Monday, January 20, 2014

Let Old Acquaintance Be Forgot

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published January 23, 2014] © 2014 

When I was visiting my son at his college fraternity house a few years back, we were looking at the yearly group photos of members from previous decades on the wall, and my son was expressing disbelief that anyone could have thought those hair styles, glasses, and clothes could possibly be flattering.  I said, “In another thirty years, some other guy is going to be standing in this spot saying the same thing about you.”  He looked positively stricken.

I have the same feeling when I’m watching Home and Garden TV shows about remodeling or finding one’s first house.  I love watching the look of horror that overcomes prospective home buyers’ faces as they walk in and exclaim in dismay, “It’s so eighties!” adding, “ALL of this has to go!” 

Sorry, prospective home buyers, but I remember positively lusting after the latest model homes featuring all-the-rage shag carpet, avocado or harvest gold appliances (instead of boring white), mirrored accent walls, wrought iron railings, large-pattern wallpaper, and the ultimate accoutrement, the sunken living room. 

I can therefore guarantee that in another couple decades, prospective home buyers on HGTV’s House Hunters will walk into homes and announce, “These granite counter tops, stainless steel appliances, and trey ceilings have got to go.”  Their realtor will point out that painting over the red accent wall is an easy fix and that a structural engineer can be consulted as to how to get rid of that open concept layout that allowed absolutely no privacy, and add some walls for some more defined space.  He will assure them that those stainless steel appliances that show every freaking fingerprint can be replaced with white ones, and those wine-glass-breaking granite countertops can be reconfigured in some eco-friendly version of Formica. 

It’s amazing how rabidly we can turn on styles that we once so adored.  Or how good we are at euphemizing into current desirability old styles we can’t get rid of.  I can’t help but notice that the “mid-century bungalow” the HGTV realtor is shilling is actually a 50’s tract house with a lot of wood paneling. 

When my former husband and I bought our 1947 home in 1973, some rooms still sported the “in” paint colors of the 1950’s:  Pepto Bismol Pink and Penal Institution Green.  Every house in my neighborhood originally had them.  The previous owners of our home had upgraded it with big-flowered wallpaper in the dining room and wall-to-wall green shag carpet over the hardwood floors throughout the house.  We might still have that carpet except for the fact that on January 7, 1981, the city’s failure to maintain sewer trunk lines after the passage of Proposition 13 caused, through no fault of ours, a main line block that re-routing the entire neighborhood’s sewage through our house for two hours before city emergency crews could shut it off.  Horror movies have nothing on this scenario.  It was 7 a.m., my then-husband, who was never home when I needed him, was off playing tennis when there was a sudden earthquake-type trembling.  Seconds later, geysers of black water spewed out of every drain in the house – toilets, bathtubs, sinks, showers.  Ultimately, I concluded that this was God’s way of saying, “Sorry for the overkill, Inga.  But that green shag was so last decade.” 

Clothing styles, of course, are as fickle as decorating  tastes.  I can’t help notice that some of those flower-power neon colors and even bell bottoms are back in style, and I could kick myself for not having saved my 1970s wardrobe for quick sale on eBay.  I’ve also watched the wedding dress show “Something Borrowed, Something New” where brides have to decide (obviously under extreme duress from Mom) whether to wear their mother’s high-necked poofy-shouldered 80’s lace wedding dress or pick out one they actually like.  I remember when those 80’s dresses graced the cover of every bridal magazine, a clear repudiation of those heavy satin numbers of a generation before.  In thirty years, I can see glum-faced brides on this show standing in front of the mirror in Mom’s strapless fit-and-flair Vera Wang dourly muttering, “Geesh, these dresses were ALL THE SAME.  Didn’t people in the 2010’s have any imagination?”

So accent walls and kitchen islands, be forewarned.  Your days are numbered.  Before you know it, you’re going to be the pariahs of the real estate world.  Real estate agents will be apologizing for you, assuring prospective home buyers that you can be easily exorcised.  And while I probably won’t be around to see it, I absolutely predict a Vera Wang clearance section at the 2040 Junior League Rummage Sale:  buy one, get one free.   So cruel, but so life.

