Category Archives: money

Learning to Share

Sand Upon the Waters

By Tom H. Cook

Writing this has been so difficult, I almost feel nostalgic for the paper era with typed crumpled drafts littering the floor and discarded ideas scrawled and flung in or near my office wastebasket.  Tangible evidence of futile yet honest effort.  (My mother’s voice ringing in my ears, “You have to at least try.”)  Proof, like a runner’s sweat, that I labored, albeit in vain, to reach even my modest standard of journalism. I cannot tell you how many times I have begun this (all right, 15).  Now a click exorcises hours of folly.

Why is this piece so hard?  In every draft I come off as preaching to my betters.  Shrill, sanctimonious, self righteous, and self serving.  Why bother?  Why not write about the mentally ill gaining easier access to weapons, or the “relaxation” of data privacy laws, or why reading the posts on Next Door in any neighborhood makes me want to move far away?  This is about a series of small gestures I have undertaken.  As a final disclaimer, I am not setting myself up as a paragon of generosity and I likely do less for my fellow man than you do, yet here is my very short tale.

I have always been lets call it frugal although those that know me have other names for it.  In the last few years I have begun to loosen up a bit.  This is not about writing checks to worthy organizations (see HLP/March 2004).  In non-tipping situations I have taken to rewarding people that have gone out of their way for me.  It seems like every minimum wage and a bit higher worker is being rated and evaluated by their supervisor who in turn must report up the ladder and ultimately to the head weasel.  This has produced a class of people subtly bullied into feeling grateful for the opportunity to do a difficult, monotonous, unpleasant, and/or dangerous job.  Then they must worry that I will turn them in for below average groveling and insufficient servility.

My eyes have become further opened to the squeeze on the working poor.  They are “independent contractors,” which translates to no healthcare, seniority, retirement or sick leave. When I have had positive dealing with workers and service people who I feel deserve a bit extra, I help.  They do not have to give me a story, but often it flows freely.  I assure them that we are off the record and they will get all “5s” from me.  Like Studs Terkel, I ask,  “What do you do all day, and how do you feel about it? How are you treated by the company?”  I am just an old man asking gentle questions.  If they have quotas to meet and need to rush off, I let them go.

Countless times I have received an extra coat of touch-up paint on a gate, a few extra feet of cable, or a tow to a slightly out of network repair shop.  We are enjoined in a conspiracy, if only for a few minutes.  We know I am being overcharged for the product or service and they are receiving a pitifully small percentage.  Their lives are far harder than mine (affordable housing may be 50 miles away from where their route begins) yet they see me as a fellow victim of the bureaucratic rules that bind us.  Since I don’t come off as an entitled homeowner, the service people I have met are astonishing.  This is not a tit for tat or a figurative back scratching.  These are good souls trapped in a piecework system with no safety net or union protection.  I could not even in my prime (May-August 1977) last a week in their lives.

Often the repair person has fixed problems like mine many times.  Just by my offering a cold drink on a hot day they will show me tricks to head off future repairs.  I am not polite because of what I may gain, but I am genuinely interested and sympathetic.  I never lead with the promise of a gift.  Generally it is a Columbo moment (“Just one more thing…”). Often the tip is refused until I mention the extra service they provided me.  I don’t give a huge amount, maybe enough to take their family to dinner, pay a bill, or put gas in their vehicle (sadly not all three).  Invariably they are flabbergasted   The gratitude I receive is more valuable and feels better than what I would have done with the money.

Tom H. Cook is now an occasional columnist.  He recommends The Despair of Learning That Experience No Longer Matters by Benjamin Wallace-Wells in the April 10, 2017 New Yorker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You Can Really Taste the Savings”

earby-owl1.jpg“Why, a four year old child could understand this report! Run out and find me a four year old child. I can’t make head nor tail out of it.” –Groucho   Marx

I never doubted both my children would find someone special, marry, and eventually spawn. It is completely natural and has been going on since the Taft administration. JoAnne, with her knowledge of crafts, cooking (soups a speciality) and singing, is a natural grandmother. Her extreme patience, a virtue she says I have helped her to develop, is an another plus.

