Category Archives: manners

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.  

Cook’s Codger Corner

By Thanksgiving Trump will lose interest or be injured while chasing a shiny object.
—Tom H. Cook           August 2015

 If Trump becomes president, Mexico and Canada will both construct (and pay for) walls to protect their borders from fleeing Americans.
—Ibid     May 2016      

Let us write to you in words you can understand. We are not displeased with your writing per se but our readership is becoming more mature and the pithy, hip, urban underground bling that you have been throwing down is too avant-garde for the speed bump lovin’ tweedy leaf rakers and corduroy cowboys we need to keep chill. The Board digs your vamping, but we will be unable to continue employing you unless you can help us skew older.  So Tom, you may be too hip for the room. Rock on and keep it real!  If you want to try an “oldster column” we will consider it.  Peace out.     —Editorial Board Hill and Lake Press


    Cook’s Codger Corner
Money saving tips and ornery observations buffalunatix

 Hey fellow seniors. Put on a flannel shirt because even though summer is coming it is still a bit chilly first thing in the morning.  WCCO says high of 70, but not in my pantry.

We are all concerned about money, what with property taxes and the like.  Fat lot of good it does to have a house that keeps going up in value if you are not going to sell it.  Who wants to leave the neighborhood and give it over to the hipsters?  Yeah, their kids are cute, but where am I supposed to go, to those chi-chi condos downtown?  Monthly association fees and people living on top of me, no thanks.

Well enough chatting.  Let’s get into the e-mail bag.

Dear Codger,
Do you know how much toothpaste is wasted every year?  Probably a lot.  Don’t throw out that nearly empty tube.  Cut it diagonally with a pair of shears (scissors).  There is another week’s worth of paste in there!                           Sharon M.      Girard Ave.

Dear Codger,
My kids want me to throw out all my maps and just Google or tell Siri when I want directions.  I need something I can spread out and look at and maybe write on. I want the big picture.  I can’t bring the computer in the car, and with all the traffic and horns, pay attention to a voice saying ”in four hundred feet merge left onto the Badger Creek entrance to I-94.”

I am going to AAA and see if they still have real maps like we used that summer to go to Mt. Rushmore. Hope they still lay out the route with those nasty smelling markers.
Linus E.      Chowen Ave.


Dear Codger,
All the grocery stores put the oldest milk in the front of the case.  Get on your knees and rustle around the rear of the cooler.  Someone with tats (tattoos) and piercings will come and offer to help.  Ask if they have a fresher container in the back.  Almost always the sell by date they find will be a week later!              Barb P.            Humboldt Ave.


Dear Codger,
I just had a check-up and my doctor said, “Don’t buy any green bananas.”  Is that bad?  I’ll hang up and listen.                                    Merlin G.         Irving Ave.

Tom H. Cook is a writer of sorts.  He serves at the pleasure (and whim) of the Executive Board





Humor Snob

I never wanted to see anybody die, but there are a few obituaries I have read with pleasure.
—Clarence Darrow

Either he’s dead or my watch has stopped.
—Groucho Marx

They say such nice things about people at funerals that it makes me sad I am going to miss mine by just a few days.
—Garrison Keillor

My uncle Sammy was an angry man. He had printed on his tombstone: What are you looking at?
—Margaret Smith

As one of the few remaining newspaper subscribers, I feel a civic duty to start the day with the news of the night before. I feign surprise and pretend I do not own an iPad. Besides, events are not real until I have seen them in print. My routine has been the same for years. First the sport section, littered with DUIs, assaults, and occasional ball scores. Next the front section, currently featuring the antics of contestants vying for the office once held by Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.

I have only recently become an avid reader of the obituaries. I read not just about the famous, but ordinary citizens. Obits of the well-known often have a bit of “Behind the Music” quality to them. The hint of graft, plagiarism, or sexual dalliance is included because their transgressions were too public and may be the main reason they are remembered. Note of their passing may offer a “perspective” on the deceased’s penchant for other peoples’ pensions.

Those of us who are less newsworthy have to buy our own space. The loving tributes suggest that in many cases either the will has not been read yet or the prime heir has the responsibility for crafting the final words. An obituary is clearly not the place for a roast or for settling old scores. I have met many dour, petty and dislikable people who, if the paper is to be believed, led a secret life of philanthropy, warmth and kindness.

