Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Hidden Treasures: A Redwood Forest without the Crowds

20150303_143851docYou remember your last trip to Muir Woods in Northern California.  You remember the stately redwoods soaring into the blue sky – or the fog, depending on the season.  You remember walking on the boardwalk between the trees feeling as though you were at the feet of giants. It was awesome in the old-fashioned sense.

But you probably also remember the twisty 2-lane road to Muir Woods, following behind a diesel-powered tour bus, with maybe a couple of kids in the back whimpering “Mommy, Daddy, I don’t feel so good.  And you remember the fruitless search for a parking place in the cramped lot, and finally finding a place along the narrow road nearly a mile from the entrance, and the long walk (maybe with a couple of kids) to the park and then the somehow longer walk (maybe with tired kids) back to the car, and that twisty road.  And you remember the other people crowding the boardwalk, waiting in line to take a picture of the kids next to the tallest tree, waiting in line for the restrooms, waiting in line to buy a postcard. Muir Woods is up to 6000 visitors a day.

But wait!  There are other redwoods in the San Francisco area.  And many of them are easier to get to, have larger parking lots, and no lines.  I’m not talking about Hendy Woods State Park (road even twistier, and too far from the Bay Area.)  I’m not even talking about Big Basin (still a two hour drive from anywhere, and mosquitoes!)

20150303_142948webI’m talking about Henry Cowell Redwoods near Felton in Santa Cruz County, just over the Coast Range from Silicon Valley via four-lane freeway for most of the way. Henry Cowell has the spectacular trees, has the shaded paths between behemoths, has the fog and the ferns depending on the season.  But look at this picture of the parking lot.  Empty parking spaces!  And no tour buses!20150303_144032web

On  a recent visit the sun filtered greenly down between the cathedral-high branches of the redwoods.  The light reflected even more green from the wood sorrel and fern carpeting the ground by the path.  The moss-covered logs and bay trees almost glowed with a green so intense that I felt as though I was walking under water.  The quiet was so deep that I could  hear the fall of a leaf.  Along another section of the path the San Lorenzo River burbled  between sandy banks. A dozen narrow footpaths showed where children and their parents had given in to the temptation to test the water during the summer.  On this spring weekday afternoon I was the only person in sight.

On a weekend the park is a bit more bustling, partly because of the activity just next door (literally a fence-hop away) at Felton’s Roaring Camp Railroad.  If those kids need corralling after rambling through the redwoods, a ride on a steam train up to a second redwood grove might be just the thing.  And if you are lucky they will sleep all the way home.

 

SAMSUNG

Hidden Treasures: A Park Discovery in a Place I Thought I Knew

spring wadersI have lived in the same town for most of my life.  I brought up my children in this town, and thought I knew every corner of the place that might amuse them on a slow weekend.  Yet only a few days ago I explored a hidden cranny that I had never known about.  Maybe it wasn’t there when I was growing up.  Maybe the trail and boardwalk and odd artwork were part of some recent urban development windfall project. There was no memorial plaque or park information pamphlet to tell me the history of Redwood Grove and its abandoned Nature Center.

My husband and I wanted to stretch our legs, so we went to the nearest city park,  tiny oasis in a dell off one of the town’s oldest streets,  named for our town’s founder.  Shoup Park has a little playground for tots,  a  climbing structure for older kids, and a corny and badly executed war memorial showing a soldier holding a baby in a way that no baby could ever be held securely unless it was already in a state of rigor mortis. It also has a 50’s era building used for meetings, misnamed “Garden House” as there is no garden visible anywhere. , with inadequate parking .  It has a large main room, a stage and a kitchen,  poor insulation, an antique furnace, and inadequate parking.    On the far side of the Garden House is a group picnic area with a 50’s era concrete barbecue and picnic tables.

It’s a pretty boring park, but there is a creek that after a good rain burbles nicely, inviting children to get wet.  On this day there had been a rain, so we went behind the group picnic area to check out the creek.  We saw a gap in the fence we had never noticed before.20150220_162304web

Through the gap and another world opened up.  We were  in a dell below the level of neighboring fence-in back yards.  We passed an eccentric ceramic sculpture adorning what looked like a sewer access.  No name, no plaque, no explanation – it was just there.

The creek meandered through second-growth redwoods between banks carpeted with ivy and ferns.  Sunlight filtered through the trees. The path became a boardwalk which wandered randomly beside or over the creek Along one meandering curve an erosion restraint had been built out of woven willow branches – true functional art.

