Tuesday, November 19, 2013

**Ruining The Family Recipes

["Let Inga Tell You,"  La Jolla Light, published November 21,2013] © 2013 

I have plenty of talents and I’m really not a bad cook so I’m not sure why I’ve never mastered baking.  Maybe I gave up too easily when my pies ended up with the lattice crust floating like flotsam on a soupy apple sea.   For years, I did everyone a favor by ordering pies from a local bakery at Thanksgiving until my younger son fortuitously married The Crust Whisperer. 

One of the things I have loved most about my sons’ marriages is being able to incorporate traditions from the daughters-in-law’s families into our own.  My younger son’s wife is from the East Coast so she has spent virtually every Thanksgiving with us even when she and my son were dating.  She is a first-rate cook and baker and her pies have become an essential part of our holiday. 

My mother was a wonderful baker too but died long before I had the opportunity to really watch what she did.  So I was delighted when my daughter-in-law offered to teach me her family’s treasured pie recipes.  I sat in the kitchen and took copious notes as she made the crusts and fillings.  She told me which apples to use, and crust tips like making sure the Crisco and the butter were really cold. 

So the next year, I was deeply honored when she asked if I could make the apple and pumpkin pies from her recipes since she was busy with an infant.  I intended to do her proud.  Just as I go nuts if an editor mangles text that is under my by-line, I knew that these pies represented her family.  If your name is associated with it, you want – nay, demand – that it live up to your standards. 

In retrospect, having my older son, Rory, help me was not the best idea.  While successful in his career, Rory has always had learning disabilities in math which could be problematical in cooking.  It doesn’t help that he tends to confuse the one cup measure for the two cup measure since they are both, after all, glass containers and end in “cup.” 

We didn’t have dry measuring cups.  Now, I was prepared to argue this as a cup is a cup as far as volume is concerned.  Not necessarily in baking, explained the daughter-in-law after the fact.  (She has to be the sweetest, most diplomatic person on the planet.)  They are indeed the same measurement. It is just easier to get an accurate measure of dry ingredients in a dry measuring cup which you fill to the top and level off with a straight edge.  Even small differences can change the outcome of a recipe, especially, she noted, pointedly, in baking.

I still can’t figure out what happened with the crusts.  We genuinely tried.   Rory and I chilled our dough thoroughly, as instructed, before rolling it out.  We dusted the countertop and the rolling pin liberally with flour.  But the crusts would disintegrate when we tried to pick them up, and after repeated re-roll-out attempts – each one less successful than the last – they ultimately Super Glued themselves to the counter surface.  In desperation, we finally just scraped the dough blobs off the counter and pressed them into the pan.  Alas, there wasn’t really enough visible at the top to do any crimping.  In fact, there wasn’t much dough peeking up at all.

The pumpkin pie, meanwhile, inexplicably listed to one side so that the filling was spilling out on one side but not high enough on the other. 

We couldn’t help but notice that there was nothing about our pies that looked anything like her beautiful Sunset Magazinesque versions.  Not to place blame anywhere, especially considering all my own previous failures with pie crusts, but I do think that cup thing was a factor. 

When my daughter-in-law arrived on Thanksgiving morning and surveyed our work, she heroically disguised her dismay. That her name – nay, her family’s name – should be associated with these fruity fiascoes must have cut her to the quick.  But in her inimitable fashion, she thanked us for baking, even gamely downed a piecelet of each that night.  My personal theory is that after dinner, she got in her car, rolled up the windows, and screamed for 40 miles. 

There hasn’t been any mention of my making the pies since then, even though she is now encumbered with two tiny kids. I’m sure she still wrings her hands at the memory and wonders, how can people not follow simple instructions?  Rather than unleash the Crust Killer and the Math Mangler on her recipes again, I think she’d make those pies with the kids strapped to her body, and peel the apples with her teeth.  Even I would have to agree:  if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Just for the record, I got a set of dry measuring cups for Christmas that year. 


Monday, November 11, 2013

Don't Call Us, We Might Call You

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published November 14, 2013] © 2013 

In one of my favorite wishful fantasies, every doctor in La Jolla cold-calls his office and experiences the response a patient gets from his staff.  He’d have to disguise his voice, of course, otherwise they’d be uncharacteristically helpful. 

OK, I realize this is an unfair slam of all medical offices.  In fact, we have been under the care of physicians who actually invite you to contact them by email – and even more incredibly, answer.  We have dealt with doctors’ offices who, when you request a copy of the labs, actually send them.  The first time!  We have interacted with office help who don’t act like your sole purpose in calling is to annoy them and who even get back to you if they say they will.  And to all of these people, we are so grateful we almost cry. No, we DO cry.

With two exceptions, we’ve been lucky to have excellent medical care over the years and the practices we deal with are all busy.  So why do some medical offices work so well and others so abysmally? 

Now, I realize that one of the purposes of front office staff is to run interference for the doctor.  One presumes, in fact, that they are following his or her instructions.  It also seems equally clear in some cases that he has sent them to the Mean Girls School of Medical Office Management where they are taught Surliness 110, Stonewalling 220, Terminal Ennui 330, and How to Frustrate Patients to the Point of Coronary Thrombosis 440.    

A friend of mine uses the wonderfully descriptive term “deafed out” to refer to office staff who, after she had a serious reaction to a newly prescribed drug, failed to ever pass on her messages to the doctor.  They just kept telling her not to worry about it. She finally ended up in the ER. She says she has long suspected that this office works on the premise that if you ignore patients’ calls long enough, they’ll die and stop bothering you. 

