Category Archives: kids

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.

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

Dogs Outnumber the People

Generally it makes sense to write about a family holiday event after it happens, if at all.   Crazy Uncle Louie face down making snow angels on the shag carpet.  Teetotaling Aunt Bessie accidentally getting into the spiked punch and using her false teeth as castanets, or the kids making a surprise skating rink by damming up and flooding the garage.  This is good stuff you cannot make up.  A few humorous anecdotes, a bit of wit and wisdom, an encompassing comment on the universality of humankind, and wishes of peace and prosperity in the new year.  These columns practically write themselves.

My family and friends are less colorful.  These are nice folks, and I love them all, but I cannot remember any of them doing anything zany enough for me to write about.  This year may be different, as there are a few added ingredients.  The “perfect storm” analogy has become so cliched it is used to explain school board election results, a pot luck with only potato salads, or an entire HR department getting matching tattoos.

Still, while it may not be a storm, or close to perfect, my doppler radar indicates this may be a memorable holiday.  I have always been one to surprise JoAnne with extra people for dinner because I thought the resultant mix would provide either kumbaya warmth or degenerate into an uncomfortable evening of back biting and name calling.  As a fan of chaos, I am looking forward to this holiday season.

I am writing now because I will probably be involved in home repair, or at the very least, carpet cleaning and will certainly not be in a reflective mood by this time next month.  If all goes according to plan, we will have eight dogs beginning the third week of December and through New Year’s Day.

The “cousins” are coming!  They are daughter Rachael’s three rather large and very friendly dogs.  She and her husband Daniel are wisely leaving the country and we get the kids.  Our boxer and border collie (Cowboy and Hannah) love to romp through our very small house with their cousin.  Henry and Jane are a sweet puggle and border collie pair that come over most days as they live nearby with their mom, a close friend.

These seven know each other well, but the piece de resistance will be Sadie, a chocolate lab from Minneapolis who will be the surprise guest of honor.  Our dear friends Jay and Cheryl have just retired (Cheryl from the U of M) and are coming to stay with us.  They are driving Miss Sadie.  Our son Ben and daughter-in-law Erin have real lives and will sadly arrive dogless.  A few brave human friends are invited, but much of the time we will balance on the tipping point with the dogs outnumbering the people, which is fine with us.


Tom H. Cook is a sometimes writer who lives on a busy street in Redondo Beach, where firetrucks are not uncommon.   AAAARROOOOO!   



Ben and Erin’s Mexican Wedding

If you don’t like Mexicans, why did you move here?
  — Bumper sticker, San Pancho, Mexico

Ben is like Tom, only mature.
 — Comment from a long time family friend

We all want our children to exceed us; I just thought it would take a little longer.           –My toast at Ben’s wedding

San Francisco, nicknamed San Pancho, is a little town of about a thousand, on the Pacific Ocean an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  It is a beautiful place to get married.  Our son Ben and his sweetheart Erin invited fifty lucky folks to witness and participate in their wedding this past Thanksgiving.  Instead of a holiday of tepid turkey, dry stuffing, surly relatives, and endless football games, we enjoyed a moving, joyful ceremony on the beach at sunset.

The “kids” (each 28) met during their first year of college and have been together ever since.  Organizationally I would have difficulty getting three couples together for a pot luck.  Erin and Ben planned, coordinated and hosted a stupendous week in a foreign country 2,000 miles away.  Their younger friends went snorkeling, horseback riding on the beach, and exploring the local night life.  They also lined up enough adventure and challenge to delight the crew of potentially grumpy old people.  There were welcome parties, swimming in an infinity pool a hundred feet above the ocean, a rehearsal dinner, lunches, and free time (read naps) for those so inclined. There was a wild bachelor party that through a comedy of errors my invitation was lost.  Except for that, the flow of events was seamless.

I hesitate to draw attention to San Pancho.  While some ex-pats blend right in, there are the gauche, like the gringo who had a private 9 hole golf course built for his own very occasional use.  The economic slowdown has derailed a number of planned developments.  In one case there is a wrought iron gate supported by impressive stone arches.  Alas it is not protecting anything, but one day it will be very exclusive.

The local Mexican community seems to take the boom and bust in stride.  The only bridge into town was washed out in the last rains.  Fortunately the river is dry now and cars (but not trucks) can make it through the gully.  It seems that the twenty founding families have intermarried and make up most of the one thousand residents.  The next generation simply finds an unoccupied portion of family land and without benefit of building codes or inspection, builds a small home.

