Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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.

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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

 

Arizona Highways: Sedona Sucks You In

Sedona outcroppingSedona started as a Mormon mission; then came the miners, whose main remnant is the picturesque semi-ghost town of Jerome dangling from a bluff across the valley. Then came the New Agers, with their crystals, their ethnic garb, their peculiar dietary restrictions, and their talk of mystical vortexes of energy to be found among the red rocks. With the skyrocketing prices of precious metals, there is a current threat that old mines will be opened and subjected to new tech hydraulic mining, starting the cycle over again. But meanwhile, visitors continue to be magnetically attracted to Sedona, whether it is vertical energy or simply the stunning scenery and space.

Jeff, the ex-lawyerI am part of a group of nineteen who have signed up for five days of hiking in the Sedona back country. Our hike leader is a former lawyer who was involved in environmental cases and must have asked himself the Big Questions: WHY am I doing this legal work which I don’t t enjoy? WHAT IF I quit and went to work for Roads Scholar? HOW can I make it work? He found a niche as a faculty member at Northern Arizona State University solely employed in facilitating hikes, conventions, bonding sessions, and so on for the U. Is this a cool job or what?

The three guides also include one immigrant, from the Caucasus. He had emigrated from Russia to Latvia at age 16. His mother saw him off at the railway station. She asked, “Will you be coming back?” He answered, as the train pulled out, “No.” After a second life in Latvia, he joined the merchant marine and traveled the world, living on ship. “Wherever we docked, the purser would give us a passport that would let us ashore without trouble.” I missed the story of how he came to Sedona. I did hear him say “Sedona is my 4th life.” He is a firm believer in the positive energy of the vortexes. “They changed my life.”

A second guide is also a strong believer in the power of vortexes. We stood in the center of a natural amphitheater in the rocks, purportedly a vortex site, and he told us of meeting a Native American at this site where he was meditating. The Indian pulled out a conch shell from his pack and, after asking permission blew a deep note. The sound traveled in a circle around them as it echoed from one wall to another, a truly mystical moment.

We tried to believe, but we could not reproduce any mysterious effects of the vortexes. We ate delicious food in a vegan restaurant, and felt just as stuffed and no healthier than if we had over-indulged at McDonald’s. However, the drama of the soaring rocks, the rippling streams, and the blue sky soaring to forever was enough to energize me without benefit of crystals or magnetic fields. Just being with beauty makes you more aware of what being means.Sedona view from the trail

 

Arizona Highways: Scottsdale – not just Carmel with Cactus

Scottsdale gardenVisiting Scottsdale had not been high on my list.  After all, I grew up only an hour from Carmel, the West Coast apogee of artsy quaintness-by-the-sea.  What was Scottsdale with its art galleries but Carmel with cactus instead of ocean?  As usual, once I had visited, I knew once again how wrong preconceptions can be. Scottsdale is to Carmel as meaty BBQ ribs are to seared sea scallops – both wonderful, but incomparable.

Scottsdale mustangWe visited on a Sunday morning, so the galleries along the Art Walk were closed.  We were more relieved than disappointed:  the galleries would have seduced us into dallying inside, while on a temperate and sunny morning there was plenty to see in the sculptures that lined the sidewalk and rose from the median. At first I noted the proliferation of horses frozen in wood, ceramic, steel, and bronze, galloping, rearing, bareback in herds or straddled by cowboys, cowgirls, or the Original Inhabitants. [Note:  We met several locals with red-brown skin and aquiline noses, who told us to "Relax.  We call ourselves Indians.  It's easier."  I will follow this advice hereon.]  But there were also bronze children, artists, and unmounted Indian maidens both nude and clothed.  Also  various vaguely humanoid shapes, and a giant green head which might have been Buddha.Enigmatic head

We left the Art Walk and meandered toward the center of town, a meander made easy by a grass-lined pathway going beside and over a dry creek and eventually leading us to the central plaza, bordered by the City Hall, Art Museum, and Performing Arts Center, all impressive and interestingly designed modern buildings.  The plaza was full of activity:  a craft fair was just setting up, with tents offering Indian artifacts, jewelry, clothing, and food.  A stage at one end promised music to come, and some families were already staking a claim with blankets on the sloping lawn in front of the bandstand.  And at the other side of the plaza I found an old friend, one I had first met in Philadelphia, then encountered again in Tokyo and Taipei.  I was delighted to see again Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture.LOVE in Scottsdale

On the way back to our car we walked through Old Town Scottsdale, and found the tourist gift shops beginning to open.  I bought a silver-and-turquoise earcuff to replace a much nicer one I had been given and lost years ago, hoping to combine old and new memories.Old Town kitsch

 

 

Arizona Highways: Phoenix’s Desert Garden

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I thought of Phoenix as an airport stop on our way to hiking in the red rock country, but my friend B was more curious.  “Let’s stay a day in Phoenix and explore!”  So M, our travel organizer, found an affordable motel in Scottsdale. (“There are art galleries!  Let’s stay close!” B enthused.) We raided the local AAA for maps and guides, and off we went.

