Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

A Piece of My Mind: Lost in the Cloud (Los Altos Town Crier April 2017)

20170529_150515docI have been doing what amounts to an archaeological dig at the home my parents occupied for 60 years.  It seems as though every drawer I open, every closet shelf I clear holds traces of the life my parents led starting long before the time I began to exist. I am learning a lot about the people who raised me and how they became who they are. And I am also learning how much I can never know.

When my nephews cleaned out the loft in the garage they brought down boxes of heirloom china and heirloom linens and old tax returns and my mother’s scrapbooks from high school and college, beginning with birthday cards she received when she was seven years old from her father and the grandmother on her father’s side.20170529_150532doc

Now here is the interesting thing:  according to the stories about her childhood told by my mother, she had only fitful contact with her father after her parents were divorced.  Yet the scrapbook contains gift cards for birthday and Christmas from “Daddy” dated for seven un-interrupted years.  And there is nothing else in the scrapbook from those seven years except the gift cards. Then they quit. The scrapbooks contains all sorts of high school mementoes, but no gift cards signed “Love, Daddy.” My guess is that my mother kept and cherished the cards from her childhood until she started the scrapbook in high school. But at that point, did the cards and gifts stop coming? Did she turn against her father and grandmother and reject the presents?  If only I had found the scrapbooks before my mother’s death, so she could tell me more of that story.  But at least I have some of it, thanks to the paper record.

20170529_151829webWhen my sister was putting together a slide show to display at our mother’s memorial, she discovered that there were almost no pictures of her or our younger brother after the ages of seven and five, respectively. She figured out the problem – at that point in the late 50’s or early 60’s, my father  switched to slide film.  Stored in the hall closet are at least a dozen slide carousels, each holding 100 slide transparencies. But who has the technology or the patience to sort through over a thousand slides in this digital age? Even the one shop on the Peninsula which once offered a service of switching analog slides to digital has closed its doors.

This gap in the record caused by lost technology has given me pause.  I have ten years’ worth of photos on my computer at this moment downloaded from various digital cameras, plus another thousand or so backed up from my phone onto Google Photos somewhere in the cloud.  But what will happen to those photos when I am gone?  Will anyone back up my computer before trashing it as obsolete? Will the photos continue to float around as little electronic bursts of static in the digital cloud forever, waiting for someone with the correct user name and password to unlock them again?

I did feel  that I had attained some measure of immortality due to my long relationship with the Los Altos Town Crier.  When I first started writing this column some years back, I searched the archive and found that the good old Crier had preserved mentions of me dating back to when I received an Outstanding Student Award in high school.  At least that part of me would survive.

But to my consternation, when I recently wished to check a date in my personal LATC archive, I found that the Crier is economizing, and  now only the most recent three years of the Life of Allyson can be accessed.  I guess there are only so many gigabytes in the cloud after all.

Fortunately, “scrapbooking” is back in style. When I am gone, the archaeologists will find the scrapbooks from my elementary, high school, and college years encased in plastic storage bins in the attic.  And the deep file drawer in the upstairs desk contains a newsprint copy of every single piece I have published in the Town Crier. I won’t be lost in the cloud, because I’m leaving a paper trail.20170529_152047doc

Freeway Free in France: Up and Down along the Dordogne

20160919_003919cropThis day was the scenic highlight of our walking – we stayed the previous night at Beynac, beneath the cliff topped by the medieval fortress which we had wandered through the afternoon before.  After our breakfast of croissants, cafe au lait, and local yogurt and strawberries, and after wrestling our luggage down three flights of narrow stairs, DM, DB, and I set out along the “grassy track” by the Dordogne River.  (W has developed a painful knee after too many ups and downs and decided to cop a ride in the van.). The path led along the river through woodsy patches – lots of bird calls, some families of ducks on the water, the occasional fisherman, the occasional egret.  We stayed mostly level through a series of acricultural meadows and fields (DM sampled the sunflower seeds, I sampled the fresh asparagus spears pushing up from the ground) and took turns pointing out the yellow sandstone castles on the successive cliffs – Beynac behind us, its hated rival Castelroud across the river on the English side.P1030117web

We continued past Montingnac and a couple of others unnamed in our guidebook, ending with Roque Gageac where we broke for lunch.  This is a point where the cliffs come almost to the water, and the oldest homes are carved into the Rock faces – “troglodytic  dwellings” per our guide.

