Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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?

 

You May Have Already Won! (LATC September 2014)

 

EsteroBondThere is something irresistible in the idea of buried treasure brought to light. We love to hear about the dusty picture in the attic that turns out to be a genuine Rembrandt, the stock certificate in the bottom of the neglected safe deposit box that has been accumulating stock splits and dividends for decades, the costume jewelry purchased at a garage sale that turns out to be genuine diamonds. We all want to star on ”Antiques Roadshow.”

I was excited when I visited my mother’s safety deposit box with her in February, and found buried in the bottom a copy of an elaborately engraved coupon bond issued by the Estero Municipal Improvement District with a face value of $1000, a due date of July 1, 1999, and 4 unredeemed coupons still attached.

With visions of compounding interest dancing in my head like sugarplums, I contacted the City of Foster City, which had issued the bond. After numerous letters and phone calls (the bond redemption had been managed by a bank which had merged with another bank which had sold the business to a third bank which had escheated the bond as unclaimed property to the state of California which had lost the record in their data base) my mother finally got her check for the exact face value of the bond and unredeemed coupons. (No sugarplums!) I figured I earned just below the minimum wage for my effort.

Sadder but wiser, I was skeptical when my brother sent me a link to a website listing unclaimed property by state. “ I read an article in the newspaper about this site, ran Dad’s name and came up with a list of unclaimed money. Check it out!”

Of course, I couldn’t resist. But all the listings were in Texas, and required proof that Dad had invested in the companies listed, plus copies of his and Mom’s social security cards and proof that at one time they legally resided at the address listed on the claim.  Since the total was only $38.18 for all 7 claims, I gave it up – no bonanza here for me. (The site is http://www.missingmoney.com )Let me know if you strike it rich!)

Hope springs eternal. When clearing out my late mother-in-law’s house I saved several Japanese woodblock prints that she had framed inexpensively and hung in her bedroom. When I got them home I checked the internet. They might be valuable originals! After all, she and her husband had spent some time in Japan in the early 60’s. But again, they might be calendar art. I missed the San Jose filming of “Antiques Roadshow” so the jury is still out.

It’s almost more fun not knowing for sure.

woodblock3Woodblock2Woodblock1

 

The Roadside Diner – An American Classic (LATC August 2014)

20140620_KIngsChef2_webFrom what I saw on our recent back-roads trip across the country, the United States has NOT become one homogenized culture from East to West – it only looks that way from the Interstates. And though California has harvested much of the best of the East in creating the mix of cuisines, traditions, and cultures we call Californian, we did leave a few good things out. One of the missing pieces: the diner.

The classic diner was a castoff railroad diner cars, clad in aluminum outside, and featuring big windows so you could monitor the passers-by on the street, a tiny kitchen, red-vinyl upholstered booths and a red Formica counter trimmed in aluminum, with red-vinyl upholstered stools along the counter. To the joy of children everywhere, the stools could spin. Fortunately, the diner also had waitresses of a certain age, who might be named Edna or Mildred or Gertie, but who could be counted on to tell children (and their parents, too) to stop fooling around and eat their vegetables.

Avenue Diner, G,BurgWe had breakfast on the day of our East Coast departure at the Avenue Diner. We faced platefuls of eggs, potatoes, and bacon that would have daunted a lumberjack. As we leaned back midway, we noticed a buff gray-haired guy in a Marine Corps muscle shirt and steel-studded belt paying for his coffee just over the partition. It was Stephen Lang, the villainous Marine colonel from “Avatar”, in town to do a one-man dramatic show at the local Art Fest. We were star-struck, but the waitresses at the Avenue Diner didn’t miss a beat at having a celebrity stroll in for coffee.

As cast-off railway dining cars became scarce, the diner evolved. It moved next to the hotel downtown as an inexpensive alternative to the hotel restaurant. It called itself a Coffee Shop, or even a Café. On the second day of our trip we passed up the swank historically-preserved Bremerhasset Hotel dining room and opted for the Crystal Café just across the street.

At the Crystal Café, breakfast for two came to $13 including tip. The café was cheerful and clean, with lots of coffee mugs with regular patron’s names on them hanging on hooks behind the counter, and an honor library shelf circling the room with books in easy reach. The pretty young waitress was probably not named Mildred or Edna, but she was able to juggle orders, coffee cups, and questions from regulars and newbies with great aplomb.

