Monday, October 17, 2016

A Tale All Too Familiar To Parents

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published October 19, 2016] ©2016 
Ever since I could put pen to paper, I’ve been a diary and journal writer which is actually the sum total of my writing training, along with a lifetime of letter writing. 
Every once in a while, I go back through journals to see what I wrote and often find stories about experiences I’d long since forgotten. Usually it was for a good reason. The following is a case in point.
In 1988, my now-husband Olof was in his second year of what would be a total of eight years commuting down to my home on weekends from the Bay area. My older son Rory was 11.
Journal, Oct. 3, 1988
Rory has decided he wants to build a gismo from a kit. (Reminds me so much of my brother at that age. Happiness was a Lafayette Radio catalog and ten bucks.)  I keep trying to explain to him that Mommy is not talented in this area, and that Olof, who is, is only here at the moment on alternate weekends. Rory is undaunted. He has saved money from his nursery school aide job and already picked out several possibilities from his kiddie catalog of Strange and Amazing Gadgets. It’s really hard for single moms to find activities to do with sons which is the only reason I’d consider this. Plus, I hate to stifle the kid’s creative ambitions.  (I had this fantasy the other day that he became a heroin addict, and when I asked him how I had failed, he said, “If you’d just let me order a kit from Strange and Amazing Gadgets I’d be a successful engineer today!”)  OK, OK, enough guilt.
Letter: October 16, 1988
Catalog of Strange and Amazing Gadgets
Please send us one TS-295 Plans/Kit for the “U-Make-It Miniature Tesla Coil.”  A check in the amount of $29.50 is enclosed.  Sincerely,
Journal: Nov. 8, 1988
Olof can’t get here soon enough this weekend. The world’s smallest Tesla coil has arrived, along with the world’s largest headache. I am in so over my head.
Letter: Nov. 15, 1988 
Catalog of Strange and Amazing Gadgets
We recently discovered that the one-inch brass terminal with 6-32 insert adaptor failed to arrive with our U-Make-It Miniature Tesla Coil Kit. As this part is unknown to any hardware or electronic store in the Western Hemisphere, we would appreciate your shipping this item to us at your earlier convenience. Yours sincerely,
Journal: December 3, 1988
So much for Rory’s electronics education.  Some weeks ago I was persuaded to order a gismo billed as the U-Make-It Miniature Tesla Coil. A Tesla coil, I now know, is an electric gismo that generates high voltage current that arcs between two terminals (in this case a gold ball and a wire) to create a lightning-like effect. I was initially concerned about having 50,000 volts in the hands of an 11-year old, but I was assured by knowledgeable sources that it didn’t have enough amps to electrocute him. (I still had this recurrent dream that I’d wake up one morning to find it attached to his younger brother’s tongue.)
This was not your basic Heath Kit.  In fact, as Olof said when he was down last weekend, the creator of the circuit board for this thing should be taken out and shot. I cannot even calculate how many frustrating hours this thing has consumed of both of our already-over-full lives.
It did not come with a printed circuit board. What it did come with were umpty-300 itty-bitty components to fit on a circuit layout board the size of your thumbnail.
The two primary items of documentation were a hand-drawn circuit diagram that had been Xeroxed into oblivion and a component layout diagram that did not always agree with the circuit diagram. The instructions, in their totality, were:
(1) Count and verify that all parts have been delivered.
(2) Assemble board.
In point of fact, not all the parts WERE delivered, and the missing one had to be re-ordered. Further the concept of taking a lamp cord (the power source for this thing) and shoving the end into a container the size of a matchbox made the spacing between components and the various elements of wiring critical – and probably unachievable. Much frustration and soldering assistance (from Olof) later, it was ready for a trial run. With breathless anticipation (and a fire extinguisher for good measure), we turned it on. Instead of generating a lightning-like spark, it generated a “pop” and a small puff of smoke. (Olof says they either sent us a bad capacitor, or we got it in backwards.)
Rory was initially very disappointed. But the next day he was back wanting to know, could he order the kit for the high-sensitive directional parabolic microphone, or maybe the particle beam generator/proton accelerator?  In one of the least ambivalent moments of my life, I replied, “Not a chance.”


