Monday, September 17, 2018

New York Times Crossword Can Really Be A Puzzle


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published September 19, 2018] ©2018

You can always test whether someone is a serious cruciverbalist (crossword puzzle person) if they know the answer to the clue “Bambi’s aunt.”  Also if they do the puzzle in ink. 

Of course there is a huge practice effect with crosswords.  I initially started doing them because they were touted to ward off brain decline.  Then I read an article in the Wall Street Journal that maintained that the only effect crosswords have on your brain is to make you better at crosswords.  I was crushed.  But by that time, also hooked. 

Sudoku just makes my head hurt but there is nothing more relaxing to me than a nice hard puzzle.  (OK, chardonnay works too.  Chardonnay in combination with a puzzle is even better.)  It can’t be so hard that I can’t do it but if it’s too easy, it just annoys me. 

I have to say if I had a preference, there would be a NYT puzzle version that was sports-free.  If the answer is three letters, I know it has to be Els, Orr, or Ott, but I can never remember which one is the hockey player. 

I fortunately have my nuclear-physics-trained husband to help me with the physics clues, of which there are a surprising number.  He’s pretty good on those annoying Tolkien answers too  which you’d think I’d know having been subjected to all three deadly Lord of the Rings movies, but which I’ve totally suppressed.

I would also ban puzzles that have obscure foreign names as both down and across clues so you never know if you got it right. 

Just like recipe ingredients in the New York Times Sunday magazine, there seem to be words in the English language that are never used except in New York Times puzzles. 

Quaint, British expressions that I don’t think even the British use any more are regular answers, particularly the word “egad(s).”  The clue will be “By Jove!” or “Good gravy!” or “Heavens to Murgatroyd.” (Who the heck is Murgatroyd?) 

Other annoyingly-antiquated Britishism clues and their answers are “nifty!” (neato), “fiddlesticks!” (pooh), “tommyrot” (bah), “toodle-o” (cheerio), “dagnabbit” (nerts), “balderdash” (horsehockey), “Did you see that?” (ohsnap), “I declare” (gracious me), and “oh nonsense!” (pish).  I don’t think I have used any of those words in my 70 years.  Seriously, “pish”?

Alleged British slang tends to creep in regularly as well, as in “rough bed” (doss), “play hob with” (do mischief to), and “simpletons” (geese). 

It was early in my crossword puzzle career that I was totally stymied by the clue “Philadelphia sewer.”  Now, I read this as referring to a series of plumbing pipes under the city of Philadelphia and couldn’t get it at all, only to discover that the answer was “Ross” (as in Betsy) who sewed our first flag. 

But once on to them, I wasn’t fooled by “Castle with famous steps” (Irene), “Flying Solo” (Han),  and “Field work” (Norma Rae). 

The NYT puzzle just loves those sneaky clues and I have been brought down by more than few, for example, “One whose 60-something” (Dstudent), “sticky foods” (kebabs), “iPhone8” (TUV), “Jolly ‘Roger’” (Ihearya), “snaky character” (ess), “heat shields” (badges),  “homey” (dawgs), “something the Netherlands has but Belgium does not” (capitaln), “maker of thousands of cars annually” (Otis), “very basic things” (lyes), and “took out the junk” (sailed). 

They also got me with “appropriate game” (poach), “spend time on-line” (dries), “evening result” (tie), and “baby shower” (sonogram).  Groaners all.

OK, I admit I have a fairly concrete mind.  But sometimes I think that the NYT just makes up words. For example:  “Visibly stunned” (agasp), “really angry” (ireful), “running slowly” (seepy), “visibly embarrassed” (ablush), “mounted” (ahorse), “one who avoids being touched” (epeeist), “like paradise” (edenic),  “venomous biting” (aspish), “echo” (revoice),  “board near a gate” (enplane), “embiggen” (enlarge), “making bubbles as an ocean wave” (spumed), “treat as a saint” (enhalo), and “uhhhhh…” (erm).  Erm? 

There are some clues I find ridiculously obscure and that’s when I start writing really vicious letters in my head to the NYT puzzle editor, Will Short.  For example, “peddler of religious literature” (colporteur), Korean War soldier” (ROK – Republic of Korea), “PV=k” (Boyles Law), “gladly, old style” (life, as in “he would as life eat rocks as….), “gloss” (annotate), “fancify” (doup),  “waterfall” (cataract), “enlightened sort” (arhat), “cabbage or kale” (doremi - apparently a slang and somewhat dated term for money), “Spartan serf” (helot), and “what a mobius strip lacks” (end).  Like, regular human beings would know these?

Some clues just come under the heading of just plain stupid such as “Improved place to hang a hat” (antler). 

As much practice as I’ve had at the New York Times puzzle at this point, I can safely say I will never achieve the status of people who do them in ink. 

And for those who were agog (frequent British clue) to know the name of Bambi’s aunt, it’s Ena. 





Monday, September 10, 2018

Married To Spider Man


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published September 12, 2018] ©2018

If it’s early fall in La Jolla, there are spider webs everywhere.  They seem to be especially fond of my house.

