Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “February, 2012”

Nepal – Day One

Annapurna Range from our plane window as we descend into Kathmandu

I’m sitting on the mezzanine balcony of the Holy Himalaya hotel where three Internet computers are located, listening to the cheerful interchanges in incomprehensibel Nepali coming up from the lobby below where the staff is cleaning up from last nights festival.  I t is about 6AM Nepalese time (which is about 13 hours and 45 minutes ahead of PDT –  the odd 15 minutes  is said to be the exact time at the summit of Gauri Shankar – one of Nepal’s sacred mountains.)

The Dewali festival seems to combine Christmas (lights everywhere) Easter (flowers everywhere – mostly marigolds in long chains but also orchids and asters and etc.) Halloween (the kids go from door to door with their singing and drumming and stay until someone buys their silence with a coin), Thanksgiving (everyone tries to reunite with famlly) plus some Nepalese  wrinkles (it goes on for several days;  on the third day is the lights and dancing, on the fourth day siblings mark each other with a red spot on the forehead and exchange gifts). Nothing too rowdy at our hotel, just a Nepali band, men dancing, firecrackers, kids beating drums and tambourines and singing in time.

Dewali decorations - Marigolds everywhere!

Dory and  I got into our hotel about two, having consumed four airline meals plus treats in two airline lounges over the 28-hour travel period  (counting layovers and delays) it took to get here.  So we were not starving, and decided to go out and cruise the town.  Our hotel is in Thamel, which is the heart of the trekkers and tourist section – lots of stores selling pashmina shawls and gold-plated jewelry as well as T-shirts and back-packing gear.Due to the holiday the streets were full of peope as well as cars, and we had to master the art of darting across busy streets with nary a stoplight in sight (we did spot one in the course of the walk but it was not working).  The busiest streets have pedestrian overcrossings a la Hong Kong, great for climbing up to get an idea of where we might be.We managed to walk past the National Museum (closed for the festival), along what seemed to a fairly posh street (sidewalks and The United Colors of Benetton), made a right turn and found ourselved in the Old Town, walking past the Queens Pond (lovely white pavilion in the center of the pond, big marble elephants and other beasts looking on from the shore.) and detouring here and there to look at towers and temples and other bits of architecture for which we as yet have not learned the names.Every business and home had drawn a mandala design using colored powders at the door, surrounding a small basin containing oil and a candle wick, in turn surrounded by marigolds and other flowers.  Many of these had been worn away by passing feet, so they seem not to be so sacred that you can’t step on them.  At one temple we saw a couple of men carrying what looked like giant brown flower tassels;  they turned out to be flute vendors;  the “tassels” were made up of clusters of brown polished bamboo flutes.  Lots of women in beautiful colorful saris and tunics, lots of men in drab western clothing – too bad for them!  But they got to dance later, and the women not, it seemed.

We never made it to the official center of the old town, the Durbar Square, as we began to feel weary and think about dinner.   We managed to relocate our hotel thanks to the business cards we had carefully picked up before we left – I was proud that I as chief navigator had gotten us to within a couple of blocks of the hotel (which is located on a side street) before we made our first inqury.

Dinner in Thamel offers every variety of cuisine to cater to the tourist taste.    The food at the outdoor restaurant down the street  was “fusion cuisine” a la Denny’s – you could have Pad Thai, Grilled Tofu with rice and steamed vegetables, or Beef Fajitas.  It was served fresh, hot, and salty, and cost about $3 for a full plate and tea.  We were not in the mood for adventure, and the location was lovely – we ate in the enclosed patio under an arcade, with  little oil lamps set all along the  arcade posts plus candles on the table and lights flickering around the door and staircase.

All well so far – this place reminds me a lot of rural Taiwan.

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The Power of Yes

Years ago, living with my family in California after completing  my master’s degree, I received a call inviting me to fly east for an  interview for a job on the East Coast.  I was already in the final stages of negotiating a job down in San Diego, so I turned down the invitation. My mother, a very positive force, scolded me for turning down the invitation and the free ride to New York – what harm could it do to check it out?  I ended up accepting the East Coast job.  In the first few days on the job I met a colleague in my new department who eventually became my husband.  What would my life have been if I hadn’t said “Yes”?

Much later, now living with my husband and children in Oakland CA, I received another job interview invitation, this time to work for a small software company across the bay in Mountain View.  Although we were considering moving, the Peninsula was not on our short list, being too expensive.  However, my then job was clearly going nowhere, so I accepted the invitation to interview just for the practice.

At the same time, my parents were discussing subdividing their acre of land, and invited  my husband and I to buy half the parcel and build a house next to them.

I ended up accepting the job, we agreed to the land purchase offer,  and I commuted for a year while we built a house on the land where I had grown up.   Where would we have ended up if I had not said “Yes” to that job interview and land buy?

