Tuesday, December 18, 2018
[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published December 19, 2018] ©2018
A few days ago I went to buy my Christmas tree and couldn’t help but reflect on the ghosts of Christmas trees past.
My first husband always insisted we get a small live tree which we would then plant in the yard in what he considered a charming post-Christmas tradition. Folks: do NOT try this at home! Little did we realize how much those suckers would grow - one to 40 feet! By the time my husband and I divorced ten years (and Christmas trees) later, anyone driving by would think our place was a tree farm with a driveway. Meanwhile, the interior of the house descended into a barn-esque gloom since the tree tops had created a rain forest canopy effect. The tree roots made for constant plumbing problems and grass wouldn’t grow under pine needles. Ultimately, it cost me $4,000 to have ten originally-$20 trees removed from the property. (I knew I should have had a Christmas tree removal reimbursement clause in the divorce decree!)
Now single with two little kids, I went for the six-foot Douglas fir simply because they were the cheapest. I’d be on my stomach trying to screw the trunk into the stand while six-year-old Rory was holding up the tree. Three-year-old Henry was supposed to tell me when it was straight. I crawled out from under the tree to discover that it was listing 45 degrees. Irrefutably demonstrating the principle of gravitational vector forces, it promptly fell over.
It was several more years at least until we had a Christmas tree that wasn’t leaning precariously. In a brilliant Single Mom Home Repair School solution, I tied a rope midway up the trunk and tethered the other end to a ceiling plant hook. Miraculously (since I guarantee that butterfly bolts are not rated for Christmas tree stabilization), it stayed vertical.
Some years later, Henry, who was about 11 at the time, and I brought home a bargain supermarket tree. Our tree, alas, had lots of branches right at the base of the trunk which we were attempting to amputate with a rusty jigsaw (left over from Pinewood Derby days) - in the dark in the front yard via flashlight - so that we could get the trunk into the stand. What’s amazing is that we didn’t sever any digits in the process. I finally ended up calling a neighbor who came over with the appropriate tools and did the job for us. Decision for next year: better saw, or a tree from a Christmas tree lot.
Since I wasn’t all that interested in replicating the experience even with good tools, the next year I did indeed go to a tree lot and got full service branch trimming. The tree lot guys mentioned that they could probably get the tree on top of my little Toyota if I wanted to save the delivery fee. (I think they sensed a cheap tipper.) I was dubious but they did indeed get the tree tied securely on top of the car by having me open the two front windows and running the rope through the car and around the tree, knotting it on top.
IQ test: What’s wrong with this picture?
Off I went in the early evening darkness driving as slowly as possible through back streets. I was terrified that a sudden stop would put this tree on the hood of my car, or worse, through the windshield of the car behind me. With enormous relief, I pulled up in front of my darkened house. It was the kids’ night at their dad’s, and Olof was not yet living in San Diego. My plan was to untie the tree, drag it onto the front porch and have the kids help me set it up the following night.
Obviously over-focused on saving the delivery fee and failing to engage even a single synapse, I had not stopped to realize that with the rope threaded through the car windows, the doors couldn’t open. I was trapped in my car. It was well before cell phones. I sat in my car thinking, “Geesh, Inga, it’s amazing you’re allowed to leave the house without a conservator.” (And also: Would it have killed those tree guys to ask if there would be anybody at home???)
I sat there shivering in my open-windowed car and pondering my options. I didn’t really want to have to go all the way back to the tree lot. But it would probably take all evening to cut through the rope with my car keys. (Note to self: Keep 9-inch Bowie knife in the glove compartment!)
As luck would have it, a neighbor arrived home from work shortly after, and, graciously avoiding voicing what must surely have been his assessment of the situation, extricated me from the car. Why all of my neighbors were not hiding from me after the first year I was single is still a mystery.
But ultimately, I married Olof and we could afford to have not only the Noble fir I had always coveted but have the nice Christmas tree lot people deliver it and set it up to my satisfaction. Personally, I think I’ve earned it.
No, this is not a tree farm. My house is in there.
