Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Terminal Inertia

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published July 2, 2015] © 2015 

Now that Olof and I are retired, people often comment how nice it is that we’re free to travel. Where air travel is concerned, however, the romance is long gone, especially for my husband. It’s not that we don’t travel but we have to really really want to go.
In January, I wrote about the 50th anniversary of Olof and I meeting as foreign exchange students spending our senior year of high school in Brazil. June 3 was our 20th wedding anniversary. (We didn’t want to rush into anything.)

For the eight years prior to our marriage, Olof commuted from San Jose to San Diego on weekends. (Still not rushing into anything.) At our wedding in 1995, we joked that the ceremony really should have been at Gate 25 of the American Airlines terminal. Because that’s where I was standing for some 400 consecutive Friday nights waiting for him, often with kids in tow, unless it was a Dad’s house night.

Of course, in our 1987 to 1995 commuter era, you could still go to the gate to meet arriving passengers. Olof always got off the plane carrying a single red rose for me.

A fellow mom friend whose business traveler husband would frequently arrive on the same flight as Olof said to me, “Would you please start picking up Olof at the curb? You’re making me look bad.” And the husband said to Olof, “Would you stop with the roses already? Every guy on this plane hates you.” 

While Olof was logging several hundred thousand commuter miles flying between San Jose and San Diego, I had plenty of opportunity to conduct some rigorous empirical research on the habits of air travelers. Among the observations noted in my journal at the time:

The first 80 people off any plane are not being met by anyone. When the plane is announced for final approach, it has just passed San Clemente. If you’re late getting to the gate, the person ahead of you at security will have had metal surgically implanted in his body.  Three-hundred people get off a plane that seats 140. The first 20 bags on the carousel do not belong to anyone who arrived on the posted flight. In any 15-minute period, always at least one person at each parking toll booth is outside his car, on hands and knees, looking under the seat for his parking ticket. Lastly, arrival and departure monitors lie.

It must have been love all those years because the return trip on Monday mornings was brutal for two not-morning people. For Olof to make his 6:15 a.m. flight, we’d be up by 4:00. Olof would carry the blanket-wrapped sleeping kids out in the pre-dawn darkness and strap their comatose little bodies into their seat belts. When I got home from the airport, there was usually anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour before the kids had to be up for school and I had to go to work. Since I couldn’t lift them, I’d sometimes just snooze in the car in the driveway with them until it was time to wake them up. Other times, I’d try to sleep walk them back to their beds, so I could crash on my bed for 45 minutes of what was truly the sleep of the dead. The kids were always surprised later to learn that they’d gone to the airport and back. They weren’t morning people either.

Even 20 years later, I often muse happily, “It’s Friday night and I’m not headed to the airport.” If I were ever awake at 4 a.m. on Monday mornings, I’d probably be noting the same thing.

Giving up the commuting life was absolutely the best part of our early marriage.  Friends had suggested years earlier that I jettison the kids and move to San Jose, noting that Olof was not a man I should let get away. But I was attached to the kids. More to the point, so was Olof. If there were an Olympic medal for youth sporting events watched of children to which one was not biologically related, Olof would have the gold.

Of course, moving to San Diego hardly eliminated Olof’s travel life. Always a frequent business traveler, often to foreign countries, he’s logged close to a million business travel miles in our marriage, including two years when he worked a contract in Dallas and left the house at 3:45 a.m. every Monday morning and returned at midnight every Friday night. Our whole lives operated on Texas time for that period since he was never here long enough to get back on San Diego time.  During the 20 years we’ve been married, airline travel has only become more abjectly miserable – not exactly an incentive to fly.

So when friends say, “Any travel plans?” We’re happy to happily announce in unison: Nope!

Our plans for retirement

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lawn Wars

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published June 18, 2015] © 2015 

Every letter to the editor on the subject of the drought suggests converting lawns to a garden of “attractive native plants.” Is it just me or is “attractive native plants” an oxymoron?