Given how often our insurance, and therefore doctors, have changed over the years, we always request a copy of every lab or test result for our records.  Some offices cheerfully hand them over (or post them on a portal).  Others just try to tell you that if you didn’t hear from the doctor, everything must be OK. Um, fine, but I still want a copy.  Others treat lab results like national secrets that pretty much any other person on the planet can see but you. They insist that the doctor has to OK it before they will (never) send it to you.  I’ve spent weeks wringing lab results out of some medical offices.

I think the All-Stars of the We Dare You to Contact Us contest goes to an office at Scripps Memorial.  My primary care doctor referred me there for a consult where merely achieving a human to schedule an appointment took the better part of three days.  Whether the office was open or closed, their line had (count ‘em) eight options, none of which were ever answered by a person.  In fact, even during business hours, I kept getting a message to “please call back during business hours.” 

On the third day, I systematically tried every one of the eight options but got a recording on all of them (even the one for doctors which I confess gave me a certain perverse pleasure).  On Option 6, the authorizations line, a truly crabby troll chastised people for taking up her time by calling,  admonishing them that if it hasn’t been at least two weeks, don’t bother leaving a message.   Good thing I didn’t need an authorization!

Of course, complaining to a doctor about his or her front office staff is fraught with peril. In fact, it’s a total loser.   You thought they were uncooperative before?  I always fear they keep a running list tacked to their phones of patients who will never ever get their lab results even if they call posthumously.  Instead I’ve tried to just praise the heck out of the ones who are helpful – both to them personally and to the doctor.  But it also makes me a little nervous.  You’re worried the doctor is thinking, “Hmmm, Debbie didn’t make these people work nearly hard enough to get in here. Back to the Mean Girls School of Front Office Management for her!”

It may not sound like it, but I actually have sympathy for doctors’ point of view since in my youth, I was married to a physician, and lived through the medical school years, internship, three years of residency, two years of Berry Plan military duty, National Boards Parts I, II, and III, specialty boards, and not a single holiday together until we’d been married five years.
It’s a really tough gig.  I know. But it would be really nice if someone just answered your phone.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Snaking One's Way Through the Marital Mine Field

"Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published November 7, 2013  © 2013 

When my husband, Olof, asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I didn’t hesitate to request a top-of-the-line sewer auger.

Now, this might suggest that the romance has gone out of the relationship or worse, could be considered a dismal metaphorical condemnation of our union.

But no, I really really wanted my very own sewer auger.

We live in a house that was built by the lowest bidder after the war with all non-square corners and apparently without benefit of building materials that had become scarce during The Conflict.  It is our only explanation for the shoddy construction.  An abundance of pipe-invading trees and shrubs, not to mention a decade or so of Lego-flushing kids, kept us on speed dial to our local plumber. 

But often the problem was our kitchen sink which could be cleared ourselves (that’s the royal “ourselves”) with a good sewer auger, which just happened to belong to our neighbors.  They were very nice about lending it to us as needed but after a certain point, I began to fantasize about the luxury of having our own.

You’d think Olof (the “ourselves” mentioned above) would have been deliriously happy with this idea but was instead horrified.  He did not feel that a birthday auger augured well for our marriage. 

“Not a snowball’s chance,” he replied. “Besides, aren’t you the one who complained that your first husband got you stuff for your birthday that was really for him?” he said.

“Yup,” I said, “Skis, and box seats to a Charger’s games.”

“And what happened?” he continued.

“I’m now married to you,” I said.

“Exactly.  It is against the Code of Husbands to get a wife a sewer auger for her birthday,” he maintained. 

“But not if that’s what I want,” I said.  “I didn’t ski, didn’t want to ski, and I hated football.”

“I don’t know,” he said, shaking his head.  “This wife birthday thing is fraught with peril.  There’s nothing more terrifying to a guy except Valentine’s Day.”

“But I’m serious,” I said.  “It would warm my heart the next time the sink backs up on a Saturday night” – it’s always a Saturday night – “that ‘we’ could just wheel in our Ferrari-of-sewer-augers and have at it.”

“This is a second marriage for both of us,” Olof reminded me.  “I like to think I’ve learned something.  Buying a wife a sewer auger for her birthday would be a classic rookie husband mistake.  I once bought my first wife a really expensive vacuum cleaner for her birthday.”

“And what happened?” I said.

“I’m now married to you.”

“Well, I’d consider a vacuum cleaner grounds for divorce too.”

 “OK,” said Olof, “I’m willing to buy you the sewer auger of your dreams but you can’t have it within even two months of your birthday.  So you’re going to have to think of something else.”

 “I also really want a hose caddy.” I suggested.  “The kind that’s mounted on the house that I can just crank up.  The hose on the patio is making me crazy.”

“Inga,” he said, exasperated.  “I can’t get you a hose caddy for your birthday any more than I can get you a sewer auger.”

“Well, I really do need a new salad spinner too. “

“No! NOTHING PRACTICAL!  It’s your birthday!  I have no desire to be married a third time.”

“The hose caddy could be for Christmas,” I suggested.  “Remember, it includes installation.”

“Surely there is something totally frivolous with no practical value that you want?” he implored. 

And that’s how I got a two-pound box of Godiva chocolates for my birthday.  And magically, a deluxe sewer auger, a hose caddy, and a salad spinner appeared from an anonymous donor a few weeks later. 

So bring it on, kitchen sink.  Clog up to your pipe’s content.  We’re ready!