Tag Archives: challenge

What Me Worry?

Don’t worry, be happy.
-Bobby McFerrin

Keep Calm and Carry On
-Ministry of Information, British Government
June, 1939

No worries
—Australian/British/New Zealand expression (also Canadian)

What me worry?guy by Tom Cassidy
—Alfred E, Neuman (Mad Magazine)

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
—Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer (Alcoholics Anonymous)

I don’t know if I am a born worrier or if years of practice has helped me to perfect my craft. I am unable to refrain from fretting, speculating, and fixating on what might happen. My current conundrum is the coming election. Like many, I feel that Donald Trump may not represent the best interests of those of us who live on land. His poor showing in the recent polls would suggest that victory is unlikely and the billions of dollars in advertising and the thousands of pundit hours are unnecessary.

Yet potential voters will still be harangued by fresh faced canvassers, robocalls, TV ads, and glossy mailers. People other than me will accost their neighbors outside supermarkets, stuff envelopes, and hold bake sales, car washes, and fancy fund raisers. My job during elections is to read everything I can find, bother my few remaining friends, and worry.

I fear that if a chambermaid short-sheets Trump’s bed at a Best Western in Jacksonville, he may spend the entirety of a presidential debate complaining about it. (With most candidates “handlers” is just an expression.) Then I began to worry. What if Trump quits? Does he have the character and fortitude to stick it out and face a landslide, or is he more a “take his ball and go home” kind of guy?

What if RNC chair Wisconsinite Reince Priebus cooks up a deal with fellow Badger House Speaker Paul Ryan to run? Many differ with Ryan’s policies but most agree that he is not insane. Talk about a lowered bar. Trump is polling slightly ahead of Kim Jong-un among women 18-54. Do I need the frat boy bully to remain engaged, and just successful enough to make it to November? How exactly do you go about rooting for that?

I was in full worry mode when I happened to re-watch Bridge of Spies, a Cold War drama directed by Steven Spielberg. Set in 1961 at the height of the Red scare, it is the true story of the trial of Russian spy Rudolf Abel. Tom Hanks is attorney James Donovan, tasked with defending Abel. Mark Rylance received an Academy Award for his nuanced portrayal of Abel as more than a borsht slurping villain in heavy overshoes and a cheap suit. Donovan and Abel form a lawyer/client relationship of necessity that develops into respect and friendship. Early on Donovan informs Abel that he faces charges of espionage and that the death penalty is “on the table.” Abel responds drolly, ”That wouldn’t be my first choice.” Donovan appears more anxious than his client as the case unfolds. The lawyer envies his client’s composure. After a crucial ruling goes against them Donovan turns to Abel and asks, “Aren’t you alarmed?” Abel answers, “Would it help?”

This is my lesson!

Donovan escorts Abel to the exchange point where he is to be swapped for Powers. Now friends, the lawyer is fearful of returning Abel to the Soviets. With drawn machine guns everywhere, Donovan asks Abel what he is going to do when he gets back. Abel replies “Have a vodka.” Donovan tries again, “Are you worried they will kill you?” Abel responds, “Would it help?”

Am I worried the republic will crumble and we will be ruled by a madman and a party of spineless sycophants? Would it help?

Tom H. Cook ran a precinct for George McGovern in 1972.

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.  

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

Words With Friends

Playing “bop” is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.      –Duke Ellington

I was peacefully enjoying the prime of my senility.  Content to watch the carnival of politicians wreathe, contort, and embarrass themselves, turning into figures of pity and scorn as they shamelessly pander and grovel for the highest office in the land.  A friend, perhaps concerned about my increasing interest in my other hobby (looking for two identical salt crystals), challenged me to play WORDS WITH FRIENDS, a bastardized form of Scrabble.  WWF is an app for those who find talking on the phone, shaving, and making breakfast, all while driving, not challenging enough.  Young Type A multi-taskers may squeeze in games with up to twenty opponents during spare seconds of their busy days,or at night as a way to unwind during the slow parts of action movies, or romantic dinners.

For me it is all I am able to do.  I have become frustrated, enthralled, and addicted to this silly exercise.  I live in a world where vice ((11 points) is better than nice (9 points). and a quarter (17 points) is worth almost twice as much as a dollar (9 points).  You can play with strangers of all skill levels to sharpen your game.  I prefer to be humiliated by those closest to me.  I am not being modest when I say I am not very good.  “The Scrabble Book” by Derryn Hinch states that the game is only 12 percent luck, I prefer to believe that I have just been slow to adjust to the bare knuckles reality of WWF.

