Monday, September 16, 2019

Memory Lane, Part 1

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published September 18, 2019] ©2019

Astonishingly, I am approaching the 10th anniversary of writing Let Inga Tell You, a gig I thought might last three months. But here we are.  And that is why, having written about everything I could think about writing about in my non-life, I am going to mine my high school years at Pleasantville (NY) High School and my famous classmate, whom I confess I barely know, Dave Barry. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Other than the Reader’s Digest, which wasn’t actually in Pleasantville but used the address, Dave truly is Pleasantville’s claim to fame.  In fact, probably the one enduring question of all of the alumni of PHS’s class of ’65 was, “Why wasn’t I better friends with Dave Barry?” 

One possibility is that Dave wasn’t actually from Pleasantville. He grew up in nearby Armonk that had no high school of its own at the time, so starting in 10th grade, the Armonk kids were bused to Pleasantville. Two alien populations with long established social orders who had each been together since kindergarten were suddenly inflicted upon each other. They never really entirely meshed. 

I actually remember Dave Barry as being really kind and really funny even then.  These were not qualities that were often ascribed to high school students.

I know I was in Monsieur Bombardier’s French class with him, and especially Mr. Wittern’s junior year Honors English. Mr. Wittern was a major positive influence in my writing life. I remember him telling me that he had several students, including me, for whom he was saving room on his bookshelf for our future work. Dave Barry was another.  Of course, he would have needed an entire bookcase for Dave’s. 

I’ve probably read all of Dave’s work, including his brand new book, “Lessons from Lucy,” not only because they’re hilarious but because he often writes about people and places I know well including his years at PHS. The depressing part is that while I try to write a column with two really good lines, every word he writes is hilarious. I have no idea how he does that.

I’m pretty sure I recall that homerooms were alphabetical so we would have been in the same one.  In that era, the homeroom teacher read the morning bulletin.  I wasn’t a cheerleader-popular kind of teenager, but I was very social and a good student. As a high school sophomore, however, my only elected office was secretary of the Organ Club (music, not donors).  I think it will be obvious that there was not a lot of cachet in this.

When club meetings were read, the creepo who sat next to me (definitely not Dave) would lean over and leer. “Hey, Inga, wanna play MY organ?” My husband, Olof, was fascinated by this story.  “You should have said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t play lesser instruments,’” Olof opined.

There is one Armonkian I’m still close with to this day. I had been active in the school paper, The Green Lantern (green and white being our school colors) and was thrilled to be named Chief Editor my senior year.  So imagine my surprise at the paper’s first fall meeting when this guy I’ll call “Tom,” who had never worked a nano-second on the paper, shows up and announces he is co-Chief Editor. Turns out he was applying to Yale and his guidance counselor thought he needed at least one extracurricular activity.  Preferably a prestigious one. So she arranged with the paper’s faculty advisor for Tom to be Co-Chief Editor. My first experience with graft and corruption.

Tom and I ended up bonding over my doing absolutely everything and him doing absolutely nothing.  We are in regular contact to this day.  He still sends me affectionate messages alluding to our time together on the yearbook. “Tom, you effing moron,” I always reply, “it was the newspaper!”

BTW, admissions crime does pay.  Tom did go to Yale and on to a highly prestigious career. Presumably all based on his faux credential of being Co-Chief Editor of the Green Lantern.

But back to Dave. What I really want to thank him for is my colonoscopy.  Some years back, my gastro guy recommended one to me and, noting my lack of enthusiasm, proceeded to hand me Dave’s hilarious column on the subject from a stack on his desk. So in awe was the gastro that I had actually gone to high school with the guy who had written the Definitively Funny Essay on Colonoscopies that he lost all interest in discussing my large intestine, as astonishing as that may seem. Still, I like to think that on the day of the procedure, my colon got deferential, if not reverential, treatment because of Dave. 

Interesting, my next colonoscopy eight years later, when I didn’t mention Dave, was a disaster. I therefore recommend that people tell their gastroenterologist that they went to high school with Dave Barry whether they did or not.

OK, just warming up!  Coming weeks: More Pleasantville memories!

Pleasantville High School, June, 2015

Monday, September 2, 2019

Home Alone

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published September 4, 2019] ©2019

While I feel that my engineer husband, Olof, and I are hugely compatible, the Venn diagram of our marriage often doesn’t have a lot of overlapping travel circles.  I wrote previously about a trip he took last year with four fellow-physics-major college roommates that was basically a geek fest tour of the Pacific Northwest.  They took in the Boeing factory, then Reactor B, and apparently got positively misty-eyed at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Hanford.  The only people who had more fun than they did were their wives who didn't have to go. 

Another trip on Olof’s bucket list has been the annual air show (AirVenture) in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. A former Air Force pilot, Olof loves all things aviation.  Some months ago, Olof and two local friends devised a plan to take the train (Olof loves long-distance train travel as well) across the country to Chicago and drive up to Oshkosh for the festivities.  The air show itself actually sounded pretty cool to me but three days in a train across the Midwest was about two and a half days more than I was enthused about.  I’ve driven it.  A little bit of prairie goes a long way in my view. 

It amazes me that you can actually get Wi-Fi much of the time on a train even in long stretches through Nebraska, so we were able to talk regularly. I think Wi-Fi would have really improved the trip for all those folks who trekked across the country in covered wagons. Probably a lot less “are we there yet?” whining from the pioneer kids. And don’t even get me going on how it could have helped the Donners.

