Tag Archives: extended family

“You Can Really Taste the Savings”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Guy

Inquisitor: So, if you don’t mind my askin’, ya got kids?
Victim: No, just haven’t…
Inquisitor: We’ve got four.  They are gifts from God.  You and your better half church-goers?
Victim: We’re kind of lapsed Druids I guess…
Inquisitor: (crinkling her nose in skepticism and simultaneously pleased to have solved the mystery) Well there ya go.  They’re a lot of work but they bring so much joy.  Can’t imagine life without them.  JIMMY, GET DOWN FROM THERE AND GET OVER HERE NOW! QUIT YOUR SNIVELLING OR I’LL GIVE YA SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT!

Stranger Inquisition, or S.I., is a little understood malady which strikes relentlessly and without warning.  One in five Americans over the age of 21 are subjected to stranger scrutiny if they are unmarried, childless, or without grandchildren.  Possible side effects include mood swings, anger, rage, homicidal thoughts, and jaw discomfort due to excessive teeth clenching. The Diagnostic Statistics Manual (DSM-5) has chosen not to address S.I..  There is no government or private sector funding, nor are there any current studies underway in the United States.

Stranger Inquisition literature worldwide is also sparse.  There was Bachelors level research being done in Antwerp, Belgium and summarized in The Daily Twerp, a weekly shopper (June, 2006), almost a decade ago. What we do know is Stranger Inquisition is a result of close proximity of an inquisitor and a victim.  Actual physical contact need not occur, but quite often (59%) the inquisitor will squeeze the arm of the victim and on occasion (22%) pinch the cheek.

Inquisitors are generally women over fifty (84%) and gum chewers (97%).  They need only a few minutes of questioning to irritate a victim.  Being an inquisitor may have a genetic link, and seems to grant one immunity.  Two inquisitors alone in a confined space, an elevator for example, will quickly attempt to top each other with their quantity of grandchildren and the breeding prowess of their offspring.

Inquisitors would much rather attack what they see as an unbalanced molecule, namely a well coiffed person not bedraggled and frazzled to the point of exhaustion.  Telltale signs like gum in the hair, Silly  String embedded on suede shoes, or Happy Meal toys dangling from pockets signal a fellow parent.  Inquisitors are relentless proselytizers.  They attack early arrivals at business meetings, anyone not in a pack at social gatherings (pot lucks, community fund raisers, religious retreats), and in banks and grocery checkout lines.

JoAnne and I were married for almost ten years before having our first of two children.  We endured the questions and unsolicited advice.  Our daughter Rachael and then her brother Ben brought us not only great joy, but temporary relief from S.I. As I aged, the drumbeat for grandchildren began. Curiously, it was never sounded by anyone in the family.  Only a woman with the tattoo Born To Raise Children, driving an SUV with decals of stick figure children in the rear window, and sporting a bumper sticker “Ask me about my grandchildren,” had browbeaten me.  The arrival of granddaughter Charlotte a year and a half ago has not only been a wonderful addition, but has also silenced the inquisitors.

Now I am waiting for someone to say, “Only the one?” because by the time you read this we will hopefully be reveling in the arrival of Charlotte’s little brother, tentatively named The New Guy.

Tom H. Cook has never felt the need to wear a giant button with a picture of his children. He has never knowingly advised random strangers about their private business.  

belanko 1 by Tom Cassidy

belanko 1 by Tom Cassidy

Dogs Outnumber the People

Generally it makes sense to write about a family holiday event after it happens, if at all.   Crazy Uncle Louie face down making snow angels on the shag carpet.  Teetotaling Aunt Bessie accidentally getting into the spiked punch and using her false teeth as castanets, or the kids making a surprise skating rink by damming up and flooding the garage.  This is good stuff you cannot make up.  A few humorous anecdotes, a bit of wit and wisdom, an encompassing comment on the universality of humankind, and wishes of peace and prosperity in the new year.  These columns practically write themselves.

My family and friends are less colorful.  These are nice folks, and I love them all, but I cannot remember any of them doing anything zany enough for me to write about.  This year may be different, as there are a few added ingredients.  The “perfect storm” analogy has become so cliched it is used to explain school board election results, a pot luck with only potato salads, or an entire HR department getting matching tattoos.

