Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Holiday Greetings From Stormy San Diego

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Dec. 29, 2011] © 2011

December, 2011

Dear American and Swedish friends -

It is hard to believe that it is time for our annual holiday letter again.  As I sit here at my computer on this chill night snuggled in my warmest beach hoodie and sipping a hot mulled pina colada, I’d like to assure you that all those rumors about San Diego’s terrific climate are totally unfounded.  Indeed, if I had to sum up the year 2011, I would say that it has been one of terrible extremes of weather.

Already winter has struck here with savage force.  Several weeks ago, the temperature plummeted to a news-making 58 degrees, necessitating us to figure out how to turn on the pilot light on our heating unit for the first time.  Failing at that (just couldn’t figure out how to get our barbecue lighter wand in that itty bitty space), we simply ended up wrapping ourselves in our cabana cover. Looking out the windows in the mornings, one could see the joggers fairly shivering in their thin cotton T-shirts, and of course, all the open air restaurants were in an absolute dither.  (They didn’t know how to turn on their heaters either.)  Though it has warmed up since then, Sundays at the beach have simply had to be abandoned, and even poolside sunbathing is possible only a few hours a day.  The ocean, of course, is much too cold to swim in now (but then, many of us think the Pacific is too cold in the summer too).  We’ve simply resigned ourselves to the Jacuzzi till spring.  Rather than fight it, we have just decided to accept that winter is here and prepare for it.  So last weekend, with heavy hearts, we went around closing the windows.

Of course, this winter can only be better than last.  Many of you probably read in the papers earlier this year about the absolutely torrential rains San Diego suffered - eight record-breaking inches for the year, a staggering three-quarters of an inch above normal.  Bike paths were muddied, tennis courts rendered unusable with puddles, and lemons torn from their branches by winds gusting to twelve miles per hour. Residents raced to get their patio umbrellas cranked down in time.   The worst of it, however, was that all the rain made the bougainvillea and night-blooming jasmine grow so fast that we were out there every spare minute trying to whack them back – in February yet!   Then, barely six months of perfect beach weather later and bam! – it was winter again. 

In between the recent unseasonably cold temperatures, the Santa Anas blew in  – clear and beautiful days with spectacular sunsets to be sure, but totally hot and dry.  We were forced to eat Thanksgiving dinner outside on our patio, barefoot no less!

So friends, wherever you are – Chicago or Boston, Stockholm or Goteborg – take heart.  Life here in San Diego is not always what it’s cracked up to be.  Meanwhile, Happy New Year and Gott Nytt År from your friends in La Jolla,

Inga and Olof

Tree branch slams local car during wind storm

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Husbands Who Travel Too Much

["Let Inga Tell You", La Jolla Light, published December 15, 2011] © 2011

A close friend recently reported that her husband, a 59-year-old senior executive, has concluded that the nearly ten million miles of business travel he has logged in his career have taken too much of a toll on his health and he is taking early retirement.  It could be more of an adjustment than he thinks, she adds. She’s not sure he realizes his only friends are airline personnel.

I couldn’t agree more that years of business travel would take its toll on anyone but in the last two years, the process has accelerated at warp speed. 

My husband, Olof, an engineer, has always spent a fair amount of time traveling to far away places to assist (cajole?) customers in nailing down their functional requirements.  (Describing the dilemma of his profession, he notes: “The delivery date is firm.  But the requirements date slides.”) 

But at this point in his life, there is no phrase that puts more fear into the short-notice flier like Olof than “Your requested seats [aisles] are not available.”  (A close second is, “It’s a legal connection.”)  With leg room having done a veritable vanishing act, the coach middle seat ought to be actionable.  His company flies people business class to the Middle East but anywhere else, it’s steerage. For the 6’3” Olof, it was always a tight fit but now his knees are painfully wedged against the seat in front of him. When that person reclines, discomfort becomes agony. 

I first realized how profoundly the rules had changed when Olof handed me an itinerary for a cross-country trip he was leaving on the next morning and said, “See if you can do anything about these middle seats.”  As soon as I brought up the reservation, a message popped up asking “Do you want to upgrade to an aisle seat for $28?”  I couldn’t hit “Yes” fast enough.  But it occurred to me that this same message had popped up when the company’s contracted travel service, Troglodyte Travel, made the reservation and they had obviously clicked “No”.   It was to be the first of several unhappy interactions with them. 

Keep in mind that in all the years that Olof has worked for his otherwise-lovely family-oriented company, I’d never had cause to be involved in Olof’s business travel.  But that was before the triple threats of customer-squeezing airlines, a bad economy, and indifferent travel agencies.

Now you might ask why Olof doesn’t take this up with the folks at Troglodyte himself.  That would be because Olof has worked seventy-five hour weeks for more months than anyone should be allowed to.  Besides, that’s what you have an obnoxious wife for.   The irony, of course, is that with years of business travel, Olof is a Grand Poobah member on two major airlines which automatically entitles him to aisle seats, extra leg room, and upgrades to First Class on domestic flights.  But somehow the folks at Trog seem to book him on middle seats on Brand X Airline (their motto: “We Hate You”) where everything but the seatbelt costs extra. (I’m sure that’s coming.) 

