Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Security in our Nation’s Capital – 3 Vignettes

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TSA Precheck

My husband D and I applied for TSA pre-check privileges two weeks ago.  We had to do it in person at an H&R Block office in Santa Clara, with finger printing, passports and $85. each.   My ‘Known Traveler’ ID number showed up the next day on the TSA web site so my husband entered it for all the flights I am taking this summer, including ours to D.C.   I’ll have TSA Pre at all airport check-ins. My husband’s “KT” number, however, is still in processing.  He called TSA and was told by a friendly fellow that this is typical, implying that most terrorists are men and thus they take longer to check out.  He did say that there were no red flags on my husband’s profile.    So this morning we got our boarding passes for tomorrow and  –  Whee  –  we are both TSA Pre-Check.  Go figure.  Maybe because he had been this category on all his flights for the past few years.  Maybe because he is a distinguished WASP senior citizen.   Maybe because we are flying first class.  Maybe because it’s Tuesday.    Whatever, he will enjoy, at 5 am, NOT  having to shed his shoes and belt nor remove his laptop.

Security guard’s view

We got into our nation’s capital a day early for our  Travel Tour, to do some stuff on our own.   One of the suggested travel-packing items our tour leader recommended was a money belt.  Uh Oh!  Shades of the guy on our Barcelona tour who had his wallet filched  within minutes of arriving En Espana   –  or the warnings when we  were at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris  from the entrance Gendarme:  Beware of pickpockets.  So D bought a stylish (Hah) money belt and packed it .  Then, after we had finished our fine breakfast at the JW Marriott in D.C. he approached a tall, imposing, black security guard in the lobby and asked him,  “Should I be concerned about pickpockets here in Washington D.C. ?”

The guard thought for a moment and said,  “No, I’ve never heard of or experienced a problem, and I’ve lived here for 14 years.  And I carry my wallet in my back pocket.”

“Right,” my husband said.  “But you also carry a gun!”   The guard did not seem amused, but the money belt stayed in his suitcase.

White house walk-by

After dinner at a café across from our hotel we walked further down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House.  There were Secret Service men not-so-secretly patrolling in Kelvar vests, walkie-talkies, pistols, and some with assault rifles.  One can no longer go up and press one’s face against the fence to catch a glimpse of Michele Obama’s kitchen garden – there are traffic barriers keeping onlookers 10 feet from the fence.  Of course, the SS guys are selected to be handsome, charming, and to interact with the public – the one we approached sympathized with the difference between our memory of “the last time we were here we could…”  with a warm “too bad you can’t still, but welcome back.”  We found a bench further down Pensylvania Ave. and took a rest, and on our return found the sidewalk blocked, SS men at attention, no longer interactive.  A detour to the other side of the street led us back to our hotel;  on the way we found three DC policemen chatting. “What’s going on?”  “It’s just a drill.  If it were real we wouldn’t be standing here,”

Flight Risk

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“Time to get up, “ my husband D said , his voice roughened by sleep or the lack of it.  I opened bleary eyes.  It was 3:30 AM, the time D had determined we needed to rise in order to make our 6AM plane departure from SFO.  I pushed myself out of bed and wove my way to the kitchen to start some coffee.  My cell phone lay charging in its nest on the counter.  “That’s got to go in my bag,” I thought, as I picked it up.  Then I registered the message glaring from its yellow oval:  “Your flight has been cancelled.”

Shock, amazement, distress.  Our flight has been rebooked through Houston instead of Chicago, leaving at 10:50.  What to do?  Back to bed not a good option – too much adrenaline generated by the cancellation notice.  Tried unsuccessfully to doze.  Finally ate breakfast at 6:30, arrived airport at 9, to find a delay of another hour.P1020899doc

