Tuesday, December 29, 2015

We Had A Merry Christmas, Eventually

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published January 6, 2016] ©2016

Will we remember 2015 as the year of holiday crises? The day before Thanksgiving, a possum died in the crawl space under my kitchen permeating it with an odor like, well, a dead possum mere hours before the family was due to arrive. But for Christmas, we were going to L.A. where in the rarest but happiest of occasions, we would have both sons, their wives, and all five grandtots under the same roof.  Life doesn’t get any better than that.

Anyone who knows me well knows that ever since we were hit at 85 miles per hour by a drunk driver on I-5 several years back, I regard freeways as dangerous places to be avoided whenever possible. I told myself that if I could just survive two and a half hours (we should be so lucky in L.A. traffic) it would all be worth it.
Alas, we didn’t get through two and a half minutes.  We had just passed Del Mar Heights Road on I-5 when our left rear tire blew out at 70 miles per hour. Just as with our auto accident, this is a time when you want a former Air Force pilot at the wheel. The quintessentially calm Olof managed to maneuver us across several lanes of fast moving traffic, out of the path of a semi, and off onto the shoulder while I did what I do best in scary freeway situations:  scream.

There’s never a good time for a blow out, but especially not on a freeway. Olof’s little BMW  was an engineering marvel of packing: every square inch of available trunk and seat space that was not occupied by him, me, or our granddog Winston (an English bulldog) was precision packed with gifts and luggage.
We have AAA, of course, but they could take forever on Christmas Eve. More to the point, in Olof Land, Real Men change tires themselves. Except, of course, that the spare and the jack were under all those suitcases and gifts (which even AAA would have had to access). But Olof patiently (another quality I don’t have) unpacked it all onto the side of the freeway, got the tire off, and tried to get the spare on. Unfortunately, the crummy little jacks that come with the spares just couldn’t raise the car high enough to get the spare on which didn’t keep Olof from spending an hour trying. Real Men don’t give up easily.

A couple of things about standing on the side of a freeway when the slowest car is going 70: It is deafeningly loud. Olof and I could only communicate in sign language. I kept tenting my index fingers together in a sign that I hoped was spelling out “AAA?”  It is also absolutely terrifying to be so close to cars going that fast. One swerve that they’d be sucking up our remains with a shop vac. Third: it was freezing. I know that our Swedish (or even Detroit) friends reading this are laughing hysterically that we were complaining about 58 degrees but there was a stiff wind blowing and we were in shirt sleeves. The Swedes have a popular saying, Inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder which means “There’s no bad weather, only bad (unsuitable) clothing for it.” Excellent motto for a country with a lot of crappy weather. And in our case, true.
Ultimately, Olof had to concede defeat and had me call AAA, for whom we had to wait another hour shivering on the road side since the car was up on the jack. The AAA guy pulled out his honker industrial-strength jack and had the spare on in five minutes. He insisted he was required to personally check the mileage on the car for his paperwork but when he opened the car door found himself face to face with Winston, he decided “or not.” Meanwhile, Olof and I had had plenty of time to ponder whether we were happy about driving to L.A. on tires that were the same age as the one that blew out. They didn’t LOOK worn but there’s only so many times you can cheat death in one day.

Fortunately, there was a barely-still-open Discount Tire Store off the Lomas Santa Fe exit and we quickly ordered up four new tires. Olof had repacked the car from the freeway shoulder but now we had to unload it all again so they could get the spare back in the trunk.
A mere three and a half hours after we’d originally departed, we repacked the car yet again and left Del Mar for L.A., Winston now sitting on the food bag (sorry, Christmas Eve salad!), and hitting all that traffic that we’d left early to avoid. But so well worth it when we finally limped in! My daughter-in-law puts on a Norman Rockwell Christmas. Their house was decorated like a magazine layout. One amazing meal after another appeared. Both sons together. While some of us stayed in hotels at night, there were 20 people in the house during the day. The grandchildren raced around the house in a frenzy of sugar-and-Santa-fueled psychosis. The L.A. kids were thrilled to reconnect with Winston (their former dog) and with their cousins.

