Category Archives: writing

Just One More Thing

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.

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.  

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.


There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.
—Steven Wright

There is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to speak.
—Simon Sinek

Tommy, how many times do I have to tell you? Do not interrupt when someone is talking!
—Mildred Cook (mother)

The no-longer-new technology can be flattering. After a few key strokes Amazon and their like are ready to make rather heavy-handed suggestions. One of the goals of living is to be understood, and they know me! Like a very solicitous butler, their educated guesses can be eerily insightful. Their memory is long and persistent. If you have ever, even in passing, considered a move to Buenos Aires to become a gaucho, or be in a gaucho-related field (rustling, branding or pampas real estate), beware. Years later, despite switching computers, changing passwords and altering my name, there are still sites convinced I need a bolo tie.

Autocorrect can sometimes produce strange results. A humorous example in “Damn You Auto Correct” is between brothers. One is asking to borrow $300 dollars for Mott’s Apple Juice. His sibling is ready to lend the money, but is concerned that there is an apple juice problem. Alas, the money was for a mortgage payment. Be very careful if you are writing about Swedish cars or pencils.

But this is not an anti-technology rant about privacy lines being crossed and trampled in the name of expediency and commerce.

After being presumptively bullied by my computer as if herded by a border collie (if you have one, you know the feeling), I began thinking about how I often steer conversations with friends. The more I reflected on it, the more uncomfortable I became. I often interrupt, under the guise of empathy and identifying with the story or emotion. I try to be an active listener. (“Wow I would have been terrified if I’d been there!”) Sometimes I am viewed as a true friend, someone who understands a fear of rodents or lavender soap. Too often, however, I have acted like a rabid autocorrect, finishing sentences for others and leaping to conclusions the speaker was fully capable of reaching without my help.

I am likely to volunteer the name of the actress, restaurant, or song before my friends can come up with it. It is a bad habit to presume where a story is going and beat the teller to the punch to show off under the guise of being helpful. I have made progress in letting others finish their own ideas and anecdotes. In a group setting it has been interesting to purposely step back and let the conversation go in a different direction. I still step over the line and become a nudge now and then, but any progress I have made is attributable to the example set by the bossy people at Amazon.

by Tom Cassidy

Earby owl by Tom Cassidy

Tom H. Cook has two border collies and has not had to make an independent decision in four years.

Questioning My “Self(s)”

The total self of me, being as it were duplex, partly known and partly know-er, partly object and partly subject, must have two aspects discriminated in it, of which, for shortness, we may call one the “me” and the other the “I.”
—William James (The Principles of Psychology)

I was brushing up on my Descartes the other day, particularly his classification of two worlds, one of mental objects and one of material things. That led me to William James, Piaget, Winnicott, and of course Wittgenstein. I added the “of course” as kind of a joke, but philosophers have been puzzling and grappling with the duality of self for hundreds of years. Despite their huge head start, after thinking for just a few hours I was coming up with insights and original ideas that, modesty side, could be game-changers in the field of dualism. Unfortunately “game-changer” reminded me the Super Bowl pre-pre-game show was on. Hours later I was so glazed over, my only thoughts were of nachos, switching my Internet provider, lite beer, and getting my hands on a Ram truck that I could drive up the side of a mountain.

I am not usually a deep thinker but a recent vacation had me questioning my “self” or “selves.” I was going to be gone for less than a week. This is like a gimme putt for golfers, easy to overlook but deceptively complex in its simplicity. I was packed and out the door in fifteen minutes. My other self was in charge of unpacking that evening. Someone had brought a stalk of bananas, three bags of cookies, two jars of peanut butter, enough medications for me to visit Albert Schweitzer in Africa, eight pair of underwear, five sets of earbuds, two shirts, and one pair of socks. My other self had to make do with the random assortment. (Neither of my selves would go to a local Target to supplement my wardrobe.)

This creature of the moment is often at war with my future self. At dinnertime there is only enough butter scrapings for one item. Do I garnish my evening baked potato or save the last bits, tucked deep in the foil, for a piece of toast in the morning? (Even though it might add clarity, I am reluctant to name my various selves, or speak in the third person.)

