Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Memoir”

A Piece of My Mind: Civic Duty

I get the post card.  I am on call for jury duty for a week. The new procedure is to sign in at noon and 5 pm to find out whether I am on call to appear the next morning or afternoon.

For four days I dodge the bullet.  I manage a blood donation, a Book Club meeting, and a friend’s Anniversary Party, and then the notice appears:  “Your report date is 4/22/22.” Following is other information about where to park, where to report, how to check in.

I make it easily to the parking garage, up two floors to the pedestrian bridge, and then the signage ran out.  I start for the nearest building – nope, that’s the jail.  In the other direction – yes, the Superior Court.  Through the bag scan and the metal detector, up to the second floor, where i wait in line for the sign-in kiosks, directed by a friendly young man evidently used to handling clueless questions from silver haired ladies.

I balk at the sign in kiosk, clearly labeled “Step 2” and “Step 3”. 

“Where’s Step One?”

The young man shakes his head. “We’re re-vamping the system.  Gotta change those signs.”  I scan my juror postcard, he kindly takes my parking ticket for validation (saving himself several other clueless questions, I’m sure.)

Into the jury room, full of people scanning their cell phones or filling out forms. What are these forms?  Did I miss something? I ask. No, that’s for after you’ve been assigned to a jury.  The form looks like it goes on forever.  And only one chair in the entire room has a desk arm.

I am on Panel 47B. An announcement comes. 47B is called to the third floor.

We are seated in the courtroom.  We rise for the judge, a young-ish woman with brown hair flowing over her robe.  We rise to swear to do our best.  The defendant and his attorney rise and take off their masks to greet the prospective jurors. They both sport conservative suits and ties.  The defendant, a large, square shouldered guy, smiles at us – he has perfect teeth.  A charmer.  The DA also rises maskless, a woman in an un-challenging beige suit.

The judge read the charges against the defendant:  six counts of sexual aggression, forcible rape, sodomy….

I haven’t thought about it for years.  When I was eleven years old, my father out of town, my mother at a meeting, she arranged for me to go to and from my dancing class via taxi. The driver had dark curly hair and a pock-marked face. Molestation is the word we have for it now. No rape, but still mystifying and terrifying to my young self. 

The judge said “This trial will probably last for five weeks. If you can plead a hardship, you may be excused.”  She read the reasons which would justify hardship. Being uncomfortable with the subject matter is no excuse.

Happily, my husband and I have a long-deferred travel planned, which is non-refundable.  I have been allowed a deferral until mid-summer. I’m hoping that my civic duty at that time will involve only some financial malfeasance, and will evoke no nightmares.

Freeway Free in CA: Travels with @rchy

My sister M has christened her teardrop trailer “@rchy” a triple pun referencing its curvilinear shape, the name of the manufacturer (t@g) and its resemblance to a classic VW bug, hence the association with Don Marquis’ classic literary cockroach.  The Subaru Forester which tows the trailer is, of course, “Mehitabel”.

For my Christmas present this year M promised me two expeditions with @rchy, one short, to a local state park, and one longer, to visit our brother in the Northwest. We set a tentative date in March, and then let it drift, until M went online in January and discovered that there were  NO open campsites anywhere within 100 miles of us in the month of March.  It seem that everyone in California at the same time got sick of staying indoors fearing Covid-19 and decided that outdoor camping is the logical healthy alternative – outdoors, campsites socially distanced – suddenly this is the hot thing to do.

Fortunately, M is tech savvy, and found an app which would alert her to any cancellations at her desired locations in the desired time frame.  So in the third week of March we found ourselves outward bound for Pfeiffer Big Sur Campground – not our first choice destination, but within easy striking distance of my house as a base.

Of course, my Personal Travel Agent was quite discomfited at being left out of this ladies’ outing (@rchy only sleeps two) but he made himself as useful as possible by suggesting menus, precooking our dinner for the first night, and providing maps, hiking suggestions, and special cooking utensils.