We’ve had some issues with the folks at Trog about the aforementioned legal connections as well.  I chatted up their agent, Evil Spawn (not his real name), on the subject of a forty minute connection in a major airport on a holiday weekend that required going through customs and changing terminals.   “It’s legal,” he shrugged.  “So is adultery,” I said, “but it’s not advisable.” 

Un-makeable legal connections, of course, impact another new phenomenon in the airline world: flights all run full.  Miss your connection and you can spend days hovering at an airport gate with your roller bag and ninety pound-briefcase vying in vain for a standby seat.  Olof made Marriott Gold status on Houston alone.

The contracted travel agency isn’t in business to make Olof happy, so it’s no scales off their backs if Olof has to fly to the UK in a middle coach seat or is booked on what should be all by logic an illegal connection.  Finally I said to them, “We’re willing to pay the difference between Brand X and Grand Poobah.  So book Poobah, or if Brand X asks if you want to upgrade to more leg room, say yes!”  Nobody is going to put my husband through eighteen hours of absolute torture when there’s an alternative of simple misery.

But back to our retiring friends.  She went on to say that she hadn’t really realized just how much her husband’s years of travel had impacted him until they started looking for homes back in their native Dallas.  Their historic DC house could fund at least two Dallas-area McMansions but my friend couldn’t help but notice that the ones that appealed to her husband had a common quality:  they all looked like Marriotts. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Writing Really CAN Be Fun - Honest

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published December 1, 2011]  © 2011

Sometimes people ask me to help their kids with their college application essays under the assumption that I actually have any expertise.  I’m happy to help but first feel compelled to issue the disclaimer that my sum total writing training has been comprised of wantonly publishing often-ill-considered personal stories in my local paper.  In fact, I explain, I was turned down as an English/creative writing major on the basis that my writing was way too low-brow for the literary standards to which the institution aspired. 

In spite of it, I’ve had some literary successes over the years and at one point was tempted to send them to the head of the English Department at my alma mater.  But then I realized that this would only have vindicated her position.  (“Thank GOD we didn’t let that woman be an English major here!”) 

Fortunately for me, I had a mother who instilled in me a love of writing from an early age.  The rules were pretty simple, she said: Write from heart, write what you know, Show rather than Tell. Sadly, she lamented, most people have had the joy of writing sucked out of them.

My mother intentionally never critiqued what I wrote but would buy the stories and poems she liked best for a nickel.  Looking at the folder of her purchases that I found after her death, I couldn’t decide whether this was to gently reinforce better writing, or simply to get the stuff out of circulation.   For example:

When I wake up
By Inga (age 9)

The morning dawns bright and soggy
And the sound of the flushing toilet
Wakes me from dreamland
I hear the sound of soft clodhoppers lumbering down the stairs.
I then hear a strange sound like an elephant being wounded by a hunter.
It is only my mother blowing her nose. 

It may be coincidental, but her frequent suggestion to “write what you know” wasn’t as much emphasized after that. 

When my son, Henri, was eight, his teacher had the kids do short daily writing assignments. Diorama-challenged, I hoped I could at least impart my mother’s lesson that writing should be fun, but Henri was unconvinced - definitely his father’s child in this regard.  (I think I wrote every one of my writing-averse ex’s professional journal articles.  At one point, my then-husband said to me, “I really should give you a credit in the foot notes.”  I said, “How about ‘I would like to thank my wife for writing this paper in its entirety.’”) 

Anyway, one day Henri had to write a story about what you’d say to your younger sibling if he wanted to go to the park alone.  Bad assignment for my house; they’d be only too happy to get rid of the sibling.  Anyway, Henri predictably wrote, “Little brother, it is not safe to go to the park, etc. etc”.  “Henri,” I said, “would you talk like that?  Particularly to a brother?  No way!  You’d say, ‘Forget it, butthead!  There’s weirdoes in the park.  You wanna end up on a milk carton?’”  Henri brightened.  This had possibilities.  I don’t recall the final product but I do recall the inscription on top:  “Excellent – rare flash of brilliance!”

Like writing what you know, writing from the heart has liabilities.  My kids tended to write thank you notes waaaay too much from the heart.  We worked on Writing From the Heart – But Correcting For Tact.

Of course, in college essays, Showing rather than Telling is one of the hardest concepts to master.  I was recently helping a friend’s son with his essay about what he learned from foreign travel in the Far East which he described, typically, as “one of the most amazing experiences of my life.”  (Yawn.)  As luck would have it, my former co-worker, Dave, had recently been in Indonesia and had had a close encounter of the scary kind with a Komodo dragon. 

Now Dave could have just said it was “scary” (Telling).  But what he wrote, I said to my teenage essay writer, was:  Of course I couldn't help but think of how they are dangerous not because they attack viciously enough to kill you, but rather because their mouths are such a foul breeding ground of intractable diseases that if they ever did bite you, the wound would fester agonizingly until your entire body rotted and slid off your skeleton in great wet chunks."   That, I said, is Showing.

