Category Archives: housing

Return To Our Home Town

I owe my life to the doctors, nurses, and support staff at the University of Minnesota Hospital.  My delicate and at the time pioneering emergency heart surgery was performed as JoAnne (the editor) was giving birth to our daughter Rachael at HCMC hospital. It was fall 1979, our second year in Minnesota.  I was teaching in Bloomington and we lived in a cozy house on 34th Street between Humboldt and Irving.  Thanks to new friends and neighbors, the three of us regained our balance. In the summer of 1982 we added (with considerably less chaos) another child, our dear son Ben.  In 1985, needing more space, we moved north ten blocks to a house again just off Humboldt, this time near Lake of the Isles.  That was the wonderful growing-up home that the kids remember.  We have happy memories, many centered around  Barton Open School, a K-8 adventure that provided Rachael and Ben with an excellent foundation of learning.

In about fifth grade our daughter began modeling for the Susan Wehmann agency near Loring Park. This lead, a few years later, to an introduction to a fairy godmother who provided her acting opportunities in Hollywood. Meanwhile Ben decided on UC Santa Cruz for college (Go Banana Slugs!).  JoAnne and I were frozen empty nesters.  Rachael settled in Los Angeles; with very little encouragement we followed.  In 2004 she married New Zealand actor Daniel Gillies.  Many years later, I am still writing for my dear friends, the writers and readers of the Hill and Lake Press, while living in southern California.

The Twin Cities Film Fest in St. Louis Park (October 18-28) is showing A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Rachael plays Hermia.  She has been invited to the October 28th screening.  The Film Fest folks did not realize this would unleash a  Kunta Kinte Roots-like reaction in our family.  The adults have been back a number of times, but now there are fresh young eyes and two big new reasons to come home.  Charlotte is four and full of questions, and Theo at two is just full of… zest.  (I had to promise not to immerse the children in the lake before being allowed to come). We are very excited to show them where mom and uncle Ben grew up.

We hardly know where to start:  Uptown, skyways, bridges, Triangle Park, Lake of the Isles, the Sculpture Garden, Minnehaha Creek, our old house…  I am voting for train and bus rides and other unique non-LA activities.  If you see a winded older man chasing two children racing through the neighborhood while kicking autumn leaves, the old guy might be me.  We want to show the kids a land that is not palm trees and traffic.  And dare we hope for rain?  Whatever the weather, we are excited to introduce Charlotte and Theo to the town that nurtured us, and that we still call home.

Tom H. Cook is aware that his daunting and ambitious plans for the visit could be undone by crankiness and the need for naps.  Tom has vowed to do his best.

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.

I Have Always Been an Acquirer

I have always been an acquirer.  An acquirer is a collector, without a plan.  It is only recently that I have begun to question the origin of this habit, and more importantly realize the exhaustive counter productive energy I have devoted to this activity.  A true collector, whether it is of Rembrandts or bottle caps has developed a “file philosophy”, a guide that helps them set limits and define what they value, making it easier to separate these items from the sea of pretenders.

I have never been able to resist people that seem to like me, literature on a cause that I should be more knowledgeable about, or 25-cent books on the discard shelves at the library that always I meant to read like, U. Thant, The Batter From Burma.  I never questioned the premise that if stuff is good, more stuff is better.

As a random chaotic thinker, I have always viewed the world as a rather length scavenger hunt, or an Indiana Jones movie.  A mysteriously produced gas receipt from a home I sold ten years ago may turn the tide of an IRS audit.  An airline ticket and luggage claim would prove to a Grand Jury that I could not possibly be behind the latest coup in Paraguay.  Scary as it seems, I actually think like this.  When in doubt save it, it may come in handy in establishing an alibi, although I have not done anything illegal or even interesting.  The problem is that if the situation ever arose it would be easier and considerably less painful to go to the gas chamber rather that dig through an attic and basement filled with old records that might exonerate me.

The serious reasons for becoming an acquirer are probably buried in self esteem issues (see SAND…HLP May, 1992), suffice it to say that having a lot of stuff on a low budget might have been a scrawny kid from Pennsauken’s way to fit in.  There have actually been times when having an extensive Frankie Valli album collection has been socially helpful, but in retrospect it may not have been that necessary.  I no longer feel the need to hade behind possessions.