We’re clear that our highly-used lawn may soon be a thing of the past. We’re already mourning it and contemplating what we’re going to do that doesn’t involve the five grandtots dodging cactuses in the front yard.

I can’t help but observe that people who are most vocally anti-lawn don’t have one. Also that they’ve never seen a garden of “native plants.” If the plants are attractive, they’re native to somewhere else.

Over the years, the San Diego Union-Tribune has published the recollections of one Mary C. Morse who arrived by ship to then-wharfless San Diego on July 5, 1865:  Her first impressions?  Oh, the strangely foreign look as I stepped from my state room, and stood on deck, as the steamer came to anchor! The hills were brown and barren, not a tree or green thing to be seen. A most desolate looking landscape!

Want to recreate the look? Drive on I-5 through the Pendleton Marine Base.

Forget the first Gold Rush. I’m guessing the folks who made early fortunes in California were in irrigation.

But the fact is, for the moment at least, California is out of water. In the 42 years I’ve lived in my house, we’ve tiptoed up to this point a few times before in previous droughts.  I have photographs of the house I took in February 1991 when we were facing 50% water cuts labeled “Last green lawn ever?”

All of us who thought we moved to San Diego are facing the cruel reality that, climate-wise, we may have moved to Vegas. It’s not easy to change the mindset. However, one thing I’ve noticed over the past 42 years is that no matter how much or little it rains or how much you conserve, water rates just go up. There’s no winning the water game.

If your yard is purely decorative, there’s plenty of options. But what if you actually use it for lawn-like activities?

Years ago, in similar drought circumstances, we decided to let the kikuyu weed take over our yard. Google kikuyu and you’ll find plenty of places that will be happy to come out and kill it for you. Instead we said, “Have at it!” Given that it’s a weed, it’s drought resistant and manages to stay green for much of the year. Not nearly as nice looking as the tall fescue we started with but it provides a nice spongy padding when tiny persons learning ambulatory skills do face plants on it.

I read a suggestion recently that unused lawns should be mandatorily removed. So, can we submit a video? Grandtots toddling? Dog fetching? Olof and I reading in our lawn chairs? Our backyard with its pool and brick patio are poor play places for tiny kids and a non-swimming dog. All that flat green space in the front is perfect, as it was for our own kids.

Kikuyu, survival-of-the-fittest border plants, and only-as-needed watering have comprised our water conservation efforts for years. It isn’t as though we haven’t looked at other options too. Artificial turf comes in a variety of qualities. But if your goal is to have a play area for kids, synthetic grass gets very hot in the sun and is really abrasive.  Further, the estimate we got for a better quality fake grass would have paid our current water bill for 13 years. Life of fake grass: 10.

I don’t know what the local zoning says about planting vegetable gardens in your front yard but they do take water. And more to the point, I’m not called The Black Thumb of La Jolla for nothing. (We still joke about the $53 tomato.)  And it wouldn’t give the tots any place to play.

What we mostly don’t want to do is spend $20,000 or more putting in something that we’d want to take out again if the next diluvian phase begins. I have pictures of my front and side yards literally under eight inches of water in both the ‘82-‘83 and ‘97-‘98 El Niños. Just when you think it will never rain again, it sometimes does. (Like in 1991.)

So for the time being, we’re planning to limp our weed patch along with minimalist watering.  It may well turn brown. It’s not ideal but we remind ourselves the grandtots can still cavort on dead grass. Olof and I could still read outside with face masks in our little dust-bowl-to-be. Granddog Winston would probably be thrilled as grass makes his paws itch anyway.

And just so you understand how seriously we are taking this, Olof has engaged in the ultimate act of water conservation.  He’s no longer putting ice in his Scotch.
The opposite of drought: our front yard during the 1982-83 El Niño

Monday, June 1, 2015

**Water Bills From Hell

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published June 4, 2015] © 2015 

It’s never good news when your refrigerator suddenly starts sounding like a fountain. We actually have a small recirculating outdoor fountain that we turn on when we’re reading the paper on our patio in the morning. (Lighten up, water zealots: it takes like a gallon.)

