Monday, April 29, 2013

How The Other .02 Percent Lives

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published May 2, 2013] © 2013 

One of the advantages of living in such an upscale community as La Jolla is that you get to see – and yes, sometimes even ride in -  cars you could never afford.

Personally, I never buy a car I don’t want someone to steal.  While my husband and sons definitely have it, I was somehow born without the car gene, the one where your heart beats faster at the smell of new leather and state-of- the-art gismos.  Ever since I (and my little Jetta) were crushed on I-5 a few years ago by a drunk driver, my fantasy car is a Hummer Bug.  Pure parkable steel. 

I have a friend who actually owns a fleet of high-end vehicles including several Ferraris in what the Ferrari-scenti call a “stable.”  The cars reside in a garage that has its own air compressor (for daily checking of tire pressure), not a micro drop of oil on the floor, and nary a finger print on the gleaming hand-waxed auto bodies.   It is actually hard to imagine that this woman and I are friends since people frequently write “Wash Me” in the dust on my 2005 Toyota in our driveway. 

Of course, one of the reasons her vehicles remain in such pristine condition is that you can’t actually drive them anywhere.  After a tour of my friend’s garage, I couldn’t help but inquire, “So which one of these do you take to Vons?”  I thought I might have to call the paramedics when I saw the stricken look on her face.  One does not take these cars to Vons.  In fact, they are only driven on certified nail-free roads pre-screened for lack of rocks, construction, pot holes or other potential Ferrari-verboten impediments.  You do not take these cars anywhere without pre-arranged parking. 

The vehicle one takes to Vons is a crappy late-model Lexus barely able to hold its hood up in this stable of flashy Italian steel.  Although it’s a bit of a misnomer considering the parking requirements, one of the lesser Ferraris (oxymoron?) is deemed a “daily driver.”  I have a daily driver too.  It’s called my car.  I confess I am positively enchanted by this term.  The idea of having a vehicle deemed “the daily driver” made me realize that even in my own little community, I sometimes feel I live in a galaxy far far away.

Of course, there were occasions when both my friend and her husband required the Lexus at the same time.  Hence came the purchase of the “rain car.”  I learned of this when a coffee date was confirmed with – in caps - IF IT'S NOT WET OR RAINING.  My driveway is generally considered acceptable pre-arranged daily driver Ferrari parking (although the neighbors would fall over dead to see one sitting there) and is within walking distance of the coffee shop, but as was replied to my query,  even the daily driver Ferrari does not come out of the garage “in wet.”  Doesn’t have to be raining, just look like it might.  Hence a “rain car” was added to the stable, which is defined as a car that is NOT a Ferrari but can be driven should it rain and the Lexus is busy.  I so love the idea of having a rain car in this perennially parched climate.

My whole life I have loved the opportunity to know people who live lives very different from mine so I confess to be endlessly fascinated to hear about the tribulations of Ferrari owners.  Buying it is only the beginning; it must, of course, be customized so it doesn’t look like every other Ferrari of its class clogging the roads. My friend and I spent an entire lunch as she recounted a recent crisis of devastating proportions when the tire pressure sensor light on the dashboard suddenly went wonky. This tire pressure gauge displays each tire in pounds per square inch.

A half hour into this litany, those of us who drive tiny Toyotas were finally forced to query, “And this is a crisis because…? 

A dark cloud crept across my friend’s face.  She was expecting more sympathy.  Waaayyy more sympathy.  This has ruined her whole week.  A fellow Ferrari owner would clearly understand the gravity of the situation. 

"Because you could have a slow leak and wake up the next morning with a flat!” she explained with no little exasperation. 

As it turned out, the tire gauge was just fine.  Just the light was flaky.  $700.  Mouse nuts (as my husband Olof would say) for Ferrari owners.

Actually, I have managed to live my whole life without a dashboard tire pressure sensor.  My Toyota doesn’t have one, nor did its predecessor, my tragically deceased 1998 Jetta.   My car has a more manual version of a tire pressure gauge which was activated when I recently drove over to Tourmaline to walk on the beach, heard a sudden loud hiss and felt my car list to starboard.  “I think I have lost tire pressure,” I said to myself. 