The habit of picking up brochures, and getting on mailing lists has been a difficult one to break because the goal is moderation not abstinence.  Crime and pollution aside, there are other reasons to consider small town life.  Perhaps people in remote areas have a better perspective on the Arts.  The Amish for example wear only black but display a wonderful color sense in their quilts and other hand craft.  In Pine Scruff Falls, Minnesota (population 338) Maynard Ferguson plays at the consolidated regional high school every four years.  Everyone goes, next subject.

The fact that I am fifteen minutes from six galleries, twelve live theater spaces, and a coffeehouse run by Jungian biker still does not get me out of my comfortable chair on most nights.  My compromise is to keep believing that I would attend these happenings if I remain on the mailing list and have sufficient notice.  Part of me wants to believe that I really am a “player” in the culture scene.  Even if I do not plan to attend the John Greenleaf Whitter lecture series, JGW:  Was he Two Women?, perhaps I could at least pick up the information for a friend.  The result is that my life is continually cluttered with missed opportunities and good intentions.

I could not care less that the Jolly Martin Performance Company based in Wheaton, Illinois is doing a nine show run at the Homely Oak Theatre in Spring Lake Park of Guy De Maupassant’s The Necklace.  That it is in Finnish, with Burl Ives’ niece (fresh out of Hazelden) playing all of the female roles is not a lure.  Yet I accept the brochure and stack it up in my pile of things I feel guilty about not doing.  Granted the above example is less tempting than a host of other worthwhile projects that I have also not attended, but I feel a secret joy weeks later when I realize that because of my procrastination I have managed to miss all nine performances and that, alas it is now permissible to discard the handsome four color brochure.

Walking into a Realtor’s open house with friends out of idle curiosity, I have always been the one to take the literature even though the home is selling for twice the GNP of Micronesia.  Six months later I still have it, because I was intending to mail it to a friend because the roof line in the picture is similar to the renovation they have been doing to their home.  So I have found myself accumulating things that I now I will never use, but are also of dubious value to others.

My professional life is equally muddled.  I am constantly receiving notice of limited enrollment workshops that would help me crisis manage, teach me to both delegate and accept more responsibility, get me out of a dead end job, solve my current problems in halt of the time, acquaint me with the new technology, or ease me into a stress free retirement a lot sooner that my chosen path.  They hint strongly that my current level of expertise in probably the equivalent of a physician sing leeches, and that if I want to help my clients, the organization, and avoid getting sued, I better get to the Ramada Inn in Brooklyn Center next Thursday and bring $135.00.  How can I blithely throw these opportunities away?  Obviously I can not, so I save them, both at work and at home they stack up.  If I went to even a tiny fraction of the inservices offered I would be fired for dereliction of duty.

My vow is to collect only what I am able to use, and cease to be indiscriminate acquirer of well intended things that do not fit my needs.  I am still a sentimentalist, but I feel less inclined to clutter my life with playbills and scorecards of past events that I have attended.  I have been guilty of mistaking form for substance and grasping at tangibles to validate my experience.  I have been reluctant to exclude opinions, fearing that I would narrow myself, forgetting that sometimes we are better defined by what we are not.  The adage, “if you do not know where you are going, any road will take you there,” contains well worn truth.  My goal is to return from a relevant “night on the town” with a full heart and an empty hand.

Tom H. Cook is a local mystic.  He is continually amazed by how little of the Sunday Tribune is actually necessary. 



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.

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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. 

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.

Guests Who Stay Too Long

It would be so nice if you weren’t here.         — Charles Grodin (That’s the title of his autobiography)

I had to sink my yacht to make my guests go home.                    — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Never Can Say Goodbye (no no no)           –Clifton Davis (popularized by The Jackson 5)

Won’t you come and take me home, I’ve been too long at the fair.          –Bonnie Raitt

We have all had the experience.  You are at a thing.  There are hors d’oeuvres with spinach and feta, and that is clearly the highlight.  JoAnne and everyone else you know were smart enough to beg off.  You are there to show support for the volunteers that are working tirelessly to either wipe out or build up something in our lifetime. A couple I know vaguely greets me effusively.  I am wary, but they are spicy meatball people and no threat to the dwindling spinach/feta spread over which I have taken a proprietary interest.

They find my irreverent comments on the gathering and its people hysterical.  They ask about “Joannie.”  We have some Chablis, share a few laughs and soon I am referring to Joannie and how heartbroken she is to miss this gala but she is wrapping bandages at the Red Cross.  After more Chablis I confide that she is changing the oil on a bookmobile at an orphanage.  I worry that this nice couple will die laughing.  Where were these people when I was trying to make it in comedy?  A better question is Who are these people?