I’ve written before about how Olof has always been underwhelmed with my kitchen cleanup standards which, seriously, are not that bad. Since he retired, he’s been the official dishwasher. He even sweeps the kitchen floor every single night to get the five crumbs the dog didn’t get to first.  Why one would want to spend one’s golden years sweeping is beyond me.

But when he’s traveling, he enjoys engaging me in affectionate if savage banter about how the household is faring without him. I don’t usually do a whole lot of cooking (translation: none) while Olof is gone which really cuts down on dishes.  If I may say so, I’ve done a whole more dishes in my lifetime than he has and frankly, I’m over them.  And if they accumulate in the sink for a few days, I can live with it.  It’s my own version of the Law of the Conservation of Energy.  I conserve energy by not doing it. 

I still have an email exchange from Olof’s trip last year.  I had texted Olof a photo of the kitchen with nothing on the counters.

Inga: This is a quiz. What’s wrong with this picture?
Olof: You’ve eaten out every single meal?
Inga: No, I ran the dishwasher! 
Olof: You know how?
Inga: Ooooo, I never knew you had this vicious side when I married you! 
Olof: I figured you’d just open the dishwasher and let Lily lick the dishes.
Inga:  Dang! You’ve discovered my secret. I usually let her lick the counters when she’s done. Oops! Shouldn’t have said that!

I do have to say that Lily was distressed to have her usual routine disrupted, and Olof was concerned on her behalf.  He was especially concerned about Lily not getting her usual 6:45 a.m. walk, their daily ritual. Sure enough, while Olof was gone, at precisely 6:45 a.m. (still the night before, in my view), she’d be batting my head with her paw breathing doggy breath in my face.  “Time to get up! Let’s go for a walk!” Fortunately, I only needed to get up, open the back door to the patio and point Lily in the direction of the back yard to fulfill any pressing early morning needs she may have. I texted Olof a photo of Lily plodding out to the backyard and hash tagged it #self service.  He texted back: “So sad! And hungry too!” He tacked on a teary emoji.  Let me be clear that this dog was well fed and exercised in Olof’s absence.  She just didn’t get it on his timetable.

Thunderstorms in the Mid-West caused the train to arrive in Chicago 13 hours late, which is even worse than our typical experience on United. So after three days on the train, the guys were fairly glad to finally get off and drive to Oshkosh.  One of the chief attractions for Olof at the air show was the opportunity to ride on vintage planes, including the Ford Tri-Motor of which only eight airworthy aircraft still exist.  I have to say it sounded really cool. But I have to sign off now. He’s coming home tomorrow and I have ten days’ worth of dishes to do. 

 Olof and friends riding Ford Tri-Motor

#Self service, 6:45 a.m. 

Monday, August 26, 2019

Letting No Good Deed Go Unpunished (Part II)

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published August 28, 2019] ©2019

Last week I wrote about helping my neighbors rescue a young cat that had planted itself outside their sliding glass doors and meowed piteously for two days.  They already had a cat and didn’t want another one, but compassionate pet owners that they are, they did make a bed for it on their patio that night, and gave it some dinner. The cat allowed them to pet it and clearly seemed to be asking them to take it in.  Fearing leaving it out a second night given coyote sightings in the neighborhood, they decided to bring it to the Humane Society the next afternoon.

But the cat was spooked by the sight of their cat carrier and fled into my yard, where my efforts to sneak it in to a back bedroom were met with an encounter of the worst kind with 19 pounds of angry white fluff (our bichon-poodle mix). Lily tried to eat the cat who responded by sinking its exceedingly sharp fangs into my hands seven times before I concluded, OK, I get it, you want to fend for yourself.  Lily only has three teeth but they can be used for harm.

Since there was no history on the animal and no tag or chip, the animal had to be quarantined for ten days before being evaluated for the adoption pool, especially given all the bites. I assured the Humane Society that the cat had merely been defending itself from our Cujo-wannabe dog.  

Just a few weeks ago I wrote a column about people not tagging and chipping their dogs and cats.  It would make it so easy for me and my many animal-loving neighbors to get them quickly back to their owners when they escape their homes or yards. 

One of the focuses of my column last week was my engineer husband’s calculation of my odds of infection if cat bites have a 40% risk and I had sustained seven. Ask an engineer a question and you will get a full report. Fortunately, all my bites healed with aggressive home care.

The Humane Society did indeed call me (I was genuinely impressed) after 10 days of cat quarantine to report that since the cat and I were both still topside, it would likely be put up for adoption.

As I was taking a walk several days later, imagine my surprise to see a newly-posted flier for a cat that I knew instantly was The Cat. I’d know those teeth anywhere.  OK, the photo didn’t show teeth but the markings and coloring were very distinctive. 

But the woman who answered the number on the flier insisted that the kitty we had rescued two weeks earlier couldn't possibly be hers because her pet sitter, who was caring for the cat during the two weeks that she and her family had just been away on vacation, had insisted their cat had only been missing "a few days."  I’m thinking the pet sitter is a lying weasel.  The cat showed up at my neighbors’ the day after this family left town. And it was hungry.

I gave her the Humane Society intake number and reiterated I was really sure from the cat's distinctive markings that this was her cat. I even texted her photos I'd taken of it.  I also mentioned that the cat had gone into the adoption pool four days earlier so they should get down there quickly since it was a young, very sweet cat. 

The next day, I got a brief text message from her that they'd gone to the Humane Society that morning and it was indeed their cat, and that her kids were thrilled. She never asked my name or gave me hers. 

