Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Life After Life (Los Altos Town Crier, December 6, 2017

Your first life is as a child, as you encounter the world. My grandson asking the big questions at 6: “How did the galaxies start? What was there before the tiny lump of all the matter in the Universe?  Why did God explode it?

Your second life is governed by hormones – will  I be pretty? Will I be attractive?  Can I find a mate?  Will we have kids? Can we have kids?

Your third life is financial – edging up on the second life.  Can I afford to have kids?  Can I send them to college?  Can  I pay off my mortgage?

And your fourth life is after the first three lives lose their ability to engage you.  Your mortgage is paid off.  Your kids have their lives, and check in with you now and then.  Now what?

For a decade or so, everything is fine. You take courses at the local university.  You learn to paint, or to play the piano.  You travel. You design quilts, or take up pottery. Maybe you start a blog about your travel, or your craft work. You sign up for local government committees.

And then… you realize that your relevance is ebbing.  Younger people no longer seek your advice. You run out of things to say on your blog.  You read about the places you visited, and the current travel advice has nothing in common with your decade-old experience.

And then… things start to fall apart. Your fingers no longer quite do as you command as you practice your piano, or your typing.   The words don’t spring to mind as you write your blog, or your letter to the editor.

And then you fall. You break. You are slow to heal.

And then you are suddenly old.

It’s not the “Golden Years” seen in the advertisements in the AARP magazine.  It’s a life of constriction, where you move a bit less freely, food is a bit less flavorful, conversation is a bit harder to follow, reading or watching television is a bit harder to focus on, every day.  Until one day you realize that the world is moving past you, that the world doesn’t even see you.

And now what? Your friends (that have survived) and children (if you are lucky enough to have some who are still around) remind you of all the happy times you have had, all the things you have accomplished.  But your life always has been focused on the future.  Now that future looks uncertain, even painful.  Will you need care?   Will you lose your freedom to move without assistance? What do you have left to give to the world?

You have already lived four lives .  What will the fifth life be? In some cultures, the old are seen as repositories of wisdom.  In American culture, always touting youth and new frontiers, it is all too easy for those facing the fifth life to feel pushed to the side, superfluous.

So this is my challenge for the New Year – to list the gifts I have, and consider how to make them useful to my wider world.  To keep my future in mind, both its opportunities and its hazards, and to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.  Explore new paths, but wear sensible shoes, and be careful not to fall.

 

 

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Opportunity Knocks Again (Los Altos Town Crier, November 1, 2017)

Some decades ago I was a stay-at-home Mom, but planning to return to work as soon as my toddlers became primary schoolers.  However, the teaching career I had prepared for was undergoing a slump – the baby boom had become the baby bust, and schools were closing all around. I decided to get re-educated.  Fortunately, at that time even a single-income family could afford the $5/unit fee for community college.

The local community college offered a special certification as a medical translator, which appealed to me as it offered a decent work environment,  and an element of helping people.  But the course presumed a knowledge of basic Spanish greater than I had picked up as a kid on the playground .  Learning medical vocabulary wasn’t going to be very helpful if I was ignorant of how to fit the words into sentences.   Scratch that idea.

A different branch of the junior college system offered a certification as a para-legal.  Again, this seemed to offer a good working environment, etc., so I signed up.  I enjoyed the courses on legal procedure and the structure of the court system and blazed through the curriculum until I got to the course on legal research.  I told my counsellor “Spending so much time in the stacks of the legal library sounds boring. I’m more of a people person.  Is this course  really a requirement?” 

“Actually,” she replied, “if you become a para-legal that’s what you will spend 90% of your time doing.”  Scratch that idea.

My father had always regretted having to drop out of Harvard Business School, and he suggested I go for an MBA.  Of course, I would need to take some basic business courses before applying to biz school, and again I turned to the local 2-year colleges.  I polished off a couple of basic accounting courses, a very useful course on tax accounting, and a couple of entry-level computer programming courses in Fortran and COBOL. 

My kids by now were almost ready for K-6 schooling,  and I felt I really needed to get a job. I saw a “Help Wanted” ad in my local news weekly  for a “Part-time job, could lead to full time.  Ideal for someone returning to work world.  Knowledge of basic accounting, income tax preparation, basic  COBOL computer programming all big pluses.”  This job as marketing manager for a small income-tax software company was tailor-made for me and my recent slate of community college courses.

So it wasn’t my two degrees from a prestigious private college that launched my successful 30-year career in tech sales and marketing, but rather my third stab at a vocational certificate through my local 2-year college. 

