Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: San Antonio beyond the Alamo and the Riverwalk

20170404_062510.jpgWe walked down the Riverwalk to La Villita, an  art area in a restored old section of San Antonio, replete with marvelous old tilework. Had a simple but ample breakfast with a server who was a cross between Jack Black and chirpy Ranger Tatum.

Next we drove to the Medina River Natural Area. We hiked mostly level trails along the river bank, with a few ups and downs between riparian and chaparral ecosystems.  I counted 21 varieties of wild flower plus four types of butterflies, and heard many bird songs. We were warned about some feral pigs in the area but saw none.

 

 

Lunch at Lai Wah’s Place, a modest Chinese restaurant in a strip mall thronged with locals, very good Cantonese-style food, old-fashioned fake paneling and suspended ceiling decorAFter , waitress moving at top speed at all times (hence the blurry photo), did not even have a chance to impress her with my Chinese.20170404_111118.jpg

 After lunch we continued our explorations to the  Denham Estate Park to see the beautiful Korean pavilion donated by San Antonio’s sister city Gwangju in Korea. ( I wonder what San Antonio sent in exchange?)  The pavilion is very lovely sitting over a pond on lovely grounds.  Unfortunately the  Denham home which is in the center of the park is loudly marked “no trespassing, no public restrooms.” A bit off putting!. 

 

Next on to the marvelous McNay Museum in northern San Antonio, in a  mansion which seems to have been blended from elements of the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite and the old plaza in Santa Fe.. Lots of stenciled roof beams,  tiled stairways and benches, an interior patio, iron grill work…

…and some amazing art, ranging from medieval to Monet and Mary Cassat, plus some Southwestern ethnic stuff.  Outside in the sculpture garden another LOVE sculpture, as previously seen in Taipei, Tokyo, Albuquerque, and Philadelphia. And some Rodin. 

Blown away by all this exercise, culture, and art, we finally made it out of town, having skimmed a lot of the cream of San Antonio.

Freeway Free in Texas: The Missions of San Antonio

I had not been aware that the Alamo is only one of five San Antonio missions which together comprise a National Historic Park as well as a World Heritage Site.   W and I saw them all.

20170403_081959.jpgThe Alamo is not a large building, and until the Daughters of the Republic of Texas appealed to the state government, it was in danger of disappearing entirely under one or another wave of urban development which swept over San Antonio.  Now, of course, it is a cultural icon as well as a huge tourist attraction.   The State of Texas has taken over responsibility for funding its maintenance, with the DRT acting as custodians.

 

Since its time as a church, the Alamo has been an army barracks, a fort under bombardment, an army storehouse, and simply abandoned.  No wonder it is the least lovely of the five San Antonio missions.  It has no bell tower, no frescoes, no WPA restoration of dubious accuracy, no green lawns.  It does have some beautiful old live oak trees which were transplanted to the grounds, and a very well stocked gift shop, and mobs of tourists coming in waves from tour buses. We chose an audio tour so that we could try to go where the bus tours and field trippers were not, but were only partially successful.

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The other missions make up in picturesque elegance what they lack in historical drama.  Conception has two towers a la Notre Dame de Paris.  San Jose has expansive grounds and a lovely window called “Rosita’s window” through which those Indians who were yet unbaptized could peek in and observe the religious ceremonies.  Here we were guided by the  incredibly perky Ranger Tatum who gave us a chirpy but very modern tour of the “Queen of the San Antonio missions” – exposing the inauthenticity of the WPA’s reconstructions, and the wrong-headed -ness of the priests’ aspirations regarding the natives.

San Juan has been spiffed up with whitewash and has an open belfry with the five bells arranged in tiers.  Estrada is the last and least restored, but its dilapidation has a raffish charm all its own.

 

The missions were opened as a way of establishing Spanish culture and faith in the New World;  the missionaries were at the same time agents of the King as well as of God.  The natives came to the missions as a last resort – they were being terrorized by tribes of Apaches who were invading south Texas in order to escape the even more martial Comanches, and they were dying of sicknesses brought by their early contacts with the Spanish.  The missionaries promised shelter from and defense against the Apaches, which they delivered in exchange for the natives’ abandoning their language, beliefs, and culture – even their names.  However the missionaries could not protect against the illnesses.  The priests believed that the natives were dying because of their sinful lives, not because of contagion, which was not then understood.  By the end of the mission era, 80% of the indigenous tribe members who had come to the mission for help were dead.