Did I mention the flier had offered a reward? Not a word from her about it. I'd never take a reward for returning someone's pet or phone or wallet to them. But I would have asked that she donate the money to the Humane Society who had just spent two weeks caring for this kitty, medically and behaviorally assessing it, and keeping it under quarantine for ten days. Never mind that my neighbors devoted most of their weekend two weeks earlier to caring for the cat and driving it down to the Humane Society, not known for their speedy intakes. I texted this lady the neighbor’s names so she could thank them. She didn’t. (I never mentioned the bites to the cat’s owner since they were my fault.) 

We’re truly glad the cat is home safe, that it didn’t get eaten by a coyote or squashed by fast-moving traffic.  But seriously folks.  All it would have taken was for a tag with a phone number or a scannable chip for this to have been resolved in ten minutes. Are you listening?  Alas, don’t think so.

 How is this not their cat? 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Letting No Good Deed Go Unpunished, Part I

[Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published August 21, 2019] ©2019

I’ve written recently at how dismaying it is to see so many dogs and cats loose in my neighborhood without  collars and tags – and as it turns out, without chips either. 

A few weeks ago, I kept hearing a cat meowing piteously at my neighbor’s house and queried if their house cat had gotten out by mistake. They texted back that an un-collared cat had shown up and parked itself on their patio furniture clearly wanting food and attention. 

The next day, when the cat was still there and still meowing, they concluded it was lost or abandoned, and not wanting to leave it outside for a second night due to a frightening number of coyote sightings and resultant cat deaths in our neighborhood, decided to take it down to the Humane Society.  Except that as soon as they approached it with the cat carrier, it disappeared through the fence into my yard.  We tried to find it to no avail.

A few hours later I noticed the kitty in my patio. It came right over, allowing me to pick it up.  Clearly someone’s pet and not a feral cat.  I knew our dog was zonked out in the living room so I decided to tiptoe in the house with the cat and put it in my office then text my neighbors to come over with the cat carrier.

Great plan. Utterly failed execution. 

I had barely closed the back door behind me when our 19-pound bichon-poodle mix, Lily, woke out of the Sleep of the Canine Dead sensing an intruder in her midst and came charging into the room. I didn’t want to drop the cat right in front of Lily who, despite only having three remaining teeth, seemed determined to use them for harm.  The cat, terrified, alerted me to her wish to be released by sinking her razor-sharp incisors into my hand, then repeating this six more times until I finally got the message.

Lily and the kitty chased each other around the house until I was finally able to corral Lily in a bedroom.  My wonderful neighbors came with the cat carrier and lots of Neosporin and took the cat down to the Humane Society. The Humane Society said they would be putting the cat in quarantine for 10 days, for both my and their other cats’ protection. I or my estate was to call them if I succumbed from feline-related afflictions before then.  (OK, that wasn’t exactly the way they put it.)

Searching the internet, I learned that cat bites have a 40% chance of infection and tend to be far more serious than dog bites.  I decided that at the slightest sign of infection I would head to Urgent Care but would keep my multitude of wounds well cleaned, slathered with Neosporin, and wrapped in the meantime.

My husband, Olof, was out of town at the air show in Oshkosh. That night, I emailed him:  If a cat bite has a 40% chance of infection, do seven cat bites have a 280% chance?   Shortly thereafter, an reply arrived back entitled in pure Olof engineer-ese:  “Cat Bite Calculation.”

Dear –

You reported earlier that the probability of a cat bite becoming infected was 40% (i.e. 40/100 or 2/5).  Therefore the probability that the bite will NOT become infected is 1 – 2/5, or 3/5. But you didn't have one bite.  You reported 7. 

The probability that two bites won’t become infected is the probability that the second won’t, times the probability that the first won’t, or 3/5 x 3/5 = (3/5)2

The probability that three bites won’t become infected is the probability that the first two didn’t, times the probability that the third didn’t (i.e. (3/5)2 x 3/5 = (3/5)3).

I’m hoping that by now you’re seeing a pattern.  The probability that n bites won’t become infected is (3/5)n; and when n = 7, the reported number of bites you have, the probability is (3/5)7.

(3/5)7 is approximately 2.8%, which is the probability of no infection if the probability of infection of each bite is independent and equal to 40%.  Alas, this means that the probability of getting an infection is 1 - .028, or about 97%.

Fortunately for you, this logic applies only if the chance that one bite will become infected is independent of the chance that any of the others will become infected, which is certainly not the case.  If the cat's mouth is pure, the chance that any will be infected is much much less than 40%, and the chance that none will be much higher than 3%.  Conversely if the cat has a potty mouth, no math in the world will save you.  You're doomed.


[To be continued next week]

The perp

Tuesday, August 6, 2019


[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published August 7, 2019] ©2019

By all accounts, this has been a particularly bad rat year.  The pest control companies, reportedly, are in hog, er, rodent heaven.

Unfortunately for us (at least as far as the rodential population is concerned), we have a prolific orange tree, a rat’s food of choice.  Walking outside in the morning, our brick walkway is littered with hollowed out orange rinds, the remnants of the previous night’s rat-chanalia.   And this, by the way, is one of my biggest issues with them:  how hard would it be for the little slobs to just roll the rinds into the bushes and let them quietly biodegrade?  I’m not an unreasonable person. 