My main concern has been about my ability to be a grandfather. I was an adequate parent, but a grandfather is supposed to be a font of calm wisdom and gentle humor. Since my daughter Rachael got married in 2004 I have watched for signs of my evolution into a camping, outdoor-loving Mark Trail or at least a calm, pipe-smoking Mr. Fixit in a flannel shirt. Words like consarnit, drat, and fiddlesticks have not crept into my vocabulary. I do not motor into town, nor am I “fixin‘ to.” I have not been able to cultivate friendships with canasta playing neighbors named Blanche, Ethel, or Hiram. I would risk my life if I were to call JoAnne “mother.”

Granddaughter Charlotte is nearly two and I have not yet made her a bird feeder out of scrap wood left over from a deck I built. I love her and her newborn brother Theo, but I sweat panic attempting to assemble anything requiring instructions. I can barely say, let alone whittle, a wooden whistle without sounding like Elmer Fudd. I do not have a tool bench I can warn the young whippersnappers to be careful around. I doubt they will ever visit me in my non-existent workshop (“Watch but don’t touch!”), while I router the hasp onto the dorsal flange and wood putty the octal corners of their broken toy.

My legacy will not be defined by things I build or repair. Instead I am Tom-Tom, the provider of baked goods. When driving up to visit the kids I invariably stop at a local supermarket with a generous selection of day-old pastries. I have always found that cakes, breads, and pies taste just as good — if not a little better — once they are past that pesky sell date. Dipped in tea or milk, a well-aged cinnamon bun fresh from the freezer is nearly as good as one from the oven, and at 75% off, it is no contest.

One day Rachael bit into one of those sweet rolls, looked at JoAnne, and declared, “You can really taste the savings!” They laughed hysterically. It and I have become a gentle family joke. We all want to be remembered for something.

Tom H. Cook is a no longer local writer attempting to find humor in the aging process. He has been known to remark, “Argh, I forgot to buy gingko!”.

Ethics Make My Head Hurt

You did what?  You’ll probably get someone fired or gum up a machine!!!               — JoAnne Cook

Ethics make my head hurt.  I read the horror stories about Foxconn, the Chinese conglomerate that manufactures and assembles Apple products.  Their management style would need to improve greatly to become merely draconian.  Corporate response to disenchanted workers subjected to mind-numbing routinized labor and claustrophobic dormitory living has been to thwart further suicides by installing more suicide nets!  (The flogging will continue until morale improves.)  Still I am writing this on my Apple computer, which I prize nearly as much as my iPad (see HLP 10/11) and my iPod, rationalizing that China is another culture, and very far away.

Ohio and Pennsylvania are not that far away.  Mac McClellan, writing in the March-April issue of Mother Jones, and Spencer Soper in The Morning Call, an Allentown (PA) newspaper, chronicle the working conditions at online retail facilities.   Before you stop reading, shake your head at the nonsense that passes itself off as community news, harrumph loudly, and turn to the real estate ads, give me just a few paragraphs.

Amazon began shipping books in 1994. Expanding to a limitless array of products and riding the wave of the Internet, the company has become the 21st century rebuttal to the quaint notion of shopping by driving, finding parking, dealing with surly, barely conscious, retail clerks in a too air-conditioned, insipid music-blasting, brick and mortar retail store that is out of what you need despite calling ahead to make sure they have it.  Amazon stock (which I neglected to buy) has grown eight fold, and the company made $34,000,000,000 in 2010.  With 33,700 employees and free shipping, what’s not to like?

 

As it turns out, quite a lot.  I never really questioned how a point and click brought anything I wanted to my front door so quickly and tax free.  Amazon is the biggest, but almost all online retailers ship from vast warehouses, with several companies often sharing space.  Located in rural areas on vast tracts of land with tax incentives, near rail lines and major highways, they are often the only game in town for employment.  Ma and Pa stores, Woolworth’s, and a recognizable downtown are long gone, driven out in part by low Internet prices.  This is the future going forward, fast, cheap, and barely in control.  I do not believe many of us connected the dots between a displaced, desperate workforce and an Internet industry that is not yet twenty years old.