Frankly, the feature I covet in a car is that proximity feature that beeps when someone is about to back their massive SUV into you at Von’s.  Alas, it does not come standard on a Corolla.  If someone would just make a Hummer Bug, I guess it wouldn’t matter. 


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Allowance Futures: An Investment Vehicle for Our Times

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published April 18, 2013] © 2013 

At an Easter brunch with friends, we were discussing the difficulty of finding good financial investments at a time when real estate has been problematical and most conservative vehicles are paying less than 1%. 

In a similar (if less volatile) market some years back, my now-husband, Olof (whom I was dating at the time), concluded after considerable contemplation and, more to the point, a lot of observation during weekends he spent at our house, that the investment of choice was allowance futures. 
The way allowance worked in my household at the time was that each kid got $4.00 a week, assuming, of course, that they got no fines for misbehavior.  Additionally, we had a bonus point system whereby exceptionally nice behavior (extra chores, a considerate act toward a sibling etc.) was rewarded with bonus points which were irrevocable (i.e. not subject to fines) and based on the theory that bad behavior shouldn’t cancel out good, and also that my older son, Rory, sometimes had more fines than the national debt.  Bonus points could be cashed in for $.25 or for staying up an extra half hour.  (They almost always took the cash.)  So if a kid was having an usually bad week, he could not only flatline his allowance but actually owe ME.

So the way Olof saw it, on, say, January 15, he’d negotiate with Rory to buy his April 1 allowance for say, $2.00, betting that Rory was going to behave and that I’d be paying more than that (up to the full $4.00 plus bonus points.)  If so, Olof got all Rory’s payable allowance that week.  Rory, however, knowing that he tends to mouth off a lot and that fines may eat his allowance down to nothing (or that he’ll even end up owing me money), thinks that $2.00 is better than the bupkes he frequently gets.  (Olof, however, didn’t want to take a total killing so he insisted on a stop loss order at $.10). 
My younger son, Henri, however, didn’t share his brother’s need to live not only on the edge but usually on the way far side of it, and tended to see a great deal more of his allowance than Rory did, often racking up substantial bonus points as well.  (This kid could suck up like you wouldn’t believe.)  So Olof was not likely to buy Henri’s April 1 allowance for less than $3.00 and probably even more if it looked like there could be good bonus point potential.  Henri, who was eight at the time, had already attempted to get in the game by trying to buy bonus points with his allowance because bonus points were not subject to fines but allowance money was.  It is probably not surprising that Henri ultimately ended up in business school. 

Like many futures contracts, seasonal factors would weigh heavily.  When home from school on Christmas vacation, the kids often got bored, calling Mom at work some 30 times per day to rat each other out, both of them ending up deeply in the hole by week’s end.  (What did they care; it was Christmas and they knew Santa would deliver even if the allowance fairy didn’t.)  But this kind of stuff was all insider information to which Olof, still commuting down on weekends from the Bay area, might not be privy.
You might ask what motivation there might be for any sort of decent behavior after a kid has sold an allowance contract.  A valid point.  But these contracts would be sold well in advance (they were, after all, futures) and Olof’s theory was that the parties wouldn’t remember or record what weeks they’ve sold.  Rory maybe, but even if deprived of all writing implements, Henri would have etched it on the patio cement with a garden spade. (See “business school,” above.)   So to make it fair, Olof wanted to be able to buy blind allowance contracts from the kids so they wouldn’t know what week they’d sold.  At one point Olof was even trying to figure out to work a straddle where he contracted with both the kids AND me. 

Olof thought that if he were doing well enough on allowance futures we could even could go public and sell allowance shares.  (I personally would have gone short on these.) 
But right about that time, the market picked up, and CD and money market funds became worthy enough vehicles again.  I merely mention this because in the current uncertain times, parents of elementary and middle school kids might want to consider allowance futures themselves.  It definitely pays more than your bank.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Could We Just Get Over It?

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published April 11, 2013] © 2013   

I’ve written before about my wonderfully ethnic family - French Catholics, DAR Protestants, Russian Jewish refugees, plus a smattering of Northern European famine flee-ers, all yearning to breathe free. 