I’m not particularly bug-phobic.  But I’ve never managed to make friends with spiders.

However, my husband, Mr. Spider, is probably their biggest fan. The other night he went to take the garbage bag outside to the black bin but was back again still carrying it.  “There was a huge spider web right next to it,” he explained reverently.  “I didn’t want to disturb it.”

I keep several old brooms around the outside of the house for the specific purpose of disturbing spider webs.  The alternative is that I don’t see them, especially at night, and walk right into them.  Not only is the feeling of being engulfed in web one of my least favorite feelings in the world, but you have to wonder:  Where the spider?

If it had been me bringing out the trash, I would have said, “Sorry, cowboy, dinner’s over. This is a loading zone.”

My husband considers spiders to be fellow engineers and has only the utmost respect – almost a veneration – of their talent. There is nothing he enjoys more on an early fall evening than sitting outside at dusk watching the spiders go to work. Me, I’m always rooting for the flies.

In the 45 years I’ve been in my house, I know where spiders’ favorite places are: Across our wrought iron gate to the pool area. Across the walkway to our back gate. Between our cars in the driveway. Across the steps of our front porch. Silhouetted in the trees. Under the house.  Especially under the house.

At various times in my 12 years of chronically-broke single momdom, I was forced to crawl under the house – a heavily-populated arthropodal Xanadu (never mind my personal vision of Hell) – to pour muriatic acid in the cleanout pipe.  My list of lifetime goals includes never doing it again.

Interestingly, spiers seem to be able to learn. If I forget to turn off our small garden fountain before it gets dark and have to go out the wrought iron gate to the back yard to turn off the switch, I wave my warms in front of me so I won’t get a spider web in my face.  I notice that the next night, they build their web higher up.  (Thank you.)

I realize that arachnids are just trying to make a living like everyone else. I remember first being informed of this at a workshop at Esalen Institute in the Big Sur years ago when I breathlessly reported that our room had black widow spiders. The front desk counter-culturalist replied with barely disguised ennui that the spiders had just as much right to live as I did.  (I chose to squash them.)

I’ve spotted both black widows and brown recluses on my property at times. Fortunately, not often. The preponderance of our fall spider population are (alleged) non-biters.

It goes without saying that any spider that has the nerve to actually enter my home is considered to have a death wish which I am happy to accommodate.

My arachnophiliac husband points out that spiders are good for the environment, eating disease-carrying and crop-destroying insects among others.  I have pointed out to him that our little chunk of La Jolla heaven is probably really low on those, although if they were willing to consume whatever pest chomps on my basil plants, I could reconsider.

Who, he continues, waxing awestruck, programmed the brains of the little marvels with such sophistication as to be able to create these complicated webs night after night? How could anyone not be impressed, nay, dazzled?

Every web begins with a single thread, he explains, which are silk produced from the spinneret glands located in the spider’s stomach. The spider climbs to a suitable starting point (my porch light, for example, which has the added benefit of enticing light-attracted insects) and releases a length of thread into the wind. With any luck, the free end of the thread will catch onto something else, like my hanging vinca basket.  And then he’s off and running. Or in this case, spinning.

If there were a product called Arachnid Death, I wouldn’t mind spraying it around outside the house when my husband wasn’t looking.  But Olof would be bereft. Olof is aware that this time of year, I’m offing spiders pretty regularly. It’s one of those marital “don’t ask, don’t tell” things. 

He, however, would never slay a fellow engineer.

After all these years of his influence, I’m surprised to admit that I am actually developing empathy for spiders. Well, to a point. Just before I whacked a web across my front porch, I said to the spider, “See that tan house across the street with the gold Subaru in the driveway? I think they’re friendlier.”  It was the best I could do.



Monday, August 27, 2018

Olof's Worst Meal Ever


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published August 29, 2018] ©2018

Recently I noticed a recipe in AARP Magazine for Kimchi Stew which I cut out for Olof. I noted that Kimchi Stew combined his two least favorite foods – kimchi (popular with his first wife) and tofu – into what would be his Ultimate Worst Meal.

OK, maybe penultimate worst meal.  When we lived in Sweden, we were determined to try everything, including a sour fermented herring called surströmming. I think the best approximation of the smell would be rotting corpses awash in a massive sewer backup. The recipe is as follows: “This dish is prepared from the small Baltic herring, which is salted and set aside for a rather long time. When the souring process (a process of controlled rotting or fermentation) has got under way, the fish is put up in hermetically sealed tins, which are distinctly swollen by the time they are ready for sale.  A pungent aroma – delectable to some, repulsive to others – fills the room whenever a can is opened.  By ordinance, the year’s supply of sour herring may begin to be sold on the third Thursday in August, and this signals the start of festivities.” 

OK, so already you’re wondering where the words “delectable” and “festivities” come into this. Putting a sales embargo on this year’s “crop” until the third Thursday in August is a brilliant feat of marketing. 

While it is not polite to make fun of another country’s semi-national dish, surströmming is not a universally loved food even among the Swedes, who, as the description above suggests, either love it or hate it. 