Hinch suggests there are two approaches.  With thinly veiled disdain, he describes expansive play, laying down long words that may impress your partner but produce few points.  The rest of the chapter is devoted to playing tight which sadly does not involve drinking.  A tight strategy focuses on hooks (like plumbers’ elbow joints) that redirect the game to triple letter and triple word squares.  The point total of a well placed pluralizing “S” or a prefix or suffix can dwarf the original offering.  Just yesterday my cleverly arranged CAVORT (13 pts.) was eclipsed by my opponent’s added “S” in a triple word square.  The skillful player then sandwiched my word with parallel two and three letter words. I am not sure if “words” like (EF, TA, XU, EFS, PFT, SUQ) are vocabulary building, but 93 points later I was in no mood to cavort.

The tight approach is more than making words/points; it features a defensive plan of attack.  Like the game Stalingrad (which I have never played but witnessed a roommate’s two year battle in college), WWF requires blocking your opponent with words that cannot be added to, and capturing the triple letter and triple word squares. It is also imperative to memorize small obscure words that do not come up in polite conversation like crwth (an ancient stringed instrument), phpht (an alternative form of pht), and cwm (Welsh for valley).  I have yet to use glycls (a residue present in a polypeptide), or thymy (fragrant smell of thyme) but I am ready.

WWF also records when moves are made.  I know more of the sleep and work habits of my friends than I care to.  The game is something of a Rorschach test.  Liberal arts majors lay down different words than engineers.  I play with my son Ben, whose final scores almost double mine.  This is fine with me as he will someday be providing my care.  I watch the window for my neighbor.  She and her kids are blithely unloading their Costco run, not realizing I have the drawn the “Z” to make the word SYZYGY!  One friend called to make sure our relationship would survive our fervent long distance war of words.

Besides working my brain a little, playing has helped exorcise some negative feelings I had buried about competition.  Scrabble games of my youth began with harmless bluffing and degenerated into loud altercations.  Some boor would think that if you slowly enunciated the word but in a sufficiently loud and menacing tone it would jog the memory of the other players.  Invariably Noah Webster’s name would be impugned, and the dictionary thrown across the room. A pleasant element of WWF is the immediate (no appeal) scoring feature.  This is not Scrabble, there are word discrepancies, omissions and head scratching inclusions, but the resulting peace, as the commercial says, is priceless.

Tom H. Cook currently holds a record of 5-12 (single play high score of 76 points) since devoting most of his waking hours to Words With Friends.  He is beginning to like non-Scrabble playing people better.

We Need Money!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wellstone

Fun for 50-year-olds

This is not going to be another rant about all of the parties I was not invited to in high school. In the ensuing years I have attended a few of what passes for fun for 50-year olds, namely political or charity fund-raising galas at stately Kenwood homes. I did not move to California to make one last desperate attempt the join the ‘in crowd’.  I have made peace with the realization that the ‘hip’ recognize each other by some vibration sense they emanate similar to how dolphins communicate (see John Lilly’s early work on  pecking order, “Dolphins: Too Cool For School”.  Random House, 1964).

Even if I make it to nursing home age, I know that I will end up off the lower lobby by the ice machine away from the digitized laser projection room where the action happens.  Still I am not some rube who is so easily impressed that I will write gushy words about anyone who offers me a crab puff or a warm glass of domestic wine.  In short, I am not some open-mouthed goober who fawns over my social betters in a pathetic search for acceptance.  I have been around and take my responsibilities as the Hill and Lake Press foreign correspondent seriously.

Whew, so much for the disclaimer, now let me tell you about the way cool party I somehow was invited to in the toney Holmby Hills/Bel-Air section of Los Angeles on August 13th.  It was a fundraiser for the only national politician I believe in, Paul Wellstone.  Because the Republican Party has targeted him and funneled considerable resources to his opponent, Wellstone needs to aggressively seek contributions from supporters in other parts of the country.  Wanting to do the paper proud, I  employed the journalism techniques of pleading and groveling to be included.