Mac McClelland is a 31 year old journalist, who went “underground” like Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickle and Dimed in America. The Secret Hell of Online Shopping chronicles her employment at a vast online warehouse, probably in Ohio.  She describes the workplace as cavernous and silent despite the thousands of people filling orders or standing at conveyor belts.  Temperatures range seasonally from 60 to over 95 degrees. Ten hour days are standard, longer near the holidays.  Most employees are pickers or packers.  As a picker she walked 12-15 miles per day on  concrete.  Armed with a scanner and an impossibly high quota of orders to fill, she and thousands more were continually “counseled,” prodded, and demeaned by supervisors to work harder, faster and error-free to please the customer.  Failure is met with demerits which are also accrued by being even seconds late returning from one of the two 15 minute daily breaks, perhaps because the bathroom line was too long.

The pace is intense and workers are disposable, fired at will because there are 15 people in line for every job.  Conversation is not forbidden, but there is simply no time. It is a joyless Orwellian world with everyone being watched and every second needing to be accounted for.  McClelland writes poignantly about the “workampers,” people who drive RV’s around the country from temporary job to temporary job, docking in trailer camps.  Many are retired couples not able to make it on their savings.

What I did not realize is that Amazon, Netflix, Staples, Office Depot and the other giant companies do not commonly employ entry level warehouse workers directly.  They contract with a 3PL or third party logistics staffing agency.  One of the biggest is Integrity Staffing Solutions (ISS). A 3PL sounds benign, but the competition between “temp agencies” for multimillion dollar contracts is brutal.  This filters down to the employees.  Just enough workers are hired at the lowest wage allowable (between 8 and 11 dollars an hour).  Asked to perform at maximum efficiency like robots, human problems like sick kids and car trouble are not factored into the equation. Workers are barely able keep up with the ever-increasing demand.  This is how companies are able to slash prices and deliver products super fast and offer free shipping and still post profits in the billions.  It comes at the expense of employees pushed to their breaking point.  McClelland asks if the workplace has to be this bleak and stressful to make a profit.

The 3PLs play the bad cop, the heavy, the wicked stepmother, shielding Amazon and other household names from lawsuits and negative publicity about their labor practices.  The retailer retains plausible deniability, avoids paying benefits, and discourages unions, as the workers are only temps, no matter how many years they are employed.  A carrot held out to new hires is the promise of a full-time job with the parent company.  Most are either fired or quit before that happens.  There is no regulation or licensure of these contracted companies.  If the first step toward change is public awareness, then the second is accountability from the online retailer and their responsibility for the policies of their 3PL.

Would you pay more for a free range chicken, or grapes picked by a union-protected field worker?  Scrolling the various Internet sites for the lowest price is just modern shopping.  How about paying a little more to ensure the picker and shipper in charge of your order are treated in a humane manner, given occasional time off and healthcare benefits?  Perhaps you would say it is the responsibility of Jeffrey Bezos, founder of Amazon and #30 on the worlds wealthiest list at 18.1 billion.

A desperately unhappy person in China may have assembled my computer.  A seven year old in Malaysia likely stitched my sneakers, and a pregnant woman in Allentown, Pennsylvania who cannot afford to be on bed rest shipped them to me.  How am I supposed to feel?  Someday, the robots will take over.  For now many workers eek out a living in warehouses that bear little resemblance to the places you and I may have worked to get money for college decades ago.

I am hoping that someone younger and smarter will blog, tweet, or twitter about the conditions and hardships of warehouse workers today.  I’ ll provide the slogan, There is no such thing as free shipping!

 

Tom H. Cook lacks the energy to lead a boycott.  He is such a bleeding heart, he enclosed a dollar bill in his red Netflix envelope. That is why JoAnne was so alarmed.

 

 

Empathy

We have now done 12 separate studies measuring empathy in every way imaginable, social behavior in every way, and some work on compassion and it’s the same story.  Lower class people just show more empathy, more pro-social behavior, more compassion, no matter how you look at it.        –Dacher Keltner PhD, University of California-Berkeley

It’s no shame to be poor, but it’s no great honor either.           –Zero Mostel in “Fiddler On The Roof”

This is not an attempt to glamorize poverty and the “noble poor.”  Yet how can a class of people be so powerless and yet responsible for much of our economic collapse as many politicians would have us believe?   The carousel of life is picking up speed and more of us are being tossed roughly to the side every day.  That is why I found Dacher Keltner’s research so interesting.  It goes against the alarming undercurrent of blaming the victim and demonizing the most vulnerable members of our society.