Still, while it may not be a storm, or close to perfect, my doppler radar indicates this may be a memorable holiday.  I have always been one to surprise JoAnne with extra people for dinner because I thought the resultant mix would provide either kumbaya warmth or degenerate into an uncomfortable evening of back biting and name calling.  As a fan of chaos, I am looking forward to this holiday season.

I am writing now because I will probably be involved in home repair, or at the very least, carpet cleaning and will certainly not be in a reflective mood by this time next month.  If all goes according to plan, we will have eight dogs beginning the third week of December and through New Year’s Day.

The “cousins” are coming!  They are daughter Rachael’s three rather large and very friendly dogs.  She and her husband Daniel are wisely leaving the country and we get the kids.  Our boxer and border collie (Cowboy and Hannah) love to romp through our very small house with their cousin.  Henry and Jane are a sweet puggle and border collie pair that come over most days as they live nearby with their mom, a close friend.

These seven know each other well, but the piece de resistance will be Sadie, a chocolate lab from Minneapolis who will be the surprise guest of honor.  Our dear friends Jay and Cheryl have just retired (Cheryl from the U of M) and are coming to stay with us.  They are driving Miss Sadie.  Our son Ben and daughter-in-law Erin have real lives and will sadly arrive dogless.  A few brave human friends are invited, but much of the time we will balance on the tipping point with the dogs outnumbering the people, which is fine with us.


Tom H. Cook is a sometimes writer who lives on a busy street in Redondo Beach, where firetrucks are not uncommon.   AAAARROOOOO!   



Ben and Erin’s Mexican Wedding

If you don’t like Mexicans, why did you move here?
  — Bumper sticker, San Pancho, Mexico

Ben is like Tom, only mature.
 — Comment from a long time family friend

We all want our children to exceed us; I just thought it would take a little longer.           –My toast at Ben’s wedding

San Francisco, nicknamed San Pancho, is a little town of about a thousand, on the Pacific Ocean an hour north of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.  It is a beautiful place to get married.  Our son Ben and his sweetheart Erin invited fifty lucky folks to witness and participate in their wedding this past Thanksgiving.  Instead of a holiday of tepid turkey, dry stuffing, surly relatives, and endless football games, we enjoyed a moving, joyful ceremony on the beach at sunset.

The “kids” (each 28) met during their first year of college and have been together ever since.  Organizationally I would have difficulty getting three couples together for a pot luck.  Erin and Ben planned, coordinated and hosted a stupendous week in a foreign country 2,000 miles away.  Their younger friends went snorkeling, horseback riding on the beach, and exploring the local night life.  They also lined up enough adventure and challenge to delight the crew of potentially grumpy old people.  There were welcome parties, swimming in an infinity pool a hundred feet above the ocean, a rehearsal dinner, lunches, and free time (read naps) for those so inclined. There was a wild bachelor party that through a comedy of errors my invitation was lost.  Except for that, the flow of events was seamless.

I hesitate to draw attention to San Pancho.  While some ex-pats blend right in, there are the gauche, like the gringo who had a private 9 hole golf course built for his own very occasional use.  The economic slowdown has derailed a number of planned developments.  In one case there is a wrought iron gate supported by impressive stone arches.  Alas it is not protecting anything, but one day it will be very exclusive.

The local Mexican community seems to take the boom and bust in stride.  The only bridge into town was washed out in the last rains.  Fortunately the river is dry now and cars (but not trucks) can make it through the gully.  It seems that the twenty founding families have intermarried and make up most of the one thousand residents.  The next generation simply finds an unoccupied portion of family land and without benefit of building codes or inspection, builds a small home.

The pace is slow.  Everybody knows everybody.  The pool man’s sister is a nurse. She can send her husband, who works at the restaurant you ate at last night, on an errand to get you the medicine you need.  The tailor is married to the house keeper whose brother is a mechanic who can fix the flat tire you got attempting to navigate the cobblestone road.  The informal network of goods and services puts Craig’s List to shame.

It was Erin’s parents, Linda and Julian, who first introduced the kids to the village of San Pancho.  Linda, JoAnne and I were at the same university together (although we did not know each other then) and Julian’s New Jersey high school was a rival of mine.  It took our children falling in love to bring us together.  Their generosity made so much of the wedding possible, and they are a rollicking good time.

