Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot – Week 10: The Choices are getting hard

Today I drove to a produce market and bought fruit.  Not amazing, except it is the first time in two months that I have driven my car. (My husband has used it on alternate weeks to keep the battery charged.)

At the market, I wore my face mask.  The market allowed only 10 customers at a time.  Within the market, duct-taped arrows on the floor directed me around the fruit and vegetable stands – if I missed something, no turning back.  I avoided putting my choices in bags as much as possible – everything went into one bag at the check-out station, which was shielded by plastic curtains except where  I could insert my credit card for the check-out.

For a decade we have been asked to bring our own reusable bags to shop. Now reusable bags are possible vectors of infection, and the plastic bag makers are staging a comeback.  All I can do is to pile my fruit and vegetables all together in one cart, let the checkout clerk sort, and put my purchases into one paper bag.

Public transportation, re-usable bags, cluster housing – all those ecologically correct ideas are now hazardous – how can we save the planet now?

Freeway Free in Texas: Take Me Home From the Ball Game

          It’s 6:30 am and we are off to Kyle (touted by Wikipedia as the fastest-growing town in Texas, which also makes it a strong candidate for the ugliest – lots of big box stores and pop-up housing.) My nephew’s team, the Texas Gunners, will be playing the Triple Play in the Battle of the Basement. (Winners get to sleep in. Losers play at 8:30, and the team meets for warm-ups an hour earlier) The Gunners have beaten Triple Play in two previous games but we must not be overconfident.

          We arrive at the ball park.  My nephew and brother stride off toward the dugout with the duffel bag full of gear.  My sister-in-law and I note the rain spangling against the windshield and decide to huddle in the SUV for a few minutes longer.

          Twenty minutes pass.  The rain is still spatting against the windows, but we unfurl ourselves from the SUV, add a couple of layers of warmth from the back seat stash, and make our way to the bleachers, happily sheltered under a tin roof. The other parents are cuddled in sleeping bags, or afghans, or double layers of fleece. One family has brought a tent, which is pitched under the tin room for added protection.

          First inning.  The wind picks up. And up. The sky grows darker. And darker.  My nephew distinguishes himself as pitcher during the first inning, and the second.  Rain continues. Wind increases.  25 mph, says the weather app on my smartphone.  It is now the third inning, and my nephew’s  pitches are getting wilder.

          “Will the game be called on account of rain?” I ask my brother through chattering teeth.

          “Nah.  Only if there’s lightning. If there’s lightning they have to stop and wait for a half hour since the last thunder clap.”

          As if on cue, there is a bright flash of lightning. A long roll of thunder.  The umpires blow their whistles.  The teams retreat to their respective dugouts. The parents shiver beneath their blankets.  The kids seem immune to cold, not even donning their team sweatshirts as they wait out the interval.

          A half hour passes.  No more thunder. The teams resume the field.

          Bad news:  My nephew’s team loses again. They are eliminated from the tournament

          Good news: They don’t have to play again.  We can go home and get warm.

Dawn On the Freeway

Photo by Jason Freis

The gaudy neon carnival of a predawn freeway. Gas Stations pass like brutalist modern sculptures standing out in the blackness . I’m in Texas but could be anywhere, as the comfortably familiar logos flash by. Lowes, Motel 6. Panera bread. IKEA. Harley Davidson. Suddenly we are in a city. Skyscrapers dimly lit, offices weekend-empty. Then a tangle of concrete arches, and we are back in Logoland. Toyota, Acura, Jeep, it must be an AutoMall. Jack-in-the-box, the golden M. Apartment blocks huddled\ darkly together, Public Storage conveniently adjacent (why do people accumulate so much stuff that they have to rent auxiliary storage? They can’t all have inherited their parents’ dining room furniture!).

The sun is struggling to rise through thick clouds. The striped roof of a KFC emerges from the gloom, lit by Verizon, Chick-fil-a, T.G.I. Friday. No people visible anywhere except for other drivers staring fixedly forward as we pass them in the fast lane. More three and four story apartment blocks, more widely spaced. And then we are out of the suburbs and the space opens out to a horizon brought close by the clouds, and an expanse of scrub brush and winter-dried grasses. And just as suddenly into another suburb, Shell, Starbucks Burger King 7-eleven. More public Storage. Auto maintenance and repair. Huddled 2-story apartments. A parking lot full of cherry pickers and backhoes. Dawn is here. The neon lights are shutting off. Open space again briefly, then another suburb. We exit the freeway and stop at a red light. We have arrived at Somewhere. Walmart. Walgreens. Goodwill. Just like home.