Tuesday, December 11, 2018
[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published December 12, 2018] ©2018
I may be the alleged writer in the family but many people don’t know that the real talent in the family is Olof. Despite being a nuclear-physics-trained engineer, Olof has always been a fabulous letter writer. It was, in fact, how we kept in touch for 23 years from the time we spent our senior year in high school in Brazil as exchange students (how we met) until serendipity (and both of our divorces) brought us back together decades later.
I may be the alleged writer in the family but many people don’t know that the real talent in the family is Olof. Despite being a nuclear-physics-trained engineer, Olof has always been a fabulous letter writer. It was, in fact, how we kept in touch for 23 years from the time we spent our senior year in high school in Brazil as exchange students (how we met) until serendipity (and both of our divorces) brought us back together decades later.
One of my regrets is that I don’t still have any of his letters to me during those two-plus decades. Of course, we were either writing by hand on lined paper or right off the typewriter, unedited. Both of us liked to find the humor in mundane – and often not funny at the time - things that were happening in our lives that day …my first husband’s and my attempt to save $125 by acid washing our pool ourselves, for example. Olof regularly regaled me with Air Force moments gone awry. My column is basically letters to a wider audience.
But in the 31 years we’ve been together since our divorces, I fortunately saved favorite documents of his creation, including all the contracts he had for Nintendo game loans (at interest!) with my younger son, Henry. (Neither my ex nor I thought Henry was a good credit risk.) Henry, even at eight, was clear that this money would be paid back, and his allowance never had to be garnished a single time. Not surprisingly, Henry wrote his essay for MBA programs on learning business ethics from Olof.
Over the years, I’ve jotted down favorite Olof-isms. On being asked on Thursday mornings if he was likely to be working that weekend, he’d reply, “Probably. Thursday is Crisis Discovery day.” When he returned home after a brutal 20-hour day, I offered sympathy. He nodded, as he headed for the bedroom. “Yup, I’ve been ridden hard. And put away wet.” After rescuing a project threatening to implode, he’d note, “I think we got the shiny side back up.”
On his aggregate of four years in Saudi Arabia, the ever-optimistic Olof opined: “It’s only a desert if you think of it that way. I prefer to think of it as a very large beach, with surf breaking on both sides."
When asked how he was able to successfully fix an item that had been considered irretrievably broken, he is likely to smile and reply, "cunning and guile,” “I messed with it,” or “just a mindless application of force.”
Always asked for technical support from family and friends, he often can’t help adding commentary. Explaining a new mouse to my sister some years ago, he wrote; “This is an optical, versus mechanical, mouse. Optical mice have no balls. Comparisons to the Democratic leadership in Congress are gratuitous.”
Describing something as really inconsequential, he will reference the testicular attributes of rodents: “It’s mouse nuts when you look at it.”
He has been in my kids’ lives since they were six and eight (we married when they were 15 and 17), and have had a profound influence on their education. In a discussion I was having with the kids back in 1987 about what constitutes “manners,” Olof clarified, “anything you do that feels natural is unmannerly.” This they understood.
On another occasion, commenting on both on my housekeeping skills AND the kids’ assessment that they’d grown up “poor,” he opined: “You didn’t grow up in poverty. But you did grow up in squalor.
After one of our three beloved goldfish - Lucky, Ducky, or Tucky had just died (hopefully not Lucky) I was trying to decide what might be an appropriate funeral service for it. After three days with a dead gold fish in the refrigerator, Olof finally took matters into his own hands. I heard the toilet flushing in the hall way bathroom. Olof came out and solemnly announced, “It was a burial at sea.”
He’s now adored by the five grandchildren whom he affectionately refers to alternately as “the plague carriers” and also “the destroyers of peace.” In play with our grandsons who have named themselves after various superheroes, Olof has dubbed himself Hummingbird Man.
From time to time I get to see his messages in cards we send to the kids. On Henry’s 38th birthday this year, Olof noted: “Henry – It’s not hard to get older. It’s getting wiser that’s hard. With three kids, a busy wife and a demanding job, you’ve gotten lots of opportunities. Enjoy them. Love, Olof”.