Lovely weather, and as we proceeded sown the Mission Trail the outer Missions were progressively emptier.  We walked a lot, mostly on paving stones and bricks and clinkers.  We felt we had earned a margarita at the end of the day at spangle-lit Mi Tierra, the doyenne of San Antonio’s Mexican restaurants. followed by a delicious platter of Monterrey Speciale, and a middling good flan to share at the end of the meal at the end of the Trail.

 

 

A Piece of my Mind: That’s Entertainment (Los Altos Town Crier February 7, 2018)

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My mother loved to entertain.  By that I don’t mean she would sit at the piano and sing torch songs, or tap dance around the living room.  Hers was the old-fashioned idea of entertaining, where one invited a mix of people to enjoy good food and drink in an attractive setting, and hope to generate lively conversation, a good bit of laughter, and some warm memories.  The mix would include some old friends who could be counted on to maintain the conversation and the party mood, and some interesting new acquaintances who might become friends (and usually did, after attending my mother’s parties).

When we have friends over, it is almost always a potluck where everyone brings a platter and a bottle to share. We are working people, we think, and can’t take the time to entertain the old-fashioned way.  My mother would have scorned this limited idea of hospitality.  Whether it was a bridge party, a ladies’ lunch, or a party for the entire faculty of the school where she taught, her parties were carefully orchestrated from appetizer to dessert, sometimes with a theme, always with an eye to what new acquaintance would add spark to the mix, what combination of people would ensure a lively gathering, and who should sit next to whom.

20180122_100648.jpgHer cupboards were full of party equipment.  Her dining table could be extended to accommodate 6, 8, 10, or 12 people.  She had tablecloths and napkins to accommodate each size, plus pretty crystal place card holders to let people know where they should sit.   For bridge parties and ladies’ lunches she had smaller table cloths with matching napkins.

She had high-ball glasses and champagne glasses and wine glasses and martini glasses.   For larger parties she had a glass punch bowl with two dozen matching glass cups, a ladle, and a special mold for making an ice ring full of frozen fruit to cool the punch.

For winter parties she had a soup tureen for serving bouillabaisse or curry, scallop shells for baking coquilles St. Jacques, and abalone shells for helpings of shrimp creole.   For summer parties she had individual trays with paper liners for eating outdoors, and parfait glasses for serving raspberry ice cream parfait.

 

With my father’s help she would choose and tape appropriate  music to be playing in the background for each party.  A few weeks ago I found a cassette tape in my mother’s house labeled “Party tape – Once a year day!” 

As I played the tape through I remembered that party.  It celebrated my father’s 60th birthday, my parents’ 35th anniversary, and the  ceremonial burning of the mortgage for the house in Los Altos, and also served as a wedding reception for my younger brother and his wife. The sound track was full of happy tunes: “Once a year day” from “The Pajama Game” , “Happy Days are Here Again”,  a New Orleans jazz version of “When the Saints go Marching In”, jazz piano, and dance music (“Edelweiss” for the bride and groom who had married in Germany, “Always”  for Mom and Dad to mark their anniversary) There must have been more than fifty people flowing in and out of the house and back patio.  The punch bowl was refilled again and again. It was a wonderful day.

My mother and father are both gone now.  As I look over the items I am packing up from my mother’s house, I’m remembering the good food, good conversation, and good times associated with each jello mold and baking tin.  I’m also thinking I’d better start issuing more invitations, or the only party of mine folks will remember will be the wake. 

 

 

Freeway Free in Texas: What my Texas History book forgot about the Alamo

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I had not been aware that the Alamo is only one of five San Antonio missions which together comprise a National Historic Park as well as a World Heritage Site.  The Alamo, of course, is the famous one, enshrined in national memory by a succession of movies – Fess Parker as David  Crockett, Steward Granger as Jim Boweie, John Wayne as David Crockett again, all making this bit of history larger than life.  I learned a lot that I had not taken in during my 7th Grade Texas History class, including:

Davy CrockettDavy Crockett went to Texas to try to recoup his fortunes after a failed attempt at reelection to his Tennessee Congress post.  He was essentially bankrupt.

Native born residents of the province of Tejas were mostly mixed-blood of indigenous and Spanish settlers, and were called Tejanos.  Immigrants from the United States were mostly from the Southern states and were called Texians.