If Martha Stewart were camping…

We pulled into our camp site just after 2PM, the earliest we could check in. It took less than an hour to set up camp, complete with a carpeted “kitchen” with two work surfaces and a storage cupboard, a carpeted “living room” with mini-fireplace, chairs, and snack table,and a “dining room” with tablecloth, matching dinnerware, and a candle.  M does not believe in roughing it.

Besides the many advantages of having your tent, clothing storage, and kitchen all self-contained in one aluminum cocoon, @rchy offers the additional benefit of being a social magnet. There were at least three other t@g trailers within a few campsites of ours, and fellow t@ggers needed no encouragement to give a tour of the modifications and special storage features each had added to their tow-along pet.

We had been a bit wary of Pfeiffer Big Sur for camping as several years ago a major wildfire had burned through the park, closing many trails and destroying many vistas. But the latest news from the site had assured us that trails were open and recovery from the fires is well under way.

Coming next: Freeway Free in our Hiking Boots!

Freeway Free at Lake Tahoe: Besides Skiing…

Hiking boots still damp [See two posts ago] we decided ice skating would be the best option for an afternoon. . C started phoning.  One place had a disconnected phone – probably not an option.  We decided to check out the outdoor rink at Heavenly Village. 

HV is a skier’s Disneyland.  The gondolas leave from the middle of a pseudo alpine village with outdoor musicians, an ice-covered fountain, and various boutique shoppes and eateries.  But the rink was dinky – smaller than the San Jose rink beneath the palms.  so we tried Edgewood Lodge – sorry, not open to public. then the inside south Tahoe city Ice rink – reserved for hockey team practice and lessons except for Th-Sun. c thinks she might go on Friday when she is here alone – she brought her skates!

We were inspired, though, by the sign showing where those gondolas ended up – far up the mountain and on the other side of the ridge was the true Heavenly Valley. So we drove up the Kingman Grade (N-207) to HeavenlySki Resort. The gondola that goes up from the Village on US50 ends at a cluster of condos and cabins surrounding a take off point for several busy ski runs. This is literally another side of the Tahoe area, invisible from the Lake.  We were hoping for some impressive lake views, but too many trees.

Nowhere to walk in the resort unless you were carrying skis over your shoulder on the way to one of the lifts, so we descended the Kingman Grade again, parked next to HWY 50, and took a walk along the South Tahoe bike way, then went down to the snow-covered beach and made our way back to our car.  As we returned the sky turned blazing peach and pink and purple, celebrating our explorations.  You can always count on Lake Tahoe to take your breath away, one way or another.



A Piece of My Mind: Hallowed Ground?

Louisiana Monument

A Millennial friend of mine, touring the Gettysburg battlefield, asked “Why are there all these memorials glorifying people who fought for such a terrible cause?”  It was a question I had never considered despite many visits to the battlefield. 

Yes, Gettysburg is a historical site. Yes, the statues and memorials mark where generals actually stood and watched the battle, where particular battalions fought, and what contribution they made to the course of the battle.  Some of the Confederate monuments, such as the one designed by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mr. Rushmore, have artistic merit in themselves. But some are cringe-worthy.

The scripture on the Mississippi monument, for example:

            On this ground our brave sires fought for their righteous cause; In glory they sleep who give to it their lives

Who can read this today without gritting their teeth?

Mississippi monument

“I read that most of these Confederate monuments were put up in the 30’s at the height of the Jim Crow era, funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy,” my Millennial continued.  “What kind of euphemistic name is that?  If they called themselves “Daughters of Slaveholders”, would they have been allowed to put up monuments in a national park?  Does Germany put up battlefield monuments funded by Daughters of Nazis?”

My Millenial friend went on to wonder “Why is the monument to General Lee the largest on the battlefield?  He was supposed to have been such a great strategist, yet he sent his army to attack a stronger force in a fortified position uphill.  I’m told the professors at West Point use Lee at Gettysburg as a textbook example of what not to do strategically.