The pace is slow.  Everybody knows everybody.  The pool man’s sister is a nurse. She can send her husband, who works at the restaurant you ate at last night, on an errand to get you the medicine you need.  The tailor is married to the house keeper whose brother is a mechanic who can fix the flat tire you got attempting to navigate the cobblestone road.  The informal network of goods and services puts Craig’s List to shame.

It was Erin’s parents, Linda and Julian, who first introduced the kids to the village of San Pancho.  Linda, JoAnne and I were at the same university together (although we did not know each other then) and Julian’s New Jersey high school was a rival of mine.  It took our children falling in love to bring us together.  Their generosity made so much of the wedding possible, and they are a rollicking good time.

We were able to invite Jay and Cheryl, our oldest and closest Minnesota friends, who have known Ben all his life.  Whether the four of us were sitting poolside overlooking the ocean, shopping at a local market, bumping over the rutted streets, or watching the dance moves of the younger wedding guests, our eyes would meet, and the unstated message would be, “I cannot believe we are here. I sure didn’t see this coming when we met 33 years ago.”

At this point I might get mawkishly sentimental and metaphoric about the bumps on the road of life, but I am still too happy looking at wedding photos and awaiting the honeymooners’ return.

Tom H. Cook is just a dad. Ben is a Barton and South High grad, and his wife Erin (that’s the first time I have written that) loves Minneapolis; wise woman.

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. 


“Her name was Magill, and she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy”
   — “Rocky Raccoon” from The Beatles’ White Album

Irv Lewis Libby is scheduled to go on trial for obstruction of justice and lying under oath to a Grand jury.  It is alleged that he disclosed the name of a CIA operative in order to get back at her husband, a critic of the war in Iraq.  Hopefully this is not the first you are hearing of this and you have sources for news beyond the Hill and Lake Press and this column.  My question is, if this man is being accused of such serious crimes why is every inside the beltway media person referring to him by his nickname?  Do we know another Lewis Libby?  Calling him Scooter creates a false intimacy, and it is a nickname that you almost can’t say without smiling. 

What did that freckle-faced red headed rascal do now, steal an apple pie that Aunt Bea had cooling on the windowsill?  That little miscreant hasn’t been chasing girls again, has he?  Scooter wears a baseball cap that covers his cowlick, and a wide striped T-shirt.  His jeans always have a hole in the knee, and the little scamp would rather be out in the woods with his slingshot than cooped up in school.  Commit a treasonous act that could compromise our intelligence community? Not our Scooter!  If this seems vitriolic I must confess that beneath the partisanship I am jealous not of the man but of the nickname.

Often nicknames are derived from an ascribed status like our family name, heritage or a physical characteristic.  The only nickname I ever had was Cookie, which I objected to because it was too obvious.  Ethnic nicknames– Jimmy The Greek, Dutch, as well as variations off of heritage like The Silent Swede (which may be redundant)– also do not require imagination.  Calling a large person Tiny or a bald one Curly may be paradoxical but it lacks inspiration.

Alas, you cannot really give yourself a nickname.  If you are wealthy enough you can hire a bunch of sycophants to call you Boss Man, Chief or Big Guy, but it is not as sincere as a playground nickname from your childhood.  Nicknames are terms of endearment bestowed either by those close to you or by an insightful outsider in a serendipitous moment.  You can be moving through your life as Harold, Maggie, Clarence, or Jan, and suddenly your love of a certain food, your body type, your hair, or a speech pattern may give you a lifetime handle.  You become Peanuts, Stick, Slick, or Mumbles.  Nicknames are like quicksand: the more you fight them, the more tenacious the hold.

A truly great nickname is a light-hearted yet insightful ironic synthesis, and a peek into the soul of another.  It acknowledges an achieved status.   Dubbing Eric Clapton “Slow Hands” is a loving tribute paid him by his fellow musicians.  It is a way to both gently kid and acknowledge his talent.  As a now middle aged person without a nickname, I fear my biological time clock ticking.  Not being good enough for school sports teams, I missed a real opportunity.  Since then I have left countless hints for my friends as I loudly proclaim my love of ice cream, my fear of rodents, and my interest in reading, but nothing has come of it.   I have met countless people who are less eccentric, quixotic, and colorful than I am who have really cool nicknames like Duke, Stretch, Kikki, Poncho, Slim, Bubba, Sissy, Doc, Buck, Gabby, Candy, Shorty, and Dusty. 