American neighbors had purchased a can of surströmming at the local fisk hallen which had been residing in their fridge just waiting to be shared with guests they hoped would leave.  Er, no, with equally adventurous friends. So one Sunday night, we opened the can at our house. 

One thing became very clear: this is truly raw fish.  Efforts to think of it as simply Sushi Gone Bad were in vain.  But we were all determined to go through with it, buoyed by the knowledge that Swedes had been eating it for centuries, and that we had a reservation at an Italian restaurant at 8:00.  To eat surströmming, Americans have to suspend all previous knowledge and instinct, along with several millennia of good sense. It goes against everything we know to eat stuff from an (a) bulging can that (b) screams botulism and is (c) both raw AND rotten and that (d) smells like a global plumbing disaster, and (e) is really slimy, never mind has an (f) high risk of explosion, and that (g) - despite (a) through (f) - we should embrace as a delicacy.

Eating it right off a cracker with a dab of onion and a bit of sour cream as the purists do (and we did as well) apparently takes years of training, and quite possibly Swedish genes. One can also bury it in a casserole of potatoes (proportions something along the lines of 200 to 1).

Surströmming is  definitely an acquired taste which neither Olof nor I acquired while in Sweden.  But we hadn’t been big fans of  herring in general when we arrived and came to love non-surströmming varieties.   

We discussed over the table what the history of surströmming might be.  It’s obviously been around a long time (literally and figuratively).  It would definitely have been the ultimate economical olden times party food.  (One can feeds 50 because the other 49 aren’t eating it.)  Herring is certainly plentiful so even in times of famine, there’s always going to be fish.  In fact, that is Olof’s personal theory about it all: that during the long harsh Swedish winters when food was scarce, this was the fall-back food. It was eat this or eat your children. (In my view, it must have been a hard decision.) 

We could imagine what life was like during those times: “Hey, kids!  We’re having surströmming again tonight! (And for breakfast, lunch, and dinner tomorrow.)  Hmmm, isn’t this just totally yummy?  Oooh, and this batch tastes particularly rotten – just the way mommy likes it!” Apparently salt (for curing) wasn’t widely available and  the production of this stuff required only a small amount of the then-precious mineral which allegedly slows down the actual rotting process in favor of fermentation.

Because the cans are fermented and bulging, they cannot be taken on a commercial airliner in carry-on luggage as the cans could explode if the cabin lost pressure. (Some airlines have apparently classified it in the same category as shoe bombs, an act that Swedish aficionados of this raw fish grenade term “culturally illiterate”).  If a pilot thought he had problems with cabin pressure, it would be nothing compared to the passengers throwing open the emergency exits and bailing out of the plane at 35,000 feet.  

So, Kimchi Stew, I think you’ve met your match. 




 John's face after his first bite

Olof's face after his first bite

Sonia's face after her first (and only) bite

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Barbarian Invasion


["Let Inga Tell You," La Jolla Light, published August 22, 2018] ©2018 

If there is one thing we can observe about our five young beloved grandchildren – fondly referred to by my husband as “the destroyers of peace” -  it is that they have just as much energy as they have ever had, but we have way less. 

We recently had them for a three-day weekend with their dads.  Our daughters-in-law were supposed to come too but one daughter-in-law, a teacher, had just been promoted to principal of her school so her work year started early.  The other daughter-in-law had just returned from a fun but exhausting two-week family vacation to the east coast. She said she hoped I wouldn’t be offended but there was nothing that would make her happier than three days Home Alone.  I wasn’t offended at all. I remembered the feeling well.

Now what was different about this visit was that without the organizing influence of the two moms, things got a tad chaotic.  The kids’ rooms at our house looked like cyclones had hit them.  We have a pool, which was a godsend in the stifling heat, but beds and floors were a sea of clothes, shoes, and wet towels.  There were probably more red solo cups strewn around than the morning after a fraternity kegger. 

I’ve long since learned to only buy the smallest size water bottles.  Every evening I did a sweep around the house to collect the two dozen or more containers that had been opened, had two sips taken out of them, then abandoned.  My potted plants were really grateful. 

And then there was the issue of everything in the living room ending up on the floor.   We have a really small house, just one small living room, no family room.  The sofa has throw pillows, some chenille throw blankets, and our assorted stuffed Swedish moose collection.  But still plenty of room for people. Within 30 minutes of the grandkids arriving, every single item on the sofas is on the floor. 

The upside, however, was huge.  There was a lot of brother love between my sons, never mind some serious cousin bonding.  This is the age those bonds need to be made.  My sons spent a lot of time in their youth making adventure movies with our very low-end movie camera, and it was heartwarming to watch the cousins filming similar movies with their iPads.  They had some amazing special effects in theirs.  I asked one of my grandsons how he had done one of them and he said, “Easy. With a green screen.”  I have absolutely no idea what that means. Elementary school kids know this?

During down time, I played a DVD of my kids’ old movies which I had managed to save and have transferred from VHS.  The grandkids loved seeing their fathers, not much older than they are now, making movies in the exact same backdrop.

There were definitely some visible changes in the times.  Right after breakfast, three of the kids were glued to their iPads listening to…I have no idea. 

