Tag Archives: sharing

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.








“The Glitch”

Blessed are the forgetful, for they get the better even of their blunders.                                                                     ––Freidrich Nietzsche

If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.                                                                       —Edgar Allan Poe

Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I have forgotten this before.

—Steven Wright

 I am not perfect. As an opening line this is not up there with Dickens’ “It was the best of times,” Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” or even “It was a dark and stormy night,” but it did get your attention. My follies, foibles and slothful habits are well documented (see HLP 1985-present) or have a brief conversation with JoAnne (wife/editor) or any of the dwindling number of people who grudgingly admit to some shared level of friendship.

Around the house I have always considered myself a gazelle, frolicking from room to room, not creating a stir or upsetting the order of things. In my mind I put the top back on the toothpaste, refold the newspaper after reading, and place my empty tea cup in the dishwasher.   I see myself as a good person because my religion preaches that while we are all God’s children, He/She grades on a curve. As long as I can stay ahead of the troubled people who appear on reality television or hold political office, I am fine. I do, however, have a quirk known as “The Glitch.”

“The Glitch” is a lifetime malady not related to being in the prime of my senility. It is this: clearly imagine myself completing a simple task, such as making a peanut butter sandwich. I picture myself replacing the lid on the jar. I have done this literally thousands of times. (I am old and I really like peanut butter.) When someone, usually the editor, finds the open jar, I am baffled and at a loss to explain why it is missing.

Sitting at my desk, I see a wadded up Visa bill under a chair on the other side of the room. I distinctly remember the shot I launched with 00:04 seconds left in the half (a rainbow sky hook from 9 feet out) that nestled into the wastepaper basket. The crowd went wild, and then I returned to bill paying. However, there on the floor is the balled up paper mocking me. I also imagine and remember putting dirty clothes found under the bed into the hanmper, shutting open cupboards, and turning off lights before bed. The Glitch tells me I have done these things because on countless occasions I have.

Never mind my carbon footprint, someone is leaving muddy ones on the living room carpet although I distinctly remember checking my shoes before coming in. My “come to Jesus” moment came a few weeks ago when the editor was in Minneapolis for a weaving conference.   With no one to blame, I began to notice how many jobs were partially completed despite my clear recollection to the contrary. Dinner dishes I washed carefully took on grease and chunks of food overnight!

The Internet, a fairly good resource for many questions, is strangely silent on “The Glitch.”   After ruling out that I am distracted, lazy, careless, or preoccupied, what remains is a mystery.

guy4Tom H. Cook still feels like a Minnesotan. If everyone who visits him in southern California brings the TSA-permitted three ounces of liquid, his lawn will still die.

Sand Upon the Waters is on the Web

I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work…I want to achieve immortality through not dying                                   —Woody Allen

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.                     —Eleanor Roosevelt


Walking with a much younger friend the other day, I shared the news that I am developing a web presence.  My sister Nanci, a web designer visiting from British Columbia, was organizing my HLP columns and composing a website.  “I never thought of you as narcissistic” was my friend’s response.  It gave me pause.  

Granted, I subject old friends and former neighbors to my struggles and missteps on a monthly basis, but my portrayals rarely cast me in a positive light.  Of the seven deadly sins I mostly exhibit sloth, impulsivity, and a tenuous relationship between cause and effect.  I do not crave attention, but rather serve as a cautionary tale. I hope for, if not universality, at least  a faint recognition. My goal is to write about the important issues of the day, like garage sales, the conspiracy of objects, and what happens if you have nine dogs over for Christmas dinner.  Heady stuff.

Do my columns merely serve as a buffer between real estate ads in a community newspaper, or are they, as one reader suggested, a desperate cry for help?  The real question is Are they worth preserving?  I am not talking Smithsonian, but JoAnne is tired of the boxes of newspapers that I seem incapable of discarding or organizing.  (An aside: the word fire hazard is tossed around entirely too blithely in contemporary culture.) 