 

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DB stopped at a sandwich/boulangerie shop and ordered a panini with ham and cheese. I watched in horror as the young man took a perfectly lovely baguette and squished it flat in one of those icky panini presses. Yuck. We picnicked at a quiet park next to the little quay and watched the tourist boats plying the river.

Then began the up and down part which had intimidated W.  First we went up “Banana Alley” to admire the work of a gardener who had learned to grow exotic fruits and plants along the south facing sheltered cliff – very lush and lovely, then further up on narrow roads with improbable “parking privee ” signs posted on narrow ledges next to elegant and not so elegant sandstone homes, some of them evidently refurbished antique dwellings, others more modern knockoffs, but all of the same glowing yellow stone. P1030129web

We snaked up along the angles of the woodsy cliff side, mostly following an ancient stone wall held together by moss and ivy, and finally came to the top where we had our first view of Domme, perched on the top of a distant cliff on the other side of the river. Then down past more elegant farmhouses and homes, some with old ramparts and fortifications still, now on “Tarmac roads”, crossing the river on a narrow bridge with an even narrower sidewalk- only one km to go! P1030141web

But what a kilometer it was, up and up and up in almost the only full sunshine of the day, stopping at every patch of shade and every wayside bench, til we finally reached the medieval gateway with its arrow slits to use against invaders still intact.  The hiking guide led us straight up to the central square, a knockout view, and our elegant hotel right there on the edge of the bluff.  Our room has a view out over the valley, a fitting reward at the end of a day of wonders20160919_093221doc.

 

 

Freeway Free in France: The Barons of Beynac

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We began the morning hiking past a campground which evoked so many stays as my husband and I sought affordable vacations with our two children .  Doesn’t this expandable trailer look familiar, fellow campers?  But having the trail on the other side of a cyclone fence was a little off-putting.

P1030109webOur next stint was up and over easy hills, on back roads through small villages.  We came across an old church, with a charming graveyard adjacent.  Such a contrast to the cemeteries in my neighborhood, where one has a choice of three different styles of stone, and one may not leave anything on the stone which would impede a power lawn mower! Here were live flowers in pots and personalized tributes from family members – one could construct an entire village history from the mementoes pile atop the sacophogi!

Further along the path we spotted what looked like a statue dedicated to Sagittarius on a pedestal in a farmyard.  As we approached nearer, we discover that the statue was a real goat!

We hiked further and higher, always seeing  the castle of Beynac hovering in the distance ahead of us. 20160918_055340web For hours it seemed like a mirage, always visible, yet never nearer.  Then suddenly we were there, on the highlands adjacent to the castle, looking out past the fortifications to the valley of the Dordogne far below.

We wandered through the medieval fortress marveling at the huge hall used for public audience, the spiral stairs leading to inaccessible floors, the barred doors marked  “Acces interdit- Residence privee ” with tantalizing glimpses of rooms in which people might actually be living. . I wonder what it would be like to live in such a place in modern time.

 

A plaque testified that  the lineage of Beynac has continued for centuries, right down to the mysterious current inhabitants.  I would have liked to meet LUCIUS GROSSO Et DIONYSIA -UXOR SUA!20160918_060949web

A Piece of my Mind: Things My Mother Said to Me (Los Altos Town Crier – April 5, 2017)

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  “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

But also: [Of a small tear or a crooked seam on a dress].  “It’ll never show on a galloping horse”

 “What did Thumper say?” [It was actually Thumper’s mother in “Bambi” who said “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”]

“ If you ever say that word again I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap!”

