Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot – Week 10: The Choices are getting hard

Today I drove to a produce market and bought fruit.  Not amazing, except it is the first time in two months that I have driven my car. (My husband has used it on alternate weeks to keep the battery charged.)

At the market, I wore my face mask.  The market allowed only 10 customers at a time.  Within the market, duct-taped arrows on the floor directed me around the fruit and vegetable stands – if I missed something, no turning back.  I avoided putting my choices in bags as much as possible – everything went into one bag at the check-out station, which was shielded by plastic curtains except where  I could insert my credit card for the check-out.

For a decade we have been asked to bring our own reusable bags to shop. Now reusable bags are possible vectors of infection, and the plastic bag makers are staging a comeback.  All I can do is to pile my fruit and vegetables all together in one cart, let the checkout clerk sort, and put my purchases into one paper bag.

Public transportation, re-usable bags, cluster housing – all those ecologically correct ideas are now hazardous – how can we save the planet now?

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot- Week 29: Getaway Gone

Our favorite getaway spot, just an hour and a half from the busy Bay Area, has been the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove.  This historic retreat was originally a YWCA leadership camp , with historic redwood buildings designed by Julia Morgan, who also designed many of the buildings at William Randolph Hearst’s La Cuesta Encantada in San Simeon (AKA Hearst Castle).    The Center is nestled amid cypress trees and sand dunes just across from Asilomar State Beach on the quiet side of the Monterey Peninsula, separated from touristy and cutesified Carmel by the gorgeous twisting 17-Mile-Drive along the Monterey coastline. .

For the first part of the Lockdown, the Conference center was commandeered by the State as a place to quarantine people who had been exposed to the virus.   After the first surge, the center was emptied and sanitized, but its conference business had dropped to zero.  It reopened to the public only a few weeks ago.  D and I were desperate to get away from our same daily rooms, and reserved a night.  That week the wildfires blazed up, and the Air Quality in Pacific Grove was rated Hazardous.  We rescheduled.  Two weeks later the fires were contained, the air had cleared and we were on our way.

Usually the Conference Center is humming with conferees, who might include  quilters, nutritionists, corporate retreaters, and many other groups.  But there are usually a few unfilled rooms which are available at reasonable cost to the non-conferring public at the last minute.  If you have breakfast in the Dining Hall you will sit at whatever table is not filled, and be liable to have an interesting conversations with whatever genial strangers share the table.  The Lodge is full of teenagers waiting their turn at the pool table or conferees scanning brochures about local activities, or picking up souvenirs at the Park Store.

But that was Before.

As we drove in, the parking lots were nearly empty.  The lodge itself was posted with the first of many signs notifying visitors of curtailed services. “Lodge open for check-in from 2PM to 8PM.”  It was 3PM, so we entered .  The cavernous lodge was empty except for the young lady at the reception desk and one computer jockey at a well-isolated table.  The room was posted with signs saying “[fill in blank] is not available to guests at this time.” (e.g. swimming pool, lodge fireplace, park store, pool table, piano…).  The brochure stand was empty, but we invited to hold up your phones to a QRcode to download information.  The Dining Room was closed also, as were the bike rentals.

All the same, it was a wonderful getaway.  We could sit on our balcony among the cypress trees and look out to a sparkling ocean.  And when we walked down to the beach, we saw that there are some family pleasures that even COVID-19 cannot close down.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot – Week 27: Do’s and Don’ts for Skype-ing Story Time

In the Before, I was used to taking a commuter train up to the City, then catching a trolley across town to my son’s apartment, where I would give my son and daughter-in-law a break while spending quality time with my pre-school age grand-daughter. Of course, you can see the Red Flags popping out all over this scenario now. But with pre-schools and offices locked down, the need for a break for the harried parents has been greater than ever.So twice a week we Skype Story Time.

It has taken awhile to get the hang of doing this. First I had to find story books suitable for Skyping. I burned through the collection of books that were left over from my kids much faster than I expected. My kids and my grandchildren had always settled on a favorite book, which they requested again and again. But not being side by side with the child, not being able to share pictures and point out details, meant I could only show the pictures, recite the text and hope that my little audience would stay tuned. I learned to imitate motion by zooming in on part of a picture, then panning out. This helped keep the pre-schooler’s attention, but after three or so readings of “The Box with Red Wheels” she demanded “A new story this time!” and soon it was every time.

