Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Memoir”

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

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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.

 

 

Opportunity Knocks Again (Los Altos Town Crier, November 1, 2017)

Some decades ago I was a stay-at-home Mom, but planning to return to work as soon as my toddlers became primary schoolers.  However, the teaching career I had prepared for was undergoing a slump – the baby boom had become the baby bust, and schools were closing all around. I decided to get re-educated.  Fortunately, at that time even a single-income family could afford the $5/unit fee for community college.

The local community college offered a special certification as a medical translator, which appealed to me as it offered a decent work environment,  and an element of helping people.  But the course presumed a knowledge of basic Spanish greater than I had picked up as a kid on the playground .  Learning medical vocabulary wasn’t going to be very helpful if I was ignorant of how to fit the words into sentences.   Scratch that idea.

A different branch of the junior college system offered a certification as a para-legal.  Again, this seemed to offer a good working environment, etc., so I signed up.  I enjoyed the courses on legal procedure and the structure of the court system and blazed through the curriculum until I got to the course on legal research.  I told my counsellor “Spending so much time in the stacks of the legal library sounds boring. I’m more of a people person.  Is this course  really a requirement?” 

“Actually,” she replied, “if you become a para-legal that’s what you will spend 90% of your time doing.”  Scratch that idea.

My father had always regretted having to drop out of Harvard Business School, and he suggested I go for an MBA.  Of course, I would need to take some basic business courses before applying to biz school, and again I turned to the local 2-year colleges.  I polished off a couple of basic accounting courses, a very useful course on tax accounting, and a couple of entry-level computer programming courses in Fortran and COBOL. 

My kids by now were almost ready for K-6 schooling,  and I felt I really needed to get a job. I saw a “Help Wanted” ad in my local news weekly  for a “Part-time job, could lead to full time.  Ideal for someone returning to work world.  Knowledge of basic accounting, income tax preparation, basic  COBOL computer programming all big pluses.”  This job as marketing manager for a small income-tax software company was tailor-made for me and my recent slate of community college courses.

So it wasn’t my two degrees from a prestigious private college that launched my successful 30-year career in tech sales and marketing, but rather my third stab at a vocational certificate through my local 2-year college. 

Over the years I have taken a number of other community college courses, and been dismayed at how the cost per unit has escalated as the system struggles with loss of property tax revenue.  How could someone like me afford two false starts at CC before finally finding the right niche, when the cost of a single course was in triple digits?

That’s why I was excited to read that as of October 13, 2017 California is joining New York and Rhode Island in making the first year of community college tuition-free for residents who are full-time students.  Although I personally won’t  qualify for this opportunity, it definitely will open doors for people who are in the situation I occupied all those years back.

Per an article in our local paper, our local   community college  district is already  preparing to implement and augment this opportunity with a College Promise program offering  supplementary assistance for costs of textbooks and transportation for high school students enrolling at the JC for college credit.   If you are a high school student, or know a high school student, or are simply interested in the latest frontiers of education, and you are looking for ways to control the cost of a college degree,  take a peek through this open door.

 

 

Summer Camp Season (Los Altos Town Crier, Sept. 6, 2017)

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Whenever my summer wanderings take me over to the beautiful sandstone and terra-cotta university campus up the road, I marvel at the multiplicity of signs directing me to this or that summer camp.  There always seem to be squadrons of T-shirted campers on the move, being directed this way and that by polo- shirted counselors, all wearing color-coded lanyards and nametags to make sure they are getting all the perks, and none but the perks, to which their campership entitles them.

When I was in my pre-teens, camp was different.

For one thing, we didn’t wear lanyards, we made them. At the mandatory craft class, the one project you could be almost sure of finishing was the one involving braiding long brightly-colored strips of plastic into keychains and whistle cord.  We could do spiral or diamond pattern for the cords, round or square for the sliders.  We could make keychains from four strand, six-strand, or even eight-strand braids, using school colors, or Day-Glo, or even glow-in-the-dark plastic. After two years of Boy Scout and Camp Fire Girl camp, my parents, near relatives, and most of my teachers were all supplied with all the whistle holders they would ever need.lanyard

For another thing, although our camps were plain vanilla when it came to skin color, they were quite diverse in subject matter.  In one week we got tastes of archery, swimming, sailing, lanyard-making, leather-working, wood-carving, plus campfire building and the songs to sing around them, and skit writing and performing.

