Sunday, July 31, 2022

It's For The Birds

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published August 1, 2022] ©2022

Over the four decades I’ve lived in my house, we’ve noticed sudden influxes and exoduses of bird populations. One was even human-induced. For Henry’s fourth birthday, I hid five pounds of peanuts in the shell (that’s a lot of peanuts) around our front yard as one of the game activities. Whoever found the most got a prize.

The kids lost interest about three peanuts and two nanoseconds later.

But it turns out that blue jays love peanuts in the shell.  So for at least the next decade we probably had the most flourishing blue jay colony in North America. They’d even come up to Olof on our patio table in the morning as he was reading the paper and eat cracker bits out of his hand. 

And then one season they just disappeared.  I tried “reseeding” the yard with more peanuts but just got rats, who, it turns out, like peanuts too. Actually, we’ve discovered that rats like pretty much everything.

But as the blue jays disappeared, they seemed to be replaced by crows.  (I’m guessing there is a correlation.)  Given that we have plenty of crows, I decided to learn a little about them, hoping to find some redeeming habits other than their using our brick walkways and the roofs of our cars - and even our heads - as target practice. 

The first question anyone asks about crows is whether they’re actually ravens which have more cachet.  This is, after all, La Jolla. The Jewel is not a town that has crows and rats. We prefer to think of ourselves as a community with ravens and…no rats.  Sorry on both counts.

For inquiring minds, here’s how you tell a raven from a crow:  A crow’s tail is shaped like a fan while the raven’s tail is wedge-shaped, not that I’ve ever been able to get any of them to slow down long enough to tell.  The big giveaways are that the crows travel in groups (as opposed to the ravens in pairs) and are far louder. Far, far louder. At 5 a.m., I’m tempted to stick my head out the back door and yell, “Geesh, you guys!  Do you have any idea what time it is?”

Crows are reported to eat over 1,000 food items including “carrion, fried chicken, hamburgers, Chinese food, French fries and human vomit.”  I confess I was intrigued by the order on this list. Intentional?  In a study by someone who clearly has too much time (or money) on their hands, crows were found to prefer French fries in a McDonald’s bag over those in a brown paper bag.

Crows mate for life but males will cheat.  (Is this sounding familiar?)  It’s actually pretty amazing considering that male crows have no penis. The male crow’s sperm is transferred from their cloaca (a cavity at the end of the digestive tract) to the female's cloaca in an act that takes all of 15 seconds. Definitely short on the foreplay. 

Once crows have mated, they no longer demonstrate courtship displays.  Is that sounding familiar too? What's the point of bringing her a nice piece of cow dung if she's already committed?

If the male crow is non-fatally injured, his mate won't leave him although reproduction apparently drops waaaay down. I'm thinking it would be hard to notice the difference if all you ever got was 15 seconds to begin with.  Female crows seem to have very low expectations. 

Moving right along, the expression “eat crow” – i.e., having to admit to a humiliating mistake – suggests that crows themselves are not good eats. Others say they taste like chicken.  (Joke.) Regardless, given that they are scavengers, there is an inherent aversion to essentially eating what the crows themselves have eaten.  One website noted that one crow "will feed two people who don't know what they're eating or 12 people who do." 

The two mallard ducks, Quick and Quack, who show up every year to poop in our pool, don't seem to be intimidated by the crows. Nor do the wild parrots who like to mooch a free lunch off our songbird feeders.

 Seagulls, of course, have been perennials but this year we noticed a different and potentially disturbing behavior.  Usually they stick to the coast but this year, we’ve seen groups of five or six of them circling various neighbor’s houses in frenzied squawking for more than an hour. Sometimes even after dark. What is attracting them to leave all those tourist-generated pepperoni pizza crusts that are usually the mainstay of their existence? 

I texted my next-door neighbor the next morning.  Did they by any chance leave a barracuda on their back patio?  Maybe a pizza? A body?  (If you live next door to me, you get these kinds of emails.) The gulls were obviously very fixated on something.  Thus far it remains a mystery, which, since I have no life, I intend to solve.