Below:  My older son practiced his newly-acquired sitting up skills
on the ex-green shag carpet
Below:  Big patterned wallpaper was a popular upgrade in the 1970s.
Please also note macramé plant hanger.

Monday, January 13, 2014

*Reclaiming The Front Yard

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published January 16, 2014] © 2014 

I’ve lived in my house for decades but 2013 was the year we reclaimed the front yard. 
Over the years, the front yard had really been the kids’ domain.  We had big trees with rope bridges going between them, tree forts, tents, and plenty of flat play space.  Adults went out there at their own risk.
As they are wont to do, things changed.  Two of the biggest tree fort trees died.  The kids grew up, went away to college, and established lives and families out of town.  Since the grass was actually now going to have a fighting chance, we re-seeded and added sprinklers.  But all this manicured magnificence cost a lot of money for maintenance and water for space that was totally unused.  Like most families, both our private and entertaining lives occurred out back.  La Jolla homes have become nothing if not bastions.
But then some toddler grandchildren came on the scene.  Their folks weren’t too keen about the back yard with its brick patio and pool.   My younger son, Henri, lobbied for some comfy lawn chairs so that the adults (that would be him) could sit outside in the grassy front yard and watch the kids play. 
I was dubious about the chairs.  First, we have no garage to store them when not in use.  They would block the sprinklers and we’d be perennially dealing with patches of dead grass.  The gardening service would hate them. After a few months in the elements, they’d look awful.  But a year ago Christmas, I finally relented and bought two nice lawn chairs that folded up fairly compactly and could be stored on our back porchlet when the kids were not in town. 
As Henri was packing up the chairs at the end of a visit last spring, I told him to leave them in the front yard for a while longer.  I’d been enjoying reading out there and letting our perennially-visiting grand dog have more space to run around.
The chairs never went back.  It was true that the gardeners hated them.  They were heavy and hard for me to move.  Paint did start to peel in places.  Patches of dead grass appeared underneath them.  But I found that the happiest part of my day was going outside with my book and communing with nature in my front yard.  Sometimes I just brought out the book to look like I was reading so I wouldn’t look like the crazy lady who sits in her lawn chair and stares.  You can get a reputation pretty easily in my neighborhood.
Pretty soon, the newly-retired Olof would come out around 5:00 and join me with his Kindle in the other chair.  If the sun were over the yardarm anywhere within three time zones, we might also have a drink.  Living near the beach, we could watch the pelicans flying in formation back and forth along the coast.  We couldn’t quite see the sun sink below the horizon but we had an excellent west-facing view of the beautiful sunset sky. 
It was only a few weeks before we knew every dog within ten blocks and their owners as well.  People would stop on the other side of the three-foot fence and chat with us.  I told Henri over the phone that it felt like a throwback to a time when people sat out on their front porches and waved to the neighbors as they went by.  “Like when you were little,” he said.  “That was the 1930’s,” I replied tersely.  “As I said,” replied Henri.
And then an even more interesting thing happened.  Neighbors, seeing us sitting there with adult beverages in our hands, began showing up with their own.  So there was nothing to do but order more chairs, which we did.  On two occasions, a neighbor showed up with his flamenco guitar, a bottle of Rioja and some Manchego cheese and dazzled us all with an impromptu concert. 
As the days got shorter, the early fall brought crickets (one of my favorite sounds) and spider webs silhouetted against the twilight sky in our trees.  Olof, an engineer, is fascinated by spider webs.  Me, I was rooting for the flies.
The time changed.  Spiders disappeared.  There were now some seriously dead patches in the grass.  Gardeners were getting surly.  We’d pretty much have to be out there by 3:30, a little early even for us, yardarms notwithstanding.  So we brought the chairs in.  But we really miss them.
So maybe the next time we haul them out, they’ll stay out.  Maybe our formerly manicured lawn will just have bald patches.  Maybe we’ll have to give the gardeners a raise.  I wistfully confided to Olof that I wouldn’t mind spending the last day of my life in those chairs. He replied, maybe disarm the sprinklers first.

