Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Memoir”

A Piece of My Mind: Collateral Damage (Los Altos Town Crier May 31, 2023)

The San Jose Mercury-News had a featured op-ed on the opinion page about “the unprecedented economic costs of COVID-19.”  The article cited an estimate from “our team of economists, public policy researchers, and other experts” of over $14 trillion lost due primarily to workplace absences and lost sales.  But authors Jakub Hlavka and Adam Rose noted that “we didn’t estimate a vast array of indirect costs, such as … mental health effects on the population  and the learning loss experienced by students.”  

Already, graphs and charts show economies bouncing back, workers returning to unused offices, or the offices being repurposed.  What can’t be measured, as Hlavka and Rose admitted, is the collateral damage to families and communities, and what can’t be predicted is the length of time required to truly heal. 

I know a young woman who was a junior in college when COVID hit.  Lockdown forced her into an unrelenting intimacy with her roommates which ended in hard feelings and frayed friendships. No internships or jobs materialized in the long locked-down summer.  To save money in her senior year, since all classes were being held remotely, she lived with her father and stepmother.  Again, the stress of too much proximity led to an argument, an explosion, things said that were hard to forgive, and now the daughter has been estranged from that part of her family for over two years.   

I know a young man who was a high school senior taking advanced classes.  Lockdown in the spring quarter of his senior year meant none of the traditional rites of passage happened: no Senior Sneak Day, no Senior Prom, no Yearbook signing, no Grad Night.  He decided to take a gap year rather than spend his freshman year (and tuition) on Zoom classes.  He did not make good use of the gap year, and when he started at an excellent private college he was out of the habit of attending to class schedules, dorm rules, and course requirements.  He has narrowly avoided expulsion, and after turning over and spoiling a number of new leafs, hopes to start again this fall in a local public university. 

Younger children, also, have been affected in hard-to-measure ways.  A pre-kindergartener I know was outgoing and self-confident about meeting new people, but during lockdown she saw almost no-one except her parents.  An extended trip before starting kindergarten didn’t provide much more opportunity for interaction with strangers without her parents beside her.  Now in kindergarten, she is doing well in classes, but any disruption to her normal after-school  and bedtime rituals may bring on a meltdown.  She has never been put to bed by anyone but Mommy or Daddy that she can remember, and she’s not ready to start now. 

Multiply these examples by hundreds and thousands. Then try to measure the disappointment, pain and anxiety that has been caused by COVID-19’s social disruption.  How many tears add up to a dollar? 

Freeway Free in Texas: Cap Rock and Palo Duro Canyon

If you are going to visit these two Texas State Parks, it’s best to do Cap Rock first. It’s a thumbnail introduction to the geology underlying both parks, with a Visitor’s Center that explains everything clearly. (It’s called “Cap Rock” because the topmost layer of rock is more weather resistant than lower layers, so you have formations where the top layer sits like a cap on top of flimsier-looking lower remnants. If you’ve been to Bryce Canyon in Utah, you’ve seen this before.) The main road in Cap Rock State Park is an out-and-back drive, about one and a half hours with some stops for wildlife photos and other breaks. There are informative placards to alert you to the geology, so when you visit Palo Duro, you’ll be all set to appreciate it.

Here’s a winning trivia question for you: what is the SECOND deepest canyon in the United States? No, it’s not the Black Canyon of the Gunnison (though that Colorado park has the coolest name). It’s little-known Palo Duro Canyon.

Palo Duro Canyon has the same geology as Cap Rock but more spectacular. There are some great-looking back-country trails, but W was not able to hike, and I had neither sunscreen, broad-brimmed hat, walking stick, or inclination to hike by myself, so we drove the curvy loop road from the rim of the canyon to the bottom, stopping at viewpoints and picnicking on kippers and saltines and mandarins.  There are two visitor’s centers, at convenient intervals for potty breaks, and the loop road gives some wonderful vistas.

We were told that there is a herd of Aoudad sheep which was originally imported from Africa to hybridize with US breeds in the hope of creating a hardy sheep which was adapted to the arid terrain. The hybridization scheme did not work, but the Aoudads have proliferated and in some parts of Texas are hunted, although they are protected in the state parks. None of the Aoudads were visible from the road, but here’s what they look like, if you are planning on taking advantage of the back-country trails on your visit.

But where does one stay on the Other Side of Nowhere? The answer may surprise you – it certainly did surprise me!


My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s a link to the first episode:

Freeway Free in Texas: Hidden Gems in Archer City

We arrive at Archer City.  Our aim, to visit Larry McMurtry’s famous Booked Up bookstore, is thwarted. But all of McMurtry’s bookstores are closed. What to do?