 “I grew up in a house with no men -my widowed grandmother, my widowed Aunt Em and her daughter, my divorced mother, and me.  When I got married I didn’t know anything. I used to go in and watch your father shave. It was thrilling!” 

“Aunt Em always said: ‘Never ask a question that can be answered by a number.’”

“My grandmother and my Aunt Em had always done all the cooking.  I barely knew how to boil water.  Your father had to teach me how to cook. “

“Everything I knew about being married I learned from the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” articles in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Everything your father knew about being married he learned from the Boy Scout Handbook.  Somehow we did all right.”

“Your father would take any job offer as an opportunity.  I never had any security – never!  until I got my first teaching job.  Mac never said no to an offer; I never said no to him – I was such a doormat.”

  [On the age gap between my younger siblings and me]” We had our family all set. One boy, one girl.  Then we moved to East Texas and there wasn’t much else to do.”

 “It’s not so much whether your child is ready to do something; it’s whether you’re ready to let him.”

 “I didn’t care so much about being the first to do something.  But I wanted to be the best. Well, actually, I liked being first too.”

“One of the worst things about being a widow is that you are not #1 with anyone anymore.”

“If you’re going to be famous, Allyson, don’t wait until it’s too late for me to enjoy it.”

 [About the visions which began appearing after cataract surgery] “I know they’re not real, but they’re a lot more interesting than my reality these days.”

 “Mac [dead 20 years earlier] comes and stands by the bed at night, but he never says anything to me.  Do you think he is angry with me?”

“Promise you won’t give up on me, Allyson.”

[As I was helping her walk from her chair in my living room to the dining room table] “They didn’t tell me it would be so long. “

                Me, thinking she meant the distance to her dinner:  “It’s the same distance it’s always been.”

                Mom: “No, I meant old age.”

[While living at  her home of 60 years with 24/7 care] “Shouldn’t there be a pill I could take now to get all this over with?”

[Near the end of her life and memory] “I was looking forward to moving, but I can’t decide between moving in with Aunt Em or with Mother.”

“Are you a patient here too, or are you one of the staff?”

“Am I going home tonight?”

My mother died in her own bed a week later. P1040062

A Piece of My Mind: Could Local Lucre Grease our Wheels? (Los Altos Town Crier March 1, 2017)

P1050177cropI am a big fan of public transit, taking the train regularly to Sacramento and San Francisco to visit family, taking BART to the Symphony or to museums in San Francisco, riding Light Rail and Muni in San Jose and San Francisco.  But I am somewhat reluctant to recommend these services to some of my more fastidious friends, since CalTrain and BART in particular are more than a little grungy.

In the past 20 years I have traveled on public transit systems made similar to BART, and have seen cars and stations in Taipei, Atlanta, and Washington DC get upgrade after upgrade.  In the same period of time nothing has happened to BART, except that the forty-year-old cars have gotten dirtier, smellier, and more worn.  The windows have become so scratched that it is almost impossible to read the signage at each station (especially since very few of the station signs are lighted) and there has never been any interior electronic signage to tell where you are.  And the rails have become noisier and noisier, to the point where going around a bend in a tunnel is now acutely painful to the ears.  The noise is so intense that any on-board announcements are completely indecipherable.  When I take BART to San Francisco, I wear earplugs. 

So why can’t we update BART as often as Taipei updates its MRT?  Of course, we have an absurd idea that public transportation should be self-supporting, and with fares kept low there is little money for upgrades and maintenance.  Yet there are other public services that do not pretend to be self-supporting, and yet manage to stay up to date.  We don’t expect libraries to be self-supporting through their collection of fines, or schools to be self-supporting through sales of tickets to sports events and concerts.  Why can’t…. but wait a minute!  What do schools and libraries have that BART doesn’t have?  They have Friends!  They have Foundations! 

What if we had a BART Maintenance Foundation, similar to the Los Altos Educational Foundation which maintains our high level of school quality , and a Friends of CalTrain, as effective and dedicated as our Friends of the Los Altos Library?   And what if we could inveigle some of our more affluent local residents to become involved?  Just think what we could do!

