Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Memoir”

Freeway Free in Wales: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

20180717_145638docAmong the hazards of a pre-organized group tour is that one day may be PACKED with events and places to see, while the next may find you bus-bound as your itinerary hustles you off to the next attraction.  (Above is a view from the bus of the beautiful Welsh countryside near Snowdon. Time to explore on your own, and time to digest your experiences may both be limited.

Today we explored the depths of a slate mine (damp, dark, dusty),

rode on a narrow-gauge railway (clattering, quaint, cramped),

explored Portemeirion, a fantasy village created as “an homage to Portofino” by a self taught architect (eclectic, imaginative, erratic),

ate dinner at a World heritage site castle (lavish, lamb, local lore),

and watched border collies herding sheep into their home pens (energetic, efficient, effective).  20180717_145701

Lots of diversity, but almost too much to take in.  By the end of the day, I am most clearly remembering those border collies herding the sheep as we sat on the wall of our guest house, quietly and remotely and restfully watching.

 

Next Week: Freeway – Free in Wales: Life in the Village, Life in the Castle

 

 

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Freeway Free in Wales: Hanging out at Bodysgallen Hall

20180716_211431docWe are still traveling first class:  we were picked up at the Manchester Airport by Jason, a deferential fellow with a strong accent.  He loaded our gear into a Mercedez limo/van, and off we go through misty rain (the first rain in six weeks, Jason says) to Wales, home of unpronounceable names.   We are staying outside of Llandudno in a 17th century carriage house named Bodysgallen Hall.  The castle for which this ample residence formerly served as gatehouse is visible from our windows, at least a couple of miles away across the valley.  Talk about an impressive entrance!20180716_185011web

Our  room has  mullioned windows and a lot of toile and chintz and Turkish rugs. The welcome reception for our group included a harpist as well as a wide sampling of local whiskeys and not-so-local wines.

Now the sun is setting through my mullioned windows, my spouse is in PJ’s reading about tomorrow’s itinerary, and I am contemplating one more tour around the garden outside before turning in.

Next week: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

Freeway Free: Flying First Class!

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My father used to say “It only costs a little more to go First Class.” But that was back when a first-class upgrade set you back only about $20, and sometimes you could get one just by flirting with the ticket agent.

When I had a day job, I did quite a bit of international traveling in Business class and amassed enough Frequent Flyer points to gain access to United’s Red Carpet Club and other elite airport venues. More recently, I have had to join the hoi polloi in Coach class and in the ordinary waiting areas of airport terminals, so it was a real treat when we were upgraded to Business class on our flight to Great Britain.

The first surprise was our access to the Polaris Club Business Class lounge, which United now shares with Lufthansa and Continental. Wow! The old Red Carpet Club gave you coffee, tea, and pre-packaged cheese slices and crackers to tide you over while you waited for your flight. If you were lucky, they might not be out of apples or bananas. The Polaris Club is several levels of comfort and cuisine apart.

Not only are there espresso machines, but also several open bars with serve-yourself beer and wine as well as available mixed drinks. Food stations include German-style cold cuts and sausages for make-your-own sandwiches; a breakfast station with bagels, French pastries, hot and cold cereals, fruit, and yogurt; and a steam table offering hot miso soup, steamed rice, potstickers, ramen, and sushi.

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Tucked away next to the restrooms and private laptop cubicles were showers! United has apparently picked up some classy tips from its European and Asian partners.

Once we were on board, we found seats that could be stretched out to lie flat, with pillows, blankets, big screens for on-screen movies, lots of storage for carryon luggage,  plugs for our laptops and Nicholas, an assiduous purser to answer any question. In Frankfurt the Polaris Lounge was equally well equipped as at SFO, and even on the small plane to Manchester we were served quite a creditable Salad Nicoise with wine. It’s been quite a while since I felt so pampered by an airline. A great start to our British adventure!20180715_151353doc

Next week: From Top of the Castle to Down in the Pits in Wales

A Piece of My Mind: Tradition (Los Altos Town Crier 11/7/18)

 
P1020475docJust finished with Thanksgiving, just starting to get my mind set for upcoming Christmas, so it’s no wonder I’ve been mindful of traditions.

