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?

A Piece of My Mind: How Much Do You Need?

I recently spent time with several different friends who have “downsized”.

One couple is selling their four-bedroom, three bath house with the aim of cashing out the equity, buying a smaller home in a less expensive location, and using the extra cash to follow some lifelong dreams. 

Twenty five years of accumulation now fills the two car garage from floor to ceiling, except for a narrow aisle to allow access to the building inspector. It includes furniture inherited from grandparents, portraits of ancestors, and many beloved books.   They plan to consign the dining-room furniture and donate the sofa, the piano and half the book cases to an NGO, but still worry about how they will fit the things they really love or need into a mere two-bedroom, one bath house with a one-car garage.

A second friend has moved into a two-bedroom one-bath house with a one-car garage after a divorce.  His home is filled with art and artifacts related to his life and interests, and he does have bonus space: a basement stairway leads to a fully equipped wood shop and foundry where he can hone his woodworking and brass-casting skills.  Every corner, every bookcase, every picture (and there are a lot of them) holds a story relating to his life.  It is the perfect home— for one person.  Yes, he has downsized, and wrapped his life around him.

My third set of friends have left a home that  accommodated a family of nine, including two natural and five adopted children, now all grown and gone.  They moved to a three-bedroom 2 bath house. The new house is smaller, but it feels big, as it is perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean with  270 degree views from the living room, study and kitchen. Every wall, every nook, every cupboard is filled with items salvaged, discovered, given, or retrieved – a thousand stories.  It is the home of two people but it feels as though it also comprises a small art gallery and museum.

I also visited a younger friend whose business is taking properties that scream “Scrape me!” and turning them into attractive AirBnB one-month rentals for young professionals.  His prospective renters need an attractive and functional bathroom; a kitchen with a stove, oven, sink and microwave, and the minimal necessary pots, pans, and utensils;  a bedroom with good reading lights and a comfortable bed for two people;and a sitting/eating space near the kitchen with a large screen TV and internet access.

I made these visits with my sister who owns a small teardrop-shaped trailer which includes a king-sized bed, lots of storage nooks under the mattress and above the bed space, a small TV screen and DVD player, heat and AC, and a kitchen with a two-burner stove, a microwave, and a battery-powered chest refrigerator.  We traveled comfortably for 11 days. I had enough clothing to keep comfortable from the cold foggy shores of Washington state to the searing summer heat of California’s Central Valley.

A one-bedroom Air BnB or a traile, give you a simplified life, but a life with no sentiment, no memories, no past. 

So how much of your past do you want to bring along when you “downsize”?  How many memories do you think you will need?

Tiny Trailer Travel 2 in 2022 – Day One

My sister promised me two trips in her tiny teardrop trailer as Christmas/birthday presents. For our second expedition with her favorite toy, we decided to do a variation on an earlier trip, going north to visit our brother in Washington state, but on our way we also planned to visit old friends up and down I-5 and US-101.

We had planned to leave early in order to beat the heat on I-5, but domestic circumstances (which I resolve NOT to talk about in this series) delayed our departure until nearly 11:30AM. We had loaded the trailer’s refrigerator with a fresh-caught frozen salmon courtesy of M’s neighbor, a partially-pre-cooked hamburger casserole courtesy of my Personal Travel Agent, some gourmet cheese, assorted fruit, hummus, and enough wine to keep us merry as we camped our way up the valley.

M drives for the first two hours, straight up I-55 aiming at Mt. Shasta.  We stop for lunch at a rest stop, where our little cocoon is dwarfed by the semis also taking their breaks in the lot marked for “Trailers and RVs”. The rest stop offers shade and a bit of a breeze, and duly fortified we proceed to our first camp spot, Railway Park Resort at Dunsmuir. We pull into the registration office past box cars and cabooses that have been re-purposed as lodge rooms for families, a gift shop, and a history museum. A Dining Car is now a restaurant. But we have our own traveling accomodation, and continue further up the road to our RV site in a different area.