First, the Spur Hotel is charming, quaintly furnished in a mixture of Victorian and Texan. The cozy den off the lobby boasts deep armchairs, a massive fireplace, and an interesting selection of Texas-focused books and magazines, plus a shelf of board games and picture puzzles.  The lobby also has an entire wall of borrowable books, a great many written by Larry McMurtry of course. 

Where can we have dinner? The friendly hostess offers us two choices: Lucky’s Cafe next to the [Gas Station minimarket a few blocks down in one direction, or Larry McMurtry’s favorite, the Dairy Queen at the edge of town in the other direction.

We opt for Lucky’s Cafe, accessible through the mini mart by the gas station. A counter freezer cabinet offers a variety of ice cream treats, a chalkboard offers the special of the day (beef tamales) , soup of the day (chicken vegetable) , and vegetable side of the day (green beans). Drinks and utensils available from the self-service counter. Seat yourself at whatever formica-topped table you wish.

The special of the day gave us each chips, salsa, a non-alcoholic beverage, three small beef tamales in an excellent sauce, spicy rice and retried beans for $12 apiece plus tip.  We may not find adventure here, but we won’t go broke either.   

The next morning, after a very quiet night’s sleep, we mosey across the street to Murn’s Cafe, another McMurtry favorite. Another bare-bones spot with formica tables, flourescent lights, plastic chairs, and friendly service. And another cholesterol-laden meal. A basic breakfast at Murn’s Cafe includes a bottomless cup of coffee, 2 fried eggs, bacon, hash browns, and grilled biscuit.  Fortunately we had each eaten a mandarin orange with our morning tea so we could claim a little acid to cut the fat. Of course it was delicious.

Well fortified, we set off to explore. First stop, the Walsh Park welcome to Archer City, a brief history of the town carved into wrought iron plaques next to the former Mobil gas station, now a Visitors Center open only on weekends. Next, the Library with its own plaque outside honoring Larry McMurtry, and a very interesting collection of books inside. A very helpful librarian showed W to the “Trails of Archer City’ referred to in the Walsh Park wrought iron info sheet. I found two Georgette Heyer mysteries (my secret vice) which I had never read before on the free giveaway shelf.


 After the quality time in the library, we strolled down to the Miller Marketplace, a hangover from the tourist days, full of craft items, old curios and knickknacks, vintage and not-so-vintage hats and clothing.  W and I each bought an Archer City commemorative T shirt, available only in odd sizes now. Fortunately, the two of us fit in odd sizes.

I had read an article about Larry McMurtry’s Big House in the Architectural Digest. Naturally, we were eager to see it, and the article obligingly gave us the location next to the Archer County Country Club. We cruise past, wondering what happened to the 140,000 books which McMurtry kept for himself in the Big House rather than consigning them to the stores. /\

    It being a lovely day, we took a “nature trail” from Burkett Park to Archer City Lake Park, then went for a drive along the dam which created the lake.

    Lunch was sardines and saltines at a picnic table in the park; dinner was hamburgers and soft ice cream at the Dairy Queen (a favorite hangout of LMcM), which included a spectacular sunset/cloud display, horizon to horizon. The next morning as we left Archer City we passed the old courthouse, with its team of convicts doing yardwork. No, not much has changed after all in Archer City.

My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings. Here’s a link to the first episode:

A Piece of My Mind: Weather or Not

Photo from CalFire CZU

For three years in California we have bewailed the drought, the shrinking reservoirs, the lowering aquifers, and debated whether or not to build additional dams and pipelines despite the environmental cost.  High winds threatened to snap power lines, spark fires, and drive them at breakneck speed across our forests. My gray water from dishes was poured onto any handy plant that would be grateful, my faucets were not allowed to run, I limited my dishwasher to once-a-day, and recklessly combined colors and whites in my laundry to save an extra load. Something called the Peculiarly Persistent Pressure Ridge was pushing rainfall northward, blocking rainfall during what were normally the soggy months.

Now the pattern has changed, at least for a while.  The Peculiarly Persistent Pressure Ridge has melted away, and now we have Atomospheric Rivers from Alaska (COLD!) or Hawaii (WET!) aiming straight at the midriff of California.  Instead of drought, we have record snow pack and rapidly filling reservoirs.  Instead of wildfires, we have floods and landslides.  Instead of talking of building more dams and pipelines, we are rushing resources to repair and maintain the deteriorating system of levys which protects our farmland.  High winds are still a threat, as toppled trees land on power lines and block roadways.