Over the years I have taken a number of other community college courses, and been dismayed at how the cost per unit has escalated as the system struggles with loss of property tax revenue.  How could someone like me afford two false starts at CC before finally finding the right niche, when the cost of a single course was in triple digits?

That’s why I was excited to read that as of October 13, 2017 California is joining New York and Rhode Island in making the first year of community college tuition-free for residents who are full-time students.  Although I personally won’t  qualify for this opportunity, it definitely will open doors for people who are in the situation I occupied all those years back.

Per an article in our local paper, our local   community college  district is already  preparing to implement and augment this opportunity with a College Promise program offering  supplementary assistance for costs of textbooks and transportation for high school students enrolling at the JC for college credit.   If you are a high school student, or know a high school student, or are simply interested in the latest frontiers of education, and you are looking for ways to control the cost of a college degree,  take a peek through this open door.

 

 

Freeway Free in Colorado – Flora and Fauna

062docOn the west of the Rockies, one is expected to hike and bike in the summer (not having visited in the winter, I can only speculate about activities then). The point of hiking and biking is to see lovely bits of flora and fauna than one might miss in a car.  Here is a collection of photos from my experiences on food and on pedal.

I don’t know the names of the flowers, but they are authentically Coloradian.  And each is a jewel-like discovery as one wanders along a much or not-much travelled trail.

The moose, of course, I recognized!

 

Freeway Free in Colorado: It’s Fun to Stay/at the YMCA

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Coming down from Rocky Mountain National Park, having gotten our full dose of quaintness at Grand Lake,   we were expecting more of the same.  But once we hit the T intersection with Highway 40, the next outpost of civilization was Granby, perhaps the most unpicturesque town in Colorado.  It is as though the town fathers along US 40 had gotten together and agreed to put all the useful, practical, unromantic elements necessary for civilization in one town: we passed a medical clinic, a truck stop, a modern hardware store, a fire station, and a post office, all seemingly made of the same uncompromising beige 1950’s era cinder block.   One building, the Longbranch saloon, shows on the town website festooned with flags and/or flowers, but maybe this is only for photo shoots.  Poor Granby is the ugly old-maid sister who makes herself useful.

Happily, we could breeze right by Granby.  We had already selected our local home base, an unfussy family-type resort at the Snow Mountain Ranch (AKA YMCA Camp of the Rockies) just a little further down the road.  In winter this center offers fine cross country skiing as well as an indoor pool and a roller-skating rink;  in summer there are hiking trails with great veiws, a canoeing lake for beginners, an archery range, horseback riding,  a miniature golf course (pretty bare of grass, but it’s there), and other outdoorsy things, as well as a craft center for rainy days.

Best of all, this place is ridiculously affordable.  A 2-bedroom cabin that sleeps five is $249/day.  There are also rooms available in various lodge building which can accommodate up to six people in a single room at true bargain rates, or you can opt for a yurt.   If you wish, at a very reasonable cost you can opt for three square meals at the cafeteria.  Food is about the quality of Denny’s, except for watery scrambled eggs in the morning.

So we hung out at the Y for a week, hiking, biking, and scaring the local fauna. (More on this next post)

 

Freeway Free in Colorado: The Other Side of the Rockies – Grand Lake

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Most non-Coloradans probably think of Denver when they think of the Rockies – the wonderful postcard panorama of the city’s skyscrapers dwarfed by the huge mountain range rising abruptly out of the Great Plains. Some might think of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, another tourist magnet.  If they get as far as Rocky Mountain National Park, most only  make it as far as the hiking trails around Bear Lake before turning back to Boulder or Ft. Collins or Colorado Springs or other east side centers.  But there is a lot to appreciate on the western slope of the Continental Divide.

We planned to eat lunch at the Trail Ridge Store at the Alpine Vistors’ Center, but we were delayed by road work as we slugged up and over the summit of the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park.  By the time we arrived, but the parking lot at  visitor’s center was full to over-flowing, and the  presiding ranger politely but firmly turned us away.  We coasted down the other side of the summit hoping at best for a coffee shop in Granby when my ravenous sister spotted a sigh for the Grand Lake Lodge – “Lodging/ Cocktails”. Where there is a bar, she reasoned, there must be bar food.  And thus we happened on  a hidden treasure on the west side of the divide.

The lodge itself is worthy of comparison to the great lodges of the National Parks such as the Ahwahnee at Yosemite and Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone.  It is built of local timber, and features an expansive veranda billed as “Colorado’s Front Porch.”  The veranda looks out over the lodge pool and the Grand Lake – a spreading expanse of blue shining far below the deep veranda of the Lodge.