So thanks, Henri.  Wish we’d thought of this ourselves a lot sooner. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

**How An Engineer Makes Cookies

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published January 9, 2014] © 2014 

Two weeks before Christmas, my recently-retired engineer husband suffered an uncharacteristic attack of nostalgia and announced he was going to make his family’s holiday cookie recipes for the kids, his sibs and nieces, and even the neighbors.  I guess man cannot live by Erlangian Distributions alone.

Frankly, this put terror in my heart.  As my Thanksgiving column about my pie-making fiasco made clear, I am not a baker.  Cookies are a lot easier than pie crusts but if Olof, who has never baked anything ever, was counting on me for guidance, this could be a disaster. 

Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, Olof was able to get his sisters to dig through their old files and find the original recipes for the five types of cookies. What the recipes didn’t say, however, was how many cookies each recipe made.  Not a problem, said Olof, who insisted it required a simple application of undergraduate quantitative analysis.

Some hours later, Olof appeared with FIVE PAGES of spreadsheets, titled “2013 Christmas Cookie Plan” including projected output per recipe, number of cookies of each of the five recipes per recipient, ingredients by recipe, and a fourth one understood only by Olof.  The final spreadsheet tallied up the sum total of ingredients for all five recipes which generated a master shopping list. When I saw that we needed 17.5 cups of flour and 13 sticks of butter, I knew this wasn’t going to be a morning’s work.

“Olof,” I said.  “This is amazing.”

Olof looked genuinely puzzled.  “How else do people make cookies?” he said.

With his engineer’s precision, he set out making the cookies a recipe at a time, including gingerbread men.  I was frankly agog with how well those came out even if a certain number were double amputees.  Originally, he’d thought it would be fun to make one batch of anatomically-correct ginger persons just to punk his sisters but I pointed out that shipping was going to challenging enough without specialty appendage packaging.

What really dazzled me, however, was that he decorating every one of the 70 ginger persons himself with homemade red, green, and white icing.  That had always been his job as a child, he maintained.  It was sort of like riding a bicycle.  You never forget. Twelve hours later, when all the cookies were baked and decorated, he flopped down in his favorite chair and announced “Done!”

Done?  “Olof, my lilla lutfisk,” I said, “Do you plan to beam these around the country?” A frown creased his brow. Logistics Distribution Planning hadn’t really been addressed in the spreadsheets.  He then recalled that getting cookies from grandma in college usually meant a shirt box full of really delicious crumbs, which he would eat with a spoon. 

It went without saying that every last decorative cookie tin had been scoured from the store shelves long since.  After I amassed about $100 worth of packing materials, I divided up the cookies according to the spreadsheet whose projected output had been astoundingly accurate.  Who knew a degree in nuclear physics could have actual practical applications? 

We set up an assembly line where I packaged the cookies individually (no crumbs for us!), padded them in large Tupperware containers ($62), then handed them off with a shipping label to Olof who cocooned them in a landfill’s worth of bubble wrap in boxes. Eco-friendly this wasn’t.

I’d also had him write up a description of the cookies for the recipients as not everyone was familiar with them.  Olof may have missed his calling.  The cherry-topped cookies, for example, were described as “sweet, flaky, and surprisingly suggestive.” 

The day we were finally ready to mail was December 16, the busiest shipping day of the year.  The line at the Pacific Beach post office was out the door.  Waaayy out the door.  “Mental health move, Olof,” I said.  “We’re shipping from a private mailing place.”  It was well worth the $75. 
In the end, we could probably have ordered more cheaply from the Lamborghini of bakeries, had the cookies gift-wrapped in gold leaf and hand-delivered in refrigerated sleighs by costumed Santas singing Jingle Bells in two-part harmony with Rudolph. 

But it was fun.  (Mostly.)  It allowed Olof to re-live a favorite part of his youth and hopefully pass the tradition to another generation.  In fact, our niece in Florida reported that her son promptly ate the heads off all the gingerbread men, which made his younger sister cry.  She added, “I’m guessing this scene was probably reminiscent of Uncle Olof and Mom.”  Maybe that wasn’t the tradition he was hoping to pass on.  On second thought, maybe it was. 

But note for next year:  make extra heads.