Flight delay. Delay. Delay. Finally a lovely first class seat in a new Dreamliner. We hover over Houston, which looks impossibly green below towering white clouds like the ghosts of Bryce Canyon hoodoos.  We land.  Our connection  in Houston leaves in 20 minutes, no gate info provided.  Mad search for departure info?  Found – ugh! Terminal E, we are in A.  Where is E?  D is looking at the airport map he ripped from the flight magazine, while I flag down a jitney driver.  “How do we get to Terminal E?” “Hop on” he replies, and off we go zig-zagging down the endless corridor, turning right here, left there.  He stops.  “Are we there yet?”  No, change to another  jitney.  Our original savior continues left at the Y, we go right, then stop again with our gate in sight.  We’ve made it.  We are not even the last to get on the plane.  And there is another delay in leaving, so we are even pretty confident that our luggage made it too.  The afternoon of orienting ourselves to our hotel and surroundings is blown, the welcome champagne and a nice dinner ditto, but we are GOING TO GET THERE!

Freeway Free in California: The Anderson Valley

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The Anderson valley, centered around Boonville, is so remote that linguists used to visit to study the evolution of “Boontling”, the dialect spoken by the inhabitants when keeping secrets from outsiders.  The valley is accessible only by twisty and nausea-inducing Hwy 128 at one end, and the “Tunnel to the Sea” through a second-growth redwood forest along the Navarro River on the other end. But if you make it over the pass, you will feel as though you have gone back in time and space to  the Napa Valley as it was a half-century ago.

Here in late May the rolling hills are just finishing  with spring, looking like sun-faded green velvet curtains dropped in heaps.

Here wineries make award-winning pinot noir and cabernets, and the traffic is nominal, the parking is easy, and the tasting is mostly still free.

Here you can buy chilled apple cider and many old-fashioned varieties of apples at Gowan’s Oak Tree, just next to the road in Philo surrounded by its orchards.

Here is a State Park where you can see old-growth redwoods without having to take a shuttle bus with a ticket in advance. Hendy Woods State ParkP1040234doc was bequeathed to the state of CA by James P. Hendy, whose fortune came from the steel company whose sign you can still see bordering the railway tracks in Sunnyvale, so there is a local connection.

Here the coffee shop (there is only one, the Redwood Café,) has regulars instead of WiFi, and you can hear the morning’s gossip about who bought Dan’s old truck or admire the 5th Grade Science Fair ribbon won by the owner’s grandson which dangles from the wall along with team pictures of the Boonville Panthers basketball team and the cheerleading squad (which looks to be large enough to provide a cheerleader girlfriend for each guy on the team.)

The valley can be hot  in late spring and summer, so you can go for a dip in the Navarro River (access by the bridge just outside the park) or escape to the coast, with coastal scenery rivalling Big Sur, and a thirty-degree drop in temperature.P1040260web

You can go north at the coast to the famously quaint village of Mendocino, once an artist colony but now the home of film festivals, bed & breakfast inns, and other trappings of cutesification.  You can go further north to Ft. Bragg and the Mendocino Botanical Garden, a floral extravaganza in spring featuring 10-foot rhododendrons and azaleas, turning in summer to feature dahlias and roses. P1040257doc

If you want more of the coastal scenery, you can cross the Highway 1 bridge going south across the Navarro River and wind your way down to Elk (Population 208).  Don’t miss the left turn on the Philo-Greenwood Road or you will find yourself on a very steep, twisty section of Hwy 1 with no guard rails and very few turnouts. The Philo-Greenwood Road itself is narrow and twisty, but encased in what seems like deep woods – until there is a gap and you realize you are perched on a ridge with a steep drop on either side, with the Anderson Valley spread out like a patchwork quilt of vineyards and apple orchards on the right, and the coastal view to the ocean dropping away on the left.

When out-of-state visitors come and want to visit the Napa Valley, I usually direct them to Sonoma or to the Alexander Valley north of Healdsburg instead. They come back happy with memories of the quaint Sonoma town square, and of visits to Dry Creek Vineyard or the Coppola Vineyards Tasting Room replete with “Godfather” memorabilia.  The Anderson Valley is a bit too far for tourists, the road a bit too challenging.  It is still (until now) my secret step back in time.

 

 

Legacy (Los Altos Town Crier, June 2016)

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A few weeks ago I attended a couple of celebrations which set me thinking.