Now, if only the crows and sea gulls would eat rats…


Sunday, July 24, 2022

They're Really Not Sorry For Any Inconvenience

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published July 25, 2022] ©2022

“We regret any inconvenience this may have caused you” seems to have become the national motto.  If “packed flat for easy assembly” and “it’s a simple outpatient procedure” are the two scariest phrases in the English language, the inconvenience line is definitely the most annoying.

Of course, what the multitude of businesses and travel-related companies actually mean is “we’re well aware our service has been abysmal, but we’re planning on doing a lot more of the same. Sorry not sorry!”

Everybody I know has had a disastrous travel experience.  Flights cancelled. The rescheduled- cancelled flight cancelled.  Cruises cancelled. Cruises not cancelled but all the shore excursions cancelled and shipboard service and amenities abysmal.

Not only no refunds but massive additional expense. And a boatload of stress.

Meanwhile:  inquiring minds want to know:  where are all those people who used to work in the travel industry?  Has everyone become a TikTok influencer? Where did everybody go?

Two places they didn’t go were the California Franchise Tax Board, and the Social Security Administration. There appear to be nobody home in either place.  Got a problem?  It is never going to be fixed.

In May, I chronicled the exasperating – and still nowhere near resolved – saga of our payment to the Franchise Tax Board (FTB) for our 2021 taxes.  Although we paid a month early, the check never cleared by the deadline, and telephone efforts to contact them were met with a disconnect after three-plus hours on hold. Their automated line said no payment received.

As April 18 approached, we finally cancelled payment on the check (PSA: never ever cancel a check to a government agency), and paid again with a direct transfer from our checking account. Although we subsequently learned that the FTB had received our check on March 15, they didn’t actually process it and credit it to us until 45 days later- well past the deadline.

Since there are absolutely no humans home at the FTB, their computers (presumably early Apple Macs) subsequently decided that we had paid twice, so they sent us a refund check for the second payment.  Then, however, their computers caught up with the fact that there was a stop payment on the first check. Since they’d refunded the second payment, as far as they were concerned, we hadn’t paid at all. They began piling on late fees and penalties, along with deadbeat notices.

Meanwhile, we had returned their refund check according to their specific instructions to something called the Returned Warrant Desk, which we were later informed takes three to four months to process. No way to stop penalties until then.

Meanwhile, the My FTB account that we had finally managed to set up in late April has now notified us that our password is already expiring but when we tried to change it, locked us out.

An interesting tidbit about the FTB’s customer service line:  You finally get down to “you are number 6 in line.”  Then five minutes later, it’s “you are number 7 in line.”  Wah????? Who cut in?

Apparently, once the Returned Warrants Desk gets around to recording our returned refund check, our account, that we cannot access, will hopefully show we did pay our 2021 taxes and we can try to deal with the accrued penalties and fees, never mind our status as Tax Deadbeats.  We are sure they will be sorry for any inconvenience this has caused us.

But frankly this saga is mouse nuts (Olof’s favorite phrase) compared to our friend Ingrid’s saga with Social Security, another agency whose employees all seem to have gone on to Better Things. In the ultimate nightmare, Ingrid, whose last name isn’t even common, was declared dead by Medicare. She has no idea how.  They helpfully shared the sad news with Social Security, her banks, her pension provider, and pretty much every financial agency she has ever done business with.  Her bank accounts were frozen and both her Social Security checks and pension stopped coming.

Ingrid has made a pretty much continuous loop to financial institutions and the Social Security Office, supplemented by notarized “I am not dead” letters. Every time she thought she’d rejoined the living, she was re-informed of her demise. 

Let me tell you, it is very very hard to come back from the dead in this country. 

It’s amazing the stress of this situation alone didn’t kill her.  Recently she received a missive from Social Security – curiously sent to the wrong address – that began:

We recently discovered that our records wrongly showed you as deceased.  We are very sorry for any inconvenience this situation may cause you.

