Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Have You Heard The One About...

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

There’s just something about six-year-olds and jokes. My grandson was visiting recently and I couldn’t help but notice that he was really into the joke and riddle phase. What I also couldn’t help but notice was that the jokes haven’t changed since his dad, Rory, was six, or even when I was.

Actually, the worst culprit was Rory’s younger brother, Henry, who pretty much made all of us insane for his entire first grade year with his passion for jokes. 

A typical interchange over breakfast:

Henry:  “Know what time it is?”

Rory:  “Don’t encourage him, Mom. He’ll stop if we ignore him.”

Henry (hardly able to contain himself):  “It’s the same time as it was yesterday!”

Henry had acquired several kiddie joke and riddle books and regaled us at every meal with an endless litany of awful jokes until Rory finally turned to me one night and said, “Can I hurt him, Mom?” (I was actually tempted to say yes.)

But even at the time, I couldn’t help but wonder if this were not my father exacting karmic revenge on me. The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I worked in New York City as summer fill-in at Scholastic Magazines which also published youth market books and magazines. One of their kiddie magazines (I think it was My Weekly Reader) had a joke column theoretically written by this cute little dinosaur named “Funny Bones” to whom children could submit jokes for publication. Old FB had gotten quite backlogged and they needed someone to come in and read his mail then write back to these kids.  Well, as opposed to typing manuscripts with eight carbons, this sounded really fun. I still think back on it as My Summer as a Male Dinosaur.

What they didn’t tell me when I sat down at the Funny Bones’ desk and confronted a literally three-foot-high pile of mail that I was tasked to answer was that 75% of the kids sent in the same three jokes:  (1) Why did the chicken cross the road? (You know the answer.) (2) Why did the moron throw the clock? (Yawn. To see time fly.) (3) What’s black and white and re(a)d all over? (A newspaper.) 

At least ten percent more were jokes that the kids had made up that you apparently had to be under nine to get:  Q: “What did the cat say?” A: “I am a silly milly.”  Or, “What did the oatmeal cookie say to the cake?” Answer: “Hi cake.” Lots and lots of jokes like that. Some of them were even kind of cute: “What has eight wheels and goes ding dong?” A: “The Avon lady on roller skates.” Or, “What do you call Batman and Robin when they get runned [sic] over?” A: “Flatman and Ribbon.” 

Then there were the “trick ya” varieties but I caught on pretty quick. I wasn’t going to an Ivy League school for nothing.  (Q: “Name five animals that live in the Arctic.” A: “Four polar bears and a walrus.”)  Some of them sent in jokes they’d heard Daddy tell that Penthouse wouldn’t have printed. I would write back and thank little Joey for his jokes and inquire how all the boys and girls in Mrs. Holtzer’s room were doing. No computers then, so every response had to be individually composed.

After about a week on this job, the jokes these kids sent in actually started to sound funny. I would sit at my desk and laugh myself silly, while other personnel cast me worried glances. (They didn't say where the person who normally had this job was; I was guessing Bellevue.) By the end of the second week, I was absolutely punchy. I used to sit on the commuter train with my father at night regaling him with these inane jokes and laughing hysterically. Finally my father said, "I am not going to sit with you if you tell me even one more Funny Bones joke."

"But Dad," I said, "you're gonna love this one. What's red on the outside and gray on the inside? Dad? Dad?" And thus I found myself alone. Dad never did find out that it was Campbell's Cream of Elephant Soup.

Monday, October 13, 2014

So Over It

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

A few years back when I wrote about our birds, I cautioned that one should never let kids get a pet with a longer life expectancy than yours.

I really, really mean it.

It all started when my older son, Rory, then nine, talked me into a cockatiel. It was such a simple request. Sure, I said blithely, you can have a cockatiel. Who knew what far reaching ramifications that simple line would have. What I didn’t know I was really saying was, “Sure. I’d be glad to clean bird cages for the next TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS.”

Rory is now 36 and married to a cat person in Santa Cruz. We still have birds. As for cage cleaning, I am so over it.

While cockatiels can live to 30 years (and ours seemed destined to), it’s the children and grandchildren of the originals who have hung in there with us over the years. We also became an inadvertent avian social service agency for parakeets as neighborhood kids bought them as pets then quickly became bored with them. It was not unheard of to find an abandoned cage with bird – no note – on our front doorstep. Word gets around.

Our bird population expanded as Rory talked us into buying “friends” for the original one. While our cockatiel population technically lived in cages in the house, they were generally riding around on someone’s shoulder as they had all been hand-tamed by bird-whisperer Rory. But as their population increased, it was clear that we needed a different housing situation for them as a bunch of loose birds were producing an effect around the house that our cleaning lady perceptively termed “too much caca.” Besides, Rory wanted to try bird breeding which required that the birds not only be able to fly freely, but a nesting box as well.

And so we had a 4’ x 4’ by 6’ high cage built into our protected back porch and moved the birds outside. I wasn’t at all disappointed about this as the kids had a tendency to escape to their dad’s house and leave bird doody, er, duty to me.

Rory’s bird breeding project succeeded waaaaay too well. The birds suddenly began hatching a new baby bird per week. We were starting to feel like our own personal Hitchcock movie. Threatened with an exponentially expanding bird population, we finally did wrest the nesting box from the aviary, leaving the birds nothing to do but sit on their perches looking horny and sullen (not unlike some other members of the household at the time).

