Tag Archives: American Life

Kakistocracy

What fresh hell can this be?*

                                —Dorothy Parker

 

But who will bell the cat?

                                —Ancient fable (predating Aesop)

 

Stupidity does not consist in being without ideas. Such stupidity would be the sweet, blissful stupidity of animals, mollusks and the gods. Human stupidity consists in having lots of ideas, but stupid ones. Stupid ideas, with banners, hymns, loudspeakers and even tanks and flame-throwers as their instruments of persuasion, constitute the refined and the only really terrifying form of stupidity 

                                 -– Henry de Montherlant, Notebooks, 1930-44

 

Kakistocracy— government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens,

                               —Thomas Love Peacock, English novelist 1829

 

 

It is meager solace having a name for the condition that is afflicting 63,000,000 of us.  Like chronic fatigue syndrome or sleep apnea, a diagnosis may help provide understanding and treatment.  Knowing you are not just a lazy person who snores loudly is some comfort and legitimacy.  Months after the election our nation is still in shock.  Many of us have physical symptoms like sleeplessness, irritability, and free floating anxiety,  We are worried, and feel powerless, cynical, and pessimistic.  We compartmentalize and become tearful thinking about the future. Literate readers of this space (oxymoronic) may already know the term kakistocracy.

 

Amro Ali a Middle Eastern scholar at the University of Sydney, posted a blog entitled “Kakistocracy:  A Word We Need to Revive.”  (Gotta love that Internet.) He encourages a more widespread application of the word kakistocracy to describe the current government of the United States.  Professor Ali warns that an overuse of the term by applying it to any unpopular government weakens its meaning.

 

Sadly that day is here.  We are full-on Captain Quieg, and James Comey smells of strawberries. We have forsaken democracy and its ideals and are currently living under a kakistocracy.  In further bad news, we likely have a comorbid condition kleptocracy, or rule by thugs and thieves.  Russia, always in the news, is a kleptocracy.  Putin and his cronies are amassing vast sums of money and precious resources but they are not stupid, they are not kakistocrats.


This is not a sore loser, aw shucks, “get ’em next time” partisan rant (see Bush v Gore HLP March/2001).    We have endured the leadership of racists, paranoiacs, simpletons and jingoists while still cramming ourselves into the bulging leisurewear of democracy.  Now we have split our pants.


How we got here is for better minds.  What happened to the Constitution?  Checks and balances?  Our current state is horribly embarrassing, like borrowing money from a relative, having a credit card refused at a busy supermarket, or making body noises on a first date.  We do not have death squads, though Attorney General Sessions is ramping up the penalties for drug offenses. We are closing the gap on the banana republics we once scorned. First World nations are treating us as if we have ceased bathing regularly.  

 

When I was a kid I wondered what color the sky was during The Great Depression, because all the newsreels and pictures were in black and white.  I catch myself feeling happy and then I remember the president and his minions are oblivious to the principles of Jefferson, the life of Frederick Douglass, and the sacredness of democracy.  Our past and our future are being looted.  Steve Bannon lurking around the White House is a greater threat than voter fraud or even foreign terrorism.  We are living under a kakistocratic form of government.  It is mind bending; the sky is still blue but we have all been diminished.  

 

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer still spry, terrified for the republic, and writing from a beach in California. 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

fixit

I have always thought writing a nationally syndicated advice column would be a really sweet deal.  I’d call it Talk to Tom, with an accompanying picture of me caring about others (it would need to be Photoshopped).  To get started, I planned to solicit or make up a few letters from troubled souls.  I’d have one a bit spicy (PG-13), such as an inquiry from a newlywed whose husband insists on bringing a pet goat into their bedroom.