OK, so neither of my sons is as much a fan of writing as I am but when motivated, both have a good time with it, often at my expense.  But then, looking back at Waking Up by Inga, Age 9, I guess that’s the family tradition. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

**Sorry, Cymbalta, You Can't Help

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Nov. 17, 2011]  © 2011

It has not escaped my attention that all of my favorite TV shows are sponsored by antidepressants.    Except, of course, for the ones advertising clinical trials for antidepressants.  I find this very depressing.

You’ll  recognize the tag line (or then, maybe you won’t) for the most popular ad:  Cymbalta Can Help.  I am not in any way attempting to minimize the seriousness of depression as I come from a long line of OCD packrats and chronic anxious wrecks.  I’ve personally tended to embrace the chronic anxious wreck side of the family (there’s only so much mental illness one person can accommodate at a time) for which it is entirely possible that Cymbalta could help.  But I can never get past that chirpy little aside at the end:  “Liver problems, some fatal, have occurred.”  I just think they say that waaaay too casually.

I’m spent considerable time trying to decide what all this Cymbalta advertising means and am down to three conclusions:

(1) People who watch this show are depressed and need Cymbalta.
(2) People who watch this show should be depressed and start taking Cymbalta.
(3) People who watch this show will become depressed simply from watching it, and should take Cymbalta  before they harm someone.

Seriously, is the mere preference for the shows that I watch diagnostic?  If so, I’m going to be not only depressed but peevish.  

Abilify, another mega-advertiser whose ad I’ve seen more times than I will ever admit, is not even an antidepressant but a booster to your already-not-working antidepressant.  Now is that depressing or what?  But there is one promising part of their ad:  “Elderly dementia patients taking Abilify have an increased risk of death.”  Without sounding like Dr. Kevorkian, my kids know I have a profound fear of ending up a dementia patient.  So maybe I need to add this to my health directive.  Kids:  Stock up on Abilify for off-label use! 

My husband, Olof, likes to give the illusion of interest in my TV-watching habits with the collective query, “So is Desperate Anatomy on tonight?”  Or alternatively, “So what’s Dr. Yummy up to?”

“McDreamy, dear,” I say.  I really don’t think he’s trying to keep up at all.  But he does point out that there are no antidepressant commercials on Junk Yard Wars, Myth Busters, or Monday Night Football. 

It’s only getting worse.  Now the antidepressant ads are interspersed with Lyrica ads for fibromyalgia.  Like I don’t have enough problems with my WE-TV-induced depression?  I also have to confess that the Lyrica ads annoy me to death (a serious side effect), particularly the lead line where the happy Lyrica patient says, “I found out that connected to our muscles are nerves.”  Was the fibromyalgia caused by her lobotomy?

What’s starting to really worry me is that these commercials have now insidiously seeped down from women-oriented cable channels and wantonly infiltrated major networks where one used to be able to watch free of antidepressant assault.  Surely, I think to myself, there must be a less risky cure for TV-induced depression than Cymbalta?  Like watch PBS? 

I won’t say that I wouldn’t like to be less anxious.   (I can assure you my husband wouldn’t mind my being less anxious.)  To worry less, to not always feel that catastrophe is just around the corner.  To be able crank down my over-amped system a new notches.   But then, at this stage of my life, I think it’s so much part of me that it would make me nervous not to be anxious.  Alternatively, I can maybe find out where the Lyrica lady got her lobotomy.

Sorry, Cymbalta.  I don’t think you can help.  So leave me alone already and let me watch my shows in peace. Or else.  Because I’m your demographic and you should know better than to mess with me.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

**Single Mom And Seedy Boyfriend

["Let Inga Tell You", La Jolla Light, published Nov. 3, 2011] © 2011

I can say with some authority after twelve years of having been a single mother that there is no lower form of life that ever crawled from the primordial ooze. Well, maybe one:  single mom’s Seedy Boyfriend.  Fungi have better press. 

Mom’s Boyfriend is without saying a child molester.  That Mom has a boyfriend instead of a husband implies that she had three kids out of wedlock with three different fathers.  She has little education, no job, and low self esteem.  She most likely collects welfare which the boyfriend, the miserable sponge, spends on booze and dope.  He probably beats her.  She probably likes it.

During the eight years that Olof commuted down from the Bay area to La Jolla before he was able to relocate here and we married, he quickly discovered that being Mom’s Boyfriend was not exactly a high class gig.  A friend since high school, Olof is a former Air Force pilot, a Cal Tech-educated engineer, and at the time, a corporate vice president.  He loved going to my seven-year-old son Henri’s games.    So being accosted at the baseball fields and having his presence questioned by an overzealous mom hell bent on protecting the bleachers from T-ball player-stalking pedophiles kind of hurt his feelings. 

Ironically, if there were an Olympic medal for number of sporting events watched of a child to whom one is not biologically related, Olof would have the gold. Conservatively, he cheered Henri through some 800 baseball, soccer, and basketball games, and arose at 3 a.m. on untold occasions to transport a carload of the collectively comatose to out-of-town crew races.  Pressed for his relationship to us, he often introduced himself, quite justifiably, as Henri’s driver.

