Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

A Piece of My Mind: Smog – the Sequel (Los Altos Town Crier, Sept. 5, 2018)

  

When I was growing up on the southern San Francisco peninsula,  smog was the norm.  Many a morning  as I walked to school, the air was so full of dirt that the foothills were invisible – I might as well have been living on the prairie.

 Later when I was the age for making decisions about where to go to college, I was accepted at two excellent schools in southern California.  I visited both campuses and decided that it would be impossible for me to attend either – the air pollution was so severe that I could not go outside without suffering painful eye irritation with my contact lenses.  

People depend on their cars.  How could we have a modern civilization with the flexibility and mobility we needed if we restricted auto travel? But how could we avoid strangling ourselves by breathing  our own waste?

 Time passed.  Regulations and people demanded change.   Human ingenuity got to work.  Auto manufacturers learned to build more efficient cars which used less gas with no lead.  Petroleum plants learned to make gasoline which burned cleaner.   A problem which had seemed insoluble was nearly solved.  After a decade or so of effective regulation and innovation, the foothills reappeared.  When  I moved back to Los Altos after a ten year absence, I marveled at the consistent clarity of the air.

 But this summer I have seen a huge relapse.  The air quality day after day has been miserable, due to the uncontrolled wildfires burning to the north and east, and the prevailing winds which suck the smoke down into the Santa Clara and Central Valleys.  My sister posted photos on Facebook from trips she had taken to Ashland, Oregon and back .  Three years ago her photo showed snow-topped Mt. Shasta dominating  the valley, as pristine as a Japanese print of Mt. Fuji.  This year, from the same vantage point, on the same calendar day, nothing was visible but a brownish smear of polluted air.

 PG&E, among other entities affected, argues that the unusual severity of the fires is a result of global climate change, not human agency or corporate carelessness.  There are those who say that climate change is an act of God, beyond human repair. I believe, though, that God gave us brains and ingenuity in order to solve problems.  We have been able to shape our world in many ways to make it easier for us to live in it.  We have lowered the infant mortality rate.  Fewer women die in childbirth.  Smallpox, polio, and yellow fever have been conquered by vaccines.  We cleaned the air before.  With some inspiration and much determination I believe we can and must make the changes necessary to do it again.  I want my children and grandchildren to see our foothills.    

 

 

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Freeway Free in Alaska: Up the Inland Passage into the Wild

StanfordAlaska22_MoreHumpbacksdocI confess:  I did not come to Alaska to learn more about Tlingit culture or early Norwegian settlesments.  I wanted to experience wilderness and wildness, before they disappear from the earth.  When we sail up into Tracy Arm north of Hobart Bay, I feel like we were really there.

I wake up and open the curtain to see a big blue berg floating by – we are approaching Sawyer Glacier, shining  in every tone of teal between near- navy and shadowy ice blue.  As we watch, a large section of the glacier calves off, with a huge splash  followed seconds later by the deep roar.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later we make our way up toward Glacier Bay.  One of our group sights a group of orca between our boat and a smaller tour boat a bit further into the Bay.  Suddenly an orca breaches, throwing itself clear out of the water.  It is half the size of the small tour boat, and no more than 20 feet away from it.  Shamu at SeaWorld could not have shown off to better effect.

We sail into Glacier Bay, feeling smug because our smallish boat can go much further in that the multi-thousand passenger cruise ships we pass. The first peninsula jutting into the bay is Gloomy Gloomy Knob, the home of mountain goats.  We saw several Rams and one foursome of ewes and kids – then the foursome began running – they had been spooked by a drone zooming by for a close-up.  Flying drones close enough to disturb wildlife is illegal in National parks. Our on-board Park Ranger Nicole bolts for the captain’s bridge and its radio, gets the offending boat on the wire..  The droners deny the drone was anywhere other than near the beach! But we have photos!  Geez Louise!

Further in we spot a moose mama with twin calves (she looking quite skinny – the effect of nursing two?) As we circle around the bay we see three bears on the rocky moraine which constitutes a beach.  The mother bear is badly scarred either from skin disease or perhaps a burn and sparks from a fire, but not crippled. The two cubs are happily turning over rocks looking for shrimp or small fish sheltering underneath.   P1030607web

We get off the boat at Lumpaugh Glacier and walk on a glacial moraine- lumpy, shifting, insecure footing.  The bears looked more comfortable and secure – perhaps claws and flexible pads give them better traction?  It’s odd to imagine these rocks ranging from tiny pebbles to boulders being carried and then dropped by the slow river of ice moving back and forth across this empty land.  Maybe it wasn’t so empty then.  Maybe the Tlingit shamans tried to find some explanation for climate change.  Did they blame the actions of Man for having angered the Gods?  Does nothing change?StanfordAlaska62_GlacierReflectionweb

 

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Up the Inland Passage to Petersburg

P1030503docOur next stop up the Inland Passage was at the town of Petersburg, settled originally by a group of Norwegians over 100 years ago.  We were entertained by a group of students dressed in traditional  costumes made by local ladies, with design of Alaskan wild flowers registered with the special organization that registers traditional costumes. I now turn the blog over to my husband David, who is half Norwegian and glories in every drop of squarehead blood.