There’s a fleeting comment spoken in haste, then a date book (not mine) appears out of nowhere.  On the third Friday of a month that hasn’t even started yet the McSomeones (Jerry or Gary and Edie or Ellie) are free! They will have to move a few things around of course.  They are frantic and busy.  I nod in a way that I hope conveys empathy, although I am rarely frantic or busy.  The only activity on my mired mental agenda is that the dogs will probably be due for a flea treatment again around the date we are speaking of, provided I remember to administer one to them soon.

The last hurdle is where to meet.  We could go there.  They begin to describe where they live.  It is an unincorporated exurb north of Sleepy Hollow beyond anything a GPS can calculate.  We would need sherpas… or they could come to us.

They are amazed that I do not have to pull out an electronic phone/datebook/letter opener, nor do I need to check with Joannie first.  I assure them that she loves company and that if it weren’t so late and they didn’t have that horrible drive, they could come over right now and we could get this visit thing over with tonight. Edie/Ellie wants to know if I always say hurtful things in a funny way.  I put three cream puffs in my mouth and answer her.  They think I am kidding and laugh.

The next day I explain my master coup to JoAnne /Joannie.  Adept at the Lesser of Two Evils Defense, I deftly point out that thanks to my quick thinking we do not have to drive to Outer Ishpeming Forest Estates next month!  The McSomethings are coming here for dinner!  We can stay in our warm, safe house and have a casual evening…  JoAnne interrupts to suggest a third option, known as Neither of the Above.  I assure her that they were intent on meeting and only through swift diplomacy was I able to delay the inevitable and secure us the home field advantage.  Did I mention how I make a weak argument worse by interjecting sports lingo?

The evening that was so far in the distance that it wasn’t even worth worrying about is here. JoAnne has risen to the occasion and prepared a dinner far better than I feared we were going to have as late as this afternoon. There is food and wine. Except for opposable thumbs we have little in common with this couple.  Then a curious thing does not happen.  We hit the segue.  It is 10:30 and time for them to go…yet they stay.  I turn off the heat and it seems not to faze them.  Soon it is well after 11:00 and Jer and El are still here.  Perhaps they are waiting for me to be as sardonic as I was at “the thing.”

I envy my dogs, curled up nearby and sleeping peacefully, exempt from Jer’s stories.  It is a long night and the four of us are waist deep in it.  Many hours ago we agreed to come out to their land to hunt pheasant or grouse or rabbits next fall.  I ask if they are planning to stay so that we can carpool.  They think I am kidding and hunker down.  JoAnne has become Jo Jo, or Jo Jo Ma.  I do not believe this delights her but it is hard to tell as we are not making eye contact.  Part of this may be because of her long sojourns to the garage, a part of the house she rarely spends any time in.  This is after Gar’ pipes in that “Joannie spends more time in the bathroom than some junkies I know.”  I doubt that Gar knows any junkies, but if he knew anyone else I wish he would find them immediately.

JoAnne, her hand to the wall for support, delivers our family’s favorite line: “Well, we’d better go to bed; these nice people probably want to go home.”  Garth and Elsie thank her, bid her good night and proceed to settle in on the couch.  In hindsight I may have been enabling, but out of desperation I make popcorn for what I hope will be the grand finale.


Afterward Ellie wants to help clean up.  It is a nice gesture, but it is closing in on 1:00 AM and the full meal and dessert are a distant memory.  We have no coffee, which momentarily disappoints them, but Garp finds the tea and my special cookies.  They consume the cookies and all of the ice cream I am willing to part with but still they paddle around in stocking feet seemingly enjoying the Santana CD that I thought would drive them away.

They finally left.  I awoke the dogs from a sound sleep for a last outing and Gil and Leelee followed us out the door.  After their tail lights disappeared, the dogs and I rolled in the grass, happy to be free.

Some people cannot take a hint.  On a larger scale, perhaps that is what the youth are twittering and tweaking about.  Our entitled generation has driven the country to the brink of despair with our old style politics.  We are seen as clueless, attempting to apply aging paradigms to complex modern problems. Youth want us to go. Now. And take Arlen Specter with us.