Whoever I/we are there seems to be agreement that all media is to be saved for just the right moment. I will start a magazine article, book, or television show and decide that it is so entertaining that it would be better appreciated at another time. I have a stockpile of shows to watch, but will often suggest watching a marginal program to free up space on the DVR. This greatly vexes JoAnne (the editor) and she gets mad at us (oops, me) until future me retrieves an episode of Homeland or The Good Wife a couple nights later when there is nothing on.

The relationship is complicated. Present self squirrels away desserts in the freezer to be savored at a future date, yet the here and now self puts future me on the spot continually. For example, the deadline on this column is today. Do you think anyone got an early start on it?

Tom H. Cook is a former Fuller Brush scholar, linguist, and pipe cleaner artist. He is currently seeking investors for a fantasy jai alai league.

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. 








I Cannot Write Straight

I cannot write straight.  Even a simple task like a three sentence letter to a mortgage lender confirming the residency of friends gets complicated.  I envision a wily, cigar chomping bank examiner (Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity) pouring over my submission.  I feel the need to establish motive.  Why would these people live with us rent free for months while they are waiting for their house purchase to close?

Although I was not the subject, I felt the need to establish context.  I began with JoAnne and me leaving Florida and moving to Minneapolis.  I barely touched on the difference between Naples and Calhoun/Isles.  From there I segued (quite cleverly, I thought) into how this wonderful couple had, much like Native people long ago, adopted JoAnne and me.  We were not Pilgrims, but we were unprepared for the winter of 1977, which was the coldest ever until 1978.

Admittedly, mention of our friends’ steadfastness and loyalty was not what the bank was seeking.  I thought our friends’ presence at the births and (much later) marriages of both of our children would help me wrap up the letter, which was heading north of six pages.  I was about to “bring it on home,” which I thought a mortgage broker, if steeped in the blues of Lightnin Hopkins, would appreciate.

JoAnne interceded.  Grabbing the computer, she dashed off a couple of quick sentences listing our names and address, and stating that our friends were living with us rent free from one date to another.  There was no arc, no character development, no plot points!  I felt badly for her.  Our friends must have also as they chose to present her version to the bank, to not hurt her feelings.

This highlights a major philosophical difference between us.  JoAnne contends that office workers forced to engage me by phone, e-mail or in person do not want a long, circuitous, “clever” response.  She claims I am not as funny as I believe myself to be and, that workers, like Jack Webb on Dragnet, just want the facts!  “These people have quotas to reach.  They do not have time for your foolishness.”

Whereas I believe that the more bureaucratized and routine the job, the more people enjoy and even need a little humor to break it up. (S)he who laughs, lasts.  Long ago, as a baby boomer with ho hum credentials searching for my first job, I needed a way to make my resume memorable.  I printed it on brown steak paper.  It not only stuck out in a sea of white, but the paper was so slippery, no pile could contain it.  I cannot say it got me a job, but on a number of occasions when I went for an interview the secretary referred to me as “the guy with the resume” and called her colleagues in to see me.

Nowadays a form asking — for the third time — for my relationship to a next of kin deserves the response “Frosty.”  Someone who reviews records and loan applications in a Kafkaesque cubical may look favorably upon someone who makes him smile.  When I hear “This call may be monitored for quality control purposes” I want the supervisor of this poor frightened bureaucrat to know what kind of wing nuts their representative has to put up with!  When I am prompted to pay attention “as the options have changed,” after I get a live person, I inquire when the options changed.  How are people enjoying the new options?  Did you get to vote? Do you foresee the options changing again?

When I call to dispute a claim or request service I hope to be connected to someone not totally beaten down by the faceless, gut wrenching, soul stealing system that engulfs us all.  A fellow traveler able to at least momentarily step back and view the existential absurdity, and glimpse the chasm between their envisioned future at six or seven as a cowboy or ballerina and the reality of grown-up life as a gate keeping, no-saying, customer service hotline representative. None of us aspired to long shifts with hovering supervisors and enforced cheerfulness in a windowless cubicle.  I offer humor, sympathy, and a brief respite from a day mired in a loop of co-pays, eligibility, and exclusions, or widgets, waivers, and warranties.

Tom H. Cook is happy to be out of the rat race, although he wishes he had gotten more cheese.  