Freeway Free in Texas: Quirky

We drove three hours through the Texas Hill country to my brother’s house in Georgetown.  Along the way there were plenty of testaments to the ongoing quirkiness of the Texas character.

We passed a ranch house style building with a sign saying “Deer Dressing.”  Not a fashion center for bucks and does, but a place where you could drop off your after-the-hunt booty and have it carved into steaks, chops, hides, and heads for display in your family room. The fence was decorated with skulls of deer, wild goats, and longhorn cattle.  Atop a tower at the entrance was a human skeleton (artificial, I hope), underneath a camouflage net, dressed in camo, riding a bicycle, and flourishing a rifle.  Not sure what the message to potential customers was meant to be.

Later we passed a pasture in which a life size (I suppose) replica of Bigfoot tromped through the grass in lieu of a scarecrow.

At lunchtime we followed a Yelp recommendation to Alfredo’s in Lampasas, not the hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant we expected, but a large indoor-outdoor event venue nestled in a ben of Sulphur Creek.  The patio features thatched huts a la Baja sheltering each table, and a menagerie of life-size fiberglass or bronze  parrots, tigers, lions, and longhorn steers. In addition, a trio of larger-than-life-size mariachi bandsmen concocted from rusted metal machine parts.  The food was pretty good, too.

            To settle our lunch, we stopped off at the Hanna Springs Culture Garden, adjacent to the new but deserted Swim Center.  Here Texas quirky was fully on display.  My favorites were the basketball court painted as an homage to Mondrian, and the rusty pickup  with a giant sheet-metal catfish flopped on top.

            As we approached Austin, we began to see signs with the slogan  “Keep Austin Weird.” Looks like the surrounding environs give Austin something to draw on.

Freeway-Free in Texas: Taking Shelter

 It started to rain rather seriously about 7PM. The wind picked up, too, so we had our supper of sardines and hummus around the table inside shelter, lowered the protective plastic screening to keep out the rain, and settled back into our sardine supper and our books. The rain picked up. The wind picked up. There were flashes of lightning. Rolls of thunder. The intervals between flashes and rolls became shorter and shorter. The rain drummed on the roof.

Suddenly both our cell phones blared an alarm. “TORNADO WARNING – Radar shows storm clouds rotating, Storm centered above Meridian State Park“. Hey, that’s where we are! Then we heard a horn blaring, looked outside, and saw the Rangers’ white truck. The ranger was leaning out the window, shouting “Tornado warning! Go to the shelter!” We grabbed our phones and whatever else occurred to us, and fought our way through wind and rain to the Ladies Room at the end of the refectory building, constructed by the CCC of sturdy limestone blocks. (We had noted the “Storm Shelter” sign on the Women’s rest room earlier, and laughed. Now we were grateful. There was only one other woman there – the park was sparsely populated mid-week during a pandemic. Her nephew was in the adjacent Men’s room, she said. We each pulled out our phones and watched the weather map. I offered around mints which happened to be in my bag, to counteract the sardine supper.  The rain pelted so hard against the small windows that it sounded like hail. The restroom lights flickered. The thunder drummed away at the roof.

After almost an hour the tumult quieted. A ranger knocked on the door. “You can go back to your camp now, ladies. But I might have to roust you out again at 1:00 when the next storm comes through.” W and I went back to our screened cabin and packed our backpacks carefully this time with headlamps, wallets, computers, extra underwear, water bottles, etc. And we were indeed awakened about 1AM with more lightning flashes and thunder rumbles, but the ranger did not come by.

For the rest of the night, we both slept well. In the morning, it was as though the storms had never been. The lake was so placid you could see the reflections of the branches of trees on the opposite shore. The sky was cloudless, an Easter egg blue.We had expected hail damage,but no, it had only been hard-driven rain.  Texas weather.

Freeway-Free in Texas: Past Presence in Bosque County

The day dawned gray and gloomy, with promise of drizzle to come, but we had planned for some weather, and had an indoor outing in our mental hip pockets (I should say W had planned; I was along for the ride.) After a bracing breakfast of yogurt and tangerines, washed down with hot tea, we headed for Clifton, the county seat of Bosque County, and its Bosque Museum.