To be poor is to be reminded every day of the need to lean on others.  Their survival is based on reading other people’s emotions.  People in poverty lack social buffers and the luxury of independence.  Perhaps realizing the fickleness of the future, they are more willing to share today’s small good fortune.  According to Keltner, individuals from a lower-class background ask for help and provide help to others more frequently.  “When poor people see someone else suffering, they have a physiological response that is missing in people with more resources.”   Keltner sees a strength in lower class identity: greater empathy, community, more altruism, and finer attunement to other people.

As we get wealthier, Keltner suggests, we are able to insulate ourselves from others.  A country squire with a fleet of cars will be unlikely to join a carpool or need to call a neighbor for a last-minute ride to work.  Finding a babysitter is not left to the whims of neighborhood teenagers (no, I am not still bitter). Wealth grants us independence, and according to Keltner, diminishes our empathy for others.  The wealthy have the freedom to focus on the self, and consider their opportunities to be earned.  In psychology experiments, wealthier people often miss the nuance, and don’t read other people’s emotions as successfully.  As we rise in the classes we become less empathic and more likely to hoard resources.

Keltner’s work legitimizes what I have felt to be true, anecdotally, for many years.  If I needed a favor, or a rule bent in the name of common sense it was often someone laboring for minimum wage who would go out of his way to help me.  Our family has felt deep connections with compassionate home healthcare workers during vulnerable times.  When I have needed a break, like a difficult home repair or roadside assistance, individuals without very much have helped me and on occasion refused payment.  Invariably I have been impressed by folks with a good heart and a feeling that we are all in this together.

A number of years ago my daughter Rachael, inheritor of the Cook gene for sense of direction, was driving late at night and found herself lost in south central Los Angeles.  Panicked, tearful and in need of a bathroom, she walked into an all night diner and began to cry.  The counter man wanted to shoo her along, but the cook came running from the kitchen.  This saintly woman calmed her, gave her directions, and made her promise to call when she arrived home safely.  Rachael called.  Fortunately it was years before I heard the story, but it has always stuck with me.

There are benevolent empathic people of means, as there are cold, selfish poor people.  The wonder is that there are not more of each.

 

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer.  He is performing, if you can call it that, at The Black Forest (26th and Nicollet) with four really talented spoken word artists September 17th, at 7:30 PM.

We Need Money!

Largest private university donations (2009): 
Stanford $640.1 million
Harvard $601.6 million   — LA Times February 4, 2010

 Kennedy Center receives $22.5 million in single gift.
— Jim Handly, NBS News May 4, 2010

U.S. Treasury Department operating balance: $73.76 billion
Apple Corporation operating balance: $76.156 billion
–Matt Hartley, The Financial Post July 28, 2011

Health club membership: $1,238.56; Hair care: $333.87; Gift shop allowance: $1,666.73; Use of Foreign Currency: $44,164; Miscellaneous costs: $135,249.22.  A few of the perks for each U.S. Senator which, coupled with salary, benefits, retirement, total $8,162,000 per Senator each year!
–Joshua M. Brown, The Christian Science Monitor July 29. 2011

Since The Hill and Lake Press is a monthly newspaper, pressing issues of the day may resolve themselves, which is why I tend to write about garage sales and dogs.  At the risk of belaboring old news, as I write, the debt ceiling has been grudgingly and sloppily raised with the result being Standard and Poor’s downgrading the U.S. economy from a AAA rating to AA+.  S&P warns that we may lose our + and possibly an A if we do not figure out a way to increase our revenue.  In the meantime Americans have been ordered to tighten their belts, stop talking smack about Uruguay, and put away their giant foam fingers that proclaim “We’re # 1.”

In spite of evidence to the contrary I have always believed that a nation capable of producing Abraham Lincoln, Silly Putty, and baseball cards will prevail.  Lately I am having serious doubts.  We seem hopelessly paralyzed politically and philosophically between militant, uncompromising forces that decry as treasonous even the mention of shifting the tax burden toward the wealthy, and more moderate Americans who spend much of their time seeking deductions, underreporting income, and searching for loopholes to avoid paying taxes.

