Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Memoir”

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.    

 

 

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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

 

 

Freeway Free in Alaska: Up the Inland Passage to Petersburg

P1030503docOur next stop up the Inland Passage was at the town of Petersburg, settled originally by a group of Norwegians over 100 years ago.  We were entertained by a group of students dressed in traditional  costumes made by local ladies, with design of Alaskan wild flowers registered with the special organization that registers traditional costumes. I now turn the blog over to my husband David, who is half Norwegian and glories in every drop of squarehead blood.

StanfordAlaska14_PetersburgViking-webDavid’s travel notes: We stopped in Petersburg, a 100-year old Norwegian settlement.  Quaint as you can imagine.  We went to the Sons Of Norway Hall for some cute  Norwegian dances performance  by the local 5th and 6th graders in traditional costumes.  Absolutely charming, with all those clean-cut Norse smiles.  (Note that the girls are taller than the boys  –  that will change in a few years).   They served us morning breakfast treats including Lefse, which my dad used to make much to our puzzlement. 

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Trophy plaque in the Sons of Norway Hall – most unusual contest!

The lady leader of the dance troupe asked if any of us had any questions or comments. Well, of course, I stood up and said, “I just want to make sure that these kids are aware of this old, famous Norwegian rallying cry:  ‘Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.’

 Lots of laughter but then one of our fellow boat travelers, Ken Johnston, walked up to me and said, “When you said that I was ready to kill you: my ancestors are Swedish.”   Well, of course, for the rest of the cruise Ken and I got along famously, trading Scandinavian lies.

 Like this one:  Ken: David, did you know that the Swedes invented the toilet?  David: Yes, Ken, but it took a Norwegian to invent the seat for it.P1030505doc

 

Freeway Free in Alaska (actually you have no choice)

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Since there are only about 15 miles of freeway in the entire state of Alaska (built as a bit of a boondoggle between the capital city of Juneau and its airport), it is not much of a challenge to be freeway-free here.  The preferred method of travel is by water, whether by kayak, canoe, or cruise ship.

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Alaska was not exactly on my bucket list – I usually prefer to go to places where the food and language are exotic.  But once in the state I was enchanted – it still feels so WILD here.  The first day in Sitka, I strolled around the town and spotted a couple of bald eagles keeping watch over their territory from the top of the tallest tree in town.  Mt. Morecombe, which marks the entrance to the Sitka harbor, is a somnolent volcano.

The stroll of Sitka includes a main street of perhaps six blocks, with a harbor and historic park at one end, the coast range looming behind, and a second park looking out over the volcano and the bay at the other end.  The shops include quite a nice book store, a quilting shop with Alaska-themed print calicoes on offer, several craft shops offering carvings from driftwood or walrus tusks,  several small coffee shops,  and a restaurant offering fresh -caught salmon.

The standard wear for Sitka inhabitants involves jeans, down vests, and flannel. The shopkeepers and customers have an easy-going, relaxed air, as though there is nowhere else they would rather be, nowhere they need to rush off to.  I suppose those who want to be somewhere else than a small town in Alaska have already left.

The air is cool and brisk and smells faintly fishy.  I can feel myself relaxing, too.  There’s nowhere else I can be now, so I might as well be here.  I find myself a bench at the harbor, and scan the trees for eagles.  I turn, and find one perched on the apex of the church steeple, looking for all the world like a weathervane. Wild.

A Piece of My Mind: Let’s Have Fun (LATC July 2018)

 

I’m sitting on the balcony of our hotel room overlooking the beach. It is a beautiful day, warm enough to tempt children and teenagers into the water without wetsuits, and the beach is dotted with colorful umbrellas and sun tents and beach towels and beach toys and sand-castles in the making. Up near the steps leading down to the beach is a small playground, with a twisty slide and two sets of swings, six swings in each set, all occupied by kids and pre-teens industriously pumping back and forth.

But I notice something odd.  Here we are at the beach with yards of soft sand in front of each swing, but no one is bailing into the sand at the peak of their swing, landing on their knees laughing after flying through the air for a magical few seconds. I watch and wait for the first adventurous child to go sailing through the air, but it doesn’t happen.  It seems no one knows how.  It seems that jumping out of a swing has never occurred to them.

Maybe these kids have never bailed from a swing into soft sand. Maybe their playgrounds have always been grounded in AstroTurf or wood chips or outdoor carpet – nothing you could trust your knees to. And maybe the flexible U-shaped seats cling to the children’s rear ends and make it hard to slip off the swing at the right moment.

I really wanted to go down and show the kids on the beach how to fly, but my knees might not have been  up to it. I did start  thinking, though, of other playground learning opportunities that may have been lost to safety and insurance and ecology concerns..