For my side, it was never more clear to me that any residual status I had from fourteen years as a doctor’s wife was DOA when the mother of a friend of Henri’s said she wasn’t comfortable having her son sleep over at our house due to my new “circumstances” (presumably un-wed weekend cohabitation and by association, acts of wanton depravity).

I was seriously tempted to reply, “In retrospect, having the Cub Scout den satisfy their science badge in our meth lab was probably a mistake.  But that stuff isn’t as easy to make as you think.”

Henri, who had frequently played at this child’s tightly-run home, observed at the time, “I think they have dead people under their house.”   The overnight embargo officially marked the beginning of Olof’s and my eight year career as Seedy Boyfriend and Low-life Slut, as we affectionately dubbed each other in honor of the occasion.

The kids, I have to say, did nothing to improve my press.  When Henri was in kindergarten, he had been playing on the floor with a guy I briefly dated before Olof when his hair got caught in the guy’s metal flex watch band.  Much wailing ensued until he was extricated.  But imagine my dismay to go to kindergarten parents’ night some months later where the kids’ Feelings Books were displayed only to see Henri’s “I feel angry…” page, unfortuitously filled out the day after the incident, completed with  “when my Mom’s boyfriend pulls my hair.”

Rory didn’t exactly help me out either when his 5th grade classroom did “Aunt Amelias” – alliterative phrases which they then illustrated and which were posted in the main office.  His contribution?  “Paco the Pimp Pestered the Pregnant Prostitutes.”  The art work we won’t go into.

After eight long years in the sewer of social strata, I was overjoyed to finally make an honest man out of Olof at our wedding. We almost didn’t know what to do with our newfound status as people who were no longer a threat to the moral integrity of local youth.  Step-father, despite some negative connotations, was a huge promotion over Bottom-Dwelling Boyfriend, Wife a profound upgrade from Sordid Single Mom.  But to this day, Henri still feels those people have bodies under their house. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

You Just Can't Get Good Help These Days

"Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published October 20, 2011] © 2011

Only in the La Jolla could one get away with a column whining about the help. 

Earlier this year, our wonderful gardener guy became ill and temporarily (he hoped) bequeathed his customers to a twenty-something relative who was perennially undecided about careers and overdue for a job.  Raised in La Jolla and a graduate of La Jolla High, “Bentley” mentioned when I first met him  that he’d grown up with affluence and that despite his relative’s hope that he would ultimately take over this successful landscape maintenance business, he planned to do something different.

That’s the best news I’ve heard in years.

Bentley, alas, had a world-class inattention to detail.  His style was to turn up his iPod and kind of get into the Zen of gardening.  Unfortunately, whatever garden he was servicing didn’t appear to be in our galaxy.

He was, for example, a holy terror with a leaf blower.  I’d be puzzled as to why my kitchen was full of leaves and dirt.  With his iPod turned up full blast, Bentley failed to notice that he was blowing all the detritus from the patio through my kitchen window.  One has to admire the technical skill that got so much lift in those leaves that he could get them up and over a four foot high pass-through.  The stuff that failed to achieve altitude settled like Mt St. Helens ash on the plants. 

“Sorry,” said Bentley, when I went out and used sign language to get his attention over the iPod.  “I have ADHD.”  Which might (but probably doesn’t) explain why this happened ten more times.  And why some fourteen decorator flower pots were slain on his watch.

I learned to keep the house closed up tight when Bentley was around, no matter how hot it was, after I found water cascading through my office window onto my hardwood floors.  Bentley was zapping the white fly on the hibiscus with the hose but didn’t notice the open window next to it. 

I suggested that his ADHD might be at least ameliorated by the removal of the iPod head phones.  But the next week the head phones would be back on again.  He forgot, he’d say, reminding me he has ADHD. 

On several occasions I returned home and concluded that he’d severed a digit with his trimming tool and fled the scene to the nearest emergency room.  It was the only explanation for the fact that only half the lawn was mowed, his tools had been left all over the front yard, and the gates weren’t locked. But there was no sign of blood. 

I gave Bentley a list of what needed to be done every week so he wouldn’t have to remember.  He had to check off the items and put the list in my mail box.  Usually the list was checked off in my mailbox, most of the items undone. 

“I was like totally meaning to do them,” he’d say apologetically later.  “I just forgot.  I have—“

“ADHD,” I said. “I know. But the whole idea is to not check them off until you do them.  The list is supposed to help you.  I really do want you to succeed.” 

Two hours of gardening generally stretched into a whole day as Bentley would leave ostensibly to get gas for his lawn mower and not return for three hours.  Or at all. 

It was only out of loyalty to his wonderful relative that I persisted.  It was quickly becoming apparent that a successful gardening business had probably dwindled to five customers, especially after Bentley lost the entire customer key ring, including some $75 security gate keys. 

Ironically it was Bentley who threw in the towel. This just wasn’t a job that interested him, he said, returning my (replacement) keys.  But he’d had a lot of time to think about what he really wanted to do during his long dreary months in the landscape maintenance biz. 

