am a very common size, and too often there are shirts just calling me.  I have tried raising the bar and buying only all cotton, linen, or silk, freshly dry cleaned shirts selling for $1.00 a piece or less.  Still they find me.  Something comes over me, and I cannot walk away.

It will be handy to have dress shirts if I ever get a job again.  The dark silk ones are for my next (first) ultra swanky cocktail party.  These shirts are not to be confused with my “clubbing wardrobe” where Bianca or Simone may accidentally spill a drink on my clearly expensive outfit and I can laugh it off.  I have fancy golf shirts (I don’t play) and yacht party attire which I would undoubtedly ruin as I get seasick in the harbor.  If I am invited to a luau or a surprise party for Don Ho I have about 25 Hawaiian shirts to choose from. Don’t even get me started on my Scottish wool lumberjack shirts for ski trips and hikes in the great north woods with my chums that look like they star in beer commercials.

I have shirts for almost all occasions.  Shirts I plan not only to wear, but to wear out in my lifetime!  This will take a while because I currently keep them safely ensconced in my closet.  I tend to wear the same weather- and peanut butter-beaten T-shirts every day because I spend most of my waking hours with dogs who are notoriously forgiving of my attire.

I cannot wait for the occasion so special that I put on my silk shirt, pack the unread book I have been hoarding, throw some new CDs on my car stereo and head up the coast for a rockin’ weekend.  In the meantime I’ll be at a garage sale building up inventory or else at the dog park.


Tom H. Cook is an ex-HLP loiterer.  He will miss the editorship and friendship of Jane Johnson who is returning to England.




Mantle Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Tom with the kids

Throwing Things


How about a fireplace/good cheer/apple cheeked/Rockwell/ jewel neighborhood/leaf- bagging/amber lit/home for the holidays number? Lose the edge/ angst/adolescence lost/fumbling everyman/ irony paradigm schtick.  Don’t forget our talk:  More !!! and less ??

Ciao, Babe,
Your editors at HLP

The holidays are special.  Many of us resolve to work less, be home more, and “cocoon” with family and friends as the weather turns colder.  It is a warm and appealing notion.  If a family is a cordless phone (and even if it is not), it is a good time to return it to the base and recharge.  Holidays are a time for reflection.  It is an opportunity for introspection, to go back to childhood or a simpler era.  What we leave out in the way of conveniences and gadgetry is as important as the candied yams that we include for the sake of tradition, not taste.

 On the maybe list is the modern invention, the VCR.  Videotapes, particularly old black and white movies rented from Panorama, qualify for inclusion, along with cable TV (grudgingly).  But this is nostalgia time, everyone under one roof.  No isolated “Net surfer” coming out for food every ten hours.  No faxed holiday cards or emailed Season’s Greetings.  It is an opportunity to express our gratitude for our good fortune.  It is quality time, with egg nog, a good book and DNA test-confirmed relatives.

The problem with so much indoor togetherness is that quirks and habits, overlooked in the rush of the faster paced work-a-day world now take center stage as the snow flies.  Magnanimously, I will not reveal the foibles of close friends and family members.  Trust me, they have them.  Instead I will model self-disclosure and use myself as an example.

In my life I have wasted afternoons, days, and weekends.  I have squandered my youth.  I spent cities like a handful of change.  This isn’t even the confession part.  I just want to establish that I am not a robotized, time-obsessed Type A efficiency expert out to make every minute count.  I was also never an athlete, although I enjoy sports, particularly basketball.  Somehow these two unrelated non-talents have caused me more trouble in my home, workplace and community that I care to admit.  It is exaggerated around the holidays because I am home and in the way a lot.

I do not revere Time the way I should.  My “bal skills” in sports are at best average.  Still, any time I am holding an object smaller than a filing cabinet that needs to be disposed of, something comes over me.  There is a Voice I hear.  We are not talking psychosis or Brigham Young in the desert.  There is no vision or insight.  The Voice never has stock tips, clever palindromes, my cash machine code number or the name of a colleague as I fumble through introductions.

The Voice simply believes that I, a shy, unimposing, rumpled, average-looking sort, was put on earth to amaze those around me with my savant-like ability to send empty half-pint milk containers into trash cans so far away that I need my glasses to distinguish them from the family cat.  In the world of grey flannel bureaucrats, I am a scoring machine, an amalgam of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in their prime,

In this maddening, solution-less world of consensus politics, less of evils, and amorphous long-range goals, it is gratifying to take, say, a hoagie wrapper and wad it up into a tight ball (for maximum velocity and control) and launch it toward a receptacle.  As the missile leaves my hand I can tell first whether it has a chance, and then if it is “in” or not.  (Yelling “Short!” or “Left!” is little consolation to my wife, who is more concerned about the potential hoagie oil that may land anywhere on the flight path trajectory.)  Still, there is closure and the immediate resolution, unlike poverty, Bosnian politics, the deficit, or race relations.  “The shot is up…It’s good!”  The clarity is satisfying.

People ask what comes over me.  Their tonal range is anything from solicitous to nervously condescending.  Family members take another tact, more like Albert Elis on a bad day.  I tell everyone the same thing The Voice seduces me. When I sense the presence of an object that needs to be discarded, I am Zeus, invincible and confident in a manner that eludes me in other aspects of my life.

The Voice begins quite rationally with a plea to my favorite motivators, logic and guilt.  “You are 30 feet from the receptacle.  It seems kind of silly to walk all the way to the trash can, drop the paper, egg shells or banana peel into the can and then come all the way back again.  You’ve made this shot before.  Remember that coleslaw last week?  Nothing but net.  You have hit Dixie cup lids in from further out than this.  Here is an opportunity to “get well” and reclaim some of the time you lost reading Wink Martindale’s life story.  Besides, you need to 1) get back to work or 2) yikes, Friends is coming out of commercial.”

If I do not succumb, the ante is upped.  I am flattered and cajoled.  My manhood is questioned.  I get into a zone.  I feel I cannot miss.  The Voice prods me.  “Remember that game winner back in Wayne Price’s driveway.  You were on fire!  This is a gift shot; you are OPEN, take it!  Come on, a 3-pointer and you are back in.  From this spot your keys will land softly in the drawer, your socks will break their fall, you won’t chip the buffet, your wallet won’t roll behind the bookcase.  Give it a little spin; it will slow like a chip shot onto a wet green.  Shoot!  Shoot!  Shoot!”

 I am suddenly at the Palestra in Philadelphia, home of Big Five basketball and the best rivalries ever — Penn State vs Villanova, or Temple vs St. Joe’s or LaSalle.  The crowd is up. I am left of the key, 35 feet out.  The laundry basket sits, with only my wife reading the newspaper and drinking a very hot cup to tea to clear.  Dirty sweat socks in hand, I fake left and launch a rainbow. It is short…

 The Voice is gone, and it is me alone, apologizing profusely and running for a paper towel.  Yet even as I am wiping up the Early Grey and hurrying toward the trash can to dispose of the wet Bounty, The Voice returns.  Have I learned my lesson?  I do realize that I do not want to again stain the white wall with a bank shot, yet from this spot a perfectly launched jumper would restore my confidence in my shooting eye…

So bring on the Holidays, and all of that time spent trapped indoors while we watch pretenders like the Gophers and Timberwolves.  My family is skeptical, but if basketball were played on shag carpeting instead of hardwood, and the court was not 90 feet long but instead shaped more like my study, I would be a star.

Tom H. Cook cannot stop flipping things in the hopes of hearing the roar of the crowd.  He holds a lifetime .582 shooting percentage from the floor.  His walls and baseboards show it.