The camps up the road are different. The campers are culturally diverse, of all shapes, sizes, sexes, and skin tones. But each camp seems to be focused on  producing mastery in one area alone.  The university sponsors camps for every kind of sport, from Basketball to Water Polo, plus specialized camps of all sorts.  There is the Pre-Collegiate Summer Institute, the Medical Youth Science Program,  the Sports Business Academy, the oxymoronic High School Summer College , and even (for high-school and pre-med students) the Cardiothoracic Surgical Skills Summer Institute. (Sounds like heart-stopping fun!)

In addition  privately sponsored camps offer training in Social Entrepreneurship, Advanced Suzuki Violin, Emergency Medicine, Global Citizenship, Computer Engineering for Girls, Journalism in the Digital Age, English Language Immersion, Performing Arts, Digital Discovery,  and many, many more.

When I was in summer camp, we spent time making up silly songs about our counselors, such as (to the tune of “Pretty Redwing)

                The moon shines tonight on Helen Waller

                If she were taller/ she wouldn’t holler,

                And her old dirty shorts they need a-patchin’

                Where she’s been scratchin’

                                Her chigger bites.

I can’t imagine any silly songs about cardiothoracic surgery, but maybe I’m not trying hard enough.

It happens that the local AAUW branch, to which I belong, sponsors a half-dozen local girls at one of Stanford’s summer camps, one which encourages girls to consider careers in science and technology.  Each August after the Tech Trek camp is over we get thank- you notes from the girls, telling us how much they appreciated the opportunity to learn to code computer games, build hover boards, and do DNA gel electrophoresis.  (I imagine them sitting around a table on the last day, dutifully filling in the blanks in a template as the counselors monitor them. At least that hasn’t changed from when we were “encouraged” to write letters home from camp}. This year’s letters included a blessed hint of silliness; one girl mentioned that she enjoyed an afternoon of fountain-hopping around the campus, as well as a trial of ice-cream making.

Each September we host the scholars at an afternoon meeting where each tells us a bit about the camp.  We will hear about the forensics lab, the robot-building, the rocket launch.  But when it comes to Q&A, I’m planning to ask about the fountain – hopping and the ice cream – there should be some fun left in summer camp!

 

 

 

Freeway Bound in California – Bay Area to Ojai

20170705_132728docI am  off to visit my cousin and friends who are rendezvousing in Ojai, 500 miles south.  Google Maps sends me down the old main artery of California, US Highway 101, known as the Bayshore on the San Francisco Peninsula, the Monterey Highway in San Jose, and a dozen other names as it passes, (or nowadays bypasses)  every mission town – the brown Historical Marker signs for  San Juan Baptista,  San Carlos Borroméo del  Carmelo, San Miguel, La Purissima, and a number of crumbling Adobe dwellings are more abundant than the Golden Arches on this particular road.  But today I am on the freeway, dodging big rigs and RV’s, not looking for picturesque byways.  

What I am looking for is rest stops.  And Highway 101 is short of these.  I pull off in Salinas, assuming that the large and new shopping center visible before the exit will have a couple of fast-food places with accommodating rest rooms. Amazingly, not.  Where there should be a McDonald’s and a Jack-in-the -box are a dentist’s office and a bank.  The lone Subway has locked restrooms for customers only.  Fortunately, there is Dick’s, a huge outdoor recreation store which I would never normally enter.  Way back near the guns and the archery room, sign tucked at an angle for minimum visibility, are some very nice restrooms. Whew!

My next stop is north of San Miguel, at the sole rest stop along my way. Fortunately it is large, and well-equipped with both rest rooms and vending machines, as well as a working water fountain, large shady trees sheltering picnic tables,  and numerous informational posters and plaques about the local ecology, points of historical interest, and nearby state parks and recreation areas,.  I guess the entire rest stop budget for Highway 101 went into this one spot.  

Then on to the Cuesta Grade, the only three lane stretch of 101 between San Jose and my exit point.  And much needed, as the 7% grade is a challenge for trucks going up, and the REALLY SLOW lane is needed.  I had been apprehensive about the downgrade, but simply pushing the “Overdrive OFF” button on my shift lever put me in a safe range for descent. A nifty trick.