Monday, October 10, 2016

Eat Your Heart Out, NSA

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published October 12, 2016] ©2016

People think telephone surveillance is a new thing but then, they’re not old enough to have grown up with a party line. Eat your heart out, NSA. Sixty years ago, the entire country was listening in on each other’s phone conversations.

Back in the Pleistocene Era of telephonics, which is to say my youth, phones were just these clunky black things with a handset and a rotary dial. In my area at least, the only thing the rotary dial was good for initially was to dial “O” (for operator) and wait for a nice lady (always a lady) to say, “what number, please?” which you’d tell her using your actual voice.

When direct dialing came out and you could dial local numbers yourself, it was the hottest thing since sliced bread (which, by the way, revolutionized commercial baking in 1928. All those nice even pieces!) But direct dialing also put most of those operator ladies out of business.  There must be a special home for them where they sit serenely and stick plugs into a big switchboard and say “I’ll connect you now.”

In many areas, especially rural ones, party lines – multiple families sharing the same phone line – were the only option. On party lines, only one household could use the line at a time, and the phone company implored people to be considerate and restrict their calls to five minute. Like that happened.

Complaints about line hogging were legion. Even the 1959 Best Picture winner, Pillow Talk (Rock Hudson, Doris Day), portrays a party line feud that turns into romance. That was not how it usually worked out in real life. It was probably good that party lines existed in an era where fewer 9 mm Glocks were in circulation.

Party lines were the original Information Superhighway, an early version of social media. You could listen in on everyone else’s conversations which, of course, was pretty much the favorite national pastime. (Sorry, baseball).

Now that virtually everyone has a private line, we’ve all gotten out of the expectation that anyone is listening in. So we’re offended when we find out the NSA has been recording our private phone calls. I’d like to point out that at least the NSA doesn’t gossip about you. Maybe harass you at the airport but you don’t have to worry about them spilling your private information to your neighbors in the produce aisle.

Actually, this trip down telephonic memory lane was inspired by a question from my 6-year-old granddaughter about a built-in alcove in the hallway of our 1947 home. I was explaining that it was something called a “phone nook” which housed the single largely-immobile phone that most people owned at the time.

“So, it’s a charging station?” she replied after some thought. This was as close to her reality as this was going to get. “Where do you plug it in?”

Pondering how to explain this to her, I could see that it was going to be a long way from rotary dial to iPhone 7.  In fact, I remember one of the greatest improvements of my teenage life was the invention of the curly-cued phone extension cord so you could drag the handset around the corner into the coat closet and get some illusion of privacy. (Believe me, it was an illusion.)

Privacy would only come with the invention of cordless phones and then finally cell phones which have replaced pretty much every other piece of electronics heretofore known to man. 

From a 68-year-old’s view, old-style phones have some distinct advantages over cell phones.  

First, there is a lot to be said for a phone that can be used without (a) a manual, and (b) an operating system whose constant upgrades make everything you previously knew how to do on it obsolete. 

The other really big loss with cell phones is that you can’t slam them down. There was always something so inherently satisfying about being able to slam down a telephone receiver. Clicking an Off button – or worse, tapping some wussy touch screen – does not give one the emotional release that the solid slam of a plastic receiver on a telephone base could ever give. No wonder the whole country is so full of pent up anger. For that reason, we still keep one wall-mounted landline with traditional receiver in our home for use during election seasons. 

Considering the changes in telephones since I was a child, I try to imagine what my tiny grandchildren will be telling theirs about the archaic devices of their youth. Will phones still be an actual physical “thing” that you carry around and drop into the toilet at inopportune times?  I’m guessing not.