It is HOT, but in the shade bearable. We see other campers returning from a swimming pool located back in the railroad car section, but it seems like too much trouble to change clothes and hike over to share a pool with a bunch of teenagers and tots. Instead, we explore and discover a creek near our site ideal for wading in.  Oh bliss!

Returning with wet feet to our camp, we discover that the electrical connection to the trailer has come unplugged. We can’t know how long we have been driving without blinkers or brake lights, but long enough so that the salmon is completely thawed.  We cross our fingers against botulism and hope for the best. Our first night meal is the partially pre-cooked casserole layered with noodles and cheese in a frying pan, super easy to fix, and we have some (warm) red wine to wash it down and some chocolate covered cranberries for dessert.

M’s sleeping bag has a velcro-fastened interior lining, so we could pull off the warm layer and sleep under the lightweight sheet. Despite the heat of the day, the trailer cools fast with side windows and a ceiling vent open. We have no trouble falling asleep.

NEXT: Finding Friends and Family – Day 2

Hard Facts

Photo by Kevin McCartney

I love this country.  I get a little teary when I first see the American flag flying after a trip abroad, or when “The Star Spangled Banner” rings out over an Olympic podium or a baseball field.  My US passport is my most prized possession. I pay my taxes willingly as “The price one pays for freedom” per Ben Franklin.

Still, some facts are hard for me to face:

  • The United States US has the shortest life expectancy of 21 developed nations – 77 years, compared to top-ranked Switzerland at 83 years. (per a Town Crier article 6/2/22)
  • The United States has the highest infant mortality rate of the top 8 developed nations -5.9/1000, almost triple that of top-ranked Japan at 2.0 fatalities/1000 (World Health Organization)
  • The United States has the least effective health-care system overall among 11 high-income countries, even though it spends the highest proportion of its gross domestic product -almost 17%- on health care. (based on % of population covered for core needs, life expectancy, infant mortality rates – the Commonwealth Fund). 
  • The United States has the highest level of income inequality of the seven G7 countries, out-ranked world-wide only by Russia, India, and Brazil.  (Brink News, Credit Suisse Global Wealth Data book)  Income inequality in the United States is at its highest level in fifty years, and increasing. (US Census Bureau, 2018 figures.)

And for me the most troubling facts, because they hit close to home and seems so preventable:

  • In the United States the #1 cause of death in those under 18 is gunshot wounds
  • People living in a household with a gun owner are seven times as likely to be shot and killed as those in a gun-free home. (Stanford University study of nearly 18 million Californians).
  • Handguns were used in three out of four US suicides in 2018.
  • Despite claims from anti-gun-control groups that better mental health care, is the solution to gun violence, the amount  the United States spends on mental health is only 5% of total health care spending. 

I’m waiting for legislators opposed to the Affordable Care Act to propose their modifications or improvements to the coverage.

I’m waiting for the legislature to provide funding for those small local treatment centers which were supposed to be more effective than the state mental hospitals that were closed.  

I’m waiting for those who claim mental disturbance is behind gun violence to explain why someone with a history of mental disturbance should be able to buy a gun anyway.

I’m waiting to see Texas GovernorRon deSantis’ proposed legislation for increased funding for mental health services.

I’ll probably be waiting for a long time to come.  But the facts keep getting harder.

Hidden Gems: Ruth Bancroft’s Cactus Garden

Ruth Bancroft’s legacy garden in Walnut Creek, California is a small plot of land full of wonders. Ruth Bancroft’s family had a farm in Walnut Creek; she was attracted to a rosette-shaped succulent, and this grew into a fascination with succulents, cacti, and numerous other drought – tolerant plants. The result is a fantasy garden of growing greenery, some of which looks as though it originated on another planet.

Despite years in the general area, and having heard about the Ruth Bancroft Garden, it took a family wedding to draw me there. Now I’m eager to go again with visiting friends.

It’s spring, folks! You’re going to see some gardens!

