Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

A Student’s Success

I was watching a PBS documentary on the Old West – you know the type.  Lots of historic photographs, lots of historic documents, and some expert talking heads explaining it all with their names and credentials briefly headlined.

Suddenly I shouted in amazement.  An unusual name, familiar from my remote past, had flashed ont he screen.  Through the changes years had made I saw a familiar smile. “I know that guy!”

A quick Google search on the name turned up additional photographs confirming my recognition, an impressive list of awards for academic and journalistic excellence, and an email contact.  I fired off an email:

Subject: Wow!  My former student is a PBS pundit!

I was watching the PBS show on Butch Cassidy and saw you as a historical authority. There could not be two Ken Verdoia’s in the world!  And you look like yourself, only in 1967 you had no need to shave. I am so excited that my star 9th grade student in my student teaching year at MVHS has risen to eminence!

Maybe you remember me as the insecure Stanford intern who wore a fake hairpiece to make myself look older and taller.  I remember you in the freshman talent show lip-synching as Harvey Johnson looking for a prom date,

I’m  living in Los Altos and doing some writing for the local paper and my own entertainment. I see you are affiliated with the U of Utah (my parents’ alma mater, as it happens) I am so delighted to see what you have become!

Best of lives,

Allyson Johnson (formerly known to you as Miss Young)

The next morning I had this response in my inbox”


Through forty years in journalism, nearly thirty of those contributing to PBS, I have received many, many messages after a report or program. None as surprising and delightful as yours waiting for me this morning.

I am quite stunned that you would remember a student in such a manner. Particularly one so closely resembling wallpaper. But, yes, you do accurately cite the mime-like 14 year olds pushing their way through “Bye Bye Birdie” at Mountain View High School!

How wonderful for me…and what a thoughtful, inclusive gesture by you. Your memory is a generous gift that has started this day on a particularly happy note.

Next time you gather with friends, I hope you share this recollection. And, then, confidently inform them it was your insightful tutelage that launched a career!

All my very best wishes,
Ken Verdoia

In a later exchange of emails, Ken told me, “Every step along the way… elementary school, middle school, high school, undergraduate and graduate studies… there has been a kind and generous mentor who has made a difference.  Not ‘steering’ me, but demonstrating how courage, strength and ability are born of purposeful education.”

Since I was a girl I had always planned to be a teacher, but in the end I only taught high school English for seven years.  Teaching is a hard job, and I was not particularly gifted.  Still, I feel honoree to think that my blundering enthusiasm for good reading and good writing all those years ago might have earned me a small place among those who “made a difference.”

Change is Hard (Los Altos Town Crier February 2014)


The house across the street will be torn down by its new owners,, and a new two-story house with a basement will appear in its place.It is a perfectly good house, a 1950’s 3-bedroom 2-bath ranch style with the kitchen in front and a patio in back looking at a deep back yard filled with fruit trees.  These are only the third owners.

The first owners were airline pilots:  he flew for Pan Am;  she had ferried war planes across the country during World War II.   The house was built as part of the new San Antonio development after the war .

At some point in the late 50’s the first owners added a second-story addition behind the garage with an additional bathroom,  family room and fireplace downstairs, a playroom and additional bedroom upstairs to accommodate their growing family.  The owner did a lot of the work himself;  the staircase was narrow and lacked a banister.  It would never have passed code today.

The children grew up and moved away, and the wife became the dowager overseer of the street.  From her strategically placed kitchen window she could see anyone arriving or leaving up or down the street, or coming around the corner.  She made no secret of her vigilance.  When I was a teenager and my parents were planning to go out of town,  our neighbor came over to ask my mother “If I see a strange car parked over night while you’re gone and Allyson is home, do you want me to tell you or not?”

The first owners aged and moved to be closer to one of their children.  They kept the house empty for over 30 years.  Prop 13 kept their taxes miniscule, so it was cheap storage, and convenient to stay when they visited friends on the Peninsula.   Finally the children arrived, cleared out the house, and it was sold.

The second owners were a young family with young children.  They loved the vintage ranch style of the house, the avocado and terra-cotta wallpaper in the kitchen, the rice paper on the walls of the living room, even the bead curtain in the kitchen window.  They put on a new roof and installed new windows.  They built an elaborate playhouse in the back yard for their kids.  They hosted a guacamole party for the neighborhood when the avocado tree was in fruit.