Some letters would not even need much of a response.  Take “Marilyn of Widows Peak, Georgia.”  She enclosed a powerful poem she found tucked in a Gideon Bible at a truck stop motel where she was about to throw away her sacred vows and, as she put it, have “carnival relations” with a dried fruit vendor from Cincinnati.  I only need thank Marilyn, extol her bravery and reprint the poem in its entirety.  Boom, another whole column. (Ka-ching $$$)

I was getting excited about helping the downtrodden, lonely, and misunderstood. The rewards of syndication barely crossed my mind. A fancy degree is not required to give advice to the lovelorn, just a little common sense, which admittedly is not my strong suit.  Mostly you need to be kind, caring and genuine, which I can fake

Another helpful ingredient is a collection of wise but vague sayings and parables.   Don’t sugar coat the truth but wrap it in a pithy, humorous but knowing manner.  To close, suggest the writer seek out a therapist/counselor/clergy person.  That is the “playbook.”  The referral is the safe, middle of the fairway, don’t get sued response.

Before I could begin my venture I was disheartened to learn Dear Abby, Dr. Laura, Miss Manners, Dr. Ruth, Ask Amy, Dear Ann and the rest have large staffs working tirelessly to help lost souls. They have offices, copy machines, consultants, accountants, lawyers and a staff handling thousands of requests.  My bubble was burst.  Suddenly it was looking like a real job.  I opted to take a nap and remain a fan of the genre.

I enjoy my guilty pleasure, and freely admit to reading the Dear Abby letters in the newspaper on a daily basis.  To clarify, I call all the advice mavens Abby as Minneapolis’ Abigail Van Buren (Pauline Phillips) was the gold standard.  JoAnne and I attempt to guess “Abby’s” response and verbally craft a better one.  It is not one of my stellar traits but I feel a tinge of smugness comparing my problems to those who write in to the paper.  I do on occasion wonder where all of the concupiscent young women with poor judgement and raging libidos were when I was much younger.  They certainly didn’t live in Pennsauken, New Jersey in the 1960s and frequent the Cherry Hill Mall, or the Nassau Diner.  Unless my friends and I were not as cool…Nah.

When the upper crust mother of the bride thinks the new in-laws may be stealing her silver and it is a month before the wedding, I have to chortle.  One woman wrote that her boyfriend played around so much she did not know if the child she was expecting was his.  My favorite was a young man who rationalized that because he had delayed choosing a career; at 28 he worried that he was too old to start medical school and face ten years of training.  Expecting sympathy he concluded, “After all, I’d be 38 when I finished, isn’t that a little ridiculous?”  Dear Abby responded, “If you don’t go, how old will you be in ten years?”

I find myself muttering incredulously at the unfathomable and exasperating situations out there.  “No seventh chances!”  “Leave the lying weasel immediately.”  “Run!  As far and as fast as possible!”  I cannot believe some of the “writers” are in the same phylum as the rest of us.  It does however help explain the ascension of Donald Trump.

Tom H. Cook feels like he is playing “Whack A Mole” with the medical profession.  No sooner does he complete an appointment than another arises.  

Cook’s Codger Corner

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

Turn Off the Phone Spam

Snapchat Betting On Bitstrips Appeal.  Firm reportedly plans to pay $100 million for app that puts avatars into emojis.

     —Los Angeles Times March 26, 2016

I take false pride in reading the daily newspaper cover to cover (by cracky).  In truth I gloss over articles that do not re-enforce my increasingly shaky world view.  I also give short shrift to subjects I do not understand. I read the LA Times business section story by Paresh Dave with my head cocked liked a large dog unsure whether he is about to go for a walk or to the vet’s office.  Emojis, which are an annoyance I have a superficial understanding of, are being customized and the resultant bitmojis will provide the user a unique way to pass on greetings, get well wishes, and eviction notices.  Somewhere bitmojis’ great grandfather (a circle with two dots and a dash) known as Smiley Face is looking on with pride and no doubt an insipid grin.