The excitement of the day was not quite over: our credit card company emailed us with an urgent fraud alert which at first I assumed it must be the $800 worth of new tires from earlier in the day. I called them only to learn that even though my credit card was in my possession, someone had just purchased over $3,000 worth of stuff with a copy of it – another $1,500 of charges pending - at a Wal-Mart in Levittown, Pennsylvania. Somebody had a very merry Christmas!  Fortunately, it won’t be our money. Just a giant hassle.
On the plus side: Winston, who for mysterious reasons has become allergic to something in his former home and had begun having seizures whenever he visited there, fortunately didn’t have any this time. This was probably less a Christmas miracle and more the phenobarbital our La Jolla vet loaded him up with before we left. OK, so he looked pretty stoned most of the time. But I’m thinking that the next time we get on the freeway, I might appropriate some of that phenobarbital myself.
Olof gets the spare out of the trunk
 Finally had to call AAA
 Winston, Hour 6: Are we there yet?
Olof gets help with spatial skills from 18-month-old grandson

Four-year-old granddaughter and the stoned Winston
 Meals to remember 
All the travel hassle was worth it

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Be Grateful, Or Else

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published December 17, 2015] ©2015

As much as I have always loved the holiday season, it was a little trying during my single mom years when the kids were in elementary school. They were off for two full weeks for winter break but if I took that much vacation time from my job, I'd only have a week left for the rest of the year. Those day camps that entertained them during the summer months were few and far between at Christmas. My limited financial resources had already been wiped out by Christmas anyway.

So the kids did what any two thoroughly-bored hyper-excited-about-Santa, minimally-supervised-by-ennuied-sitter pre-teen boys would do: they fought. Endlessly. They called my office up to 30 times a day ratting each other out.

It really broke my heart that I couldn't be home during the week before Christmas which should have been such a fun family time, so I tried to take off as much time as possible in the week after. But then there'd be the post-holiday letdown complaints: "We have nothing to play with."  (Seriously??????) Or: "We have no one to play with. All our friends are in Aspen or Hawaii." (An actual legitimate beef.) Worst of all from their perspective, the deadline for the dreaded thank you notes was December 30 after which all privileges evaporated and they were under room arrest. My older son Rory always pushed that deadline to the absolutely eleventh hour limit. It was a contest of wills, but fortunately I was bigger.

One winter break, I instituted a system of making the kids pay each other for name calling which was initially so successful that I expanded the fine system to a list of other family rules. Money talks. The one downside was that it turned Henry into a full-scale narc. I'd come home from work and Henry would have a complete tabulated list of Rory's transgressions including the number of times each had been committed and a tally of remittance due. (I should have known then that Henry would go to business school.)

Actually, the whole time Henry would be reading his list, I'd have a déjà vu to the recitations of Catholic confessionals of my youth which in my case went something like: "Bless me Father, I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last confession. I have lied once [now twice], had bad thoughts three times [dream on], and been mean to my sister four times [a total whopper]."  Now it was: "Guess what, Mother, Rory has sinned. It has been three minutes since his last transgression. He has called me 'fart face' twice, hidden Tecmo Bowl once, and sat on my head three times."

I recently came across a contract that, totally fed up, I required them to sign during the winter break in 1989:

We, the undersigned, do hereby agree to the following:

(1) We will not call Mom's office more than twice a day and then only if someone has lost more than a quart of blood (think milk carton) or is not breathing (take pulse before calling).

(2) We will not express boredom, ennui, or disappointment at any time until 7 a.m. January 2, 1990.

(3) By December 30, we will send polite, enthusiastic, and grateful thank you notes to all persons who have sent us gifts. Said thank you notes will contain a minimum of three complete sentences, will specifically mention the gift, and will state at least two things the giftee like about the gift regardless of whether the giftee liked anything about the gift.

(4) Violations of this contract will result in the violator's Christmas 1990 gift allocations being donated to a needy, and presumably more grateful, child or children.

Signed this 20th day of December, 1989 (signature not optional)

In the same file as the contract were photocopies of some of the thank you notes they wrote. Rory's were always illustrated:

Dear Uncl Peter and ant Lucy - thank you for the telescope. I will use it to hit henry with. love, rory. (Draws picture of himself hitting Henry with telescope and adds: ha ha Not really! I think that was supposed to qualify as the required third sentence.)