 I had saved some of the toys that my sons used the most and love seeing them get a second life with the grandkids.  Wood blocks.  Lincoln logs.  Matchbox cars and a floor mat to run them on.  And small toy guns.

When I was a child, I can remember my toy pistol-toting brother and his friends playing “cowboys and Indians.”  I can assure you that cowboys and Indians would now be profoundly politically incorrect.  In fact, school children the nation over no longer sit “Indian style” on the floor but sit “cross cross applesauce.”  No idea what applesauce has to do with it other than it rhymes with cross cross. 

All of my kids’ toy guns were former cap guns.  I can remember all manner of shoot-em-up games going on in the front yard with the neighborhood kids, sometimes just using thumb and fore finger instead of actual toy guns.  But given the epidemic of shootings in this country in recent years, the guns suddenly took on a really bad vibe to me.  They’re now in our trash bin.  An era that needed ending.

After three really fun but utterly exhausting days, the assorted families packed up and departed amidst a lot of hugs, final movie edits, snuggles with our dog Lily, and weepy goodbyes, leaving Olof and I to survey the debris field of our home which we elected to ignore in favor of falling face down on top of our bed for a serious nap. 

When I pulled back the covers later that night, I was delighted to find a note written on two paper napkins from my eight-year-old granddaughter: “When will you come to L.A.?  I miss you. Avery.”  She drew lots of hearts on it too. 

You can overlook a lot of wet towels, goldfish crackers, and Solo cups for that kind of gratitude.

Kids' room debris field

The best reward of all 



Monday, August 13, 2018

Has Technology Become Too Technical?


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published August 15, 2018]  ©2018
I’ve been using computers, printers, and scanners for several decades now so you’d think I’d have the hang of them.  But every new version becomes increasingly unfriendly and unworkable.  Am I just getting stupider?  No, don’t answer. 
My personal theory is that technology has just become too technical.
When I had to replace my 2005 3-in-1 printer-scanner recently – a machine that was so user friendly that I never had to read the instruction manual – I ended up returning two of its successors as being so utterly user-hostile that I simply couldn’t make them work.  It goes without saying that there is no longer an instruction manual and that the machine itself is entirely icon-driven rather than using words.  I suppose this is so the machine can be used across many languages but in actuality ensures that no one on any continent can actually figure them out. 
On-line help doesn’t speak English.  (Actually, human help doesn’t either.) That is to say, you have to know the technical term for your problem or it can’t help you.  (I once discovered – or Olof did – that the problem I was trying to fix was “icon overlays.” Why anyone would even need to overlay an icon is beyond me but suddenly my screen was riddled with them.)
Not too many years ago, if your computer was working fine on one day and you didn’t mess with it, it would be working fine the next day too.  Not anymore. 
There are infinite numbers of things that can go wrong with your computer. And Microsoft thinks of new ones every day. They’re called “updates”.  Unsolicited updates and undesired upgrades are the curse of the modern world. They guarantee that whatever worked before will never work again.
If you change one teeny weeny little thing on your computer, it’s like the butterfly in Australia that flaps its wings and causes tornados in Kansas.  Trying to fix that problem changes enough things to add monsoons in Asia. 
Error messages, meanwhile, are a cruel psychological test. The one thing you can be assured of is that whatever it says is NOT the actual problem.
One thing I’ve learned over the years: electronics are sentient beings.  Technical gadgets sense fear and totally take advantage of it.  Laugh if you will, but I have found irrefutable evidence over the years that while computers like to jerk around people like me just for the fun of it – it knows deep in its little microchips that I am afraid of it – they themselves are terrified of actual techno-geek people like my former work colleague, Dave, or my engineer husband, Olof.  As soon as they sit down in my desk chair, the printer that wouldn’t print color for me suddenly produces brilliant rainbow images, or the document that wouldn’t format correctly miraculously prints exactly how I’d been trying to make it print for the last FOUR HOURS. 
I really do try to fix these problems myself.  For most new software, there IS no tech support other than “community groups” for which you are dependent on the kindness of totally inept strangers. My experience with community groups is: 
(1) nobody answers your question
(2) lots of people answer your question but none of the solutions help
(3) I can’t understand any of the solutions
(4) the solutions will mess up my computer to the point that the original problem will seem insignificant.
Personally, I think there is a lot that could be done to standardize electronics. For example, if I were President, I would make it a law that all documents have to be fed either face up or face down.  
If an electronics company had asked me, and inexplicably they never do, I would help them design a computer that real people, especially aging non-technical but really nice people, could actually use.  The Clairvoyance Model.  Your computer would get to know you, realize that those nasty keystroke commands that are the boon of techno types, but the bane of the techno challenged, should be ignored at all costs.  The Clairvoyance Model would quickly learn that you have the frustration tolerance of a gnat.  It would sense when you are so aggravated with your computer that you are ready to drag it out to the driveway and run it over with your car.
My one hope is that Alexa, the voice-controlled Amazon robot that everyone except me seems to own, will ultimately become the tech support that seems to have globally disappeared.  Maybe she has connections with Microsoft that we mere mortals don’t.  Unlike tech support, she’ll actually answer.  No hold time!  “Alexa,” I’ll say, “my ruler disappeared from my Word documents after the last update. Please find it and put it back.”  Or maybe, “Alexa, please install my new “self-installing” (ha!)  printer before I give up and throw the effing thing in the pool.” And it will be done. 