The first was a reunion of  my high school alumni and faculty members from the ‘50’s, 60’s and 70’s  , a picnic where students had a chance to tell some of their teachers  as well as each other how things they had learned decades ago had affected their lives.

To Claire Pelton, English Teacher:  “I went into tutoring students for AP exams because of your class.  And I can still quote the witches’ spell from Macbeth.”

To Marilyn Young, French teacher: “Because of you I was an exchange student in France.  You met with me and my mother to encourage both of us to travel to France.  I’ve loved France ever since and am going back next month to celebrate my birthday.”

Of Betty Allen, Public Speaking teacher :  “She forced me to get up and speak.  “Impromptu or extemporaneous?” she would ask.  And she allowed no mumbling.  I can still hear her saying,  “Diction,Gary, Diction!”

Of Principal “Dude” Angius: “He knew my name.  He was the principal, and I was a snotty little kid, and he always called me by my name.”

Of Leonard Helton, American History teacher:  “Those little pamphlets on American Problems – it was the first time I understood that there could be more than one view of history, more than one side to a question.”

Of Virginia Kurzweil, typing teacher:  “She made me stick to the rules, and practice. She showed me if I worked hard I could get better, I could do well, not be a nothing.  She changed my life.”

I used to be a teacher, and loved preparing lessons and lecturing, didn’t mind paper-reading, but was a washout at keeping order in the class.  The more academically -inclined students and I had great learning experiences together, but the ones who were just serving chair time made me miserable.  Eventually I was able to switch to another line of work where I got to prepare “lessons” and “lecture” only to interested “students”.  The “lessons” were sales pitches, the “lectures” were sales presentations, the “students” were executives in large companies who needed to be educated on why they needed to purchase the high-end business software I was selling.   I got to travel around the world and enjoyed almost every minute.  The downside:  I don’t think any of my customers is ever going to approach me years from now as I sit in my wheelchair and tell me how purchasing that software changed his life.

The second celebration was a presentation of awards in appreciation of people who had made a difference in their community after retirement.

One man had seen how the character of his town was changing as historic buildings in his town were being replaced by ever-bigger and ever-blander structures, and spear-headed the establishment of an Architectural Review Board to make sure that new buildings conformed to some aesthetic needs as well as engineering and functional ones.

One woman established a non-profit which began as a drive to put books into the hands of children who had few or none, and expanded to include literacy programs and tutoring for parents as well as children in her community.

One man became interested in the trees lining the streets of his town, and became a champion of the Urban Forest, planting and maintaining thousands of trees to refresh the air and eye.

One couple plunged into their community’s government, , serving on committees and taking leadership in local, and state politics, long before politics meant polarization.

Another couple began a scholarship fund to assist students who are just on the cusp of being able to afford college, enabling over 250 students to attend four-year schools.

All this after retirement from their first careers.  I guess it’s not too late for me to leave a legacy. But I’d better get cracking.

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Coastal vs Central California: It’s Still About the Water

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Left side of the road

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right side of road – just add water!

My husband and I took a road trip a few weeks ago, driving from Los Altos down to Bakersfield and then east, returning via Bakersfield and Paso Robles and then up 101.

As far as the Pacheco Pass, the landscape was lyrically green with oaks and buckeyes sporting fresh foliage, and  wildflowers filling the crevices between the hills with streams of yellow mustard, buttercups,  and golden poppies. Rock outcroppings were wreathed in ribbons of late-rising fog like the karst peaks in traditional Chinese landscapes.

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On the other side of the pass, we dropped down past the San Luis Reservoir, much healthier-looking at first glance than the last time we had passed this way almost two years ago. But a second look showed us the thirty  feet of rocky scree which separated the current level of the reservoir and the grassy level of the normal shore.  Despite heavy rain in March, the reservoir was still only at 52% capacity, 57% of the average fullness for the end of March.

Further down the hill, we began the long trek down the west side of the Central Valley on Interstate 5 . Except for irrigated fields and orchards, the green was gone – and the signs began.