As you enter the museum, you pass a small oak tree, with a plaque noting that the tree was planted in 1982 by King Olav V of Norway. It’s amazing to think that European royalty made a pilgrimage to this area in honor of its early Norwegian settlers. A section of the museum is devoted to this colony of Norwegians, and features charming displays of furniture and other artifacts which were crafted by these early settlers.

Near the entry lobby of the museum is an animatronic recreation of county resident Al Redder, an amateur archaeologist who in 1967 suspected that a cave overlooking the Brazos River on his ranch might harbor some traces of earlier settlements. After carefully marking off and mapping the site according to the requirements of a proper archaeological dig, he began excavation. He found signs of camps by several different Indian tribes who had passed through the area, and he kept going. More artifacts surfaced. And more. Finally, 14 feet down, he found bones, those of a 40ish man and a young girl, buried together, both in fetal position, and surrounded by traces of jewelry and tools. It turned out that these were the second oldest human remains found in North America, and one of only three burial sites that included ritual artifacts. The exhibit chronicling the discovery and its signficance is fascinating.

The third section of the museum is devoted to the “Bosque Seven.” Bosque County has attracted a number of artist who specialize in Western themes and landscapes, and a large room is devoted to examples of their work. I’m not one who would hang a painting of a roundup in my family room, but some of the landscapes were very lovely.

Following our time in the museum, we explored downtown Clifton. There is the mandatory confection of a courthouse, commons to every county seat in Texas that has not succumbed to Urban Renewal, a Main Street that seems frozen in the 1920’s, including a genuine soda fountain still in business, and the usual stores featuring antiques, collectibles, and souvenirs. W bought a kerosene lamp to have on hand for the next Texas energy emergency. Then back to our shelter, with rain still threatening, we had our midday dinner and settled into a quiet afternoon and evening.

That didn’t last.

Freeway Free in Texas: Ft. Worth Culture is not an Oxymoron

When I was growing up in East Texas the idea of “Fort Worth Culture” would have sent most of the folks I knew into paroxysms of laughter. Ft. Worth was proudly “where the West begins” ; museums were for Dallas, the effete business-suited metropolis on the other side of the county line.

That was then.

Fort Worth today has skyscrapers. It has gourmet restaurants that don’t rely on barbecue. And it has some museums that are world class, worth making Fort Worth a destination, not just a detour from the freeway.

W and I spent the morning at the Kimbell.  The building itself is architecturally significant, a series of half cylinders lined up next to each other, enclosing two wings, one devoted to art from around the world and a thousand years of time, the other focusing on Impressionists and their successors. The museum is beautifully curated, with the art arranged thematically as well as sequentially. A sinuous Hindu goddess clad in flowing draperies is placed near an elegantly posed Reynolds portrait of a society belle; a Chinese pottery horse from the Tang Dynasty faces a portrait of Lord Grosvenor’s prize Arabian stallion. The juxtaposition helped me to see each piece in a new way.

Like most museums, the Kimball offers a pleasant alternative for lunch. In with pandemic restrictions, we we happy with a box lunch of soup, salad, quiche, and fruit eaten in an outdoor atrium next to a Maillol stature of “Air” under a trellis whose wisteria vine will be beautiful in a few more weeks with lavender pendants, and will give welcome shade in the summer.

After lunch we moseyed across the avenue to “The Modern”, which lacks the architectural moxie of the Kimball, but makes up for it with some striking outdoor sculptures, some reflected in a large pool which half-surrounds the building. Inside on the main floor, the permanent collection includes some Rothko, a Jackson Pollock, and some Donald Judd of Marfa fame.

The second floor was devoted largely to an exhibit of photography and cinema by an Iranian/Azaerjibian woman, Shirin Neshat. Gripping, but after watching a half hour of black and white cinema and then walking through three rooms of large portraits in black and white, I began to feel I was trapped in someone’s somber senior yearbook. A quick visit to the sculpture garden off the second floor refreshed my color receptors.

A final visit to the gift shop (none of the artwork I admired was available on post cards, alas!) and we were off to our change of pace destination: Shelter camping at Meridian State Park. Tune in next week!

Freeway-Free in Texas: Meridian State Park

The Civilian conservation corps created this tiny gem of the Texas state Park System out of nothing in the 1930’s. Most of the work crew were World WAr 1 Veterans. They were given room and board, and $30 a month, of which $25 was sent directly to their families. They diverted insignificant Bee Creek into a catch basin and built the dam which created Lake Meridian. , They hewed blocks from local [graninte?] and built a sturdy Refectory in vaguely Romanesque style, as well as equally sturdy adjacent restrooms. They cleared trails around the lake and up Bee creek and its tributary, LIttle Creek.