And as far as the NSA is concerned….  I know you’re listening, so would you mind spreading the word that Book Club has been changed from Tuesday to Thursday, and while you’re at it, that Susie Smith’s husband was overheard flirting with the nanny?

Six-year-old granddaughter and phone nook

Monday, September 26, 2016

Elder Dating

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published Sept. 28, 2016] ©2016
When you see a newspaper photo of happy nonagenarians at their wedding, the first reaction (aside from being happy for them, and wondering what their scheming children think) is “Are they really going to ‘do it’?” 
Society in general has a true aversion to the concept of old-people sex. Unless, of course, you’re an old person. You didn’t get old overnight. You’ve had a chance to work into this body.
As people age and more of them end up widows or widowers, the specter of dating raises its problematic head. Some of my friends who are considerably older than I am – late 70s and 80s -  note that this is not an uncommon  topic.
What’s immediately clear is how different the parameters for romance are once you’re in the Social Security set. At 20, you’re just looking for love. When I was divorced at 35 with two preschoolers, a friend looked around my property and observed that what I really needed was a lover who liked gardening and pool maintenance. 
In my book, in the chapter entitled “Dates from Hell,” I chronicled my disheartening experiences doing laps in the dating pool, watching my list of requirements for dating partners slowly dwindle to “hasn’t been in prison.” If Olof, with whom I’d spent my senior year in high school as an exchange student in Brazil, hadn’t fortuitously come back into my life, I’d be single to this day.
Olof and I married when we were both 47, after an eight-year commuting relationship from the Bay area on Olof’s part.  He has always maintained that I married him for his skills with a sewer augur, but that’s only partially true. Olof, who was also divorced but had no children,  maintains that it was far easier to woo women who were in their 30’s than it had been the first time around when they were less interested in his prowess with a pipe wrench and more interested in romance. 
When you’re a thirty-five year old single women with two little kids and The House From Hell, it’s amazing how fast the definition of romance changes. There’s nothing sexier than a guy with a pipe wrench.
Among my older friends is a woman who is 91. She has a stronger back and clearer mind than either Olof or me. She still lives independently. But my friend does admit that suitable romantic male companions in her dating range (which she considers to be 80-100) are limited. So she was delighted to be introduced at a fund raiser to a fellow nonagenarian.  The spark was instantaneous between them. 
They are very compatible, she reports, and he checks off every box on her list including and especially “still drives at night.” (After “doesn’t have dementia” and isn’t imminently dying,” that’s a strong third.)
And then you get down to the desirables: Are they presentable? Do you have compatible interests? When you see older men marrying women decades younger, you realize that they have none of the same reference points.
She and the gentleman have gone out several times now and she’s thinking it might be heading in a more romantic direction.  Her body isn’t bad for someone who is 91, she says.  In fact, she’s probably in the top 2% of hot 91-year-old bodies.  She’s taken good care of herself. But, she confesses, the top 2% of terrible probably won’t win her any points. Still, she has very much missed an intimate life since her husband passed away and despite what 20-year-olds think, the spirit CAN still be willing even if the flesh is weak.
Will pharmaceuticals of the hot tub variety be required, she wonders? Since they must be taken in advance of romantic episodes, how is this broached?  This is all so definitely not in the acceptable parlance of her youth when women wore white gloves and panty girdles.  (And good riddance to both!) 
One could, she allows, have a more intimate relationship without going “all the way” as it was termed in both her and my generation.  “In fact,” she mused aloud, “at my age, penetration is probably overrated.”  (One can hear everyone under thirty charging for the nearest bathroom. Get over yourselves, kids, OK?)
She’s not looking to remarry at this point. She’s financially well set. He is too. So hopefully there won’t be too much blowback from their collective “kids” (who are in their 60’s).
As with all stages of life, there’s always some new challenge, even if the challenge is simply staying alive in reasonable health for one more year. But the desire to connect emotionally to another human being doesn’t ever get old. So I’m rooting for my friend to have the well-deserved time of her life, hot tubs and all.