Three months of being dead is not “inconvenience.” And the present tense is very alarming here.  Even they aren’t convinced this is over.

“How am I supposed to live?” Ingrid has despaired throughout this nightmare saga.

Fortunately, there seem to be plenty of openings in the cruise industry.



Sunday, July 10, 2022

We're All Wacko In Our Own Way

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published July 11, 2022] ©2022

Reading a story in the paper the other day about various psychiatric diagnoses being lobbed at current and former persons in power, I couldn’t help but concede that the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, hasn’t spared any of us.  We are all diagnoses at this point. In some ways I long for the days when it was okay to be just be wacko. 

Let me be clear that I am not making fun of mental illness, plenty of which runs in my own family.  I myself come from a long line of chronically overwrought people; there’s definitely an anxiety gene there.  There’s a worrisome cluster of hoarders too, a few of whom would be shoo-ins for that A&E show.  Everybody seems to be on some spectrum. 

Several years ago, I wrote about my concern that every TV program I watch was sponsored by anti-depressants.  Did they know something I don’t?  Is preference for these shows diagnostic in itself?  Is there, for example, a DSM-5 classification for people who watch TLC?  Something along the lines of “Obsessive Fixation on the Excessively Short, Obese, or Progenitive”?

As a parent, I would never suggest that people not have their child evaluated if they are concerned about the child’s behavior.  But be prepared for a diagnosis.  Both Olof and I became concerned some years ago (our kids were already adults) that every male child on our block seemed to have been diagnosed with ADHD – and most were taking medication for it.  Interacting with these kids on a regular basis, Olof had his own diagnosis: boy.  Most of them reminded him a lot of himself at their age.

Even our lawn mowing guy’s 18-year-old assistant introduced himself with, “I’m ADHD and bipolar.” But that’s one case that I would absolutely not argue.  This kid’s style was to turn up his iPod and kind of get into the Zen of gardening.  Unfortunately, whatever garden he was servicing didn’t appear to be in our galaxy.

There was no DSM category system when we were children but Olof didn’t escape a diagnosis even then.  Hardly an academic ball of fire in his early years, he was deemed an “accelerated non-achiever.”  It was a label that puzzled his parents for years. Did this mean he was gifted but not achieving? Or gifted AT non-achieving?  Regardless, he was not achieving. But somewhere along the way, he managed to up his game and ultimately achieved a degree in nuclear physics from Cal Tech. Sighed his mother (age 93), “If only we could have known.”

In an Abnormal Psychology class many years ago, a classmate queried the professor as to what constitutes a “normal” person.  She replied, “Normal people are those we don’t know well enough to know which ways they aren’t.”  We are all, each in our own unique ways, functionally compromised.

Some years back, a therapist relative who was annoyed by my habit of twirling my hair tried to break me of it by announcing it was “a substitute for masturbation.” 

“Yeah?” I said, twirling faster.

While never embracing being labeled a Follicular Auto-Eroticist, I’ll admit I can think of some new DSM classifications that would apply to me. I am hoping one of these might qualify me for state aid. 

For example, when I think of my total lack of arts and crafts talent (to the dismay of my children when they were in grade school), I definitely suffer from Diorama Deficit Disorder. 

Post-auto accident several years ago, I’m sure I qualify for Freeway Avoidant Syndrome with Mixed High-Speed Surface Street Elements. 

While some people get right back on a horse after falling off, I could definitely be characterized as suffering from Life Aversion Disorder with Equine Metaphoric Phobias. 

My utter inability to embrace technology and my ill-disguised frustration with it would more than justifiably label me as suffering from Severe Techno Disability with Tantrumy Features and Pathological Resistance to Software Upgrades of Any Variety.

At times I wonder if the whole diagnosis thing has gotten out of hand.  If Jesus were to show up for the Second Coming, they’d have him on a 72-hour psych hold before you could say “yeah, and I’m Napoleon.”  There may be a time (is it already here?) when all of our psychiatric diagnosis codes pop up as soon as you input your social security number.