*                 *                  *                   *                   *                   *                  *fixit

A few years ago I was in a lengthy, pleasant, but ultimately futile discussion with Eddie, a service rep for an unnamed long distance carrier (all right, it begins with a V).  Eddie and I were laughing it up, talking about customizing and re-bundling my package so my monthly bill would not be mistaken for the national debt projections. We were being recorded for training purposes but I really thought we had a good rapport.  Since he was laughing at my jokes I never mentioned cord cutting or threatened to install aluminum foil wrapped rabbit ears on my roof. I offered to give up the Gardening Channel and 50 Croatian-Filipino stations in exchange for Showtime (so I could watch Homeland). This was a nonstarter. Looking for things to cut, Eddie mentioned offhandedly that I was paying two dollars a month to have an unlisted land line.  More on principle than actual cash savings, we decided to axe it.

Did I mention that JoAnne (the editor) was not home when Eddie and I were doing our business?  When she found out a few days later, you would have thought I had unleashed the Hounds from Hell.  The unlisted number keeps the telemarketers at bay!  As she was near tears, it didn’t seem the time to bring up the two dollars.  We redoubled our efforts to get on Do Not Call lists.  At first I answered the phone and implored the solicitor not to call again.  Some I even told how my wife was becoming unbalanced and inexplicably agitated by the sound of a ringing telephone.

There must have been something in my voice that suggested I really do want aluminum siding, solar panels, or an interest free zirconium (plated) text activated debit credit card which if held under a strontium 90 light (sold separately) will correctly predict eight of the next ten winners of the Kentucky Derby.  Finally JoAnne and I stopped answering the land line and began relying on our cell phones.  Unfortunately solicitation calls are even beginning to creep onto our cells. I suggested we get “burners” and discard them regularly like on Homeland.  I believe JoAnne has forgiven me but is reluctant to take this large a step.  Besides, what would I tell Eddie?

Tom H. Cook is still laughing over a line on the radio: “Looking back on my life, I realize that quicksand has not been as big a problem as I thought it would be when I was a child.”     

Aging Perceptions

belanko by Tom CassidyDon’t worry; it gets worse.
—Barbara Amram (on aging)

Young women get changed in front of me.
—Jay Leno (on being old and invisible)

Why do seniors get a discount? They’ve had more time to make the money.
—anonymous (possibly Homer)

* * * * * * * *
“Are you comfortable?”
“I make a good living”

My very young dental hygienist (fresh from a small town in Idaho and trying to catch on in the glam world of L.A. dentistry) directed me into her chair and asked me the question. Granted, it’s funnier with a Yiddish accent, but it helps to be of a certain age to really sell the line. My response made her giggle and then laugh hard. There is a new audience, a whole generation that has never heard the classics. It is small recompense for getting liver spots, but too much is written about the downside of the whole aging process.

What is under-reported is the perks. I am no longer asked to help people move, (“We’re gonna have pizza and beer, its just a few things, it’ll be fun…”) I used to feel ethically challenged by party invitations. I was clumsy and awkward declining or accepting as I would almost always prefer to spend a quiet evening with dogs. Marginally interesting activities would torment me. I could go and be miserable, or stay home and feel guilty because I was not really too busy. Now I get far fewer social invitations and it is much easier to reject them. I politely but firmly say I am not coming, it is too far, too late, or I don’t want to.

Another advantage of aging is perspective. I was too often impulsive and short sighted throughout much of my life. I gnashed my teeth and lost sleep over roads not taken, mistakes I have made, hunches I did or did not follow, and decisions that, in hindsight, would have been better left to a ouija board. I am no Leo Buscaglia (how is that for a name from the past?) but I stress less and am more accepting. I did not get rich, but I never had to do hard time. The good news is that at a certain age it doesn’t much matter. My habits are set and more money would not appreciably improve my life. It is delightful to not be looking for a job, or answering to anyone.

People would rather be naked in front of each other than discuss their finances and I will not do either here, but the question that drives us most of our lives is “Why is there no parking at Trader Joe’s?” Oops I meant “How much money do I need to be able to live out my days warm and indoors?” I had always hoped that one of my splinter skills (writing, public speaking, stand up comedy) would thrust me into the public eye. I was never discovered but it’s nice not having to spend all that time in the harbor waiting for my ship to come in.