 

220px-Antonio_Lopez_de_Santa_Anna_c1853Santa Ana was not just the general defeated by Sam Houston at San Jacinto.  He was the Mexican general who led a coup against the established Federalist government of Mexico after Mexico gained independence from Spain.  He quickly established himself as the center of power, and had already put down revolts against his coup in three other Mexican provinces before moving north to put down the rebellion in Texas.  Following his defeat in Texas he was in and out of power as the President of Mexico for another twelve years.

 

Many Tejanos joined the rebellion against Santa Ana because they resented the loss of local control under the new centralized authority.  Many Texians rebelled because they had moved to Tejas with their black slaves, and the new centralized government outlawed all slavery.

William Travis, leader of the troops at the Alamo, had a black slave, Joe, who survived the battle and was allowed to go free to carry the news of the defeat to Sam Houston and the other rebels.  Sarah Dickinson, a Texian woman whose husband was killed in the battle, was also allowed to go free, just in case a slave’s tale would not be believed. (Or was it the other way around?)  The Tejano women and children who survived were also freed.  Joe was reported to have impressed the Texas Cabinet with “the modesty, candor, and clarity of his account“, but all the same he was returned as chattel to the heirs of the Travis estate.

So in some ways the war for Texas independence was a preliminary skirmish in the Southern defense of  their “peculiar institution” of slavery.  Somehow the heroic defense of the Alamo did not come across that way in my 7th grade Texas History class.

Freeway Free in Texas: San Antonio’s Riverwalk

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My friend W had lived in San Antonio for several years, so when I revealed to her that despite 10 years in Texas I had never visited that most historic of Texas cities, she immediately volunteered to be my guide in and around the area. 

The Contessa Hotel where we stayed is actually a suite hotel.  We chatted up Nadja, the reception clerk, and explained how I had come from CA to see San Antonio and my old friend was acting as my guide,  so she gave us a nice set of rooms on the 12th floor with a sitting area with a view looking down the river,  or up to the Tower Life Building, a wonderful copper-roofed brick construction lit at night. We each have a double bed, and there is plenty of counter space and plugs for charging all our techno gear. The location, right up against the riverbank with an exit to the Riverwalk, could not be better. 

One of San Antonio’s soubriquets is “The Venice of America”, a name it owes to the San Antonio river which meanders through the downtown area.  Once a dank, flood-prone channel threatened with being paved over, The Riverwalk has been redeveloped over decades with charming sidewalks decorated with tilework, art, and blooming plants, plus what seems like one endless Mexican restaurant stretching end to end along both banks. It is a perfect pedestrian stroll on a balmy spring night.  We joined with folks from all over enjoying the sound of falling water, the bustle of river boats navigating up and down, the flower-decked carriages, and the cheerful babble of many voices having sipped many margaritas.

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We took a side trip to explore the art colony of La Villita (just closing down an open air street market, to W’s relief – browsing little gew-gaw shops is NOT her favorite pastime.}  Again, the bridges and plazas overlooking the river, coupled with the tilework and adobe architecture, make a place for wandering, lingering, sitting, and savoring.

20170402_184306.jpgWe had noted only a couple of restaurants which were not Mexican, and since W has a favorite Mexican place she has scheduled for us tomorrow night, we settled on the Little Rhein Steak House, which she remembered as being Germanic.  Maybe once, but now the menu is quite focused on steak, with a few shrimp and salmon and chicken dishes for the nonTexan visitors. We each ordered a salad and split a grilled salmon entree.  It turned out to be the right choice. – each salad was beautifully presented and nicely dressed, the salmon was plenty for two, we each got one asparagus spear, I ate the potato filling and W ate the skin, and we both felt quite satisfied. So our first day in San Antonio ended with the view from our window of the Tower Life Building lighting our dreams.

 

Voices from the Past

Browsing along my mother’s bookshelf, I found “The Greek Way” by Edith Hamilton – a name I recognized as the translator/curator of the book on Greek Mythology I had read for extra credit in junior high. This volume was attractively packaged as a “Time/Life Book Selection” and I took it home for bedside reading.

At first, Hamilton seems hopelessly dated.  She speaks of the contrast between vibrant, materialist Western culture (sparked in her view by the Greeks) versus the introspective,  un-worldly culture of the East.  In our current world it is China and India who are galloping into materialism. The West is urging less emphasis on things and more on simplicity in the pursuit of happiness and, incidentally,  the salvation of the planet.

