Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway Free in San Francisco: The AIDS Memorial Grove

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Perhaps one of the smallest National Memorial Sites in the country, and certainly one of the most affecting, is the National AIDS Memorial Grove, tucked into a corner of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.   It is easy to miss, on a side street on the eastern end of the park, well away from the bustle of the Music Concourse, the Conservatory, and the Museums.

You follow a fernlined path down into a deep hollow.   It is very quiet, below the level of street noise, and it is easy to be reverent in the shade of tall redwood and oak trees lining a boulder-strewn creek.  As you look closer, you see that many of the boulders are etched with messages of love for someone who has died.

In a sunny clearing at the end of the grove is a paved circle – the Circle of Friends.  Radiating out from the center in concentric circles are names.  Some are the names of AIDS victims, others of AIDS survivors, still more of friends and family members whose lives have been irrevocably changed by AIDS in some way.  Often there are bouquets of fresh flowers at the center of the circle. AIDSGrove3

New names can be added only once a year – on November 1, the National Day of Remembrance for AIDS victims.  On the website you can search for the names of people you know whose names are already in the circle.  I found a college friend’s name, and the names of his parents.  He had been one of the early ones to die.

AIDSGrove2As I walked back through the grove, I noticed that many of the boulders had small cairns built on top of them, perhaps related to the Jewish custom of putting a stone on the grave of a relative or friends when you visit.  I stopped by an empty boulder and piled up a cairn – one for my college friend, one for two boys I had known well in high school, one for the son of my high school principal, one for another close friend who is, so far, as survivor.  I had not thought of them for a long time.  It felt good to think about them here.

 

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A Piece of My Mind: Let’s Have Fun (LATC July 2018)

 

I’m sitting on the balcony of our hotel room overlooking the beach. It is a beautiful day, warm enough to tempt children and teenagers into the water without wetsuits, and the beach is dotted with colorful umbrellas and sun tents and beach towels and beach toys and sand-castles in the making. Up near the steps leading down to the beach is a small playground, with a twisty slide and two sets of swings, six swings in each set, all occupied by kids and pre-teens industriously pumping back and forth.

But I notice something odd.  Here we are at the beach with yards of soft sand in front of each swing, but no one is bailing into the sand at the peak of their swing, landing on their knees laughing after flying through the air for a magical few seconds. I watch and wait for the first adventurous child to go sailing through the air, but it doesn’t happen.  It seems no one knows how.  It seems that jumping out of a swing has never occurred to them.

Maybe these kids have never bailed from a swing into soft sand. Maybe their playgrounds have always been grounded in AstroTurf or wood chips or outdoor carpet – nothing you could trust your knees to. And maybe the flexible U-shaped seats cling to the children’s rear ends and make it hard to slip off the swing at the right moment.

I really wanted to go down and show the kids on the beach how to fly, but my knees might not have been  up to it. I did start  thinking, though, of other playground learning opportunities that may have been lost to safety and insurance and ecology concerns..

What about see saws? (AKA teeter-totters in some areas) The universal street sign for a playground is a see saw, yet how many of today’s children have actually played on one? There is risk of injury.  You might fall off. You might crush your foot underneath the board. You might get a finger caught between the board and the support. You might get a sock in the jaw if you tried to get on one end just as another kid was pulling his end down.  And yet this simple playground toy is one of the best ways to convey the ideas of balance and leverage that ever was.

What about the merry-go-round? Not the thing with horses and a calliope, but a round metal platform with handles, mounted on ball bearings. You ran as fast as you could while pushing to get it going, and then jumped on. A mysterious force tried to tear you off the platform. You clung to your handle. You held on. That force that wanted to tear you off was defeated. You had strength you hadn’t known. And you learned that if you crawled into the center of the platform, the force mysteriously lessened; at the center you could stand up no-hands!  Later when you learned about centrifugal and centripetal force in physics class, you recognized them immediately.

And the jungle gym – that network of metal pipes assembled with plumbing joints which seemed to soar impossibly high when you were in the primary grades, but which could be conquered bar by bar until you reached the apex as an upper-grader.  Yes, you could fall. But mostly you didn’t.

I look at the brightly colored plastic play structures around town and feel a little sorry for today’s kids.  Yes, I guess you can learn about centrifugal force by going down a twisty slide, and you can learn to do a perfect dismount from parallel bars in a well-supervised gymnastics class – but you won’t get sand between your toes.

