Sunday, October 29, 2023

A Trip Down Bank Robbery Memory Lane

[Let Inga Tell You, La Jolla Light, published October 30, 2023] 2023 

The downside of living in the same house for decades is that you never do the aggressive culling of your belongings that moving generally requires. But it also gives you the opportunity to serendipitously stumble across memorabilia like this photo from 1978 that evoked a lot of memories, most of which had nothing to do with the subject of the photo itself.

The photo is of a bank robber who held up State Mutual Savings at gun point on La Jolla Boulevard in April of 1978. I was the only customer in the bank at the time and have never been within two feet of a 45-calibre blue steel automatic before or since. And I am very, very glad for that. The FBI gave me a copy of the security camera photo as a souvenir noting that it was a good thing the robber didn't shoot me, as this is not a weapon you want fired at you at close range.

So that's the first memory, of course. Pure terror. As I was transacting with the single teller, the robber burst through the bank door and yelled at everyone to get their heads down as he hurled a bag at the teller to fill with cash. He was screaming at her to hurry up, and she was begging him not to "hurt anyone". Seeing this gun in such proximity to my body being held by someone who seemed so nervous and jittery made me absolutely concur with the teller's entreaties.

In probably a much shorter time than it seemed, the robber was gone. The doors were locked awaiting the FBI. One of the two banker managers sitting at their desks had tripped the alarm. I don't remember how much money the robber got away with. But I do remember that the teller quit that same day.

Of course, one other memory that this photo immediately evokes for me is the IBM Selectric typewriter in the background with which the teller would type in your deposit or withdrawal into your passbook in the pre-online (or even telephone) banking days. In that era, people used to go to the bank a lot to get cash, deposit checks, get travelers checks, etc.

And, in fact, that was what I was there for that day: to get travelers checks for a trip we were to leave on the next day. For those who don t know what those are, or were, they were checks issued by banks in specific denominations on which you signed your name when you bought them, then signed them again when you used them during your travels. The whole idea was not to have to carry a lot of cash. Credit cards weren't nearly in as wide usage then as they are now.

Which leads me to the next memory about that photo. Normally I always had Rory, my then-10-month-old baby, with me when I went to the bank. If I was sitting, I sometimes let him play on the floor next to me with a toy if I had a lot of transactions, or if I were standing, I d be holding him. If he d been with me, he would have crawled over to the bank robber's pant leg and tried to pull himself up, or if I d been holding him, would have tried to reach for the nice shiny gun. I was so incredibly glad he was home with a sitter.

Which brings me to my next memory from this photo. I had the sitter because I was going to meet my physician husband for a quick (and rare) lunch near his office at one of our favorite restaurants on Herschel. He had a tight schedule.

Obviously, no cell phones then. The bank wouldn't let me leave until the FBI had taken my statement. It became rapidly apparent that I was not going to get to the restaurant on time and my husband was already waiting for me. I could just imagine him getting more and more annoyed. He had to be back at his office by 1:00. When the FBI guy was finally done with me, I realized that by the time I used the bank's phone to have my husband's answering service page him, I could just get in my car and be at the restaurant in seven minutes. Because here's an even stronger memory: I d be able to easily park in downtown La Jolla, almost certainly on the same block as the restaurant. Maybe in front.

Should I say that again? Park easily in downtown La Jolla? Not have to allow an extra 15-20 minutes to look for a parking place that could well be four blocks away?

Anyway, I rushed into the restaurant some 40 minutes late, apologizing profusely.

"Where have you been?"  he inquired testily.

And I got to deliver a line both figuratively and literally for the only time in my life:

"I was held up."

Souvenir bank robber photo from security camera


Saturday, October 21, 2023

Making College Essays Fun

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published October 23, 2023] ©2023 

If it’s fall, it’s time for pumpkin spice overload, an invasion of spider webs, lots of soccer games, and if you’re a high school senior, the dread college application process.  Friends whose daughter is in the midst of applying to schools were bemoaning the process to us, knowing we have lived through it ourselves.  It’s been quite a few years since our sons applied and I was curious to know if the essay topics had improved in the interim. 

In a word:  no.

Colleges always maintain that they want to know the “real” candidate but then hit them up with eye-glazing topics that are pretty much guaranteed to produce prose like "Team sports has taught me self-discipline and how to work with others" and "My trip to Europe made me realize that we are all one."

Of course, the Common Application has streamlined a lot of the work but it’s the essays that are still the biggest hurdle.

I remember my younger son, Henry, who applied to a lot of essay-intensive schools, approaching his step-father, a reactor physics graduate from Cal Tech, hoping someone of Olof’s erudite background could provide some retrospective insights into "What do you hope to achieve in your four years of college?" My husband pondered the question for a moment before offering, "Grow facial hair and get laid?" Henry perked up immediately at the prospect.  But didn’t dare use it.

If college admissions officers want to get to know the “real” candidate, they’ve got to ask the right questions. Topics that kids can really become impassioned about and which might also give college essay readers a reason to live.  Here’s a few I might suggest:

(1) Analyze the debris field on your bedroom floor.  How does it reveal the real you?

(2)  Agree or disagree:  There is absolutely nothing new anyone can say about The Great Gatsby.

 (3)  Why texting, tweeting and other electronic communication should be allowed during class time, especially if the class is like, totally lame.

 (4) My night in a Tijuana jail:  A lesson in economics.