Latest estimates for total electrification of CalTrain come to about $1.76 billion.  That’s a paltry 3% of Mark Zuckerberg’s current net worth.  A donation to the Friends of CalTrain would certainly earn him a bunch of LIKE’s and maybe a free engineer’s cap to wear when the hoody is in the wash. 

New BART cars are currently running about $3.2 million per car. Why not invite some of our technocrats to purchase naming rights to a BART car?  Certainly more prestigious than buying a Lamborghini that you can only drive in your underground garage because it is too expensive to crash test.  And think of all the rainbow-framed Windows  sending out a subliminal message! 

Upgrading the infrastructure of BART is a bit pricier – $3.5 billion per current estimate – but there are lots of opportunities for appropriate philanthropy. $915 million is needed to update the control system;  maybe one of those companies working on self-driving cars could help under-write the self-driving BART system.  Another $432 million will renovate the Maintenance Center in Hayward.  Might not another local company want to be LinkedIn for naming rights?  That leaves 107 miles of track to be maintained at  roughly $20 million per mile.   Why not set up an Adopt-A-Track program similar to the Adopt-a-Highway program which keeps our highways tidy?  There could be little mileposts along the track: “If you like this quiet ride, you’ll LOVE our electric cars!” “Our software keeps your sales on TRACK!” “Trains or data – easy access is our specialty!”

OK, so upgrading and maintaining public transit isn’t quite on the same cosmic level of good-deed-doing as curing cancer or eliminating malaria.  Still, this is an opportunity to improve the daily quality of life for an average of 430,000 daily riders. Who would like to step up?

Freeway Free in France: The Flight of the Pig

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W and I were walking along the tarmac road a bit ahead of the D’s when we heard an almighty rustling in the shrubbery on the bank to the left and above the level of the road.  At first I thought it was a gust of wind, but no, there was movement.  There was a shout from behind us.  There was definitely something moving in the shrubs above us.  I saw something white and brown through the brambles.  I looked around and the D’s were gesticulating madly.  Behind them four small trucks had appeared, and a squad of guys clad in international orange vests poured out of the trucks.  There was caterwauling in the shrubbery.   Was it an escaped convict?  A terrorist attack? No, D&D explained. They had seen a pig the size of a small sheep dart across the road.  These were hunters with a pack of dogs.

 Just then the dogs burst out of the shrubs, yelping merrily, one stopping to deposit a trace on the roadside.  There were foxhounds, a setter, a border collie, and a couple of serious-looking shaggy gray animals whose job would probably be to try to take down the pig if they ever caught up with him.  All sported orange collars which seemed to be fitted with GPS trackers. The dogs took off to the right of the road and down the hill into more shrubs.  The hunters jumped into their trucks and roared away at right angles, hoping for a road which would bring them closer to the hounds. As we walked along, we saw the hunters stopped, back-tracking, roaring off in another direction, then returning , sometimes with a dog or two added to the back of the truck,  sometimes not. All seemed to be having a great time.  I was just happy that the pig had not jumped from the bank as we were passing – what an ignominious end, to be on a hiking tour in France and be crushed by a flying pig!img_20160916_115459164doc

Can you spot the pig? (Neither could we!)

Freeway-free in France:Medieval Market and Marketing in Sarlat

 

Exploring the medieval village of Sarlat out-appealed  walking in the surrounding countryside,  and gave us each an opportunity to occupy our time without being one wheel of a four-wheel drive vehicle.  DM and I did shopping in the justly- famous Sarlat Saturday market, while DB walked the self-guided city tour and W did tai qi and sudoku in the park. We met for lunch at a quaint courtyard,  then DB went back to the hotel to relax while the other  three did the city tour. We all spent an hour or so doing email and post cards in the mid-afternoon and then the D’s invited us up to their roomier (set up for handicapped) suite for a pre-prandial cordial. So we are learning how to be apart as well as together –  A good travel skill. september-2016-410web

The Saturday market in Sarlat attracts vendors from all over the regions, with lots of opportunities to sampled the  key products: olives and their oil, walnuts and their oil, and (less lavishly set out for tasting) duck and goose foie gras.  The market fills several streets, the main public square, and the inside of an abandoned church whose entire back wall has been converted to a giant portal allowing free circulation of both air and people to the market stalls inside. 