We need money, and unless the government can quickly create a better iPad it appears our economy is in for very difficult times.  Searching for ways to cut spending, we against all logic turn to the people who have the least to sacrifice.  We blithely raise the public transportation fees for those who cannot afford cars, cut back on free and reduced lunch programs (ketchup as a vegetable is ready for a revival), reduce aid to dependent children, and trim Medicare for seniors.  There are relative pennies to be saved.

As first-hand survivors of The Great Depression dwindle, there are too many public officials who seem to have no sense of history.  Their simplistic ideas are at best naive and more likely mean-spirited.  They seem inured to the number of lives their rhetoric could effect.  Aside for money for foreign wars, they believe in a small “g” government in providing aid to our citizens.  Their take on A Christmas Carol is that if Jacob Marley had only lived, he and Ebenezer Scrooge could have taken the company public, moved it to Belize, inflated stock prices and sold short before Tiny Tim died of consumption.  For a final touch, they have persuaded contemporary Bob Cratchit to refuse government medical aid as socialism, even as Tim’s leg is deemed a preexisting condition and therefore not covered by insurance.

How can we raise revenue and get back on par with Finland when we have so little trust in the politicians that allowed this to happen? Who can blame us?  Our hard earned money seems to go for unpopular wars, even less popular defense contractors, bank bailouts, and Senate haircuts.

If Apple won’t lend us the money, we can only cut expenditures so far.  The poor and the middle class have done more than their share.  On the whole we are a generous people.  Some of the most fervent opponents of raising taxes privately spend more than their progressive tax share would be in funding organizations and candidates to beat back the dreaded tax man.   A further irony is that many hardline tax opponents give very generously (and tax deductably) to their alma mater, the arts, hospitals, disease research, the disadvantaged, and religious organizations.

Many of us believe in helping others but resent paying taxes to the weasels in Washington.

If we are unable to get the Bush tax cuts eliminated, can we at least find appealing ways to interest the super wealthy in helping to support their government?  Hospital wings, art museums, opera houses, and college buildings are named for their benefactors.  The local Kiwanis club sponsors a mile of highway clean up. We need a few philanthropists to step forward and adopt an underfunded federal government Department in exchange for naming rights.  Imagine The Warren Buffet Department of Commerce. The Mark Zuckerberg Department of Education or, my favorite, The Steve Jobs Department of Labor.

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer who remains in exile.  He will be returning home and reading stuff like this with the poet Tom Cassidy on September 17th at Black Forest Inn (26th and Nicollet).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Being Frugal

Thrift is an attractive idea until you get down to specifics.    –Mason Cooley

If frugality were established in the state and if our expenses were laid out to meet needs rather than the superfluities of life, there might be fewer wants, and even fewer pleasures, but infinitely greater happiness.                              –Oliver Goldsmith

A penny saved is a penny earned.     –Benjamin Franklin

It is a great wealth to a soul to live frugally with a contented mind.        –Lucretius (95-55 B.C.E.)

I have long had the reputation of being a tad frugal.  Occasionally the words parsimonious, cheap, penny-pincher, stingy, thrifty, or even tightwad has been applied to me.  I admit to being careful, practical, and prudent.  One friend remarked that “Cook is so tight he squeaks.”   I take all of the jibes with good humor, secure in the knowledge that I am much sicker and more disturbed than any one person knows.

For example, when forced to dine out, I often eschew a tasty (read expensive) entrée I would really enjoy in favor of a more economical beet salad which I do not like, but is half the price.  I concede that a number of furniture pieces that grace our humble home have been acquired on trash eve, albeit from some very tasteful neighborhood curbs.  It is also true that much of my wardrobe comes from a certain open air establishment where the proprietor is given to shouting to his clientele, “Anything on the ground, one dollar!”

Our nation’s economy has deteriorated so badly that after decades of being chided and mocked, my cheapskate sisters and brethren are now being hailed for their thrift and are (gasp) being viewed as role models.  Granted this vindication has not come from splashy front page articles in The New York Times, or the cover of People.  But The American Interest, a real magazine (available free online) recently decried the death of thrift as a value.  Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a professor at Rutgers University, states that for centuries Americans were an industrious, ambitious, and frugal nation.  She cites the thrifty Puritans, the words of founding father Ben (“Waste not want not”) Franklin, the rush to buy war bonds, and even the Frank Capra classic It’s A Wonderful Life, as examples of  our saving ethic.