In Colorado Springs we wanted an early start, so we stopped downtown at the King’s Chef Diner, touted locally as offering “the best breakfast in the state of Colorado.” The honor library here featured a lot of castoff comic books, and the clientele was an intriguing mix of military guys in buzz cuts and street people with day-glo hair and pierced body parts. The host and waitress treated us with great deference, as exotic creatures who had wandered far from our ecological niche. I ordered the featured breakfast burrito. “Are you sure you want the sauce?” the waitress asked me anxiously. “It’s pretty spicy.” I assured her I could handle it. For a brief second I thought she was going to over-rule me in true diner fashion, but she must have been only a trainee.King's Chef Diner  CO Sprngs

By the time the diner reached California it had mutated, adding sheltered parking, a drive-up window, and even putting the waitresses on roller skates. The drive-in’s did well for a while until the national chains muscled in. One by one they have disappeared, to my regret.

Don’t get me wrong. You’ll see me enjoying patio seating at the local coffee shops and patisseries. But I miss having  a take-charge waitress reminding me to eat my vegetables.

 

The Hollow Towns (LATC July 2014)

 
 
The Great WAll of Los Altos
 
My husband and I recently took a backroads trip across the country. We avoided the interstates with their urban bypasses as much as possible, choosing instead the old US highways which usually pass right down the main streets of whatever population centers are strung along their path.  Sadly, business goes where people are, and if there are more travelers on the interstate than on the highway, that’s where the services go.  And the downtown businesses which comprised the community core then wither, and their buildings rot, and there is no there there.
 
Often, very often, the city governments have misdiagnosed the problem.  In the 50’s and 60’s it was imagined to be all about parking.  People went to the suburban strip malls because it was easy to park, they thought.  So the city managers gutted the city center,tearing down the historic structures which gave it personality, and replaced those structures with parking lots. 
 
Hotel Blemerhasset, Parkersburg WVI’m talking about Parkersburg, West Virginia. In its heyday, the center of town was a fantasy of Romanesque architecture in red brick or gray stone, each structure striving to reach the heights via a spire (if it was a church) or a clock tower (if it was a civic building),  The history book in our hotel showed picture after picture of these wonderful buildings, but most were captioned “… abandoned in the 50’s.” “…gutted by fire of unknown origin after standing empty for some time.” “…razed unceremoniously in the 70’s despite citizen and local historian’s outraged protest.”  I noted the locations where these buildings had stood and checked them out.  Parking lots, all. And all empty.  Only three buildings remained of the many pictured. There is no there there.
 
I’m talking about Sunnyvale, California. In the 1950’s Murphy Avenue was the main street of Sunnyvale, and boasted a department store and a number of other retail shops.  Adjacent to Murphy Avenue was a  Town and Country Village shopping center, with wide overhanging eaves and benches to encourage lingering in the shade.  But in the 60’s competition from the new Stanford Mall was extreme.  So the city fathers decided to create the Sunnyvale Town Center enclosed mall, and in doing so they cut off Murphy Avenue and converted it to a parking lot for the new mall.  Fifty years later the Town and Country Village has been razed and replaced with apartments, and the Town Centre struggles on its third set of anchor stores, which are almost impossible to find behind their multistory parking garages.  Against all odds, the three block vestige of Murphy Avenue is pulsing with lively restaurants and shops.  There is little else there.Murphy Avenue
 
I’m not talking about my own hometown of Los Altos… yet.  But when I approach Main Street on the expressway which replaced the railroad tracks along First Street,  I worry.  Formerly drivers on the expressway could glance over and look down Main Street and along First Street, and if they were intrigued by the small-town look of the many 1920’s era buildings, they could take the next exit and follow their urge to explore.  But that’s not going to happen any more.  There is a four story Great Wall which barricades the town against any casual glance.  The Great Wall of Los Altos includes two huge new apartment complexes and “one of only two podium-style Safeway markets in the state.” (Podium – style means parking on the first floor, shopping  in a high-ceilinged market at the tope of an escalator, and storage on the floors above.)
 No matter how much ivy and bougainvillea is trained up the Great Wall to soften it, there is no way to see through the Wall to the charming streets behind it.  If fewer people shop in Los Altos in the next months and years, it’s not because of the lack of parking.  It’s because they will have no way to know what is there.
The Great Wall - Section 2

 

Northern California – NOT Silicon Valley (LATC June 2014)

View from the resting place on the HillI visited friends in Northern California. Not “Northern California = San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles” but “Northern California = North of Santa Rosa as opposed to San Francisco” . It was a revelation.

North of Santa Rosa the hills are covered with vineyards or redwood forests, not housing developments.

North of Santa Rosa US 101 winds along the rivers whenever possible, because that is the way one could travel between the forbidding mountains of the coast range and the desert area of the Central Valley (yes, desert before irrigation)

North of Santa Rosa wealth comes from agriculture, whether that be dairy, winery, timber forest, orchard, or illegal pot farm.