Freeway Free in California: Iris Chang Park, San Jose

I spent Earth Day with friends, making a rather neglected park more beautiful by pulling weeds and trimming invasive plants. I hadn’t planned on doing anything to mark the day, but my friend Tao invited me to join her and her partner in a work project sponsored by the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project of San Jose.

The location was Iris Chang Park, shoehorned between a huge apartment block and culverted Coyote Creek. It was established to honor Iris Chang, the brilliant young author of “The Rape of Nanjing” and other histories of the Chinese experience, which opened to much community fanfare in November of 2020. But during the lockdown months care and maintenance fell behind, and the nettles and dandelions had grown almost as tall and profuse as the native grasses originally designed for the landscape.

The park offers a simple strolling path past a cenotaph telling about Iris Chang, a large circular sculpture evoking traditional Chinese artifacts, and several markers and low walls with quotes from Chang’s work. In April, irises planted by Chang’s parents were in bloom in several beds.

So we set to work. A couple of hours later, with a dozen people busy, we had accumulated quite a collection of refuse bags, and the park is ready for its closeup – a May 1 event to mark the anniversary of Chang’s death. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood!

A Piece of My Mind: Civic Duty

I get the post card.  I am on call for jury duty for a week. The new procedure is to sign in at noon and 5 pm to find out whether I am on call to appear the next morning or afternoon.

For four days I dodge the bullet.  I manage a blood donation, a Book Club meeting, and a friend’s Anniversary Party, and then the notice appears:  “Your report date is 4/22/22.” Following is other information about where to park, where to report, how to check in.

I make it easily to the parking garage, up two floors to the pedestrian bridge, and then the signage ran out.  I start for the nearest building – nope, that’s the jail.  In the other direction – yes, the Superior Court.  Through the bag scan and the metal detector, up to the second floor, where i wait in line for the sign-in kiosks, directed by a friendly young man evidently used to handling clueless questions from silver haired ladies.

I balk at the sign in kiosk, clearly labeled “Step 2” and “Step 3”. 

“Where’s Step One?”

The young man shakes his head. “We’re re-vamping the system.  Gotta change those signs.”  I scan my juror postcard, he kindly takes my parking ticket for validation (saving himself several other clueless questions, I’m sure.)

Into the jury room, full of people scanning their cell phones or filling out forms. What are these forms?  Did I miss something? I ask. No, that’s for after you’ve been assigned to a jury.  The form looks like it goes on forever.  And only one chair in the entire room has a desk arm.

I am on Panel 47B. An announcement comes. 47B is called to the third floor.

We are seated in the courtroom.  We rise for the judge, a young-ish woman with brown hair flowing over her robe.  We rise to swear to do our best.  The defendant and his attorney rise and take off their masks to greet the prospective jurors. They both sport conservative suits and ties.  The defendant, a large, square shouldered guy, smiles at us – he has perfect teeth.  A charmer.  The DA also rises maskless, a woman in an un-challenging beige suit.

The judge read the charges against the defendant:  six counts of sexual aggression, forcible rape, sodomy….

I haven’t thought about it for years.  When I was eleven years old, my father out of town, my mother at a meeting, she arranged for me to go to and from my dancing class via taxi. The driver had dark curly hair and a pock-marked face. Molestation is the word we have for it now. No rape, but still mystifying and terrifying to my young self. 

The judge said “This trial will probably last for five weeks. If you can plead a hardship, you may be excused.”  She read the reasons which would justify hardship. Being uncomfortable with the subject matter is no excuse.

Happily, my husband and I have a long-deferred travel planned, which is non-refundable.  I have been allowed a deferral until mid-summer. I’m hoping that my civic duty at that time will involve only some financial malfeasance, and will evoke no nightmares.

Freeway Free in Texas: Another Houston Civic Garden

The time to visit the McGovern Centennial Gardens in Houston is definitely in April, when the magnificent azaleas are in bloom.