StanfordAlaska14_PetersburgViking-webDavid’s travel notes: We stopped in Petersburg, a 100-year old Norwegian settlement.  Quaint as you can imagine.  We went to the Sons Of Norway Hall for some cute  Norwegian dances performance  by the local 5th and 6th graders in traditional costumes.  Absolutely charming, with all those clean-cut Norse smiles.  (Note that the girls are taller than the boys  –  that will change in a few years).   They served us morning breakfast treats including Lefse, which my dad used to make much to our puzzlement. 

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Trophy plaque in the Sons of Norway Hall – most unusual contest!

The lady leader of the dance troupe asked if any of us had any questions or comments. Well, of course, I stood up and said, “I just want to make sure that these kids are aware of this old, famous Norwegian rallying cry:  ‘Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.’

 Lots of laughter but then one of our fellow boat travelers, Ken Johnston, walked up to me and said, “When you said that I was ready to kill you: my ancestors are Swedish.”   Well, of course, for the rest of the cruise Ken and I got along famously, trading Scandinavian lies.

 Like this one:  Ken: David, did you know that the Swedes invented the toilet?  David: Yes, Ken, but it took a Norwegian to invent the seat for it.P1030505doc

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Along the Inland Passage to Kake

P1030471docCruising along the Inland Passage of Alaska reveals few “tourist traps.”  The landscape is simply too big to allow any encroachment by man to seem significant against the surrounding mountains, glaciers, and ocean.  Just standing on the upper deck of our small cruise boat allows us to take in vistas of ice, snow, forest, and water which make the occasional human settlement seem irrelevant.  Still, we need to stretch our legs daily, and there are stops which allow us to focus our eyes on things less than 100 yards away.

One morning we stop in Kake, a traditional  Tlingit village. Our guide is a plump and charming Tlingit girl, who is learning her native language as a second language and teaching it to others  She explains that the Tlingit society is matrilineal, and divided into two moieties, the Eagles and the Ravens. Each moiety may only marry into the other to avoid incest.  A man mentors his sister’s sons, not his own, to make sure the boys understand the customs of the mother’s clan to whom they belong.  I wonder how Tlingit women speak of their fathers-in-law – how deep does role-reversal go?

P1030472webFor Alaska’s centennial the wood carvers of Kare created the worlds largest totem pole, originally 168 feet high.  Totem poles, however, are not designed as long-lived memorials;  the top twelve feet with its watchward Raven fell victim to weather and wind and now lie in the grass next to the splintered and faded pole. 

After a visit to a woodcarver’s studio where we have a chance to support the local economy, we crown our visit with a Tlingit dance performance in the local high school gym, which is brightly painted with their Thunderbird mascot in black and red. An octogenarian matriarch leads the ceremonies; the dancers range from babes in arms to very old elders.

P1030477webThe lead dancer is a black man adopted into the tribe on marriage with a Tlingit woman. He dances in a finely embroidered cape made for him by his mother-in-law as a memorial to his daughter, who was murdered while walking home from a dance the previous year by a boy from a rival clan. At the end of the dance the family of the murdered girl is presented with a ceremonial paddle marking her passage to the afterworld now that a year of mourning has passed.

At the conclusion of the ceremony we are all invited to join in the final dance, women moving more or less counterclockwise in one line, men moving in the opposite direction  in a second line.  The atmosphere was both solemn and festive, and somehow we were welcomed;  as part of the dance, we belonged.

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Freeway Free in San Francisco: A Touch of Class

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My father used to say, in justifying a splurge, “It only costs a little more to go first class.”  This is no longer true when flying across the country, perhaps, when an upgrade to first class was a two-digit expense, but it can still apply to other aspects of travel. When my childhood friend came for a visit, we decided to spend a weekend in San Francisco together, and we went in style.

Instead of paging through TripAdvisor, we simply made a list of what we wanted to do.  We wanted to have easy access to a BART station, since traveling up to the city by BART is much easier than driving and parking (not to say cheaper), and we also wanted access to public transportation.  We wanted to be able to walk to the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, as the Magritte  exhibit was on my friend’s bucket list. We wanted to be close to some good restaurants, and we wanted to be able to get to Golden Gate Park.

20180706_181641webWe ended up staying two nights at the Palace – the grand dame of San Francisco hotels, with its glass-domed atrium, high-ceilinged rooms, and courtly servitors.  Our room had two queen-sized beds, a marble bath, and cozy bathrobes to wear afterward. 