Responding to “Bastille Day birthday wishes” on his July 14 birthday, he noted: “Thanks for the good wishes. So far my barricades have withstood the assault of time better than those of Louis XVI. But time is the great equalizer.”
So thanks, Olof. You are truly this household’s ray of sunshine. And fortunately you don’t want to write a column of your own.
I took this picture of Olof as we arrived at the Rio de Janeiro
airport in 1965 to spend our senior year of high school as exchange students
Olof and I corresponded frequently during his
Air Force days
Monday, November 19, 2018
[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published November 21, 2018] ©2018
I recently ran a column on the subject of teenage vandals on Halloween.
What I didn’t mention – and I confess it’s been haunting me a bit – is that I have a brief history of teenager criminal behavior myself. I think it would be classified as Grand Theft Fruit and I’m not entirely sure that the statute of limitations is up.
As teenagers go, I was a good kid. A 16-year-old public high school senior when this event occurred, I was editor of the school paper and president of the school’s service organization. In earlier years I had been Secretary of the Organ Club (music, not donors). So, I just want to say, Your Honor, that I wasn’t exactly going around breaking car windows on Halloween like some of the miscreants in my own neighborhood.
I have read that the frontal lobe of the brain, the area associated with judgment, doesn’t reach maturity until the mid-to-late 20’s. (I think we all know people in whom it never matures at all.)
The school service organization had decided the year before that as their major service project, they would adopt a Korean orphan which had a financial commitment of $10 a month – a significant sum at the time. We were clear that if we failed to raise this money, our orphan would starve.
In the fall of 1964 when I was at the helm of this organization, we realized that due to orphan payments over the summer when we had no revenue, we would be short for our November 1 payment. Asking parents to fund this shortfall would never have been considered; it was our responsibility. The club decided to raise money by selling caramel apples door to door. Caramels were fortunately on sale but we’d never be able to make the required profit if we had to buy apples as well. Came a voice from the back of our planning meeting: “What about Rockefeller’s apple orchards? He’s got plenty.” We all lit up. It was like a bolt of lightning from a sociopathic higher being.
A little ways down the road from my New York City commuter burb was Pocantico Hills, the site of the Rockefeller estate. On many occasions, we had driven past his apple orchards. And yes, he did have plenty.
So, is Your Honor asking if we knew that what we were doing was wrong? Well, the fact that we went at dusk might suggest so. With me driving my father’s car, five of us, clad in dark clothing, parked alongside the road, and, baskets in hand, crept stealthily up the hill. Two of us climbed the trees and shook down apples while the other three loaded them into the baskets.
In my memory, we heard a shot. Like from a gun. But what we definitely heard was shouting in our direction and persons of a guard persuasion running in our direction. Terrified, we jumped out of the trees, grabbed the baskets and tore down the hill, hurling the apples into the trunk and blasting out of there at excessive speed, me driving the getaway car.
For the next three days, I fully expected the police at our door ready to arrest Dad for being an accessory to a felony fruit heist.
But opportunities to wield the poor judgment of our not-yet-mature frontal cortexes were not over. The next morning our club convened at the home of another member to make the caramel apples. As we unloaded the apples from the trunk, a terrible reality hit us that we weren’t aware of earlier given the dim light of early evening. It was the very end of the apple season and while these apples weren’t flat-out rotten, their best days were well behind them.
We stood in the kitchen in silence looking at this sad collection of semi-decaying fruit and pondering our next move when someone said, “Well, we’re going to cover them with caramel, right?” The God of Frontal Lobe Deficiency was working overtime that day.
I would like to say in my defense, Your Honor, that if we saw an actual worm in the apple, we didn’t cover it in caramel. Even we had some (very very minimal) standards. And so, we set to work, washing (yes, we did wash them first) and dipping our apples in melted caramel, and then meting out an equal number to each club member to sell in her neighborhood. Instructions were clear: Make the sale and move on. Quickly. Remember: it’s for the orphan.