 

Freeway Free in Memphis: Browsing Around Downtown

20180511_162220cropYes, that’s Beale Street, home of the blues, looking pretty tame on a Friday afternoon.  But I am on my way to the Gibson guitar factory just a few blocks further down BB King Boulevard.  I know I am close when I see the iconic image on the corner.20180511_162010doc

Inside I latch onto a tour just starting. The production line is almost empty of workers, as they are free to leave early on a Friday afternoon once their daily quota has been met.  When I say “production line”, I don’t want you thinking of whirring machines and automated conveyor belt.  Every step of construction of a Gibson guitar is meticulously done by hand, from pressing the contours of the belly to painting and lacquering the final finish.  The last two people, still at work, must have one of the coolest jobs in the world.  It is their responsibility to test each guitar once finished, to make sure it can riff, slide, and slither up to Gibson standards.

I’m not allowed to take pictures during the tour, but I spend a lot of time lingering in the attached store.  Some of the most beautiful instruments I’ve ever seen are here, and the clerk offers to take down any one I want to try.  I’m intimidated by the price tags though, and settle for a box of Gibson guitar picks. 20180511_160944crop

After the Gibson Guitar factory visit, I still have  some time, so I wander back up BB King Boulevard to Main Street.  I’ve always heard that the way to tell a real hick town is if the main street is actually called Main Street;  in this case it looks like Main Street probably used to be major, but is now in the process of cutesification, with  former dive bars metamorphosing into upscale restaurants, and former retail stores finding new lives as souvenir shops and museums.

One of these is the Center for Southern Folklore, which includes exhibits of folk art, a room where one can view videos and hear tapes of storytellers and singers, and in the evening offers performances by classic and not-so-classic musicians.  The night I was there featured a wonderful woman who took us through the history of the blues from gospel to Jerry Lee Lewis to Paul Simon.  You might be equally lucky.
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The CSF oddly shares space in the same building with the Belz Museum of Asian and Judaic Art. This basement space has an amazing collection of jade carvings, plus a room devoted to contemporary Judaic art, and a Holocaust memorial room. (Unfortunately, the website doesn’t display much of this richness, but if you google “Belz Museum” you will find a lot of pix)

In the evening, the cutesification of Main Street is completed by the arrival of several lighted coaches suitable for Cinderella.  They don’t seem to have much relation to historic Memphis, but they are awfully cute and provide a fantasy end to my informal tour.20180510_210127crop

Freeway Free in Memphis: The Peabody Hotel makes Duck Soup out of Ducks

 

So many cities have at least one venerable hotel, a historic landmark, often with an upholstered  concierge’s retreat, an elaborate stained glass lobby ceiling, ornate balconies crafted of dark wood, maybe a fountain in the middle of the lobby, and shoeshine stand near the men’s room. BUT the classic hotels are lacking some of the amenities now considered obligatory: no exercise room, no pool with adjacent spa, no escalators between floors.  And that spacious lobby becomes an expensive liability if it can’t be filled with paying customers of the bar, tea room, and restaurant services.

wes1010lo-141720-Lobby-DetailSometimes a hotel gets lucky.  For example, in San Francisco the venerable St. Francis Hotel was and is a traditional meeting place for families and friends after a day of shopping in the city for the wives, and business meetings for the husbands.   The St. Francis’s slogan is “Meet me under the Clock”, a reference to a huge grandfather-style clock that has graced the lobby through many updates and remodelings. And once you have met under the clock, it is natural to take  a seat at the adjacent bar for an end-of-day aperitif for the grownups and a Shirley Temple for the kids.

The Peabody Hotel in Memphis has no clock.  But it does have a fountain, and in the fountain there are ducks.   Why ducks? you may well ask.  It seems that some decades ago the proprietor of the hotel and his drinking buddies got a bit inebriated and decided it would be a fine joke to put some live ducks in the fountain in the hotel lobby.  To their surprise and bemusement, the ducks got lots of attention, including radio and newspaper coverage, and generated a lot of foot traffic as folks came in to see the web-footed invaders.  No fool, the proprietor made the ducks a permanent feature.

Now the ducks have become a mini-merchandising empire.  A red carpet stretches from the elevator to the fountain, and at 11 Am the duckmaster (in red jacket with gold braid) places carpeted steps against the fountain and escorts the ducks (who spend their off time in a spacious coop on the roof) to their fountain exercise pool  The balconies are groaning with tourists taking pictures of the ducks.  Many of these tourists will end up having lunch at the Peabody.

20180510_165438adj.jpgAt 5PM the ceremony is reversed, as the ducks are herded out of the fountain and back into the elevator, again with a throng of fans watching, and likely sticking around for a cup of tea or a drink in the lobby lounge.