Flushed with success, Olof has decided to add making a pie to his bucket list.  Have at it, bucko.  I’m not getting anywhere near that one.

Note screwdriver (in dish) as gingerbread person
decorating tool.  (Sterilized)

Friday, January 3, 2014

A New Car Just Wasn't In The Cards

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Jan. 2, 2014]  © 2014 

Recently, a friend invited me to go with her for a reading by her psychic.  The friend swears by this psychic-cum-tarot-card reader and insists that she would never make a major move in her life without consulting this woman. 

I hesitated.  I have not had the best luck with tarot card readings.  Shortly after my former husband and I split up, I wandered into a psychic fair at Balboa Park one Saturday and on a whim, since this was such a pivotal point in my life, sat down at the table of a tarot card reader.  He had me pick a card.  It was a horrifying-looking thing, like death, and indeed turned out to be, ja, the death card.  The reader, mumbling something about being “still in training,” quickly shoved it back into the deck, shuffled the pile and had me pick again.  Same card.  Even though I really don’t believe this stuff, I could feel the sweat break out on my forehead.  The reader, noticing my pallor, began quickly muttering about how there were all kinds of deaths, like, ah…ah..

“Relationships?”  I said hopefully.

“Yes, relationships,” he enthused.  I don’t remember anything else he said other than that I am still alive a couple decades later.

A few years into my impoverished new single life, I attended a New Year’s Day party at the home of some friends who are not into the occult, but had hired a tarot card reader, just for fun, to do readings for any guests who wanted them.  At first I demurred.  Wasn’t chancing that death card a third time.

That very same weekend, I had been presented with irrefutable evidence that my clunker car had to be replaced.  To actually fix all that was wrong with it was going to cost at least $4,000.  Did I want to sink that kind of money into a 10-year-old vehicle considering  that the side mirror had fallen off, the ceiling fabric hung down on my head as I was driving (very annoying), the car made a funny thunk noise when you put on the brakes, and the engine looked like it had sustained a fire.  Still, it was right after Christmas and I desperately needed to keep it running for at least a few more months. 

At the New Year’s party, this tarot card reader came complete with a crystal ball which I kind of liked.  I asked, “Can you just look into the crystal ball and forget the cards?”  She said she actually used both.  I was asked to concentrate on the questions I wanted answered as I picked five cards and placed them face down.  I should mention that everyone else who had already consulted the reader had insisted they received only “good” news.  So I was more than a little dismayed when she turned over the first card and frowned.  “This is bad news.”  (Why me?  Why me?)  “This indicates you might be having some serious financial problems this year.”  I needed to hear this on January first?  I was a chronically-destitute single parent.  I could feel the familiar sweat on my forehead. 

Um,” I said hopefully, “my car broke down this weekend and I’m going to have to replace it and I really don’t know how I’m going to afford it.  Could this be what this means?”

She saw how anxious I was.  “Yes, that could be it.  Some big expense you weren’t planning on.”  We both breathed a sigh of relief.  Even so, I wasn’t sure I wanted her to go on to the next card.  But this one was of a nice looking young lady (the Queen of Hearts, I think it was called) and the one after that a nice friendly-looking man (the King of Hearts?) which apparently indicated that I would be much cared for by a certain man and that I would return the feeling.  Couldn’t argue with that. The fourth card indicated that I was perhaps not fulfilling the career choice of my dreams. (Duh. Like I needed tarot cards to tell me that.)  The last card (something to do with coins) showed this nice friendly looking guy with a bag of money indicating that my future beloved was financially better off than I (which in that era would have encompassed 99.9% of the U.S. population.)  

I said, “Does this mean he’s going to buy me a car?”

She said she couldn’t say.  But, she beamed, she thought he might marry me. 

 “That’s nice,” I said.  “But what I really need is a car.”

Ironically, the tarot reader was right.  I did find the man of my dreams (Olof) who was indeed better off than I was and he ultimately married me and bought me a car.  But not for a lot of years after that reading.  Meanwhile, I bought my own car.  Those cards need some work on time frames.

I passed on my friend’s offer of a reading with her psychic.  Too old for the stress, I said.