We did indeed make enough money to cover our orphan for the month. At our next club meeting, when our faculty advisor learned how these funds had been raised, the color drained out of her face.
So, creepy Halloween miscreants, you’re still not forgiven for vandalism in my neighborhood. But in my heart of hearts, I know your type.
Monday, November 12, 2018
[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published November 14, 2018] ©2018
I continue to be impressed with how many really interesting careers are out there that I never knew existed.
For example, in a column I wrote some months ago on colonoscopies, I came upon the work of one Mike Levitt described as “the world’s authority on intestinal gas.” As I noted at the time, the would have to be every 10-year-old boy’s ultimate dream career. You could just imagine the utter rapture on their little faces: “That’s a real job?” Think how much harder they would have studied in school if they knew that this was a future option!
At a dinner party last year with a group of scientists, one of them was lamenting that her company can never find a good “fungal physiologist.” They are apparently in great demand, and even if you hire one, some other company will likely poach him/her from you. This definitely goes under the heading of “Careers that sound icky but pay great.” And that your guidance counselor never mentioned to you.
A reader, responding to my recent column on low-flow toilets wrote: “I wanted to alert you to the existence of a very funny book dealing with every aspect [of excremental functions] including toilet design… It was written by an emeritus faculty at UCSD who was an internationally-respected algologist.” As fun as the book sounded (it was; I read it), it was the “internationally-respected algologist” that immediately grabbed my attention. A quick Google search revealed that an algologist is either a person who specializes in the study of pain…or algae. (Could make the annual convention confusing at best.) The author, as it turns out, specialized in the latter and was in fact known as “the father of green algae genetics” which, like fungal physiology, is a career path I never knew existed. If he were alive I would ask him what inspired him to go into algae. Did he have a pool guy as bad as mine?
I recently came across a career aptitude test report for my father from July 1937. (I really have to get on those file boxes.) The report noted that “Solely from a consideration of Henry’s work sample scores, his outstanding characteristics and those which he should make every effort to use are:
1. Extremely subjective personality
2. Inductive reasoning
3. Tweezer dexterity
OK, I get that tweezer (fine motor) dexterity is really useful in a lot of professions but if I were his parents, I might have considered killing myself that it made the top three of my 16-year-old’s assessed skills. What was most intriguing to me was the limitations of careers within the four possible career categories of the time: Science, Business, Language, and Social. The Language category consisted in its entirety of Advertiser, Journalist, Lawyer, Salesman (Real Estate) and Salesman (Life Insurance). The Business Group career options – all of five – were Purchasing Agent, Specialty Salesman, Office Clerk, Accountant, and Certified Public Accountant. Were these really the only choices in those categories then?
After my divorce 35 years ago, I underwent a battery of career tests myself at the behest of my husband’s lawyer who was less interested in my job aspirations than getting me off his client’s payroll. What I remember about the test battery was that parts of it really were battery. One test in particular gave you two choices and asked “Would you rather do this or this?” Often the answer I wanted was “neither” or even ‘NOT IF THEY WERE THE ONLY TWO CHOICES BETWEEN ME AND DEATH.” But you had to pick one.
The results accurately showed that I was social and people-oriented but liked to work independently (amen: committees drive me bats--t crazy) recommending that three careers to which I would be ideally suited would be Nursing Home Supervisor, Chamber of Commerce Executive, or Liquor Store Manager. After the fact, I fantasized a career creating new career tests.
Of course, much of the time, despite the best laid plans (or more often, a total lack of plans), people just fall into professions. A La Jolla friend has made a successful career (defined by living in La Jolla) out of manufacturing coloring books and crayons. Another lives off the manufacture of filters for home heating systems – you know, the ones you’re supposed to change every four months and actually change every four years? A friend of my husband’s lives a good life off the manufacture and wholesaling of woven door mats. Recently I saw ads for Waste Water Operators. I think I can safely say that not one of these guys had a guidance counselor who said, “I see your strengths as being in the coloring book/heating filter/door mat/waste water field.”
