Monday, March 31, 2014

The Llama That Went A-Wool

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published April 3, 2014] © 2014 

Every year on my sister’s birthday, I make a donation to Bat World Sanctuary in her name, and on mine, she contributes to Heifer International. 

While our choices of beneficence may suggest not-too-subtle metaphorical underpinnings, these are actually two of our favorite charities.

Our aunt was a biologist who was one of the world's foremost authorities on Myotis Lucifigus (the North American Little Brown Bat) and taught us how harmless bats are and how useful to the environment.  And Heifer International gives livestock (ducks, lambs, pigs, cows etc.) to third world families and teaches them how to care for the animals and increase the flock for a sustainable source of food. 

For my most recent birthday, I was genuinely touched to learn that a llama had been donated to a family in the high Andes on my behalf.  The sale of the wool would help pay for food, education, and medicines for the recipient family.  The donation announcement included a note from my sister: “I hope this is also a corrective emotional experience.” 

Boy, my sister really knows how to hurt a person.  The Llama Incident has been on my conscience for decades and she knows it.  But let me say in my defense that every new bride makes mistakes.  Is there a bride out there who has not left the bag of innards in the turkey?  Who has not confused a bulb for a clove of garlic and ended up with a beef stew that could wipe out New Jersey? 

But I’ll admit that my desecrating the llama was probably a little more unusual.  I was a young bride, still in college. Inexperienced in the ways of the world, and specifically, wool cleaning.

Of course, it wasn’t a whole llama, just the skin of one, which my parents had received as a gift and which I persuaded them to lend me for my tiny newlywed apartment.  Naturally, a white long-haired llama skin gets pretty dirty after a while, so the next time I called home, I asked my mother if it might be washable.  Dry-cleaning on a student budget was out of the question.  She said she thought it was. 

Now, afterwards, Mom insisted that what she meant by “washable” was that I might put the llama skin ever so carefully into a bathtub full of cold water with the teeniest drop of Woolite and poke it very gently from time to time with my index finger.

Mom said she NEVER meant that I should take it down to the basement laundry room and throw it in the Jumbomatic Super-Washer with a whole load of underwear.  (Even I knew better than to mix whites and darks.)

Well, imagine my utter dismay when I went down to get my laundry and found that the backing on the skin had somehow disintegrated (I only used warm!) and I had a whole washer load of wet, hairy llama with all of our dainties hopelessly (and I do mean hopelessly) entangled within. 

I was miserable.  The waste!  Not only had I ruined this beautiful skin but this meant that the donor llama had died in vain.  Not to mention, it wasn’t even my llama.  What was I going to tell the folks, I agonized, as I stood there tearfully hacking the matted (but so clean!) mass from its death grip on the agitator with a meat cleaver (wedding gift).  Finally succeeding, there was nothing to do but put the big hairy ball in the dryer.  All of our underwear was in there somewhere. 

It was truly weeks before we could extricate all the laundry from the tightly tangled mass of hair, which we kept conveniently piled on top of our dresser.  My last task before bed at night was to delicately, painstakingly, extricate a set of undergarments for the next day from the llama with a pair of nail scissors. 

Friends would ask us, “What’s that big hairy thing on your dresser?”  (It was a small one-bedroom apartment and you needed to go through the bedroom to get to the bathroom.)  And to his credit, my then-husband would put his arm around me protectively and say, “It’s a llama with underwear in it.” 

Unfortunately for me, it became a favorite family story: The Time Inga Ran the Llama Through the Washer and Ended Up with a Hair Ball the Size of Connecticut.

So I was truly grateful to my sister for what was some long overdue llama therapy.  I couldn’t bring back the first llama but I could bring food and warmth and income to a family far away who probably knew better than to wash animal skins in an automatic washer, not that they likely had one anyway.

I feel better already.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Pinewood Princess

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published March 20, 2014] © 2014 

Single mothers working at clerical jobs don’t have a lot of status in a place like La Jolla (OK, anywhere) but for a few years, there were two weeks a year where I owned this place.  I had the official scale for the annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby.