In my family, Thanksgiving has always been a holiday of hospitality, with assorted family members from near and far, old friends and some new ones, significant others and random dorm-mates, all sharing around a table or two or even three.  Over several generations, some of our traditions have morphed or been abandoned, while other new ones have been added.

When I was a girl it was my job to polish the silver in anticipation of any holiday gathering.  My mother would bring out her wedding silver, together with silver plated serving platters, a gravy boat, and covered casseroles, all needing considerable elbow grease to bring them up to her sparkling standard.  I was also in charge of making place cards and arranging the seating, preferably alternating men and women with no one from the same family sitting next to each other.  Later I became the hostess, and my granddaughter took over polishing my wedding silver as needed, as well as making and arranging place cards.20151125_182234web

Growing up we always shared Thanksgiving with another family we had known since I was a toddler.  They always brought candied yams in a casserole and a couple of kinds of pies.  Decades later those friends had passed on, but meanwhile I have secured a husband who is a master hand at mashed potatoes, and my brother-in- law prides himself on pies.  No chance of a carbohydrate shortage here!20151126_195352web

 

After Thanksgiving dinner had been cleared, we would set up the table for a game of Michigan (aka “Tripoli” in some circles) using a game cloth that had been hand-stenciled by my grandmother, and some poker chips which were as old.  This game depends mostly on luck and can be played by anyone old enough or young enough to hold a fan of playing cards.  My mother took delight in cheating, and we all took even more delight in catching her at it.

More recently, my husband added a tradition of offering champagne or sparkling cider to all before sitting down to eat, together with an obligatory group sing of “Over the River and Through the Woods” to the faltering accompaniment of my recorder.  (Having drunk a glass of champagne in advance helps everyone to participate with gusto).  The wearing of pilgrim hats or other costume items is optional for this performance, which  is a great ice-breaker for any of the new significant others or recently met friends.

All great traditions.  But this Thanksgiving our minds were also aware of the wildfire victims who had lost so much of their traditions to inferno, and the migrants at our southern borders and  around the world who had abandoned their traditions in hope of finding a new home free of hunger and fear.

I thought a lot about the American tradition which has seen our country as “a nation of immigrants” , as “a melting pot”, as “a shining city on a hill.”  I remember the poem which I memorized for school as a girl,  inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Bring me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Bring these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.Bronze-plaque-of-New-Colossus

This is a tradition of hospitality that is more difficult to stick with in challenging times, but more important than turkey, more American than apple and pumpkin pie.  As a nation I hope we can live up to this traditional vision of our best selves.

Freeway Free in Cajun Country – The Myth of Evangeline

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When I was in high school we studied the poetry of Henry Wadworth Longfellow, and particularly “Evangeline”. To this day, when I am walking in a redwood grove, the introductory line comes to me: “This is the forest primeval/the murmuring pines and the hemlocks.” (Although redwood trees don’t exactly murmur, or if they do, it is so high up I can’t hear them.)

So here we are in St. Martinsburg, site of the supposed reunion of lovers Evangeline and Gabriel in the classic poem. The “Evangeline Oak” is the largest of several very impressive trees in the Evangeline/Longfellow State Park but there is no actual connection to the poem, as Longfellow never visited Louisiana, nor does the poem mention an oak tree. The statue of Evangeline which formerly sat near the oak has since been moved across from the City Hall in St. Martinsburg. It is actually modeled on Dolores del Rio, who starred as Evangeline in the 1929 move, and it was donated to the town by the movie cast. It has been replaced by a bust of Longfellow on a plinth whose plaque includes the stanza from “Evangeline” which mentions St. Martinsville.20180517_151453web

Adjacent to the park with the oak tree is the Museum of the Acadian Memorial, a small but effective installation with a focus on tracing the emigration pathways of the displaced Acadians and also provides assistance with tracing Acadian genealogy. Co-located in the same building is the African American Museum, which traces a different diaspora from Africa through the slave trade to the various Southern slave markets. It’s an odd juxtaposition.