On a barren field of scrub brush “Congress-Created Dust Bowl.” Next to an expanse of almond orchard, “Dams, Not Trains.” Several signs showing a perplexed looking boy and the query “Is Growing Food a Waste of Water?”  On the side of a truck parked next to the Interstate: “Politicians Created Water Crisis = Higher Food Costs, Lost Jobs.” The signs reflected the anger of farmers who had lost their historically unlimited water rights through recent  legislation.  No longer could they rely on digging ever deeper wells to enable cultivation of whatever they felt like growing.

More telling were the signs which began to appear further south: “For Sale – 100 Acres Almonds”.  Still more poignant were the dead orchards – acres of almond trees uprooted, some already brown and dead, some appearing to have been sacrificed only a short time ago.  We saw one backhoe in the process of destruction.  I took some pictures: on one side of the road were healthy almond orchards stretching off into the valley haze, irrigation hoses clearly visible.  On the other side: no hoses, no trees, no greenery, only scrub brush and bare dirt.

Almond trees are currently one of the most controversial crops of the Central Valley.   Almonds are a lucrative product, but they require a lot of water, and the largest percentage of the crop is grown for export to Asia, where demand is rapidly expanding.  With water increasingly scarce, it is argued, why should we allow irrigation of non-essential crops for export, rather than focusing on nutritional basics to be consumed locally?  But who or what will decide what is or is not “essential”?

We crossed the California Aqueduct, sparkling with Northern California water headed for Los Angeles.  More signs: “Food Grows where Water Flows.”  “California produces 50% of US Fruits, Vegetables, and Nuts.”

We passed a well-tended farm house with a pillared porch and tiled roof, surrounded by shapely almond trees.  We passed an abandoned stone bungalow, its roof caved in, surrounded by scrub brush.

With enlightened, long-term, apolitical water management, many well-tended farmhouses will survive.  But there will inevitably be many rotting bungalows amid the desert scrub. And fewer almonds in my Chinese chicken salad.

 

Sunshine on the Sports Page (LATC April 2016)

 

One morning a while ago I sat down with my morning coffee to read the paper.  List of headlines included

  • Tech job engine cooling off?
  • 8 Years in the NFL… then the Downward Spiral
  • Foster child’s death probed.
  • Trump insults walk fine line
  • Officers on Paris terror raid met with gunfire
  • Thousands flee Texas flooding
  • Toxic water worries in Vermont, N.Y.
  • Undercover sting entraps sex-traffickers
  • Republican Senators stonewall Supreme Court hearings
  • Syrian forces advance on Palmyra
  • Climate change accelerating- hottest February on record
  • City, 49ers in dispute over rent
  • Ex-coach faces 10 felony accounts for sex abuse of students
  • Lower drug prices stalled
  • Toy guns spark visit from police

What a world!  No wonder it takes at least two cups of coffee to wade through the variety of bad news, bad outcomes, and bad behavior!

Then I got to the sports page – “CIF Girls basketball: Pinewood socks nation’s No. 1 team.”  Wait – is that our local private school, the primly painted white- with- green- trim establishment that has been steadily expanding along Fremont Ave. next to Foothill Blvd.?  I read more: “Pinewood pulled an upset for the ages…,rallying from a 10-point deficit to beat St. Mary’s, the no.1-ranked team in the country…. ‘We had nothing to lose…, Pinewood’s Akayla Hackson said.  “So we just went for it.’…. When the buzzer sounded, Pinewood, the tiny Division V school from Los Altos Hills, had knocked off the top-ranked team.”

What fun!  Everyone loves David when he has knocked off Goliath (before he got entangled with That Woman.) And when David (or in this case, Davida) is a Local Girl, that makes the story even better.

Further along, another  Cinderella -type story made the Sports mid-section:  “Blue Raiders bag biggest upset in years.”  In the first round of NCAA March Madness, “the No. 15-seeded Blue Raiders from Middle Tennessee State ended the title hopes of second-seeded [Michigan State] Spartans in a 90-81 first-round victory that sent brackets around the country into trash cans. ‘I’ll be honest with you, in my wildest dreams I didn’t think they’d hit some of the shots they hit,’ Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.”