But it didn’t last.   After only a couple of years the wife found a fixer upper in north Los Altos that was even more of a challenge.  The house went up for sale again. It sold to another young couple with young children at roughly 1000 times its original cost.

It was the deep back yard.  The new owners came over to show us the plans for a new house on the lot. “We’ll have the family room and kitchen at the back, looking over the swimming pool.  The kids will be playing in the back; they won’t bother you.  In front there will be just a home office and bedrooms.  We want to use as much of the back yard as we can. We’ll plant trees in the front so the house won’t look so big.”

The change  makes me sad.  Sad to see the old house go. Sad that the new family plans to  be invisible in their back yard behind their two-stories plus basement.  Sad that there will be no eagle eye on the street, unless it’s mine.  My kitchen does face the corner.


Trust (Los Altos Town Crier, January 2014)

California Hillside Dec 2013


We trust that the sun will rise in the east, and that the day will be 24 hours long.

We trust that the earth will not shake under our feet, and that the ocean will stay in its place, rising and falling within its tidal bounds.  Sometimes this trust is betrayed – there is an earthquake, there is a tsumani.

In California, we trust that between April and November it is safe to plan a picnic or a camping trip or an outdoor wedding.  The weather will be fine.  Once in a while there is an untimely diversion of the jet stream, and we have you-tube videos of drenched brides and soggy wedding cake.

We trust that between November and March we will have rain.  Rain that replenishes the snow back in the Sierras, delighting skiers, snowboarders, owners of second homes at Tahoe and children of families who rent those homes for a weekend.  Rain that makes our hills in December look like sleeping giants under softly curving blankets of green, tempting us to send pictures eastward to rouse the envy of our snow-bound relatives.

Sometimes a resilient high pressure ridge deflects the rainclouds, and we have drought burning our hills into barren gray, and tempting our eastern relative to ask us if they should bring their own water if they come to visit.

We trust in government, to provide safe roads, safe airways, safe airports, safe city centers, safe food and drink, safe industrial practices, safe working conditions.  Sometimes this trust is betrayed, and we have government shutdowns, locked-down schools, grounded aircraft, epidemics of salmonella.

All of our decisions are based on trust.

We trust in colleages.  Sometimes our trust is betratyed – there are moles in the FBI, there are back-stabbers at the office, there are businesses that fail and paychecks that bounce.

We trust in fellow citizens to follow the rules of the road, to pay attention while driving, to get their children vaccinated, to stay home from work when they are ill.

We trust in neighbors to watch our homes, but not invade them.

We trust in family.  if I jump from the wall, Daddy will catch me.  If I hurt my knee, Mommy will make it better.  If I need a place to stay, my sister will welcome me. Sometimes our trust is betrayed.  There are abusive parents, bitter divorces, family feuds, estranged children.

We trust in friends.  A triumph can be shared.  A secret will go no further.  Sometimes our trust is betrayed. When that happens we feel anger, bitterness, resentment.  The foundations of our world are twisted.  We blame others for our pain.  We feel we can never expose ourselves to this kind of pain again.

But if we cannot trust, we cannot love.  We cannot laugh, or be child-like, or share any kind of intimacy.  A world without trust is a world without smiles, without community, where all the headlines are grim.

My New Year’s wish:  May you trust freely, and may your trust be well – earned.  And may it rain.

Accident (Los Altos Town Crier December 2013)

My brother had an accident.  He was working overtime on the weekend, on a 10-foot ladder.  The ladder slipped backwards from under him, and he fell with it onto a wood-composite deck.  He broke both wrists, his shoulder blade, and every bone in his face except his lower jaw.

Day 1 –He spends in Intensive Care, in critical but stable condition, in an induced coma.

Day 2 – my brother is in surgery for nine hours, first for a tracheotomy to enable breathing, since his nose and sinus cavities are shattered, then to reassemble his face.  The reassembly requires  eleven titanium plates and ninety-three screws.

Day 3 – The doctors bring my brother out of the induced coma so they can test for possible spinal injuries.  As he regains consciousness, according to a family member in the room “he made a sound of such excruciating pain that no human should have to make.  He won’t remember it, but his son and his fiancée who were in the room will never forget it.”