One morning we had breakfast at the Palace buffet in the sunlint atrium.  We were early, so we had first pick of a continental buffet which included yogurt, cottage cheese, excellent fruits, cold cuts, cheese, pastries, toast, jam, bagels, cream cheese, lox, juices, cereals, hard-boiled eggs, coffee, tea… we did not miss the scrambled eggs and sausage from the steam table.

We walked to SFMOMA, as planned, and spent a luxurious four hours exploring all seven floors, broken by an excellent lunch at the Café 5 on the 5th floor.  (OK, “first class” might have been down on ground level at the highly regarded but often crowded In Situ – but we decided “first class” also means “no waiting.” 20180707_124430web

That evening we walked to The Grove, a trendy restaurant half-way between the Palace and MOMA.  We people watched, ate wonderfully, and ambled back to our hotel for a swim and soak in the pool and hot tub located three floors up from our room.

The Grove is also known for its Sunday brunch, so we opted for their poached eggs on asparagus toast rather than another go-round at the Palace buffet.  Afterward we checked our baggage at the Palace and hopped the N-Judah street car to Golden Gate Park, where we took a Segway tour of the park.  (Yes, true luxury might have opted for a limo, but the N-Judah, again, involved no waiting. Actually, the N-Judah is just about everything you need to know about public transportation in San Francisco.  It starts at the King Street train station near the SF Giants’ ball park, circles the Embarcadero, dives underground past the Civic Center, and surfaces in the lower Haight on its way to Ocean Beach.  Give it a try!)

We  lunched at Nopalito’s, a top-line Mexican restaurant on 9th Avenue.  Here there was a wait, but it was made painless by the availability of a branch of the Green Apple Bookstore right across the street.

That evening  reclaimed our bags and BARTed back down the Peninsula, completely satisfied with our taste of luxurious living. And since my friend and I split the bills, it really did only cost a little more to go first class.

Freeway Free in Alaska: Stopping Along the Inland Passage – Sitka

 

P1030429webSitka is the launch point for many voyages up the inland passage. But don’t be in a hurry to leave.  In addition to the compact and diverse shopping street , Sitka offers

  • The Sitka Sound Science Center.located in a former hydroplant on the historic campus of Sheldon Jackson College, formerly a vocational training school for Alaskan natives, now a science center and working fish hatchery.
  • the Sheldon Jackson Museum,located in an historic building crammed full of over 6000 Alaskan native carvings, textiles, and other artifacts, collected by an early Presbyterian missionary  with a genuine appreciation for Alaskan native culture.

  • St. Michael’s Cathedral, a small but amazingly ornate monument to the courage and faith of early Russian Orthodox settlers, still operating as a working parish church.
  • Totem Park – Sargass National Forest, a largely open air museum of giant totem pole carvings,  and site of a battle between the native Tlingit and Russian traders.  The Park includes a very complete visitors’ center and a team of friendly rangers.

So put on your parka and gloves and walk down  Sitka’s Coastal Trail, making all the stops along the way before you board your cruise ship for points north!

Freeway Free in Alaska (actually you have no choice)

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Since there are only about 15 miles of freeway in the entire state of Alaska (built as a bit of a boondoggle between the capital city of Juneau and its airport), it is not much of a challenge to be freeway-free here.  The preferred method of travel is by water, whether by kayak, canoe, or cruise ship.

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Alaska was not exactly on my bucket list – I usually prefer to go to places where the food and language are exotic.  But once in the state I was enchanted – it still feels so WILD here.  The first day in Sitka, I strolled around the town and spotted a couple of bald eagles keeping watch over their territory from the top of the tallest tree in town.  Mt. Morecombe, which marks the entrance to the Sitka harbor, is a somnolent volcano.

The stroll of Sitka includes a main street of perhaps six blocks, with a harbor and historic park at one end, the coast range looming behind, and a second park looking out over the volcano and the bay at the other end.  The shops include quite a nice book store, a quilting shop with Alaska-themed print calicoes on offer, several craft shops offering carvings from driftwood or walrus tusks,  several small coffee shops,  and a restaurant offering fresh -caught salmon.

The standard wear for Sitka inhabitants involves jeans, down vests, and flannel. The shopkeepers and customers have an easy-going, relaxed air, as though there is nowhere else they would rather be, nowhere they need to rush off to.  I suppose those who want to be somewhere else than a small town in Alaska have already left.

The air is cool and brisk and smells faintly fishy.  I can feel myself relaxing, too.  There’s nowhere else I can be now, so I might as well be here.  I find myself a bench at the harbor, and scan the trees for eagles.  I turn, and find one perched on the apex of the church steeple, looking for all the world like a weathervane. Wild.

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.

 

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

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