Dear aunt Elizbeth, thank you for the chemistry set. I like it. I am trying to make a pocion to turn Henry into a frog. Love rory.

Dear grandpa Henry, thank you for the dire straits tape. And the pencil sharpener and the jeepers creepers thing. I like the pencil sharpener so I can sharpen henry's head. (Draws picture of Henry's head labeled "before" and a pointy head labeled "after.")

But, to this day, they both write thank you notes. In a timely fashion! Without being locked in their rooms! It's good to know what I wasn't a total failure.

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Holiday Miracle (Sort Of)

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published December 10, 2015] ©2015 

It was the Monday of Thanksgiving week, three days before the kids and grandtots would be arriving, when my kitchen suddenly smelled like a marlin had died on the counter top. I only had one question:  Does God hate me?
Even I am not that bad of a housekeeper. I would have noticed a marlin. When a morning spent scrubbing the affected counters did nothing to improve the ever-worsening smell, I finally Googled “bad odor on granite.” The replies were chilling:  “It’s not your counter tops. It’s the dead animal in the wall behind them.” 

Uh-oh. A mere week earlier Olof and I had heard the annual late-fall scurry of little feet in our attic and had put two rat poison baits up there to discourage them. Pest control places tell you never to do that because a rat might die in your wall and then you just have to wait it out (weeks) while it odiferously decomposes. Had we lived back east, it would have turned into a ratsicle and we wouldn’t have known about it until spring. But this is San Diego, having its warmest year in recorded history.
I should mention that Olof and I are hardly vermin virgins, having dealt with rats for four decades in this basically indefensible house. We stage an annual Spring Rodential Offensive when we remove all 800 oranges (a rat’s food of choice) from our tree and donate them.

Fortunately, rats confine themselves to our attic. But we don’t want them there either since they chew wiring and carry hanta virus. In times past, we’ve had pest control services come put traps up there but it required a two hour window every other day for the pest control guy to come check them. It was just too inconvenient to have our lives controlled by the rat guy. So we just put the rat poison up there in plastic-encased bait traps and have never had anything die in our walls.
Until now.

I was hoping that maybe the smell wasn’t as bad as I thought. Then my cleaning lady showed up. “Huele muy feo,” she announced. If she says it stinks, it stinks.
One of the reasons I love hosting Thanksgiving every year is that I adore the wonderful aromas wafting through the house. This year, they would be interspersed with notes of eau de rodent mort.

In desperation, I tried calling pest control places to see if they might have any recommendations, short of breaking through our walls or burning down the house, both of which seemed suddenly reasonable.
Finally I got a place that I’ll call Rotting Rodents R’ Us to come on Wednesday afternoon, mere hours before the family was due to arrive. They weren’t cheap and my husband insisted we were wasting our money. But they said that in the (totally unlikely) event the decedent was in the attic, and not the wall, that removing it could reduce the smell considerably.

Alas, when the Rotting Rodents guy climbed down from our attic, he said he couldn’t see or smell anything up there. Dang! But then he says, “Do you have a crawl space under the house?” I’m nominating this guy for sainthood right now. It’s as nasty a spider-filled place as you can imagine. You have to crawl on your stomach, and our kitchen is the farthest point from the entrance.
I was already contemplating Plans B through T when the pest guy emerged ten minutes later, a too-heavy-for rat, mercifully-opaque bag in hand. Holding it up like a Grand Prix trophy, he jubilantly announced, “It was a possum!”  Right under my kitchen cabinets.  Up close and personal, the horrible smell that had been in my kitchen was now magnified by a factor of ten. In an understatement of horkable oversharing, he added, “The ants and maggots had found it. Mostly only fur left!” I felt my entire last years’ meals rising in my throat.

Still, one of the happiest checks I’ve ever written. “There will be a little residual odor for a few days,” pest guy continued. “Hard to get every last—“  Ack! Please stop talking!  Residual odor I could handle. That’s why you have a dog. ("Wiiiiiinston!")
No idea how the possum (a “juvenile”) could have gotten under there. It couldn’t have eaten the rat poison since the opening of those child-pet-possum-proof bait traps is too small. As with all unexplainable phenomenon these days, we’ll just go for the default answer: global warming.