By the way, Dad ultimately went to an Ivy League school then, post war service, to Harvard Business School. Inquiring minds want to know: was it the tweezer thing?
Monday, November 5, 2018
[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published November 7, 2018] ©2018
I’ve mentioned before that the problem with living in the same house for 45 years is that one has a tendency not to clean out files in a timely manner. One advantage of this, however, is that in my efforts to finally tackle this task, I came upon a folder of several hundred pages of letters written by my mother to me from the time I went to college until she died when I was 25. Over the last few months I have slowly savored them.
What is unusual about this correspondence is that it represents much of our interaction since it was well before email, and during a time that long distance calls were reserved for dire emergencies. What’s especially nice is that my mother was a wonderful writer.
A disadvantage is that I don’t have my letters to her, just hers responding to me. And while I remember myself as a dutiful daughter who brought nothing but joy to her parents, I was obviously at times a total pain. And sometimes genuinely mean. But there it all is, in writing.
If she were alive today, I’d be doing some serious apologizing.
My mother was a third-generation feminist (I’m a proud fourth). Both her mother and grandmother had been rabid suffragists and proponents of women’s rights. The 19th amendment (giving women the right to vote) passed when she was a toddler.
Maybe this background is why “home arts” were not her strong suit. In one of her letters, she recounts her efforts to make new curtains for the common room of our small vacation home: “When I started to cut the thirty yards of patterned cloth, I discovered that the reason it was such a bargain was that the pattern hadn’t been printed straight. I finished a sample drape and it was beautiful except that the pattern was upside down. So I made the second one upside down also. If anybody notices, I will say that I thought they looked too suburban right side up. Then I did the kitchen side and they weren’t crooked, they were merely three inches too short. I solved this with a different kind of hanging unit. After that I took the rest of the week off curtains.”
While she may not have been a domestic goddess, she was a dedicated horticulturalist. When I was in college, my parents moved to New Jersey to a newly-built home on a hilly overgrown wooded lot which provided challenges even to as talented a gardener as my mother. Many of her letters chronicle her efforts to tame this jungle while preserving its natural charm. She referred to its different problem areas as the Slough of Despond, the Bosky Dell, and the Panama Canal. My first marriage was, in fact, at a tree stump altar in those very woods.
I’ve written before that my sum total writing training is a life time of letter writing – which is really what my columns are: letters I’m writing to a wider audience. But also, from the time I was around eight years old, I started writing little stories and poems. My mother always had nothing but praise for them no matter how awful they were (and believe me, they were), wanting me to experience the joy of writing for itself. But if there was one she particularly liked, she’d ask if she could buy it from me for a nickel (the rate ultimately went up to a dime), obviously subtly encouraging my better work. “Better” would be a relative term, as I found a whole folder of these after she died. I’m truly impressed with her faith in me.
My older granddaughter is eight, and she and I were talking about this during a visit earlier this year. I was telling her in earshot of her parents about writing stories that my mother then purchased if she particularly liked them. Writing should be fun, I said. You can make things happen any way you want them to. She wanted to know if she could write stories about how the mean girls get theirs. I said “absolutely.”
When we visited L.A. in May my son Henry showed me a story that my granddaughter wrote that he had purchased for $20. (Definite inflation.) It was utterly charming (and not about mean girls), and gorgeously illustrated in vibrant colors. With a twinkle in his eye, Henry picked up the story off the counter where he’d placed it and said to her, “Now in Daddy’s job [private equity], I would let Mormor have this for $40." Alas, the counter top was damp and all the colors had run on the illustrations. My granddaughter turned to me and said, “Offer him ten, Mormor. It got wet."
Jury is still out on which direction this young lady is headed. Or maybe not.
Monday, October 15, 2018
[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published October 17, 2018] ©2018
It was no accident that the other wives and I were not invited to Olof’s college roommate reunion in the Pacific Northwest. This was the ultimate Geek Tour.
