Category Archives: scrounging

“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!”.

The Yarn Sale

He who dies with the most toys wins.        Malcolm Forbes

Now everything ‘s a little upside down,  As a matter of fact the wheels have stopped.  What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good, you’ll find out when you reach the top.  You’re on the bottom.
                         Idiot Wind (Blood On The Tracks) Bob Dylan

Existence is bigger, deeper, more profound and meaningful than the following revelation.  Life is like a card game. Early on the strategy is to win all the “pots” and collect all the stray cards possible.  Many years ago a tea set left by a great aunt spurred a fierce family competition.  Decades later the ubiquitous tea set is still rattling around the family.  No longer coveted, it is too fragile and memory-filled to put on eBay, but no one wants to dust and display it.  The hope is to foist it off on an unsuspecting newly married young niece. My generation is realizing extra cards (and sugar bowls) are a burden and count as points against in the big game.

My wife JoAnne is a fiber artist and president of the Southern California Handweavers’ Guild. To suggest she enjoys collecting yarns, silks, linens and fine fabrics is like saying Marco Polo liked to travel.  She has rescued yarn from Miss Havisham-like estates, garage sales of too-busy hobbyists, and countless church basement rummage sales.  We used to joke that she’d been in more churches than Billy Graham.  Our two car garage has always been given over to her passion.   The result has been many beautiful pieces through the years. Along the way she has also mentored and given freely to beginning weavers.

About a month ago she made the decision to divest.  Her goal was to sell 25% of her accumulation.  With the tireless help of her sister, Donna, she turned the garage into a store-for-a-day.  Thanks to Craig’s List and numerous Yahoo groups, word got out that things would be priced to move.  At the opening bell at 9:00 AM the line was thirty people long. The flurry of shoppers continued unabated for three hours before tapering off, followed by a rally in mid-afternoon. The sale left JoAnne and Donna in equal parts exhausted and euphoric.

In the afterglow it looked like orderly locusts had come and spirited off much of forty-plus years of collecting.  I asked JoAnne if she missed the 600 pounds of yarn. “No, I had more than I could possibly weave up in a lifetime.  It was time to let other people enjoy some of it.”

She had the look of someone who had just located the card they needed to complete a winning hand.

The Yarn Sale

Tom H. Cook was not swept up in the whirlwind of cathartic energy enough to part with his Mad magazine collection.  To view previous columns and even comment visit www.sanduponthewaters.net.         

  

I Have Always Been an Acquirer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Great Finds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only kidding, JoAnne.

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

 

 

 

 

House Finish Man Die

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

Retirement Pursuits

Well-meaning folks who barely know me seem to think I would be happiest playing golf every waking moment of my retirement.  Many seem disappointed almost to the point of belligerence—and that’s without me launching into a PC rant about the geo-ecological water and land resource usurpation that the game requires.  I could claim that moral high ground, but the real reason is more mundane.  It is too clichéd a solution for what to do now that I retired for the third and probably final time this past February.

I have good friends who golf, and a few that may even have the patience to play with me, but aside from their company there is little that draws me to becoming a links man.  And just a look at me tells all but the most obtuse observer that I am no Mark Trail.  I would rather watch an entire golf match on a grainy black and white 7” television while standing up than to hunt or fish.  Most of my inquisitors are well-intended and simply curious as to how loitering, reading, and wandering around with my dogs can provide me with sufficient stimulation to sustain life.

I was not on a quest for fulfillment, and long ago gave up the notion of an examined life, but I have stumbled onto two things I enjoy.  One is my version of gardening or, more specifically, plant rescue.  Since Monday is Trash Day, Sunday is Trash Eve, and a good opportunity to adopt plants, pots, hoses and brooms, as well as umbrellas, lawn furniture, fountains, and so forth.  I do not have a green thumb or know the plant name of anything that is not a rose, but I enjoy picking up discarded plants and nursing them back to health.  JoAnne often accompanies me on this Sunday sleuthing.  Our back yard, while not yet old people scary jungle eccentric, does show promise.  We take much of the furniture and other goods of value to the local Salvation Army, forestalling its date with the landfill.  I am now on a first name basis with some of the intake workers, and while none have ventured to ask where all of this stuff is coming from, the consensus seems to be that I am a conscience-stricken cat burglar with very bad taste.

The other role that I am growing into is neighborhood anchor.  In 1977 JoAnne and I moved to the East Calhoun neighborhood of south Minneapolis from Naples, Florida.  Knowing no one, we were clearly in need of good neighbors.  The two families right out our back door were wonderful to us.  They were each Austin, Minnesota natives and only a bit older than we were, but wiser, and more established professionally than JoAnne and me.  Jay and Joy Dean had two young angelic children, Mike and Margo, and Linda and Lance LaVine had the equally sweet Nicky and Natasha.

We resisted the impulse to alliteration, but started our own family in part because of the happiness we observed in these helpful, mentoring families.  When our kids came we were often too busy to take full advantage of the guidance and acceptance they offered to us.  I owe my career choice to Jay.  Regardless of how frazzled we would be, Lance had the remedy: “Come on over for a cup of tea.” Many times we declined, begging off due to this imagined crisis or that.  Lance was wiser but knew we had to chase our own windmill.

We now have neighbors with two very young children and high stress jobs.  One is an attorney, the other a corporate recruiter.  I am not smart or worldly, and I have never been a head hunter for a Fortune 500 company, but I have made lots of mistakes, and I have time to listen. He is generally gone and she is running here and there.  Frequently they are too busy, as we were twenty five years ago, but in the spirit of Linda and Lance LaVine, I have extended to them a standing invitation for a cup of tea.

 

Tom H. Cook hopes that you will say hello to the LaVines and Deans for him.  Thank you for the great response to Keith Oldemann.  I am glad to see he has so many fans.  Please add the work of film-maker Robert Greenwald.  He is also able to cut through our national political pea soup in an entertaining manner.  His four documentaries (Out Foxed:  Rupert Murdoch’s War On Journalism, Iraq For Sale: The War Profiteers, Uncovered: The War On Iraq, and Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices) are sobering and informative.  He validates our greatest fears, but does it in a manner that is pointed without being pedantic.    

Mantle Clock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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