The doctors put my brother  back down into coma while they “adjust the pain-killers.”

Day 4 – With better pain management, my brother comes out of his coma.  He can respond to questions with eye blinks, head shakes, and nods. Feeding tube and tracheotomy limit his speech.

Day 5 – His son brings in a white board. Holding a marker between two numb fingers, my brother can write a wobbly word or two.  His first word: MOM?

Day 7 – My brother is out of Intensive Care.  The doctors have found no damage to his spine, brain, vision.  When he first put his feet to the ground he discovered another injury – a broken toe that had gone un-noticed earlier.

Day 8 – My brother goes home from hospital.  Both arms are in splints, and his jaw is wired to prevent chewing , which might dislocate his carefully re-assembled face.  He has lost twenty pounds during the three days before the feeding tube was inserted.

Day 15 – My mother and I fly up to help the care-giving team.  We are apprehensive about what that new face will look like, but to our delighted surprise my brother’s new face looks pretty much like the old face – maybe the nose is a little shorter, a little straighter.  My nephew shows me a picture of what his dad’s face looked like shortly after he was brought in to the emergency room – like a puddle of lemon jello with red eyes. Amazing.

I take my brother to see the facial surgeon who put him back together.  A lady in the waiting room notices his arm casts and comments  “I thought they only did facial surgery at this office.” With her attention drawn to the twin casts, she had not noticed anything odd about his face,

My brother’s family thanks God for his recovery.   I’m grateful too, but I can’t help thinking  “God, what a waste of Your time!  It would have been so much more efficient if You had just steadied that ladder!”

Remembering Corinne (LATC November 2013)

I found the letter as I was cleaning out my desk upstairs – the one where unfinished business had collected over several previous employments.

Some years back, shortly after the dot-com bust,  I was working for a small non- profit organization loosely affiliated with the Department of Commerce.  We were struggling to increase international business in Silicon Valley.  It was then that I met Corinne Gilb.

Corinne was a tall, stately lady, with a crown of smooth brown hair shading into steel-gray, level gray eyes, and a smoothly modulated voice brimming with confidence.  She and I connected because I was studying Mandarin Chinese, and she had been a delegate to several conferences in mainland China related to  the automotive business.  I was fascinated because she had actually been to places I had only dreamed of going, and had acquired expertise in areas which I had always thought closed to women.  Corinne seemed to me to be the first real grown-up I had encountered.

Corinne invited me to come to her house for tea.  Hers was an elegant house sheltered within the twisted cul-de-sacs of Atherton, shielded  from any vagrant noise by tall walls and taller trees.  The large rooms were lined with bookshelves that stretched floor to ceiling, crammed with books related to Corinne’s many areas of interest.  I saw copies of some of the same Chinese texts I had been studying, next to bound journals in Chinese.  “Yes,” Corinne said, “I taught myself to read Mandarin so I could keep up with what was happening in China. “  I was in awe.

A tea service had been set up noiselessly in the front room by an invisible servant.  We drank tea from dainty porcelain cups.  She talked about what she had learned as a delegate to the Chinese conferences, at a technical level  I only half understood.  She listened patiently to my half-formed ideas;  she may have been flattered by my evident admiration.

After we finished tea, she showed me to the door.  She said “I enjoyed this meeting.  Maybe you and I and our husbands could meet for lunch sometime.  I would like to meet your husband…”

I was abashed.  My husband did not begrudge the time I spent exploring Chinese culture and international business, but he did not share these interests.   I could only imagine Corinne’s husband – what would the four of us find to talk about?

“Give me a call when you have a good time,” said Corinne.  I gave her my thanks and left.  I did not mention her invitation to my husband, nor did I call Corinne.  She sent a note, and then a Christmas card.  She had been in ill health, but still wanted to have lunch.  My not having called became an obstacle to my calling – the budding friendship withered because I was afraid to expose  how little I really knew – as if Corinne had not already guessed that. Then I got a notice that her husband had died.  I was young, I didn’t know very many people who had died.  I didn’t know what to say.  So I said nothing.