I may have obit envy after reading about the great accomplishments and sterling lives of those around me. Please consider the following with a grain of salt: My quarrel with most obituaries is they will mention the deceased’s great sense of humor.

I was a not-too-successful stand-up comedian, public speaker and writer on the subject of humor. I admit to being a humor snob. Many alleged humorists are merely exchanging old bromides about Ole and Lena, making fun at the expense of others, or passing on “jokes” that unfairly target a group of people. Their anecdotes are formulaic, and older than they are, some tracing to Homer.

A humorist’s best subject is one’s own misadventures.guy2 by Tom Cassidy Self deprecatory humor is funny because we have all had a similar thought or experience. Another type, observational humor, features the weaving of seemingly unrelated events together. First there is a glint of recognition and then the satisfaction as we “solve” the joke and arrive at the punchline together.

Those clumsily clever Toastmasters and Rotarians with snappy lines like “Cold enough for you?” and “Did you get a haircut or just have your ears lowered?” are not really funny.

As scary as death may be, I believe I am more fearful of being lumped in with everyone else who is said to have a good sense of humor.

Tom H. Cook is a former neighbor who, unlike Rhoda Morganstern, has decided that he will keep better in southern California.

Admission to the Afterlife?

“Please listen carefully because our menu options have changed … (garble garble)
or, if you (are brain dead, lonely and bored and) would like to speak to a representative press 9 now or simply remain on the line.”

I am one of the seven drivers in North America that does not run red lights. I vote (even for county deputy assistant waste management controller), yield right of way, hold doors for others, pay taxes, recycle, floss, stand up straight, say please and thank you, and nod agreeably during weather-related conversations. I do not mumble, litter, chew gum, describe everything as awesome, or forget the Alamo. There are other things I do not do but modesty prohibits me from an extensive list. These may be my greatest virtues. Suffice it to say I am not a great humanitarian.

I hope to live quite a while longer, but what if admission to a good afterlife is like applying to college? My life GPA (money) is not the best. I will need good references and solid extracurricular to have any shot at even a state school Heaven. I have trouble imagining a Judgement Day with St. Peter and the Pearly Gates, but if there is one, the topic of good works will certainly come up.

When the economy tightened many jobs were eliminated, and those who remained were asked to do more with less. I sympathize with the front-line service providers. Supervisors, under the guise of efficiency and profitability, became bullies and petty tyrants. Now surveys and questionnaires abound whenever there is a transaction. I know if I indicate anything less than blissful, near orgasmic satisfaction someone will get called on the carpet. (I once had a helpful phone worker counsel me where to safely put 8s and 9s to make the survey more credible.) I am familiar enough with professional jargon to provide a specific critique of a staff member’s performance to management-types.

Recently a Best Buy sales associate was explaining 4K TV, LED versus plasma, HDMI pixels, Smart TV and HI DEF. He knew mountains more than me, but he had a grammar glitch. I felt he would have difficulty getting promoted or taken seriously if he continued to refer to different models as “these ones.” I mentioned it to him lightly and with humor. I do not know if it stuck. I also made sure to find his supervisor and let her know how helpful he had been.

My best work is on the phone. If a representative seems willing to go off script and actually help me, I tell them (and the ubiquitous Big Brother) how much I appreciate them explaining how my cable bill is bundled or why it costs more to fly 300 miles than 3,000. I agree to remain on the line to complete a short survey. Whether talking to an airline or an insurance company, behind the behemoth are people pressured to perform. What I do is not sufficient to spare me from spending my afterlife in a roaring fire pit and an eternity of Kenny G. music, but I try to help.

Tom H. Cook is a local writer and professional jacks player. He accidentally invited everyone he has ever e-mailed to endorse him on LinkedIn.

Writing About Our Problems

My wife ran off with my best friend and I am sure going to miss him   —Cave writing attributed to Australopithecus Boisei.  Discovered in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania 1959 by Drs. Mary and Louis Leakey.