Functional art We came to a clearing in the grove of trees, set back from the creek.  There was an abandoned house, with boarded up windows.  A sign said “Redwood Grove Nature Center”, but access had long since been denied.  We heard giggles, then some thumping.  A back-pack sailed over the fence which sealed off access to the back courtyard of the center.  The backpack was followed by four agile teen-agers who had obviously been unable to resist exploring the hidden whatever behind the fence. The quartet split up;  we followed the girls who disdained the boardwark and path, preferring to wade in the creek on a balmy February day.

I thought wistfully of my kids, now grown up and responsible.  They would have loved to hop that fence and wade in that creek. I hope it is still there for my grandchildren to discover one day.20150220_162136web

Aliens Among Us (LATC February 4, 2015

Adolphin4 friend invited me  to go whale-watching outside Monterey Bay during the migration of the gray whales along the “Whale Highway”  which stretches along the California coast from Alaska to Cabo San Lucas.whalemigration

graywhaletailShortly after leaving the shelter of the bay, we spotted plumes of vapor not far off – at least a dozen whales, a “mega-pod”, were swimming together, blowing off vapor, and diving in rough synchronization.  As we approached, we could see the backs of the whales, scarred by barnacles, but glistening silver-gray in the sun.  The whales exhaled, one after another, or two at a time,  sending  fountains of white spray into the clear air. Then they dived, one by one slithering their huge bulk in an arc as they bent toward the bottom of the sea, than at the end flipping their heart-shaped flukes up into the air as if waving farewell.  It was like a dance.  We waited and watched – where would they come up next? A shout – “6 o’clock! Behind us” and the performance was repeated. “”10 o’clock! On our left!” and again the aquatic dance.  Why was this group of whales gathered together? The on-board naturalist had no clue. “It’s not usual to find so many in one group.”  We watched and wondered.whalespout

Finally the boat went on – there was more to see. “There’s a big school of dolphins up ahead – maybe they’ll come to play with the boat.”  In a moment we were surrounded by hundreds of hurtling gray shapes – needle-nosed dolphins barreling through the water next to the boat, dodging in and out of the bow wave, surfing in the wake, racing alongside the boat in huge leaps which sent them flying out of the water.  “If the water were rougher they’d ignore us,” said the guide, “but when it’s calm like today they get bored, and the boat is like a big toy to them.”  Could this be true? Or was he just ascribing human-like motives to these gray bullets? Why were there hundreds of dolphins in this one small space of ocean?  He had no clue.

rissos-dolphin1As we headed back toward the bay, the boat detoured to observe some Rossi’s dolphins, a very different sort.  These are stately silver swimmers, with a vertical dorsal fin and a rounded bullet head. The Rossi’s dolphins don’t leap from the water, don’t race each other, but swim smoothly along at a steady pace, paying no attention to our boat. “They mind their own business and want us to keep our distance,” said the naturalist.  But what is their business?  And why are they so unafraid, yet so aloof?

I read with bemusement about our astronomers’ search for alien life on other planets.  Most marine scientists seem to believe that dolphins and whales have enough brain tissue to have evolved what we would call reasoning, and that they communicate with each other through complex sonar systems.  How can we hope to recognize and interact with intelligent aliens on other planets when we understand so little about the intelligent aliens on our own?

Things to do now that Football is Finally Finished

20150130_161859webFootball season is over!  No more sitting in a cave watching pixels flash on a TV monitor while the sun is shining outside and all your vertebrae beg to be un-squished from that armchair!  What will you do with all this free time? Here are some ideas to get you started.  (Full disclosure:  we are not football addicts so we had a head start on alternatives!)20150125_115440web

 

Why not? Take public transportation to the city. Feel the freedom of not having that 2000 lb anchor dragging you into dark dank parking garages too far from where you really want to be. And there are great possibilities for people – watching.  (Can you see the little blond girl in pink sitting on her mother’s lap beyond the bicycle?  I missed the shot of her flopped upside down, hair streaming almost to the floor, as she solemnly regarded the world from a different point of view, but the memory gives me a smile every time.)

 

The Grove Restaurant on Mission Street, San Francisco

 

Why not? Eat at a restaurant you have never tried before. This is the Grove Restaurant on Mission Street, whose décor oddly evokes a ski lodge.  I wish I had stopped to take a picture of the delectable poached eggs on avocado toast which I was served here, but I was hungry and devoured them before I thought.  (They serve the breakfast menu all day.)