The entrance to the garden opens to a walkway lined on either side with bronze busts of notables, framed by (on my visit) luxuriant azaleas. It’s a bit difficult to figure out how the notables were picked. Texas historical figures such as explorer Cabeza de Vaca or Sam Houston are expected, but why the president of Chile? and why Robert Burns?

The centerpiece of the garden is a tumulus with a pathway spiraling upward to give you a view of the whole garden as well as the Houston skyline rising beyond. There is no marker to tell you who might be buried beneath this ceremonial mound, but it is precisely reminiscent of burial mounds in China, along the Mississippi, and in Britain.

The pathway is lined with shrubbery and ivy-covered walls. It seems to be a desirable habitat for lizards: I spotted six skittering away from me on my way up, in different shades of yellow, gold, and red. (California lizards are so dull and dirt-colored.) A fountain at the top of the tumulus sends water down a pebble -lined incline to a pond at the bottom; the pathway skips across the stream several times on narrow bridges. The effect is cooling, which is good, as there is no source of shade other than the ivy walls.

At the top of the tumulus are three benches inscribed somewhat cryptically: “In terms of one year, plant a seed. In terms of ten years, plant a tree. In terms of one hundred years, teach the people.” And, one could add, “In terms of one hour, have a seat!”

The rest of the Centennial Garden is still a work in progress. The beginning of a traditional rose garden is visible, but the bushes on my visit were neither labeled nor blooming. Eventually there will be benches shaded by blooming arbors, but not yet.

There is also a family garden, colorful during my visit with lush kale in many shaded of green, magenta, and yellow, and showcasing flowers, vegetables, and fruits which can be grown successfully in the Houston area.

I was charmed to find a Little Free Library conveniently positioned next to a picnic area in the Family Garden, offering books for children, but with a garden theme.

The Centennial Gardens are located within Hermann Park, also home of the Houston Zoo, a lake with paddle boats, and other family attractions. But the Gardens feel quite removed from the more commercial recreations also available in Hermann Park, and provice a lovely place for a quiet walk alone, or a walk-and-talk with friends.

Freeway Free in Texas: Houston’s Botanical Garden

I needed to stretch my legs after a full flight in coach to Houston, so my friend W obligingly scheduled a trip to the Houston Botanic Garden, sorta kinda on the way from Hobby Airport to central Houston. It was a drizzly afternoon, bracing after four hours in a mask, and we had windbreakers and an umbrella, so we strolled the deserted grounds of the garden quite comfortably. After all, in Houston the rain is warm.

The entrance to the garden is austerely modern, but the fence by the gate gives a better idea of the kinds of richness behind the entry. The garden recreates a diversity of ecological settings, punctuated with fountains, raised beds, and a variety of eccentric artwork.

My favorite were the cacti, with all the eccentric shapes and shades they can show.

The major fountain would have been more striking in sunlight with water jets sparkling, I think. Under gray skies it had an effect recalling a set of tiled locker room showers. What do you think?

The raised beds in the culinary garden were beautiful, with richly colored kale and cabbage.

Definitely worth a detour when you are next in Houston! But don’t forget the umbrella!

Freeway Free in Florabundance: My Spring Garden

My father used to say that we lived in Paradise, and in springtime in California, despite threats of drought, global warming, and wildfires, this is still true. I just got back from a week away (which I will write about later, never fear) and found that my garden is in full flush of bloom. So don’t expect travel tips or social commentary this week; it’s all about the pretty pictures.

I ‘m not an assiduous gardener. There are weeds, and a lot of volunteer plants in places where they shouldn’t be. Fortunately, roses despite their beauty are very forgiving of neglect – so I have a lot of them.

I also have geraniums because they just grow, nasturtiums because they reseed themselves, and jasmine which invades from the neighbor’s yard and competes with the roses for fragrance and a basket of miniature petunias which I bought last year and has thrived on neglect.

And to top it off, my mother’s orchids, tucked away in remote corners of the yard for most of the year:

After hours in sterile cars, airports and airplanes, this was such a fantastic welcome I had to share!