We have been writing about our problems and others have been trying to help us for a very long time.  Thanks to Twizzle, Tweeter, Facebook (and its naughty cousin Fleshbook), we are able to express, foist, and unleash our deepest personal fears, angst, anxiety, and anomie from the safety of our own home.  No more drunken confessions in seedy bars or endless nights spent boring others about being a cosmic speck in a hostile world of an uncaring Universe.  Now, with a few taps and clicks, countless friends, family members, acquaintances, and innocent bystanders can be front row center to our misery.

The predecessor to today’s public catharsis model was probably Ask Betty, the advice column in the neighborhood weekly.  Unlike the fancy syndicated jet setting Dear Abby, our Betty did not go to the senior prom, but she chaired the cleanup committee.  If Grant Wood had painted the Mona Lisa and put her in a sensible blouse with a Peter Pan collar and half moon glasses with rhinestones, you would have Betty.  She may have been Grace, or Joan in your town, but each shared a gentle sense of humor, good horse sense, and a genuine regard for her flock of lost souls.  Betty had a relatable familiarity, but you did not fear running into her at the supermarket.  Perhaps she lived in the next town over.

Faithful readers knew someone had a problem, but because of the clever signature (Sobbing in Sheboygan) the sufferer could remain anonymous.  The village would respond with helpful letters to Betty suggesting the griever pray, take an adult education class, get another ferret, or rub linseed oil on their neck.  Betty would refer the really disturbing submissions to an expert in behavioral abnormalities from Harvard or some fancy institute.  You could almost hear her muttering, “Land sakes!”   The learned professional would urge the letter writer to run not walk to an expensive mental health clinic at once.  The rest of us had a good laugh and felt smug that despite our problems we had never given a live possum as a wedding gift, or fashioned eye glasses out of bacon and worn them to a job interview.

I read Betty as a young teenager to feel better about myself and to match wits with her.  I usually agreed with her advice but sometimes faulted her for not being firmer and laying it on the two-faced sister-in-law, the sabotaging boss, or the gossipy neighbor.  At fifteen my world was heroes and villains only.  Betty helped moderate my adolescent thirst for justice.   She also helped prepare me for shameless hucksters, clueless coworkers, and bullies of all types.

I was in full college student rebellion when I found out that the seemingly grandmotherly Betty was actually James Waltern, the paper’s gap-toothed fifty-something circulation manager.  The betrayal dove-tailed with my loss of innocence (see Laura Cline HLP May 1999) and trust in authority figures.  I remember remarking, “Et tu, Betty.” (I was an English major).

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer.  Currently at peace with his demons, he is in the fifth year of a seven year ban from the Minnesota State Fair. 









Teresa, JoAnne’s mother, was a very pure soul.  Upon meeting her a friend of ours exclaimed, “Edith Bunker!”  Teresa was a first generation Italian, and her stories were involved, intricate, and exasperating.  Any interruption, request for clarification, or even affirmation would require starting over.  You could be maddeningly close to the conclusion of a tale about why Aunt Emma never married, and someone walking by on their way to the kitchen would make a comment about Uncle Rudy and it was back to square one.  The art of conversation with my mother-in-law was a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Teresa saw the best in others.  This is a familiar cliche applied to many, particularly those no longer living.  She could find a kernel of beauty and humanity in a surly and incompetent super market checker.  Teresa would ignore the lip piercings and coo admiringly to the woman about her hands.  Soon, I am left to bag the groceries as they are holding hands and earnestly discussing how regal this young woman’s fingers are.  I leave with beer and goat cheese, Teresa with a new friend, and the clerk has a new view of herself.  If I wasn’t married to her daughter, Teresa would have made a great wing man.

This is a bit of a long way around describing an incident that happened about two years before Teresa’s death.  She would have been in her early 80s and her wiftiness had dovetailed nicely into a generally benign dementia.  One day, cutting through the haze, she declared, “Tom, I need to make a list of everything I have broken.”   Even then I knew she didn’t mean hearts or promises.  She was referring to china, glassware, and perhaps a few porcelain figurines from her younger, wilder days.  Clumsily breaking a few nicknacks while dusting is not listed in the Seven Deadly Sins.  Still it was the worst thing she could remember doing.

JoAnne and I talked her through the feeling and laughed about it later.   Irreverently we wondered if she wished to have the inventory read at her memorial. “May 12, 1929: butter dish cover; October 3, 1947: salt shaker; November 7, 1964: crock pot lid”

Now, years later, I understand her impulse.