Once established in our new home, I resolved to say “Yes” to any friendly overtures from my new neighbors.  My mother took me to a friend’s annual Mother – Daughter Tea, where I met a woman about my age.  She mentioned that she loved to exercise every weekend at the local community college, and gave me her business card in case I would like to join her.  To her surprise, I called her up, and she became one of my closest friends over years of regular exercise together.

Last year I was visiting a friend who teaches at Monterey Peninsula College.  One of the many foreign students in her class had invited her to come visit and perhaps do a training course for her business: training  women to lead trekkers in Nepal.   My friend was planning to do a two-week trek as part of the visit and said in the casual way friends do, “Why don’t you come with me?”  To our mutual astonishment I said “Why not?” and because I said “yes” I enjoyed one of the most enthralling adventures of my life.

So I’m giving you fair warning: If you make me an offer, extend a casual invitation, suggest some joint activity – watch out!   I’m very likely to say “yes” – just to find out what will happen next.

Letter from Tokyo – May 2011

When my colleague Kai and I arrived in Tokyo at the end of May, 2011, I almost forgot to look for  after-effects of the earthquake and tsunami – from the windows of the express train from Narita Airport the rice paddies seemed so normal, poking up 6-inch green shoots in even rows inside their regular little square pools.

The first hint of change was at the little Family Mart shop down the street from my usual hotel in Shinju-ku.  The widened aisles and rearranged shelves could not  hide the lack of goods for sale – only four varieties of yogurt,  none of  Kai’s  favorite ice cream treats.  We wondered if the shop was facing hard times and going out of business;  as we walked back up the street  it hit us  that supply chain problems probably caused the scarcity, since the northeast area supplies much of the dairy and agricultural products for the rest of Japan.

The next morning we met our colleague Vivek for coffee at the nearby Starbucks.  As we watched the passing parade of salarymen exiting the subway and heading down the mall to their offices, Vivek pointed out another  more revolutionary  change.

“Do you notice something different? They’re not wearing ties.”

Once pointed out, the changed was startling – At least 50% of the young men going by had abandoned the formal uniform of dark suit, light shirt, and dark tie.

“It’s a government official request. They call it “Cool Biz”.  It’s to save the energy use for air conditioning since the reactors are out of commission.”

Environmentalists had tried for several summers  to popularize the “Cool Biz” approach to dressing but it never  caught on much, not even to the extent of getting the salarymen to switch to a light-colored suit.  But with the nuclear reactor problems,  going tie-less to help save energy is viewed as  almost a patriotic duty.

We found a third change as we headed for the escalator to get to the pedestrian bridge to our office across the street – it was shut down and arrows directed us to the adjacent stairs.  As part of the energy conservation effort, one in three of Tokyo’s escalators and elevators areshut down, unless there is no alternate access for the handicapped.

In our office we saw that the younger cubicle-bound salarymen had universally adopted the Cool Biz standard.  The managers and customer-facing salespeople showed resistance, however;  perhaps the tie is a badge of rank for them which cannot be easily discarded.

Tomii-san, my Japanese partner, told me that these and other conservation efforts have cut energy use in Tokyo by up to 40%.

For the short term, I thought this showed a heroic effort of unity in the face of disaster.  Then I began to wonder about possible long – term effects.

Will younger Japan go back to the formality of ties when the crisis is over?  Would the experiment with casual dress undermine the Japanese sense of formality and propriety over the long term?

Once  companies have realized the savings of reduced energy use, will they ever re- activate those escalators  and elevators? Will the smoothly automated Japanese way of life erode under the twin pressures of environmentalism and cost savings?

Thirty  years after the California drought of 1977, I still don’t let the water flow as I used to while I brush my teeth.  Will the conservation lessons of the Tsunami stick?

21st Century Time Travel

As a child I dreamed  of time travel, sparked by science fiction classics  from Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov.  A few months ago, I actually did it.

Over a period of four weeks, I  bounced back and forth between the 21st century, the 1950’s, the 1930’s, and even further back to eras where the automobile and even the wheel had no part in daily life.  No mad scientist, no magic or mystery – just the reality of 21st century air travel co-existing with life in countries where “development” lags decades or centuries behind that of Silicon Valley.

From our spanking-new San Jose Air Terminal B, I flew first to LAX – and immediately found myself in the early 1960’s– Los Angelese International Airport with its trademark flying saucer and neon entry sculpture, offering air travelers an inter-terminal air shuttle by bus every 20 minutes or so.  The shuttle alternative – a concrete sidewalk.  As architecture, LAX is a curiosity;  as an entry to our country for almost  12 million people a year, it is a bit cringe-worthy.

Nine hours later, I debarked from my time machine, an Airbus A340, smack in the 21st century at the gleaming  Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.  Despite flooding that threatened to devastate the capitol only 28 miles away, the Bangkok airport worked flawlessly, with gleaming LED displays pointing the way along moving sidewalks to the connecting flights.  We relaxed comfortably in the Orchid Lounge before boarding our next time machine.