Before visiting St. Martinsburg we had stopped at Pat’s Fisherman’s Wharf, a well-known local Cajun restaurant and dance hall at the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp. It was hard to reconcile the down-home flavors of Cajun food and music with the high-flown verses of Longfellow, but “Cajun” is undeniably a shortening of “Arcadian” which has been passed down for 200 years. History is a twisting river.

 

A Piece of my Mind: Homecoming Parade (Los Altos Town Crier, Nov. 7, 2018)

20181019_133643docHomecoming Parade – Now and Then

My spouse and I biked up to our downtown in mid-October to watch the High School Homecoming Parade. 

20181019_132743webMain Street had been blocked off between State Street and First Street.  Both sides of the street was lined with people, some who had brought chairs for better viewing.  Many of the spectators wore T-shirts with the “HOCO” Home coming Logo, overlying a large candy-swirl sucker honoring the Candyland parade theme. There was a lively mix of parents, grandparents, younger siblings, and fellow students of the marchers. Lots of hugs were being exchanged.

Here they came!  First a couple of motorcycle policemen, then one of the  Fire Department ‘s white trucks, lights flashing. Then the parade proper, led by the high school’s eagle mascot. with the 20 members of the Homecoming Court riding in sports cars or on the back seat of antique convertibles in mixed or same-sex couples. 

In between the members of the court marched delegations of the different Fall sports teams –football leading the way in  T-shirts and sweatshirts, followed by Field Hockey, Water Polo, Girls Volleyball, Tennis, Cross Country, Culinary Arts, Golf, Basketball, and FUTSAL (a kind of combination of football and soccer, a young bystander explained to me.)

 

Also marching were members of different clubs – the Latino Students Union dressed in ethnic garb and carrying pinatas on poles, the Black Students Union, Gender and Sexuality Awareness carrying rainbow banners, the Broken Box Theatre company,  Model United Nations, electronics club, Students for Haiti Solidarity, One Dollar for Life, and others I didn’t catch.

Each class had put together a float in honor of the parade theme – there was a candy house built of giant Necco wafers, a gingerbread house, a forest of lollipops surrounding a giant green M&M, and a giant gumball machine  (the gumballs were balloons.)

The band did not wear T-shirts and jeans or leggings. They were dressed in double-breasted  woolen uniforms despite the warm October weather, with military shakos and caps.  The spirit squad marched in blue skirts and white blouses, ready to sit together in the rooting section, where white shirts or blouses were required dress. 

I couldn’t help looking back to the  High School Homecoming Parade during my graduate year some decades ago.  At that time the Homecoming Court consisted of six girls nominated by the class, escorted by the young man of their choice.  There was no such thing as a Homecoming King. The Queen nominees were all Caucasian.  That was no wonder, as our high school at that time had zero African American Students, and almost no Asian or Latino students.

The band did not wear T-shirts and jeans or leggings. They were dressed in double-breasted  woolen uniforms despite the warm October weather, with military shakos and caps.  The spirit squad marched in blue skirts and white blouses, ready to sit together in the rooting section, where white shirts or blouses were required dress.

The football team rode in cars.  Because it was Game Day, they wore shirts, ties,  sports jackets, and dress shoes – not suitable for walking even the few blocks along Main Street.

I remember working on the spirit squad float – a giant cube covered with tissue paper flowers spelling out rally slogans in the school colors. 20181110_161512web

The 2018 version of Homecoming Parade was not the same as what I remembered.  There was a lot more diversity in the shapes and colors of the homecoming court.  Some of the sports and most of the clubs were new to me. There was a lot less formality in dress. But bystanders and participants were all smiling.  Despite the many changes  over the years, I feel that our community character has been preserved.  