My transgressions are of a different sort, but of late I find myself thinking of mistakes I have made and feelings I may have hurt.  Paul was a neighbor when I was nine.  We were both baseball card collectors. I remember us chatting happily and trading cards in his living room while his mother busied herself in the kitchen.  I picture her as joyously content that a kid who lived six houses away was playing with her developmentally delayed son.

Paul had a Duke Snider card.  He called him Duck and had no idea of its playground value at Roosevelt Elementary. Feigning ignorance, I also called him Duck although I knew the Dodger’s center fielder’s batting average to the third decimal point.  When Paul was in the kitchen with his mom I took “The Duke” and hid him under a carpet.  We searched futilely for the card that somehow found its way into my collection.  I am sure Paul’s mom figured out what happened.  She never told my parents, but I was too guilty to return or ever see Paul again.  Lately I find myself imagining what she told her son.

I have had better moments, acts of charity, humanity, and occasional selflessness.  Why don’t they come to me in the middle of the night?

Tom H. Cook is a no longer local writer.  His dogs must have eaten his January column. 

Motorist Critique

Safety first: Keep both hands on the wheel. Chew Wrigley’s Spearmint gum and see how happy you feel!

—Wrigley Gum commercial circa 1955

Most of us freely concede certain shortcomings, such as the inability to carry a tune, do simple math without a calculator, recall names of former neighbors, and even remember the title of last night’s video.  We are touchier about a subjects like having no sense of humor (no one admits they don’t have one) and operating a motor vehicle.  Just about everyone from Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man to your great Aunt Minnie believes they are  excellent drivers and it is the yahoos on the road that make modern ground travel hair-raising.

I have no such illusions. I drive when necessary and never for pleasure.  Still I reserve the right to savagely critique my fellow motorists.  Speeders, tailgaters, phone talkers, and drunk drivers are in another circle of Hell.  What follows are behaviors that are more annoying than life threatening. 

  1. No turn signal.  Generally a guy, often in an oversized vehicle.  The inference is, it is none of your business where or when I am turning, despite how much it may aid you in making your plans.  Turn signals are for wimps and people who want to take away my freedom and my country.  (The last part may be a stretch, but I have felt it.)
  2. That is my lane!  I am in the right lane signaling to move to the left to pass a slow moving vehicle.  A car in the left lane is well back, but on seeing my signaled intent develops a deep proprietary interest in all of the passing lane and immediately accelerates so that I am unable to get over.  Similarly, when one is faced with an upcoming lane merger there are only two types of drivers.  One sees the need to quickly assess, communicate, and accommodate.  The other decides they must beat you to the spot no matter the carnage.  The latter is a common impulse in preschoolers lining up for recess.
  3. The shaming pass.  I admit I usually stick to the speed limit plus 5 miles per hour in and around town.  As one lane turns to two I am sometimes passed by a driver who feels the need to explode around me as if I had been holding them underwater.  After accelerating as if on fire, or late to a consult at the Mayo Clinic, they usually turn into a Burger King.
  4. Left turn arrow.  We are in our left turn lane, waiting for a green arrow. We are the misfits; the vast majority of cars are happily and feverishly speeding on in both directions.  Who are we to stop the onslaught and make our puny turn?  The driver of the first car in the left turn lane is the captain.  Since the light changes only in months with an “R” in them, a good safe jump is imperative.  When I am the captain, I take pride in being alert and getting as many of my team through as possible.  I hate when captains dawdle.  They always get out but seem not to care about how many of us they leave behind.
  5. The left turn swoop.  This is related to #4, and may be caused by a derelict captain who is already blissfully down the road.  The green arrow has gone from yellow to bright red. “But it has not been red for long,” reasons the swooper who flies into the intersection and forces green-lit traffic to hit their brakes, shake their heads, and shudder.
  6. Red light/Blue light.  Long ago in the playground game, and on the highway red meant stop.  Red has become the new yellow.  To many, a light turning red is a challenge and a signal to accelerate.  Perhaps we need a fourth color.  A blue light that really means do not enter this intersection until it is your turn!