It’s actually fairly amazing that these six physics majors, now 70, have managed to stay in such close contact all these years. Reunions are pretty much yearly, some related to weddings or milestone birthdays, others for no reason other than the pleasure of getting together.
Olof still likes to recall his first exposure to freshman physics professor and by-then Nobelist Richard Feynman as an undergraduate at Cal Tech. It involved a heavy steel ball attached by a cable to the lecture hall ceiling which was intentionally hurled at considerable velocity at the professor’s face, and, by not killing him, demonstrated some extremely important law of physics. It definitely got his students’ attention.
Whenever Olof and I have traveled over the years, Olof was always immediately attracted to the technical aspects of whatever we were doing. When we lived in Sweden and were considering a trip up above the Arctic Circle to Kiruna, friends said, “Why would you go there? There is nothing there but a huge iron ore mine.” Olof lit up like a Christmas tree. “There’s a mine?” (As an engineer, Olof’s heart beats faster at the thought of excavation.) When he learned that one could take a three-hour mine tour, this trip was sealed in steel.
Another time, we took a large passenger ferry across the Baltic. As soon as the boat started moving, I was clicking away at the scenery and Olof was hanging precariously over the rail studying the ships steering capability and babbling excitedly about vector thrusters. Engineers are very big on thrusters. (Or is it vectors?)
Two of Olof’s college roommates live in Washington state, and as it turns out, there is no lack of tech-y, physics-y stuff to do there. Fearing glassy-eyed spouses whining “Are we done yet?” they opted this year to reune without us. We wives imagined them geeking out by day, and hanging out at a local bar at night, lamenting the demise of the slide rule.
Up first for the guys was a trip to Hanford in the southeast corner of Washington for a tour of Reactor B where plutonium was first manufactured as part of the Manhattan Project. (Please ignore all errors; I truly have no idea what I’m talking about.) Clean-up is still underway all these years later to make sure that all the reactor fuel is truly, safely “cocooned.” Afterwards they went for lunch to what Olof described as a “nearby winery.”
“How nearby?” I inquired. “Were the grapes the size of baseballs? Did the wine glow in the dark?” Apparently not that nearby.
The next day they were off to LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) which is a large-scale physics laboratory aimed at directly detecting gravitational waves. As I understand it (and believe me, I really don’t understand it), gravitational waves were predicted to exist by Einstein based on his theory of general relativity, but he apparently didn’t think it could be proven. But the detectors at LIGO were able to detect gravitational waves from two colliding black holes. For people with Olof’s background, life doesn’t get more exciting than this.
A brief somewhat sentimental (such as these guys get sentimental) side trip was taken to visit the nearby potato farm that was one of the roommates’ first investments. In fact, he had tried to entice Olof to move up there and use his technical skills to manage a processing plant that would convert all those potatoes into frozen potato products. Olof’s vision for himself at the time didn’t include being a potato farmer in eastern Washington. “Just think, Olof,” I said upon hearing this, “if you’d taken this path, imagine all the life experiences you would have missed, like four years in Riyadh, a year in Dayton, 18 months at a project at the Dallas airport, all those trips to Biloxi, more than a million miles on an airplane. You could have just had a quiet life in Yakima churning out French fries!”
Then it was a drive back across the state to Everett, Washington, for a tour of the Boeing factory where airplanes are manufactured. I hear they got misty-eyed.
It goes without saying that a hugely good time was had by all. They’re already planning next year’s trip and their top contender is to visit the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) near Geneva. It was built to detect the Higgs Boson particle and for physics guys who actually understand muons and quarks and leptons, this would truly be a dream. I have to admit it does sound sort of cool if I could acquire enough knowledge between now and then to have even the teeniest understanding of it all. Is there a “Particle Physics for Dummies?” Maybe a children’s tour?
Monday, October 8, 2018
[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published October 10, 2018] ©2018
At my granddaughter’s first birthday, her mother tore off a small piece of the baby-sized chocolate cake and gave it to her. My granddaughter ignored it, picked up the cake itself, and buried her face in it. I knew at that moment that my genes had been thrown forward.