Eating dinner on our patio in the evening last year, Olof and I watched the rats scurrying back and forth along the top of our six-foot wrought-iron pool fence and escaping into the orange tree.  At one point, it occurred to us that it could actually be the same three rats running around in an endless circle just to annoy us while their friends filmed it for rat reality TV. 

Summer is our outdoor entertaining season.  You’re trying to have a classy dinner party and one of your guests says, “Um, I think I just saw a rat.”  It’s tempting to deny it with a breezy “No more wine for you!” but in the end we just had to admit defeat and turn our furry friends into a party game.  “Person who sees the most rats gets an extra dessert!”  After a couple more glasses of wine, everybody kind of got into it. Or they have plenty of rats at their own place. Or maybe they’re just drinking more because they can’t believe they’re at a La Jolla dinner party counting rats.

Over the years, we’ve tried pretty much every rat-ridding tactic out there, including the pricey pest control folks who trap them humanely and maintain that they drive the rats out to the country and let them go. They actually say this with a straight face.  We’ve also used the finger-breaking steel spring traps and finally moved to the inhumane rat poison that we use now.  I admit that on the Judgment day, there will be a lot of beady-eyed creatures squeaking “Yes, that’s her!”  But I did ask them nicely to go away.

In a previous Bad Rat Year (a term that will never cross the lips of the La Jolla Chamber of Commerce), I was on a first name basis with the Vector Control folks who taught me how to fill the centers of 18-inch-long 4-inch diameter sections of PVC pipe with rat poison (so the neighborhood cats can’t get to it), and secret them around the yard. 

But in recent years this has become problematical in itself.  We are frequently visited by tiny inquisitive grandchildren, who, just like rats, would be attracted to shiny blue pellets. Ditto for our dog, Lily. 

Lily, self-appointed Vanquisher of the Furry Peril, likes to hang out near the orange tree and bark at rats scurrying along the pool fence.  Alas, it doesn’t actually get rid of them, but it’s very entertaining to watch.

We’d really like to be more humane in our e-rat-ication efforts but there would not be enough alcohol on the planet to make up for spending our weekends driving rats out into the country.  Besides, what else would we do with them?  (Well, there IS that one neighbor…) 

Still, the rat situation got so totally out of hand that last year we removed all 800+ oranges from the tree and donated them to the orphanage in Tijuana. But we really like orange juice from our totally organic oranges.  Surely there was some way we could work this out with the local rodential population? 

This past year, our new lawn guy suggested putting metal sheeting around the base of the orange tree. No one had ever suggested this to us before.  Not aesthetic for sure, but it makes it harder for the little varmints to get up there.

Harder, but not impossible.  They could jump from the top of the wrought iron pool fence a distance of about a foot onto the tree.  Jumping back to the fence might be more problematic but that’s assuming rats have sequential logic.  Our lawn guy trimmed the tree back to require them to be Olympic-class long jumpers.

In order to assess our success, we posted a chart on our refrigerator documenting the dramatically lessening numbers of hollowed-out orange rinds on the bricks each morning.  It’s all very scientific.  Fewer rinds, fewer rats.  Unless, of course, they’re hiding the rinds just to toy with us.  We wouldn’t put it past them.

So this year, we’re actually having orange juice for breakfast instead of staring at our orange-less tree.  Sorry, rodentials, but you’re just going to have to find new real estate.

 It's actually amazing how well this works

The least the little slobs could do is roll the
chewed out rinds into the bushes!

Monday, July 29, 2019

Changing Sides Of The Bed

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published July 31, 2019] ©2019

After thirty-two years, Olof and I have changed sides of our bed. The result is that whenever we go to turn on a bedside light or reach for our phones in the dark, we end up thwacking the other one in the head.  Who knew that right and left bedded-ness, like right and left handedness, is such an ingrained trait?

Seriously, somebody could get injured here. There are, of course, those people who might say, “um, so have you ever considered changing back again?” 

Nope! I’ve lived in my house for 46 years now, purchased by my first husband and me in 1973.  For the first 43 years, it always seemed like there were two hot weeks in August which could be easily tolerated by turning on our ceiling fan at night.  But the summer and fall of 2016 seemed to go on forever, and 2017 and then 2018 were even worse. Even adding some standing column fans, we were just baking in our bedroom.  Was extended excessive heat now going to be the weather pattern?

I confess that during the summer of 2018, Olof and I began suffering from severe AC Envy.  Our lovely neighbors and dear friends had finally finished a grueling six-months-turned-two-year remodel that left them suffering from PTSD and us as fluent Spanish speakers after two solid years of listening to the Tijuana radio station.  We were thrilled to think that there would be silence again, that we’d be able to hear birds chirp instead of skill saws and jack hammers. 

So imagine our surprise when all the construction workers had finally gone away, the Contractor From Hell had decamped, and our traumatized neighbors had moved into their home, that we began hearing what sounded like a jet engine.  What could this be? 

And then it hit me: it was an air conditioner. And sure enough, peering over our fence, there it was, right under our windows: a four-by-four by-four foot HVAC unit.  In their hermetically-sealed home, they couldn’t hear it.  But we sure could.

Let me just say that this was not their fault. It was their contractor’s fault. It’s one thing to suffer through a neighbor’s remodel project.  You know it’s time limited. And in our case, we got to acquire a foreign language.  But an air conditioner is forever.

I thought about asking them to build an enclosure around it.  This would hopefully help block the noise but also give me a place to kidnap and incarcerate the contractor who knew perfectly well what a bad placement this was but didn’t care. I envisioned him slowly perishing of hunger and thirst and decibility. It gave me great pleasure.