Tom H. Cook now annoys other drivers in both Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

Living at a Dog’s Pace

I have always considered myself a good and responsible dog owner: I feed, walk, play, pet, and clean up after.  My smart, devoted border collie, Hannah, and her clueless boxer brother Cowboy help me keep our two cats at bay.  Modesty aside, we seemed to have the whole dog and master thing down.  Our balance took an interesting turn when I agreed to provide a week’s care for my friend Catherine’s two dogs, (Prince) Henry, a puggle, and Jane, a sweet young border collie.

To say that Catherine is Henry and Jane’s owner is like saying that Napoleon didn’t like Russia, or that Michael Jordan was a basketball player.  She is playmate, consoler, mentor, master, and mamma to these very lucky dogs.  As a mutual friend remarked, “If there is reincarnation, I want to come back as Catherine’s dog!”  Catherine has scheduled her work and social life around Henry and Jane’s well-being.

It was only the prospect of a cruise along the Mexican Riviera that allowed her to even consider leaving her babies.  I was honored to be chosen as the temporary caregiver on the basis of this platform: frequent walks, twice daily dog park visits, timely but not excessive feeding, and a promise to sleep at Catherine’s house during her absence to provide her dogs as much normalcy as possible.  What follows is my scrambled memory of the licking, scratching, barking and good times we had.

My Week With Dogs

Outnumbered four to one, I opted for total emersion in the dog culture.  I needed to go in as the pack leader.  My weaknesses are poor hearing and sense of smell, as well as being slow, clumsy, and too big.  Under strengths are my uncanny ability to find food and the ability to drive a car to the dog park.  I believe it was the food thing that clinched my election as alpha dog.  There were licks all around, some barking and chasing, and of course treats for all!

Now that I was top dog, I readily gave up my un-doglike pursuits, such as television, computers, telephones, and newspapers.  Dogs do not see technology as bad, or confusing (like your Aunt Clara does); they just see it as taking valuable time away from sniffing, chewing, and resting.  The five of us ate, walked, wandered, and slept together. Baths and me shaving were voted down by acclimation.

A week is not sufficient time to turn into a canine Jane Goodall, but I did my best to live at a dog’s pace.  We awoke with the sun and after a quick trip outside (I did not go full dog), it was time for breakfast, a truly momentous occasion worthy of dance and joyful noise.  The rest of our day was filled with time at the park, wrestling matches, long walks, basking in the sun, cooling off in the shade, and imagining the next meal.

Each of these dog’s life activities has a function.  While the park provides needed exercise and play with others, it also solidifies our pack.  At home our seemingly random play skirmishes reenforce our position in the pack.  Our walks are fact-finding missions and a way to sniff out anything that would challenge the established order.  We need considerable resting time because a car door slamming, the passing of an unneutered Lab, a fire engine siren, a boor blabbing on a cell phone, or a noisy squirrel must all be investigated.

The gang brought me, the alpha dog, all dangers, real and imagined.  I maintained final say on what action was necessary.  Our pack was Tea Bagger conservative and hyper-reactive to any perceived change.  The troops were able to return to sleep instantly; not so their leader.

Hannah initiated most of our activities.  She was second in command and, like Radar O’Reilly, seemed to know my plans before I did.  At home she usually watches over me, but the new order seemed to suggest that I had been delegated to Henry’s care.  We spent the week being guys, each of us clearly relishing hanging out together.  We cuddled and took frequent naps.

Cowboy had come to us as a rescued dog, as was every dog in the pack but Henry.  Cowboy’s traumatic early years have left him timid and afraid, despite his impressive physique.  The slightest noise startles him and frequently starts a chain reaction of barking that rumbles through the house.  What is very sad is that he does not know how to play.  He watches the rest of us fetch, tug, and chase but he does not know how to join in.  Still, the pack accepts him.

Jane is the wild card, smart and ambitious, a lizard-chasing hunter.  She and Hannah are “The Girls,” indefatigable, curious, running in and out of the dog door and upending poor Henry.  Jane enjoys being mentored and chewed on by Hannah, but since she leapfrogged over Cowboy and Henry in the hierarchy, she may have bigger plans.  (“Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look.”)  I feel like telling Hannah to beware the Ides of March.

I read while others licked, but that aside, I tried to stay in rhythm with the pack.  The days had a natural flow, and our week ended too soon.  Looking back, I feel myself going over to the dog side. I loved my life as a dog, and I still feel the call of the canine.