Over the nine years I’ve been writing this column, chocolate has been a frequent topic. I’ve written about research studies (undoubtedly paid for by Nestles) that extol the health benefits of chocolate, particularly one that maintains that chocolate increases brain function. I have this study framed on my wall.
I have reported that, unknown to any but the most dedicated wrapper-reading chocoholics, one can supply ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of one’s daily calcium, riboflavin, protein AND fiber requirements (never mind a whopping 50% of your daily iron) with only twenty-five vending machine-size packages of M&Ms – all with no trans-fats and staying WELL within your daily sodium and cholesterol allotments.
In a column about Nutella – a divinely rich chocolate-and-hazelnut heroin – I revealed my should-be-patented method for getting a half of a large tub of Nutella out in one tablespoon. (It involves burying the spoon into the Nutella jar about five inches up the handle. Then with dedicated practice (it’s all in the wrist), one twists the spoon until a giganto glob of Nutella at least three inches in diameter is wrapped around it.) In Inga’s world, this still counts as restricting oneself to one tablespoon of Nutella per day.
I’ve attributed my inability to lose weight to the Lindor Truffles commercial: “Do you dream in chocolate?” You betcha. That’s what sabotaging my dietary efforts: it’s all that chocolate I consume in my sleep. My ever-skeptical primary care physician suggested I should consider eating less chocolate in my sleep and while I’m at it, start exercising in my sleep as well. She just never lets up.
I have been promised that at my funeral, some seriously unflattering (actually downright vicious) chocolate stories will abound. Which, of course, is why I’ve tried hard to get my own versions of the chocolate stories in print while I’m still above the grass. (Leaping upon my startled ten-year-old and shoving my fist half way down his esophagus to retrieve my Mrs. Field’s cookie was a reasonable act. He already ate his. That was MY COOKIE!)
The kids will relate how I had them hide the Halloween candy from me but then rifled their rooms for it when they were at their Dad’s. Or when they went out Trick o’ Treating, I had them stop by the house from time to time to dump out their bags so I could poach the Mini Mounds Bars.
Anyway…when the grandkids are here, it is already an inviolable tradition that in the morning, Baba (that would be Olof) gets up early with them and makes Baba Pancakes – a choice of chocolate chip or blueberry. Suffice to say, my granddaughter only ever wants chocolate chip.
Over Labor Day, I stupidly bought the chocolate chips a week early somehow deluding myself that I wouldn’t eat them. I truly do not keep chocolate in the house, because it calls out to me. Really loudly. In fact, it refuses to shut up.
As the Labor Day weekend approached, Olof couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be fewer chocolate chips in the bag. He left a note one morning: “Inga – Rats have gotten into the chocolate chips again. Better call Pest Control or there aren’t going to be any left for the kids!”
So, I did the only reasonable thing. I finished off that bag and bought another one, penitently handing it over to Olof with instructions to hide it.
One thing Olof was clear about: I wasn’t the only one from whom he had to hide chocolate chips. Our eight-year-old granddaughter is a mini-me where chocolate is concerned. As I was tucking her in one night, she whispered conspiratorially that she knew where Olof put the chocolate chips but couldn’t reach them. But, she added, I could. We could split the stash 50-50, leaving enough for breakfast.
As tempting as this was, even I was loath to corrupt the morals of a minor. I advised that we wait until after the last breakfast then tear the house apart if necessary.
I told this story a few minutes later to Olof, mentioning that I hadn’t gone for the granddaughter’s plan, however tempting. The chocolate chips were safe. Olof laughed. “Of course they are,” he said. “I’m on to you two.” He had already moved them from the hiding place my granddaughter had seen, assuring me with a satisfied smirk that we would never find them. And we didn’t.
But Thanksgiving is coming and grandkids will be back. Olof may THINK there’s a place in this house where chocolate chips cannot be found. We will prove him wrong.