As we all know, this is the season for miracles and I truly consider this to be one, along the lines of the stories you read on the back page of Parade magazine. I can see the headline now: My Miracle Thanksgiving: How the day was saved when the dead rat in the wall turned out to be a dead possum under the house!
Thankful sure comes in mysterious ways.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Wishing You A Pathologically Sentimental Holiday Season

["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published Dec. 3, 2015] ©2015

I absolutely love the holiday season but I confess I’m having a harder and harder time about the Christmas tree.

I’ve always had a thing for trees in general, not just the Christmas variety. They’re so beautiful and stately. They speak to me. It’s like they have souls. Whenever I’ve had to have a tree cut down, I’ve always felt like I was murdering it, even if it was already dead and about to fall on our house. I’d still have to go out and talk to it, apologize profusely to it, thank it for being such a beautiful part of our landscape, personally forgive it for all those Roto-Rooter calls.  Olof calls me a serial anthropomorphizer and he doesn’t mean it kindly. 
It broke my heart when we had to cut down the 40-foot Brazilian pepper tree, home of three tiers of tree forts. Even the kids got a little sentimental.
The 30-foot rubber tree broke my heart too. Unfortunately it also broke the pool deck and was working on the pool itself.
In recent years it has taken me forever to pick out a Christmas tree. It’s like they’re all saying “Choose me! Choose me!” Each and every one of them gave up its life to bring someone happiness. How can I reject any of them? (Olof’s answer: Um, because we don’t have room for 500 trees?) You’d think I was the kid who was the last one picked for dodge ball.  (Okay, I WAS the last kid picked for dodge ball.) Passing a Christmas tree lot the day after Christmas and seeing all those trees that weren’t picked, I have to close my eyes. This is definitely not good if you’re driving.
It was all a lot simpler in my grossly over-stressed single mom years. I felt the same way about trees then as I do now but I only had time and emotional energy for tree angst-lite. Maybe I could use some hobbies.
Of course, people are going to write and say, “So get a fake tree already.” Unfortunately, we have no garage in our tiny house so it would have to be up all year round. I suppose we could take the ornaments off and pretend it was a palm. Like anyone would fall for that. People who keep Christmas trees up all year round get reputations.
The four weeks each year that we have the tree up are absolute heaven.  The second a tree lot is open, we’ve got a tree. Opening the boxes of ornaments is like greeting old friends, a topic on which I always wax emotional and which for some reason annoys the bejeezus out of the kids. (“No! No! Not the ‘old friends’ speech again!”)  But the ornaments all have a history starting with the ones from both my childhood and Olof’s. (When she moved to assisted living, his mother sent me a shoebox of her Christmas decorations which I labeled “Olof’s treasured family ornaments,” not that the famously unsentimental Olof remembers a single one.) Then there’s the adorably hokey ones the kids (and even Olof!) made in kindergarten from construction paper or flour-and-water paste concoctions, and, of course, the ones I acquired during my travels or which were gifts from beloved people. Personally, I think there’s nothing wrong with having pathological attachments to inanimate objects.
During December, a month of multicultural mayhem at my house, I spend my evenings happily parked in my favorite chair with my CDs of Swedish Christmas carols on perpetual repeat, mesmerized by the twinkly tree lights, scarfing latkes, and hoping the menorah doesn’t accidentally ignite the nativity scene on the mantel. At least the menorah doesn’t make you feel guilty when you pack it up in its box until next year.
Taking down the tree is my least favorite task of the year. It’s usually a fire hazard by that time, of course, and more of its needles are on the floor than on the tree.  Still, when Olof hauls it out and puts it by the curb awaiting further disposal, I am a total wreck.  I can feel its anguished reproof: This is how you treat me after all the pleasure I gave you???? You cut me down in my prime (well, maybe not you personally but you know what I mean) all so that it could end like this??? News flash, Inga! Tomorrow I’m going to be mulch!  If it wants me to feel bad, it’s succeeding.
I like to think there’s an afterlife for trees where they can be happily sucking up CO2 and grow as tall as they like without being impeded by their natural enemies (house foundations and/or the gold spotted borer.)
I know. Cue the net.
Olof's (slightly moldy) 1951 Santa tree ornament
and kids' nursery school ornaments