The Texas Dept. of Transportation, which for some arcane reasons is in charge of the State Park System, has enhanced and maintained the park beautifully. (I read in the Texas Monthly that the only thing Texans agree that the state should be responsible for is road maintenance, so maybe this arrangement provides more than the usual funding for park projects ). The DOT has added hot water to the restrooms and built a dozen or so screened shelter cabins along the lake front, as well as a pleasant and spacious section for RV’s with water and electric hookups, and several more or less primitive campsite areas around the lake. The lake is stocked with rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, and catfish. In warm weather one can swim in the lake. (In late March we did not try this.)

We arrived at Meridian State Park in the late afternoon and settled into our screened shelter with its 270-degree lake view. The evening was fine, so we set up camp chairs and a cardboard box outside and had a Mediterranean supper of sardines, flatbread crackers, hummus, and cherry tomatoes. As the sun set we scrounged enough twigs and shards of firewood from vacant campsites to have a small fire in the fire pit. (We had not noticed the split oak wood available for sale at the ranger station). The half moon rose so brightly that it intimidated the myriad stars. It seemed there could be no bad news in a world so lovely and quiet.

Life in a Covid-19 Hotspot: On the Road Again!

You’re going to Texas? Disbelieving intonations in the voices of the friends in my writing group. Underlying unsaid: that place with the Neanderthal governor who is letting people take off their masks and hold wild parties. After all these months of care, are you nuts? My children disapprove but are too loving to say so. After not having seen them for almost a year, I’m visiting my brother and my oldest friend. At least they have both been vaccinated, but not my brother’s much younger wife, nor his 12 year old son. At least with my friend I will be camping outside most of the time. At least with my brother we will spend much of our time outside at my nephew’s Little League games.

At any rate, here I am on an airplane. Traffic to the airport was minimal, carryon bags avoided check-in lines, security was only minimally delayed due to 6 foot separation requirements (scrupulously observed through security, I observed, but not in the long queues at Starbuck’s and Chick-fil-a once I was in the terminal.) The one inconvenience: many of the water stations were boarded up: it was a long walk from security (Opposite gate 22) to the nearest water station (opposite gate 18) and back to departure gate 23.

Once on the plane, I received help from a masked guy in front of me to heft my carryon into the overhead, tucked my backpack under the seat in front of my window seat, after stuffing my water bottle into the incapacious pocket in front of me (no airline magazines, I note.) Adjusted my double face masks, made sure my hearing aids had not become dislodged, eye-smiled at the young woman who took the aisle seat (no center seats filled). She had beautiful eyes with unbelievably long lashes. They might even be real. If you are going to be masked, it helps to have knockout eyes.

Not as much banter as usual from the Southwest attendants. They flashed a card showing my options for beverage. Declined. Later passed by with a tray of pretzels. Declined.

Up over San Jose, sprawling in its patchwork of green space, industrial parks, cookie cutter suburbs and apartment complexes, limited-height skyscrapers constraining as always its ambitions to be recognized as one of the country’s Top 10 cities. San Jose is always pedestrian Martha to San Francisco’s passionate Mary – which makes Oakland what? Maybe Lazarus, come back from the dead. Then over the snowy Sierras, past a big lake which must be Mono Lake, then down into desert country, a lengthy river cutting canyons through aridity until it is abruptly stopped at a dam. Seems there is enough to water snaking through the landscape for people who need it, but we know every drop will be claimed by multiple stakeholders.

The inner window of the plane is plastic. The outer window has a little circle of ice crystals surrounding a tiny peg which somehow must attach the outer tempered class. Same thing on the window just behind me. I wonder how that works. Tiny ice crystals flake off from the circle and stay scattered within4 “.

Outside a layer of cloud, lumpy where a thunderhead is trying to break through. Seat belt sign is on. I break out my neck pillow, my second magazine. Back in thetravel groove, as if I’d never left it.

The New Normal is Already Sneaking Up

(Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

Lots of talk has been generated over the past months about how our lives have been permanently changed because of the pandemic, and what the “New Normal” will look like. But if you consider the pandemic as one of the many consequences of climate change, then in many ways the” New Normal” is already here.

I used to let the water run while I brushed my teeth.  Now I just wet the brush.  I used to pour soapy water from the dishpan down the drain.  Now I carry it outside and dump it on whichever plant looks thirstiest.  I used to soak in a hot bath.  Now I take 2-minute showers.  That’s the “New Normal” after five years of drought.