Monday, July 30, 2018

Sentimental Value


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published August 1, 2018] ©2018

It’s really interesting what kids form sentimental attachments to. 

My parents moved from suburban New York City to Princeton, New Jersey when I was in college.  Olof’s parents, meanwhile, had their East Bay home eminent domained to make room for an interchange between the 680 and 24 freeways.  In both cases, our mothers asked their young-adult children what items they particularly wanted saved in the moves. 

Both mothers claimed to be astonished by the kids’ choices. Where had they gone wrong?

In Olof’s case, he and his two sisters engaged in ardent verbal combat over who was going to get custody of the pollywog pan.  It was actually an old canning pan from their grandmother’s home in Salem, Oregon, that had been used for canning applesauce.  But Olof and sisters used it in the creek behind their house to capture pollywogs, who perished by the thousands, the few survivors becoming toads in the family’s garden. Olof had better hope that on Judgment Day, pollywogs don’t get a say as to what happens to you.  

In my house there were several hotly contested items. One was the Kool-Aid pitcher, a hand-painted ceramic vessel of dubious origins that probably leached lead. In the summer months, that pitcher was refilled continuously with artificially-colored powdered dye and diabetes-producing quantities of sugar.  When I look back on how much of that stuff we consumed, I can’t imagine why our own kids weren’t born with two heads.  But my sibs and I were deeply, emotionally attached to that pitcher.  I think it symbolized a carefree time in our lives when summers were unscheduled and the neighborhood kids just went out and played all day, wandering en masse from one house to another to empty that home’s Kool-Aid pitcher before heading back out again.

My sister and I also fought vigorously over the First Holy Communion veil that our Catholic (as opposed to our Protestant) grandparents had given us.  At the time, there was a standard issue veil that girls received as part of their First Holy Communion package but my grandparents, deciding that we were already at enough of a disadvantage having a Protestant mother, bought us a veil that both my sister and I thought was the most beautiful creation ever made.  It had seed pearls on the top and lots of tulle.  I wore it first, then my sister wore it for her First Holy Communion the next year. 

My sister would later contend that since she wore it last, it was hers and by all rights, she should have it for her future daughter.  I contended it had been given to me first and I only loaned it to her because I was a really nice person.  My future daughter was entitled to it.  (For some reason, sharing was never considered.)

The third item I coveted was a cheap plastic reindeer ornament that had come from the set of the GE-sponsored Fred Waring Show, one of the first musical-variety shows on TV. My father’s first job out of business school after the war was in television advertising.  Dad would regale us in later years with stories of live ads – all ads were live then - that went totally wrong: opening the freezer of the Mr. Frosty refrigerator to demonstrate how cold it kept the ice cubes only to find that the hot studio lights had melted them. Or the time that someone stole the GE iron right before show time and the single store open on a Sunday afternoon only had a Westinghouse model which, in desperation, they used. When the show disbanded, ornaments from the show’s Christmas tree were distributed to employees.  I always made sure the reindeer was hanging near my presents. 

So, here’s how it all came out.  Olof and I are, in fact, in possession of the pollywog pan.  We recently updated our wills and trusts and I told Olof that it would be a nice thing that if in the list of bequests, he leaves the pollywog pan to his sisters.  Maybe they can start fighting about it all over again.

As for the Kool-Aid pitcher, my mother maintained she didn’t know its whereabouts but I think the real answer is that it had been relegated to the Salvation Army bin years earlier and was now shortening the lifespans and damaging the brains of a whole new generation of children.

As for the First Holy Communion veil:  I am guessing that it had become irretrievably devoured by mildew in our damp Westchester basement and had long since been turfed.   Not that it mattered.  Neither my sister nor I married Catholics and we only had sons. God works in mysterious ways.

As for that cheap plastic reindeer, it’s still got a special place on my Christmas tree. I guess one out of three ain’t bad. And sorry, sibs:  I am NOT sharing.

Inga wearing the First Holy Communion veil, 1955

The pollywog pan



Monday, July 23, 2018

Communication-Disabled Relatives


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published July 25, 2018] ©2018