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Freeway Free down the Mississippi: the Shadow of Slavery

 

Floating down the Mississippi on a multi-tiered cruise ship, I was inevitably sucked into the “Gone With the Wind” myth.  We docked up at a number of pillared plantation homes.  We saw a home where James Audubon was employed as a tutor to the children, and drew his marvelous bird protraits from taxidermy models he had made.  We walked down a oak-lined alley with a lovely double-decker veranda’d mansion at the end of it.  We saw portraits of blonde children in lace-trimmed dresses, and dainty embroideries done by the ladies of the house.  And always the dark shadow of the enslaved people who made it all possible lurked behind, only barely acknowledged.

I believe it started with climate.  In this hot, humid region, African laborers were prized over Europeans because they had better tolerance for the climate.  Once that advantage was established, economics took over.  If there is a demand, someone will supply it. 

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The restored mansions include lovely murals, swooping staircases, and even the apparent remains of a poker party – one can imagine Scarlett O’Hara lifting her skirts as she goes up the stairs, or Rhett Butler sweeping up the chips with a rakish grin.

But the musty flavor of slavery still permeates.  In the dining room where crystal cut-glass sparkles, a huge fan hangs over the table – it would have been pulled back and forth by a silent slave in the corner.

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Freeway Free on the Mississippi: Tying up at Vickburg

DSC_6027a.jpg-0033docI had never paid much attention to the Siege of Vicksburg in my readings about the Civil War.  Of course, the victory at Vicksburg made Ulysses Grant a hero and set him up for Appomattox later, but the other great Union victory at Gettysburg overshadows what was happening at almost the same time at the other end of the Mason – Dixon line.   The Battle of Gettysburg lasted only four days, the territory of the battles is compact, and there is a clear turning point, dramatically titled “the High Water Mark of the Confederacy”.

In contrast, the Seige of Vicksburg lasted seven weeks.  There were a number of small, inconclusive battles which took place miles from Vicksburg in April and May which led up to the Seige.  Grant finally won his victory by cutting off supplies to the town and bombarding it from both river and land.   The Vicksburg National Military Park, like the Gettysburg National Military Park, surrounds its eponymus town on three sides, but the actual battlefields are miles away.  Like Gettysburg, the Vicksburg NMP has  monuments scattered about commemorating different states’ contribution to the battle, but they are much less numerous and massive than those at Gettysburg, as if the city was simply too exhausted to raise many tributes to the fallen.  We are, after all, in Mississippi, on the losing side of the war.  The two Civil War re-enactors who talked to us at the Park seemed ruefully anachronistic, as they were both at least forty years older than the soldiers whose roles they were playing

20180513_153815webThe Old Court House Museum in the center of town is small, intimate, and indomitably Southern.  It includes battle flags from the Confederate Army, but few from the winning side.  It includes donations of baby shoes and quilts and beaded purses from local ladies.  It includes an un-abashed depiction of slavery which defends it as a humane and mutually beneficial relationship between master and slave. It includes an exhibit of china which is exactly like the set I inherited from my great-grandmother.

The walk down to the dock on a hot afternoon was a step back in time.  As we left the historic district the sidewalks became more uneven, cracked, or non-existent.  Black families sat on their front porches, lazily waving palm-leaf fans.  Our tour boat waited for us on a nearly deserted quai, walled off from the town by a protective barrier which marked the height of historic floods.  Vicksburg seems caught in a bubble of history, waiting for the past to come around again.

 

 

 

 

A Piece of My Mind: Smog – the Sequel (Los Altos Town Crier, Sept. 5, 2018)

  

When I was growing up on the southern San Francisco peninsula,  smog was the norm.  Many a morning  as I walked to school, the air was so full of dirt that the foothills were invisible – I might as well have been living on the prairie.

 Later when I was the age for making decisions about where to go to college, I was accepted at two excellent schools in southern California.  I visited both campuses and decided that it would be impossible for me to attend either – the air pollution was so severe that I could not go outside without suffering painful eye irritation with my contact lenses.  

People depend on their cars.  How could we have a modern civilization with the flexibility and mobility we needed if we restricted auto travel? But how could we avoid strangling ourselves by breathing  our own waste?