Monday, September 24, 2018
[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published September 26, 2018] ©2018
I can’t believe that after nine years and 300 columns I’ve never written about toilets. Well, actually I did but it was about these new high-tech ones that have no obvious flush mechanism, like, say, a handle. In my view, they should be BANNED from guest bathrooms.
But today we’re addressing low-flow toilets, a topic near and dear to all Californians’ hearts since we have the strictest flush laws in the country. All toilets sold in California have to meet low-flow efficiency standards requiring they use no more than 1.28 gallons per flush.
Of course, given California’s perennial drought problems, water conservation has almost become a religion. So, well before the plumbing police officially invaded our bathrooms, people – nice people like Olof and me – converted two of their three toilets to low-flow when they remodeled those bathrooms 15 years ago. Let me say that we have been underwhelmed with the results. As Olof points out, toilets that have to be flushed four times to “achieve clearance” are NOT water-saving. We make sure the Ferraris of plungers are standing by in both of those bathrooms. You can get a good aerobic workout from plunging. But it isn’t our preferred exercise.
Lately, however, we have learned that there is hope. Neighbors of ours remodeled their guest bath at around the same time we did and put in a low-flow toilet that, astonishingly, performed even less well their ours. Fortunately, that bathroom didn’t see much action in the way of overnight guests – just polite after-dinner pee-ers - until their young grandchildren, now six and eight, started coming more frequently for overnights. The neighbors were constantly plunging the toilet. And no, this wasn’t young kids deciding to see what would happen if they flushed toy rocket parts and stuffed animals, a phenomenon I know waaaaay too well. (A 2010 column led with the line: “My husband has always maintained that I married him for his skills with a sewer augur, but that’s only partially true.”)
But no, this was stuff that was intended to be flushed. And these kids are tiny – 50 and 60 pounds respectively. And picky eaters to boot. Seriously, how much poop could they produce?
My friends were considering posting a sign over the commode along the lines of: Please do not poop in this toilet! But it seemed a tad inhospitable. And definitely a dilemma for overnight guests since the only other commode was in the master bedroom.
They reported that they even considered a different sign, “Flush early and flush often!” But they really couldn’t count on compliance. Especially from a 6-year-old who could not yet read.
They finally decided that just as there was incentive to Build a Better Mouse Trap, there must be a sufficient mass of other unhappy low-flow toilet users that someone was inspired to build a better toilet trap. So off they went to a local plumbing fixtures emporium.
May I help you? asked the nice sales lady.
Husband: Our toilet has been outgunned by the grandkids.
Saleslady: I’m guessing you bought this toilet 10-15 years ago. [They said yes.] Well, she continues, leading the way to the sales floor, there are MUCH better options now. Far improved technology from the first ones that just used the same mechanism with less water.
She points to an American Standard toilet and says, “I sold this model to a family with three teenage water polo players whose Dad is a Navy Seal. They’re very happy with it.”
The neighbors are still trying to make the connection between water polo player kids/Seal dad and performance. But it invokes an image of athletic persons who presumably eat a lot and therefore…. Definitely not 6-year-old picky-eater poopers. Marketing is everything.
So they bought it. And couldn’t be happier. One of the reasons it apparently works better is that it simply has a bigger hole for effluvia to leave the premises. No, er, bottlenecks, so to speak.
The other improvement is that it simply has more “gusto,” as my neighbor says. You flush that handle and it clearly means business. Business with your business. No “now if you’ll all please move to the sewer pipe” politeness. This one completes a flush in 1.5 seconds (scientifically timed by the husband) versus a full four seconds by the old one. Same amount of water in the tank but definitely more velocity.
They’ve nicknamed it The Terminator. And it has improved their lives immeasurably.
We still have the original industrial-strength toilet in our master bathroom and up to now, Olof has always maintained that they will have to pry it out of his cold dead hands. (Kind of a mixed metaphor there but you get the idea.)
I’m definitely getting the name and model number of the neighbor’s new commode to replace at least our two low-performing low-flow toilets. It would be the best Christmas present ever to retire from the plunging business.
Monday, September 17, 2018
[“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.
Monday, September 10, 2018
[“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
[“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.