We have been asked nicely to step down.  Except for Depends, we are not the focus of advertising.  Letterman and Leno aside, there are few television shows with actors over 50.  They have shrunken our precious newspapers, the equivalent of flashing the house lights.  They smirk at our landline telephones and VCRs.  But still we stay.   Fogies like Vice President Biden are urging everyone to remain home to avoid getting the flu.  Young people roll their eyes.


Tom H. Cook is too hip to quit.  Someday he will take his own advice and retire, but it won’t be next month.  He would like to be among the first to wish you a Happy Summer.




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. 

Visit to New Orleans

Dateline: Gretna, Louisiana.  (OK, I admit it, I am not still there.)

The time my wife JoAnne and I spent in this gritty outskirt of New Orleans is a far more interesting tale than my recent column about doing laundry (HLP February ‘05).

We had tasted the French Quarter (metaphorically immersing ourselves in deep fat), ate beignets at Cafe du Monde, spent a long weekend in Lafayette, and wandered the Garden District before checking into “the only room left in the greater New Orleans area” (in the words of the cheerful representative).  Let’s not quibble over who neglected to see if the largest non-Mardi Gras event had just hit town.  Let me just say that one of us figured that midweek there would be plenty of rooms.

Besides, in this person’s defense, we did get a room in an Econo Lodge, which, we had a vague recollection, was a national chain whose logo featured a cute little bear in a nightshirt and cap holding a candlestick.  Furthermore, Gretna sits just across the Mississippi River, a scant four miles from Bourbon Street.  To top it off, the guilty one added that Gretna was the birthplace of Hall of Famer Mel Ott, the feared New York Giants slugger of the 1930s who seemed to rear up on his back leg when he swung, and who hit 511 steroid-free homeruns.

The Economy Lodge (that is not a typo; that is what the sign read) we pulled up to clearly had no affiliation with the national chain, unless there had been a coup.  Smiling at me behind the counter was a nearly toothless and fully barefoot man for whom English did not appear to be one of his top three languages.  He did not seem to be the type to wrest control from a powerful corporation.  The more likely scenario seemed to be that he had stumbled in from the Quarter years ago and, unable to pay his bill, had been sentenced to serve as manager of Dante’s waiting room.  Glancing around the dirty, shabby, and threadbare lobby, we were eyeballed by a fellow lodger whom we soon dubbed “Sugarman” for his curious habit of using twelve sugars in his coffee and making way too much eye contact.

When the proprietor asked if we had reservations, I was able to answer, “Yes quite a few.”  This line usually gets a chuckle or at least a hollow laugh.  JoAnne was too frightened to respond.  The proprietor, now joined by his wife, who had almost twice as many teeth, smiled hopefully.  Only Sugarman was laughing like Ed McMahon, although he had begun to chortle long before the witty banter began.  I mumbled something about not judging a room by its lobby.  We checked in and drove around to our room at the far corner of the court.  As we unloaded the car, Sugarman ambled over and attempted to talk with JoAnne, who was not speaking to either of us.

In our thirty-some years together we have camped out, slept in youth hostels, and stayed on the floor of a friend’s barely finished basement.  Despite being older, I like to think we have not become bourgeois burghers and that we still possess a spirit of adventure.  But this setting clearly violated tenets of the Geneva Convention. The air conditioner had been ravaged and was held together by mildew.  The smoke alarm hung by a wire, the furniture would not have been accepted by Goodwill, and the bed was so concave that the thin spread touched the mattress only at the sides.  Although it was a non-smoking room, there were ashes on the floor of the bathroom.

When I turned on the hot water faucet I expected cold, rusty, or Mississippi River water.  Instead there was absolutely no water. When JoAnne spotted the bullet hole in the wall  and then the smear of a brown-red handprint not far from it, we both reached for the phone to call the airline.  Needless to say, the phone didn’t work.  I broke for the lobby, leaving JoAnne to put the bags back in the car.  When the ubiquitous Sugarman, in his unofficial role as host/neighbor/welcome wagon approached her, she abandoned the task and hurried to join me in the lobby.  I was having no luck with the proprietor, who was not versed in how to dial out on his Marconi 300 phone console, circa 1934.  He explained that people contact him for rooms and he did not know how to make a long distance call.  He graciously invited me to come around and attempt to dial this exotic 800 number myself while he watched until he lost interest and sat down on the floor.