20170705_124831webFor lunch, I treat myself to a stop at the Madonna Inn.  When I was in my teens going back and forth on this road, I always wanted to stop at the Pink Palace on the hill below San Luis Obispo, but never could persuade my destination-fixated Dad to make the stop.  In a concession to 21st century norms, the Madonna is no longer bright pink on the outside, but never fear, there is plenty of rosiness left inside and out:  pink hydrangeas and roses outside, pink marble in the ladies room, and even the lady in the gift shop sported a streak of pink hair. (See above in the mirror.) 

Lunch was perfectly satisfactory. A flavorful cup of split pea soup and a hefty half-sandwich crammed with avocado, lettuce, and tomato  were served by a smiling young woman in a pinafore embroidered with flowers along the ruffled hem and straps.  She was the only brunette among a passel of other young smiling servers with their hair in long blonde braids – not sure where the Scandinavian thread entered the Madonna decor theme, but it is a fun motif, and better than pink pinafores.

Then further south, Pismo Beach, and the first glimpse of ocean since Monterey. 

 At Carpenteria I escape the freeway on CA-154, the Chumash Highway.  This is a two lane road with two stop signs and one traffic circle in 40 miles, snaking through beautiful high country along the Chumash Reservoir, which was looking still a bit under filled despite one year of hefty rain after California’s five years of drought.  Of course, most of the rain fell in NoCal, and we are very possessive about it these days.  This road is a playground for sports cars, and I had to pull over several times in my sedate 6-cylinder Camry to let a Mustang or Camaro roar by.   

 More 6% and 7% grades descending into Santa Barbara.  My first bout with traffic in Carpenteria, and then off the Freeway for good on the road to Ojai, with a sigh of relief.  

Freeway-Free in France: Saturday on the Seine

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WB and I took the bus to the Pont Neuf today and walked down to Notre Dame.  Since we had Museum Passes we spend about an hour down in the Crypt, which harbors a number of relics of Gallic, Roman, and medieval times which were exhumed when they built an underground garage under the Pavee in front of the cathedral. Very interesting but fearsomely educational with all sorts of cool interactive 3D computer representations of the Ile de Cite at various stages, the cathedral in various states of construction, etc. We would have spent even more time but it began to feel a little claustrophobic. 

We then strolled across the pavee to the cathedral, where an impressive mass was being held.  We were able to walk quietly around the edges of the church, admiring the wonderful carvings around the sacristy and the gorgeous windows.  

P1030324webThen we went to the memorial to the 200K Frenchmen who were taken away by the Nazis and never returned, which is hidden below ground level at the end of the garden behind the cathedral.  After that, a cup of restorative tea and a couple of scoops of glacé at Berthillon’s seemed in order.  P1030325web

 

 By the time we finished our break, it seemed a strike of bus drivers had broken out, (what is a visit to Paris without a manifestation of some kind?)and we were forced underground to the Metro, which involved a lot more steps and stairs for poor WB’s knee.

 Happily, the Galleries Lafayette has a direct entrance from the Metro at their stop, so we executed some efficient shopping and then went to ooh and aah at the Art Deco atrium and stained glass dome which they acquired when they merged with La Samaritaine a few years ago. 20160924_054841web Next up to the rooftop terrace to admire the view of everywhere we had been and wave at the folks up on the Eiffel Tower.

 By the time we got down, the manifestation seemed to be over, so we caught a bus which nearly took us to where we wanted to be.  Winifred chugged off to the Musee d’Orsay, while I decided to skip the Louvre this trip and check out the Monet water lilies and the Picassos and Renoirs at l’Orangerie.  Lots of lilies.20160924_075112doc

I didn’t feel like going back to the Metro station and there were a whole lot of policemen around, so I walked slowly back to the hotel, stopping here and there to check out some menus for possible dinner tonight, and a little browsing of the clearance rack in the dress shop on the corner.  

 A bit later WB arrived – the buses were stopped again so she had to walk from the Musee d’Orsay.  She is taking an exhausted rest’. We will decide about dinner in an hour.  No word from Dianne, who was planning to spend at least part of the day circling the city on the Route 69 bus – hope she didn’t get marooned somewhere.

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Freeway Free in France: On my Own at the Orsay

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We took our separate paths yesterday as planned.  I strolled around the neighborhood re-familiarizing myself with some of the restaurants I might want to try again, then down the Seine bank looking at all the quayside life to the Musee d’Orsay, home of Impressionism and much else.  The place had been shut down for renovation for a couple of years, with many of its gems traveling to SF, Chicago, and New York for display in the meantime, and I was eager to see what had been done.