So instead of moaning about the drought, we exchange news of which house was crushed by trees, which roads are blocked, which neighborhood is without power and for how long.

Still, it’s better than arguing about what “woke” means, or whether racism is ingrained in our society, or if a tax cut for the wealthy will ever trickle down to the middle class, or whether the Ukraine will be our next Viet Nam, or the science behind vaccinations.  At least we haven’t politicized the weather. Yet.


My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings

A Piece of My Mind: Hope for the Future – Neighborhood II

My six-year-old granddaughter made a computer. She fit the alphabet and a touchpad onto the lower half of a folded piece of paper, and divided the top half into four sections, each with a picture of herself or one of her best friends.

“We’re having a Zoom meeting,” she explained.

“What is the meeting about?

“We’re talking about how to make our neighborhood a better place,”

You go, girl!


My debut novel, Fox Spirit, is appearing episode by episode on my sister blog, New episodes arrive every Monday and Thursday. They’re short, so you’re not too late to check them out, and sign up for future happenings!

A Piece of my Mind: Brain Transplant

I drowned it!  It’s dead!

Stupid. Plain stupid.

If it hadn’t been   Christmas, I wouldn’t have moved my “office” from the corner of the living room to the kitchen table.   That corner is where the Christmas tree always goes, so I did this every year. 

If our housekeeper hadn’t been ill, I wouldn’t have vacuumed the living room carpet and noticed how dirty it had become.

If we hadn’t decided to have the dining room carpet cleaned too, I would have eaten my lunch at the dining room table as usual.

But it was, and she was, and we did, and so I had my sandwich and a glass of water on the kitchen table next to my computer, and when I reached for a napkin I bumped the glass and…

Drowned my laptop. The screen flickered bravely for a moment as I froze in horror. I reached to turn the computer off, too late. The screen went black, and it was dead.  Not even a snap, crackle, or pop. I took the battery out and turned the corpse upside down on a towel in the bathroom. It streamed water as though I had cut an artery.  I aimed my small space heater at the keyboard.  The next day there were still no signs of life, so I was off to the Geek Squad. 

The Geek on duty managed to look doubtful, even behind the face mask.  Eyebrows are amazingly expressive.

“We don’t handle water damage here.  We send it out, and it will be 3-4 weeks before we get it back, IF they can repair it.  But it’s long odds.”

Armed with a list of laptop ratings from Consumer Reports, I browsed past dozens of glowing screens and stopped at the sleek silver entity CR liked best – “Special Sale 30% off!” How seductive! I picked it up – so light! A sales Geek materialized at my elbow.  “Do you have any questions?”

“Where are the USB ports?”

“You mean, USB-A ports? Oh, almost no one uses USB-A ports anymore.  They’ve all gone to C.”  She showed me the tiny slit on the side of the computer.

“But my external hard drive!  My multiple thumb drives! My mouse!  How do they attach?”

The sales Geek managed to look amused and condescending, even behind the face mask.  Eyebrows are so expressive.

“It’s all in the cloud.  Backup to the cloud.  Access anywhere through the cloud.  You still use a mouse? You’ve got a touchpad and touchscreen. But you can buy an adapter that lets you use your USB-A stuff.”

Back to the Geek Squad station.  The Head Geek offered to check to see whether my hard drive had survived, if I would allow him to open the case.  I felt as though I was ok’ing an autopsy on the corpse.  OK.  Fifteen minutes later, he came back, smiling.  Eyebrows are amazingly expressive.

Next steps: Buy the silver sylph of a computer, give it to the Head Geek, along with the rescued hard drive, and in a few days I reclaim my old computer’s brain transplanted to a slimmer, more powerful, more flexible chassis.

The new computer takes some getting used to.  That cloud thing – I don’t trust it, but that’s where the Sylph wants to put all my files.  On the entry screen and in the cloud I am “Allyson”, but to access files on the hard drive the Sylph only answers to “Owner.” Worse, it keeps offering to complete my sentences for me (even more irritating from a computer than it is from a friend or spouse.)

I will wrestle it into submission.  After all, I am the live person in control.  But I remember that Dr. Frankenstein had some trouble with his brain transplant project also.