For those of you who never had a Cub Scout, the Pinewood Derby in March is the biggest event of the year.  There’s a lot of fancy stuff you can get on-line now, but when I was running the local Cub Scout program, there were only standard issue Pinewood Derby car kits containing a five ounce block of pine in a car-ish shape, and some plastic wheels and axles.  It was your job to turn it into a mean aerodynamic racing machine.  Keeping the finished product as close to the five ounce weight limit as you could get it was alleged to make the car go faster.  Hence the importance of the scale. 

It didn’t matter what other scale you had access to:  the Post Office, the U.S. Mint, the “jewelry” scales at head shops in Pacific Beach (probably the most accurate scales in America).  Our Pack scale was the only one that counted. 

The cars were raced on a gravity track several at a time until the fastest car was determined which went on to the regional competition.  La Jolla is nothing if not a competitive community.  It’s actually meant as a supervised project simply because tools are often involved but the adult supervision line could get pretty blurred.   In fact, someone commented to me at one point that the Pinewood Derby is actually a competition for adults who must be accompanied by a 7-10 year old child.

Now, of course, you can search the internet for tips on how to make your car go faster but back then, there was only Inga-net for parents who needed help.  Fortunately, my now-husband, Olof, helped me create Auntie Inga’s Aerodynamic Hints.  I came across a copy of this document recently and even I am fairly dazzled that any document attached to my name contained understandable instructions about drag, surface drag, departure vortices and (I’m totally dazzled with this one), smooth laminar flow.  The whole idea, of course, was that if you wanted your car to go faster, you needed to reduce drag/resistance which could be accomplished by cutting your little block into a more aerodynamic shape, sanding it with increasingly fine sandpaper, painting it with enamel paint and getting the wobble out of the wheels.

It was probably not surprising that some of the work would be outsourced.  I would regularly get calls at work from secretaries who had been tasked with prep work on their bosses’ child’s Pinewood Derby vehicle and would inquire, “So just how many times do I have to sand this thing?”  More than a few had sanded the little plastic wheels into oblivion and were inquiring about replacements.  Before I left for work, I put out carefully labeled envelopes of parts, or even whole new car kits for kids and dads who had gotten a little carried away with a jig saw. 

Always feeling bad for the kids who were eliminated early on, a fellow Mom, Linda, and I decided that we would make this the kinder, gentler Cub Scouts, probably exactly the sentiment that founder Baden Powell created scouting to combat.  Every year, we got a local pawn shop in Pacific Beach to donate a lot of scout-appropriate stuff to us which we spread out on a big table, so that as soon as a kid lost, he could go over and pick out something.  Some of the donations, like a guitar and some camp stoves, almost made it worth throwing the race. 

We softened the blow of losing even further with 20 boxes of Girl Scout cookies (early cross-merchandising) and six gallons of lemonade, but Linda and I also decided to award every kid a ribbon of some kind on the grounds that even the kids who had never seen their car before the night of the race should go away with something.  To this end, Linda and I spent an entire evening making 77 ribbons for the “aesthetic judging”.  (Sorry, Baden.) 

As we rapidly discovered, there is only so much you can say about a five ounce block of pine.  We sat there with a thesaurus and some brochures from cars I’d looked at recently.  Problem is, brochures that described cars I could afford at the time more often had descriptors like “peppy considering its 1.2 liter engine” and “Voted least bad in its class by Car and Driver.” An appropriate ribbon category would have been Kid Most Covered in Graphite.  

But back to the scale.  For two weeks a year before the Pinewood Derby, a steady stream of Dads and kids streamed through my house to use the official scale.  During the day, I would return calls to some of these Dads during my lunch hour.  A snippy secretary would cooly inform me that Mr. Jones was in conference all afternoon and would not be able to take my call.  But as soon as I mentioned the word Pinewood Derby, she’d cut me off with a frantic, “DON’T HANG UP!  HE’S ACROSS THE STREET HAVING LUNCH.  HE ASKED ME TO COME GET HIM RIGHT AWAY IF YOU CALLED!”  I’ve never had so much power in my life.  (Or since.) From low-class single mom to Pinewood Princess.  Everybody took my call.  I had the scale.  I had parts.  The day after the Derby, of course, my Cinderella life was abruptly over.