Inside is a huge gathering room, with quaint twig-and-slat rockers circled around a huge firepit.  Since the weather was excellent, we elected to eat on the porch with that great view, but we could imagine on a cold or wet day how comforting that fire would be.

On separate trips to Grand Lake, we also discovered the eponymous town, a hyper-quaint log village beside the lake.  It boasts a wonderful ice cream shop (very welcome after hiking the nearby trails) as well as an informative museum of local history and an excellent repertory theater which offers three or four musicals rotating over the course of the summer, with cast members recruited from university theatre companies all over the country.  This summer we were there for “West Side Story” and lucked into Cabaret night, when the audience is invited to join the cast members after the show for some bonus music, each cast member presenting their own favorite song.  The performance is free, and the wine/beer bar is open.20171022_154109web

 

Freeway Free in California: a New Point of View on Silicon Valley (Los Altos Town Crier October 4, 2017)

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For years the inscrutable gray monolith  had loomed over us from the summit of the forbidden mountain.  Now the curse has been lifted, the prohibition ended – how could we not hurry to visit the newly opened summit of Mt. Umunhum?

When I moved to the Peninsula  Mt. Umunhum was an off-limits Air Force Base, directing the surveillance of the wasp-tailed submarine chasers flying out of Moffett Field.  With the end of the Cold War the summit with its surroundings was purchased by the Mid-Peninsula Open Space Trust (Midpen) , but it was still off-limits, poisoned by toxic waste left from its radar and other installations. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged the radar tower, making the location still more hazardous. 

20170921_112932webThen a controversy prompted action. In 2009 Midpen obtained Federal funding to clean up the site, and one of its first ideas was to tear down the remains of the radar tower and restore the site to its pristine pre-Cold War state.  Valley residents erupted with letters and meetings – the tower was ugly and dilapidated, but it was an icon none the less, part of the Valley’s landscape and history for 60 years, and we didn’t want it to disappear without ever having had the chance to visit it. 

Midpen back-pedaled, but the residents were now energized.  We passed a bond measure which enabled the site to become a destination, with paved access roads, parking, restrooms, and all the other amenities expected of a public park.  And in September of this year the gates were opened.

Exalted Personages were there on the first day to cut ribbons and make speeches.  But on a weekday of the following week, we made the trip, feeling like pioneers as we drove up and down Hicks Road into an area of San Jose we had never visited before. Finally we reached a STOP sign, and on the right the gate to the newly opened park, now christened “Sierra Azul Preserve”- the blue mountain range.

The wiggly black arrows on the yellow signs are not to be ignored;  this is a seriously winding and steep road, requiring downshifting to second gear both coming and going. But as we ascended, our conversation went roughly

                Me: “Oh, Wow!

                Him: “I can’t look!”

as the views of valley, mountains, and ocean began to come in sight. 20170921_113257doc

At the top, the view expands from a misty Mt. Tamalpais in the north well past Morgan Hill to the south, from Mt. Diablo and Mt. Hamilton to the east to the gleaming ocean west of Santa Cruz.  Far below are the toy skyscrapers of down-town San Jose, the parquet of roof-tops carpeting the suburbs, the tiny white pyramids of the Shoreline Amphitheatre, the blue Lexington and Almaden reservoirs, and miles and miles of woodland and pasture and empty air.  Everything human-made looks extremely small and insignificant. 

Everything, that is, except the tower, looming now right next to us, still inscrutable, and still closed to public access.  

 The park service has added a lot of informational signs about the mountain’s history. (The name, by the way, is an Ohlone word meaning “resting place of the hummingbird.”) 

Some pointers if you go:

·         It takes about an hour from Los Altos to get to the summit parking lot.

·         Dress in layers;  at the summit it was 20 degrees cooler than in the Valley. 

·         The road is narrow, turnouts rare, guard rails incomplete, lots of blind curves.  Take it slow.

·         Watch out for bikers coming and going.  This new mountain road is a biker magnet, and the shoulders are narrow to non-existent.

·         Parking at the very top is reserved for handicapped.  There is a circle to drop people off, but unless you have a blue tag park below the summit at the restrooms. 

·         There are 159 steps to the summit, punctuated by frequent landings with benches where you can sit, admire the views, and catch your breath.

·         There are two picnic tables under a shelter just below the parking lot.

                ENJOY!