I will confess, however, that as the summer progressed, the air conditioner bothered me less and less. Most of the time it was just background noise. But it reminded me constantly that inside that beautiful new house, our neighbors were blissfully cool, while we were not. 

I finally said to Olof last fall that before summer of 2019, we needed to have a window air conditioning unit in our bedroom. 

Olof couldn’t help but observe that while we both found our bedroom unbearably hot, I was even more impacted by it than he.  So it made more sense for me to be on the side of the bed (currently his) that was closer to the window and would get the most benefit from the unit.  By the time I was cooled, he’d be a Swede-sicle. (Actually, he’s German but that doesn’t work as well semantically.) 

So after the handyman came and wrestled the unit into the window, Olof set about swapping our reading lights (he likes LED reading lights, I like incandescent) and other bedside accoutrements (my books, his e-reader.)

I have to say that both of us were genuinely surprised at how truly disorienting it was to be sleeping on the other side of the bed than we’re used to.  I guess there’s a certain amount of muscle memory built up over time that allows one to be three-quarters asleep but reach over in the dark and automatically find a lamp switch without knocking the thing over.  The question is: how long is it going to take the other arm to get with the new program? 

But if we found it disorienting, our dog, Lily, was truly distressed.  She sleeps in our bed at night and has marked out her sleeping space based on Olof’s being nine inches taller than I am.  If she wants any foot space on the bed, she’s had to change sides too.  And let me tell you, she is not happy about it. 

Now that we have an actual air conditioner in our bedroom, the summer has thus far been unseasonably cool.  Life just works like that.  But hopefully we can survive to Thanksgiving without either of us giving the other a concussion.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Family Secrets

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published July 24, 2019] ©2019

It’s just getting so hard to keep a secret these days. 

I never thought of my family as having any deep dark secrets until 1981 when my mother’s brother came down to see me and my widowed father who was visiting. After a repast that might have included an excess of adult beverages, he mentioned a daughter Susan.  This was the first Dad and I had ever heard of her and I was 34 years old. 

Upon our persistent inquiry, my uncle maintained she was the product of a “brief war time marriage” which I subsequently discovered had actually been for ten years, and that Susan was born in 1947. I couldn’t believe I’d been deprived of a cousin for all these years.

The reason he could get away with it, of course, is that he lived on the West Coast, we on the East Coast, and he always visited us. Long-distance phone calls in that era were prohibitive. Just as well he fessed up when he did. Although she is now deceased, Susan’s sons have popped up as relatives on

I grew up as a blue-eyed blond in family with brown-eyed brunette parents and siblings.  When we met new people, my mother endured a lot of “Oh, is she yours?’ queries about me, and not a few milkman jokes. My mother had three children in three years before becoming one of the world’s foremost proponents of birth control so I would have been genuinely impressed if she’d had the energy to get it on with the milkman while caring for my three-month-old brother. Still, I confess to a certain relief when clearly matched my sister and me as siblings. 

Which leads me back to my initial statement: how truly hard it is to keep secrets anymore. Between my mother’s death at 54 and my father’s remarriage ten years later to Fang (not her real name), Dad underwent surgery for cancer. This absolutely precluded any possibility for further offspring. Fang, aware of this, was 30 and had made it clear she wished children. Now, I was already an adoptive parent of Rory, and I knew plenty of people who had availed themselves of AID (Artificial Insemination by Donor) so these seemed reasonable possibilities.  But Fang maintained they couldn’t be married in her lifelong church unless they were able to procreate.

Of course, they did, in fact, require the services of a sperm donor facility, and on my 36th birthday, Gwennie was born.  The official story was that Gwennie was a “miracle of God” even if it rivaled the virgin birth.  Publicly, I was willing to go along with it but Fang lost no opportunity to constantly point out to my siblings and me, “she looks so much like her daddy!” We’d shoot each other looks like, “We’re sure she does.  It just doesn’t happen to be our father.”

From the get-go, Fang couldn’t bear that Dad had previous children (all older than she) and wouldn’t even acknowledge his four grandsons who retaliated by drawing pubic hair on Gwennie’s Barbie doll (an incident I still feel was totally overblown). Sadly, Dad’s cancer returned and he died in 1992 when Gwennie was eight. It was radio silence from them thereafter. I was happy to note on Google that Gwennie seems to have made a good life for herself despite her inauspicious beginnings in Fang’s toxic uterus.

I sincerely hoped that Fang would at some point fess up to Gwennie that our medical history was not hers. Did she? I just wish they hadn’t put so much shame on, and religious constraints about, using AID. Kids are fine with what they know from the start, as my older son Rory is about his adoption.  It’s the “tangled webs” that get you.

So fast forward to 2019,, and Miracles 3.0. Gwennie is now 36. Has she signed on to Ancestry or 23andme? If so, did she find her expected two first cousins on her mother’s side but probably a few dozen half-siblings (none of them us) on her genetic father’s side?  Is the jig up? (She’s not learning it here; they live 3,000 miles away, I’ve had no contact in 27 years, and I write under a pseudonym.) 

I also remembered that when my first husband was in medical school in the 60’s that he mentioned that selling sperm to the institution’s fertility clinic was a not uncommon way to make money. Did he ever do it? When my younger son Henry signed up for one of the DNA services, might he discover a bunch of half siblings himself? (Fortunately, he didn’t.)