He’s going into the medical field.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ground to a Pulp In the Rumor Mill

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published, Oct. 6, 2011]  © 2011

Jane Smith tells her two closest friends that she and her husband Fred will not be able to attend a group dinner the next night as planned.  Pressed for details, she finally confides that the two had a huge fight and have decided to spend the weekend away from each other to cool off.   Jane reminds them that this is strictly confidential information. She does not want to start any rumors.

But Fred’s and Jane’s absence is noted and an Inquiring Mind, professing deep concern for Jane, persists in querying one of the close friends if Jane and Fred are having problems.  Close Friend finally says, “You have to promise you won’t say anything.  They’re totally fine but they just needed to spend a little time apart.”

At bridge group a few days later, Inquiring Mind leans in and announces in a lowered voice that she has learned something that must absolutely not leave this room under any circumstances.  Jane Smith’s husband has left her.  Inquiring Mind doesn’t know why but another member concludes, “Isn’t it always another woman?”

One of the bridge group members is having mani-pedis with a group of friends the next day and, unable to resist the heroin-esque high of being Among The First To Know, says:  “This is a total secret so you can’t say anything, but since I think you all know Jane Smith, I know you’d want to know that Fred Smith left Jane for his secretary.”  There is a moment of silence while everyone pretends to be sad on Jane’s behalf, although are actually trying to remember where they do know her from.  T-ball?  Clay camp?

By nightfall, Fred Smith’s affair with his secretary has been one of a long line of extra-marital dalliances of which the long-suffering Jane is justifiably fed up.  Over refreshments at a book club the following night, everyone agrees that one really never knows what goes on behind closed doors.  But out of respect for Jane, whom nobody in the group can quite place, not a word of this is to be breathed.

On Saturday, as the kids warm up for their soccer game at Allen Field, word is out that Fred actually left Jane because of her prescription drug problem and not because of the secretary.  Poor Fred having to live with an addict for all these years!  And the kids!  We must all invite them over for play dates to ply them for information, er, give them the mothering they have clearly not been getting.  If only Jane had confided in someone earlier, we might have been able to prevent this tragedy!

At an organizing luncheon for a local charity on Monday, Jane Smith is rumored to already be at Betty Ford.  There is conjecture that the drug is actually diet pills related to her insecurity about Fred’s infidelities and this is really how Jane Smith has kept her svelte figure all these years, not Pilates or the tummy tuck she always admitted having after her third child – or was that Susie Smith?  Doesn’t matter.  Who hasn’t had a little plastic surgery these days?

In one corner of a cocktail party fund raiser the next evening, the sordid details of the lives of Jane and Fred Smith, whom no one in the group could actually pick out of a line up, are the talk of the evening.  Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody who used to play golf with Fred and they always suspected there was a dark side to him. 

Meanwhile, Jane Smith has 60 “I just heard – I’m so sorry!” messages in her email in-basket.  Fred Smith has been solicited by four of Jane’s single acquaintances offering solace in the form of a drink and “talk”.   Fred calls Jane from work and asks her if she knows something he doesn’t.  And Jane says, “Yes.  There are people in this town who need a different hobby.” 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

*Winston the Wonder Dog Meets His Match

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Sept. 22, 2011]   © 2011

I really never saw myself as the Hannibal Lecter of the pet world.  Olof and I love animals and we are besotted with one in particular:  our grand dog, Winston, who recently spent four months in our care.  But after Winston failed with two treat-oriented trainers to curtail his leash and front gate aggression issues, we were forced to employ Hans Berserker, and his sidekick Ranulf the Lunge Meister (not their real names). 

I would like to emphasize that Winston is the sweetest dog who ever lived with people and really good with other dogs when they’re on our side of the fence.  Opposite side: mortal enemy. Inside, love and wiggles. 

Winston has no walk-by traffic at our son’s home but at our house, every time another dog walked by – which is like every four minutes -  he would charge our front gate channeling his inner crazed pit bull.  (Winston is not a pit bull.)  Unfortunately, it was self-reinforcing.  Since people kept walking (usually quickly), Winston would congratulate himself.  “I, Winston the Uber Dog, have vanquished the enemy and kept the house safe for Democracy.  Or something.”

The second trainer finally said to us that her skills were not up to Winston (we found it odd for a trainer to say this) and recommended a trainer that she would consider the Cesar Milan of San Diego.   What we discovered the minute that Hans Berserker showed up was that the translation was she didn’t use “behavior collars.” 

I was appalled.  It goes against everything I hold dear to apply painful stimuli to animals.  “I’m sorry,” I said to Hans as he slapped the collar on Winston, “but I could never consider a shock collar that didn’t have a warning button.” 

“It does,” said Hans.  “It’s called your voice. Which he isn’t listening to.”  I was relieved to notice that one of the options was a pager – just a vibration.  Fortunately, for the guilt levels of Olof and me, Winston seems to hate the pager most. 

The first time Hans demonstrated the shock feature, I turned to Winston and said, “This is really hurting me more than you.”  Winston gave me a dour gaze and responded in Dog, “Yeah right.” 