I plundered every Little Free Library within a 5-mile radius for children’s books. But the books which end up in the Free Library are NOT the ones which were anyone’s favorites, and my little audience was quick to let me know when she didn’t like a story by burrowing under the couch cushions.

Fortunately, our local libraries hit on a brilliant idea for their limited availability during lockdown: they put together bundles of books – Toddler bundles, Picture Book bundles, Teenage bundles, etc. I could check out ten picture books at a time, a grab bag of possibilities.

I quickly discovered, though, that out of ten books only three or four would really be suitable for my little audience. Alphabet books held no interest. Books with a boy protagonist were less interesting to a little girl. Books designed to increase a child’s vocabulary (e.g. a lot of Richard Scarry) tended to have very weak story lines. And most disappointingly, many books with beautifully detailed illustrations were either too monochromatic or too finely drawn to be seen and understood on a computer screen.

Big hits include classic stories like “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, in editions with large clearly outlined graphics. Babar the Elephant and Curious George are warmly welcomed. Rhyming stories like “I Can Fly”, again with vivid illustrations and a girl protagonist, get repeat requests, as to thee simpler Dr. Seuss readers like “Bears on Wheels” with their goofy illustrations.

So we Skype along. My little audience is fiercely protective of her story time, not allowing Daddy or Mama to attempt any grownup conversation on HER time. And until we find a New Normal, I’ m keeping a list of beautiful picture books for when I can sit down side by side with my little audience again.

Life in a Covid – 19 Hot Spot: Week 26 – The new Normal?

My sons have always gone camping together in September.  The only miss in the last 15 years was the September that the younger son got married.  This year any campground that was not already restricted by COVID-19 was shut down due to wildfires raging through the state and national forests.  What to do?

Solution: Urban camping.  We have a back yard which has a lawn.  Occasionally wildlife (rabbits, possums, raccoons, an occasional coyote pack, an occasional deer) appear unexpectedly.  And we have adjacent foothills so far unscathed by fire.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20200919_095141web-1-e1600887575283.jpgSo we had a family reunion, properly distanced.  The campers set up their tents in the yard (separate tents, properly distanced)  and set off for a 16-mile hike which included a fair segment of asphalt and sidewalks, summited the local peak (Elevation, 2,812 ft) and a stop at a local pub able to serve a cold beer with outside seating.

Cooking out was pretty civilized, using our Smoky Joe for burgers, and sitting around our propane-fueled portable fire pit for after dinner cookies and conversation, six feet or more apart. 

The next morning the guys settled for a breakfast of coffee and French toast made in our kitchen, rather than bacon and biscuits on the camp stove. We ate together on the patio, using single-use plates and napkins and utensils fresh from the dish washer.  

No, it wasn’t the same.  But it was still a slice of wonderful to see and hear my family together in real time, real space.  I’ll take it.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot – Week 25: Getting Hotter

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Not enough to be locked down by fear of the virus. For two weeks I have been locked in, surrounded in my bayside bubble by wildfires raging out of control to the north, to the east, to the south, and to the west. The outside air has ranged from Moderately Unhealthy to Hazardous, as a high pressure dome presses down on our region, keeping the sea breezes out and holding the ash and soot in.

The beginning of the maelstrom was a week of record-setting high temperatures, punctuated by a freak lightning storm which lit over 600 blazes in tinder-dry brush. We had a week of relief from the heat, and then it returned, with temperatures a full 25 degrees above “normal” for this time of year.

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September 7,2020

At the same time, in other parts of the country the most powerful storm ever to make landfall made its way from the Gulf to the Atlantic shore. The Weather Service is all the way to Rene in naming tropical storms, and the hurricane season has not reached its peak.

How can anyone look at these events and not be afraid, not for their own personal well-being, but for our planet? I have grand-children. Scientists have warned for a decade that what I live through in these weeks will be the “new normal” if we are not able to change our destructive patterns of life.

If no other good comes from it, the pandemic has shown us that, if forced and if fearful, we CAN cut carbon emissions by 7% a year. We CAN move out of cars and onto bicycles or our own feet. We CAN live without the latest Something New.

And the trusting faces of our children and grandchildren tell us we MUST.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot – Week 24: The Productivity Trap

            In an article by David Gelles in the NY Times June 23 exploring whether productivity increased during lockdown as people work from home, a number of workers and managers stated that productivity was actually up.