Whether in the workplace, a locker room, or a sewing circle, nickname people are more likely to be remembered.  My parents named me at birth (for my grandfather) and I have been unable to acquire a colorful sobriquet despite decades of trying.  With no nickname, I am outside of the club with my nose pressed against the glass.  Yes I am bitter that this gray flannel middle aged white-guy has a cool nickname.  Lewis “Scooter” Libby is second in command to Vice President Richard “Daddy Warbucks” Cheney, and if convicted, whether he ever serves jail time or is merely sent to his room without dessert, he should be forced to return “Scooter” to its rightful owner, Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto. 

“Scooter” Libby has a chance to become the most infamous nicknamed felon since Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme.

Benny Two-Fingers

Benny Two-Fingers

“In this world, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.  For years I was smart, and I recommend pleasant.”  –Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart) quoting his mother in Harvey

Our friend and Lake Calhoun neighbor Lance Lavine got it mostly right twenty years ago.  He observed our reticent infant son, urged us not to worry, and proclaimed that one day Benny would be a philosopher.  “Little Benny Two-fingers” spoke early and in complete sentences.  He would listen carefully to the discussion around him.  When he was ready to speak, he would remove his two middle fingers from his mouth and gesture with them much like a tweedy Humanities professor waving a pipe.  Then, point made, the two fingers would go back into his mouth for further contemplation and sucking.  Little Benny 2 fingers

Other children used the neighborhood swings to play and release excess energy.  For adventure they would pump hard and it seemed attempt to defy gravity.  While Ben seemed to enjoy being pushed, when the adult (usually me) gave out he would contentedly lean back in the swing and stare up at the sky.  I asked him why he didn’t want to go faster or in later years stand up on the swing.  He replied that he “liked it peaceful.”   When he was five, JoAnne and I quizzed him on his refusal of a play date with a friend.  Ben confided that the boy was “too frisky” for his taste.   As a child he frequently sought the company of his fairly sedentary parents.  His standard greeting on entering a room was “Where are you guys gonna be?”

Granted I am cheap, but I can not imagine a private education benefiting Ben more than what Minneapolis Public Schools provided at Barton Open. Ben was able to attend for nine years (K-8) including three years with the sainted teacher Mary Ann Fabel.  The friendships and social skills he acquired were as important as the whole-brain academic curriculum.  Since Barton does not give letter grades, I would get frustrated attempting to measure Ben’s ability.  In sixth grade he would come home with radish stickers on his work.  I remember some fairly bizarre parent conferences with me grilling his teachers on why Ben wasn’t getting more broccoli stickers and would a tutor help him to do cauliflower work.

Thanks to excellent support at Barton, Ben was ready for the Open Program at South High School. At last there were letter grades and in Garrison Keillor tradition we discovered that Ben was above average, and that a college fund would have been a good idea.  Ben enjoyed soccer but seemed to feel that after he had kicked the ball it was someone else’s turn.  Consequently he played on the freshman-sophomore team through his junior year.  His strong logic skills helped him find success on the school’s mock trial team.

Leaping ahead, Ben chose the University of California Santa Cruz.  He did well there but I occasionally felt like I was back at Barton.  I had finally mastered the vegetable grading system only to receive an evaluation from one of his film courses which read in part…”His memoir described his childhood experiences at the disjunction between action films and real childhood threats.  Ben sought to explore the resonances of hypertextuality, identifying key tensions such as the relationship between Memex and hypertext, databases vs. hypertext and the author-reader-text relation…”  There were some nice words about him that I could understand, but the instructor seemed most impressed by Ben’s “…focusing on the tension between a bounded CD-ROM and the more fluid and ephemeral Internet…”.

We attended his graduation last week in Santa Cruz staring out at the Pacific Ocean during the ceremony.  Our little Benny “Two fingers” is a film major who wants to go to Hollywood and represent writers.  Like all parents we want our children to exceed us.  Even though he is currently unemployed and driving the nine year old Mazda we gave him he is already very close to eclipsing me.  He is a young man of principle, balance, and common sense.  We are enormously proud of him.Benny

Tom H. Cook is delighted to have his whole family in southern California clogging up the freeways.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Selling Our Family Home

Sometime in January I finally had the votes to sell the family home.  It was a hollow victory with no joy attached.  The feeling is akin to being named the “best dressed” Hell’s Angel, or the world’s tallest dwarf.  Granted I lacked a ringing mandate, but with the tacit approval of the children, and JoAnne once more speaking to me in complete sentences, it was time to proceed.