A Piece of my Mind: Outlook 2023 (Los Altos Town Crier 12/28/22)

2023 Outlook

I received an email from my financial advisor starting with “Many of us wonder what lies ahead for 2023 in regard to the markets, the economy, and inflation.” It started me thinking. I confess that when I wonder what lies ahead for 2023, thoughts of the markets, the economy, and inflation are way down the list.  Here are some of the things I do wonder about:

  • Will our school children catch up the education and social time lost during the COVID-19 lockdowns?
  • Will someone pick up the opportunity to develop the foreclosed Dutchints site on El Camino Real?
  • Will the Los Altos School District decide what to build on its purchase of land at San Antonio Shopping Center?
  • Will the Los Altos City Council permanently allow outdoor eating parklets on State Street and Main Street?
  • How will the newly elected trustees of the Los Altos Mtn View High School District make good on their promises to address mental health problems among our teenagers?
  • Will the Walter Singer bust finally find a place?
  • Will the Lehigh Permanente Quarry be reclaimed or restored, or will the buck continue to be passed?
  • Will local animal shelters ever run out of abandoned pit bull terriers and Chihuahuas for adoption?
  • Where will Los Altos find space to build “affordable” housing when residential land in the city is selling at roughly $12-15 million per acre?
  • How many flagpoles will eventually be installed at Veterans Community Plaza to satisfy all the groups who want banner representation?

My financial advisor says that 2023 will be “A Year for Yield.”  He has in mind investments in bonds and international markets.  I have in mind a different kind of yield.

Investments in friendship: Will I keep alive friendships that have been based on monthly meetings but for months have been digital at best? Will I learn to use Zoom for meetings that feel like real conversations rather than just talking heads?  Will I remember how to reach out to people as COVID restrictions loosen?

Investments in community activities: Will my work with the American Association of University Women lead to better outcomes for women and girls? Will my participation in the Los Altos Community Coalition help enable less partisanship and more cooperation among civic leaders?

Investments in family: Can I make time to read stories over Zoom to my grand-daughter?  Can I find events and experiences to share with my marriage partner?  Can I find ways to help family members in trouble when we are separated by miles?

Investments in service: Will my helping tend the gardens at the History Museum pay off with more happy events held there? Can I resume volunteer work with the homeless through the Community services Agency despite COVID restrictions? Should I become more involved with political action groups?

The yield on these investments won’t show up in my bank account or on my 2023 tax return. But if they pay off in serenity, quality of life, sense of significance, that’s plenty for me.

A Piece of my Mind: Get Wired or Get Out

I’ve always thought of myself as pretty tech-savvy.  I was an early (think 5.25” floppy discs) user of computers, had an email address with AOL, a car with GPS, and carried a Blackberry for business.  I was always a little ahead of the curve, I thought.

But twice in one week I’ve been jolted into realizing that all that is so last century, and I’m headed for the scrap heap along with the other technological dinosaurs.

The first jolt was at my beloved alma mater just to the north.  It was a lovely day, and my spouse and I decided to pack a picnic lunch and drive up to the campus, where we could eat our bread and cheese while watching the next generation whiz along on motorized scooters and electric bicycles.  On a Wednesday we would have to pay for parking, but what the heck – we’d splurge. My spouse wrote out our license number to tap into the pay kiosk, and I had my credit card at the ready, being grateful I no longer had to scrounge for quarters for the meter.

But when we arrived at our preferred picnic table, no pay kiosks were to be seen.  Instead, a sign on the curb directed me to pay using my smartphone, with an app to be downloaded if I needed it.

Alas!  I had forgotten to plug in my phone that morning, and it languished on the car charger at only 8%.  No chance of downloading or paying anything.  We cruised around a bit, but every Visitor parking space was marked with the same sign. If one has no functioning smartphone, one is a non-person on this campus.  We turned back to picnic at a local park, where parking was free and the younger generation strolled by on strollers and pushbikes as we ate our bread and cheese.

The second jolt was at my local museum, which is currently undergoing a remodel, but where the staff had created an outdoor exhibit, where visitors could amble through the museum garden along a path where signboards and photos illuminated the career of an illustrious local author.   I love museums, and usually spend at least an hour per exhibit because I can’t resist reading every explanation on every wall and every caption on every exhibit (much to the chagrin of my impatient spouse).

But I zoomed through this exhibit.  Instead of time-and-budget-consuming informative posters, each of the eight pathway markers was adorned with a few photos, a brief paragraph, and four of five QR codes to be scanned for “additional information”.

My phone was charged, this time, and I have a QR code reader on it, but standing in the sun staring at a miniature screen was not compelling.  I passed up hearing a daughter talk about her father’s work habits, the author reading from his own work, photos of the author’s boyhood, and many other QR code- accessible features of interest.  The thre- step process, the scrolling through screen after screen, the phone held to my ear, the ignoring of my surroundings… I decided I knew enough about the illustrious author without that. 