Wildest dreams coming true!  Maybe a hint of miracles!  We love that too!  I’m not a big follower of basketball, or any other sport, but I love the story lines, and the way every victory can be made to seem like a moral  triumph, whether  of will over skill, or vice versa.  So much easier to digest over breakfast than the intractable problems of the Real World.

So you go, Pinewood girls!  Keep it up, Middle Tennessee State!  No matter how dark the tales of  wars, natural disasters, and human frailty which fill the world, national, and local news, there’s almost always sunshine in the sports section.

 

Freeway Free: Cruising the James Dean Memorial Highway

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That’s not really its name  – on the map it is merely State Route 46, the connector road between Bakersfield and Palo Robles.  But for people of a certain age, it will always be the road on which the first of the Moody Rebels met his untimely end, driving his Porsche Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard” a bit too fast on his way to a car race in Monterey.

JamesDeanBlkwls_web The ghost of James Dean still hovers over the road, though the CA Highway Dept has done its best to broaden the lanes, smooth out the curves, and improve visibility at the fateful intersection where Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, partly blinded by the morning sun from teh east, turned left across Dean’s path.  The roadside stand where Dean stopped for an apple and a coke , formerly known as Blackwell’s Corner, has done its best to convert its celebrity into cash, rechristening itself as “James Dean’s Last Stop” and adding a candy counter, burger bar, and amazingly modern and clean restrooms to its offerings for passers-by.  A towering figure of Dean in his red windbreaker dominates the intersection, and a  vast souvenir shop sells posters of Dean, as well as of other movie icons like Gable, Monroe, and Bogart.  Placards lining the wall chronicle Dean’s brief career and the investigation into his demise (Turnupseed, only slightly injured in the crash, was exonerated from blame, though stories of Dean’s excess mph over the limit appear to have been exaggerated.)

 But there is a hint of plaintiveness in the air.  Placards announce “Restrooms for CUSTOMERS only”.  Another, even more direct, reminds us to “Help us keep this historic business open for your comfort and convenience.  Your purchases fund these restrooms!”  Indeed, these are the first comfort stations for miles, but it is clear that the days of Dean devotees making pilgrimages to the site of Dean’s doom are numbered.  How many more generations will remember James Dean?signBlkwl

Further down the road is a sign directing the traveler to the “James Dean Memorial”, which turns out to be a plaque just up from the fatal intersection.  The Jack Ranch Cafe here is  a classic diner with a shelf of souvenirs for sale and lots of James Dean photos on the walls. The memorial itself was crafted by a Japanese admirer, and erected on land donated by the Hearst family.    But I wonder how long it will be until James Dean is a name as devoid of resonance as Donna Mauzy, Donald Doyle, Sgt. Daniel Sakai,  and others whose names are memorialized along our highways?  Who, besides his close family and friends, remembers what was Daniel Sakai’s last stop?james_dean_memorial_cholame.jpg.

Light Hearts and Heavy Metal (Los Altos Town Crier March 2016)

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I am at the Caravan Lounge in San Jose, the darkest, smallest public space I have ever visited.  I am surrounded by black T-shirts, black denim jeans, and black leather jackets. A singer at the other end of the bar is screaming over the noise of two extremely amplified electric guitars and a snare drum set.  I have earplugs in my ears, but the vibration of the base guitar is still rattling my breastbone and echoing in my shoulder-blades.  I am wearing black slacks and a black T-shirt emblazoned with two skeletons, one of which is stabbing the other.  My sister M is standing next to me wearing the same shirt.  She turns to me with a wide grin and mouths above the din, “Isn’t this great?”

I am here basically because my sister’s husband was brought up in Brazil. When M heard that a trio of Brazilian women musicians needed a place to stay while they recorded their next album, M and her husband  volunteered their spare bedrooms, expecting perhaps a nice string trio.  Instead they got Nervosa, an up-and-coming Brazilian thrash metal band. thumbs_nervosa-4

They had a fine time.  M and her husband B introduced the band to zydecko, bluegrass, and some of the African artists they had learned about in the Peace Corps.  The Brazilians loved “listening to vinyl.” They danced to the new music, played foosball, and cooked dinner for M and B one night. 