Some months later, I got another  letter from Corinne.  It was a typed letter, a form letter.  It said goodbye.  She had been diagnosed much too late with metastasized breast cancer.  In the letter she wrote of being near death, but still participating in conferences, overseeing the publication of books, writing reviews, and presiding over her family.  Scrawled in a shaky hand at the bottom of the letter was a note: “So sorry we never had that lunch.”

So am I, Corinne.

Child-Proof – HA! (LATC October 2013)

“Child-proof” – Ha! (LATC October)
It happened just like they warn in the Emergency Care manuals
We had been having houseguests with small children all summer. We had childproofed the main rooms with all the breakable gewgaws put away. We had taken the cleaning supplies out of the children’s bathroom. We had the toys in an easily accessible closet and we locked the door to the attic.
But we had not hosted a two-year-old in years.
It started just like they warned it would. “Where’s Joshua?” “I thought he was with you!”
Then the search began. Not in the kitchen. Not upstairs. Not next door at Grandma’s. Not visible walking up or down the street. Finally his dad found him –in the master bathroom. It had never occurred to me to make this part of the house off limits, because no other visiting child had ever ventured into this part of the house without escort.
There were about a dozen bright red ibuprofen pills scattered, some smushed, on the floor.
Never underestimate the tenacity of a 2-year-old.
It had been a new box of ibuprojen, flaps still glued. It was shut away in a drawer.
Joshua had opened the drawer and found the box.
Joshua had ripped the box open.
Inside was a “child-proof” bottle, the kind where you have to press on the sides at the same time as you turn the lid. No problem for Joshua: he bit down on the lid with his gleaming white baby teeth and turned. No more lid.
The contents were kept fresh by a vacuum -glued foil-lined seal. Many is the time I have sworn at these seals as I tried to pry them off with fingernails, toenail clippers, or scissors. Again, no problem for Joshua. Joshua gnawed through the seal like a roof rat gnawing through an orange.
Then, fortunately, he spilled half of the pills on the floor. His dad found him as he was trying to replace them in the bottle.
He told us he had not eaten any of the pills.
Maybe he was a little scared because he had spilled and smashed some, and made a mess. Maybe he knew he was in trouble, and told us he had not eaten any so that the trouble would be less.
We all watched him like a hawk for signs of drowsiness, stomach pain, nausea…. nothing. Two-year-olds are tough.
There had been other close calls for toddlers in my experience. Once my little brother fell out of the car as it was going around a corner – he just opened the door and “Poof!” he was gone. (This was before the days of child safety seats.) Once my grandson slipped out of his flotation jacket in the swimming pool and was two feet down before I grabbed him. But these were accident of poor design, not carelessness or lack of oversight. This time I felt responsible – I should have been more vigilant.
For the rest of the visit, “Where’s Joshua?” became my mantra. Even with my elevated level of surveillance, it was amazing how quickly the two-year-old could be gone. Once he got as far as the end of the street, down by the un-fenced creek. “Where were you going?” “I was just walking.”
Happily, Joshua survived the visit. His curiosity is no longer my immediate problem. But his visit left me with a lot less complacency about the safety of my home and the adequacy of my imagination in recognizing hazards. The next time I have miniature guests, I’ll invest in padlocks.
If the guest is Joshua, he will probably find the bolt cutters in the garage.

In the Company of Women (LATC September 2013)

Camp skit - sisters of a certain age

Traveling with a woman friend, she will offer the window seat.

She will refuse the airline snack, but offer to give you hers.

If you do not eat your airline snack after all, she will take it in case of future need.

She will offer to watch your carry-on bags while you go to the rest room.

She will offer to refill your water bottle if she is going to refill hers.

If she is driving, and she takes a wrong turn out of the airport, she will blame herself.

If she is the shotgun rider, she will apologize for not paying attention to the signs.

If her memory of the route disagrees with the GPS, she will go along with the GPS  – up to a point.

If she is one of three passengers in the back seat, she will offer to sit in the middle.

Though she has never met you before,  she may tell you all about the latest activities, vagaries, and eccentricities of her father, her late husband, her late husband’s first wife,  her second husband’s ex-wife, her son, his wife, her son’s wife’s first husband, and her  stepson’s  mother-in-law.

She will show you pictures of her grandchildren.

She will solicit reading suggestions for her book group.

If you are going for a walk she will remind you to put on sunscreen.