Whitehead believes — and she speaks for a think tank of sixty two leading economists — that the social norms and values that encouraged frugality and sensible spending have been overwhelmed by easy credit and a false sense of entitlement.  Speaking bluntly, the chickens have come home to roost and there are not enough of them for every pot.  She is critical of the Federal government for heaping massive debt on succeeding generations.  The members of her think tank fear that we have forgotten the values of saving and of delayed gratification.  We see as antiquated the notion of living within our means.

The villains are the usual suspects: advertisers, creating a demand for the next new thing; manufacturers, producing for planned obsolescence; payday lenders offering fast cash at obscene interest rates; and credit card companies that target the young and vulnerable.  Whitehead also chastises state government run lotteries (“a tax on stupidity”) which yield $60 billion a year but reinforce the idea that something can be procured for nothing.

This gaggle of economists favors taxes on consumption rather than income.  They hope to raise public consciousness about the dangers of usurious interest rates from too available credit cards.  Credit card companies took in $937 billion in interest last year.  Debts like this contribute nothing to our economy and stymie useful spending.  Whitehead et al. advocate a full out public health campaign aimed at raising awareness of both the financial cost (bankruptcy) and the social costs (divorce, suicide) of abundant “free credit.” They suggest educating the public about credit and debt in much the same way that smoking and environmental issues have become part of our consciousness.

Maybe saving has become the new splurging and living within ones means is “in” again, but what has the recession done to us miserly types?  The hardcore still have their money in Mason jars and continue to save even more by avoiding dental visits for their toothaches.  I am not in the Silas Marner or Scrooge McDuck class of saver.  I am the ant or the tortoise, depending on the parable.  I buy day-old bread, go to garage sales and put my meager savings in “safe” investments.  Needless to say, I am now no better off than my grasshopper/hare neighbors.  I am glad that saving is back in vogue, but on reflection, I think I should have ordered the poached salmon in Bearnaise sauce.

Tom H. Cook is a freelance writer and therefore practiced in the art of living on less.  He still remembers presenting his blue savings passbook to the teller at the local bank with his $12.00 of birthday money.

Elderly Divorce

An elderly couple shuffles into a marriage counselor’s office.  The therapist can barely contain her astonishment but asks, “How can I help you?”  “We want to get a divorce,” they reply.  The therapist apologizes for being so forward but feels compelled to ask their ages.  “I’m 88 and Stella here is 86” replies the man.  “And you are just now considering a divorce?”  Stella replies sweetly, “We were waiting for the children to die.”                              —Old joke

“Divorce is hardest on the children.”  Coupled with a reassuring pat on the back, these are the calming words I impart to JoAnne when she is struggling.  While I do hope she feels better, the intent of my seemingly patronizing advice is to make her laugh and at least momentarily step out of the quagmire of this unusual situation.  She is wallowing not so much in grief as in financial records, real estate questions, and the thankless task of dividing household tchotchkes.  After sixty-three years of marriage her parents are slogging toward a divorce.  Unlike in most circumstances the three daughters, (all in their fifties) have been saddled with the task of undoing their parents’ nuptials.

The end of a long marriage is not funny.  There is humor only because the pain has mostly been replaced by absurdity.  JoAnne’s only ground rule about me writing about this deeply personal event is that I not take sides.  This is easy to do since both parties seem happier and more alive than they have been for at least the last decade.  If life is a feast, they have both cavorted off and stuck the children with the dishes (and the furniture, and the accounting).

JoAnne’s father does not trust the stock market.  Consequently he has divided his savings into smallish lots and moves portions of it from bank to bank every time the interest rate goes up a fraction of a percentage point, or a toaster is offered for opening a new account.  What he lacks in capital he makes up for in sheer chaos.  He has opened and closed twenty-six accounts in just the last four years.  Normally this would be his business and from what I hear interest rate shopping is a recognized sport and hobby of retirees in Naples, Florida.

When JoAnne drew the short straw in the family and got power of attorney for her mother she inherited the task of making sense of the labyrinth that is her father’s accounting.  He is a Michael Milken of numbers, an Enron of efficiency except that the decimal points are four or five places to the right.  Hundreds of hours and many spreadsheets later I found JoAnne slumped over clutching a calculator, muttering something about Silas Marner.  I am glad that she is renewing her interest in classic literature.

