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: 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. 

A Piece of My Mind: Post Election Reflections (Los Altos Town Crier 11/25/20)

When I first moved here Los Altos was a group of up-scale housing tracts thrown up in the midst of vast apricot orchards, each home a one-story ranch house boasting a gabled roof, two car garage, and a remnant apricot tree or two.  The front yards were set off with split-rail fences covered with fence roses or English ivy, and had velvety green lawns suitable for setting up croquet hoops or badminton nets.

The apricot trees have died off, the one-story ranchers are being scraped one by one in favor of two-story mock-Tudors or mock-Mission or mock-modern homes with an extra garage for an RV, and the lawns are being replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping.  Things have changed.

When I first moved here, Los Altos Hills was a scattering of older farm houses and former summer cottages, with large lots suitable for corralling a horse.  Equestrian trails bordered the two-lane roads or cut between houses on recognized rights-of-way.  Children rode school buses across the railroad tracks to schools in the flatlands.

The farm houses are being replaced one by one with mansions which fill the large lots up to the setback requirements.  The horse corrals have morphed into vanity vineyards.   The equestrian trail I rode on lea has been replaced by an eight-lane freeway, the railroad tracks are overlain by a four-lane expressway, and there are no school buses.   Things have changed.

Los Altos and Los Altos Hills were designed as white-collar bedroom communities, designed to provide shelter for families whose bread-winners were working locally (almost all my teachers lived in Los Altos within a short distance of the schools) or in nearby businesses spun off from Stanford (e.g. Varian)  or related to the military  (e.g. Lockheed).

It was assumed, if anyone thought about it, that our gardeners and gas station attendants would be living in blue-collar communities such as Mountain View or Redwood City or East Palo Alto.  In four years of my high school education there was only one black student at Los Altos High School, and she was a senior who graduates the year I entered as a freshman.  A quick run-down of last names in my graduating class shows, out of 500, only two Mexican surnames, four Japanese surnames, and zero Chinese surnames.  It was understood that El Camino Real, which divided attendance at Los Altos HS from MV HS, was also the dividing line between white-collar and blue-collar families. There was no thought  that a city zoned mostly for single family housing with off-street parking was exclusionary or practicing systemic racism.  Things have changed.

We can’t turn back the clock.  There’s no use in wallowing in nostalgia for a suburbia that no longer exists.  Things have changed.  Let’s do our best to deal with it.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot- Week 29: Getaway Gone

Our favorite getaway spot, just an hour and a half from the busy Bay Area, has been the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove.  This historic retreat was originally a YWCA leadership camp , with historic redwood buildings designed by Julia Morgan, who also designed many of the buildings at William Randolph Hearst’s La Cuesta Encantada in San Simeon (AKA Hearst Castle).    The Center is nestled amid cypress trees and sand dunes just across from Asilomar State Beach on the quiet side of the Monterey Peninsula, separated from touristy and cutesified Carmel by the gorgeous twisting 17-Mile-Drive along the Monterey coastline. .

For the first part of the Lockdown, the Conference center was commandeered by the State as a place to quarantine people who had been exposed to the virus.   After the first surge, the center was emptied and sanitized, but its conference business had dropped to zero.  It reopened to the public only a few weeks ago.  D and I were desperate to get away from our same daily rooms, and reserved a night.  That week the wildfires blazed up, and the Air Quality in Pacific Grove was rated Hazardous.  We rescheduled.  Two weeks later the fires were contained, the air had cleared and we were on our way.

Usually the Conference Center is humming with conferees, who might include  quilters, nutritionists, corporate retreaters, and many other groups.  But there are usually a few unfilled rooms which are available at reasonable cost to the non-conferring public at the last minute.  If you have breakfast in the Dining Hall you will sit at whatever table is not filled, and be liable to have an interesting conversations with whatever genial strangers share the table.  The Lodge is full of teenagers waiting their turn at the pool table or conferees scanning brochures about local activities, or picking up souvenirs at the Park Store.

But that was Before.

As we drove in, the parking lots were nearly empty.  The lodge itself was posted with the first of many signs notifying visitors of curtailed services. “Lodge open for check-in from 2PM to 8PM.”  It was 3PM, so we entered .  The cavernous lodge was empty except for the young lady at the reception desk and one computer jockey at a well-isolated table.  The room was posted with signs saying “[fill in blank] is not available to guests at this time.” (e.g. swimming pool, lodge fireplace, park store, pool table, piano…).  The brochure stand was empty, but we invited to hold up your phones to a QRcode to download information.  The Dining Room was closed also, as were the bike rentals.

All the same, it was a wonderful getaway.  We could sit on our balcony among the cypress trees and look out to a sparkling ocean.  And when we walked down to the beach, we saw that there are some family pleasures that even COVID-19 cannot close down.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot – Week 27: Do’s and Don’ts for Skype-ing Story Time

In the Before, I was used to taking a commuter train up to the City, then catching a trolley across town to my son’s apartment, where I would give my son and daughter-in-law a break while spending quality time with my pre-school age grand-daughter. Of course, you can see the Red Flags popping out all over this scenario now. But with pre-schools and offices locked down, the need for a break for the harried parents has been greater than ever.So twice a week we Skype Story Time.