I was thrilled to see my cousin Sandy’s email address pop up in my In-Box.  What’s Sandy up to? I wondered. 
Turns out, not much. The email was sent to everyone in Sandy’s address book from a friend of hers announcing the date and time of Sandy’s funeral.
From this, I could only conclude she died.
To say that my relatives on my mother’s side are the worst communicators on the planet would be an understatement.  What’s sad is that I always adored these people.  Some of my happiest childhood memories involve them.  But trying to maintain any sort of contact with them is an exercise in futility.  When they want something, you hear from them.  If you want something, like an answer to an invitation to a family event: crickets. 
With way more effort than I would normally expend, I finally managed to contact one of Sandy’s siblings. It turned out that Sandy had been diagnosed with a terminal cancer and had opted for hospice.  So why didn’t anyone – including and especially Sandy – let me know this?  There was silence on the other end of the phone as my cousin pondered this genuinely baffling (to him) question. He just thought someone else would tell me, he maintained.  It never occurred to him that he might be that person.
When my uncle (their father) was alive, he acted as organizer and communicator for all family get-togethers.  But since his death 18 years ago, the cousins have all gone incommunicado – even with each other.  They don’t answer email. Or texts. Or cell phones. Or land lines.  Or even snail mail. Unless it suits them.
When I invited them all to Rory’s wedding I sent each of them a personal “save the date” card seven months in advance, followed by another every month thereafter then an invitation.  A week before the wedding, the bride called me and said she hadn’t heard from any of them.  Hunting them down, I got the same response from all four: When is that wedding again?
My own kids have many happy memories of these cousins when they visited us over the years (again, organized by my uncle) and always want me to invite them for Thanksgiving.  We’ve had some really fun Thanksgivings with them. 
More often than not, they just never respond to the invitation. Radio silence. Should you be so lucky as to reach them, you’ll get the genuinely puzzled reply, “Did you need an answer?”  As fond as I think they are of me, they regard people who require RSVPs for major holidays or weddings to be a little too tightly wound. 
Actually, inviting them doesn’t really matter one way or another. If they want to come, they’ll call me the night before and say they’d love to come for Thanksgiving, if it’s not too late.  One year they accepted but didn’t show up.  (“Too tired.”)
There is definitely a part of me that has vowed to tell them if they call me the night before Thanksgiving that it is, alas, too late.  I’m not running around borrowing chairs from neighbors and upping food orders on such short notice.  But that would only make me the villain of the piece.  “The cousins want to come for Thanksgiving and you told them no?”  Lots of grumpy faces.  “But we hardly ever see them!”  They’re really fun people. I get it. 
These cousins, and a few other relatives, have had me pondering the whole concept of “family is everything.”  I’d definitely apply that to my sons, their wives, and the grandchildren. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for them.
But how much more slack should you cut family than other folks?  If these people weren’t relatives, I’d never put up with this crap.  But should I, even if they are?  Nobody is THAT much fun.
So, do you just have to accept family members for the thoughtless idiots that they are? I’m fairly clear that these folks aren’t going to change.  The cousins are in their late 50s and early 60’s at this point. 
Four months ago, one of the cousins called me at 4 p.m. telling me he was in town for a one-day meeting (which he’d known about for weeks) and wanted to come for dinner that night, or take us out. It was the first time we’d heard from him, never mind seen him, in eight years. (They all live in California.)
“Sure,” I said, “come on over.” Once here, he apologized for the abysmal communication over the years. He promised it would be better in the future.  Just not his strong suit, he said.
We had a lovely evening but haven’t heard from him since, even a thank you for dinner.
Sadly, I never got to talk to or go visit my cousin Sandy before she died.  Alas, I’m not noticing much difference in communication.




Monday, July 16, 2018

Who'd Be A Mother?


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published July 18, 2018] ©2018

A friend sent this email: “Ethan totally disgraced me in the Easter play at nursery school. He refused to be a raindrop, didn’t sing any of the songs or play his musical instrument or participate in it any way – all of which I could easily accept.  What mortified me was that he sat on the stage and picked his nose – and ATE it – all through the play!  Afterward he demanded chocolate to celebrate having been in a play!  Who’d be a mother?”

Who indeed? It’s probably a really good thing we can’t see into the future.  Otherwise, we’d probably never have children if we knew we’d have moments like this:

Leaving a 75% tip after your toddler throws up in the antipasti plate at the upscale Italian restaurant.

Buying an entire display of out-of-season organic tomatoes after your five-year-old pokes holes in them with a caramel apple stick.

Going to the school open house and noticing that your son’s contribution to the display of illustrated alliterative sentences is “Paco the pimp pestered the picky prostitutes.”

Taking an entire afternoon off work to sort through several hundred totally disgusting lunch bags in the dumpster at your child’s elementary school to find the $200 retainer he accidentally threw out that you, as a single mom, cannot afford to replace.

After his first day at his seemingly wonderful new school, your child responds to the friendly greeting of the supermarket checkout clerk with “Shine it, bitch!” 

Going to your friends’ home for dinner and one of your kids says, “Look, Henry!  Real plates! And it’s not even Christmas!”

You go to brush your teeth and find the toothpaste, minus the top, floating in the toilet. 

Your three-year-old, who has serious speech problems secondary to hearing issues, tells people that when he grows up, he wants to be a “f—k diver” (truck driver).

Your 4-year-old announces he wants to be pregnant for Halloween.

Your five-year-old spray paints every inch of his three-year-old brother silver. Pediatrician recommends soaking child in bathtub in “several gallons” of baby oil (which come in 15-ounce containers).  You buy out the entire baby oil stock of five drug stores, silver three-year-old in tow.

Your pre-teen sons and their two tweener cousins draw pubic hair on female cousin’s Barbie doll sparking International Incident.

 Your non-athletic child is playing goal in youth soccer.  When the other team comes charging down the field with the ball, he has his back to the field and his fingers hopelessly entangled in the net. Goal is scored, game is lost, other parents query loudly why “some kids” are on the team.