But seriously, every zap of that transmitter took a day off my life expectancy.  Both the good and the bad news is that the behavior collar worked really well when nothing else did.  Still, one thing I noticed was that Winston behaved PERFECTLY when Hans was around.  Walk Winston by Hans and one of his German Shepherd training dogs and Winston is like, “Dog?  Do I see any dogs?  And I am so not messing with that big ex-Marine guy with the transmitter.”  Winston was clear that Hans was the alpha male.  He was equally clear that Grandma was the alpha mush ball.

Winston pretty much stopped charging the gate (unless it was a big black dog in which case the pain was worth it).  The lunging at other dogs while on the leash wasn’t fully eradicated.  Hans came back and brought Ranulf the Lunge Meister and several great big dogs for us to practice with.  Hans immediately observed: “Once he’s lunged, it’s too late.  You need to ‘alert’ him as soon as the ears go up.”  In other words, he needs to be zapped when he has committed lunge in his heart.

Meanwhile, friends would ask of our son and daughter-in-law, “Do they know you’re electrocuting their dog?”  We didn’t confess for quite a while because we knew they needed a temporary home for him.   Meanwhile, my daughter-in-law’s mother who is not a fan of either dogs or Winston, queried, “How many volts can you give him?”

I will not say what it costs to engage the services of Hans Berserker and Rannulf and their fleet of scary if impeccably behaved canines but as Olof has observed, for what we spent on Winston, we could buy a whole new dog.  It has also taken some three hours out of my day actively re-educating our radio-controlled grand pet.

But he’s now back at home after his sojourn at Camp Grammy and Grampy. We really miss the little fur ball, especially his new improved non-pit bullish self.   I almost don’t know what to do with my time now, or what to do with a “behavior” collar.  But as more than a few passers-by have asked, “Does it work on husbands?”

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

*Why Daughters Are (Generally) Preferable to Sons

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published September 8, 2011]  © 2011

On Mother’s Day, one of my daughters-in-law sent me a box of divinely scented candles and a hand-made card reading “Happy Mother’s Day!  These are the most luxurious candles, so we hope you’ll indulge and remember what a wonderful mother you are every time you smell them.”  I actually cried.  Neither of my sons would ever have written a message like that.  Which has only confirmed my long term suspicion that where communication is concerned, daughters are definitely preferable to sons.

My adult life has included two husbands (I’m still married to one of them), two sons, two nephews, and a dog named Boris.  Nary a girl in sight until two lovely young women deigned to marry my sons (truthfully, we thought the ladies could do better) and have now produced two tiny granddaughters as well. 

When my sons were in college, friends would tell me that they heard from their daughters daily.  Sometimes three times daily.  Contrast this to Henri’s sophomore year when we hadn’t heard a word from him in two months.  Trying not to be an overbearing Mom, but rather hoping to have some acknowledgment that he hadn’t quit school and joined a grunge band, I finally called him mid-April mentioning that I hadn’t heard from him in a bit and hoping all was well.  In a line that has become immortalized in our family since, Henri replied with barely disguised annoyance, “Mom, I just talked to you in February!”

My older son, Rory, didn’t do much better.  You’d think in an era of email that it would be easy for a child to just check in with his folks once a week.  Olof and I went to college at a time when you had to actually write a letter, put a stamp on it and mail it.  (Long distance calls were prohibitively expensive in the Mesozoic era.) After months of radio silence, I finally sent Rory an email saying that no more money was going to be forthcoming until we received a missive of at least three lines stating how things were going.  In another now-immortalized communication, Rory replied: 


Communicators my sons were not.  I assumed this would all change once they got a little older and indeed our phone conversations – often initiated by them - now spontaneously end with a genuinely felt “loveyoumom”.  As my 60th birthday approached, both sons wanted to know what I might like.  Seizing the opportunity, I said that what would make me happiest would be if they would each write a short letter relating three happy memories they had of me.  I hated to beg, but I wasn’t getting any younger.  Rory, predictably, quickly negotiated down to one.  For his part, Henri replied, “Can’t I just buy you something?”

But ultimately, they both came through and their touching replies were genuinely the best gift I could have received.  I still read them often.  Heroically, Rory even ratcheted up to four happy memories.  Well, five if you include this:  “In addition to these things, thank you for adopting me.  Without which I would be writing to someone else.” 

My friends with daughters beg to insist that theirs can be a rocky road as well.  Recently I lunched with a friend who told me that she and her adult daughter had gone to the Gay Pride parade in July, in support of their many friends who were gay.  My friend related that she noticed some people taking pictures of the two at the parade and whispered with amusement to the daughter, “I think they think we’re a couple.”   The daughter’s happy mood suddenly turned dark and didn’t improve for the rest of the day when she finally confessed the source of her distress:  “They thought YOU were as good as I could do????”

OK, so maybe this daughter thing has its moments too.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Life As A Deadbeat

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Aug. 25, 2011]  © 2011

As a Social Security-collecting 63-year-old, I really thought it was not too much to hope for that I could finish my life without ever being classified as a deadbeat.  

But that dream was crushed on July 5 when the City of San Diego Water Department changed to a new billing service incongruously called Customer Care Solutions.  Cleverly employing a no-cost non-tech system of Do-It-Yourself Data Conversion, they required customers paying on-line to re-enter all of their billing information (including bank account data) and be assigned new account numbers. 