Hiking Boots to Buzzards’ Roost

Having nothing scheduled, we sleep until 6:30, when we both wake with the same need, scrambling for our camp shoes so we can hustle off to the nearby loo.  If we were at home, we would have stayed upright, made coffee, and begun the day.  But in camp, it seems still too dark to do anything serious, so M curls up for an additional doze, while I pull out my iPad to churn out another 1500 words of my latest imaginary adventure.

After a lovely camp breakfast of Raisin Bran, blueberries, raspberries and oranges, washed down with French pressed coffee, and milk, I do the washing up while M puts together a portable lunch in preparation for our hike to Buzzard’s Roost.  We intend to leave by 10, but what with one thing and another it’s 11:15 by the time we set our feet on the path toward the Buzzard’s Roost trailhead.

It’s a lovely walk under the Highway One overpass, up through stands of redwoods terribly scorched by the Basin Complex fire of 2008, but still bravely pushing out green shoots of new growth.  Then we’re in ceanothus and scrub oak country, then manzanita, and finally barren red rock with a vantage point that looks over to Mount Manuel landward and to the brilliant blue Pacific to seaward.  We spread our unneeded extra layers of shirts over the red dirt and set out a lavish lunch of hard-boiled eggs, carrots, hummus, crackers, string cheese, grapes, apples, and prunes – all finger food, no grease.  We stay looking out to sea until our spines begin to protest against sitting unsupported on the hard ground, then round up the eggshells and cheese wrappers with other leftovers and set off on the return loop.

One of my perennial games on a hike is to count how many different kinds of wildflowers Ican spot.  In Edgewood Park near where I live, I have counted as many as forty in the spring, due to the many different micro-biomes there.  On this day at Big Sur we tally twenty one, including columbine, native iris, wild strawberry, dandelion, buttercup, trillium, and others of which I do not know the names.  Counting varieties is a great way of forcing yourself to be on the lookout and to really notice what is around you.

Our plan after returning to our campsite had been to hop in the car, take care of a couple of small purchases at the general store down the road, and then to drive down to Pfeiffer Beach.  But after our purchases M turns to me and asks “Do you mind if we don’t go to the beach?  I just want to veg.”

Instead we drive to the end of the road on the side of the river opposite our campground, just to see what is there. We watch a family playing softball on the weedy field for a while, and I want to check out the “seasonal footbridge” that the map shows opposite our campground (See the dotted line crossing the river at the end of Day Use Lot 4 on the above map?) M drops me off at the end of Parking lot 4 and drives away, while I follow the trail from the sign that says “Footbridge.”

Guess what.  No footbridge. Must not be the season yet.  I debate wading across the shallowest portion of the Big Sur River as it ripples past where the bridge should have been. I’m wearing my water shoes, and my cargo pants with the roll up option, and the water looks shallow.  On the other hand, the bottom of the river is paved with rounded stones of varied sizes which could be very unstable and slippery, the water is so clear that it’s hard to gauge how deep it really is, and getting up the steep bank on the opposite side looks chancy. So I opt for the half-mile walk around to the far bridge at the end of the campground.  (It would have been shorter, but the most direct route was “authorized vehicles only,” and a ranger directed me in a friendly but definitive way to the trail around, not through.)

By the time I make it to our campsite, M has gotten worried and set out in search of me.  By the time we reunite the sun is definitely over the yardarm. She lights the portable campfire, I run cold water from the camp faucet over my tired feet, and we settle to reading, phoning, and munching the last of the crackers and hummus.

Dinner is experimental but turns out well. A vegetable medley cooked in Frying Pan #1, sliced parboiled potatoes with onions sautéed in frying pan #2, and lamb chops sauteed in Frying Pan #1 after the veggie medley had been evacuated, along with a nice Pinot Noir, dessert of shortbread and chocolate squares, and some sisterly discussion ranging from “Do you think Mom resented me?” to “Have you smoked marijuana?” to “I have this genetic deformity. Do you have it too?”

And by 9PM we are snuggled in our teardrop cocoon once more.

Coming next: The Beach! .

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