Opinion:  the d’Orsay Sculpture Court, that jaw-dropping entry into the museum, has been vitiated into ordinariness by the inexorable forces of pragmatism and logistics.  The expansive view has been cut up into a narrow “Allee” with increased display space in little rooms carved out of each side.   So no traffic-impeding “Wow!” moment as you enter, but a lot of diversionary stops:  Here’s where you get your bag checked, here is a gift shop, here is where you get your ticket checked, here is where you pick up your plan of the museum.

One logistical improvement:  if all you really want to see is the Impressionists, you can walk briskly to the back of the museum, start with Toulouse-Lautrec on Level 0, then take an escalator for a big dose of Van Gogh and Cezanne on Level 2, then return to the escalators for a direct route (no exits on Levels 3 or 4) to Level 5, where the rest of the gang is displayed.   There are some jaw-dropping moments here – a lovely huge Renoir never displayed in its entirely before, and Caillebotte’s Floor refinishers, which I sat and looked at for quite a while.

After a quick visit to the battlements to thumb my nose at the Louvre (which I will probably visit anyway today) I walked down to St. Germain de Pres via the posh Blvd St. Germain and looked in all the shop windows and at all the places made famous by Hemingway and Fitzgerald and “Midnight in Paris.”  I stopped for lunch at a little cafe where I ate a nice omelette with frites, then on down to St. Sulpice, one of the wealthiest and loveliest churches in Paris (featured, to its humiliation and resentment, in Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code”) , and now undergoing restoration which hides some of the malarkey-inducing elements from the frivolous visitor.20160923_062405web

Bus back to the hotel (This is a key discovery for this trip: the bus system near the Rue Cler is great – at least three bus routes come right through – and it is more fun to be above ground than trudging through Metro tunnels.). I Met WB and we went together for a glass of wine and recap of the day at a sidewalk cafe on Rue Cler, then met later for dinner at Au Petite Tonneau – a wonderful meal of Things We Would Not Eat at Home (snails, veal kidneys, toasted goat cheese).  Then we bused over to the Tour Eiffel and managed to get up to the second floor for some great nighttime views, then caught the last bus back to our corner.

Fine day!

 

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Freeway Free in France: Back to the 7me Arrondissement

My favorite pied a terre in Paris is the Jardin D’Eiffel, just off the market street Rue Cler (see above) by one block. 15 years ago when I first stayed the decor was dominated by giant yellow Monet-esque flowers on Royal blue  on drapes, pictures, and murals throughout (see below) , and the clientele favored busloads of Canadian and German students and tourists on a budget.

The old Jardin has undergone a 21st century revamp, and is now robed mostly in subtle shades of gray with some paisley drapes to brighten the feel (see above).  The elevator, however,  is no larger;  it can accommodate two people and two suitcases on if you are on friendly terms, or you can stash the suitcases in the elevator, push the button,and race the elevator up the stairs. DB and I are sharing a room facing the street – not the best, as the next door neighbor is the police station and we expect to hear sirens all night.  From the back rooms, if you lean out the window, you can glimpse the Eiffel Tower.

We arrived after an efficient breakfast at La Vielle Auberge, a lightning transit to the train station in Souillac, a bit of a hassle with ticket’s but we eventually got on the train and enjoyed four hours of French scenery, shading from Romanesque yellow sandstone  with steep-pitched roofs and bell-towers in the Dordogne to white stucco with mansard roofs and steeples in the Touraine.  Gare Austerlitz is large and bustling but well-signed, our Algerian taxi driver was friendly and expansive about  what we should be sure to see in Paris, and the staff at the Jardin welcomed us like old friends.