Formerly, in our bedroom suburb, the tallest building in town was the movie theater.  Now the movie theatre is gone, but we have several three-story buildings.  A few of them have trees growing on the roof.  A five-story building is planned. That’s the “New Normal” for smart land use.

Once upon a time, my aunt from Southern California would come up to visit in the summer so she could get away from the constant whirr of air conditioners.  She would have been dismayed when my husband added air conditioning to our home several summers ago.  But where we used to have “an occasional day over 90” we now get “an occasional week or two in the 90’s”. That’s the “New Normal.”

But it’s not just climate that has wrought change.

I used to get a chunk of suet from the meat counter to put on top of my chuck roast to tenderize it and to generate more pan juices for the gravy.  Now if I eat beef at all, it’s the leanest cuts, and if I have to chew longer, it’s probably good for my gums. Low cholesterol is the “New Normal.”

Re-reading a classic chlldren’s book from the 1950’s, my eyes widen as the mother sends her 9-year-old daughter to an art class in the community center, sending  along her 4-year-old  also with instructions “Let your sister play in the sandbox in the park while you are in art class.”  In our New Normal, this lack of parental supervision would be deemed at best irresponsible, at worst criminally neglectful. 

When I was a child I used to ride my bicycle all over town.  I felt as free as a bird, choosing my own road, my own speed, my own stops.  As long as I was home by dinner time, no one worried.   Now if I see a child riding a bicycle to school, one of the parents will be alongside.  More security, less freedom.  That’s the “New Normal.”

(Did you notice how carefully I avoided using a gender specific pronoun in the above sentence?  That’s the “New Normal” too.)

The changes brought about by the pandemic maybe will happen faster than those listed above.  The comfort comes from knowing that however new they seem at first, with the passage of time they will just be normal.

Life in a Covid-19 Hot Spot – Week 37 – What’s the Point? (LATC 12/9/20)

Setting up for Thanksgiving was difficult this year.  I brought out my late mother-in-law’s harvest-red paisley tablecloth and the bin full of Thanksgiving cornucopias, fake fruit, and fold-out turkeys for decorating the table.  Since we didn’t need to put any leaves in the table, I had to fold the cloth under at both ends to keep it from dragging on the floor, and we only had room for one cornucopia and one turkey.  What’s the point of polishing the silver and setting out my grandmother’s crystal  candleholders if it’s just the two of us?

But the two of us are important.  I realized how thankful I was that I wasn’t eating Thanksgiving dinner alone.  I got out the silver and the candleholders.

The day after  Thanksgiving we usually start decorating for Christmas.   I dragged the artificial tree out of the attic and found the outdoor lights in a box behind them, buried under a year’s worth of odds and ends.  We have this light-stringing business down. The lights are put away in orderly coils labeled “Garage”, “Kitchen Window”, “Front Porch Swags”, “Porch Eaves”, “Living Room Window”.  The cup hooks which hold the strings are painted white to blend with our trim, so they become invisible out of season.  My husband has taken apart my garden shuffle hoe to devise a tool which enables him to lift the strings onto the cup hooks with minimal trips up and down a ladder. This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20201211_164842web.jpg

As we arranged five over-size  lights on the lemon tree in front of our picture window, I mentioned “The only trouble with these big lights is that they block the view of our tree inside from anyone passing by. “

“We don’t do it for the neighbors, we do it for us,” he answered.

Just then our neighbor, who happens to be Jewish, walked by.  “Putting your lights up again!” she called out.  “It always lifts my spirits when I see your lights go up each year!”

“Mine too!” I called back, trying hard not to smirk at my husband.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20181220_170501web-1.jpgThe lights and the tree are for us, but they are also for others.  At least a few times a week during the holiday season I know we will be driving around different neighborhoods looking at holiday light displays. And each  display tells us something. Whether  it is the flickering candles of Dewali,  blue and white lights surrounding a menorah, old-fashioned multi-colored incandescents strung along the eaves, dazzling LED displays zigzagging up and down the tree branches, or even Darth Vader and Yoda wearing Santa hats and battling with red and green light sabers,  someone in this house is reaching out to let us know a little bit about who they are.

In this difficult time of separation, custom and tradition are comforting.  So we will put up our Christmas tree, even though  our four- year- old granddaughter can’t come to help  us decorate it.  I’m hoping someone else’s granddaughter might walk past and see our tree, and that it will make her smile. 

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