            “We’re seeing an increase in productivity,” said Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s chief people officer. Most of Cisco’s employees have been working from home for months, and Ms. Katsoudas said data showed many were accomplishing more. For example, according to the company’s tracking, customer service representatives are taking more calls and customers are more satisfied with the help they receive.

            At Chegg, an online education company, 86 percent of employees said their productivity was as good as or better than before, according to an internal survey. They attributed the uptick to not commuting and not having boundaries to the workday.

            My first thought was “How does one measure productivity for the sort of white-collar work being done remotely?”   Ms. Catsoudas cites the number of  the number of customer service phone calls completed, but if you make a hundred calls solving trivial problems for the customer where the answer is already known [ e.g. “Have you checked to make sure the compuer is plugged in?” ], how does that score in productivity compared with making only ten calls but achieving a huge leap forward in solving a serious problem?  The same issue of quality vs quantity applies if measuring the number of lines of computer code written, the number of software bugs eliminated, the number of pages of collateral produced, and so on. It’s easy to measure productivity when you have a defined product to measure – how many high-quality widgets per hour are assembled.  But how do you measure productivity for creative output?

            In another article on lockdown productivity published in USA Today onMay 4th and updated June 2,  Brent says:    “Not only does working from home help slow the spread of disease, but some employers may have realized that they can save money on real estate and utilities by not needing as much shared office space.”

            If the employer is Facebook or Google or Microsoft, they are also saving money on employee cafeterias, fitness centers, dedicated buses, transit subsidies, and many other perks.  But that means that their employees have to buy breakfasts, lunches, or dinners that previously were subsidized by the employer – will the employees be paid more because they have lost these perks? 

           And if these same employees are judged more productive by some accepted measure, say by 20%, should they not receive a 20% pay hike reflect that increase in productivity?  Or will the companies pocket the profit, or worse, establish the increased productivity as the new minimum standard? 

This possibility brings back uneasy memories of piecework and sweatshops, with women workers  ruining their eyesight in 19th century attics to turn out their assigned numbers of lace collars per week.  I hope this is not how the New Normal plays out.

 

 

A Piece of my Mind: 100 Years of Expectations

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A century ago the 19th amendment was ratified by a margin of one vote in the legislature of the 36th of 36 states which were needed for approval.  It’s hard to believe now that the decades-long struggle of women to gain political equality with men was ended by such a narrow margin.  At the time, there were many worries and hopes tied to the prospect of women voting.  Let’s see how it worked out.

An early  argument against giving women the vote was that they would simply vote as directed by their husbands or fathers.  Having grown up in a politically divided house I can personally testify that this is not true.  My mother idolized Franklin Roosevelt;  my father said that “I always vote for the best man, but he always happens to be a Republican.” Our dining room discussions were lively.

Many expected that women would vote in a bloc, with a focus on “women’s issues”, including education, health, religion, and other domestic matters.  But it turns out that women, like men, have differing ideas about what should be done regarding these “women’s issues”, and the bloc melts away in the face of such divisive proposals as unrestricted abortion access,  school busing,  and federal vouchers for private schools.

Some felt that the “gentle sex” was unsuited to the rough-and-tumble world of politics, while others hoped that the feminine influence would calm that world down and make it less hard-edged.  It’s true, as an immediate effect of the addition of women to the voting rolls, polling stations moved out of bars and into churches and schools, making the whole process cleaner and quieter.

But anyone who believes that women politicians are  gentler in negotiation, or more willing to find common ground with the opposition, is invited to sit in on some of our  City Council meetings, with our five women council members as frequently and vocally at odds as any group of men could be.

The long-term consequences of the 19th Amendment are still making themselves known. In the past 100 years women have become more and more visible in public, commercial, and political areas, but there are still many issues which are considered “women’s natural interests” and others where women are viewed as interlopers.

Even in education,traditionally a “woman’s area”, progress for women has been slow. When my mother worked at the local high school in the early 70’s, her appointment as Vice Principal of Curriculum was headlined in the local paper as “First Woman becomes Senior Administrator at LAHS”.  Whenmy sons attended the same high school 20 years later, the school finally appointed its first woman principal.  Twenty-eight years later, the district hired its first woman as superintendent.