“Why does he get a giant statue when he basically did what Tennyson condemned in “Charge of the Light Brigade,” sending his forces into withering artillery fire in the Valley of Death?  Only there were a lot more than six hundred who died for his hubris. And Longsteeet – the only general who had the guts to stand up to Lee and tell him the charge was a bad idea – he only gets a 1/4 life- size statue hidden away from the street in a thicket.”

Virginia Monument

I tried to answer.  “Lee was supposed to be the best general in the Army at the time.  He was offered the leadership of the Union Army and agonized over turning it down. His uncle signed the Declaration of Independence. He symbolized the agony of having to decide between Country and State loyalties.”

“Yes, I know he graduated at the top of his class from West Point,” countered my Millennial. “But what did he learn, except to believe his own hype? He betrayed the oath he took at West Point when he defected to the Secessionists.   Yes, he was descended from Revolutionary War aristocracy.  But he was a still a slave holder, and defended slavery.

My millennial friend went on to ask “Why set aside all this land to commemorate warfare and dying?  The National Military Cemetery and the monument to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address up on Cemetery Ridge say everything one would want to say about the men and boys who died to eliminate slavery in the US and to keep the country together.  The cemetery is what Lincoln called “hallowed ground”, not the battlefield.   These Matthew Brady photos of dead soldiers at Devil’s Den, and the informative signs about the Bloody Angle and the Slaughter Pen –  it’s like a theme park for carnage.”

Confederate sharp shooter at Devil’s Den

We continued along Confederate Avenue, then drove across the valley to the sites of the Union lines from Little Round Top down to Cemetery Ridge.  I was trying to think of a good counter to my Millennial friend.  I’m still working on it.

A Piece of My Mind: The Oreo Epidemic

You’ve seen them, popping up like mushrooms all over our community.  My husband and I call them “Oreo houses”.  They are typically new construction, often built on spec, with  the “For Sale” sign going up as soon as the lollipop trees are in the ground.  They are painted stark white, almost always with matte black trim, the color scheme of an Oreo cookie.  

Often the Oreo house will have board and batten siding, so that the shadows of the battens relieve the starkness of the white.  The roof is usually gray metal.  Sometimes the Oreo house will have touches of natural wood – maybe the garage door and the front door.  Sometimes a facing of gray rock adds additional texture.   

When I first spotted an Oreo house, maybe back at the beginning of the pandemic, I thought it a strange color scheme.  Don’t they know that stark white will show every speck of dirt?  And every trail of rust or moss from a downspout?  And that the white paint will yellow in the sun? The black trim was such a harsh contrast.  And the black front door – so unwelcoming.  I shrugged mentally and thought “Each to his own taste. No more unusual than the lavender house with pink trim up on Los Altos Avenue, or the purple house with the stainless steel door on El Monte.”   

But then I saw another one.  And another. Now almost every residential street in town has at least one Oreo house. Furthermore, the decor seems to be contagious. Traditional ranch houses from the 50’s suddenly have their used brick painted over in stark white, with matte black shutters and window trim.  Even the handsome 1920’s Prairie School home with its outbuildings taking up a double lot down from the high school has, between one of my trips to downtown and another, been painted stark white. 

 The venerable historic train station (now a restaurant) has changed its adobe /redwood color scheme colors to Oreo. And at the south end of town, the contagion has swept across an entire shopping center. 

As many of our children are being forced to emigrate to more affordable housing in Texas and Idaho, are these ghostly white houses an omen of our future as a ghost town? 

There is hope.  An otherwise completely Oreo house on one of our main streets sports a bright blue roof instead of the common gray or black. If I could only spot one with a red door….  

Something Different: a Physics lesson on race-car driving (Guest post)

“What?” you say? Am I in the right blog? Yes you are – it’s all about the connections!

My grandson, Chance Reilly Johnson conceived, execute, and edited this one-minute video as an entry in a national contest. (Challenge: Concoct a 1-minute video illustrating something counter-intuitive in physics. He chose “steer right to turn left” – you know about this if you saw the movie “Cars”!