JoAnne arrived to find me behind the counter and seemingly the person in charge.  After fifteen frantic and stressful minutes, through a stroke of luck I was somehow able to reach United Airlines, whose options had recently changed.  (Why does every organization claim to have new prompts –initiated during the Carter administration– that will streamline service, yet are guaranteed to increase your wait time?)  JoAnne paced in the lobby and, as if on cue, Sugarman came in and began to fix himself another cup of coffee.

It was rush hour and we still had a rental car to dispose of, but there was a 7:00 PM flight to LA with a couple of seats available.  I thanked the United Airlines representative profusely, handed my key to the helpful if bewildered manager, who probably wanted me to teach him how to use the phone system as much as he wanted us to stay.  JoAnne and I hurried past  the sludge-filled swimming pool, threw our suitcases in the car and peeled out.  Sugarman saw us off.

We gave up two extra days in The Big Easy, but felt that we got away with our lives.  It was great to see the Mississippi again, but it felt wonderful to return to our adopted home.


Tom H. Cook is the HLP West coast correspondent. A representative refunded our money after hearing an abridged version of our tale.   JoAnne wishes to thank everyone who has sent her string for the Thread Project.   If anyone else wishes to have their threads in the project, it’s not too late to send them along: PO Box 1187, Torrance, CA 90505. If you have questions, you can email JoAnne at



Minnesota Winter Quiz

What follows is a Minnesota quiz.  Answers will be printed in the spring or when we feel the promised “trickle down” of Super Bowl money, whichever comes first.  Be sure to choose the answer that is most correct.

Example:  Which of the following could be termed the worst natural disaster?

  1. Hurricane Camille, 1969, (Louisiana, Mississippi)
  2. San Francisco Earthquake, 1906, (California)
  3. Galveston Flood, 1900, (Texas)
  4. Any Minnesota Winter


Hurricane Camille killed 24 and left 20,000 homeless.  The San Francisco earthquake destroyed much of the beautiful city, killed 600, and left 300,000 homeless.  Six thousand died and property damage exceeded $17 Million in the Galveston flood.  Remember, though, the question asked was which was the worst disaster.  A, B, and C, were horrible disasters in their time, but they were one shot deals.  Visit all four of these areas this February and you will see that the answer is D.

There is a heavy snowfall on Friday evening commencing at 11:00 pm.  You should

              1. Remain in your car until on official snow emergency is declared.
              2. Park on the odd-numbered side of an East/West street.
              3. Leave your car where it is but be prepared to move it before 7:00 am Saturday.
              4. Park on the even side of the street because your license plate ends in a vowel.
              5. Insufficient information.

Mr. Johnson, 48, has recently purchased a Toro Snowblower Model DLC-X for $479.00.  If Richie (age 12) charged $3.00 to shovel Mr. Johnson’s walk, how many years will it take Mr. Johnson’s heirs to recoup the investment if gas remains at $1.20 per gallon?

  1. It depends on if it’s the Mr. Johnson on Emerson Avenue
  2. It depends on if Richie goes to the ‘U’ and lives at home
  3. $1.20 a gallon, I’ll bet!
  4. B and C

 New down gloves for Billy (age 11) cost $22.95.  Billy’s Aunt Harriet says she will pay $5.00 toward the gloves.  Billy’s mother finds a coupon for 15% off on the gloves at Daytons.  Billy’s dad says he will contribute 1-1/2 times as much as Aunt Harriet toward the gloves.  How long will it be until Billy loses the gloves?

____ (answer in hours)

____ (answer in minutes)

Which of the following is the least likely to return to the Twin Citie?

  1. Jack Morris
  2. John Denver
  3. Professional basketball
  4. Professional football

Which novel would best help a Californian relate to (understand) the Minnesota winter experience

  1. Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  2. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  3. Alive by Paul Piers Reid
  4. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  5. All of the Above

Sam shovels 9” of snow on Friday, 11” on Sunday and 16” on Wednesday.  Why doesn’t he take his brother’s offer to join him in the fabric business in Phoenix?  (short answer)

The current reason that the Vikings can not win the Super Bowl is…

  1. Parity
  2. They would have to put up with Sid Hartman for an extra month.
  3. They have become accustomed to artificial light and can not adapt to ‘natural conditions’.
  4. The other teams in their division are so pathetic that they appear adequate by comparison.

Essay:  Explain the difference between wet cold and dry cold.  Discuss how Minnesotans lived before the wind chill was invented.


 Tom H. Cook is a very local and often chilly humorist.