It was great to rub elbows with Hollywood’s liberal chic.  I felt like I was back in Kenwood, but instead of hanging out with sewer commissioners and tenured humanities professors from Augsburg, these were television and movie people.  The producer of “Pulp Fiction”, Lawrence Bender, who was conveniently in China, made his home available, and some of his minions made my wife and daughter and I feel welcome as they steered me away from some of the more fragile artwork.  The home, gated and stately, was made of stone and elegant woods.  It would not have been out of place on Lake of the Isles.  The gathering was in the back yard on a beautiful summer evening.

I am not C.J. or Sid Hartman, and it is difficult for me to calmly intersperse famous names and keep a coherent narrative going, so I will just spill.  JoAnne and my daughter Rachael cautioned me that they would leave me “with my new friends” if I embarrassed them in any way.  I remained calm in my conversation with the valet and did not start gushing for over two minutes. In my defense, the first person I met was Bradley Whitford.  I am a devoted fan of “West Wing” and his character, Josh Lyman.  We spoke of his work at the Guthrie in the 80’s and of his wife, Jane Kaczmarek (“Malcolm in the Middle”), being from Wisconsin.  He then went off to talk with Ed Begley Jr. (“St. Elsewhere”), while I mentally replayed our conversation a few hundred times.  I gave myself a B-.  I was not obsequious, nor did I ask fan questions, but in hindsight I may have shaken hands with him a few too many times (4), and he did kind of sprint over to Ed Begley.

Mike Farrell (B.J. from “M.A.S.H.”) was very gracious.  He was born in St. Paul and still has many relatives there.  I also enjoyed meeting Esai Morales (“American Family”) who is very committed to environmental and social justice issues.  I did not speak to Ariana Huffington, but she seems to have forsaken her political career after spending millions of her own money running for Congress.  She was one of the hosts and is clearly a Wellstone supporter.  Josh Hartnett was there and we were able to catch up about the neighborhood and the Faveros, our mutual friends in East Isles.  Senator Paul Simon of Illinois came to lend support for Wellstone.  He was quiet and unassuming.  Although he declined to make a speech, his presence spoke volumes. Tom Daschle, the Senate majority leader, was the host, but he didn’t stay to help clean up.

Senator Daschle was introduced by Brad Whitford which provided an interesting blur of television and real life.  Though Daschle’s task was to introduce Paul, he also took time to speak about the wonderful partnership the Wellstones have and the key role Sheila plays on behalf of those struggling with mental illness.  She shares his zeal and commitment to the disenfranchised.

The Wellstones’ recall of campaign volunteers and events is staggering.   I believe that Sheila and Paul actually remembered me from some rallies in Minnesota.  They are such absolutely authentic people with a genuine congruence between their private and public selves.  They are a truly inspiring couple and my face hurts from smiling just knowing they are in Washington working tirelessly for issues and causes rather than the narrow self interests of corporations.

As the featured speaker, Paul Wellstone did not disappoint.  He spoke eloquently, and took questions, displaying his passion and encyclopedic knowledge of issues ranging from the Twins to the Middle East.  As usual he was casually dressed and as he spoke his jacket became an encumbrance to making  points about the economy so he took it off.  Soon he was sweating through his collarless shirt.  When James Brown does it, it is a show, with Wellstone it is sincere.  There were perhaps seventy of us gathered around him.  He speaks with the same sincerity, urgency, poignancy and dedication, whether he is on the Senate floor, in front of thousands at the Minnesota State Fair, or at a small gathering in the Hollywood Hills.

An hour later, as darkness fell, the powerful guests, the behind-the-scenes Hollywood movers and shakers had hurried off to dinner at Spago’s.  Paul remained in an animated discussion with Josh Hartnett.  Soon they were wrestling playfully.  Next Wellstone spoke earnestly with Esai Morales  who later whispered to me in awe, “He (Wellstone) is Mr. Smith,”  (meaning from the old Frank Capra film).  Finally my family succeeded in dragging me away, but Paul and Sheila were still involved in a passionate discussion with the five or six remaining guests.  In this world of gray interchangeable politicians all I could think was how truly fortunate we are to have Paul Wellstone representing us. Wellstone 2

Tom H. Cook is still a Minnesotan at heart and will be voting by absentee ballot this fall.       