20150125_124259webWhy not? Check out a small specialized museum’s feature exhibit. This is the California Historical Society on Mission Street in San Francisco.  The excellent exhibit on Yosemite is closed now, but their next exhibit will feature the Pan-Pacific Exhibition of 1915 which gave us the Palace of Fine Arts and Treasure Island.  I think it’s a don’t miss! The exhibit hall also features a graceful staircase to the inaccessible second floor.  A plaque informs us that this is the Nancy Pelosi Staircase, as she first announced her candidacy for the US House of Representatives from this stairway. History is everywhere!

20150201_143932web Why not? Go for a walk in the woods. These twisted trees seem almost to be dancing in the sun next to the Crystal Springs trail in Huddart County Park on the Peninsula.

 

 

Why Not? Check out some public art.  The two figures are emerging from the walls of the Millbrae BART station.  The non-representational structure above graces a lawn at Stanford University.

Celebrate!

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Reflections and Resolutions for the New Year (Los Altos TOWN CRIER January 7, 2015)

Those of you who have been following my column for some time may remember a year ago when I wrote about my brother’s terrible accident, a fall from an extension ladder which broke both wrists and crushed his face.  A year later, I am welcoming him as a “guest columnist” by passing on substantial parts of his Christmas letter, complete with some New Year’s resolutions which I hope we can all think about.

My brother’s words:

“Last year, in October, I had a serious accident with an extension ladder that put me out of commission for 5 months. Along the way of recovery, I have found that there are people and friends that mean so much to me… and I didn’t know it, or know to tell them. And I also found out how much it means to have family that loves you and is willing to sacrifice time and effort to help you heal.

Four months into my recovery, my fiancée was diagnosed with metastasized colon cancer. After a seven hour surgery, two month recovery, six months of chemotherapy and  another major surgery in December , we now both know how well we can deal with each other’s infirmities, and how much our families love us. These are gifts that you cannot find in stores, cannot buy on the internet and could not have enough money to buy if they were available.

We have not done a lot this year, with both of us being laid up due to injury or illness. We go to work, do everything needed, and come home to crash on the easy chair, watching “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune”  while we eat dinner, then watching whatever takes our fancy on TV until, exhausted, we trundle off to bed. The hiking, biking, tent camping and long walks of previous years are not on this year’s calendar.

But we HAVE done some important things: a major family gathering last year in November just after I got out of the hospital, easygoing trailer camping at the beach, in the mountains, at an RV park and more, and visits with  family in California and in Idaho. Growing closer together (in ways that we NEVER dreamed of!) and finding “simple” things to enjoy together rounded out our year.

I would be remiss if I did not mention our  lessons from the past year:

  1. Extension ladders are evil! Do everything you can to exorcise them from your life! The small cost of hiring someone else to clean the gutter, hang the Christmas lights or clean the chimney is nothing compared to the pain and expense I have incurred due to these evil things!
  2. If you are 50 or over and have not had a colonoscopy, go to your primary care provider and demand one immediately. The small cost and discomfort of the preparation are nothing compared to what we have gone through.
  3. Cherish your friends and family; they are the ones that help you through the rough times         in life.”

To you, my readers, I join with my brother in wishing for you: “Let the New Year bring love and special events into your life, as it will be bringing them into ours.”

January 13 – to celebrate today

What’s to celebrate when one is laid low with a cold, a fever of 101, a sleepless night of coughing, and shooting pains in the head?

There is a lot to be said for warm snuggies to wear while lounging on the sofa under an afghan in front of a fire .

More to be said for ibuprofen for the shooting pains, antihistamine to ward off congestion, oatmeal for breakfast to coat the throat, chicken soup for lunch to bolster the system, and a sympathetic husband to fix dinner.

Maybe it was time for me to stop the carousel for awhile.

Celebrate!

January 10 – to celebrate today

Movie Club setting

 

A long day, but, in retrospect, a lot to celebrate!

Awakened at 2:30 by a call from Kalisi,  Mom’s caregiver –Mom had fallen on her way to the bathroom, now back in bed she is complaining of neck pain.