I feared there could be problems when after some three hours over as many days, I was only able to create my new account by ignoring their instructions.  I’ve paid all my bills on-line for years and paid my first water bill on the new system on July 14, printing a confirmation.  Much to my dismay, some  two weeks later I received a non-payment notice in the mail adding that my water service was about to be histoire.  This was especially disconcerting given that it was now August.  We may not be much on hygiene, but we do care about landscaping.

Checking my new water services account on-line, I couldn’t immediately ascertain the problem as it only shows the last four digits of my checking account, all of which were correct.   My bank account had twenty times the amount needed to pay the bill plus overdraft protection.  I could only assume I had somehow, for the first time ever, dropped a digit in the account number.  But then, I am old.

When I dialed the customer service number the next morning at the precise time they opened, wait time was already thirty minutes.  But eventually I was connected to a customer service rep whom I’ll call Cranky Troll (not her real name) who confirmed that not only had I been charged a $25 penalty but as with all water scofflaws, only payment in cash or money order would now be accepted at one of their regional payment centers; no over-the-phone credit card payments allowed.  I even appealed to Cranky Troll’s supervisor, saying that surely thirty-eight years of meticulously on-time payments from the same address should count for something?

In a word:  no. 

In fact, she warned, should I ever “bounce another check” to them, I’ll need to post a significant deposit to continue to get water services.  I now have Official Deadbeat Status.

In that case, I said, since I have no idea why this payment didn’t go through, I’d like to revert to paper bills.  Sorry, she says, she’s not authorized to do that.  She is only authorized to annoy the bejesus out of customers.  OK, that second line is mine.

A wad of cash in hand, I headed to my regional payment center, a Payday Loan place, only to find a sign on the door saying, “Back in 30 minutes.”  But this allowed me to visit with the person ahead of me in line, a fellow  water reprobate clutching the same blue slip and having an identical story: account was a bear to set up, couldn’t figure out why payment didn’t go through.  She had tried calling  at noon only to get a recording saying “don’t even bother holding.” 

Now one might think that once one had handed over money at the authorized payment center, the water gods would be appeased.  But one would be wrong.  You have not paid until you call them back and tell them you have paid.  No call, no payment.  One marvels at the sheer brilliance of such exquisite inefficiency.  However by the time I got home, the (Anti)Customer (Un)Caring (Non)Solutions line only rang busy – for the rest of the day.  And the next.  Ultimately, I got through to a report-your-payment recording, but while I was waiting on my land line, I entertained myself on my cell phone repeat-dialing their Customer Service Survey number (619-515-3515) cheerfully giving the customer service reps the lowest grade of  1 (minus ten wasn’t available).  I’m hoping they won’t realize that 240 of their rock bottom ratings are mine.

Meanwhile, the Payday Loan lady, while happy to see so many new faces and for the boon to her business (she charged me to pay the bill beside the $25 fine) commented that if it were her water bill, she’d revert to paper bills and pay by check.  That so sounds like a plan. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Hoarding The Desire to Hold On To Stuff

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published August 11, 2011]  © 2011

Every once in a while, I channel surf into one of the hoarder shows.  My first response is always to wonder how people can ever let this happen.  Until I remember that not only have I seen this in person, but that the hoarder gene is alive and well in me.

As I’ve visited various relatives over the years, it’s become clear to me that the tendency to accumulate what could politely be referred to as an excessive number of possessions – particularly  books and National Geographics - clearly runs in the family.  Books I understand but what is it about National Geographics that make people hang on to them forever?   I know people even outside my family who have moved twelve times and while the dining room set or even the kids don’t always make the cut, the National Geographics invariably end up on the truck.  I know sets of National Geographics that have seen more of the U.S. than most campaign buses. 

Although it has some serious competition, the most egregious example of mass accumulation in my own genetic network is the ancestral home in Hard-To-Get-There, Ohio, which has been continuously in the family since 1865.  Let me just say that you can acquire a lot of stuff in 140 years.  The last surviving occupant, my favorite aunt, died five years ago.  My aunt encompassed the Hoarder Big 3:  child of the Depression, ardent conservationist, and OCD packrat (maybe that’s four).  It was a hoarder perfect storm.  The place was an absolute treasure trove of wonderful old stuff – Ladies Home Journals from the 1880s, gorgeous oil lamps, ornate ewers - intermixed, alas, with multiple cases of 40 year old Jell-O, cartons of ratty underwear preserved in 1962 newspaper, and a huge freezer that was a veritable biohazard. Then there were the 10,000+ books, three deep in the bookcases.   Every letter I ever received from my aunt was written on the back of a piece of recycled junk mail.

I have to confess that when I went to visit her, the first thing I did was to check the latch on the upstairs bedroom window to make sure I could get out onto the roof and jump in case of fire.  Because with the piles of old newspapers (which she intended to use for mulch for her gardens) and magazines (you can guess which kind) stacked up in every hallway, I figured I’d have approximately seven seconds to hurl myself out the window.  I simply refused to have my Cause of Death be listed as “National Geographics.”