Hamilton devotes almost a chapter to contrasting the elaborate color and detail of Asian art with the austerity and simplicity of Greek marble sculpture.  But the exhibit “Gods In Color”, currently finishing its run at the San Francisco Legion of Honor, explodes this comparison. We now know that those pure white marble friezes and statues gracing the Parthenon and other Greek antiquity sites were once flamboyantly painted and decorated.  It is age, not austerity, which has given them that pristine simplicity.

She devotes another chapter to Pindar.  He is, per Hamilton, a poet on the level of Shakespeare or Milton, but completely incapable of being translated because of the different aesthetics available in the original Greek. Western poetics admires metaphor, comparison, restatement in multiple ways of a central theme – traits visible in Shakespeare’s sonnets and the King James Bible, as examples.  The Greeks deplored re-statement, instead valuing the single statement of an idea with exquisite clarity.  The beauty of the Greek poetry of Pindar comes from its movement, meter,  and sonority, none of which can be translated into English.  Kipling, says Hamilton, comes the closest among English poets to using meter and movement to drive his poems, though she judges  that Kipling’s poetry is far outshone by  Pindar’s.

By this time I was a bit impatient at Hamilton’s claims for Pindar. How could I challenge them, never having read a word of Greek?  Then I recollected my struggles in China to understand the high regard the Chinese aesthetic pays to beautiful calligraphy, an art which simply has no counterpart in European culture. Perhaps the real lesson here is how many ways there are to perceive beauty, and how tragic it will be when no-one can read classical Greek any longer, and Pindar’s genius will be as irrelevant to our lives as the Mayan carvings.ChineseCalligraphy

Edith Hamilton was born in 1867, at a time when well-educated people were expected to be familiar with Greek and Latin literature in the original. This shared knowledge was an unspoken and perhaps un-realized network of connection between diplomats, rulers, businessmen and scholars throughout Europe in  the 19th and early-20th centuries.

Our local high school still offers three years of Latin as a World Language option, as well as Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese.  Perhaps some of the old network of shared knowledge will survive.  And more than likely a shared knowledge of the  “Analects of Confucius” in the original might prove equally useful to tomorrow’s diplomats, rulers, businessmen and scholars. 20171221_114953doc - Copy

Life After Life (Los Altos Town Crier, December 6, 2017

Your first life is as a child, as you encounter the world. My grandson asking the big questions at 6: “How did the galaxies start? What was there before the tiny lump of all the matter in the Universe?  Why did God explode it?

Your second life is governed by hormones – will  I be pretty? Will I be attractive?  Can I find a mate?  Will we have kids? Can we have kids?

Your third life is financial – edging up on the second life.  Can I afford to have kids?  Can I send them to college?  Can  I pay off my mortgage?

And your fourth life is after the first three lives lose their ability to engage you.  Your mortgage is paid off.  Your kids have their lives, and check in with you now and then.  Now what?

For a decade or so, everything is fine. You take courses at the local university.  You learn to paint, or to play the piano.  You travel. You design quilts, or take up pottery. Maybe you start a blog about your travel, or your craft work. You sign up for local government committees.

And then… you realize that your relevance is ebbing.  Younger people no longer seek your advice. You run out of things to say on your blog.  You read about the places you visited, and the current travel advice has nothing in common with your decade-old experience.

And then… things start to fall apart. Your fingers no longer quite do as you command as you practice your piano, or your typing.   The words don’t spring to mind as you write your blog, or your letter to the editor.

And then you fall. You break. You are slow to heal.

And then you are suddenly old.

It’s not the “Golden Years” seen in the advertisements in the AARP magazine.  It’s a life of constriction, where you move a bit less freely, food is a bit less flavorful, conversation is a bit harder to follow, reading or watching television is a bit harder to focus on, every day.  Until one day you realize that the world is moving past you, that the world doesn’t even see you.

And now what? Your friends (that have survived) and children (if you are lucky enough to have some who are still around) remind you of all the happy times you have had, all the things you have accomplished.  But your life always has been focused on the future.  Now that future looks uncertain, even painful.  Will you need care?   Will you lose your freedom to move without assistance? What do you have left to give to the world?

You have already lived four lives .  What will the fifth life be? In some cultures, the old are seen as repositories of wisdom.  In American culture, always touting youth and new frontiers, it is all too easy for those facing the fifth life to feel pushed to the side, superfluous.

So this is my challenge for the New Year – to list the gifts I have, and consider how to make them useful to my wider world.  To keep my future in mind, both its opportunities and its hazards, and to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.  Explore new paths, but wear sensible shoes, and be careful not to fall.

 

 

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