Only three hours later we emerged in  the 1940’s – a small airport with rudimentary radar, roll-up steps to allow passengers to disembark, and a quick walk across the tarmac to retrieve baggage from the cart. Then out to a cacophony of competing taxi drivers begging for business – no organized taxi queue here, and then on into the maelstrom of foot, bicycle, pedicab, motorbike, bus, and auto traffic that is Kathmandu.

A few days later we had left all thought of wheels behind, as we trudged up the foothills of the Himalayas along with donkey caravans, goat herds, and small wiry men carrying incredible loads of rice, food, cookware, clothing and other items for sale or barter, as well as porters carrying baggage for tourists such as ourselves.

We saw grain being threshed by oxen driven over the harvested sheaves so that their hooves would loosen the grain in the stalks.  We saw women separating the grain from the stalks by tossing trays of harvested sheaves in the air over and over and letting the wind blow the chaff away little by little.  We stayed in guest houses where the water for bathing was heated over a charcoal stove and delivered in a kettle to the common bath room.  We were traveling as fast as our feet could carry us – about  6 miles a day max. We had been transported back to Biblical times.

But wait – in that guest house where the hot water for bathing had to be heated on the stove, the children of the house were watching Nepalese “Sesame Street” on a flat-screen TV in the corner of the dining room next to the charcoal-burning stove.  And that peddler carrying an entire Wal-Mart’s worth of kitchenware – isn’t he listening to music on his iPod as he strides along?  Us Sci-fi veterans know that if you introduce an anachronism from another time into the past, history will veer off into unforeseen directions.  What will the end of the 21st century look like for Nepal?

Where are the screaming girls?

Joshua Bell – hotter than Justin Bieber!

Long shining hair falls across the musician’s face as he sways to the music he is creating.  His tight-fitting khaki-colored T-shirt is sweat-drenched from his exertion.  He holds his instrument as if it were an object of passion, eyes half-closed.  The back-up group struggles to  match his intensity.

There are plenty of teen-age girls in  the audience – why aren’t they  screaming, fainting, calling out his name?  Because this is not Justin Bieber or Enrique Iglesias – this is Joshua Bell, the former teenage violin prodigy, belting out Glasunov’s violin concerto in A minor, opus 82 in open rehearsal with the San Francisco Symphony  (October 5, 2011).

So why are there no screaming groupies in the classical music audience?  Here are some possible reasons:

1: The Instrument Effect

Unlike Gene Simmons of Kiss and others like him, Joshua Bell does not end each concert by smashing his violin.  It is  as famous as he is in certain circles – the 1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius, twice stolen , recovered  the second time after a deathbed confession by the thief, and purchased by Bell and his  backers for something around $4 million.  The history (and the price tag) elicits a certain amount of respectfulness not conducive to screaming.

2. The Costume Effect

As a rule, classical musicians don’t get to wear cool duds.  If I had seen Joshua Bell in concert instead of in open rehearsal, his muscular shoulders and narrow hips would likely have been effectively masked in dowdy concert wear – those white-tie and tails were great for Fred Astaire, but in those days the sweat wasn’t supposed to show.

3. The Grandmother Effect

I realized after a casual conversation with the adjacent well-dressed rehearsal-goer that most of the teenagers in the audience on a Wednesday morning in October were music students field-tripping with their teachers and chaperones.  The non-pubescent portion of the audience were mostly silver-haired retirees of a grand-parently or even great-grandparently demeanor.  If any of the teenagers had shown any inclination toward swooning, one of the grandmothers would inevitably have whipped a vial of sal volatile out of her bulging reticule and brought the young lady to her senses immediately.

I have worried, along with other classical music aficionados, about a decline in popular interest in the classical repertoire.  I suspect that some of the hand-wringing is over-blown – there are few among the younger generations of listeners who cannot recognize the orchestral themes from  Star Wars or Harry Potter as easily as they identify music by Rush or the Moldy Peaches.  There is so MUCH music available today that orchestral music is logically a smaller percentage of this larger iPod-fueled universe.   If a groupie fan-base is needed to energize this genre I propose:

  1.  Add some bling to the band.  Maybe you don’t want to stomp the Stradivarius, but does EVERY string instrument have to be BROWN?
  2. Ditch the ties and tails.  Maybe not leather pants and sequins,  but didn’t we all love Lenny Bernstein’s white turtleneck and Count Dracula capes?
  3. Unbutton the audience.  Reserve the boxes and balcony for retirees, and save the orchestra area for  the mosh pit.
  4. Allow social media to do its magic.  What’s with the “Turn off your cell phones, no pictures” mantra?  A few viral You-tube videos and real-time Tweets about what a hot presence Joshua Bell is in concert, and your symphony attendance issues would be resolved!

And don’t forget to sign me up with the groupies!

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