We were able to invite Jay and Cheryl, our oldest and closest Minnesota friends, who have known Ben all his life.  Whether the four of us were sitting poolside overlooking the ocean, shopping at a local market, bumping over the rutted streets, or watching the dance moves of the younger wedding guests, our eyes would meet, and the unstated message would be, “I cannot believe we are here. I sure didn’t see this coming when we met 33 years ago.”

At this point I might get mawkishly sentimental and metaphoric about the bumps on the road of life, but I am still too happy looking at wedding photos and awaiting the honeymooners’ return.

Tom H. Cook is just a dad. Ben is a Barton and South High grad, and his wife Erin (that’s the first time I have written that) loves Minneapolis; wise woman.

I May Need More Friends

I may need more friends.  I get enough holiday cards and can usually find someone to talk to, but I feel that I am somehow missing out.  I made a few friends growing up, then some more in college, and then many special people when I lived and worked in the Minneapolis community.  The problem is I met most of my dear friends before the Internet explosion.  They are a fine, loyal, and irreverent lot and certainly better than I deserve, but I do not think my circle is providing me with a full range of the spectrum of e-mail attachments.

I am receiving some of the very clever anti-Bush cartoons from my politically active friends, and I do get many of the signage photos like “Bridge Out Slow to 60” from my sardonic peers.   Still I see the stuff being passed via You Tube by admittedly younger, hipper acquaintances and my friends are just light-years behind.  Granted I do not even know how to copy an attachment to send to twenty people, but when I was making life-long friends, who knew the ability to cull interesting snippets from cyberspace would be so important?

Every day I get countless Rogaine and Viagra ads (which JoAnne claims she has nothing to do with) dumped in my in box.  Between that and the insipid quasi-personal notes from someone named Martinique or Gladys that say “Let’s get back in touch”  it is rare to receive an attachment picturing a bulldozer sinking in a swamp.  I like hearing how my friends are doing, but the photo collage sequence of Madonna morphing into Mick Jagger is what you buy a computer for.  My friends are pretty good about finding the photos of a long line of traffic brought to a stand-still by three turtles trudging across the highway, but they are not finding the edgier stuff.

David Brooks wrote a particularly humorous Shouts and Murmurs piece in The New Yorker recently about E-name dropping and status.  Brooks clued me into noticing the other recipients who receive the same correspondence.  Since most people do not use blind copy, you can see who else is receiving it.  I tend to get lumped with grandparents and obscure relatives.  Still, the next time I write to others I may borrow his idea and subtly pad my list of other recipients like bdylan@columbiarec.org and bgates@microsoft.com.  Perhaps if my few remaining friends see they are in the company of nmailer@randomhouse.org, kannan@UN.org hberry@tristarpictures.net, and gclooney@warnerbros.com they will send me better stuff.

Tom H. Cook is planning to go on assignment for The Hill and Lake Press to New Zealand to see if the toilets do flu

Making Friends

Me:  “Wow, Brick, three goals in one period!  That must be some kind of WESAC scoring record.  Your son Caesar is some soccer player.”

Brick:  “Your boy out there?”

Me:  “Yup, old number 87, he’s a sparkplug.  He’s left safety defense rover back…”

Brick:  “He’s eating grass.”

Me:  “At first glance, yes, it appears that way, but he’s just decoying them down to his sideline, and he’ll get up and steal the ball and boom it up to Caesar, you’ll see.  Say Brick, since our kids are teammates and we’re neighbors…”

Brick:  “You live on Mount Curve?”

Me:  “Not exactly, we’re more down the hill and the other side of the park and closer to Hennepin.  We looked to buy on the hill but we needed the access to the busy streets… Besides we’re up here all the time, sledding in the winter…”

Brick:  “You’re the guy with that rusty old Datsun that parks in front of my house.”

Me:  Actually it’s a Nissan, Brick.  Anyway, my wife and I were thinking since the boys play on the same team that you and your wife may want to come to a little dinner party we’re throwing, nothing fancy mind you, local caterer…it’s on the 17th …”

Brick:  “Pick it up, Caesar…shoot…”

Me:  “I know a month is kind of short notice. I’m gonna go check the Gatorade supply now, it must be almost halftime. You can get back with me on that dinner thing… It’s kind of a hectic time for all of us…”

Maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, but I will spare you my high school stories that are worse.  My point is that making new friends can be tricky.  Dr. Phil would probably call it a leap of intimacy, or a step of trust building, but getting to know another person requires an element of risk.  Whether during high school (“I thought you just wanted help you’re your algebra.”), or inviting a work colleague out for a beer and finding out they have more than a passing interest in Scientology, you are taking a chance.