She has also been spending an inordinate amount of time talking with her mother’s attorney, and the realtor who is supposedly helping them sell their Florida home between hurricanes.  (“Beneath the plywood those are leaded glass windows…”)

JoAnne and I were able to remain blissfully unaware of most of the personal aspects of her parents’ lives until her mother came to visit us and stayed for five months.  At our wedding a friend pulled me aside and in amazement said, “Your mother-in-law is Edith Bunker!”  If we become caricatures of ourselves as we age, begin with Edith and 1972 and connect the dots.   She is delightful, well meaning and warm, but indirect to the point of teeth gnashing when you need a direct answer.

JoAnne:  “Mom, do you want to ask for the crystal goblet set?

Mom:  “That set came from Gina’s house on Wynnewood Road.  We were over for Sunday dinner and I was in the kitchen with Josephine and Tootsie and we were talking about the set and how nice it looked next to the breakfront.  Well Gina came in and I guess she was steamed at Frederica and Uncle Vince because they had said that her manicotti was more stiff and not like the way Vince’s mother made it.  So I thought I would cheer her up and so I started talking about how much I liked the goblets although they were really not my taste because they were a little top heavy…although they did look nice; I was telling the truth about that part…

JoAnne:   I am trying to finish this e-mail to your attorney.  Should we be asking for the goblets?

Mom:   She started opening and shutting drawers real hard like she was looking for something and Tootsie and I were getting embarrassed so I asked her how Frank was doing.  You never met Uncle Frank; he died when you were little.  He was more like a cousin. We used to call him Uncle Frank because he looked so much older than Joe or Albert…

JoAnne:  ##@$%^** (sob, growl, whimper).

Mom:  (stroking, JoAnne’s head) “You seem upset.  Why don’t you take a rest?”

So JoAnne spends most of her time making sense of financial records, talking to lawyers, estate appraisers, realtors, moving companies, her siblings, and parents.  Out of angst and frustration she is wont to bellow through clenched teeth, “This is not my divorce!”  If she is irritable and distracted, I try to be understanding.  After all, it is hard to be the child of a broken home.

Tom H. Cook is a not so local writer and orphan.  The best bumper sticker he has seen in southern California is “I love cats and I vote.”  He urges you to hug your cat and vote.

 

 

   

Multiple Choice

Now that I am teaching English in a high school, every situation is a potential multiple-choice question.  For example:

  1.  Tom and JoAnne live in a small beach house near the Pacific Ocean.  What would most enhance their appreciation of Southern California living
    a.  two one-speed bubble tire “beach cruiser” bicycle
    b.   a six-person hot tub set in a secluded back yard
    c.   a blue Miata convertible circa 1990
    d.   a backyard chimenea (fireplace) for ocean-cooled evenings
    e.   Teresa, JoAnne’s mother, taking up permanent residence in the guest room

If you answered “e” to Question 1, please proceed to Questions 2-10.

2. Teresa is a sweet 80 year old grandmother whose hobbies include

a.  folding plastic bags
b.  ironing
c.  collecting string
d.  cutting strips of cloth into string
e.  all of the above

3.  Her ideal room temperature is

a.  98.6
b.  the same as curing ham
c.  not calculable in Celsius
d.  warm, for anyone not living directly on the Equator
e.  one that would produce Cumulous clouds and aerographic precipitation

4.  As a child of the Great Depression she is

a.  thrifty
b.  economical
c.  adverse to throwing anything away
d.  able to find multiple uses for old stockings
e.  so tight she squeaks

5.   A hearty lunch consists of

a.  the bruised portion of a pear and one half of a Grape Nuts individual cereal pack
b.  the heel of a loaf of whole wheat bread with every seed carefully removed
c.  the doggie bag from a restaurant meal
d.  the doggie bag leftovers Part II
e.  half a breakfast bar carefully saved from an airplane flight (2002)

6.   If you need a calendar (to keep track of your medication) it is best to

a.  attempt to draw one on scrap paper
b.  have someone drive you from bank to bank to see if anyone is giving them out
c.  use a discarded one from 2003 , figure out the formula and hope it is not Leap Year
d.  wait until they are almost free in April and look for a damaged one the store will deep        discount
e.  work clockwise and find seven flat surfaces.  Put a day’s worth of pills on each.  If this is      the dresser it must be Tuesday

7.  If  I am napping soundly on the couch, Teresa will

a.  tiptoe and hover about so quietly I wake up
b.  wake me to ask if I am comfortable or would I like a firmer pillow
c.  state that I do not look comfortable and would I like my feet tucked in
d.  wake me from a dead sleep to ask if I want the television turned off
e.  wake me to ask if I know I am sleeping as she wouldn’t want me to get in trouble for            missing something.  She does not realize it is Sunday because the cat has knocked her        pills off of the end table and I forgot to bring home a calendar from work.

