Monday, July 29, 2013

Tripping Over the Language Barrier

["Let Inga Tell You," August 1, 2013] [La Jolla Light declined to print this]  © 2013 

I grew up in a house where you never hired anyone to do anything – not paint the house, not mow, not shovel snow in the winter, and certainly not clean.  My parents, like my husband Olof’s, were huge proponents of child labor. 

So when I first moved to California as a bride, it was a while before my then-husband and I ultimately decided to succumb to the luxury of an alternate-week cleaning lady, and a mow-and-blow service.   But I had no clue how to hire anybody. 

Since the reason I finally opted for cleaning services was that I was working full time and wasn’t going to be in the house, the first question I asked of an applicant in my early naiveté was if written instructions in English would be acceptable, or did she want to take her chances with my Spanish? 

Initially I would be puzzled when I came home and found that although my lovely hard-working new hire had checked off all the things on my list, many hadn’t been done.  I had to conclude that although I thought my college Spanish was adequate (if a little heavy on the dictionary consultation), it probably sounded to her like a Japanese calculator manual. 

But what I actually discovered (I’m a slow learner) was that the problem was more serious than my helper not being able to read my Spanish.  She could not read, period.  Cleverly (and I was actually pretty dazzled by this), she identified cleaning products by colors of the cleaning product bottles or pictures on the labels.  Unfortunately, the blue bottle at my house contained a very different cleaning product than the blue bottle at another customer’s house as I discovered when she cleaned my sofa with X-14 mildew remover for showers.  When I really understood the reading problem fully was when I walked into my kitchen with several bags of groceries and fell flat on my back, my cleaning lady having cleaned the hardwood floor with lemon oil furniture polish.  She pointed tearfully at the label and kept repeating madera (wood). 

I’m actually hugely sympathetic with language issues (and immigrants in general), having had a mother who taught ESL and having lived a total of three years in two separate foreign countries whose language I did not speak at all when I arrived.   I would literally have starved to death had I had to earn a living in either place.    I have painfully clear memories of entertaining the locals with my fractured efforts at their native tongue, never mind the total frustration of trying to deal with bureaucratic and technical snafus in a language that is not one’s own. (Try negotiating a phone tree in Portuguese.)  But it took my spine about six months to fully recover from the madera incident. 

My early gardening hires tended to present a different problem.  They had a very fluid idea of “Thursday”, which sometimes meant Monday, and other times meant three Wednesdays from now.  My yard would morph into quasi-jungle mode fairly rapidly.  Tracking them down was problematical due to an ever changing list of contact information (whatever I had was always the “old” number) but I still recall with fondness the endless list of creative excuses for their absences: 

Gardener:  My trock, ees brawken.  (Looking at some of these trucks, this was not hard to imagine.) 

But far more often, it was:  My abuelita [grandmother] in Guadalajara, she die. 

Inga (puzzled):  “Didn’t she just die four months ago?”

Gardener:  That was my other abuelita. 

Gardener (two months later): My abuelita in Morelia, she die.

Inga:  I thought both of your abuelitas have already died.   And didn’t they live in Guadalajara?

Gardener:  Oh, theese one, she is not my real abuelita.  She is abuelita in my heart.  (Pats heart.) 

The abuelitas continued to die like flies over the next year.  I have to say that the mortality rate of abuelitas in Mexico at that time was staggering.  OK, they’re abuelitas, they’re old.  But as far as I could see, there was a serious abuelita  epidemic going on.

But ultimately, I got the hang of both hiring help in general and hiring international help in specific, and have been lucky to have same wonderful people for decades at a time.  But I definitely look back on that first year with a smile.  Even when I feel that lingering twinge in my spine.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Tigee: The Sequel

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published July 25, 2013] © 2013 

In September of 2010 I wrote a column entitled “The Cat Who Came In from the Cold” about Tiger, our neighbor, Bob’s, cat, who, at a year old, came to live with Bob after a harrowing tale of abandonment by our neighbors to the south, adoption by some kindly neighbor ladies to the north, and a hilarious (if you weren’t one of the parties) custody saga between the ladies and Bob mediated by a pet psychic (hired by the ladies) who aurally communicated with Tiger – over the phone.  Tiger, decreed the cat whisperer, preferred to live with Bob.  It didn’t hurt Bob’s cause that Tiger, like Bob, turned out to be a devoted Yankees fan.

Tiger had actually decided the issue much earlier.  Bob, a hunky single guy with a robust social life, had never had cats on his radar, so when Tiger kept showing up on his back patio, he repeatedly returned him to the semi-lawful-owner neighbor ladies. (Spending $700 on surgery for an abandoned cat who shows up at your door should entitle one to a certain proprietary ownership).  But minutes later, Tiger would be back.  Bob’s live-in girlfriend at the time had asthma and avoided cats which further decided the issue.

But on a cold rainy March evening, a drenched Tiger stood outside the sliding doors on Bob’s patio meowing piteously.  On that night Tiger moved himself both into Bob’s home and heart.  Amazingly, the then-girlfriend suffered no allergic reactions to Tiger and in a twist of fate, now does cat rescue.  Bob uses this as an example of how Tiger has impacted the lives of everyone he’s come in contact with, including and especially Bob’s.