 Time passed.  Regulations and people demanded change.   Human ingenuity got to work.  Auto manufacturers learned to build more efficient cars which used less gas with no lead.  Petroleum plants learned to make gasoline which burned cleaner.   A problem which had seemed insoluble was nearly solved.  After a decade or so of effective regulation and innovation, the foothills reappeared.  When  I moved back to Los Altos after a ten year absence, I marveled at the consistent clarity of the air.

 But this summer I have seen a huge relapse.  The air quality day after day has been miserable, due to the uncontrolled wildfires burning to the north and east, and the prevailing winds which suck the smoke down into the Santa Clara and Central Valleys.  My sister posted photos on Facebook from trips she had taken to Ashland, Oregon and back .  Three years ago her photo showed snow-topped Mt. Shasta dominating  the valley, as pristine as a Japanese print of Mt. Fuji.  This year, from the same vantage point, on the same calendar day, nothing was visible but a brownish smear of polluted air.

 PG&E, among other entities affected, argues that the unusual severity of the fires is a result of global climate change, not human agency or corporate carelessness.  There are those who say that climate change is an act of God, beyond human repair. I believe, though, that God gave us brains and ingenuity in order to solve problems.  We have been able to shape our world in many ways to make it easier for us to live in it.  We have lowered the infant mortality rate.  Fewer women die in childbirth.  Smallpox, polio, and yellow fever have been conquered by vaccines.  We cleaned the air before.  With some inspiration and much determination I believe we can and must make the changes necessary to do it again.  I want my children and grandchildren to see our foothills.    

 

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Up the Inland Passage into the Wild

StanfordAlaska22_MoreHumpbacksdocI confess:  I did not come to Alaska to learn more about Tlingit culture or early Norwegian settlesments.  I wanted to experience wilderness and wildness, before they disappear from the earth.  When we sail up into Tracy Arm north of Hobart Bay, I feel like we were really there.

I wake up and open the curtain to see a big blue berg floating by – we are approaching Sawyer Glacier, shining  in every tone of teal between near- navy and shadowy ice blue.  As we watch, a large section of the glacier calves off, with a huge splash  followed seconds later by the deep roar.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Later we make our way up toward Glacier Bay.  One of our group sights a group of orca between our boat and a smaller tour boat a bit further into the Bay.  Suddenly an orca breaches, throwing itself clear out of the water.  It is half the size of the small tour boat, and no more than 20 feet away from it.  Shamu at SeaWorld could not have shown off to better effect.

We sail into Glacier Bay, feeling smug because our smallish boat can go much further in that the multi-thousand passenger cruise ships we pass. The first peninsula jutting into the bay is Gloomy Gloomy Knob, the home of mountain goats.  We saw several Rams and one foursome of ewes and kids – then the foursome began running – they had been spooked by a drone zooming by for a close-up.  Flying drones close enough to disturb wildlife is illegal in National parks. Our on-board Park Ranger Nicole bolts for the captain’s bridge and its radio, gets the offending boat on the wire..  The droners deny the drone was anywhere other than near the beach! But we have photos!  Geez Louise!

Further in we spot a moose mama with twin calves (she looking quite skinny – the effect of nursing two?) As we circle around the bay we see three bears on the rocky moraine which constitutes a beach.  The mother bear is badly scarred either from skin disease or perhaps a burn and sparks from a fire, but not crippled. The two cubs are happily turning over rocks looking for shrimp or small fish sheltering underneath.   P1030607web

We get off the boat at Lumpaugh Glacier and walk on a glacial moraine- lumpy, shifting, insecure footing.  The bears looked more comfortable and secure – perhaps claws and flexible pads give them better traction?  It’s odd to imagine these rocks ranging from tiny pebbles to boulders being carried and then dropped by the slow river of ice moving back and forth across this empty land.  Maybe it wasn’t so empty then.  Maybe the Tlingit shamans tried to find some explanation for climate change.  Did they blame the actions of Man for having angered the Gods?  Does nothing change?StanfordAlaska62_GlacierReflectionweb

 

 

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