Call to doctor-on-call at local clinic; he advises DO NOT MOVE HER, call 911, get Mom to ER for evaluation

3AM – house invaded by huge friendly guys on firefighting crew (“They always send us because we can usually get here 15 minutes faster in case of urgent need”) and ambulance crew. Ambulance guys strap Mom to a board a la mummy from head to toe and cart her off. I go back across the hedge, don sweatsuit and shoes.   Tearful Kalisi  has gathered Mom’s pills, ID, documentation of health care, clothing. Off to El Camino Hospital.

3:30AM: Mom is admitted and in a room waiting for CAT scan.

4:30 AM. Good news! Per CAT scan. Mom has not broken any bones, just a muscle strain. To be discharged, with a foam collar to support strained neck.

6:30 AM – back home, Mom in bed and so am I, not sleeping.

6:45AM – alarm goes off. I can either make some phone calls cancelling my scheduled activities, or

6:50 AM go ahead with my day as planned, which includes

7:30AM pick up my friend DM and do an aerobic gossip/exercise course in a nearby park. I gradually stop yawning.

9AM: DM and I volunteer to prune roses and weed flower beds at the San Jose Rose Garden. Swarms of people, including several middle school groups, teen-age service clubs, nearby residents with children and grandchildren. Lots of chopping thorns, whacking weeds, smashing snails. Great therapy!

12noon : home to a hot shower and the newspaper

1PM lunch at Casa Lupe in Los Altos – my favorite tostada

Rest of afternoon: Laundry, prepare house for

6:30 PM arrival of our Movie Club friends for our monthly dinner and discussion (Movie of the Month: The Imitation Game – average rating 9 out of a possible 10, my rating: 8.5)

10PM: “I’m going to sleep until 10 tomorrow”

Celebrate!

 

January 8 – To Celebrate Today

One of my informal resolutions for the year is to try to find something, however small, to celebrate each day.  Thursday was a day particularly rich in small beauties and achievements – here is the list I jotted down that evening:

Jogging around the neighborhood this AM – squads of people driving to work, moms and dads shepherding their kids to school, some kids non-escorted walking seriously eyes averted from “stranger danger.”

Helped Mom figure out how to print an envelope on her printer (Where IS the upper cassette?)

Lunch at Duarte’s Tavern in Pescadero – warming fish chowder and an excellent spinach salad. Checked out the quaint general store and deli and the vintage stuff for sale in the coffee shop (Ancient LP:The Beatles – England’s #1 musical sensation!)Pescaderosurfer

Then to Pescadero State Beach, watched a surfer catch a perfectly cylindrical wave and ride it at least a hundred yards up the beach.

On the way home, a flock of wild turkeys grazing the pasture at Filoli, a small herd of deer in Arastradero Preserve.

wild turkey

Chinese class, with technology and FaceTime bridging the gap between California and Colorado, where my teacher is having a month of skiing in between keeping our lessons going.

A very lovely dinner at Mom’s, cooked by her caregivers, but under her supervision, followed by good conversation about ideas, things we had been reading. A bravura performance for my mother at 93!

Home to a warm fire and making plans to go to San Francisco for lunch and some museums. Settled down with an unexpectedly good book of essays by Ann Patchett (The Story of a Happy Marriage – many essays on writing – my sweet spot!) with Smetana’s “The Moldau” burbling in the background .

Celebrate!

 

OMG! RSVP? WTF? LOL! (Los Altos TOWN CRIER, December 2014)

Some time back I had occasion to host a small party – not a big deal, just a get-together tea party for a few women who I wanted to get to know a little bit better. I sent out e-mail invitations well in advance of the date. After all, this is the 21st century – we don’t use the Post Office any more, do we?

I waited for responses. And waited. And waited. The date got closer and I had no guests yet. Did the e-mail fail? I sent out a follow up.

I got a phone call from one invitee. She would have to be a little late, was that ok? Fine, of course – and at least I knew the e-mails had reached their targets.

I waited some more. Maybe these ladies don’t check e-mail. Let’s be retro – I sent out snail mail invites with a return address label and a handwritten “Hope you can come!” ten days in advance of the date – just so they would have something to put on their refrigerator to remind them, I told myself. After all, this is the 21st century.

On the date, I had had just the one response from the invitee who was going to be late. Maybe the others thought “RSVP” meant “Regrets only,” I told myself. I bought some pretty little cakes, polished the ancestral silver coffee spoons, set out the cups and saucers and little plates and put on my earrings.