Meanwhile, I asked Rory if he wanted a DNA kit for Christmas this last year.  I’ve written before about our ultimately-successful search to find his biological mother ten years ago. His father’s history is more vague.  His reply: “Heck no.  I’ve got enough problems with the relatives I already have.”

Monday, July 8, 2019

An engineer makes sourdough

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published July 10, 2019] ©2019

There is nothing more fun for me than to watch my engineer husband, Olof, develop a passion for a project.  Six years ago, I won a first place Press Club award for a column entitled “How an engineer makes cookies.”  My husband, who had never baked anything in his life, decided to replicate the family Christmas cookie recipes from his childhood which were a tad vague on the details and did not indicate yields.  Olof wanted to make enough to send to family and to give to neighbors.

I was utterly dazzled watching this entire production, which involved five spreadsheets, multiple flow charts, and headings like “Integration of Components.”  The nice thing about not having baked before is that you’re not constrained by actual baking terms.

The yield problem was solved with astonishing accuracy by what Olof referred to as “a simple application of undergraduate quantitative analysis.” Who knew a degree in nuclear physics could have such practical applications?

In recent months, Olof became interested in making sourdough bread, but more specifically in creating the sourdough starter.  Of course, one can buy it off the internet, or even get it from a fellow baker who makes sourdough bread, but where would be the fun in that?  For centuries, sourdough starter was handed down from one generation to the next. Even the early settlers to California hauled it all the way across the country in covered wagons. 

Einstein didn’t put as much energy into developing the theory of relativity as Olof did watching sourdough starter videos.  You would be amazed at how many You Tube videos there are on this subject. I can assure you that Olof has seen them all.

 Of course, guys in general, and engineers in particular, are always looking for excuses to buy “toys”, for example the Ferrari of stand mixers he required for the cookie caper a few years back. (Fortunately, he hasn’t been all that into the meat grinder attachment.)  The sourdough project, however, has required the acquisition of such accoutrements as bannetons (rattan baskets for proofing bread), bread lame (dough cutting tool), precision food scale to measure everything in grams, and even a special heating pad meant for seedlings that Olof uses to control the heat under the starter jars.  (Someone had one on their video so Olof had to have one too.) I predicted it would be the most time-consuming and most expensive loaf of sourdough bread in history. 

Given that there were multiple recipes for sourdough starter, Olof decided it would be necessary to try several and then compare the final results when they were in bread form. One starter had a base of honey, raisins, water and sugar.  Another of pineapple juice.  Every jar is carefully labeled including tare (the weight of the jar itself).  The different starters have to be “fed” at precision schedules with flour and water.  Dinner has been preempted on numerous occasions in favor of feeding the starters rather than ourselves.

Lest there be any confusion as to which recipes prevailed, Olof has created notebooks tracking every single teeny step-let in the creation of each of his starters. They read like the logbooks on the Starship Enterprise. Some excerpts: 

Third Bake Attempt: 24-26 June:  SO [sourdough] traditional loaf and Buzzby Bakes ciabatta (CB)

24 Jun  2110: Fed raisin starter for use with ciabatta dough.

25 Jun  1011: Started SO dough mix.  SO dough mixed with 40gm whole wheat and 330gm bread flour.  Next: Rest till 1040

1040: Mixed ciabatta dough in green bowl.

10:50:  Mix complete.  Next: Autolyse until 1150.

1055: SO dough salt added + 20gm water.  Bulk ferment started,  Next stretch and fold at 1120.

1125: SO dough stretch and fold #1 complete. Next: stretch and fold at 1155.

1205: CB dough ingredients mixed.  Bulk fermentation starts. 

26 Jun 0700: Dough out of refrigerator

0900: Parchment paper cut

0920: Oven and Dutch oven preheating to 480 deg.

1030: CB rolls shaped and resting on parchment paper at 1100.

2:20: CB out and cooling. Maybe over stretched. Too thin in middle and fat at the ends.

While Olof has now done three full bakings of sourdough boules and one of ciabattas, he still has not been able to achieve the nice big bubble holes in the bread that would indicate a truly primo loaf of sourdough.  He is still assessing why. Did he overwork the dough? Was the starter not active enough? Did the flour not absorb the water as well as it should have?  Inquiring minds are definitely going to find out. 

Let me just say that the taste is amazing, regardless. It definitely has a denser more rustic consistency than the light fluffy sourdoughs you buy in the store.  Our refrigerator will likely have a permanent section for sourdough starter jars.

Not to ruin the surprise, but I think everyone in the family can guess what they’re getting for Christmas. 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Curing Techno Addiction

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published July 3, 2019] ©2019

Hardly a day goes by that some on-line platform or even print media doesn’t publish an article about how to deal with digital addiction.  Apparently it now afflicts tens of millions of people who literally are unable to wrest themselves from constant infusions of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, texting, email, and something called streaming. 

Nobody should make fun of other people’s addictions. I have long admitted to a serious addiction to chocolate and have the thighs to prove it.   But no one actually wrenches chocolate out of my hands (even if maybe they should). So I’m trying to be tolerant of the national techno addiction despite the fact that I (mostly) can’t understand the appeal of digital applications in the first place.  And it’s not just because Siri and I have always had a really contentious relationship. 

I say “mostly” because I will confess to following one person on Instagram – my daughter-in-law.  And that is because she posts grandchildren photos and short videos on it.  This is like grandma crack. 

And OK, I love the FaceTime feature on my phone for this reason as well.  My four-year-old grandson will sometimes FaceTime me eight times in a single day.  I’m not sure that he’s all that excited about talking to me but he loves being able to push the FaceTime app on his mom’s phone and then selecting my name or picture.  The fact that I instantly appear is immediately reinforcing, even if his main goal is to hang up and do it again.