The early suffragists recognized that the 19th Amendment fell short in many ways.  It states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” but it said nothing about giving women equal protection of the laws in other ways.  The Equal Rights Amendment first proposed by early US suffragist Alice Paul in 1923, was finally ratified by Congress in 1972, but has yet to be approved by the required ¾ of state legislatures.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if in three years we could celebrate the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment by actually enacting it?womens-suffrage-gettyimages-514700294

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot: Week 21 – Cutting Closer to the Bone

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LIMITED ACCESS ONLY – PERMIT REQUIRED

I’ve gotten used to the lack of retail therapy as most stores have limited access, and aimless browsing is discouraged.  I’ve gotten used to the empty parking lots around offices, schools, and churches.  I’ve gotten used to meeting friends on ZOOM rather than meeting them for lunch. I’ve gotten used to take-out food rather than white tablecloths at my favorite restaurants. I’ve gotten used to bringing my own folding table and chair when I visit a park.

I put up with cancelling a trip to Europe (my husband’s bad knee wouldn’t have stood the trip anyway), cancelling a long weekend at a hideaway inn to the north, cancelling the family reunion picnic we had scheduled for my milestone birthday this year, cancelling my grandson’s 6th grade graduation, my other grandson’s high school graduation.  My monthly visits to help look after my toddler grand-daughter have morphed to bi-weekly story times on ZOOM.

County Library: Contactless Holds Pickup and Material Return Now Available

KatieSurprisecropI’m just beginning to feel some fraying in the social fabric. My son refused to get together for a mid-point picnic between our homes, as his son and daughter had recently traveled and he couldn’t guarantee they weren’t infectious.  For the same reason my other son canceled a planned joint camping trip with his brother’s family – an infection in his four-room apartment would be a disaster, and he couldn’t risk it. Still not “serious”, no-one is ill, but when families are afraid to meet, that’s wrenching.

On the other hand, my sister and her husband just returned from an expedition to Yosemite.  They were able to obtain a day pass, they set off at an ungodly hour of the mroning, and by 10AM they were beginning the hike up the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Falls. She said “It was like I remember from my childhood – no shuttle buses, but not so many people, and no crowding on the trails.  We picnicked at the top of Vernal Falls and dangled our feet in the pool beyond Nevada Falls.  It was lovely.”

Maybe this is the preview of our future: much- curtailed activity and options for most of us, but for the few who are able to maintain their income stream,  travel safely, obtain the right permissions, and keep their health, a rather pleasantly emptied world.  It’s not the future I want.

Yosemite: Ways to Get a Reservation

Four icons for the four permit types

 

On Another Subject: Slippery Words

 

seg4When I was a child, my parents moved us from Palo Alto to a small city of about the same size in the segregated South. (It was a bad move, but that’s another story.) My parents were from a part of the country where you were more likely to see an antelope walking down the street than a person of African descent.  I had to learn some new words, and meanings of words.

There was one word that  could be used on the playground if you were using “Eeeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe” to choose out sides for a game, but if you used it anywhere else around my parents you risked getting your mouth washed out with soap.

There was another word that sounded almost the same but was used only by grownups when they were speaking seriously, and you could almost hear the capital letter when they said it.

The ordinary word used in polite conversation, and on rest room doors, and over water fountains, was “colored.”

Usage of this word to label persons of African descent is now archaic, surviving only, as far as I can tell, in the NAACP, almost never spelled out as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.   The preferred word today is Black, capitalized as though it referred to a geographic region or a nationality.

As a child I had never heard “black” ascribed to a person in conversation, although it was used frequently to describe the natives encountered by the hero of my father’s favorite book, “Tarzan of the Apes.”  In that context it seemed descriptive, not pejorative, although the book itself is indisputably racist to any modern reader.  When “black” first came into common usage to describe people back in the 60’s, it sounded rude to me, as would using “red” to describe a person descended from pre-Columbian Americans, or “yellow” to describe a person of Chinese descent.

nomexWhich leads to that awkward expression “person of color.”  Since “colored” historically referred to those people now called “Black”, a new term was needed which would be more inclusive of people who are not of European descent and appearance. This includes those formerly called “Indians” who are now “Indigenous”, also capitalized.  It also includes people originating from south of the US border who were  “Mexicans” or “Spanish” in my youth, and then became  “Hispanics”.  This word has now been discarded as being too deferential to the genocidal Conquistadores.  “Latino” was used next, but this word recently has been interpreted as sexist and supplanted by “Latinx”.