Actually, to be accurate, the French contingent were more yearning to breathe rich.  Already a well-regarded textile expert in France, my great-grandfather was recruited to come to the U.S. Northeast in 1901 to manage a woolen mill which he ultimately ended up owning; numerous expansions later, the mill became the largest tax payer in the state. Great-gramps was also an avid photographer, not exactly a common or easy hobby in an era when Photomats were in short supply.  It was strictly a do-it-yourself operation.   Unlike the firing-squad poses popular in the day, his photos are particularly delightful candids of the family (and dogs) in their daily activities – romping around the lawn, digging out of the Snowstorm of Aught One, celebrating birthdays, and proudly posing with their new Chalmers Motor Car. You really get a sense from these pictures that you know these people – a wonderful gift for their descendants.
Besides his wife and young son, great-gramps had also brought over his much younger (and frankly better looking) brother, Eugène, who up until 1906 had been in a preponderance of the photos but mysteriously disappears that year never to be seen again.  My father never knew why, only that there had been a huge falling out between the two brothers, so much so that the descendants of great-gramps and Eugène never interacted again.  In fact, a half century later, Dad happened to find himself at a Philadelphia hotel with a fellow business traveler who had the family’s highly unusual name.  Knocking on this man’s door, he was met with a face eerily similar to his own – and a huge deep freeze. 

Eugène, I noted in the photos, obviously enjoyed a congenial relationship with great-grandma; the two are usually laughing, even touching. Photos of great-grandpa and great-grandma not so much.  Studying the pictures more closely a few years ago, I had a eureka moment, sure I had solved this 100-year-old family feud:  Eugène was getting it on with great-grandma, and great-grandpa found out.  (I should have been a romance writer.)
Fortuitously, in 2009, I came into ownership of dozens more of my great-grandfather’s photos which had languished in an elderly relative’s basement for more than half a century.  While a few were of the long-ago family, most were stunning photos great-gramps had taken documenting the mill and the mill workers themselves.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Deciding that these truly historical pictures deserved a wider audience, I was able to find an appropriate historical web site which was thrilled to post them, and even contacted the local paper in the town where the mill had been located to see if current residents there might still be able to identify anyone – managers or mill workers – in the photos more than 100 years later. The paper wrote a story, posted sample photos and a link to the website, and included my email address.

I ended up hearing from plenty of people, none of whom, alas, could identify any ancestors in the photos, but chief among my new correspondents were descendants of the long-vanished Eugène.  And oui, they knew about the long-ago feud, and just to be clear, they hadn’t forgotten.

Several sources informed me that in that era, the mill owners and managers were all French but all (and I mean all) the mill workers were French Canadians.  And the two classes absolutely never mixed, socially or by marriage.   But Eugène, following his heart, scandalized everyone by marrying a French Canadian mill worker, prompting great-gramps to permanently disown him.  It would have been, as one correspondent presciently pointed out in 2009 (pre-Downton Abbey) “like having your daughter marry the chauffeur – completely unacceptable.” When Eugène’s wife died of childbirth complications after their second child, he allegedly asked great-gramps for “help” (financial? babysitting? unclear) and got a resounding no.  So to really stick it to his brother and local society, Eugène then married the dead wife’s sister (also a miller worker) and had three more children. It did not improve relations.
So I think the mystery is solved, at long last, at least from our end.  (Sounds like other side never thought it was a mystery at all.)  My romantic’s heart would prefer to be associated with Eugène’s saga instead of great-grandpa’s but things were what they were in the early 1900’s. 

But could we, like, get over it? 
(For the record, I’m STILL suspicious about Eugène and great-gram.) 

Eugène and great-grandma (smiling, hard to see in this size photo), in front
of the house after the Big Storm of 1901

Great-grandma and great-grandpa, same storm

Monday, April 1, 2013

**Using The Good Stuff

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published April 4, 2013] © 2013 

I simply refuse to be defeated by sterling silverware.  But so far the tally is flatware 3, Inga 0.