It has taken awhile to get the hang of doing this. First I had to find story books suitable for Skyping. I burned through the collection of books that were left over from my kids much faster than I expected. My kids and my grandchildren had always settled on a favorite book, which they requested again and again. But not being side by side with the child, not being able to share pictures and point out details, meant I could only show the pictures, recite the text and hope that my little audience would stay tuned. I learned to imitate motion by zooming in on part of a picture, then panning out. This helped keep the pre-schooler’s attention, but after three or so readings of “The Box with Red Wheels” she demanded “A new story this time!” and soon it was every time.

I plundered every Little Free Library within a 5-mile radius for children’s books. But the books which end up in the Free Library are NOT the ones which were anyone’s favorites, and my little audience was quick to let me know when she didn’t like a story by burrowing under the couch cushions.

Fortunately, our local libraries hit on a brilliant idea for their limited availability during lockdown: they put together bundles of books – Toddler bundles, Picture Book bundles, Teenage bundles, etc. I could check out ten picture books at a time, a grab bag of possibilities.

I quickly discovered, though, that out of ten books only three or four would really be suitable for my little audience. Alphabet books held no interest. Books with a boy protagonist were less interesting to a little girl. Books designed to increase a child’s vocabulary (e.g. a lot of Richard Scarry) tended to have very weak story lines. And most disappointingly, many books with beautifully detailed illustrations were either too monochromatic or too finely drawn to be seen and understood on a computer screen.

Big hits include classic stories like “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, in editions with large clearly outlined graphics. Babar the Elephant and Curious George are warmly welcomed. Rhyming stories like “I Can Fly”, again with vivid illustrations and a girl protagonist, get repeat requests, as to thee simpler Dr. Seuss readers like “Bears on Wheels” with their goofy illustrations.

So we Skype along. My little audience is fiercely protective of her story time, not allowing Daddy or Mama to attempt any grownup conversation on HER time. And until we find a New Normal, I’ m keeping a list of beautiful picture books for when I can sit down side by side with my little audience again.

Life in a Covid – 19 Hot Spot: Week 26 – The new Normal?

My sons have always gone camping together in September.  The only miss in the last 15 years was the September that the younger son got married.  This year any campground that was not already restricted by COVID-19 was shut down due to wildfires raging through the state and national forests.  What to do?

Solution: Urban camping.  We have a back yard which has a lawn.  Occasionally wildlife (rabbits, possums, raccoons, an occasional coyote pack, an occasional deer) appear unexpectedly.  And we have adjacent foothills so far unscathed by fire.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20200919_095141web-1-e1600887575283.jpgSo we had a family reunion, properly distanced.  The campers set up their tents in the yard (separate tents, properly distanced)  and set off for a 16-mile hike which included a fair segment of asphalt and sidewalks, summited the local peak (Elevation, 2,812 ft) and a stop at a local pub able to serve a cold beer with outside seating.

Cooking out was pretty civilized, using our Smoky Joe for burgers, and sitting around our propane-fueled portable fire pit for after dinner cookies and conversation, six feet or more apart. 

The next morning the guys settled for a breakfast of coffee and French toast made in our kitchen, rather than bacon and biscuits on the camp stove. We ate together on the patio, using single-use plates and napkins and utensils fresh from the dish washer.  

No, it wasn’t the same.  But it was still a slice of wonderful to see and hear my family together in real time, real space.  I’ll take it.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot – Week 25: Getting Hotter

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Not enough to be locked down by fear of the virus. For two weeks I have been locked in, surrounded in my bayside bubble by wildfires raging out of control to the north, to the east, to the south, and to the west. The outside air has ranged from Moderately Unhealthy to Hazardous, as a high pressure dome presses down on our region, keeping the sea breezes out and holding the ash and soot in.

The beginning of the maelstrom was a week of record-setting high temperatures, punctuated by a freak lightning storm which lit over 600 blazes in tinder-dry brush. We had a week of relief from the heat, and then it returned, with temperatures a full 25 degrees above “normal” for this time of year.

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September 7,2020

At the same time, in other parts of the country the most powerful storm ever to make landfall made its way from the Gulf to the Atlantic shore. The Weather Service is all the way to Rene in naming tropical storms, and the hurricane season has not reached its peak.

How can anyone look at these events and not be afraid, not for their own personal well-being, but for our planet? I have grand-children. Scientists have warned for a decade that what I live through in these weeks will be the “new normal” if we are not able to change our destructive patterns of life.

If no other good comes from it, the pandemic has shown us that, if forced and if fearful, we CAN cut carbon emissions by 7% a year. We CAN move out of cars and onto bicycles or our own feet. We CAN live without the latest Something New.

And the trusting faces of our children and grandchildren tell us we MUST.

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