But Twitter?  I just don’t get Twitter. Does anyone ever say anything nice on this app? All that bandwidth just to hurl around misspelled vitriol.

I guess that’s my biggest complaint about it all this digitality: it’s just so much noise.  As soon as you order something on-line, you’re inundated with daily emails plugging their products even if you specifically unchecked the box about future emails.  As for “Unsubscribe,” it’s amazing how often clicking “Unsubscribe” doesn’t do that.
As much of a techno moron as I am, I’ve developed excellent skills at using NoMoRobo on Spectrum and at blocking calls on my iPhone from those pesky resort sales people who seem to have at least 400 numbers. Yet I still get inundated with unwanted calls and emails. 

Of course, a lot of the failure to understand digital appeal is a generational thing.  I personally need the comforting crinkle of a newspaper, and the tactile satisfaction of actually turning a page in a book.  I never have to recharge the pile of books on my bedside.  (OK, I do feel bad about the trees.) 

I’m truly dreading the presidential election next year since the robocall rules don’t apply. In preparation for the 2016 election, I changed my affiliation from Democrat to “Decline to State” but was unable to convince Olof to formally ditch the Republicans even though he hasn’t voted for them in years. He still has hope they will return to what he thinks is their former glory. (Hah!) So, in retaliation, I love to play with all the relentless Republican fundraisers who think they’re calling a friendly number only to get me.  “Do you think that marriage should be between one man and one woman?” they’ll query when I pick up the phone. “HELL NO!” I’ll yell before summarily disconnecting.  It’s so satisfying.

That people, even whole families, are now resorting to solutions like “digital Sabbaths” or even “digital detox” is an alarming symptom.  I could help them by having them come to my house where phones are strictly forbidden at the table every day of the week. (I give people on the transplant list a pass.)

I think the phrase that perfectly sums up digital addiction is the ubiquitous “I have to take this” (call).  No, you really don’t.  There’s this amazing modern invention called “voice mail” and it is particularly suited to, say, the symphony, a doctor’s office, and yes, lunch with your formerly-adoring friends. 

I think the most heartbreaking symptom of techno-addiction I see is Moms walking their kids home from school with the child trailing ten feet behind while Mom scrolls on her phone.  It’s all I can do not to say something. Like, YOU HAD ALL DAY! PLEASE TALK TO YOUR KID!

The author Jenny Odell writes in her new book, “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy” that there is nothing harder to do than nothing.  Once again, it must be a generational thing. And a cultural thing too.  The Italians have long mastered “L’arte di non fare niente” (the art of doing nothing.)  But definitely not a younger, American thing.

Personally, I can’t understand why anyone wants to live glued to an electronic device.  There’s no doubt that it really is a societal addiction.

But just so we’re clear:  Leave my chocolate alone.

Monday, June 24, 2019

For The Love Of Pets

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published June 26, 2019] ©2019

For the 12 years I was a divorced working parent, we lived paycheck to paycheck.  It was a good thing that my younger son was allergic to animal dander because we could never have afforded a dog or cat, even to feed them, never mind shots or grooming or God forbid, if the animal got sick.  Instead we had Dinky, a cockatiel.

Birds tend to be low cost pets – just a cage, seed, some toys. Dinky was truly a member of the family, feeding our souls as we all healed from the trauma of divorce. While he had a cage, he was rarely in it unless we weren’t home, instead riding around on someone’s shoulder or head.  He recognized our voices, our footsteps coming up the walk, and the sound of my car engine.  He even ate at the table with us, albeit a little nervously when poultry was served.  We were all hugely attached to this little bird who had so much personality and brought us all so much daily joy.

It was Rory who first noticed that Dinky was listless and not eating, sitting on his perch fluffing up his feathers. I had yet to learn that birds are really hard to save; they have to look good even if they’re ailing to survive in the wild. By the time they look bad, they’re pretty much on their way out.  The kids were absolutely weepy.  (I was too.)  Dinky won’t die, will he Mom? Can we take him to the birdie doctor? 

Few vets treat birds so I was finally referred to a specialty veterinary hospital.  They said that to do diagnostics and treat Dinky would cost $600 up front, regardless of the outcome.  I was distraught.  When you take home $1,500 a month, $600 means a lot of months of spaghetti. I had always been careful not to run up credit card debt. The only alternative was to take Dinky home and pray for a miracle.

From the vet’s office, I called Olof in San Jose with my phone card. We were dating then, in a commuter relationship.  As he listened compassionately, I sobbed into the phone about how this really wasn’t even a choice given my financial situation.  Finally, he said gently, “I think you know what you need to do.”  I blubbered to the affirmative. Not that I did it. Three minutes later I had handed over my credit card for the $600, and the bird, after some pricey blood tests, died in the x-ray machine an hour later.

Not long ago, my younger son Henry, now 39, said, “Do I remember that we ate a lot of spaghetti?” And I replied, “Yeah.  The bird died.” 

The reality is that pets are expensive.  No one ever adopts an animal thinking that they will develop a catastrophic medical condition. 

People might say, “well, you should have gotten medical insurance for your dog or cat.”  Pet insurance isn’t all that cheap either, and we found with Winston, our much-missed English bulldog, that our pet insurance didn’t cover conditions that were endemic to the breed.  Which in bulldogs is pretty much everything.  Our vet said that during her training they had a bumper sticker that read “Buy a bulldog. Support a vet.”  We were fortunate to be able to cover the $7,000 in medical bills for Winston before he died suddenly of a heart attack in our living room at the age of eight. 