We took the Metro to the Place de ‘l’Opera and picked up our museum passes for two days of urgent museum – going.  This may be our last joint adventure for awhile, as we each have different plans for our stay in Paris.    WB missed the Louvre on her previous visit and expects to spend two days there, but wants also to fit in the renovated Musee d’Orsay, the Rodin, the Pere LaChaise cemetery, and perhaps a tour of the opera.  DM has a friend dating back to a working stint in London  who came to meet her and is staying at the Jardin, and also has a cousin who wants to return the hospitality DM showed him in the states, so after tonight’s dinner  she will not share evenings until Sunday. Dianne has not been in Paris in decades and has murky memories, so she may take the #69 bus tour around the city per Rick Steves’ recommendation and then follow her interests. 20160922_230844web

I have in mind the renovated d’Orsay tomorrow together with l’Orangerie which houses Monet’s water lilies, then there is another exhibit at the Grand Palais I want to find out about, and I need to visit Notre Dame and the Holocaust victims memorial and of course Berthillon’s ice cream and the Art Deco atrium of La Samaritaine, and Le Pere LaChaise cemetery with WB on Sunday.  Our walking tour will have been good prep for pounding all this Gothic pavement. Right now we are getting cleaned up in preparation for a celebration meal at l’Affriole, which it appears has developed enough of a reputation that Michele (who is French with family and friends in Lyon) had heard of it.

I am trembling at the potential cost.  But we have economized greatly up until now, having scrounged for lunches at the hotel breakfast buffets and having dinner and breakfasts prepaid during our hiking tour.

20160922_073111docWe decided to walk back from L’Opera (which was undergoing a revamp of its own behind a Rene Magritte-inspired façade) and stopped at a street-side cafe on Rue Tour Maubourg for wine, tea, and people -watching. We saw Cinderella’s glass coach go by, pulled by a rather ordinary brown horse and with two dotty English tourists inside.  Such is life in a tourist city.

Unfortunately l’Affriole did not live up to my memory. New management has revamped the decor here also, opening up the front of the place for sidewalk seating, which leaves one exposed to the curious glances of passers-by and other hazards.  In our case, a large dog decided to deposit an equally large souvenir on the sidewalk just by our table, and the dog’s owner loftily prepared to ignore the awkward incident until the restaurateur bounded out and demand she clean up after her pet.  She argued, gave in, and “cleaned up” by kicking the mess to the curb, then wiping her shoe carefully on the edge.  Not the most appetizing of beginnings.

The food, instead of bringing on the sort of ecstasy seen in “When Harry Met Sally,” did not measure up to either my memory or the best of the food we had enjoyed while hiking. So much for my “local expertise”.  But I still have a few 7me arrondissement aces up my sleeve.20160922_070928doc

 

 

A 21st Century Visionary (Los Altos Town Crier, July 5, 2017)

StanfordAlaska37_ZachOratingdocOn my travels in June I met a modern-day visionary.  His name is Zachary Brown, he wears rumpled plaid shirts and jeans and hiking boots, and he is the co-founder, executive director, and so far the sole employee of the Inian Islands Institute, a center designed, according to his business card, to provide “Experiential living and learning in the Wilderness of Southeast Alaska”.

Zack was brought up in Alaska, in a little town of 400 people at the northern end of the Alaskan panhandle, surrounded on three sides by Glacier Bay National Park, and on the fourth side by Icy Strait.  Gustavus is accessible only by boat and seaplane.  When, the residents of Gustavus s feel a need to escape the hustle and bustle of town, they go to the Hobbit Hole.

The Hobbit Hole is a homestead nestled on an inlet of Icy Strait, originally a fishing camp, later expanded to accommodate the owner’s family, then the owner’s brother’s family.  One of the wives was a craftsperson, so a pottery studio was added.  A barn evolved into a workshop with a sleeping loft above.  The brothers entertained visitors from the Lower 48.  For a while it was known as the “Pot Hole.”  

As the brothers aged the old nickname lost its relevance, and it was Zack’s mother who suggested that the place be called “the Hobbit Hole.”  The name stuck.  The brothers built a guest house.  Their wives maintained a garden and a lawn.   Folks from Gustavus became used to holding special events there, or spending a weekend in one of the guest rooms.

Then while Zack was working on a PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Stanford, he heard that the Hobbit Hole was for sale.  The brothers were retiring.  And he had a vision. He could buy the property and set up a hands –on field study center, focused on sustainable living, renewable energy, locally grown food.   But how could he convince others – and himself – that this crazy idea could work?  Maybe he’d have to do something else crazy first.

 On the day he graduated with his PhD, Zack set out from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences building at Stanford and began to walk north. He walked from Stanford to Port Angles, Washington, camping each night.  In San Bruno he was almost arrested for vagrancy, but agreed to leave town and camp elwwhere.  Along the way he was offered many a ride, but turned them down, though he accepted the occasional offer of a cold beer instead.  When he got to Port Angeles 55 days and over 1000 miles later, he bought a kayak.