I am a Noodge

Noodge  verb, noun (Yiddish)  To nag or pester

I now believe we live by miracles, not improvements.      —Garrison Keillor

A classic Mary Tyler Moore episode features an exasperated Lou Grant pushed to his breaking point by news anchor Ted Baxter’s latest gaffe.  Barely able restrain himself when confronting the blithe cluelessness of his on air “talent,” Mr. Grant, with mayhem in his heart and a firm grip on Ted’s lapels, glowers at his prey.  Initially Lou is too angry to speak.  Finally through clenched teeth he snarls, “Ted, you know the way you are?”  Ted, still oblivious but fearful of being pounded into the ground like a tent stake, vigorously nods his head.  Grant, only slightly appeased but realizing the futility of his rage, entreats, “Don’t be that way!”

Writer Sydney J. Harris suggests that our personality is more than a set of independent traits that can be freely “shopped out” or exchanged.  The way we organize and integrate our collection of traits into a complex structure makes up our personality.  Changing one trait requires a reorganization of the whole personality.  Viewed dynamically, certain defects are the cost we pay for our virtues.  An ulcer or migraine may be the price of perfectionism.  Our positive traits are often intertwined with the unflattering.  A fearless gridiron pass rusher may not be good at waiting for a table in a crowded restaurant.   A dedicated research chemist may lack a scintillating wit in social settings.

This is a somewhat fancy rationalization for a behavior I possess that can drive others crazy.  I am a noodge. I show JoAnne the Harris article that suggests that being a pest is a core personality trait and that I would not be the “Self” I am without it, and that my identity was fragile.  The no-nonsense person that she is suggests that my remaining friends like me despite this trait rather than because of it, and that I better knock it off!   I have been known to hector, goad, needle, infer, harass, badger, browbeat, suggest, cajole, bribe, con, plead, hound, annoy, bait, browbeat, pester, tease, torment, plague, flatter, induce, bother, inveigle, urge, coax, and wheedle to get my way.  In my defense, I am rarely out to benefit myself directly.  I limit my practice to family and close friends.  All of them are immune to my charms.

I will not claim to be particularly gifted at managing my own life, but I am savant-like in my understanding of the needs of those around me.  Call it a gift, but if you seek to buy a house, select a pet, have a child, plan a vacation, tangle with a family member, choose a college, or make a retirement decision, I am a huge help.  Sadly I am not one to accept, “You have given me a lot to think about…thank you!”  For me that is not closure, it is merely blood in the water.  Polite indecision is an opening.  I flash to the salesman’s edict in Glengarry Glen Ross: A.B.C. Always Be Closing.

Pop psychologists would suggest that I must have deep-seated issues of my own that I am avoiding.  I have examined my inner life and found it neither troubled, complex, or even interesting.  That my closest friends from our Minnesota days are planning a move to California and will soon be house hunting…now that’s entertainment!  In the spirit of helpfulness I may have dropped by a few open houses (27), collected some realtor business cards (55), chatted with a neighbor or twelve, and forwarded a couple of listings (114).  Mixed in may have been a phone chat or two.

JoAnne is a disciple of the nonintrusive school of quiet support, ready to listen and offer her opinion if solicited.  She is more directive with me!  “Our friends are able to blah blah blah let them blah blah blah own decision blah blah know better than blah blah blah lived successfully all these years without you blah, blah blah if your advice blah blah blah it’s not your business blah blah blah how would you like it blah blah blah let them blah blah blah!!!”

Talk about clueless!

Walkin the Dogs

Tom H. Cook is a now far away writer who misses everything Minnesota except the newly added May snowfall.  It is probably no coincidence that his two dogs are noodgey border collies. 






We have met the enemy and he is us.                    —Walt Kelly

For a long time I have been railing at friends, and even total strangers trapped in slow moving bank or grocery checkout lines, about the nearly universal use of ear buds.  Without sounding too much like the late Andy Rooney, I was against them, almost to the point of producing spittle.  I viewed the ubiquitous ivory colored plugs as more than a minor distraction or fashion statement, but an antisocial act.  By choosing to seal ourselves in an audio bubble, we not only erect additional barriers with others, but we may stifle our own thoughts.  A brimming haiku, a stinging letter to the editor, a snappy retort for the next tailgating yahoo in a monster truck…snuffed out by a medley of The Grass Roots Greatest Hits.