It is interesting to watch a coach who has prepared and practiced maniacally, forsaking friends, family, food, and sleep for a supreme effort in the big game. A close contest is more exciting but there is a melancholy bittersweet relief in a lopsided blowout. Up or down by thirty points in the waning moments, the contest is decided. It is time to be magnanimous: play the scrubs, avoid injury, don’t argue calls, congratulate your opponents, and let your players know how proud you are of them. My wins and losses have not been as dramatic. I never caught the brass ring, found the pot of gold, made it to Easy Street or [insert your favorite cliche here]. I hope to have many years left but I feel myself letting go of needing to keep score or watch the clock.

Tom H. Cook will likely have a third grandchild by the time you read this. He listens regularly to The Tony Kornheiser Show podcasts and is a “loyal little.”

Autocorrect

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.

Cedar Water

The swimming season is coming to a close. Whether in Cedar Lake or the Pacific Ocean, the subtle shift has begun. Pockets of very cold water, previously a refreshing anomaly, are now asserting themselves like Trump followers. The vanguard will soon become the establishment and while “The Donald” will likely leave the race entranced and distracted by a new shiny object, the water will turn cold.

This saddens me because swimming is what I laughingly refer to as my exercise. I splash, guy4paddle, and tread water with joyous abandon. Between pretending I am Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt” and frolicking underwater, I feel energized, youthful and refreshed. A jogger friend scoffed at the number of carbs I burn and how little cardio effect I gain from my water play. I was going to let his criticism pass or more correctly roll off my back, but when he added I looked childish, I was stung enough to retort, “At least when I finish my workout I’m not all sweaty.”

One of the few things I took from Camp Ockanickon (aside from a lifetime hatred of oatmeal and singing “Mamma’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin‘ Bread”) is feeling comfortable in the water. Camp was deep in the pine barrens of southern New Jersey on a dark, picturesque, spring fed cedar lake. Even at 4’ 4” I could not see my feet standing in waist deep water. This unnerved me and I failed the deep water swimming test (jump in and swim 25 yards any stroke) I was sent to remedial swim class every day after breakfast. As a non swimmers I could not join any other activity until I passed. Too terrified to leap into the ink colored water, I generally needed to be pushed. After splashing around frantically I would grab the pole and be fished out in tears.

In the afternoon during compulsory free swim time my stigma, wearing a red non-swimmer string around my wrist, confined me to the shallow area. Much worse, the caste system carried over to the mess hall, the cabin, and all non-water activities. Blue stringers (50 yards) and white stringers (100 yards) heaped scorn on us (“Red stringers, red stringers why are you here? Red stringers, red stringers have some beer!”). We would then be doused with whatever non-beer beverage was available.

I have been dancing around the most embarrassing part. I was the lowest of the red stringers: I wore nose plugs! Decades later I have difficulty admitting it. Even other non-swimmers scorned me. The plugs, pink to simulate a flesh tone I have never seen on a living person, was the only way I could navigate in the water. Blue and white stringers might deign to come into the shallow end but I quickly and painfully learned they were on a mission to pull back and snap the rubber strap. The sting subsides long before the red mark on the back of my neck. Perhaps that is why I never became a bra snapper in my adolescence.

Some of the counselors were college kids ready for “Hi Jinx” (it was the 50s) like sneaking out to the girls’ camp across the lake after lights out, then regale us with their exploits the next morning. Joey was different. He was an east Camden (N.J.) tough guy who someone (possibly a judge) thought could benefit from a summer of sunshine and fresh air. Even as a child I sensed his anger and despair marooned in a wholesome woodsy setting with a cabin full of brats. His surliness made what happened all the more surprising.