M was arriving first, so she rented the car. All the car rental offices for the Phoenix Airport are combined in a single large building at the edge of the airport, along with a food court, rest rooms, and a travel office – an amazingly good idea! B and I had flight delays, so we connected with M too late to do the auto tour we had planned for the afternoon.  But there was still time to walk in the Phoenix Botanical Garden, which was featuring an outdoor exhibit of glassware by the well-known artist/craftsman Dale Chihuly.Entrance-Chihuly exhibit

The Chihuly glass exhibit blended beautifully with the otherworldly colors and shapes of the cacti and succulents which are the backbone of the PBG, and glowed against a stormy evening sky. We strolled and pointed and admired as  lightning flashed, thunder crashed, and then came the deluge. We were close to the gift shop by then, which exhibited an amazing collection of small Chihuly pieces, also beautifully illuminated. (see below)   We  waited out the worst of the rain, then strolled a bit further armed with umbrellas. But soon there were too many puddles, too many  flooded paths, and we took refuge again, this time at Gertrude’s, the charming modern restaurant adjacent to the Garden. The tables were full of other soggy visitors, so we snuggled up to the bar watching mysterious cocktails being mixed as we sipped our staid beer and wine and downed excellent sandwiches.  I can recommend the pulled pork sandwich with chili dipping sauce, paired with a Mexica Model Negro beer.

The exhibit continues until May 18th (2014) so you still have time.  Evening viewing is wonderful.

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Excavating a Life (Los Altos TOWN CRIER April 2014)

Pix of Dimi

 

My husband’s mother, known to friends and family as “Dimi”, died at 102, and I went with my husband to help arrange funeral services and reacquaint ourselves with family. We stayed in my husband’s boyhood bedroom in his mother’s abandoned house.

The house had been rented out for a few months to a family connection who had used mostly the first floor. Almost all Dimi’s belongings had been moved to the second floor. They included a couple of bedrooms’ worth of furniture, plus boxes and baskets of documents, oddments, gewgaws, and bric-a-brac.

As a relative by marriage only, I enjoyed going through the boxes, bins, and dresser drawers which had been jumbled together, and the closer relatives seemed relieved to have an unemotional eye sorting through the accumulation. It was exciting to explore, as if I were doing an archaeological dig through the strata of a life.

I found a newspaper clipping with a picture of Dimi at about 18, as she starred in a college play. At her 90th birthday she had listed as one of her regrets that “I never acted on Broadway.” We had thought she was joking. Was it a real dream at one time?

In a drawer of a bureau upstairs I found a wedding photo. We had thought that my husband’s parents had not been able to afford a fully costumed and documented wedding in 1933, the beginning of the Depression. Yet here they were, he looking dapper and debonair in a suit, vest, and watch chain, she glamorous in a swooping hat, full length white lace gown, and sporting an enormous bouquet.

I found a letter from a soldier dated April, 1945, thanking Dimi for a newsletter she had sent as a class correspondent. He said it was like a breath of spring to hear from her, and asked to be remembered to the college professors he had admired. Did C.E. “Dutch” Eby, Lieutenant on the USS Barron, survive the last few months of the war?

I found a note from a young woman who had been a childhood friend of Dimi’s daughter, saying that she had always thought of Dimi as a ideal parent, and she had tried to model her own parenting after Dimi.

I found notes from people whom Dimi had met on her travels, from Guam, and Australia, and Hawaii, and Norway, with whom she had kept in touch and in friendship for decades after their chance meetings.

I found notes written between Dimi and her husband of 40 years, including the last heartbreaking one when he was in the grip of his last illness, knowing he was near his end, just before his death.

I found lists of Christmas presents which Dimi had given year by year. In later years, many of these presents were ludicrously inappropriate, mis-sized, or obviously pre-owned. We laughed with other family members about the too-small shirts, the ladies’ sweaters given to grandsons, the tarnished necklaces with missing stones. Yet these lists showed how much thought and care she had taken so that no child or grandchild or even great-grandchild would go unremembered as her family grew.

On my return home I looked at my cluttered closets and crammed desk drawers with a different eye. I knew Dimi so much better since I had delved into the strata of her life. Maybe one day my children will learn to know me better also thanks to the clutter I leave behind.

 

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