Right on time, the doorbell rang. And rang again. And again. My guests were arriving! My invitations had been received! The party was actually rather a success, despite the initial nerve-wracking uncertainty whether anyone would show up and several no-shows. But where had I gone wrong in asking for acceptances in advance?

I talked with a few younger family members and learned I had gone about the thing all wrong for the 21st century. US Mail? “We NEVER check our mailbox – well, if I happen to remember when I come back from walking the dog. We don’t get anything by snail mail anymore but ads and catalogs, so why bother?”   E-mail? “There’s so much spam and junk, I just filter out anything that’s from someone not in my contacts already. If I don’t know you, your e-mail is in the Junk file, sorry!” RSVP? “What’s that?”

So what should I have done to lure people to my house? And to find out how many would show up?

I could have Tweeted: “Polishing silver for tea 3 PM October 16, 2014 at 123 Mystreet Los Altos – Hope you can come -Let me know if you can’t make it #AllysonTeaParty” . But I don’t have a Twitter account, a handle, or know anyone else’s Twitter handle – complicated!

I could have texted:   “Kum 2 T 101614 3pm 123 Mystreet Los Altos – BCNU!   I wondered if anyone would really understand this cryptic message. IMHO anyone who knew me would LOL at the idea of such a message from verbiage-besotted me. And would they have texted back? I noted that “RSVP” is NOT one of the top 50 text abbreviations listed on the Internet reference to help out puzzled parents. Maybe people really don’t know what this means any more. Abbreviations can be tricky. The same Internet reference says LOL could be either “Laughing Out Loud” or “Living On Lipitor”. IMHO anyone who knew me would LOL at the idea of such a message from verbiage-besotted me.

Undaunted, I’ll be sending out my Christmas cards as usual this year, by snail mail, with a printed-out picture at the top of an annual Christmas letter, 20th century style. And of course, they will come in a SASE, SWAK. LOL.

(POST HOLIDAY UPDATE: Don’t get me started on Thank You notes!)

The Price We Pay for Fear (Los Altos TOWN CRIER, October 2014)

Our local paper on the 13th anniversary of 9-1-1 included somber remembrances, including an inspiring story of a blind worker whose seeing-eye dog led him and his office of workers to safety. The headlines also included a revelation that Yahoo had been required to turn over user data for “national security interests.” When the company refused to comply, hoping to preserve the privacy rights of their users, it was threatened with fines of $250,000 a day.

A couple of weeks earlier, I had gone to see an exhibit at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. I was required to open my purse for inspection before I could enter this public building.

I remembered that some years back a crazed person attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta at the Vatican with a sledgehammer and broke off several pieces of this masterpiece before being subdued. At that time, though, subsequent visitors were not searched for weapons before entering St. Peter’s.

And some years back, a crazed person slashed the Mona Lisa on display at the Louvre. Since then the picture has been protected with a Plexiglas screen, which makes its beauty less easy to see. But at that time subsequent visitors were not searched for knives.

However, I went through the inspection at the art museum with only a minor flash of irritation, having been hardened by the invasive airport searches of both my purse and my person over the last 14 years of air travel. And I had put up with the searches and screening gates at the local courthouse if I wanted to exercise my citizen’s right to observe a trial. And so on.

Then it got really personal. A few days before the 14th anniversary of September 11, I was informed that to return as a volunteer in my local school I would have to fill out a two-page application, provide a photo ID and my Social Security number, be fingerprinted, and pay $67 in order to get clearance from the Mountain View Police Department ($20 fee), the FBI ($12 fee) and the Department of Justice ($15 fee). I basically was being asked to give up my most important personal information and then pay to prove I am not a convicted felon, or a child molester, or a terrorist.

When I worked in education, I was told that one of the best ways to ensure student success was to get parents involved with school work, if possible as school volunteers. Even now at many charter schools parent participation in some way is required. I wonder if every parent is required to get FBI clearance. The $67 payment would be a significant barrier to many families whose participation would be most helpful to their children. What happens to community involvement if only those who can afford the fee or are not too proud to ask for a fee waiver can enter the life of the school?

And what is going to be done with the information gathered in this wide net? On what grounds would a parent be barred from working with her child or other people’s children under supervision at a school? What charges would disqualify a parent? How recent would they have to be? Who will be drawing the guide lines?

 

The challenge for a democracy is to find the right balance between the total security that can only be provided by an all-controlling government, and the total freedom that comes from no government at all.

Have we gone too far toward wanting to be perfectly safe?

 

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