So I may have to confine my visits to my alma mater to late afternoon when the parking limits expire.  And when the local museum completes its remodel, I’m hoping it will have the headphones and placards and interactive displays I am used to.  Meanwhile, look for me at the Computer History Museum.  I’ll be one of the exhibits.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

I attended at least three meetings a week on ZOOM.

I stood in line (masked, but not distanced)

I rode in a bus (masked, but not distanced)

I rode in a train (masked and distanced – not many riders).

I flew in a plane (masked, and with a vacant middle seat)

I ate inside at a restaurant (not masked, but distanced)

I served myself food in a cafeteria (with a disposable glove, masked)

I ate meals in a dining hall with people who were supposed to be vaccinated, but no proof was required. (not masked, not distanced, lots of open windows)

I went to an outdoor live music performance (not masked, distanced)

I went to an indoor theatrical performance (singing from the stage, not masked, not distanced, no windows) that lasted two hours.

I attended several lectures, and emceed a variety skit night (not masked, not distanced, lot of open windows, everyone had provided proof of vaccination) each lasting at least an hour.

I attended several exercise classes. (not masked, not distanced, lots of open windows)

I hosted a meeting of eighteen people on one of those 100-degree days, so we moved inside.

I had a COVID-19 test.

Negative! – I got away with  all of it.


My #2 son and his family  (fully vaxxed and boosted) caught COVID-19 while traveling.  It took a couple of weeks for them to return to normal.

My #1 son and his family (fully vaxxed and boosted) came down with COVID-19 together the weekend after the son started school with live classes.

I’m getting another booster shot this afternoon.

Some weeks later:

I’m scheduled for a minor precautionary medical procedure. Three days in advance, I’ll need another COVID-19 test, the kind where you send the results to a real laboratory and wait for clearance.

We’re not out of the woods yet. Cross fingers.

Freeway-free in California: Amtrak Falters, BART to the rescue

We are ready for the parting of our ways:  M and the trailer will return to Davis, where she will dive headfirst into the maelstrom of detail involved with selling a house and buying another, while I will catch a Capital Corridor train at Fairfield and spend a relaxing two hours reading, writing, admiring the scenery, and feeling sorry for the people in the homeless encampments along the tracks.

First wrinkle:  There are now TWO Amtrak stations in Fairfield.  Our faithful GPS unerringly directs us to the new one, Fairfield – Vacaville.  I have been to the Fairfield station before it was re-labeled Suisun -Fairfield, and I am pretty sure this adobe “Transit Center” in the middle of a giant parking lot next to nothing at all is not it. 

Moments of panic –I check my ticket and realize the error.  Is this really a train stop?  Where are the tracks?  Will my ticket be good starting at a different station. Should we head off for the other station? Cooler heads prevail; I spot an underpass which leads toward the tracks, we trundle through and there are a couple of benches and a sign saying that the train I am scheduled to travel on will arrive in 15 minutes, and, most reassuringly, another passenger waiting. 

I hug M, “Wonderful trip!” and watch her pull out of the parking lot.  The train arrives as advertised, and the conductor doesn’t get around to our car to check my ticket until after we have arrived at and left Suisun Fairfield.  My only regret is the lack of a snack machine at the new station – I had counted on a candy bar to get me through to my Great America stop.  Rummaging through my tote bag, I find a forgotten granola bar.  All is well.

Until we get to Richmond.  We stop.  And stay.  An unintelligible announcement is made.  I get out and find a conductor in the next car.  “There’s damage to the tracks ahead.  We don’t know how long the delay will be.  Could be 45 minutes.  Could be two hours.”

I go back to my car, inform my fellow passengers, and we stare disconsolately out the window – at the sign that says “Take underpass for BART”.  The young woman across from me is distraught. “I’ve GOT to get to the Oakland Airport for a flight!  I allowed an extra hour but…”  

I look at the sign.  “There’s a BART stop at the Oakland Airport”, I tell her.  There is also a new BART station in Milpitas, not so much further from home than the Great America station.  We gather our bags and lead a parade of passengers to the BART station.

To our surprise and pleasure, a BART official is handy who tells us “We have an arrangement with Amtrak.  Just go through that turnstile there – no charge.”  A BART train arrives a few minutes later, I phone my Personal Travel Agent at home, he checks the route to the new station, and I settle down to read, write, admire the scenery, and feel sorry for the people in the homeless encampments along the tracks.

Coda: The next day I get a standard email from Amtrak asking about my trip.  I grouse about the lack of signage at the new station and most particularly about the delay and poor communication about it.  The next day I receive another email from Amtrak giving me a voucher good for the value of my trip from Fairfield –Suisun to Great America.  They are trying!

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