Mysteriously, “Persons of color” does not seem to refer to people of Asian descent.  Somehow they seem to have escaped the baggage associated with having endured prejudice, poverty, and exclusion which other immigrants have carried for generations.  But I am entering a minefield, I know.  Tomorrow may bring some new terms, some new usage, and all I have written here may be outdated and even shameful.  Language is slippery, and morphs without notification.

Maybe we should all just call each other by our names.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot: Week 19 – Revisiting a Blast from the Past

tarzan_jumpdocYears ago, my father used to say “Everything I know about life I learned from  Tarzan of the Apes.” Although some tattered Tarzan paperbacks were around the house, somehow I never got around to reading them, though my kid sister read the series avidly.  Some time back I mentioned this family story to my husband, and as a gag gift at Christmas he gave me the first four books of the series.  They sat on my bookshelf untouched until four months into lockdown.  With all libraries closed and the neighborhood Little Free Libraries exhausted, I turned in desperation  to the Lord of the Jungle for escape.

Fortunately, I was able to remember that my father was laughing when he claimed Tarzan as his literary preceptor.  The book was published in 1912, and by today’s standards is offensively racist, with its portrayals of black Africans as vicious and cowardly: sexist, with its portrayals of Jane Porter and other women as helpless creatures instinctively drawn to the alpha male; and even animalist – Jane Goodall would shudder at the way Burroughs describes the life and traits of the Great Apes.TarzanJanedoc

If you can overlook the above offensiveness, the story can suck you in.  Tarzan’s birth, adoption by the apes, upbringing, and his discovery by other white men are ingeniously plotted (though Burroughs probably owes a lot to Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli of The Jungle Book). The first volume, Tarzan of the Apes, takes our hero through the events of the above paragraph, terminating with his unselfish refusal to claim either his title of Lord Greystoke or the woman he loves from the hands of the man, his friend, who has  taken both.

Tarzan2Of course, we couldn’t leave it there.  The second volume, The Return of Tarzan, sees Tarzan transformed into a 1912 version of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher: handsome, well-spoken, without ties, and able to fend off an adoring female or fight off  a dozen malefactors without suffering a scratch. I’m about half-way through this volume, but I’m pretty sure that Tarzan’s true love Jane Porter will end up in his arms by the end.  After all, I still have Son of Tarzan and Tarzan the Untamed waiting on the shelf, and I’m pretty sure Tarzan didn’t get it on with any of the apes.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot spot – Week 17 : the Doldrums

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I’ve hit the wall. I feel as though the General Confession I learned in my innocent childhood has come to fulfillment:  I have left undone those things I ought to have done (like getting this blog entry out on time) and I have done those things I ought not to have done (like completing 199 rounds of Word Play in three days). And there is no health in me (although I passed my Covid-19 test with flying negatives.)

Maybe it’s Post Project Depression – I had been working on a fun project for one of my favorite little girls (see below), and happily I was able to gift it in person last weekend,(socially distanced, air hugs, but in person!) and see the gleeful reception first hand. Now it’s finished, no more figuring and contriving and eking out, and there is a vacuum where that flicker of creativity glimmered, and no glee to look forward to.

Maybe it’s the general flatness of my social life.  Other than the week-end’s distanced visit, my calendar is a panel of blank days punctuated by periodic Zoom and Skype encounters.  The trouble with Zoom and Skype is that they are so darned flat!  No body language is visible in those postage-stamp-sized video clips, no signals that the other person has something to say,  it’s like being in grade school where you have to raise your (digital) hand to be recognized.  By the time I figure out where the Hand icon is, I’ve forgotten what I meant to contribute to the discussion.

Or maybe it’s those rounds of WordPlay and Spider Solitaire that are slowly eating away my brain. Even with a sparse calendar, I find myself forgetting Zoom meetings and Skype appointments, doing my classwork (yes, I’m taking an online class) haphazardly at the last minute.

July is a big Birthday month in my family.  I have eight birthday cards to mail.  Hope I don’t forget anyone!

An article in the paper gives me some hope that it’s not just me; even people who normally have proved to have total recall are finding it difficult to distinguish one lockdown day from the next. If only, like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”, I could feel that I was learning to live my day better with each repetitive cycle.  At the moment, I don’t guess that I could say I am.

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