Sale-ing Sale-ing

It’s spring and the telephone poles are in bloom with hastily-stapled iridescent lure, tempting even the most ascetic of us to come this Saturday, 10-4, to 22nd and Emerson and peruse and possess the riches of “40 years’ accumulation.”  It is garage sale season.  Breathes there a man or woman with soul so dead, or full, that they can pass up a promising porch sale?

Why are garage sales so alluring?  An obvious answer is, “It is a good way to pick up stuff cheap.”  That is about a C- response, lacking depth and insight.  It would be like concluding that watching Jerry Lewis on television over Labor Day weekend for 36 straight hours scares millions of children into returning to school each fall.

Let’s transcend the obvious and explore…WHY PEOPLE GO TO GARAGE SALES

  1. Economic – All right, maybe you had a point with that stuff-for-cheap argument.  The Book, the one that Oprah, Phil, and Steve and Sharon agreed would change your life a few years ago is now in paperback with most of the cover on and, aside from being warmly inscribed to Janet from Aunt Betty, appears to be in mint condition.  No longer $18.95, it is yours for a quarter, or they will throw it in if you buy the blender. With an air of eager nonchalance you fish for a quarter and soon you are the holder of the truth.  An innocent walk has led you to an impressive addition to your bookcase.
  2. Social – A beautiful actress, an extra at the Guthrie, an enchanting woman fifteen years my junior, was moving to Paris to join her lover.  We talked of Europe and the arts, the role of the intellectual, the tepidness of life in America…  I bought her toaster.
  3. Political – Garage sales are Everyman/Everywoman   Without sounding like Tom Joad (or Henry Fonda) in The Grapes of Wrath, sales are open and democratic.  They are American, capitalistic, consumptive, the product of planned obsolescence.  They are the essence of a marked economy with true supply and demand, without artificial tariffs and regulations.  It is buyer beware, free enterprise, no taxes or inflation.  When I went to my first sale 20 years ago, all the Readers Digests you could carry was a buck, and it still is.

    For the politically correct, sales are ecological.  Every widget you rescue from your neighbor is one less that needs to be manufactured or thrown into a landfill.  Sales help us live off of the excess produced by multinational corporations that plunder scarce resources of third world countries.  These imperialist superpowers who risk war to create markets are powerless to stop us from buying a used smoke detector.

  4. The Challenge – It is Saturday morning on a beautiful summer day.  You are Norman Schwartzkopf plotting strategy.  Is it worth going to 46th and Pleasant for a sale that starts at 8, or will that leave you hopelessly out of position to get to an 8:30 on Queen?  What if the sale on Xerxes opens earlier that the ad states?  What if the professional sharpies clean out all of the good stuff while you are stuck in a basement on Bryant?

    It is your morning, in this amorphous grey world of limited options and lesser of evils.  You get to make real decisions.  Will it be the second day of a promising sale or the first day of a sale that feels like a dud?  You control your own destiny.  How well do you do is quantifiable, and instantly measurable.

  5. Overchoice – There is so much out there in stores, I don’t even know what I want.  There are 47 shades of green towels.  They all look better on the fancy displays than they ever do in my bathroom.  If I find one at that stylish house on 17th and Knox, I know that someone with good taste selected it.  Case closed.
  6. Not Sold in Stores – Like on late-night television, there are things that just are not available retail.  Big clunky wood speakers, Blind Lemon Jefferson albums.  The world is moving too fast.  My dreamed-of childhood possessions didn’t wait for me.  I saved my money, grew up, and now all the great stuff I imagined owning is compact, digital, high-resolution imitation veneer.
  7. The unique and possibly valuable – You won’t find a signed Hemingway at Target.  You probably won’t on Colfax, either, but you never know.  What is up the alley or in the garage?  People moving, divorcing, retiring, or just spring cleaning do strange things.

My favorite sales those held by well-stocked materialistic individuals who fall in love late in life.  Beyond the joy they have found in each other, it is heartwarming to watch them realize that they don’t need two fondue pots.  They are blending their lives, and I am something like the clergyman that they exchange vows to.  Their relationship is publicly tested and forced to the next level of commitment as the sell me the other popcorn popper.

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Right up there with the joy of acquiring is having my own sale and purging my home of all that once glittered.  Frankly, I don’t understand what people see in junk.

 

Tom H. Cook is an odd man.  Call him before you discard any old Frank Sinatra albums or ties with the likeness of Wendell Wilkie on them.