And that, I think, is a real problem:  if a diagnosis is wrong, or, if you’ve been miraculously cured of say, your Equine Avoidant Personality Disorder, how do you ever get rid of it?  Nope, it will live on in some computer forever.

Sometimes I think we should just simplify the system to the three basic categories that seemed to exist in my childhood:

(1) Rarely Attracts Police Attention

(2) Just Doing the Best They Can (Even If Not Very Good)

(3) Bats—t Crazy

For a long time, it worked.


Sunday, July 3, 2022

Inga's All-Time Favorite Quotes - Updated

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published July 4, 2022] ©2022

Over the years, I’ve been collecting favorite quotes – way too many to list here.  I first published this list in March of 2018 but got such a huge response to it that I wanted to run an updated version of it while I am on vacation this week.  As before, some of these quotes seem truly prescient for their time – especially the first four: 

"In America, anybody can be president. That's one of the risks you take."  - Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965)

“The past is a foreign country.  They do things differently there.”  First line of the book “The Go-Between” by L.P. Hartley. (1953)

"The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." - Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

 "You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts." -Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003), and others

“In our judicial system, you are assumed guilty until proven rich or lucky.”  Pundit John Oliver

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.” –William Faulkner

“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” - Thomas Edison

“Most editors are failed writers.  So are most writers.”  –T.S. Eliot

“The older you get, the better you get. Unless you’re a banana.” - Late actress Betty White

“Things always get worse before they get a lot worse” - Lily Tomlin

“The road of life is paved with flat squirrels who couldn’t decide.”  (Unknown)

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."  - Thomas Watson (1874-1956), Chairman of IBM, 1943

“My body isn’t me.  I just live here.”  (Magnet on Inga’s refrigerator)

“A drug is any substance that, when injected in a rat, gives rise to a scientific paper.”  - Darryl Inaba (1984) 

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” – Hanlon’s Razor

 “We never wanted to divorce at the same time.” Reply from friends of Inga’s when asked the secret of their 50-year marriage.

“She buffers herself against parental input.” - Neighbors, referring to their teenage daughter.

“Not having to worry about your hair anymore may be the secret upside of death.”  - Nora Ephron

"Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." -Journalist A.J. Liebling 

A scientist friend who was invited to present at a professional meeting in Jakarta observed to the organizer that the schedule, as set, was not being even remotely followed.  The reply:  "You should think of the schedule more as a first draft of a play that will be given improvisationally.”

“The only way to be reliably sure the hero gets the girl at the end of the story is to be both the hero and the girl.” - Becoming Duchess Goldblatt, A Memoir 

“A closed mouth gathers no feet.”  - Inga’s personal motto, poorly followed.

“What you accept, you teach.”  - Inga’s parents’ motto, well followed.

“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  – George Bernard Shaw

“May you step on Legos in the middle of the night.” - Curse

"I've had a wonderful time, but this wasn't it." - Groucho Marx (1895-1977)

“A lot of people ask me if I were shipwrecked and could only have one book, what would it be?  I always say, ‘How to Build a Boat.’” – Actor Stephen Wright

"I have never killed anyone, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction." - Clarence Darrow (1857-1938)

“After a failure, there’s always someone who wished there was an opportunity they’d missed.” - Lily Tomlin

“All swash and no buckle.”  - variation on “all hat and no cattle”

 "I am not young enough to know everything."  - Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

"We didn't lose the game; we just ran out of time."  - Vince Lombardi

"There's many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." - Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964)

“My brain seems to be working for a different organization now.”  (Friend Julia referring to menopause)

“The wages of sin are death, but after taxes are taken out, it’s just kind of a tired feeling.” – Paula Poundstone.

"Nothing is wrong with California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn't cure." - Mystery writer Ross MacDonald (1915-1983)

“The chief cause of problems is solutions.” – Journalist Eric Sevareid (1912-1992)  

“Be yourself.  Everyone else is already taken.” - Oscar Wilde 

"If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough." - Mario Andretti

"Happiness is good health and a bad memory." - Ingrid Bergman (1917-1982)