Fortunately, there is a local organization that helps people who would have to euthanize a pet with a catastrophic medical condition because of an inability to pay.  It’s called FACE (The Foundation for Animal Care and Education.) Over 2,300 pets have been saved through the program since its inception in 2006. This year’s FACE fundraising event, Paws and Pints, sponsored by La Jolla Veterinary Hospital, already took place on June 6 but it’s never too late to donate to this worthy cause (

The FACE program started decades after Dinky who I think was probably unsavable. But the feeling of being unable to save a beloved fur, er, feathered child because of the cost still sticks with me 30-some years later.  I still cry when I think of Dinky.

While medical care for your pet can really add up, here’s something that isn’t expensive:  a collar and tag. At least a few times a month, I encounter an animal – usually a dog, but sometimes a cat, and occasionally even a chicken – who has escaped from its home. A surprising number have no tags. And, when taken to a local vet, aren’t chipped either. (Can you chip a chicken?) Aside from a fear that these poor animals will be hit by cars in our neighborhood’s fast-moving traffic, I’m afraid those anonymous roaming canines will eat the untaggable escapee chickens.

Don’t let this happen. 

Rory and Dinky, 1988

Monday, June 10, 2019

Just Trying To Keep Enough Synapses Firing In Sequence

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published June 12, 2019] ©2019

It’s really easy to put your head in the sand about getting old and decrepit until you start hearing about friends’ parents, and even the friends themselves, requiring 24-hour care.  As in forever. 

So Olof and I decided that maybe we should look into long-term care insurance.  Let me sum up the concept: they hope you pay exorbitant premiums for 20 years then die of a heart attack. 

Olof was out of town when the long-term care people called in response to my application and said they were sending a nurse out for a physical exam, including a cognitive evaluation. 

Uh-oh. I do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day (except Monday; too easy) and read three books a week. But I’m clear that my mind is not as sharp as it once was.  The Light will testify that my proofreading skills have gone to hell.  I mis-use words a lot more.  When I’m writing, I’ll ask myself, “Do I mean ‘propitious’ or “prophetic’?”  I’m not so sure of spelling anymore.  I have to look up grammar rules regularly. 

As we get older, Olof and I are hoping that together, we can maintain one complete brain and one functioning body between us.  Especially one semi-complete long-term memory bank.  We’re always asking each other: What was the name of the actor in… 

What’s scary, however, is that I sometimes temporarily lose a really basic word. 

Inga: “Olof, what’s the word for those things you put on your feet inside your shoes?”

Olof: “Socks?” 

Inga: “Yes! Thanks!”

There was a time when one of us querying the other as to whether they’d remembered to take out the dog or turn down the heat before bed would have suggested a mildly insulting lack of faith in the other’s mental prowess.  But now we’re in total agreement that we have no faith in either our own or the other’s mental prowess.  We’re just trying to keep the dog from peeing on the carpet and the heating bill under control.  We’re grateful for the reminder.

The problem will be when neither of us remembers to either ask or do it.  Or remembers that we even have a dog. Or heat.

Fortunately that day is not here yet. 

But having the long-term health care insurance evaluator come out unnerved me.  I knew I could chug an extra blood pressure pill a few hours before she got there, but what was a “cognitive evaluation” going to actually entail?  If they asked me to count back by 7’s or do a level one (easiest) Sudoku puzzle, I’d be toast. 

I decided to do a little home staging before she came, carelessly strewing around collections of New York Times Saturday crossword puzzles (the really hard ones, NOT the Sunday), a few books in Swedish, an assortment of green teas. I wanted to create a subconscious impression of someone who dwells among the cognitive-scenti, the kind of person for whom an evaluator would say, “Oh, we  obviously don’t need to be testing YOU.”

But she didn’t buy it. The cognitive exam, alas, was even worse than I expected. She told me she was going to tell me ten words and ask me to repeat back as many as I could remember a half hour later.  (Would two be enough?) I explained to the nice lady that I am afflicted with Auditory Processing Disorder (really) and learn better visually. Could I see the words instead? Nope. 

Um, doesn’t this violate the Americans with Disabilities Act?  If people can get more time on their SATs, shouldn’t I be entitled to accommodations on a dementia exam?

After she told me the words, giving me as much time as I needed to try to process them, she chatted it up with me about my current health and level of functioning.  (Inquiring minds want to know: Since when did “toileting” become a verb? Actually, when did it become a word?)

She had been deliberately vague about the costs of the insurance, noting that it would greatly depend on what type of coverage I might choose, and for how long I might want it.  Apparently, long term care can be pretty short term.  When I balked at the cost, she handed me a price sheet showing all the local memory care facilities costing anywhere from $8,000-$12,000 a MONTH.  And no, Medicare doesn’t pay. 

Against all odds, I actually was able to come up with nine of the ten words after the required 30-minute lag. Years ago, I learned that if I can’t write something down, I project it up on a pretend screen in front of me so I can see it. 

By the way, the words were chimney, salt, button, train, harp, meadow, finger, flower, book, and rug.  (The one I couldn’t remember was meadow.) 

Write these down.  You may get the same lady. 

I did a little home staging before the cognitive evaluator
came hoping she would conclude I was not a person in 
need of testing.  (She didn't buy it.)