From Port Angeles, he paddled to Gustavus, another 900 miles. Along the way from Palo Alto, he had talked to hundreds of people about his vision for the Hobbit Hole.  Each time he told about it, the vision became a bit more real, a bit more doable.  And each conversation yielded at least one more potential supporter.

Three years later, Zack and his partners have obtained two major foundation grants.  They hope to complete the contract for purchase of the Hobbit Hole in February of 2018.  Meanwhile the Howe brothers have allowed them to hold seminars, yoga camps,  and work parties at the site.  They have also hosted two sessions of Stanford Sophomore College, and entertained visitors from expeditions sponsored by Yale and Stanford Travel. P1030646web

I was on the Stanford expedition, and the visit to the  Hobbit Hole as one of the highlights of our trip.  It was a mostly sunny day, only a brief spatter of rain, as we pulled into the dock next to a rack of kayaks, including Zack’s trip veteran.  The gardens included blooming daisies, forget-me-nots, and marigolds, as well as lots of edible Alaskan native plants.  Zack showed off the workshop, the pottery studio, the hydro-power station.  And he led us through the woods to a moss-crusted concrete pillar marking the deaths of two people, possibly a mother and son, possibly Tlingit.  The site was a Tlingit fishing camp long before Alaska had a name.

We were two thousand miles from Silicon Valley, where life seems dependent on ever-more-complex technology.  It was amazing to be in a place and with people where life is dependent on a water wheel, a garden, and a storehouse deep in the ground which never warms up.  And exciting to know that our country is still big enough to allow young men to dream dreams and have visions.StanfordAlaska47_HobbitHoledoc

 

Freeway Free in France: Looping back to Souillac

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 It was hard to tear ourselves away from our luxury hotel on the outskirts of Carsac this morning.  In fact, Winifred and Dianne failed utterly, opting to take the sag wagon with the luggage back to Souillac.  Turns out the pickup time was not until 3PM, so they had almost a whole day of lounging around the pool eating bonbons.

 

P1030227doc Meanwhile DM reconsidered her idea of a solo stroll, so the two of us set out promptly just after 9AM to regain the converted train right of way now known as “Le Voie Verte” -the Green Way.  This is a lovely hiking, biking and jogging path with a nice shallow grade going along past quaint little towns, distant castles, through tunnels, and along the Dordogne River.  We missed the first castle as the fog had not yet lifted, but compensated by exploring the next little town Aillac, a fabulously pretty little yellow Winkie village with some really cute cats and kittens outside a barn, and an amazingly clean set of public toilettes.   We hikers appreciate these things!P1030222web

 We made very good time on the Green Way, even overtaking and passing the Australian couple who had been besting us in previous days – however, we were not held back by DB and WB, and the Australians had made a wrong turn. We tried to stop for a snack at the halfway point, but the season had officially ended on the 19th, the snack shops were closed, and the one open restaurant was out of Coca-cola, Dory’s secret vice.

Once we ran out of Green Way, things took an upward turn – waaaay up to the top of a small mountain where we found the village of Millac, but were too exhilarated at being able to stand up straight and see for miles to spend time exploring yet another crumbling church.  

P1030234docThen it was down through dappled shade and dappled sun in a woodsy canyon, then down further through more dappled shade and dappled sun as we crossed a series of walnut orchards with beautifully shaped and spaced trees, then down further into the tacky outskirts of Souillac, then down past the cemetery.  We got confused, asked a passerby if he knew our hotel, and he pointed to it across the street.  Winifred and Dianne had just arrived.20160921_052432web

 I took a short walk up down with Dory to locate a Coke for the train tomorrow, and we wandered a little bit more through the old medieval section of Souillac.  We were surprised to see that a small two story townhome in this section, with 2 BR, 2WC, and two other “pieces” which could be used as a “salon” or a BR, was en venue for around 135K euros – seemed a lot considering how many empty shop fronts we had been seeing.

 The area is suffering from gentrification – so many wealthy Brits have bought old hones in the area and are restoring them, that housing prices are going up for everyone.  Sounds eerily familiar.

 Tonight we expect another luxury dinner, but must leave early tomorrow to catch our 8:25 train to Paris.  Maybe we will spot Hercule Poirot.20160921_114231webP1030239web

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