Your kids get you an extra-large wine glass engraved with “Mom” for Christmas.

You don’t want to confess to your college-bound son that Mom’s “secret” chocolate chip cookie recipe all those years was Pillsbury Slice n’ Bake.

During final exam week at college, your son ignores an oil leak under his car which ultimately ignites in the unseasonably hot weather, burning his car and the one next to it in the parking lot to the ground. It also melts the asphalt underneath.  It never occurred to you to buy asphalt insurance. 

My friends, of course, have their own stories they’ve shared over the years: 

From a friend, potty-training her two-year-old: “I was sure Laura was right beside me in the bathroom fixtures display room only to turn and see her proudly pooping in one of the display toilets.  I will never leave home without a full packet of tissues again!”

From my neighbor: “Another mother and I were summoned to the counselor’s office at Muirlands (Middle School) after our sons were caught writing an obscene note.  The counselor showed us the note, pointing to a word beginning with “k”.  ‘Geesh,’ she said, shaking her head, “Don’t these kids even know how to spell ‘c--t’?’” 

Another neighbor, whose son was a kindergartener at Evans School, was called to pick him up for the third time that week after misbehavior on the playground.  Seeing that Mom was totally at her wits end with him, he patted her arm and advised, “You should draw a palm tree.” 

Another friend tells the story of her extended family renting a large passenger van to take them up to a weekend retreat in the mountains. On the way up the steep road, they went over a large bump. From the back of the van came the voice of her five-year-old addressing her father who was driving.  “Jesus Christ, Perry!  You almost made me spill my drink!”

From my daughter-in-law’s mother: “The kids wanted pets when they were little and since both parents worked, we got each of them a male hamster for Christmas. Except that a week later, one of the “male” hamsters gave birth to 12 baby hamsters.  Which the other male hamster ate. In front of the kids.”

Yes, who would be a mother indeed?


One year my kids gave me a wine glass 
engraved with "Mom" for Christmas

Monday, July 2, 2018

A Matter of (Bad) Taste


[“Let Inga Tell You, La Jolla Light, published July 4, 2018]  ©2018

Olof and I are compatible in so many ways, but not in books and movies.  Or more specifically, movies made out of books.  Olof loves fantasy stuff – Harry Potter (he’s read all of them twice), Lord of the Rings, Star Wars.  Me, I can’t figure out how the actors keep a straight face while filming them; they just seem so hokey.  For years, it always seemed like there was a Christmas release of one of the above series, and as a demonstration of my love for Olof, I always bought two tickets for him for Christmas.

Unfortunately, I could never find anyone to use the other one.  So I was forced to go.  I always paired it with a nice dinner afterwards with suitable liquid refreshment as an inducement not to gnaw off a limb during the movie.

Olof was pretty clear that fantasy wasn’t my favorite genre.  But there were unspoken rules that I would behave.  No laughing out loud. No snarky comments. No eye rolling. 

For his part, Olof has equally disparaging things to say about my taste in movies which he describes as “talking heads.”  And just as I have been willing to see all those gag-able fantasy flicks that he so adores, he has dutifully endured movies that I wanted to see. 

Talking heads movies, at least, tend to be two hours. Fantasy movies generally run three.  Or more. I guess once they filmed all those scenes, they felt compelled to use them.  So the torture-per-minute ratio is waaaaay less for Olof than it is for me. I would like this noted. 

The Harry Potter movies were, in my view, the least bad.  But did they have to make FIVE of them? I mean, we got the point after two.

As for the EIGHT Star Wars movies, I could never figure out the plot (was there one?) other than that good was fighting evil, the bad guys wore black and the good guys wore white (thank you), the sound track was deafeningly loud, and they were basically vehicles for a lot of special effects.  Oh, and usually somebody was trying to resolve a traumatic event of their formative years, generally involving a parent.  (They always blame the parents.)

But the three Tolkien movies – released on three consecutive Christmas days – were the ultimate torture.  Our younger son Henry, home from college, went to the first two with us. He turned out not to be a big Tolkien fan either.  Twelve minutes into the first one, he leaned over and whispered, “How much longer?”  My sentiments exactly. 

Recently, in cleaning out my files (nobody should have this many filing cabinets), I came across a folder full of email correspondence with the kids, this one about the final Tolkien movie. 

From: Mom
To: Henry
Sent: Wednesday, December 31, 2003  5:32
Subject: I’m free! I’m free!

Hi Henry –

Olof and I just saw the last of the Lord of the Ring movies today.  Thank GOD Tolkien is dead and can’t write any more of these. I thought Frodo would never throw the damn ring into the volcano. Even after he fiiiiiiinnnnaaaaallly did, the movie went on for another FORTY-FIVE MINUTES.  Frodo and Sam had to be rescued, then Aragon had to be crowned king and then get married to the Liv Tyler character, then they all had to make their very slow way back to Hobbit Land (did these folks have a no-cut contract?), then Sam had to fall in love and get married and have two children, and then Frodo had to decide to write his memoirs and then he had to go away on a ship for more adventures which necessitated long mawkish weepy goodbyes with the other midgets, then we watched the ship sail ENDLESSLY off into the sunset and then we had to go back to Sam’s hobbit house and see how happy the fam was and then…I almost stood up in the theater and started screaming STOP ALREADY!  NOBODY CARES! HE THREW THE EFFING RING IN THE VOLCANO FORTY-FIVE MINUTES AGO! IT’S OVER! LET US GET OUT OF HERE!