The top 100 entries with the most views will be considered for a Major Award. Chance is up against grownups and influencers with loads of web followers. Click away! and you might even find this useful if you ever happen to be speeding around a tight curve.

Free Freeway into San Francisco

A friend invited me to visit for a few days at her time share in San Francisco, so of course I accepted with alacrity the opportunity to look at different walls and a different neighborhood. The time share was located at the Worldmark by Wyndham, right in the middle of Dashiell Hammett country, around the corner from where [Spoiler Alert!] Brigid O’Shaunessy killed Miles Archer in “The Maltese Falcon” (the movie scenes showing Humphrey Bogart striding past the hotel play in an unending loop in the lobby).

Getting into San Francisco was unexpectedly easy. I can’t get used to the lack of traffic on a summer afternoon going into the City (and maybe I’d better not get used to it – how long can it last?) I breezed up the scenic 280, cut over at the airport connector, scarcely touched the brakes on the Bayshore, cut over on 280 again past the ball parks, took one left at 3rd, a second left at Bush, and I was beckoned into the Sutter-Stockton garage directly across from the hotel. Wow!

Note to out-of-towners: Even the municipal parking garages in San Francisco will seem outrageously expensive to you coming from anywhere else but maybe New York and Washington DC. Best to come into the city by train or BART or shuttle and rely on the excellent (even during COVID-19 conditions) public transit system. If you have to come by car, plan your activities so that you can leave the car in the garage one day, using public transit to get around, and go all the places the buses don’t go on the same day without re-entering the garage until you are done. Every in and out costs $4, while a full day maxes at $44.

View of Sutter/Stockton Garage top floors – empty even in tourist season!

A Piece of My Mind: Groundhog Day? Groundhog Decade?

It’s become a cliché to compare living in the year of COVID-19 lockdown to the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray’s character is doomed to relive the same day over and over until he gets it right.  I’ve certainly had that feeling, as Laundry Day seems to come around faster and faster, and the only difference from week to week is what color sheets I put on the bed.  

But hey!  We’re getting through it, right?  I’ve been waiting for the New Normal for a while now, with the anticipation of looking forward, rather than looking back at How Things Used to Be.  But this week I had an unsettling discovery which challenges that anticipation.  

Like many people, I keep a stack of unread magazines in the bathroom which I am going to get around to reading sooner or later. During lockdown, I made a lot of progress.  This week, near the bottom of the unread magazine pile I found an issue of Time from summer, five years ago.   

There was a two-page photo spread showing a scorched playground swing among the smoky ruins of a school, one of at least 2400 homes and businesses in a community destroyed by a wildfire. 

A lead article talked about how to achieve equity and inclusion for black students at colleges and universities, using the line “Black Students Matter”.  

Another article featured edible cutlery as a way to keep plastic waste out of landfills. 

An op-ed article discussed how to help your children interact with and understand artificial intelligence. 

A second op-ed article worried about how the aging of the Baby Boomers would impact our society, especially if they are siloed in retirement communities and lose engagement with their communities. 

The lead articles discussed the need to reform our tax system in order to narrow the wealth gap and the lack of political will to address our crumbling transportation systems.  The entertainment section featured an article on the retreat of movie and television drama into endless fantasies where magic and superpowers prevail over reality.  

In short, if you changed a few political names, updated the titles of the books, movies, and TV shows, and overlooked the lack of mention of pandemics, there was almost nothing in the magazine that couldn’t have been written this week.  I have the horrible suspicion that once I am out of lockdown, the New Normal could just be 2016 over and over again, until we get it right.  

There are still a few magazines in my pile, even older than the copy of Time from 2016. I’m going to wait a bit before I look at them, though.  If we are stuck in a Groundhog Decade, I don’t think I want to know. 