I have written more than three hundred columns since 1980 and a compromise seems to be storing them in “The Cloud,” not in the basement, which we don’t have.  Nanci to the rescue.  She has searched for themes, added photos, and put together through wizardry and hard work a web site.  Might a book publisher or Hollywood literary type decide that my collected columns would make a best seller and a vehicle for Ben Stiller? I am more likely to attract a bored actuary from Dayton. 

As to the original charge of self absorption, I fear my motives are even more grandiose.  I do not paint, sculpt, or create in any meaningful way.  My website may be more like a futile grasp for immortality.  I get no money for clicks or visitors, but humor me and check it out at sanduponthewaters.net.

Tom H. Cook is grateful to The Hill and Lake Press for untold patience and friendship.



Fall Reflections

An amazing invention, but who would ever use one?

                                                                 –President Rutherford B. Hayes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learning the Hard Way

Just when I thought I was out…they pull me back in.              —Michael Corleone (The Godfather III)

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nathaniel West, Natty Bumppo, James Fenimore Cooper, Henry James, James Thurber, James Joyce, Joyce Kilmer.  The Crucible, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, The Mill and the Floss, Silas Marner, George Eliot, T.S. Eliot, J. Alfred Prufrock.  Bret Harte, Hart Crane, Stephen Crane, Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving, John Irving.  It is all mushing together.

In my fourth final retirement, someone with a sense of humor thought it would be amusing for me to teach English full-time for three months while the bonafide teacher is on maternity leave. I just finished my second month and am totally immersed in the curriculum of high school juniors and seniors.  We are cramming for the SAT’s, reading short stories, and beginning The Great Gatsby.  Soon I will be worrying about acne, passing the road test for my driver’s license, curfew, and getting a date for the Spring Fling.

I am not quite sure why I am here.  Perhaps my function is to serve as a placeholder because I have no ambition or designs on a tenured position.  A younger job seeker may not have wanted to commit and risk losing out on a steadier gig.  It may also be the work of the mischievous gods and sprites that hide car keys, cell phones, and important papers.  I also suspect that I have, as the psychologists say, “unfinished business” around this stage in my life.

When I was sixteen, only a few close friends knew that my mother had become bedridden with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disorder that, combined with cancer, would soon take her.  High school was the lowest point in my life.  As a self-absorbed adolescent, I felt my mother’s illness made me different, and I was the holder of an embarrassing secret.  Many wince at recalling their high school years, but I squint, grimace, and change the subject.

It is odd but cathartic to walk the crowded, locker-filled hallways, albeit 3,000 miles and light years away.   It feels wonderful to be surrounded by so much youth, hope, energy, and anxiety.  I feel empathy for my students and the complexity of their lives. Searching for an example of irony in honors literature, I shared that my first foray into any kind of an advanced class was as their teacher.  It is great to have age, experience, maturity, and the teacher’s edition of the text.  Like returning to a long-neglected crossword puzzle with fresh eyes, I am able to interpret poems, short stories, and novels that were a jumble to me when I was in school.

In high school terms, athletes talk about when they are “in a groove” and playing well: the game “slows down.”  They feel poised and confident even when the ball and other players are moving at breakneck speed.  Teaching can be that way.  Thirty young people in a small room for 55 minutes can feel chaotic.  Mastering the curriculum and presenting it with appropriate respect and more than occasional irreverence is a challenge.  Apologies to William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” but I feel that in football jargon, I am the wizened, grizzled quarterback.  “My head is bloody but unbowed.”  I am now able to call a smart play, and deliver a floating spiral to the right spot downfield.  My students are running mental patterns everywhere but toward Willa Cather.  I do not control the outcome but often above the din and indifference…touchdown!!!

Sharing what I have learned the long hard way is very fulfilling.  It also doesn’t hurt to have the answer key.


Tom H. Cook is still befuddled by Booth Tarkington, Thomas B. Costain, and Eudora Welty.   He is able to distinguish Sinclair Lewis from Upton Sinclair.

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