 (5) What things do you do that drive your parents craziest?  Describe how you've fine-tuned them over the years.

 (6) Relate an incident where you were blamed for something that was so not your fault.

(7) Influences that shaped your life:  were there any?

(8)  Describe an evening with your favorite non-porn-star fictional character.

 (9) The top three excuses parents are likely to believe.

(10) In 250 words or less, agree or disagree with this statement: people over 40 should not be allowed on social media.

(11)  Curfew:  why I am so over it.

(12) How ADHD explains my transcript, and that felony egging incident.

(13)  College:  Is it over-rated?

(14)  Despite what they say, my parents really were born yesterday. 

(15) What are the nicknames you and your siblings have for each other when no grownups are around?   Regale us with the symbolism behind them.

(16) How to survive a totally bad hair day.

(17)  iPhone apps I’d really like to see.

(18)  Why I will totally be a better parent than mine are.

(19)  Pole dancing as a varsity sport?  Make your best case.

(20)  Should watching the movie be an acceptable alternative to reading the assigned book so long as the ending is kind of the same?

(21)  My favorite pharmaceutical and why.

(22)  Compare and contrast your favorite awards shows.

(23)  Like, whatever.

Olof, however, points out that like everyone else, college admission folks have to be careful what they wish for.  Because if they ask any of these questions, they will surely get it.


Saturday, October 14, 2023

Olof Doing What He Does Best

[ Let Inga Tell You, La Jolla Light, published October 16, 2023] 2023

Some years back, I won a First Place prize in the annual San Diego Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards for a column entitled :How an engineer makes cookies."   It chronicled an unprecedented attack of nostalgia by my husband, Olof, who had never baked anything in his life, deciding he wanted to replicate the family Christmas cookie recipes and send a selection to assorted relatives around the country.

One problem: the recipes did not indicate a yield. But nothing, my techno hubby concluded, that couldn't be solved with a simple application of undergraduate quantitative analysis.

Astonishingly (to me but not to him), his calculations were spot on. Which I was really glad about since those calculations had generated a master shopping list that included 17.5 cups of flour and 13 sticks of butter. We would still be eating butter if he'd been wrong.

I was utterly dazzled watching the entire production, titled "2013 Christmas Cookie Plan", 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, like, say "mix". 

Each shipment included descriptions of the five cookie types produced, revealing a charmingly whimsical side of my engineer husband I had never seen, never mind even imagined.  The cherry-topped cookies, for example, were described as "sweet, flaky, and surprisingly suggestive".

But more recently, Olof decided to venture into pizza dough making as a way to use up the part of his two custom-developed-over-a-year sour dough starters that he has to pour off each week when adding new flour. As must be clear, Olof never does anything half way. In a solemn ritual every Sunday, both jars are removed from the fridge and precisely 100 grams of starter is removed, replaced with 50 grams each of flour and water. The little yeasty microbes constantly need new flour to feed off of if they are to produce the dazzling sourdough products Olof is now renowned for.

But the waste of perfectly good starter offended him. What is starter for if not to start something? Sour dough starter, I can assure you, is a lifetime commitment. 

For a while he was using the weekly sour dough discard to make crackers. But there are only so many crackers any human (and their neighbors, and total strangers who found bags of them on their doorsteps) can eat. But a little research determined that it could also be used for pizza dough.

Olof s friend, Jim, mentioned he would like to join Olof in making a pizza at our house and offered a recipe for a 14-inch pizza he had previously used. But since we didn't have a pizza stone to cook a pizza on, Olof had discovered that a good substitute was a cast iron pan, which we fortuitously already owned.

Now some of us (that would be moi), would acquire a glob of commercial pizza dough from a pizza place (some are very accommodating) or even the grocery store, and stretch it to fit the cast iron pan.

But where's the fun in that when you could have an opportunity to calculate your little heart out and use up sour dough starter?

Hence this email to Jim:

Jim -

I've done a little research on our pizza dough making project for next week.

1. Dough Weight

I have no clue how much dough you need to make a pizza, so I Googled: "How much dough for a 12-inch pizza".  Not surprisingly I got a LOT of hits, so I picked twenty values; the largest of which was 340 grams (11 oz) and the smallest was (227 grams (7.5 oz). The mean was 277 grams (9 oz) and the standard deviation was 34 grams (1.1 oz).  I think we're better off with too much dough than not enough so statistically 70% of the weight estimates will be at the mean plus 1 standard deviation or 277 + 34 = 311 grams (~10 oz).

2. Scaling

A. You reckon that the recipe you have is for a 14-inch pizza, so to scale up the 12-inch weight we need to multiply 311 grams by (14/12) squared.  That result is 422 grams (just under 14 oz).

B. However, I'd like to try making a small pizza in a cast iron frying pan.  We have one and I measured it to be 11 inches across.  So to scale down from 12 inches, we'd need 311 grams x (11/12) squared, or 262 grams (8.5 oz)

Of course, the calculations didn't stop there. Subsequent headings under Pizza Dough Apportionment included a dizzying selection of mathematical formulas involving V (volume), D (diameter), T (thickness) and appropriately enough, pi.

And yes, a pizza in a cast iron fry pan was indeed produced, and was, in fact, delicious. And it succeeded in using up the leftover sourdough starter. And illustrated, once again, why Olof is an engineer and I'm not.

Weekly ritual: precision feeding of sourdough starter