When I really got going I could verbally Evil Knievel the Snake River Canyon of logic and extrapolate a world of isolated Bee Gees listening zombies, anesthetized and ripe for totalitarian picking.  We walk the lakes and hike the wilderness for the quiet and ambient sounds.  Nature does not require a soundtrack.  Thoreau cruising around Walden with an iPod?  Blasphemy!

Profound alienation, a diss to the environment, issues of safety (distractibility and what that can entail), and the risk of hearing loss to the wearer.  That was my platform, shared with anyone who would listen, and a few that merely turned up the volume to mute my diatribe.  I now see these views as more than a tad extreme, but not without merit.  Nonetheless I have done almost a complete 180 degree turn.  I still do not know what others were listening to, but I always assumed it was music.  I enjoy music, but I do not need it piped over a loudspeaker in a mega mall (another topic) or in my ears.

Podcasts are another story.  I can go for a walk with Ira Glass (This American Life) and not need to hold up my end of the conversation.  I do not watch sports very often, but I am hooked on the soap opera which is Peyton Manning, Jeremy Lin, and Ryan Braun.  Dan Patrick, Colin Cowherd, Mike and Mike, are my podcast pals that make going to the post office or to buying gas (ouch) more interesting.

I have the zeal of a convert.  Do I want to invite a friend on a walk or for tea, and risk a possibly tearful/angst ridden/ intimate/messy/galvanizing/soul-baring/cathartic/breakthrough/bonding/heartfelt exploration of the preciousness of life, the impossible pain of unrequited love, the existential barrenness of possessions, and the hollowness of unfulfilled dreams? Or do I want to go out alone, but with the voice of Keith Olbermann updating me on the latest hijinks of fools in high places?

Tom H. Cook is a very longtime writer for this paper, which is not an excuse, but perhaps an explanation.  He will probably return next month unless someone tells him to stop.


Fall Reflections

An amazing invention, but who would ever use one?

                                                                 –President Rutherford B. Hayes

The smell of Fourth of July fireworks is still wafting in the air, and the last black chunk of ice gunk in a Fridley parking lot has been vaporized by the heat.  Bring on summer, the season of rampant hedonism, too loud music, coconut sunscreen, and burnt burgers.  Winter is a time for introspection.  In July if there is navel gazing to be done, it is other peoples’.  Fall, around Thanksgiving, is a time for reflection.   Sitting around a campfire with a bunch of wholesome, toothy, jocular people, that is when you count your blessings.  Nestled in a woodsy cabin trying to figure out who these people in expensive sweaters are, and what they have done with my friends is the more typical time to be thankful.  

My seasonal clock is off kilter.  Despite the blur of fast cars, painful sunburn, and a record heat index, I feel grateful.  I want to thank those of you who wade through my column regularly, and friends and family who put up with my tortured logic in person.  If you know me in print, you may notice a certain circuitous line of reasoning that does not always find its way to the point.  Even after skillful editing (thank you JoAnne) I can begin a column with the perils of skiing and end up on Rutherford B. Hayes, the first president to make a phone call.   

In real life I begin too many conversations with obscure references and fractions of sentences posing as questions.  I am likely to begin out of context with a question. “Who’s the guy?  You know, the one in the film about the woman.  She’s in love with her doctor, or her landlord.  He may not be in that one, but you’ve seen him.  He always plays a corporate type.  He was in cahoots with a counterfeiter.  You said you thought he was real scary…  Come on you know it!”

Thank goodness for family and old friends who understand the thin connection I often have between disparate ideas.  Someone (sane) not schooled (subjected) to my way of processing the world is likely to back away from my stream of (un)consciousness.  Citing a forgotten heart surgery appointment they must run off to, an untied shoelace that may require considerable attention, or a sudden need to convey something to a passing squirrel, many strangers become very busy just when I am getting to the good part of an anecdote.

Ideas, information, and media (social and otherwise) are swirling around.  We all continually have more to take in, and later attempt to recall.  I remember fragments of things and my links are often tenuous.  Thank you for continuing to make the effort.

Tom H. Cook is a law abiding citizen who still practices making up fake names for when he is stopped by the police.  His latest is Hal Lester, a conveyor belt salesman from Ripple Creek, Illinois.