We recently inherited a set of beautiful sterling flatware from a great aunt of Olof’s and since we had long since begun using my mother’s bone china on a daily basis, we decided to jettison the stainless and upgrade ourselves to daily sterling as well.  As the L’Oreal commercial says, we're worth it.
Using the bone china has turned out to be a fabulous idea with only one minor problem:  it has flowers.  Olof is not a flower man.  In fact, I think it may have been part of our wedding vows.  (“I, Inga, promise not to subject Olof to a single flower motif on furnishings, bedding, wall coverings, throw pillows, bath tile, or visible domestic surfaces so long as we both shall live.”)  But as I pointed out to Olof, the flower pattern is usually covered by food. Now that we’ve been using it awhile, I’ve noticed the twitching has stopped. 

But the sterling thing has turned out to be a whole different ballgame.  My much-missed long-deceased mother had beautiful sterling flatware, an exquisite set of Limoges (in addition to the wedding china that I now have), and lovely Baccarat crystal, all of which is in the possession of our younger-than-any-of-us stepmother, Fang, along with our now-deceased father’s estate.  (WHY do older men have to think with the little head???)  At least weekly I pray that the Limoges is leaching lead.
But maybe Fang did me a favor stealing the sterling.  Once Olof’s great-aunt’s flatware came into our lives, I quickly discovered how truly high maintenance it is.  If you look on the internet regarding care of sterling flatware, you will conclude, as I did, that 99% of it lives a perpetually shunned life in its wooden storage coffin, ultimately to be inflicted on another hapless generation.  Sterling flatware is the ultimate white elephant.  Actually, the elephant would be less work.

Now there are a few champions out there who do encourage you to use sterling every day. Life is short, they exhort!  Use the good stuff!  It’s not that hard if you follow a few (dozen) simple rules! 
Using sterling daily, for example, has the alleged benefit that you don’t have to polish it as often.  In my case I hope this means never. 

The biggest downside I’ve found with sterling flatware is that you can’t use it on actual food.  Among the comestibles that damage sterling silver are vinegar, acidic fruit juices, eggs, mayo, salad dressings, spaghetti sauces, table salt, olives, and pickles.  We have enough trouble with our primary care doctor axing the high glycemic carbs without having to eliminate whole other classifications of food based on the preferences of our flatware.
There is a huge debate as to whether you can put sterling flatware in your dishwasher; most sites recommend you hand wash and dry it.  If I have to hand wash all my silverware, the score would be flatware 50, Inga -10.  (The bone china has made the adjustment to Cascade.)  My feeling is that everybody has to give a little here, including (and especially) the flatware. 

For example, I quickly concluded that if you’re going to use sterling silver daily, life is too short to heed the recommendation that one count all the pieces after each use.  Spoon accidentally lost in the trash?  Sayonara, baby! 
Even the dishwasher advocates concede, however, that you can’t let the sterling stuff touch stainless stuff in the silverware basket.  Something about electrolytic reactions, ions, pitting, and other bad scientific-y things.   So against my better judgment, my silverware caddy now has its own DMZ with a strict non-fraternization policy on either side.  How long this will actually last has already been a subject of wagers in our household.

But even that’s not enough.  Absolutely no lemon-scented or “citrus additives” in your dishwasher soap.  It is also important to rinse sterling silverware immediately after exposure to food, preferably while still in the diner’s hands.  Letting it sit on dinner plates on the kitchen counter while you watch Dancing with the Stars is inviting disaster.  It just goes against everything I believe in (never mind a lifetime of marginal housekeeping skills) to have my life controlled by silverware.  But as much as I try to ignore it, I hear it calling out to me:  “Yoo hoo, Inga, we’re tarnishing out here!” 
Waayyy too many sites advise that should you fail to comply with the Sterling Silver Playbook that you will have to “take the ware for repairs to a professional silversmith.”  There is nothing about the term “professional silversmith” that sounds life-enhancing to me.

The bottom line, of course, is what sterling flatware really requires is…servants.  The Downton Abbey cast seemed to have no dearth of lackeys polishing the stuff on a regular basis.  But I am determined to use my nice things, including my new sterling, and nobody is going to stop me! Even if it all looks like hell in six months. 
As for glassware, I’m afraid it’s strictly Crate & Barrel.  Because I don’t think Fang is leaving me the Baccarat in her will.  It probably couldn’t go in the dishwasher anyway.