But fyi, if you need them, I’ve still got some boxes of extra axels around someplace.


Monday, March 10, 2014

*Encountering The 70's

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published March 13, 2014] © 2014 

You never hear the term anymore, but when my former husband and I first moved here in the 1970’s, encounter groups were in full swing. 

For those who may have arrived in Southern California later, encounter groups were generally weekend or week-long unstructured group meetings of eight to 12 people plus a leader/facilitator with the alleged intent of increasing emotional expressiveness and communication, and promoting personal growth. 

Brochures abounded promising the opportunity to explore one’s sexuality, improve marital relationships, stop smoking/drinking/eating, explore one’s sexuality, unclog one’s arrested development and explore one’s sexuality.  Overcoming sexual hang-ups was very popular then. 

There were nude encounter groups and even marathon encounter groups in which the participants would meet continuously for 24 hours on the theory that a lack of sleep would break down defenses and allow the real you to emerge.  Apparently, the real you often ended up naked, exploring his or her sexuality.

Curious to experience the encounter group phenomenon that was so different from our former far-less-explored East Coast lives, and frankly, clueless as to what we were getting into, we signed up for a week-long series of workshops at an idyllic but isolated setting that featured only organic vegetarian food grown on site without harming bugs. If nothing else, I thought this would be a good opportunity to withdraw from what had become a dismaying over-indulgence in Mounds Bars.  There wasn’t a cube of white sugar for 50 miles.

The first thing we discovered was that the encounter movement had its own dialect.  On Day One, the group facilitator sat us on the floor in a circle and told us that while things would get “heavy,” we were there to “nourish” ourselves.  It made me think of lunch, preferably a burger which I was already missing. 

We went around the circle to introduce ourselves.  Most of our group claimed to be there to “release some old tapes.”  It took me a few minutes to catch on that this had nothing to do with the music industry. 

We were obviously in a group with some seriously experienced encounterees.  They wanted to get right to it.

“We’ve been here ten f-ing minutes already,” grumped the guy to my right, “and nobody has said anything deep.”

“I can relate to that,” said the girl next to him.  She turned to my ex.  “I feel close to you.”

“Thank you,” said Ex politely. 

“You’re grateful to Sarah because she feels close to you,” reiterated the leader for no reason I could figure out. 

The group quickly zoned in on my ex and me, clearly the weakest members of the herd.  “Was that your parent or your child speaking?  I mean, what’s your script?” queried another girl.

“Um, do I need a script?” said Ex.

“You’re wondering if you need a script,” observed the leader who did not appear to be much of an original thinker.

“I hear where you’re coming from,” said another guy to Ex.  “And I really feel your pain.  But hey, man, you’re here to self-actualize.”

Ex:  “Um, I’m not sure—

“Put your hesitation on the hot seat and talk to it,” suggested the guy next to me.  “Look, I’ve been in a bad place myself.  It’s a bummer.  Just let it all hang out.  Beat your fists on the cushion.  Scream.  But stay in the here and now.”

Meanwhile, a girl across the circle gave me a huge smile. “I want to experience you,” she said.

“Bathroom break!” I said.

I don’t remember too much about the other workshops that week, except for one about choice.  The premise was that everything that happens in life is our own choice.  If you’re sad because someone was mean to you, you chose to be sad.  You have to agree to it!” the two group facilitators kept admonishing us. 

Sick people choose to be sick.  Kids who parents divorce choose for their parents to divorce.  Poor people choose to be poor.  I whispered to my ex, did we actually choose to pay money for this?  I just couldn’t bring myself to blame all poor people for being poor. If one were to do a “Where are they now?”, I’m guessing these guys are running the Tea Party. 

The choice workshop was definitely my least favorite.  But then, by that time I had been without both Mounds Bars and cheeseburgers for a week and was getting surly.  Besides, our room had black widow spiders which are not my favorite but which the facilitators insisted had just as much right to live as I did.  I chose to squash them. 