She will offer to loan you sunscreen.

If she is a houseguest, she will offer to help peel vegetables, set the table, or entertain any small children underfoot.

If she is the hostess and there are small children underfoot, she will be the one to eat at the children’s table in the kitchen.

*    *     *

I had written the above about halfway through a week at a women’s camp in the Rockies, mostly with  women of about my own age.  The women in the group were largely teachers or former teachers. They were mostly white. They had gone to Girl Scout camps.  They knew all the camp songs.

Then I had an opportunity to spend some time with a couple of women a generation younger. I realized that the above list of “typical women’s behaviors” is perhaps not typical at all, except when applied to women of a certain age and up-bringing.

The youngest woman in the group had no first or second husband, no children or grandchildren, no smartphone filled with pictures to show, had never been to camp.  She didn’t belong to a book group.  She didn’t know the words to “She’ll be Coming Round the Mountain” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” or “Kumbaya”.  She was at the camp with her mother.  In two months she planned to begin a tour of duty with the Air Force.  She will probably go to Afghanistan.

I’ll bet she won’t volunteer for the middle of the back seat in the jet.


Once A Year Day (LATC August 2013)

Gaypride4Everyone’s entitled to be wild/ be a child/be a goof/ raise the roof/Once a year – lyric from The Pajama Game
On the last Sunday in June, it seemed as though everyone had taken this old Broadway patter song to heart. It was Gay Pride Day in San Francisco, and 1.5 million people were celebrating the Supreme Court’s decision earlier the same week invalidating the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8. Eighty unisex couples had married on the previous day at San Francisco City Hall; the party on Sunday was, in the words of a Mercury-News reporter “like the biggest, happiest wedding reception you could imagine.”
My husband and I had ridden BART up to the City to attend a San Francisco Symphony program, and were swept up in the festivities as we made our way from the Civic Center BART station to Davies Hall. All around us were men and women wearing rainbow colored tutus, fanny wraps, neon lace stockings, and costumes creatively cut out to show off tattoos in peculiar places. We saw a man on stilts clad head to toe in purple feathers, another person of indeterminate sex clad from top-knot to platform shoes in silver glitter, and T-shirts emblazoned with rainbows and mottos ranging (among the printable) from “Some Chicks Marry Chicks – Get Over It” to “Christ is Coming – Look Busy.”gaypride2
As we threaded our way through the crowd, a conservatively dressed middle-aged fellow with a well-trimmed beard spoke me. “Are you two a couple?” he asked, gazing from me to my husband, both in our Sunday Symphony best.
“Yes, we are.”
He broke into a huge smile. “It’s so great to have people like you here in support! This is such a great day! I never thought I would see this day!” I didn’t tell him we were there for the symphony, but agreed with him and wished him a wonderful afternoon. “It will be!” he replied, as the crowd separated us.
The symphony performance was terrific – a first-time performance of a concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story”, led with gusto by Bernstein’s friend and protégé, Michael Tilson Thomas. The lead singer, a minor TV star named Cheyenne Jackson, has an amazing vocal range and great ability to sell a song. He was also listed in the Pride Guide as one of the Celebrity Grand Marshalls of the Gay Pride Parade.
At the intermission we wandered out to the balcony from which we could see a corner of the celebration still going on at UN Plaza. Traffic was at a standstill on Van Ness Avenue, and people in costumes, carrying balloons, flourishing signs, and holding hands were crossing below, waving up at the balcony-viewers. We waved back.
After the concert we made our way through the packed throng to the BART station. We passed a group of people dancing and shouting along with a rap group on one of the side stages. We passed another side stage where a cheerleading squad was performing acrobatic flips and pyramids. We saw black guys in blonde wigs and high heels. We saw white guys with buzz cuts and bright new Intel@Pride T-shirts.
gaypride1The BART station was solid people, a big friendly mob – no pushing, no elbows, just laughter at our common sardine-hood. We inched our way to the turnstiles where a guard was assisting people with Clipper cards – we made it through. I have never seen BART so crowded, but a young couple in cut-away jeans and pink tank tops jumped up and offered us their seats.
It was a party. It was raucous and joyful and raunchy and sweet. There are different opinions about the Supreme Court decision and about what marriage means, but it is hard to resist something that made1.5 million people so plainly, euphorically, unreservedly happy.