 

 

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Campus and the Mall

Chatauqua Hall

Chatauqua Hall

The Flat Iron Mountains loom over Boulder’s western side, and many of the hiking trails in and around these peaks begin or end at the equally picturesque Chatauqua Institute.  This is a wonderfully conceived set of Victorian-era buildings arranged around a grassy meadow with the intent of promoting adult education in a healthful and beautiful setting.  It has been in continuous operation since the late 1800’s, and continues to fulfill its mission with artists-in-residence, concerts, films, and as a bonus, delicious food available during the temperate months on a wide veranda overlooking the meadow, and in the cold season inside a cozy lounge with a huge stone fireplace. 20170817_181344web

The films and concerts take place in a huge beamed barnlike structure which has burned several times over the history of the Colorado Chatauqua , but has always been reconstsructed in the spirit of its predecessors – think of a giant barn with good acoustics and lighting.   On a recent summer evening I attended a showing of a couple of Buster Keaton silent films, with an expert live piano accompaniment providing authenticity.  The audience of about 500 only half-filled the vast space, but the gleeful giggles of the kids seeing Keaton’s acrobatic pratfalls for the first time filled the space beautifully.

 

For  a different kind experience, visit the Celestial Seasonings factory just north of Boulder.  Here you can sip samples of dozens of different teas, and take a tour of the factory where the teas are stored, processed, boxed, and prepared for shipment.  Be warned:  If you are sensitive to odors you may be in for sensory overload here;  on the other hand if you are suffering from nasal congestion a few moments in the special room where the mint tea is stored will clear you out amazingly.

If you are interested in  more modern types of architecture, the National Center for Atmospheric Research is just a bit further up the road from the Chatauqua Institue, in a fascinating building designed by I. M. Pei.  The group of rectangular forms juts out of a ledge of the Flat Irons as though created by some upheaval.  The exterior is made of red sandstone that blends perfectly with the surrounding rocks, and the views from the exterior plaze and the restaurant inside are to die for.  I have not eaten at the restaurant, but with that view how could the meal be less than delightful?  The exhibits explaining how cyclones form, how ocean currents affect climate, and so on, are also interesting, though you will likely have to compete with a busload of elementary school field trippers to get close to them. 20170727_105455doc

 

 

Freeway-Free in Colorado: Treasure-Hunting in Boulder

20170726_112617docOnce you are in Boulder, you could simply enjoy the atmosphere of the bustling University of Colorado campus, or spend your time hiking and rock-climbing in the FlatIrons above town.  But if your interests are less academic and less strenuous, your explorations may lead you to a number of Hidden Treasures.

Easiest to find and most likely to absorb a full afternoon:  The Pearl Street Mall.  Boulder was among the first small towns to recognize that its brick-clad downtown was a potential magnet for walkers and shoppers.  Instead of succumbing to the lure of Federal redevelopment dollars, and trading in the red-brick buildings for stucco blocks and a parking garage as did many similar towns, the town fathers opted for blocking off several blocks of the old downtown area, labeling it a Historic District, and converting it into a park for browsers and strollers.

One of the don’t -miss shops is the Boulder Book Store, a multi-leveled maze of marvelous tomes both new and used,  that looks like it was conceived by the same interior decorator as put together Ollivander’s Wand Shop in the Harry Potter novels.  It is almost impossible to enter this store and leave again without finding at least one volume you have always wanted to read, have been trying to find forever, or for some other reason cannot leave without.

Another don’t’-miss is Peppercorn, a housewares shop which as far as I can tell really does have everything.  If you have always wanted corn-cob holders in the shape of cows, or have been looking for a mango splitter, this is the place.  Happily, the staff knows their stock and can lead you directly to the item you ask for;  otherwise, you might wander forever among the fascinating cooking tools and cutlery. Sticking with the Harry Potter metaphors, this shop is like the Room of Requirement, stuffed with everything anyone might have ever wished for.

But the Mall is more than just shopping.  Almost every block boasts a fountain, sculptures, benches for sitting, and performance spaces.  On the day I last visited I caught a performance by a group of youngsters performing on xylophone.  A sunny day, an ice cream cone in hand… who could ask for more?

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Freeway-Free in Colorado: Boulder Beyond the Rocks

The Flat Irons above Boulder

If you’ve heard of Boulder, CO at all, you probably know that it is one of the hippest college towns in the country, surrounded by beautiful mountain scenery, and with a tech-savvy population. (89% of households have broadband access, the highest rate in the country.)

But you might not know that Boulder  also boasts an I.M.Pei-designed National Center for Atmospheric Research, that it is home to one of the original Chatauqua Institutes (established, oddly enough, by a group of Texans who felt that the weather in their home state was just too oppressive to host conferences), and that its Leanin’ Tree Museum of Western Art had one of the largest private collections of Western-themed art in the country [Note: Unfortunately, this Hidden Gem closed in August 2017, soon after my visit. And it is also the headquarters of the Celestial Seasonings tea company.