When we got home, both my ex and I agreed that it had been an intense, thought-provoking, provocative, sometimes enlightening week full of more arachnids and naked people than we had ever seen at one time.   Meanwhile, all the daisies in our garden had succumbed in particularly hot weather.  “Well,” shrugged my husband, “I guess the daisies didn’t choose to live.”

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Great Morgani Leaves The Sidewalk

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published March 6, 2014] © 2014 

It would probably surprise many people who know me (or then, maybe it wouldn’t) that one of the highlights of my life was waltzing to the Dr. Zhivago movie’s Lara’s Theme with a homeless guy on the sidewalk in downtown Santa Cruz serenaded by a space-alien-costumed accordion player named The Great Morgani.  The homeless guy had asked me to dance and it would have been rude to decline.  Plus, the opportunity to embarrass your two college-age sons? Oh, yeah.

Going downtown to see The Great Morgani had become part of our ritual during my husband’s and my frequent trips to Santa Cruz over the years.  Part of the draw was just to see what over-the-top spandex ensemble Morgani AND his accordion would be wearing that week (only a picture can do them justice) but also because he stood out as a unique character even among Santa Cruz’s eclectic community.  Believe me, that’s saying something.

When we had first gone to look at UC Santa Cruz for Rory, it wasn’t an altogether successful trip.  While Rory has always been a free thinker, Santa Cruz seemed a few sigmas on the side of weird even to him.  We couldn’t help but notice the “no tie-dyeing in sinks” signs in the co-ed dorm bathroom.  Finding a downtown Santa Cruz cafĂ© for lunch, the cashier pointedly informed me that they did not serve Coca-Cola (liquid rat poison, she said) and when I grabbed a bunch of napkins for our messy grilled organic veggie sandwiches, a voice from the line behind me announced, “Do you REALLY need all those?”  I turned to my husband Olof and whispered, “Not in Kansas anymore, Toto.” 

Further, lifelong San Diego resident Rory, despite being enamored of the idyllic campus nestled among the redwoods, wasn’t sure he could “live in a cold climate.”  (He’s never lived it down from his actual-cold-climate-originating parents.) 

But ultimately, he decided that this was the place for him, met and married his wife there, went to graduate school there, and lives there to this day as a clinical social worker.  Our trips to that area of the state increased even more when his younger brother, Henri, attended UC Santa Cruz’s cosmic opposite some 45 miles up the Peninsula as both an undergraduate and graduate student. 
As close as my sons are, they found each other’s campuses flat-out creepy and made a point of avoiding setting foot on the other’s collegiate turf.  Rory found that the uber-competitive, rarefied academic environment at Henri’s campus gave him diarrhea while the athletic Henri couldn’t conceive of a student body’s intentional irreverence at naming their sport teams the Banana Slugs after the ultra-slimy yellow banana-shaped denizens of local redwood trees.  (“Go Slugs!”)

Like many of their downtown Santa Cruz neighbors, Rory and his family now raise chickens for the fresh eggs in their backyard, while Henri and his family live in Westwood which is zoned against them.  It’s amazing how one’s college choice sets a tone for the rest of one’s life.
As a teenager, Rory’s favorite sport, aside from Scuba at which he became an instructor, was pinging his divorced parents.  So it probably wasn’t too surprising that when his talented pianist/doctor father tried to get him to embrace a musical instrument, Rory took up the accordion.  And that was how Rory met The Great Morgani several years later when he arrived as a freshman at Santa Cruz.  Morgani, Rory learned, had been a stockbroker who one day threw in the towel, er, portfolio, and became an accordion-playing street performer.  Rory was awed that this could be a career option.

With both sons in the Bay area for a number of years, Santa Cruz became a popular meeting place for the family, and The Great Morgani a must-do of weekend visits.  So I was distraught to learn recently that after 17 years as being of one of Santa Cruz’s best loved institutions, new city rules barring performing in close proximity to buildings caught him in their net.  The idea of going to Santa Cruz and not being able to go see The Great Morgani, well, what’s the point?  OK, grandchildren. Still, it just won’t be the same. 
Thanks for the memories, Great One. And I’ll always think of Lara’s Theme as “our song.”