North of Santa Rose the largest “city” is Redding, named for a land agent of the Central Pacific railroad when the railroad decided to route its north-south route through the town formerly known as Poverty Flats. Today it is best known for a beautiful pedestrian bridge.

It’s easy to make fun of farming communities. I couldn’t help but giggle at the front page article in the Humboldt Beacon lauding the selection of a local girl as California Beef Ambassador, with the quote that she will “be the face of California beef.” And I broke into a laugh as the article noted that the girl’s great-grandmother had been “Cowbelle of the Year” in Humboldt County some years back, while her mother had been Cattle Woman of the Year in 2005.

Then I thought again. It’s a lucky family that can trace four generations in the same community, and that has carried on a common interest, whether it be agriculture, education, or industry, across the same number of generations. There’s a lot to be said for continuity, a lot to be said for roots.

Porcelain tributesI thought more about roots and continuity when I visited the small cemetery in the town. It was nothing like the carefully manicured death theme parks in metro areas, with their restrictions on size, shape and structure of grave markers and memorial tributes. The graves were mostly marked with tombstones, but also with wooden crosses, hand-carved slabs of redwood,   or mosaic tile and colored beads set in concrete to spell out the names of the dead. Some family names stretched back to gold rush times when the village was founded.

Most, but not all, of the graves were carefully tended. Many were festooned with fresh or artificial flowers. One grave was covered with porcelain figurines ranging from the Madonna to Mickey Mouse, all meticulously clean.

My favorite was the grave of “beloved mother” Ruth Miner. Her simple black marble plaque was carved with her name, birth, and death dates. Just below was a second carved marble plaque announcing “I AM AN ATHEIST ALL DRESSED UP NO PLACE TO GO”.Aheist's Lament

From her gravesite on the hill planted with blooming rhododendrons, I looked over the village with its church spires and beyond to the verdant valley dotted with grazing cows. I thought to myself “Ruth, where would you want to go from here?”

Arizona Highways: Some worthwhile stops

In Phoenix:  The Heard Museum of Native American Art.  This museum is fascinating, exhaustive, instructive and almost overwhelming in the size of its collection and the detail in which it explains the many culuture of Native Americans of Arizona.  Fortunately, we had a time limit.  We focused first on a special exhibit of Georgia O’Keefe paintings of the Southwest.  This was on its last day, but if it is a sample of the quality of special exhibits at the Heard, I would suggest you pay attention to whatever is being featured on your visti.

Of the Heard collection I was most fascinated by the collection of kachina dolls donated by the late Senator Barry Goldwater, maybe because as a child I was given a Kachina doll by a visiting relative.  Learning the stories and symbology of these artifacts could have enthralled me for the entire afternoon.Tribal Dance

Another bonus which lured us back outside was the  Annual Indian Market and Fair, featuring Indian dancers in elaborate Hopi feather costumes and juried Indian art.

If you go to the Heard and need a break from all that culture, I can recommend their lunch restaurant.  We ate  tacos and Mexican salad in the plaza – a lovely, lively setting.

Along Higway 17 to Sedona –

Rock Springs Famous PiesAbout half-way to Sedona you’ll need a rest stop.  The Rock Springs Café offers deservedly famous pie: a killer lemon meringue, pecan pie made with Jim Beam, plus serviceable salads, burgers, and homey fare.  And a stuffed polar bear in the gift shop.

Montezuma’s Castle National Monument  – this small but fascinating park features a  5 story cliff dwelling, positioned high on a cliff overlooking a lovely sycamore-lined creek.  The visitor’s center is a fine introduction to the site, and the stroll on the loop trail looking up at the mysteriously abandoned structure is a welcome break to the highway.  Montezuma's Castle

Once you get to Sedona, you’ll need to get in tune with the New Age vibe, so you better seek out a good Vegan restaurant.  I can recommend Chocolatree, an unpretentious combination restaurant and chocolateria along the road west from the main Y intersection.  My less-adventurous companion  was dubious bout the tarot cards on the table, but  ate every bit of her black bean chili. My Meatless Mushroom Medley was gray but yummy. The Mediterranean Madness ordered by my other fellow traveler  -quinoa, almonds, raisins, sunflower seeds, coconut milk, and more- was too rich to finish.  Still we managed to share a Chocolate Ganache of dates, raisins, macadamia nuts, coconut milk, and raw cacao, but we had enough leavings to share the next night with a table of 8 and it went around twice.

Arizona Highway

 

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