Greetings (Town Crier, July 2013)

GreetingsAs I was doing my summer closet cleaning, a box fell off the topshelf and spilled its contents on the floor of the closet.  I thought “Aha! Something I haven’t opened for at least a year – probably should be thrown out right away!” I stooped to pick up the spill.  It was my collection of  greeting cards received over… how many years?

The first I picked up was a handmade card with a picture of a girl drawn by a very young person.  Inside was a greeting from the family which had just purchased the house across the street from us, introducing themselves and their three daughters and saying that they were “looking forward to being our neighbors for many years.” They were wonderful neighbors for almost five years; they moved last week.

The second was a birthday card featuring a couple of martini glasses with sparkly olives on the cover.  It was from my cousin and her husband. They did meet in a bar, but he helped her to beat her alcoholism after they married, and she has been sober for decades. Odd to see her name on a liquor-flavored card!

The third I picked up was a form card from a group with which I had participated in a long-term health study after my bout with cancer.  It included a recipe for a healthy protein-rich,  minimal sugar birthday cake which I had always meant to try.

The fourth was a snarky birthday card from my brother and his wife.  Judging from the price of the card listed on the back, this was sent very early in their marriage.  Before their marriage, he usually forgot my birthday entirely.  Under his wife’s influence, the cards have become less snarky over the years.

The fifth  was a custom card generated on a computer.  It was from my mother, who had been the first in our family to become computer literate, and for years had created all her birthday cards and Christmas cards on her beloved Mac.

The sixth was simply a piece of blue paper folded over.  On it is written in an unfamiliar hand “Happy Birthday Mom” and the names of my two sons.  There is a splatter of what looks like pine sap on the upper corner.  I remember how my kids conspired to surprise me with flowers on my birthday that year.   My husband and I had gone camping in the remote Anderson Valley.  The kids managed to find a part-time florist in Booneville who made a bouquet of garden flowers with an impromptu card and  delivered them to  our tent site in her pickup truck.

I guess I  won’t be able to throw this box out right away after all.

Freeway-Free in California: Money, Power, and Pyromania (LATC May 2013)


If you have been to the Mt. Hamilton observatory, you have driven through Joseph D. Grant County Park.  It is a beautiful drive in spring.  The road meanders upward between hills coated with the electric green of new grass, highlighted by swathes of day-glo yellow mustard as if God had taken a magic marker to the landscape.  Higher up the roadside cut is spangled with glowing orange California poppies set off by patches of purple lupine and yellow sheep’s tail.

The park brochure tells you that Joseph Grant was the son and heir of Adam Grant, for whom Grant Avenue in San Francisco is named.  The senior Grant was a co-founder of Murphy, Grant & Co., a drygoods store which rivaled Levi Strauss in selling overalls to miners during the Gold Rush.  The San Francisco store burned in a spectacular fire in 1875, but most of the inventory was saved and the demand for Nonpareil Overalls remained.

Joseph was a mover and a shaker.  He managed the family business, started the Columbia Steam Company, was President of the California –Oakland Power company, and and was a life trustee of Stanford University.   When Herbert Hoover was defeated by FDR, he came to stay at Grant’s ranch for three weeks to lick his wounds.

The brochure doesn’t say much about Mrs. Edith Grant, or about the three Grant children.   But if you are lucky you might find a park ranger who would guide you around the ranch house and tell you about how daughters Edith and Josephine did not get along and would engage in rolling-around-on-the-floor fistfights at the mansion, sometimes during social events. And how sometimes they would join forces and invite some of the ranch hands to join them on rides into town (San Jose) for supplies, throwing empty liquor bottles out of the limousine in both directions to mark their trail. He might tell you about the nightly drunken parties  Josephine would hold in one of the older side-buildings, and about how Joseph burned the building down to stop the parties.

He might tell you about how daughter Edith used to shoot at people who trespassed on family property–including the mailman. It was said that she also shot her own horses if they came in range of the front porch.

He might tell you about how son Douglas, a business disappointment but adept at golf and drinking, died in a house fire lit by one of his neglected cigarettes.  And about how Josephine, when she took over the ranch, burned all the family letters and documents.

There is a novel to be written here, don’t you agree?



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