Little did I know what a fire trap the place really was.  After my aunt died, we ordered up several 35 foot dumpsters and started dumping all the flattened cardboard boxes that had been on the back veranda in ever-increasing piles for as long as anyone could remember.  I suddenly saw the color drain out of my husband’s face.  Underneath it all was coal.  Eight hundred pounds of coal.  The old coal burning stove, unused for decades, was still in the living room.  I suddenly realized that the seven seconds of escape time I always thought I’d had was actually two.

My tiny garage-less cottage could fit in the living rooms of a lot of La Jolla homes so I try to keep it as uncluttered as possible.  Recently, I did a major clean-out and packed up twelve big bags of stuff for Goodwill.  Loading them into the car, I suddenly broke out in a cold sweat.  Maybe something valuable had gotten in there by mistake.  I unpacked it all and rechecked it.  And then a third time.  “You don’t need any of this stuff,” I repeated over and over all the way over to Goodwill.  As the attendant helped me unload, my hands shook with a paralyzing anxiety.  “You okay?” he asked.  After I drove off, I had an overwhelming urge to loop back, throw myself on their unloading dock dumpster and scream, “Give me back my stuff!”  I didn’t, but all the way home, I thought I’d throw up.

A few nights later I channel surfed into a hoarder show.  I was just about to shake my head in wonder at how they let the place get so bad when I had to admit:  I know.  I really know.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Fishing For Sanity In Taco Land

["Let Inga Tell You", La Jolla Light, published July 28, 2011]  © 2011

Forget mandatory military service.  Everyone should be required to work two years in retail.

I actually did a fair amount of retail in my high school and college years - waitressing, sales jobs in clothing stores etc.  But I’ve realized I couldn’t do it anymore.  I’d just scream at the patrons and get fired, probably on the first day.

During my years working up near the University, I developed a love affair with a fast food Mexican Grill which I have successfully continued in my retirement courtesy of their multitude of locations.    If they’d only had a Frequent Eater stock option program, I’d be a majority shareholder by now.  Several times a week I can still be found plunking my $6.23 on the counter and walking away with two Health-Mex chicken tacos.

I’ve spent a lot of time listening to people place orders while I’m waiting for mine and I can’t fathom  how cashiers in fast food places maintain their sanity.  But they are always relentlessly nice.  And patient.  And smiling.   I’m not privy to what these poor folks do when they go home but if it were me, I’d start out by screaming in my car at 150 decibels.  (I concede that this would not work as well on a bus.)  Imagine a day of orders like this:

Customer:  What’s in the Fish Taco Especial?
Cashier (pointing to the large-print menu board which specifically states what it contains):  Beer-battered fish, guacamole, cheese, and cilantro, on your choice of corn or flour tortilla. 
Customer:  Is it good?
Cashier:  Very good.  It’s one of our signature menu items.
Customer:  So what does es-special mean?
Cashier:  That’s Spanish for “special”.
Customer:  Oh.  What kind of cheese is in it?
Cashier:  Cheddar and Jack.
Customer:  Could I have Swiss instead?
Cashier:  We don’t actually have Swiss but we could leave out the cheese if you prefer.
Customer:  If I get a hamburger, can I get Swiss?
Cashier (amazingly, still smiling):  This is a Mexican restaurant so we don’t have hamburgers.  May I recommend our Grilled Steak Taco instead?
Customer:  What’s in that?
Cashier (pointing to the menu board again):  Grilled steak, guacamole, cheese, lettuce, and salsa on your choice of tortilla.  You can have it as a two-taco plate with tortilla chips and pinto beans, or rice or black beans.  I highly recommend the pinto beans.
Customer:  Could I get just one taco with chips and no cheese and could you wrap it in lettuce instead of a tortilla?  I’m kind of doing this low carb thing.
Casher:  Well, let me ask the manager but I think we could do that.
Customer:  Is the salsa spicy?  I don’t really like spicy. 
Cashier:  No, not real spicy.  But I might recommend that you add your own salsa from our excellent salsa bar right over there. It has everything from mild to ‘picante’ which means really spicy.
Customer:  Well, maybe I’ll get that.  I’d like the steak well done.  I don’t want any of that Mad Cow stuff.
Cashier:  Um, okay.  So, one Grilled Steak Taco, well done, with guacamole, no cheese, wrapped in a lettuce leaf, no salsa, with chips.  Would you like a drink with that?
Customer:  I’ll have a chocolate milkshake.
Cashier:  I’m sorry we don’t have milkshakes but we have great Mexican beer plus a variety of soft drinks.
Customer:  Oh.  Just water then.  (Cell phone rings. To cashier:)  Hold on, I’ve got a call coming in.  (To caller:)  I’m trying to order lunch and they can’t seem to get my order straight.
Cashier:  That will be $3.85.
Customer:  Darn. I think I left my wallet in my other purse. 

Here’s how this would have gone down if I were the cashier:
Inga:  Look at the menu board!  If you want a burger, go to Jack in the Box!  Leave!  Come back when you actually want to order!  You are so friggin’ ANNOYING!

Which is probably why I don’t have to worry about being hired in the fast food biz any time soon.