The guy who barely knew cats existed was to find himself with a feline soul mate, never mind the perfect sports watching companion.  Bob liked to cite as the basis of their bond that they were both adopted and both only children.  But how many girlfriends would have been perfectly (purr-fectly?) content to sit on the sofa with Bob for hours on end transfixed in front of two athletic-event-broadcasting TVs?  Tiger not only knew the players but never, ever made stupid comments.

When Bob and Tiger walked around the yard together, it was always in perfect cadence, to the amusement of the neighbors.  Girlfriends over the years universally fell in love with Tiger.  Some even maintained a relationship with Tiger long after the relationship with Bob was over. 

Bob never went out for the evening without making sure Tigee (as his intimates call him) was in for the night.  Unfortunately, the adolescent Tigee was still very much in his Cat About Town phase and had evening plans of his own, usually deciding to make Bob climb up on our roof to get him.  After a while, we just left the ladder out and gave Bob a key to our gate.

A few years ago, Tigee became an indoor cat on the advice of a vet when attempted applications of sunscreen to the pre-cancerous lesions on his nose not surprisingly failed abysmally.  (It would probably have made a viral YouTube video:  How to [Try to] Put Sunscreen On a Cat.)  But a couple of times when Bob was returning late at night with a date, Tigee would make a break for it, feeling the call of his lost youth.  A short time later, he’d reappear, his carpet-softened paws uncomfortably wet and a “you can’t go back” look on his furry face.

In May, Bob noticed that Tigee was having balance problems and was simply not his Tigee self.  Multiple vet visits revealed nothing until an MRI at an emergency animal hospital after a late-night seizure revealed a brain tumor.  Although Tigee was 14, it was felt that surgery could give him perhaps four more healthy years.  It would be pricey, Bob reported to us, adding a few wry jokes about the veterinary hospital ending up owning his home. 

Within days, Tigee was operated upon by a team including two kitty neurosurgeons and a feline anesthesiologist.  At first it looked like Tigee had come through with flying colors but as days passed, it became clear that he was not progressing as the surgeons hoped.  Worst of all, it wasn’t clear he knew Bob.  Tigee’s attempts to walk resulted in so many falls that he was fitted with a custom helmet to protect his little orange head.  He required an esophageal feeding tube.  He spent a month in intensive care.  Bob had decided that if Tigee showed improvement he was in it for the long haul.

But Tigee didn’t and four weeks after Tigee’s surgery, Bob took him home to see if familiar smells and sounds (all the TVs were tuned to ESPN) would stimulate some response.  But after an agonizing day at home, Bob realized that the Tigee he knew was gone and the decision was made to put him down that night. 

R.I.P. Tigee.  You were truly a cat among cats.  You are so missed.


Monday, July 15, 2013

It's All In the Intonation

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

If there is one lesson I can never seem to learn, it’s that email is the absolutely worst way to resolve a conflict. 

The reason, of course, is that it is virtually impossible to ensure that the recipient reads your email in the same (hopefully conciliatory) tone in which you wrote it.  In fact, you can pretty much guarantee that they won’t. 

There is, of course, a highly reliable way to convey tone of voice.  It’s called the telephone.  Or face to face.  And if some of us were smart, they’d use them a LOT more.  

While almost all of my friends are reasonably punctual, I have two long-time friends who are chronically late.  One of them is consistently a half hour behind schedule so that has been easy to resolve:  when we meet for lunch, I arrive 25 minutes after the appointed time so that when she rushes in breathlessly five minutes later, I’ve barely had time to look at the menu.

The other one has been more problematical.  One of the downsides of cell phones is that people like this friend who are punctuality-challenged can now call you 20 minutes after they’re supposed to be there to tell you that they are “running late.”   Before, she might have at least made some effort to get there on time.  OK, not much effort, but a little.  But now I never know when she’s going to show up – anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour past due.  She invariably decides to do a “quick” errand on the way to lunch that equally invariably ends up taking way longer than she thinks.  Twice, I’ve finally ordered and finished eating by the time she arrived.

I fully admit I am not the most patient person when it comes to waiting.  So when this friend set up a lunch date at Finch’s recently, I thought (why, why did I think this??) I’d see if I could resolve this by email.  Warning:  Readers, Do Not Try This At Home!

Email from Inga (written in a normal somewhat-pleading voice:):  Looking forward to seeing you at Finch’s on Tuesday!  Lots to catch up on!  I am wondering if any errands could possibly be done after lunch rather than before?  As you know, I have an appointment at 1:30 so I really want to maximize our time together!


What she replies:  Are you trying to say something?  I don’t think I like your tone. 

Inga (to self):  You moron!  You knew better!  Prediction:  Even though you think the issue is hers, you’re going to end up apologizing.

What I reply:  Well, I know you sometimes do errands on your way to lunch and they often take longer than you expected through no fault of your own (post office is totally impossible!)  Just hoping to see you as close to 12:00 as possible since I have to leave by 1:15. 


What she replies:  I ALWAYS arrive in as timely a fashion as possible.  I can hardly be expected to control post office lines and traffic, Inga!