Worse, there were a full half-hour of previews ahead of the movie – all of them weird Lord of the Ring-type movies, so it was three and a half hours imprisoned in the theater. 

 How utterly clever of you not to be home for Christmas this year and thereby be paroled from any obligation to watch another two hours and 59 minutes of Tolkien.  (Why are they all exactly that length?)  Is this why you went to Australia instead? (It’s OK to say so.) 

That I have now seen all three Lord of the Rings movies is a testament to how much I love Olof. As the screen credits rolled today, he happily exclaimed, “Was that the greatest movie you ever saw or what!”

What.


Monday, June 25, 2018

A Solution To Short-Term Vacation Rentals


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published June 27, 2018] ©2018

If you’re local, you’ve probably been following the debate as to what rules should apply to whole-house short- term vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods – particularly areas near the beach. Unfortunately, more and more investors are buying homes in quiet family neighborhoods in coastal areas (particularly La Jolla) and turning them into short-term vacation rentals, creating major problems with parking, trash, and noise until all hours of the morning.   Incongruously, our mayor is leaning toward favoring wholesale greed over the quality of life of people who find themselves suddenly living next door to revolving hordes of partying tourists.  News flash, Kev:  allowing investors to buy and rent out a non-owner-occupied residence on a nightly basis is not “home-sharing”: it is a motel in a residential neighborhood. 

If a short-term rental moved in next to me, I would hope that after a month, the reviews of this property would read something like this:

ACK, DO NOT RENT THIS HOUSE! We thought we’d be having our extended-family reunion in a nice home in La Jolla a few blocks from the beach – at least that’s how the place was advertised.  The owners made no mention of the next-door neighbors who sunbathe naked.  Did I mention they’re SEVENTY? The husband sits out there in his deck chair with a glass of Scotch playing with himself and drooling.  His wife – also naked (she could really stand to lose some weight!) – would come out from time to time and shrug apologetically at our kids who were gawking from the second-floor windows. She’d try to cover him with a towel but he just tossed it off cackling maniacally. Not in the property description!

These same people had a little white dog who was constantly pooping on our home’s front lawn although we were at a loss to figure out how such a tiny animal could be generating as much excrement as a pack of St. Bernards. But it pretty much made the front grass area unusable. 

Did I mention the dead rats?  They were all over the yard!  You’d think there was some kind of plague going on here and in point of fact, the neighbor lady (Ina or Inga or something like that) informed us that the La Jolla Chamber of Commerce is paying big bucks to keep people from knowing that those deceased rodents are carriers of Bubonic Plague, Typhus, and Hanta Virus.  She said we should sue the home owner for not telling us about it or at the very least not advising us to be inoculated for those illnesses before we came.  She insinuated that her wanker husband had been “normal” before contracting one of these diseases. (Alas, she declined to name which one.)

Another problem: Parking Control kept tagging our cars for towing insisting that neighbors had reported our six cars for overstaying a 72-hour limit. How could this be? The Inca or Helga lady said that the parking control people are total nazis and often tow cars that haven’t actually violated the statute. She recommended moving our cars every hour just to be safe. (It was a total pain.)  She also mentioned that there was an unspoken rule in the neighborhood that the space in front of one’s home is reserved for the owner’s vehicles and that that the neighbors could be very “vindictive.” This Ina or Inga person recommended parking our cars in the one-hour parking on Fay Avenue and taking Uber back and forth.  (She said the meter maids never ticket there – local secret.)

As if the rats weren’t bad enough, there was clearly an infestation of cockroaches around the base of the house that were the size of small animals. Ilsa or Erma or whatever her name is said there is a giant colony of them living right under their house and ours.  Apparently, they are a mutant strain that frequently come up from the sewer, sometimes in droves, so it would be best not to sit directly on the toilet seat or one could be risking a “nasty surprise in the nether regions.”
 
 We realize that we have probably been making more noise than we should, especially past the 10 p.m. noise curfew, but this IS a family reunion and we came here to party.  But our noise is nothing compared to theirs.  Their outdoor speakers seem to be pointed in the direction of our house and they seem to prefer drum solos, X-rated rap (we would NEVER let our children listen to such lyrics), and old Mantovani CDs perpetually stuck on “Jamaican Rumba” – all blasted at what seems like 120 decibels.  We went over to ask them to turn it down but the creepy husband answered – does he EVER wear clothes? – and said the speaker volume control was broken but they had a service call scheduled for next week. Then he started scratching himself and we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. 

We had rented the place for a week but escaped after two days to Alpine (no neighbors!) I think we should take Ima or Ella’s advice and sue the home owners for a refund for this “Vacation Rental By Owner.”   

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