Then Nervosa suddenly and unexpectedly got an invite to participate in “70000 Tons of Metal” a four day Caribbean cruise featuring performances by sixty (!!) heavy metal rock bands from all over. They dashed off to Florida leaving a lot of loose ends behind them, including two large crates of T-shirts and CD’s that ended up loaded into my husband’s car for transport to Nervosa’s first California gig after the cruise, in San Jose.

Which leads me to the Caravan Lounge.  My husband was fairly beside himself at the thought of two unescorted women at a dive bar full of black-clad metal-heads.  He hinted darkly of various forms of disaster lurking as we wandered around the mean streets  of San Jose in the depths of night. He insisted that I call several times during the evening to confirm we had not yet been assaulted.  In fact, the streets of San Jose on a rainy Wednesday night are not so much mean as they are empty, and the only approach made to us was by a sad-faced lady outside the Greyhound bus terminal begging for bus fare.

At the Caravan Lounge we introduced ourselves as Nervosa groupies, showing off our T-shirts.  It was early, but the security guard found the girl with the cash box; she took our money and fitted us each  with a plastic  bracelet decorated with skulls.  As we walked off to find dinner M overheard the ticket seller saying to the security guard, “Aren’t they cute!”20160217_222824crop

 20160217_221004cropApparently silver hair at a heavy metal concert is irresistible.  No less than three different groups of black-clad, pierced concert-goers approached us to ask “Can we have our picture taken with you?”  We were turning from the last set of admirers when Pitchu appeared beside us and invited us backstage.  Behind the shelter of a cinderblock wall and a steel door we were able to remove our earplugs and enjoy watching Pitchu practicing her drumming on the steel locker, Prika in lotus position on a crate checking notices from the previous gig, and Fernanda applying the makeup which transformed her from a clear-skinned smiling All-Brazilian Girl to a wild-eyed punk rocker. 20160217_224756crop

The place is packed.  We stand in the wings as Nervosa comes on stage to wild applause.  Thrash metal seems to require having long hair and waving it wildly – one young man near us has a shaved head with a top-knot of long blonde hair which he whips around and around at the risk of dislocating his neck. Another fellow waves a Brazilian flag to the beat of the drums. Two burly security guards keep the pulsing crowd at bay while somehow seeming to dance to the rhythm also. Almost everyone is smiling.

My sister and I are smiling too. Our real lives are just outside the door, and we will re-enter them as soon as we step outside and put on our brightly colored raincoats, but for this moment we are visiting another planet, where everyone wears costumes and it is always Halloween.

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Quilt

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When my older son was two, and ready to move from his crib, I made him a quilt for his first Big Boy Bed.  It was a simple nine-patch design in bright primary colors of calico, hand-tied with yellow yarn in the center of each square, and it stayed on that bed upstairs until the day when his daughter was in her turn ready for a Big Girl Bed.  It migrated to a new locale and a new generation.

When my grand-daughter  K was four the quilt was shredding from much use.  She and I went to a fabric shop and bought pink and purple fabric of her choice to patch the worst of the wear.   I cut the fabric into heart shapes and sewed the patches on by hand.

A few weeks before Christmas I got an email from my son.  “K asked me last night, ‘Do you think Grandma would make me a new quilt?”  Even heart-shaped patches had not managed to extend the life of the old one past an additional dozen years. 20160214_174750web

I called K and asked if she had a color preference (“My room is blue, but it looks cold – I like deep reds and purples” ) and if she had an idea about floral prints vs stripes vs solid colors. (“You choose, Grandma – you have good taste.”) Warmed by the compliment from a fastidious 16-year-old, I plunged ahead, setting expectations not for a Christmas delivery, but maybe by Valentine’s Day.