 20160917_021452docHaving figured out the advantage of attracting tourists to their market on Saturday morning, the city fathers of Sarlat have lost no time in figuring out ways to keep those walking cash dispensers in town as long as possible.  On the Saturday of our stay we were tempted back onto the streets long after the market closed with an evening sound-and-light presentation called “Un Patrimoine sous les Etoiles” [A Patrimony under the Stars]  in the old city starting at 9pm.

 

 

 

W and DB begged off, but DM and I set out after dinner to find the streets and ramparts lined with votive candles , the public buildings and cathedral lit with patriotic blue, white, and red, an artist drawing calligraphy with a light torch in the public square, and a buxom artiste on a balcony reading patriotic excerpts from Sarlat’s leading literary light Etienne de La Boetie accompanied by a cello.  The ostensible theme of the evening was something to do with the responsibilities of citizenship, but the real point was to see how different and how cool the old city looked with candle-lit paths and colored light effects. 

 

Freeway Free in France – Hiking in the Dordogne – Day One (cont.)

september-2016-377webAt about the halfway point of our first day of hiking (9km) we felt raindrops.  Drizzle turned to gentle rain, enough to rate dragging out our rain gear – all except DB, who had left her poncho behind to save weight. (DB has some curvature of the spine and her backpack is not very comfortable, so she chose to leave some basic stuff, including sufficient water.  Fortunately both W and I tend to err in the opposite direction, and were able to keep her hydrated with our extra bottles, and fairly dry with my little polka-dot umbrella.). The ponchos added an unnecessary extra layer of warmth, so we kept trying to do without every time we felt the rain slacken, and then had to re-don when we got out of the sheltering woods or the rain renewed its attack.

september-2016-382webWe oohed and ached over a chateau whose ruined towers loomed above the woods on the left (it was burned by the Nazis in WWII) and exclaimed over weird fungi growing on logs and near the edges of the path.  We noted pear orchards, apple trees heavy with fruit, an occasional vineyard lush with grapes awaiting harvest.  We sampled wild blackberries at the side of the road, and tried to open chestnut husks to get at the chestnuts inside. (Chestnuts are stickery!”  And we were counting down the remaining KM by tenths.

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Finally we made it to Sarlat  after about 7 hours on the walk.  (It was supposed to take 5, but we missed a couple of turns, and some of us were pretty slow on the up hills)  The usual hotel for this tour company was booked up, so they put us in a backup – W and I are sharing a tiny room with two twin beds, minuscule night table shelves, one chair, and a clothes rack hung over the door on which we must try to dry our wet / sweaty clothing.  But the shower has cold water for my feet and warm water for the rest of me, and after the appropriate ablutions I am snuggled under the matelasse bedspread in my nightshirt while W in her night shirt is rapping out emails at the skimpy shelf-desk in the corner.   Our dinner reservation is in a half hour and we are hoping to be able to walk that far.

Today’s walk was the second longest of the 7.  Tomorrow we will be in Sarlat for the whole day; there is a “suggested loop” of 14 KM which takes about 4 hours per our tour route guide, or we can just wimp out and enjoy the famous market and explore the car-free streets of the old medieval town.  I’ll see what a good dinner and night’s rest does for me!

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But at the moment wimping out sounds great.

A Piece of My Mind: To Green or Not to Green (LATC Feb 1,2017)

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After four years of drought our lawn was a patchy mélange of sparse grass, tough weeds, exposed tree roots, and bare dirt. We have a corner lot, and even with the rose garden, clothesline, and veggie garden along one side, the lawn area still wraps around three sides of our house – a lot of space to replant or re-imagine.