How to make friends is the fodder for self help books, Sunday supplement articles, and really boring masters level theses.  For JoAnne and me, many of our close friendships evolved through activities of our children. The babysitting co-op, play group, skating lessons at Parade, or Barton School.  Our kids led us to events where we had something in common with other parents.  Granted, with some the only other things we shared were opposable thumbs, bilateral symmetry, and living on land.  Nonetheless, sports and school gave us a base to work from.  In hindsight I realize that having a boy and a girl provided us with many opportunities to get to know some wonderful people.

Even when they were very young, our kids were unerringly accurate at forecasting the parents JoAnne and I would like.  The dad might have been almost bald and the mom a corporate lawyer, we often discovered that we were kindred spirits.   When the subject of college years came up, we could begin to tell if they had been in SDS or sang tenor in Up With People, whether they had followed the Grateful Dead or had been a “Goldwater Girl”.  Still, inviting our children’s classmates’ parents to a no kids dinner party or an R- rated movie can feel like a bait and switch.  On occasion I felt more like a stammering teenager than a confident, worldly, erudite, stammering thirty-five year old getting to know the cooler parents at Barton.

As the kids grew and became more independent, JoAnne and I were launched.  Fortunately we had gathered enough left-leaning, tree hugging, acoustic music playing, New York Times reading, Chomsky quoting, film loving, Guthrie going, and letter to the editor writing types to last us a Minnesota lifetime.  These dear people are still our friends, as loyalty– even to sunshine patriots such as ourselves who flee to California after twenty-five years– is perhaps their paramount virtue.

Making friends without our children as entrée took an unexpected turn when JoAnne’s mother moved to a nearby, medium-sized (140 apartment) senior residence.  Since then we have met many of her neighbors and their families. Their children are about our age, and I see budding friendships. Thanks, Mom.


Tom H. Cook is a local writer on a long leash.  The scariest trick or treaters he saw last month were dressed as Karl Rove and Dick Cheney





Elderly Divorce

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Getting Ready for the Wedding

To:  Jean Deatrick/Jane Johnson

Editors Hill and Lake Press

My life is a pleasant blur and, given the rush of activity around me, I am unable to submit a column for this month.  I know that the graduation issue is much appreciated by the community and I am sorry to miss the opportunity to participate, but things could not be more hectic around here.  Our daughter Rachael is getting married in a few days and her fiancée Daniel’s parents just arrived from their home in New Zealand.  We all decided that a civilized first meeting would be a dinner at our house.  Cooking, cleaning, shopping, I do not know how JoAnne did it all.  You know I’m kidding. It was a team effort, except for the bathing of the dogs.

It is the morning after and we are still basking in the glow of a wonderful evening.  Daniel’s mother Heather is warm, friendly and gracious, and his father John is perhaps even sillier than I am.  The night was uproarious, momentous, and satisfying.  How does it happen that your children become friends, adults, and good dinner table company?  It seems so recent that we had to struggle to get both Rachael and Ben to eat with us without the distraction of the phone or the TV.  To have both of our kids, with their partners, and everyone laughing, talking, and eating together, was just not something I could have imagined.

Rather than get married in any of the numerous churches, parks, botanical gardens, halls, arboretums, community centers, beaches, sweat lodges, vacant lots, bowling alleys, or private homes in Los Angeles County, Rachael and Daniel are wisely ignoring my advice and having a destination wedding in Napa Valley.  The rationale, as I understand it, is to spread the inconvenience about and have the ceremony in a spot that no one can easily access.  The hope is that it becomes a vacation getaway for everyone.  Rather than have people adjourn to a moose hall with a cash bar and dance by jukebox (my suggestion) we will all be out in a vineyard hundreds of miles from home, bonding and eating grapes.

I am glad that Rachael and Daniel made up the guest list.  They attempted to balance New Zealanders with North Americans, relatives they have never seen with close friends, and still keep it under 75 guests.  The Kerry and Bush strategists would have understood the dilemma.  Can you invite one cousin and not another?  When the dominoes start falling you can end up with a total stranger (someone’s date) taking the spot of an uncle.  I think in the first draft guest list I was on the bubble.

If  you think that others have been through similar wedding preparation madness, use this as my column and I will provide an uncensored account of the festivities next month.