And if watching the feathery family parade is not enough for you, you can purchase a ducky souvenir at the hotel gift shop: rubber ducks of all descriptions to float in your bathtup, duck-shaped soap, duck-handled umbrellas, duck-embroidered hand towels, duck-billed hoodies, duck-stamped wallets, plus the usual key chains, post cards, snow globes, and so on.

All because a few guys got silly on a Saturday night.

 

 

Freeway-Free in Texas – Houston’s Julia Idelson Library – a Hidden Treasure

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Some folks probably only visit’s Houston’s main library because you can get validated free parking in the library garage by making a visit to its downstairs lobby.  They miss a lot.

On my recent trip, I was attracted by the garden and wrought iron fence surrounding the OLD library building (now known as the Julia Ideson Building, located right next to the new concrete edifice which supplanted it. )Once in the garden, I had to take a look at the historic building’s insides.  And as often happens in old libraries (I am somewhat of a library junkie) I found hidden treasures.

In the downstairs lobby was an extensive exhibit of original letters and news articles in glass showcases, chronicling the struggle of Houston’s black population to gain entrance to the city’s libraries. It was fascinating and chilling to see how earnestly, politely, and stubbornly the black citizens of Houston staked their claim to equal access to the libraries their taxes helped pay for, and how circuitously, hypocritically, and stubbornly the city and the education system of 1920’s-40’s Houston resisted their claim. (Houston’s black populations did not have equal access to the libraries until the 1950’s, under pressure from returning black veterans and the Eisenhower administration.)

Upstairs we found a beautiful painted ceiling and plaster-relief fresco above the wood-paneled walls.  Off one side of the vaulted second floor landing was a wonderful old reading room, presided over by Venus de Milo herself.

And behind an updated glass door was another exhibit, featuring the first black student to enroll in a major university in the South, John S. Chase. He was an architecture student, and there was no black college in Texas where the university system could pretend to offer him a “separate but equal” education.  Despite many obstacles (e.g. Texas regulations had to be waived to allow him to get an architect’s license without having served an internship, as no architectural firm would hire him) Chase went on to become a successful architect and mentor to a generation of successors. 20180405_HLibrary1

On our way to the ladies’ room, we spotted a door at the end of the corridor marked “Authorized Researchers Only” . Of course we considered ourselves authorized researchers, and went in. Behind the oak doors was the original  children’s room of the old library, with its age-darkened bookshelves crammed with the children’s books which were too old, too little in demand, too overtly racist, or for some other inscrutable reason were deemed unsuitable for general circulation in today’s Houston Library network. 20180405_Hlibrary3

Of course, many of these books were very familiar to W and I and some had been much loved (Robert Lawson’s Smeller Martin and Elizabeth Coatsworth’s The White Horse were two I remember well and paged through once more with great glee, despite their racist stereotypes).  It was an Ali Baba’s cave to booklovers.

If you are in Houston with some hours to while away (I’m thinking maybe a rainy day, of which there are many) this would be a wonderful way to while.

 

 

Freeway Free in Memphis: Graceland

20180511_105302The first record I ever bought (and I still have it) was Elvis Presley’s debut album, “Elvis”. So when we found we had a day to spare in Memphis, of course we decided to make a pilgrimage to Elvis’s realm at Graceland.

It was not what I expected.  True, the original house and grounds have undergone Disneyfication, with separate large exhibition halls devoted to his cars, his costumes, his movies (running all day long)  his gold records,  and his effect on music.  Each hall has its own souvenir shop, and there are also several restaurants on the grounds.

But the original house, accessible by shuttle van only, is like a time capsule of the late 50’s and early 60’s.  The house itself is relatively unpretentious.  Tourists are reminded that Elvis was born in a two-room shack with outdoor plumbing, built by his father in Tupelo Mississippi.  The family moved to Memphis in search of opportunity when Elvis was a teenager.  Memphis was his home town;  this was the place where the people lived whom he trusted, and whose opinion he cared about.  So when he wanted to build a family home, he didn’t think of Beverly Hills.  He bought one of the nicest homes on the outskirts of Memphis.  The previous owner had been a successful dentist.

Inside, the house is decorated in early 60’s middle-class style:  lots of mirrors, lots of white and gilt, lots of crystal chandeliers, lots of silver on display in china cupboards, lots of shag carpeting. The den is upholstered in paisley prints, the TV room with its adjacent bar is lacquered yellow and black, and has three vacuum tube TV sets so Elvis could watch all three major channels at once.  (I guess PBS did not rate its own set.)  We were told that most of the rooms had been redecorated several times, reflecting the taste of whatever girl friend Elvis was hanging out with at the time.  On his own, he tended to like a lot of purple and pink, but his mother (yes, his parents lived in the house with him)exercised some restraint, and would not allow him to fool around with the kitchen at all.

