Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “December, 2013”

Greetings (Town Crier, July 2013)

GreetingsAs I was doing my summer closet cleaning, a box fell off the topshelf and spilled its contents on the floor of the closet.  I thought “Aha! Something I haven’t opened for at least a year – probably should be thrown out right away!” I stooped to pick up the spill.  It was my collection of  greeting cards received over… how many years?

The first I picked up was a handmade card with a picture of a girl drawn by a very young person.  Inside was a greeting from the family which had just purchased the house across the street from us, introducing themselves and their three daughters and saying that they were “looking forward to being our neighbors for many years.” They were wonderful neighbors for almost five years; they moved last week.

The second was a birthday card featuring a couple of martini glasses with sparkly olives on the cover.  It was from my cousin and her husband. They did meet in a bar, but he helped her to beat her alcoholism after they married, and she has been sober for decades. Odd to see her name on a liquor-flavored card!

The third I picked up was a form card from a group with which I had participated in a long-term health study after my bout with cancer.  It included a recipe for a healthy protein-rich,  minimal sugar birthday cake which I had always meant to try.

The fourth was a snarky birthday card from my brother and his wife.  Judging from the price of the card listed on the back, this was sent very early in their marriage.  Before their marriage, he usually forgot my birthday entirely.  Under his wife’s influence, the cards have become less snarky over the years.

The fifth  was a custom card generated on a computer.  It was from my mother, who had been the first in our family to become computer literate, and for years had created all her birthday cards and Christmas cards on her beloved Mac.

The sixth was simply a piece of blue paper folded over.  On it is written in an unfamiliar hand “Happy Birthday Mom” and the names of my two sons.  There is a splatter of what looks like pine sap on the upper corner.  I remember how my kids conspired to surprise me with flowers on my birthday that year.   My husband and I had gone camping in the remote Anderson Valley.  The kids managed to find a part-time florist in Booneville who made a bouquet of garden flowers with an impromptu card and  delivered them to  our tent site in her pickup truck.

I guess I  won’t be able to throw this box out right away after all.

Freeway-Free in California: Money, Power, and Pyromania (LATC May 2013)


If you have been to the Mt. Hamilton observatory, you have driven through Joseph D. Grant County Park.  It is a beautiful drive in spring.  The road meanders upward between hills coated with the electric green of new grass, highlighted by swathes of day-glo yellow mustard as if God had taken a magic marker to the landscape.  Higher up the roadside cut is spangled with glowing orange California poppies set off by patches of purple lupine and yellow sheep’s tail.

The park brochure tells you that Joseph Grant was the son and heir of Adam Grant, for whom Grant Avenue in San Francisco is named.  The senior Grant was a co-founder of Murphy, Grant & Co., a drygoods store which rivaled Levi Strauss in selling overalls to miners during the Gold Rush.  The San Francisco store burned in a spectacular fire in 1875, but most of the inventory was saved and the demand for Nonpareil Overalls remained.

Joseph was a mover and a shaker.  He managed the family business, started the Columbia Steam Company, was President of the California –Oakland Power company, and and was a life trustee of Stanford University.   When Herbert Hoover was defeated by FDR, he came to stay at Grant’s ranch for three weeks to lick his wounds.

The brochure doesn’t say much about Mrs. Edith Grant, or about the three Grant children.   But if you are lucky you might find a park ranger who would guide you around the ranch house and tell you about how daughters Edith and Josephine did not get along and would engage in rolling-around-on-the-floor fistfights at the mansion, sometimes during social events. And how sometimes they would join forces and invite some of the ranch hands to join them on rides into town (San Jose) for supplies, throwing empty liquor bottles out of the limousine in both directions to mark their trail. He might tell you about the nightly drunken parties  Josephine would hold in one of the older side-buildings, and about how Joseph burned the building down to stop the parties.

He might tell you about how daughter Edith used to shoot at people who trespassed on family property–including the mailman. It was said that she also shot her own horses if they came in range of the front porch.

He might tell you about how son Douglas, a business disappointment but adept at golf and drinking, died in a house fire lit by one of his neglected cigarettes.  And about how Josephine, when she took over the ranch, burned all the family letters and documents.

There is a novel to be written here, don’t you agree?



Technology Bites! (Los Altos TOWN CRIER, April 2013)

santaclaradmvThe new automated DMV!  Make an appointment online!  Or with our voice-recognition phone system!  Or with a real person via our call-back system – no more waiting on hold!NOT! Or at least, not always.My sweet silver-haired mother is at that age where she must renew her driver’s license every year.  I agreed that she would make the appointment on-line and I would accompany her down to the Santa Clara office.

That evening I asked how her day was going. She moaned. “I’ve been trying to make that appointment with the DMV, and it won’t let me do it.  It says I have to call an 800 number, and I tried it, but I was on hold for over 15 minutes and gave up.”

“Poor Mom,” I thought condescendingly.  “Just can’t cope anymore with computers.” So I went over to set things straight.

I filled out the online form: First Name, Last Name,  Address, Drivers License #, etc.  Submitted.  Red print fills the screen. “Your license number and name do not match our records.  Please check spelling and number and try again. If you need assistance, please dial 1-800-etc.”

I checked.  First Name on Mom’s driver’s license lists both her first and maiden names.  OK, so I type both names in at the First Name prompt, checked spelling carefully, checked that I had zero’s instead of O’s where needed, submitted. Red print fills the screen.

My condescension has evaporated.  Mom is not the issue.

So I dial the 1-800 number and choose the “Make an Appointment” option from the recorded menu.  A  voice-recognition recording requests Name, Address, Phone number, address, etc.  After providing data scrupulously for five minutes, I am told by the recorded voice, “Our service is not available at this time.  Please try again later. “ Click.

I redial and choose a different option from the recorded menu, “Talk to a technician.”  I am told via recording that the wait time will be between “1…hour and …1… hour and… 17… minutes.”  I choose the option  to have a call back rather than sitting on hold.  I “will not lose my place in the queue.”

Mom and I sit around chatting and taking care of some paper work.  Each time the phone rings we pounce on it – it is a friend calling about bridge. It is my brother calling to check in.  Finally about an hour and 5 minutes from start we get a call.  It is a recorded message. “This is the DMV callback system.  If you are … [my mother’s name] please press 1.  If you need time to get [my mother’s name] to the phone, please press 2.” I press 1.

The recording responds “The response you have given is not valid. If you are  [my mother’s name] please press 1.  If you need time to get [my mother’s name] to the phone, please press 2.” I press 1 again, firmly.     No good.  What is with my Mom’s phone? After the fourth round the recording says “You  have exceeded the maximum amount of time allowed to respond.  Good-bye.” Click.

The next day Mom gets on the phone again, hangs on hold for awhile, and gets to a real person, who sets her up with a preliminary appointment the next day for a provisional license and a later driving test.  Our appointment at the DMV involves minimal waiting and friendly, efficient clerks. Let’s hear it for people!


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