Tom H. Cook is a no longer local writer.  He has grudgingly returned to working and interacting with humans, although he will never view corgis the same.     






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.




Have We Lost Our Moral Compass?

The setting:  A checkout line at a supermarket near my home.

Clerk (a twenty-something with tattoos, piercings, and rings):  Did you find everything you need today, sir?

Me (old, distracted, weather-beaten):  I had trouble finding my left sock this morning and had to wear two rights, but the rest is fine.

Clerk (unnerved but slightly amused):  So, will that be paper or plastic?

Me (with droll humor and exquisite timing):  Just make sure you get the bread and eggs on the bottom, to cushion the cans.

Clerk (breaking character and smiling):  Here’s your change, Dog.

I put my hand out to receive groceries, but the clerk first offers a fist.  We touch knuckles. 

*                                   *                                      *                               *  


Long ago, I vowed never to become so un-hip that I could be marginalized and reduced to a life of obsolescence, a disposable asterisk.   I knew I could not keep pace with the beat of change, but I have never wanted to be riding a metaphorical bicycle (with a basket and bell) in the passing lane of the autobahn.  I am resigned to being old, but I do not want to be in the way.  This is not an anti-technology rant, but more a concern that, perhaps while I was taking one of my power naps, it all slipped away.

I do not understand the joy of watching Lawrence of Arabia on a screen the size of a Post It note while shopping for cornflakes.  I cannot relate to the need for multicolor epics depicting Lewis and Clark’s journey and the Green Bay Packers’ sweep tattooed on my frail body.  I am afraid to text message, listen to 50s music, photograph my dashboard, organize a high school reunion, and surf the Web, all while driving.

I do not have an ear growth, perhaps because I do not know anyone that interested in a play by play narrative of my day.  We have all been trapped and forced to listen in on the minutia which passes for insight by fellow lake walkers.  It is not Alexis de Tocqueville or even Charles Kuralt.  It is vain, petty, mindless stuff that we all think, but until recently kept to ourselves or saved for dinner table fodder.  Now there are no unexpressed thoughts.

The War goes on at a mind numbing pace and we shake our heads, powerless to do anything about it.  It is our silent shame, like having a crazy relative locked in the attic.  Our vaunted system of checks and balances is about as successful as the Maginot Line.  Those of who still read newspapers are bemused when Cheney is arrested for stealing salad forks from the White House, knowing he’ll get off.  Young people no longer work for The Company; they are free agent/independent contractors, which is another way to say no pension/no insurance/no future safeguards.

It is all going too fast and I have become the geezer/duffer/codger that I feared.  The last time I felt this anxious was in elementary school.  The tough kids, the hoods, terrified me, I could not relate to delinquents like Jimmy Esposito and Michael Faun.  I feared them more than the Red Menace and the jack-booted Communists that in my 1950s childhood were going to come parachuting on to our Little League field.  Messieurs Esposito and Faun would prey on weaker kids, beating them up on the playground and intimidating them out of their lunch money.   No one was smaller and weaslier than I was.

I was spared most days because I was able to use humor.  I made it a point to always have a joke or some anti-authority remark to share.  These were not funny jokes, but stupid ones like “Mommy, mommy, I don’t want to go to Europe!”  “Shut up and keep swimming!”   The point was to get my potential tormentors to see the foolishness all around us and in doing so demonstrate to them the folly of running over my foot with their bikes.

It is that time again. The world is spinning and not making much sense. And so, like at Teddy Roosevelt Elementary,  I need to reduce my own anxiety by having human interactions with people who are probably as under insured, cash poor, and embarrassed by the government as I am.  Young people in particular see me as old and out of touch, which I am, but humor and unmasking the foibles around us helps us forge a meaningful albeit fleeting connection.  My message is: It’s not you. We have lost our moral compass, the noble experiment is on hold, and the culture is spinning and grasping.  We may not get to the root of the profound anomie that forces us into constant distraction, but if we can share a laugh at the absurdity our mutual plight, it cannot engulf us. 


Tom H. Cook and his wife JoAnne are returning home to Minneapolis for a visit this fall.  Cook will be reading some of his sunnier columns with noted curmudgeon Tom Cassidy at The Black Forest Saturday September 15th at 7:30 PM.