Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway-Free in France:La Vie en Rose in Provence


Note: this begins a series of entries about my three-week journey with my three friends in south-west France and Paris.  DM is on the left, DBat the end of the table in a striped blouse that will become familiar, then myself (AJ) and WB in her trademark blue camp shirt on the right.

The four of us  did not exactly plan to be freeway-free during our three-week adventure tour of France, but the  GPS system in our rental car made the decision for us:  Apparently the GPS had been pre-programmed to avoid toll roads, and despite all our efforts we could not figure out how to over-ride this command.  We wound our way from Marseilles on frontage roads and two lane back roads,  through olive orchards and vineyards and past fruit stands and old stone churches and through innumerable roundabouts until we made it to my friend ‘s charming small cottage  in Lunel, with vegetables and flowers growing profusely front and back and three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs for the four of us to share.
We had a delightful dinner al fresco in the back garden – local melon and prosciutto and olives, tomatoes from the garden, rose wine from the local vigneron, two kinds of quiche made from goat cheese and local vegetables, and lots of lively conversation.   We had all read Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” in advance of our trip, and felt we were living inside the book.

If you sit on the left side of the plane flying into Marseilles and have good weather, you will have  a spectacular view of snow- topped Mt. Cervix in the Italian Alps just over the French border.

Immigrants in the Capital


One of our leading politicos has gotten a lot of publicity in the past months by characterizing a group of immigrants to this country as “rapists, thieves, and drug dealers.” Since my great – grandmother came from Australia, where the first white immigrants were transported convicts – rapists, thieves, and drug dealers –– I am a little bit sensitive on this subject. So on my recent trip to Washington DC I paid particular interest in the impact of immigrants to our nation’s capital.

After a long day of exploring the National Mall, the National Holocaust Museum, and the Museum of Native American History, we welcomed an easy walk across the street from our hotel to the Café Park, deciding to sit outside under the umbrellas fronting Pennsylvania Avenue, where we could people-watch.  By the time we had begun to check out the menu, the humidity had resolved itself into a gentle rain, but we stayed out under our umbrellas as the air turned cool and fresh. CafeduParc

Our server dodged raindrops to bring us our wine and our entrees.  She had been in the US only fourteen months, had been “so homesick” for Viet Nam at first, but then found  a room with a Vietnamese lady who had become her “second mother.”  She hoped to earn enough to bring her own mother over for a visit.  Her enthusiasm for her work and her prospects was enough to sweep away the rain.

We enjoyed our evening so much that we returned the next day, hoping to have the same server.  Though she had been reassigned to a different table, she came over to say hello and commended us to our waiter, a sturdy and attentive young man from Lebanon.

The next evening after dinner we went out to the Mall for an evening visit to the Lincoln and Viet Nam Memorials.  These are the nearest things to national holy shrines that our secular society acknowledges.  At the Viet Nam Memorial the visitor descends below the level of the Mall along a black wall listing all those who died.  Here I did have to admonish one immigrant/tourist – a young lady who was chattering loudly in Chinese on her cell phone as she descended into the memorial area. “No loud voices!  Show respect!” She stared at me, confused, then bowed in embarrassment at her faux pas.

frenchbreadWe stopped in between museums at Le Pain Quotidienne, thinking a French bakery would probably offer a good sandwich.  Our waiter was young and dark-skinned, with a flashing smile and an air of pride in his ability to remember our orders and deliver them promptly.   A quick question revealed that he as well as most of the other servers were Moroccan, not French..  I knew from watching “Casablanca”  that Morocco was a French colony at one time;  the sandwich was indeed delicious, with bread worthy of the French tradition.

On our last day we checked out of our hotel and headed for the taxi queue. A  woman driver saw us coming and jumped from her cab, grabbing our suitcases.  Ahead of her, another driver erupted from his taxi, accusing her of jumping the queue. She claimed we were on the street and fair game;  he rejoined that we were coming from the hotel, albeit from the side door, and as he was first in the queue we were rightfully his fare. We sided with the second driver and retrieved our suitcases. He was still fuming as we took off : “These new immigrants, they don’t know the rules.”  We asked “Where are you from?” “Ethiopia.”

 So I didn’t meet up with any drug dealers, thieves, or murderers.  I did see a couple of people who were a bit rough around the edges in terms of conforming to our traditions.  But our stay would have been much less pleasant without the good service and friendly smiles of the immigrants we met, and I suspect our capital, like much of our nation, would grind to a halt without them.




Diaper Pin

diaperPin2My husband treasures a diaper pin.  For those of you born in the era of Pampers and Velcro, a diaper pin is a very sturdy type of safety pin, but with a plastic head covering the fastener.  The  point of the pin is guarded in a G-shaped cavity, making it almost impossible for tiny hands to accidentally open the pin and get scratched.  The head of this  particular diaper pin is made of blue plastic  in the shape of a duck, with a cheery red beak.  It was part of a flock of pink, yellow,  white, and blue ducky diaper pins (twelve to a card!) used in the care and maintenance of our two sons, now grown and gone. My husband uses it to secure his sun visor to his belt loop or back pack when we are hiking or touristing.

We were scheduled for a visit to the Capitol, and were cautioned:   no pointy metal objects, not even knitting needles or hair pins.  My husband muttered, “ I must remember not to take my diaper pin” since he routinely secures his sun visor on any tour.

There we were in the entrance to the Capitol museum, about to pass through Security. Panic moment!  The PIN was attached to the visor cap – possible confiscation loomed!  Somehow the Sharp Object escaped scrutiny. 

My husband beamed with modest pride to a fellow traveller: “You can’t find these anymore.  This is the last of its kind”DiaperPin3

I didn’t have the heart to tell him – a few weeks ago I was rummaging in some storage boxes and  found an old yellow onesie that had belonged to our youngest.  Pinned all around the neck was a flock of little pink ducky diaper pins, saved for the daughter we never had.

Security in our Nation’s Capital – 3 Vignettes


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


“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


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)


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.



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


Left side of the road


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.



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


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.

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