Freeway Free in Texas: Take Me Home From the Ball Game

          It’s 6:30 am and we are off to Kyle (touted by Wikipedia as the fastest-growing town in Texas, which also makes it a strong candidate for the ugliest – lots of big box stores and pop-up housing.) My nephew’s team, the Texas Gunners, will be playing the Triple Play in the Battle of the Basement. (Winners get to sleep in. Losers play at 8:30, and the team meets for warm-ups an hour earlier) The Gunners have beaten Triple Play in two previous games but we must not be overconfident.

          We arrive at the ball park.  My nephew and brother stride off toward the dugout with the duffel bag full of gear.  My sister-in-law and I note the rain spangling against the windshield and decide to huddle in the SUV for a few minutes longer.

          Twenty minutes pass.  The rain is still spatting against the windows, but we unfurl ourselves from the SUV, add a couple of layers of warmth from the back seat stash, and make our way to the bleachers, happily sheltered under a tin roof. The other parents are cuddled in sleeping bags, or afghans, or double layers of fleece. One family has brought a tent, which is pitched under the tin room for added protection.

          First inning.  The wind picks up. And up. The sky grows darker. And darker.  My nephew distinguishes himself as pitcher during the first inning, and the second.  Rain continues. Wind increases.  25 mph, says the weather app on my smartphone.  It is now the third inning, and my nephew’s  pitches are getting wilder.

          “Will the game be called on account of rain?” I ask my brother through chattering teeth.

          “Nah.  Only if there’s lightning. If there’s lightning they have to stop and wait for a half hour since the last thunder clap.”

          As if on cue, there is a bright flash of lightning. A long roll of thunder.  The umpires blow their whistles.  The teams retreat to their respective dugouts. The parents shiver beneath their blankets.  The kids seem immune to cold, not even donning their team sweatshirts as they wait out the interval.

          A half hour passes.  No more thunder. The teams resume the field.

          Bad news:  My nephew’s team loses again. They are eliminated from the tournament

          Good news: They don’t have to play again.  We can go home and get warm.

Freeway-Free in Texas: Taking Shelter

 It started to rain rather seriously about 7PM. The wind picked up, too, so we had our supper of sardines and hummus around the table inside shelter, lowered the protective plastic screening to keep out the rain, and settled back into our sardine supper and our books. The rain picked up. The wind picked up. There were flashes of lightning. Rolls of thunder. The intervals between flashes and rolls became shorter and shorter. The rain drummed on the roof.

Suddenly both our cell phones blared an alarm. “TORNADO WARNING – Radar shows storm clouds rotating, Storm centered above Meridian State Park“. Hey, that’s where we are! Then we heard a horn blaring, looked outside, and saw the Rangers’ white truck. The ranger was leaning out the window, shouting “Tornado warning! Go to the shelter!” We grabbed our phones and whatever else occurred to us, and fought our way through wind and rain to the Ladies Room at the end of the refectory building, constructed by the CCC of sturdy limestone blocks. (We had noted the “Storm Shelter” sign on the Women’s rest room earlier, and laughed. Now we were grateful. There was only one other woman there – the park was sparsely populated mid-week during a pandemic. Her nephew was in the adjacent Men’s room, she said. We each pulled out our phones and watched the weather map. I offered around mints which happened to be in my bag, to counteract the sardine supper.  The rain pelted so hard against the small windows that it sounded like hail. The restroom lights flickered. The thunder drummed away at the roof.

After almost an hour the tumult quieted. A ranger knocked on the door. “You can go back to your camp now, ladies. But I might have to roust you out again at 1:00 when the next storm comes through.” W and I went back to our screened cabin and packed our backpacks carefully this time with headlamps, wallets, computers, extra underwear, water bottles, etc. And we were indeed awakened about 1AM with more lightning flashes and thunder rumbles, but the ranger did not come by.

For the rest of the night, we both slept well. In the morning, it was as though the storms had never been. The lake was so placid you could see the reflections of the branches of trees on the opposite shore. The sky was cloudless, an Easter egg blue.We had expected hail damage,but no, it had only been hard-driven rain.  Texas weather.

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