What about see saws? (AKA teeter-totters in some areas) The universal street sign for a playground is a see saw, yet how many of today’s children have actually played on one? There is risk of injury.  You might fall off. You might crush your foot underneath the board. You might get a finger caught between the board and the support. You might get a sock in the jaw if you tried to get on one end just as another kid was pulling his end down.  And yet this simple playground toy is one of the best ways to convey the ideas of balance and leverage that ever was.

What about the merry-go-round? Not the thing with horses and a calliope, but a round metal platform with handles, mounted on ball bearings. You ran as fast as you could while pushing to get it going, and then jumped on. A mysterious force tried to tear you off the platform. You clung to your handle. You held on. That force that wanted to tear you off was defeated. You had strength you hadn’t known. And you learned that if you crawled into the center of the platform, the force mysteriously lessened; at the center you could stand up no-hands!  Later when you learned about centrifugal and centripetal force in physics class, you recognized them immediately.

And the jungle gym – that network of metal pipes assembled with plumbing joints which seemed to soar impossibly high when you were in the primary grades, but which could be conquered bar by bar until you reached the apex as an upper-grader.  Yes, you could fall. But mostly you didn’t.

I look at the brightly colored plastic play structures around town and feel a little sorry for today’s kids.  Yes, I guess you can learn about centrifugal force by going down a twisty slide, and you can learn to do a perfect dismount from parallel bars in a well-supervised gymnastics class – but you won’t get sand between your toes.

 

Thoughts of Those Who Serve (Town Crier May 2,2018)

img_0056.jpgMy husband is something of a connoisseur of National Memorials, having been born and raised in Gettysburg, PA.  So on our recent visit to Hawaii we fulfilled his long-held wish to visit the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

The monument now bears the cumbersome official title of “World War II Valor in the Pacific Nation Monument-Hawaii.” Not only could we visit the shrine over the sunken hulk of the USS Arizona with most of its crew permanently interred inside, but also tour the USS Missouri, on which the final surrender was signed by the Japanese, and the submarine USS Bowfin. Large interactive exhibitions explain the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, the attack, and the role of submarines in World War II. An excellent audio tour led us through the exhibits located both in the galleries and around the grounds, ending at a theater giving even more vivid detail about the attack.

It had been a quiet Sunday morning, some of the sailors still in their bunks recoving from the gaieties of Saturday night, others about to raise the flag to signal the official beginning of duties, when the Japanese planes roared in.  The attack was finely targeted to take out the US  battleships,  lined up neatly on Battleship Row. Over a thousand men died in the USS Arizona alone when it sank to the bottom of the harbor with no way out.

Of the 2403 people killed that day, only 49 were civilians.  But this was still the largest number of civilian deaths due to military action on US soil since the Civil War, and remains the largest number today, (discounting 9-11-01 as a terrorist, not a military action.)\The US and Canada were unique among the major combatant nations in WWII in having almost no civilian fatalities on their own soil.   Russia lost over 4.5 million civilians, Germany over two million, Japan three million, and China over twenty million. Civilians in Great Britain, France, and Italy died in the hundreds of thousands.  But the war stayed far away from us. Including the 49 lost on December 7, 1941, mainly due to faulty anti-aircraft shells falling in residential areas, the total civilian deaths on US soil came to 55.

US civilians have been sheltered from war by our broad ocean boundaries to east and west, and our good neighbors to north and south. Except for the Civil War,  we have always been able to keep our wars on other people’s territory.  During the current wars in the Mid-East  we send our “military advisers” far afield with  our  drones and our missiles, and if a few of them blunder across a home-made land mine or get caught in crossfire, we might heave a sigh as we read about it at the bottom of  page 4 of the newspaper.

Both my brothers are Army veterans.  Both spent a good part of their service overseas.  One was repeatedly shot at, the other wasn’t. Both survived without physical injury, but not without mental and emotional scars. I am tremendously proud of both of them.  They signed up to to be strangers in a hostile land, to run risks , to be targeted, so that you and I could be comfortable.

Our soldiers, sailors and air force are our gladiators, fighting  our proxy battles in foreign arenas, so that we can be safe in our homes from invasion. Don’t wait until Memorial Day to honor the dead, but smile at a living person in uniform today, while he or she can smile back.