Inga (never knowing when to leave bad enough alone):  I see you so infrequently these days that I hate it when we have to put in a rush order for lunch and bolt it down.  I confess I’m also not the most patient person when it comes to waiting!


What she replies:  I have unavoidably been a few minutes late on a couple of occasions.  But if it is so important to you that I show up PRECISELY on the DOT of 12:00 then I will run stop signs if necessary.  Happy?

INGA (to self):  You knew better.  You KNEW better.  You are a total idiot!  NOTHING is ever resolved by email!

What I reply:  No, don’t run stop signs.  I’m looking forward to seeing you on Tuesday!


What she replies:   It just really offends me to be attacked this way.

Inga (to self):  Uh-oh! NOW you’ve done it! If you say “sorry”, she’s going to read it as a sarcastic “sorry”, as in “Well, SORRY!” In fact, anything you write at this point is going to be read in a hostile tone of voice.  But no reply at all will be deemed as even more hostile.  There is one, and only one, possible response.

What I write:  Bring grandchildren pictures!

When she arrives:  25 minutes late.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Summertime And The Livin' Is...Congested

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

I think all of us year-round residents of La Jolla feel incredibly lucky to live in this beautiful oceanside community.  But just as people on cell phones treat the rest of the world like deaf mutes, one can’t help but notice that summer tourists at a beach resort seem to have beamed themselves mentally to a parallel universe where traffic laws do not apply. 

I actually do my best to make out-of-towners feel welcome here – loading up on extra La Jolla maps to hand out, offering to take group photos, suggesting restaurants to people who ask, and especially to pointing seriously lost people toward The Cove.  (They’ve usually overshot it and ended up in Bird Rock.)  I’ve been a tourist a lot myself and I always appreciate kindness from the locals.  I’m proud of my community and I want people to have a good time here.
But I also want them to live to tell about it.  At the Shores, beach chair-laden visitors wander at will across busy streets in front of oncoming cars.  They look stunned to hear the screech of tires, a blank look appearing across a puzzled face as they attempt to process what that annoying sound might have been. 

In downtown La Jolla, meanwhile, visitors with the same Normal-Rules-of Safety-Do-Not-Apply expression obliviously walk behind cars that are clearly backing up, launch their own cars in reverse into oncoming traffic, and even stop dead in the middle of the street to point out a scene of interest.  Sometimes it amazes me that so many locals and tourists survive the summer season.
In vacationers’ defense, their confusion in negotiating our town is probably linked to the fact that all the street names in La Jolla are basically permutations of the same ten Spanish words.  Some long-ago real estate developer figured out that places with Spanish-y names sell better. (And sí! they do!) The street words camino, avenida, paseo, rancho, playa and via are variously followed by the descriptives vista, hermosa, villa, mira, bella, mar, alta, baja, cresta, monte, bonita, oro, sol, posada, mesa, norte, sur, and corona. Then you just mix and match, as in Paseo Bella Mar Norte, Vista del Monte Oro, Via Rancho Mesa Alta, etc.  Occasionally an Americanism creeps in in situations that the early Spaniards couldn’t have anticipated (Avenida del Discount Drug).  That the long-ago developer didn’t speak Spanish himself is obvious when streets labeled monte or alta are on flatlands.  A visitor  stops and asks you for directions to Caminito de la Cresta Bonita, and you say to yourself, is that the one next to Posada del Mira Monte?  No, that’s Camino de la PLAYA Bonita.  Or is that Cresta de la Vista Bonita?  Vista de la Bonita Cresta?  Sorry, folks, the locals can’t figure it out either.

One could not have a discussion about summer in La Jolla without discussing parking.  Or more specifically, a lack of it.  Parking is never easy in the downtown area any time of the year but becomes a statistical impossibility come July 4.  Those of us who live here know where the two hour spots are and are prepared to hike a few blocks to a lunch destination, but people who don’t end up making endless frustrated loops before parking in a guaranteed-ticket one hour spot or stumbling upon that rare garage that still has room. 

Last August, always the busiest month in La Jolla, I was meeting a friend, her visiting Mom, and her ten year old daughter at the Whisknladle for lunch.  My friend dropped off her Mom and daughter and went in search of a parking spot.  It was a full hour before she was back, valiantly trying to hold back some well-deserved crankiness.  But thanks to that wait, the ten year old had had time to completely program my new iPhone even though she doesn’t personally have one herself.  It’s all intuitive, she explained, adding that she’d just programmed her Dad’s who is president of the technology company my husband works for.  My friend reported that if she hadn’t already dropped off the others she would have been seriously tempted to turn around and go back to Carlsbad.  Even the garages were full.

Come Memorial Day, I try to keep my maximum speed at 15 miles per hour in downtown La Jolla.  That’s actually not too hard to accomplish since most of the time you couldn’t go faster than that if you wanted to.  I fantasize having a neon blinking sign on the top of my car that I could broadcast “Look both ways!”  “The light is red!” or even “AIIEEEE!”  But soon enough, it will be Labor Day again and life in La Jolla will return to its normally congested self.  In the meantime, we hope everyone had a really nice time!