Boulder is a wonderfully walkable town, once you get there, and happily, you can get there without having to drive.  If you fly into the Denver Airport, you can get to Boulder by bus for less than it would cost to pay the tolls on the E-470 tollway just outside the airport. 

When you land, grab your baggage and head for the whale’s-tail shaped Westin Hotel  at the east end of the lobby.  Instead of going up the escalator to the Westin lobby, hang a U-turn at the ATMs and you will find yourself in the  RTD Transportation Center. The SkyRide bus for Boulder costs $9 for a 70 minute ride to downtown Boulder, and leaves from Gate 8 at least once an hour beginning at 4:25 AM and ending at 12:55 AM.  The bus will be full of UC – Boulder students no matter what time of day or night you get on, so be sure to purchase your ticket right away and stand in line for the next bus.

Once you are in Boulder, you can take advantage of the many whimsically-painted and whimsically – named  (HOP, SKIP, JUMP, DASH, STAMPEDE…) Community Transportation buses to get just about anywhere in and around town.

Next: What to see when you get to Boulder

Summer Camp Season (Los Altos Town Crier, Sept. 6, 2017)

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Whenever my summer wanderings take me over to the beautiful sandstone and terra-cotta university campus up the road, I marvel at the multiplicity of signs directing me to this or that summer camp.  There always seem to be squadrons of T-shirted campers on the move, being directed this way and that by polo- shirted counselors, all wearing color-coded lanyards and nametags to make sure they are getting all the perks, and none but the perks, to which their campership entitles them.

When I was in my pre-teens, camp was different.

For one thing, we didn’t wear lanyards, we made them. At the mandatory craft class, the one project you could be almost sure of finishing was the one involving braiding long brightly-colored strips of plastic into keychains and whistle cord.  We could do spiral or diamond pattern for the cords, round or square for the sliders.  We could make keychains from four strand, six-strand, or even eight-strand braids, using school colors, or Day-Glo, or even glow-in-the-dark plastic. After two years of Boy Scout and Camp Fire Girl camp, my parents, near relatives, and most of my teachers were all supplied with all the whistle holders they would ever need.lanyard

For another thing, although our camps were plain vanilla when it came to skin color, they were quite diverse in subject matter.  In one week we got tastes of archery, swimming, sailing, lanyard-making, leather-working, wood-carving, plus campfire building and the songs to sing around them, and skit writing and performing.

The camps up the road are different. The campers are culturally diverse, of all shapes, sizes, sexes, and skin tones. But each camp seems to be focused on  producing mastery in one area alone.  The university sponsors camps for every kind of sport, from Basketball to Water Polo, plus specialized camps of all sorts.  There is the Pre-Collegiate Summer Institute, the Medical Youth Science Program,  the Sports Business Academy, the oxymoronic High School Summer College , and even (for high-school and pre-med students) the Cardiothoracic Surgical Skills Summer Institute. (Sounds like heart-stopping fun!)

In addition  privately sponsored camps offer training in Social Entrepreneurship, Advanced Suzuki Violin, Emergency Medicine, Global Citizenship, Computer Engineering for Girls, Journalism in the Digital Age, English Language Immersion, Performing Arts, Digital Discovery,  and many, many more.

When I was in summer camp, we spent time making up silly songs about our counselors, such as (to the tune of “Pretty Redwing)

                The moon shines tonight on Helen Waller

                If she were taller/ she wouldn’t holler,

                And her old dirty shorts they need a-patchin’

                Where she’s been scratchin’

                                Her chigger bites.

I can’t imagine any silly songs about cardiothoracic surgery, but maybe I’m not trying hard enough.

It happens that the local AAUW branch, to which I belong, sponsors a half-dozen local girls at one of Stanford’s summer camps, one which encourages girls to consider careers in science and technology.  Each August after the Tech Trek camp is over we get thank- you notes from the girls, telling us how much they appreciated the opportunity to learn to code computer games, build hover boards, and do DNA gel electrophoresis.  (I imagine them sitting around a table on the last day, dutifully filling in the blanks in a template as the counselors monitor them. At least that hasn’t changed from when we were “encouraged” to write letters home from camp}. This year’s letters included a blessed hint of silliness; one girl mentioned that she enjoyed an afternoon of fountain-hopping around the campus, as well as a trial of ice-cream making.

Each September we host the scholars at an afternoon meeting where each tells us a bit about the camp.  We will hear about the forensics lab, the robot-building, the rocket launch.  But when it comes to Q&A, I’m planning to ask about the fountain – hopping and the ice cream – there should be some fun left in summer camp!

 

 

 

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