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Freeway-Free in Texas: Fredericksburg a bit lacking in “authentic German soul”

20170404_153027.jpgFredericksburg, founded in 1846 by German settlers, is said to have perpetuated not only the authentic German cuisine of the founders but also some of their “authentic German soul.”  (per VisitFredericksburgTX.com).  I have to say we pretty much struck out.  We got recommendations from the friendly host at our motel and headed hungrily into town after our drive from San Antonio.  The Old German Bakery and Restaurant, our first choice,  is closed on Tuesday, at Friedhelm’s Bavarian Inn we were greeted so rudely that we left, and we finally had a delightful meal with excellent service at the Auslander. 20170404_173818.jpg

After dinner we meandered down the wooden sidewalks to check out the stores and crafts shops, but found most of the stores closed well before 9PM, except for the biergartens and souvenir shops.  There were some traces of Germanic architecture around, but they had a kind of faux-Hansel-and-Gretel look about them which felt more Disneyland than Bavaria.

With some relief we returned to our hotel, the Peach Tree Inn.  The contrast between La Contessa where we spent out two nights in San Antonio and the Peach Tree Inn in Fredericksburg, is dramatic. Instead of a two room suite with bar area and marble countered bathroom, we have one room  with two double beds, a microwave on top of the mini-fridge, and the TV on the wall.  But everything is clean and fresh, the amenities in the top drawer of the bureau are as needed. The “light continental breakfast is included, with hard boiled eggs, lots of different pastries, bread and bagels, apples and orange juice, good coffee,  And the $98/night charge included a very decent bottle of Australian pinot noir on our dresser as a welcome from the host. 20170404_153736.jpg

So we were not as charmed by Fredericksburg in general as we had hoped to be, but were beautifully rested from our evening at the Peach Tree Inn, and ready to explore the beautiful Texas Hill Country the next day. 

Coming up next: A secret gem – Enchanted Rock State Park

 

 

A Piece of my Mind: That’s Entertainment (Los Altos Town Crier February 7, 2018)

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My mother loved to entertain.  By that I don’t mean she would sit at the piano and sing torch songs, or tap dance around the living room.  Hers was the old-fashioned idea of entertaining, where one invited a mix of people to enjoy good food and drink in an attractive setting, and hope to generate lively conversation, a good bit of laughter, and some warm memories.  The mix would include some old friends who could be counted on to maintain the conversation and the party mood, and some interesting new acquaintances who might become friends (and usually did, after attending my mother’s parties).

When we have friends over, it is almost always a potluck where everyone brings a platter and a bottle to share. We are working people, we think, and can’t take the time to entertain the old-fashioned way.  My mother would have scorned this limited idea of hospitality.  Whether it was a bridge party, a ladies’ lunch, or a party for the entire faculty of the school where she taught, her parties were carefully orchestrated from appetizer to dessert, sometimes with a theme, always with an eye to what new acquaintance would add spark to the mix, what combination of people would ensure a lively gathering, and who should sit next to whom.

20180122_100648.jpgHer cupboards were full of party equipment.  Her dining table could be extended to accommodate 6, 8, 10, or 12 people.  She had tablecloths and napkins to accommodate each size, plus pretty crystal place card holders to let people know where they should sit.   For bridge parties and ladies’ lunches she had smaller table cloths with matching napkins.

She had high-ball glasses and champagne glasses and wine glasses and martini glasses.   For larger parties she had a glass punch bowl with two dozen matching glass cups, a ladle, and a special mold for making an ice ring full of frozen fruit to cool the punch.

For winter parties she had a soup tureen for serving bouillabaisse or curry, scallop shells for baking coquilles St. Jacques, and abalone shells for helpings of shrimp creole.   For summer parties she had individual trays with paper liners for eating outdoors, and parfait glasses for serving raspberry ice cream parfait.

 

With my father’s help she would choose and tape appropriate  music to be playing in the background for each party.  A few weeks ago I found a cassette tape in my mother’s house labeled “Party tape – Once a year day!” 

As I played the tape through I remembered that party.  It celebrated my father’s 60th birthday, my parents’ 35th anniversary, and the  ceremonial burning of the mortgage for the house in Los Altos, and also served as a wedding reception for my younger brother and his wife. The sound track was full of happy tunes: “Once a year day” from “The Pajama Game” , “Happy Days are Here Again”,  a New Orleans jazz version of “When the Saints go Marching In”, jazz piano, and dance music (“Edelweiss” for the bride and groom who had married in Germany, “Always”  for Mom and Dad to mark their anniversary) There must have been more than fifty people flowing in and out of the house and back patio.  The punch bowl was refilled again and again. It was a wonderful day.

My mother and father are both gone now.  As I look over the items I am packing up from my mother’s house, I’m remembering the good food, good conversation, and good times associated with each jello mold and baking tin.  I’m also thinking I’d better start issuing more invitations, or the only party of mine folks will remember will be the wake. 

 

 

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

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.

 

 

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