 It had been some years since I had thought of making a full-size bed quilt.  Walking into Eddie’s Quilting Bee was like entering Ali Baba’s treasure cave – so many beautiful fabrics and colors, in plaids, stripes, calicos, batiks, florals, oriental designs, silver and gilt overlays.  Fortunately my eye was seized and held by a stylized graphic print of flowers in shades of pink, deep red, purple, teal, and green against a dark blue background.  With this as a color template and the help of a shopkeeper who really knew her stock, I assembled an additional seven supporting fabrics. (“Isn’t that electric green a little much?”  “No, it makes the whole thing pop!”  “Is that swirl print too large?” “No, the colors are perfect!” )  I added batting – two layers, to make it cozy – embroidery floss in a rainbow of colors for tufting and tying, and was out the door, only slightly dazed by the hard cost of hand-crafting.

I took it easy.  A month later, with the help of my mother’s sewing machine, my sister who helped lay out the fabrics and sandwich the layers, and my mother’s caregivers who ironed seams and tied knots along with me around the dining table, it is done.  And it is beautiful.

Teen bed

Teen bed

February 13, 2016 – D-day (for delivery) She loves the quilt!  And it looks great in K’s room, for a nano second. ( Within moments it was almost invisible under the teen-age accumulations of stuffed animals and pillows.)

20160214_174733webAlmost immediately a new challenge : my 7-year-old grandson asks, eyes alight, “Can I have K’s old quilt?” But it is faded and worn to tatters.  Can any of it be salvaged? Let’s see what a doting grandma can do.

 

Read This Book (Los Altos Town Crier, Feb 3, 2016)

Imagine a dolphin swimming through the ocean depths, and suddenly becoming aware of the water’s being salty – something it had never noticed in the environment surrounding it every day – something it had taken as a universal fact. Then imagine that dolphin struggling with the concept of fresh water.
That would be something of the way I felt on reading Between the World and Me, Ta- Nehisi Coates’ award-winning exposition on what it is like to be “black” in America.51nX2wGTFXL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_[1]
It had never quite gotten through to me, despite reading a fair number of books by African and Afro-American writers, that the concept of “race” which so permeates our society is almost a uniquely American idea. Other societies also make distinctions by skin color, preferring light-colored skin over dark-colored skin in their ideal of beauty, but only America makes the abrupt unilateral distinction between “black” and “white” which places a segment of our citizens irrevocably on one side of a chasm which the rest of the citizens do their best to ignore.

 

Coates refers to “those who believe they are white” to remind us that pink, peach, ivory, yellow, honey, or copper –colored skin is no more “white” than tan, chocolate, coffee, or ebony – colored skin is “black”. He tells us that racism is part of our American heritage, the dark side of the Constitution, Mt. Vernon, and Monticello. And he offers no suggestion of how to rid our society of this pervasive poison.
My parents grew up in Salt Lake City Utah. Until they were in their twenties and moved to the Bay Area, they had few ideas about race, as they had seen almost no African Americans in their lives thus far. Ironically, their innocence was a direct result of the Mormon Church’s deep-seated racism of the time, a doctrine which identified black skin as being “the mark of Cain” and excluded anyone with this taint from participation in Mormon society.
When my parents moved to East Texas, with two small children in tow, they entered a segregated society, complete with water fountains labeled “White” and “Colored”, separate waiting rooms for “Negroes” at the train and bus stations, segregated schools, and a shantytown. They did their best to keep us innocent, but racism was in the air. My parents almost never resorted to physical punishment, but I can remember my mother slapping my 5-year-old sister for hollering The N Word out the car window at a passerby. I knew what The N Word was about years before I had a clue about The F Word.
Decades later segregation is officially gone, and everyone drinks from the same water fountains. But Coates’ book opened my eyes to the constant and enduring presence of the idea of race in our American lives. Last month’s headlines about the lack of “black” actors and directors in the list of Oscar nominations could be understood only in American newspapers. The “Black Lives Matter” protests could only have caught fire in a society that accepts an artificial distinction between “black” and “white”.
If a dolphin discovers that the water he has been swimming in all his life is toxic, he has no choice – he has to keep swimming in it, even though it poisons him. Coates offers no easy fix” to our deep-seated beliefs about race . But perhaps as he makes us aware of the poison we breath in with every headline, we can somehow purify our toxic environment, thought by thought, word by word, deed by deed. Read this book.

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