The Japanese describe the ideal cup as small on the outside and large on the inside.  This is our house.  It is not a sprawling three-story Kenwood mansion.  To the tax assessor and passing strangers, we live in a modest two-story bungalow with nobackyard.  From the inside it is a high ceilinged, sunlit and airy five bedroom home with a studio apartment in the basement.  Large and small: both images are true.Our house has always been closely tied to our identity as a family.  By rights of income we had no business living there.  We long ago rationalized that where we gathered was more important than eating in nice restaurants, joining a country club, having a new car, boat or cabin.  The house was a Rorschach or litmus test for prospective friends.  It said so much about us that visitors felt they knew us in a short time.  Miraculously, our kids bought into our skewed world view and were happy with garage sale clothes and a public school education.  Since becoming adults, neither of them are mouth breathing cretins, nor members of the NRA,  and so I feel that we have done all right.

JoAnne and I loved our house, but kept it together on a tight budget with liberal applications of Crazy Glue and duct tape.  Our discretionary funds went into maintaining it, and our philosophy was rooted in the Hippocratic oath, first do no harm.  It could be a fine house, we always said, but the octopus furnace still worked too well to replace it,  installing new windows was prohibitive, central air was hopelessly beyond our budget, and we did not want to refinish the floors with Stella running around.

Our pride and joy was clearly not for everyone.  Maybe you “get” the architecture,  the seven-foot tall Tim McCoy movie poster, the multiple bookcases housing the works of Noam Chomsky and Jack Paar, the 1950s pamphlets on the pros and cons of building a bomb shelter, and JoAnne’s 16 harness floor loom and room full of fleece.  If this makes sense to you, perhaps we are kindred spirits.

Furnishings aside, the house is unique and quirky.  Finding someone who would not only appreciate it, but was willing to pay a fair price, looked to be a challenge, particularly with us in California.  Meg Forney of Coldwell Banker has always been a friend and a helping professional.  She volunteered to give us a no obligation appraisal.  Better than her word, she included our place as a stop one week on the realtor’s open house junket.  She was able to get us twenty professional opinions.  Not surprisingly, the estimates of what price our house could bring were widely discrepant.  The range alone was over $200,000.  Like I said, you either love the house or hate it.

All of this is backdrop to the Hill and Lake Press connection.  In 1994 I received a complimentary letter from Barb Pratt, a self-described fan who enjoyed my writing.  As unaccustomed as I am to such positive feedback to my column, I did not respond right away fearing I would be somehow ensnared in a pyramid scheme.  Fortunately this inordinately perceptive neighbor later hosted a garage sale at which introductions and a working blender were exchanged.

Since then Barb and her husband Alan have become good friends.  They were frequent guests in our home, and we knew they “got it”.  When we were ready to sell, I did not think of them as potential buyers because their huge three-story home in Lowry Hill with eclectic gardens, porches, and beautiful backyard is much grander than ours.

Then came a mysterious e-mail from Alan.  We were to expect an offer from them within 24 hours.  They loved our house, warts and all.  They would embrace or improve every quirk, and were eager to move down the hill. They would keep our children’s growth charts penciled into the playroom door jamb.  They were respectful of our mixed feelings and overwhelmingly supportive.  A fair price was agreed upon, and within a month we were done!

Of course there was the not insignificant matter of Tim McCoy and thirty years of garage sale stuff.  Suffice it to say I am in deep in debt to JoAnne and will need to write a column about her.  In the meantime, think of her as Mr. Wolfe (Harvey Keitel), in “Pulp Fiction”.

Barb and Alan plan to maintain the house’s integrity while enlarging the upstairs bathroom, redoing the floors, and opening up the kitchen.  Changes we never could have brought about are happening.  Rather than be jealous of the makeover, we cannot wait to see how it turns out.  Barb, a political activist, plans to hold a number of fundraiser concerts in their new home.  I am fine with the concerts, it is the rest of the last sentence that is hard.

Our home for eighteen wonderful years is ours no longer.  It is the right thing, like giving your crazed dog to a kindly farm family that will give him room to run.  Still you miss the rascal…


Tom H. Cook is less local, but is still middle class, middle aged, and cranky.  His column will continue.