There is a charming story told in a children’s book available at one of the gift shops, about how a young Elvis used to look in the windows of Lansky Bros. clothing store in Memphis, and one day the Mr. Lansky invited him to come in and take a closer look. The two chatted, and later when Elvis needed clothes for his first concert, Mr. Lansky extended him credit purely on his assessment of the boy’s honesty and potential.  , According to the story, after Elvis hit it big, he bought all his  clothes from Lansky Bros., who would sometimes just send out a van full of clothing for Elvis to choose from.

The costume exhibition and the car barn made me think most about the older Elvis, the raddled, paunchy, sequined, padded and corseted entity of the Vegas years.  But the house evoked the quiet, well-mannered young man whom everyone he met seemed to like, before fame took him in its grip.20180511_105635

 

Thoughts of Those Who Serve (Town Crier May 2,2018)

img_0056.jpgMy husband is something of a connoisseur of National Memorials, having been born and raised in Gettysburg, PA.  So on our recent visit to Hawaii we fulfilled his long-held wish to visit the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

The monument now bears the cumbersome official title of “World War II Valor in the Pacific Nation Monument-Hawaii.” Not only could we visit the shrine over the sunken hulk of the USS Arizona with most of its crew permanently interred inside, but also tour the USS Missouri, on which the final surrender was signed by the Japanese, and the submarine USS Bowfin. Large interactive exhibitions explain the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, the attack, and the role of submarines in World War II. An excellent audio tour led us through the exhibits located both in the galleries and around the grounds, ending at a theater giving even more vivid detail about the attack.

It had been a quiet Sunday morning, some of the sailors still in their bunks recoving from the gaieties of Saturday night, others about to raise the flag to signal the official beginning of duties, when the Japanese planes roared in.  The attack was finely targeted to take out the US  battleships,  lined up neatly on Battleship Row. Over a thousand men died in the USS Arizona alone when it sank to the bottom of the harbor with no way out.

Of the 2403 people killed that day, only 49 were civilians.  But this was still the largest number of civilian deaths due to military action on US soil since the Civil War, and remains the largest number today, (discounting 9-11-01 as a terrorist, not a military action.)\The US and Canada were unique among the major combatant nations in WWII in having almost no civilian fatalities on their own soil.   Russia lost over 4.5 million civilians, Germany over two million, Japan three million, and China over twenty million. Civilians in Great Britain, France, and Italy died in the hundreds of thousands.  But the war stayed far away from us. Including the 49 lost on December 7, 1941, mainly due to faulty anti-aircraft shells falling in residential areas, the total civilian deaths on US soil came to 55.

US civilians have been sheltered from war by our broad ocean boundaries to east and west, and our good neighbors to north and south. Except for the Civil War,  we have always been able to keep our wars on other people’s territory.  During the current wars in the Mid-East  we send our “military advisers” far afield with  our  drones and our missiles, and if a few of them blunder across a home-made land mine or get caught in crossfire, we might heave a sigh as we read about it at the bottom of  page 4 of the newspaper.

Both my brothers are Army veterans.  Both spent a good part of their service overseas.  One was repeatedly shot at, the other wasn’t. Both survived without physical injury, but not without mental and emotional scars. I am tremendously proud of both of them.  They signed up to to be strangers in a hostile land, to run risks , to be targeted, so that you and I could be comfortable.

Our soldiers, sailors and air force are our gladiators, fighting  our proxy battles in foreign arenas, so that we can be safe in our homes from invasion. Don’t wait until Memorial Day to honor the dead, but smile at a living person in uniform today, while he or she can smile back.

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Freeway Free in Texas: A Stop-Over in LaGrange – a GEM!

20170407_122257.jpgW and I decided to spend some time in LaGrange primarily because it is conveniently about halfway between Houston and Austin.  We found a lot more to like than we had expected.

LaGrange boasts a real town square, with a Victorian-vintage courthouse which includes an interior courtyard with a fountain and a beautiful carved oak staircase.  Surrounding the courthouse are a number  of 1910-20’s vintage buildings , and some charming shops tucked inside those vintage buildings.

If you are hungry, Bistro 108 just off the main square offers some excellent eats.  On our visit the soup of the day was a corn chowder so good I wanted to lick the bowl, while the special of fried catfish was the best I have eaten of that species since I left Texas behind as a girl.