The nice thing about an outdoor aviary is that it didn’t have to be cleaned daily. Still, a burgeoning bird population could cover that newspaper pretty fast.

One thing you may not know about birds: they are phenomenal slobs. Seriously, they put teenagers to shame. Birds like to fling seed everywhere – outside the cage onto the patio and all over inside the cage as well where it becomes entombed in the poop below and thereby unrecyclable. At one point I estimated that out of every five-pound bag of bird seed I bought, only 8 ounces actually ended up inside the birds. As I’ve remonstrated with them on more than one occasion as I shoveled up buckets of poopy seed, “Is this how you live in the wild? Throwing seed around like it grows on trees? I think not!”

I admit we are hugely fond of the little guys. At this point, they’re family. We enjoy listening to their morning chirp-a-thon. But after 27 years, I am truly, profoundly sick of cleaning bird cages. When my husband Olof retired last year, he took over feeding the birds in the morning but the cage cleaning was still on me. Besides changing the newspaper and sweeping up seed, we have a bunch of white PVC perch stands that Olof made for the birds which become encrusted in concrete-like bird excrement. Seriously, if there were ever a cement shortage, I can say with some authority that bird poop would be an excellent substitute. You need a fire hose to get that stuff off.

Last Sunday morning I came out to the patio with my breakfast and the newspaper trying not to look at the seriously overdue cage that I promised myself I would clean right after breakfast. But a blinding light caught my eye. It was the glare of brand new newspaper on the bottom of the cage and the shimmery white of poopless PVC pipe. Olof had cleaned the aviary for me.

I don’t know whether it was self-defense or the ultimate act of marital kindness. But thank you, Olof. You just racked up two million irrevocable non-conflagratable husband points. And the gratitude of a wife who will never ever utter the words “sure, you can have a cockatiel” again.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

*Whatever It Takes

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

      Now that the airlines have become so relentlessly rude and unresponsive to passengers, I almost wish my older son Rory were 11 again. He’d know how to get their attention.

I can say with no hesitation whatsoever that Rory was – and is - the most creative (some would say diabolically creative) and unique individual I’ve ever known. Since he’s adopted, I can’t claim credit (or in some cases, blame) for any of it.

I aver, however, that Rory (now an adult) had psychological warfare skills from which the armed forces could benefit. Send Rory to his room for a time-out and he’d open up both his windows, pound on his bed with a tennis racket, and wail loud enough to be heard all the way down the block, “Please stop beating me, Mommy!” Or worse: “No, no, don’t touch me there!”

He could never be bought at any price. In fact, his fourth grade teacher observed on his report card, “Rory would make the perfect CIA agent as they could pull out his finger nails one by one and he would still never divulge his spelling words.”

I just never knew what Rory was going to do next but I was pretty clear it was going to be something. Scaring the bejeezus out of me was probably his all-time favorite sport, embarrassing me or his father in public a close second. His younger sibling, Henry, could be a target as well. As Olof, my second husband, often said after he came on the scene, “Rory looks for excitement. And finds it.” Oh, did he.

The Rory stories are so plentiful and varied—part of his genius was that he never repeated anything twice—that they’re just referred to in family shorthand: “the Jolly Jumper baby brother slingshot disaster,” “the spray painting Henry silver crisis,” “the Mom’s office fiasco,”  “the Jack in the Box ketchup explosion,” “the dropping the big rock down the chimney onto the metal grate two feet from where Mom was reading prank”, “the mummifying Henry episode,” “The Cleveland airport debacle (hopefully the warrant has expired),” “the Chinese restaurant catastrophe,” “the 15-inch rubber penis in the guest bath during Mom’s dinner party event,” and yes, even “the Bomb Squad incident.” In Rory’s defense, the HazMat guys should have realized right away it wasn’t a real bomb before they cordoned off the area.

His handmade Mother’s Day card the year he was 10 read: “You’ve been like a mother to me.”

But sometimes that incredible creativity saved us. We were on our way to the Jersey Shore for a three-week vacation but our flights had left San Diego late so we missed our connection. By the time we got to the Philadelphia airport, it was late—and our bags were nowhere to be found. We didn’t dare leave without them, as we doubted that even the most dedicated airline baggage service was ever going to find us in our remote barrier island location two hours away. The airline baggage lady had nothing but ennui for our situation.

As I was getting increasingly irritated with her profound lack of interest, Henry, 9, sat quietly playing on his Game Boy while Olof read one of his massive technical tomes. Eleven-year-old Rory, who seemed oblivious to my conversation, was careening around the waiting area in a wheelchair he’d found there. Just as it seemed like we were going to spend the night in Philadelphia, he wheeled up to me and, twitching alarmingly, whimpered plaintively, “Mommmmmy, I left my medicine in my suitcase.”

The color drained out of the baggage lady’s face. All of a sudden she can’t type fast enough. Noting his success, Rory cranked it up a few notches, drooling out of the corner of his mouth, making scary guttural sounds, and flailing his arms so hard he fell out of the wheelchair. I thought the baggage lady would faint.

The flight on which our bags were coming in was quickly located and we were showered with food and lounge coupons to make our wait more comfortable. (Rory made a miraculous recovery the second we wheeled him out of the baggage area.) Two hours later, the bags arrived and we were on our way. I was beyond grateful, so much so that I almost forgave him for the Chinese restaurant thing. (I’m still afraid to go back to that place.)