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 Ancestry.com..

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 Ancestry.com 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, Ancestry.com, 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.