Joey was on lifeguard duty, supervising the shallow (red string/loser)area. Standing on the dock he beckoned me over. I’ll never forget his words. “Hey squirt! Yeah you, dum dum with the nose plugs. Blow a little stream of air out your nose when you go under. Just a trickle. Then you won’t need that stupid s_ _ _ on your nose.”

It was not a Hallmark moment, but I did it and it worked! It might have helped knowing Joey couldn’t care less. Other counselors had more patiently told me to blow air out. When I tried for them, I either panicked and, seeking to please them, blew all the air out at once, or I accidentally inhaled. With the breathing mastered my fear diminished and I was able to enjoy the water. Thanks to Joey I left camp a blue stringer.

My “instruction” was a momentary distraction for a bored, sullen teenager. Joey, if he is living could not possibly comprehend that I still give him thanks every time I wade into the water. “Blow it out your nose slow, dum dum!”

I am not talking about mentoring, adoption, or huge life changing sacrifices and good deeds. My focus is “Joey moments.” Serendipitous chance encounters where a word, an act, a small gesture made a huge difference. The classic is “The Lone Ranger” leaving before he can be thanked unaware of how he has altered history. I am not so grandiose but I really hope I have done small anonymous kindnesses that have been meaningful to others.

Tom H. Cook has often imagined writing a letter of support for Joey to his probation officer or appearing in court on his behalf

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.

Considering Gift Giving

I think somewhere in Leviticus is the first mention of Black Friday sales. In ancient times there were far fewer people to line up outside the bazaar and no electronics to speak of but still it was a thou shalt not. Whether it was because of graven images or false gods before me, I am not a biblical scholar. I do recall reading that God (or the management) would smite line cutters. Shopping was easier in ancient times as there were only about forty-three things, and everyone needed most of them. Once the classic gifts of myrrh, frankincense, and pecan nut roll went out of fashion, holiday gift giving became problematic.

To me a gift should say: I know you. I know your soul. You are already a complete human being. May this artifact or act of kindness I bring to you brighten your day and ease your burden. May the thoughtfulness of my gift touch you and remind you of me every time you use it. May we be forever linked by my insightful offering that, despite my professed modesty, gives you a rare glimpse into the profound regard in which you are held. Let me tell you it is hard to do life-changing and stay under twenty bucks!

Perhaps I am a hopeless romantic who sets the bar so high I am forced to slink under it, or I am a clueless, self-involved sloth. Either way I do not exchange gifts. If I find someone’s “Rosebud” (spoiler alert: it is a sled), it will probably be at a garage sale in June. I will not wait six months but instead give it right away, leaving me empty handed for the holidays. When I say I do not need anything I am not being coy. If I need an external hard drive I will not drop subtle hints to friends and family, I will just go get it.

Practical people mystify me. If friend Agnes (not her real name) wants a a cranberry merino sweater from Macy’s she will send her brother Jeff (that is his real name) the link so he can one-click purchase it and Sara (oops) gets exactly what she wants. Granted this is no Gift of The Magi, but it is smart, efficient, and no one has to wander around the mall with a bunch of cretinous mouth breathers or suffer receiving another of Jeff’s beer steins. Still it robs Christmas morning of a certain spontaneity until it is revealed that the color was sold out (because Jeff waited) and he was forced to scramble. “Can you believe I was able to luck into the last one left?” he crows, “and it is mostly purple –go Vikes!”

It was probably 1982 and a couple we knew very well were moving from Minnesota to Pierre, South Dakota. Unencumbered by children and many possessions, they had rented a van and filled it to the brim. Before they could leave my friend’s teenage brother brought her and her husband a going away present, a very large over stuffed chair. He was 17 and had strapped it to the roof of his car and driven from Illinois. Sometimes presents are not practical but the gesture is so sweet. The couple are no longer together but I believe she still has the chair.

Tom H. Cook is a somewhat local writer and a complete washout the one time he agreed to participate in a Secret Santa program at work. (He resorted to “gifting” office supplies from his own desk.)fixit