For several weeks, for hours at a time, I’d hear the familiar fountain burble and think we’d accidentally left it on until I realized the sound was coming from the refrigerator. Suffice it to say, this was an eventuality not covered by the fridge’s owner’s manual.

I called our usual appliance repair place. Been in business 40 years, they said. Never heard of a refrigerator sounding like a fountain. Was it working? Yes, I said. No water on floor. Everything’s cold. Still makes ice. Then no point in coming out, they said, probably making a note to ignore future calls from this number.

Then we got a water bill that was double the last one. I nearly fell out of my chair when I opened it. At that rate, per annum, we could get two first class tickets to Maui. Which, of course, we’d much rather do than pay the water trolls whom we suspect of unduly profiting at the taxpayer’s expense.

Of course, one possibility was that they’d mis-read the meter, a way-too-common  experience in  my neighborhood. The folks to one side of us have had their meter mis-read twice, receiving bills for over $2,000 for their very modest lot. But the real whopper was the neighbor on the other side of us who received a water bill for $41,065.20 for a 600 square foot rental property on a postage stamp-size lot in Pacific Beach with a customary water bill of $80. Good thing they didn’t have Automatic Bill Pay!

As for $24,078.89 of that amount being for “Sewer Usage”…no, we won’t even go there.

My neighbor called the water department expecting they would immediately agree with the unlikelihood of a 36,326.5% (I love the .5) increase in usage from the last bill.  Instead, the water lady replied, “Sounds like you have a leak.” 3.4 MILLION GALLONS WORTH???? My neighbor, who was quietly having a heart attack, replied, “For that much water, there’d be a sink hole the size of Qualcomm!” It was her husband who immediately suspected – and confirmed – the mis-read meter. 2742 was recorded as 7242. (Apology from water folks? Nope!)

So that was our first thought: The Myopic Meter Reader Strikes Again! What was especially puzzling was that a year ago, we’d paid $2,800 to have our sprinkler system revamped and upgraded with low-flow heads, and our water bills had dropped considerably. Until now.

I called the refrigerator folks back and $81 later, they confirmed that nothing was wrong with the fridge which had remained maliciously silent while the repair guy was there but started burbling 10 minutes after he left. He didn’t think the bill and the phantom fountain noise were related. But on his way out he said, “You know, you might want to check under your house.”

It is a testament to how much both Olof and I hate going under our house that we managed to ignore this suggestion for another five days. I wrote in my new book about crawling under the house – as nasty a rat and spider-filled place as you can imagine, never mind my personal vision of Hell - as a chronically broke single mom dragging two gallons of muriatic acid to pour into the cleanout pipe. My list of lifetime goals included never doing it again.

A leaflet had come with our humongo water bill suggesting we check our meter. Instructions: (1) Make sure no water is running. (2) Open lid to the sidewalk water meter and be stung by black widow spiders who live in there. No, seriously, they do (live there). Actually, what it says is: “Check the area around the meter to make sure there are no harmful insects or other animals.” (What, gophers?) Even before I took a reading we could see the meter moving. Bad news.

So that’s how Olof ended up under the house. (I don’t want him to think that that’s why I married him, but truthfully, it was a factor.) As soon as he pulled off the door to the claustrophobic crawl space, we could clearly hear water running. Flashlight in hand, Olof had to army-crawl the entire length of the house risking rodential and arachnic assaults until he got to – surprise! – the area under the refrigerator where a 1/8 hole in a main pipe was gushing water.

Plumber on a Sunday? Don’t ask. But definitely cheaper than letting it run.

After the plumber left, we tested the meter again. Fifteen minutes and the meter didn’t budge. Phew! But you can believe I’m going to be on the sucker at least weekly from now on. Because I would have much rather gone to Maui.