In recent months I had comforted myself that our yard was not yet the ugliest and most neglected-looking on the street, but it was sinking quickly into contention for that title, and one by one the other practitioners of benign neglect were re-landscaping.

Some folks in our neighborhood had opted for xeriscaped yardssuper-water-wise with lots of wood chips replacing grass and featuring agaves, sage, fountain grass, and other drought-tolerant plants.  This style of landscape looks good with mission-style architecture a la Santa Fe, but our house is a modified ranch style.  Desert landscaping doesn’t fit.

Plus, I heard from a reliable neighbor that the cost of such a total re-invention of our yard would be in thousands of dollars.  It would take us a long time to pay the investment off in water savings, no matter how ecologically correct it would be

Our gardener, veteran of many years of rain cycles, assured us that a lawn renewal – not with sod, but with seed, could be done at a fraction of the cost of re-landscaping, and now was the ideal time, with a series of winter storms coming in to break the drought.  So, despite my Sierra Club membership and longing for green cred, we agreed to his plan: first, thatching the yard to get rid of the existing scrubby growth, then reseeding with a drought-resistant grass, fertilizing, and hoping for rain.

The gardener’s team arrived, and in one Saturday morning our patchy, weedy yard was transformed into a smooth brown expanse of tilled soil  It looked so much better that I almost wanted to stop there.  But the gardener had already sowed seeds, and we sat back to wait for our new lawn.

Whoops!  Here come the birds!  Flocks of little brown sparrows and black-capped chickadees descend on that yummy grass seed.  I shout at them and shoo them and toss pebbles in their direction, and they fly back into the shrubbery, then flock out again as soon as I am inside the house.  How will there be any seeds left to germinate against this feathered horde?

Here comes the rain!  Buckets of rain in storm after storm for almost two weeks in January!

Here comes the grass!  It’s not exactly a smooth green carpet, and the little blades are noticeably sparser close to the shrubs that sheltered those dratted birds, but it is indubitably grass.  Surely those little blades will grow thicker as they push on into the sun!  And then

Here come the weeds! For four years of drought we had not worried about weeds- even dandelions had trouble thriving in baked adobe clay.  Now we have our first new dandelions.  Can oxalis and sticker-burs be far behind?

In another month or so I should be able to tell you whether we should have gone with the xeriscaping after all.  Stay tuned!

 

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Freeway Free in France: Hiking in the Dordogne – Day One

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W and I are in our shared room decompressing after our first day hiking in the Dordogne.  The day started out well, with a street market going full blast out our window, a good night’s sleep after our six course kickoff dinner the evening before, and a good assortment of stuff on the buffet table at breakfast suitable for stuffing into a surreptitious bag for lunch.

20160916_025454docWe were dropped off in Roufillac after a brief orientation on French hiking route markings, and told to “go between the houses and up the path”.  Packs on back, hiking sticks in hand, we set off.  The sky was partly cloudy, the temperature was in the low 70s, couldn’t have been nicer for our purposes.  We wound up through wooded hills past houses and barns built of glowing yellow sandstone, some with tile roofs, many with stone roofs.  We came to a small village perched at the top of the hill and realized we had climbed quite far, and there was a ruined castle inviting us to explore just at the tip of the cliff overlooking the valley.20160916_005258doc

Some of the ruins were Roman, some 12th century, some newer. The castle had been a stronghold against the Gauls, the Huguenots, Charlemagne, and the Moors at various times.  This day, two friendly and muscular young men were busy setting up the stage for a music festival inside the keep starting this weekend.

We continued on down into the valley and up the other side.  By this time the air was warmer, and we stopped to take off our jackets and have our noontime snack of bread, cheese, and fruit from the hotel buffet.  We were already starting to keep track out loud of how many kilometers we had come and how far we had to go – a bad sign. But we felt good, and eager to see what would be coming around the next corner. (To be Continued)september-2016-379doc

 

 

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