8.  If you spill a small amount of salt it can be saved in

a.  a square of wax paper
b.  an empty pre-rinsed individual mustard container
c.  a corner of aluminum foil
d.  a tiny Tupperware container
e.  almost anything.  The problem is someone else finding it and not knowing what it is and throwing it away only to be asked the next time you are taking a nap where the little bit of salt that was in the cabinet could be.

9.  Teresa is saving her money for

a.  her old age
b.  my old age
c.  the Chinese Year of The Dog
d.  the Apocalypse
e.  the next George Bush administration

10.  A bowl of ice cream must be eaten until

a.  sparks fly from the eating utensil
b.  much of the glaze in the bowl has been loosened
c.  DNA testing could no longer determine the flavor ice cream
d.  the bowl is cleaner than most dishwashers could get it
e.  the bowl is forcibly wrenched from her hands and filled again with ice cream

Tom H. Cook, a long time Minnesotan, has escaped to sunny California, along with his wife, his mother-in-law and the two boxers Stella and Cowboy. 

Last Chance Post Mortem

It’s late September and I really should be back in school –Rod Stewart  (in Maggie May)

Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.   –attributed to Vince Lombardi

Now maybe I’ll be able to get that song out of my head and concentrate on “The Arnold.”  It is late September here in California, and while it is early to do a post-mortem with the election a week away, it is my last chance.  Politics long considered one of the last bastions of geeky, pale, weasel-faced, high school debate club presidents is about to fall.  By the time you read this, Arnold Schwarzenegger will likely be bench pressing a podium — Gray Davis–or he’ll be challenging reporters to punch him in the stomach as hard as they can. Oh yes, and he will be Governor-elect of California.

The Minnesota connection makes us unindicted co-conspirators.  Schwarzenegger is frequently compared to Jesse Ventura, the other freewheeling, steroid-using, self-confessed 70s wild man.  Californians do this to cite precedent and to reassure themselves that what they are doing makes sense.  The first time some co-workers earnestly suggested this to me I was eating lunch and milk came out of my nose.  I attempted to explain the continual limit-testing Jesse had done. Whether it was moonlighting on weekends for the XFL, talking to Playboy magazine, or the use of the mansion, Jesse forced us into the role of parenting our petulant political prodigy.

Jesse really wanted unicameral government and mass transit.  One of which is still a good idea. Arnold is richer, tanner, bolder, and far more dangerous.  We are consoled that he cannot constitutionally become president and will have to settle for California, the world’s fifth largest economy.  He is Machiavellian, ego-driven, ambitious, and cunning.  Unfortunately his narcissism seems to be an end and not a means.  He appears to have no ideology beyond winning.  Granted, the list of selfless politicians is short, but Schwarzenegger seems to take particular glee in subjugating others to his torrid will.

The Arnold has completely revised his early steroid use, womanizing, and questionable business ethics.  He is a Hummer lover, and the metaphor is perfect, particularly if you have ever sat next to one while in a Miata  at a stop light.  A quirky short term race for Sacramento is perfectly geared to garner him mass exposure.    It is form over substance: “Getting Elected Governor For Dummies.” Perhaps we are all ADD, and this is as long as we can concentrate.  I fear my adopted state is making an impulsive decision we will all regret, and the poor will pay.  In which case I will be back as soon as Minnesotans disarm.

I may be overreacting, and Larry Flynt, Gary Coleman, Richard Simmons (accountant), Mary Carey (porn star), the 105 year old woman, or even Gray Davis may have won.  In that case, let me echo the words of Gilda Radner from Saturday Night Live: “Never mind.”

Tom H. Cook is missing a real Minnesota autumn.  He also remembers–all too clearly–what comes next.