20170407_132055.jpgAfter lunch, a stroll around the square will bring you to the Texas Quilt Museum, a riot of color and pattern, usually with a special exhibit,  and staffed by friendly, well-informed volunteers. Their gift shop includes some great cards for sewers as well as wonderful textile crafts and some delectable antique quilts for sale.

The above quilts were part of a display from an International Quilt Exhibit – the leftward one is from Japan, the rightward from the US – I was fascinated by the complementary spiral motifs and colors from such disparate locations and cultures.

If you need some fresh air after the museum, Monument Hill/ Kreische Brewery State Historic Site is just a short drive out of town, and commands a spectacular view of the town of LaGrange and the entire Colorado River Valley.  The monument in question commemorates a squadron of LaGrange citizens who went off to fight the Mexicans during the Texas War for Independence, and were ambushed and either killed or imprisoned.

We missed the Texas History Museum which would have told us more about the ambush, but we did find a plaque honoring one of the town founders.  The plaque concluded its biography of the founder with “John Henry Moore died at he age of 80 on December 12, 1880…. The local newspaper carried a lengthy obituary extolling his many accomplishments and virtues. One week later a rebuttal was printed refuting these claims.”

Once in a while, you get to love Texas history.

Freeway Free in Texas: A GEM! Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

20170405_080617.jpgI thought I was accustomed to startling rock landscapes, having hiked to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, ridden a mule to the depths of Bryce Canyon, and driven dirt roads through Monument Valley.  But Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is in a separate class.  It features  a large pink granite dome which looks like something escaped from Yosemite, exfoliation and all, except it is the wrong color.  And except that, according to the geological information provided in the trail guides, most of this giant formation is buried under eons of silt deposits.  The summit is 1823 feet above sea level, offering wonderful 360 degree views of the Texas Hill Counry.  If it were fully exposed, it would cover an area as large as Manhattan, and be as high as Half Dome. 

20170405_082659.jpg The  Summit Trail is an easy two/thirds of a mile from the principal parking lot, which also offers convenient rest rooms and picnic tables for befoore or after your hike.  The climb  is steep and without handholds.  Recommendation – Bring a walking stick with a rubber tip to act as a third leg to brace you against the slippery rock and the howling wind which on our visit was blowing across the top at about  30 mph.  Recommendation #2 – make sure your hat and your sunglasses, if you need them, are both secured with a cord. The wind nearly took my hat as I crested the summit, and my sunglasses went flying  as I was grabbing for said hat.  After I had secured them in a Velcro fastened pocket  and wrapped a scarf about my ears, the whistling of the wind bothered me much less! Recommendation #3: wear a scarf.

But oh, it was bracing to be at the top!

Freeway-Free in Texas: Fredericksburg a bit lacking in “authentic German soul”

20170404_153027.jpgFredericksburg, founded in 1846 by German settlers, is said to have perpetuated not only the authentic German cuisine of the founders but also some of their “authentic German soul.”  (per VisitFredericksburgTX.com).  I have to say we pretty much struck out.  We got recommendations from the friendly host at our motel and headed hungrily into town after our drive from San Antonio.  The Old German Bakery and Restaurant, our first choice,  is closed on Tuesday, at Friedhelm’s Bavarian Inn we were greeted so rudely that we left, and we finally had a delightful meal with excellent service at the Auslander. 20170404_173818.jpg

After dinner we meandered down the wooden sidewalks to check out the stores and crafts shops, but found most of the stores closed well before 9PM, except for the biergartens and souvenir shops.  There were some traces of Germanic architecture around, but they had a kind of faux-Hansel-and-Gretel look about them which felt more Disneyland than Bavaria.

With some relief we returned to our hotel, the Peach Tree Inn.  The contrast between La Contessa where we spent out two nights in San Antonio and the Peach Tree Inn in Fredericksburg, is dramatic. Instead of a two room suite with bar area and marble countered bathroom, we have one room  with two double beds, a microwave on top of the mini-fridge, and the TV on the wall.  But everything is clean and fresh, the amenities in the top drawer of the bureau are as needed. The “light continental breakfast is included, with hard boiled eggs, lots of different pastries, bread and bagels, apples and orange juice, good coffee,  And the $98/night charge included a very decent bottle of Australian pinot noir on our dresser as a welcome from the host. 20170404_153736.jpg

So we were not as charmed by Fredericksburg in general as we had hoped to be, but were beautifully rested from our evening at the Peach Tree Inn, and ready to explore the beautiful Texas Hill Country the next day. 

Coming up next: A secret gem – Enchanted Rock State Park

 

 

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