Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Memoir”

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.

Freeway-Free in Texas: Past Presence in Bosque County

The day dawned gray and gloomy, with promise of drizzle to come, but we had planned for some weather, and had an indoor outing in our mental hip pockets (I should say W had planned; I was along for the ride.) After a bracing breakfast of yogurt and tangerines, washed down with hot tea, we headed for Clifton, the county seat of Bosque County, and its Bosque Museum.

As you enter the museum, you pass a small oak tree, with a plaque noting that the tree was planted in 1982 by King Olav V of Norway. It’s amazing to think that European royalty made a pilgrimage to this area in honor of its early Norwegian settlers. A section of the museum is devoted to this colony of Norwegians, and features charming displays of furniture and other artifacts which were crafted by these early settlers.

Near the entry lobby of the museum is an animatronic recreation of county resident Al Redder, an amateur archaeologist who in 1967 suspected that a cave overlooking the Brazos River on his ranch might harbor some traces of earlier settlements. After carefully marking off and mapping the site according to the requirements of a proper archaeological dig, he began excavation. He found signs of camps by several different Indian tribes who had passed through the area, and he kept going. More artifacts surfaced. And more. Finally, 14 feet down, he found bones, those of a 40ish man and a young girl, buried together, both in fetal position, and surrounded by traces of jewelry and tools. It turned out that these were the second oldest human remains found in North America, and one of only three burial sites that included ritual artifacts. The exhibit chronicling the discovery and its signficance is fascinating.

The third section of the museum is devoted to the “Bosque Seven.” Bosque County has attracted a number of artist who specialize in Western themes and landscapes, and a large room is devoted to examples of their work. I’m not one who would hang a painting of a roundup in my family room, but some of the landscapes were very lovely.

Following our time in the museum, we explored downtown Clifton. There is the mandatory confection of a courthouse, commons to every county seat in Texas that has not succumbed to Urban Renewal, a Main Street that seems frozen in the 1920’s, including a genuine soda fountain still in business, and the usual stores featuring antiques, collectibles, and souvenirs. W bought a kerosene lamp to have on hand for the next Texas energy emergency. Then back to our shelter, with rain still threatening, we had our midday dinner and settled into a quiet afternoon and evening.

That didn’t last.

Freeway-Free in Texas: Meridian State Park

The Civilian conservation corps created this tiny gem of the Texas state Park System out of nothing in the 1930’s. Most of the work crew were World WAr 1 Veterans. They were given room and board, and $30 a month, of which $25 was sent directly to their families. They diverted insignificant Bee Creek into a catch basin and built the dam which created Lake Meridian. , They hewed blocks from local [graninte?] and built a sturdy Refectory in vaguely Romanesque style, as well as equally sturdy adjacent restrooms. They cleared trails around the lake and up Bee creek and its tributary, LIttle Creek.

The Texas Dept. of Transportation, which for some arcane reasons is in charge of the State Park System, has enhanced and maintained the park beautifully. (I read in the Texas Monthly that the only thing Texans agree that the state should be responsible for is road maintenance, so maybe this arrangement provides more than the usual funding for park projects ). The DOT has added hot water to the restrooms and built a dozen or so screened shelter cabins along the lake front, as well as a pleasant and spacious section for RV’s with water and electric hookups, and several more or less primitive campsite areas around the lake. The lake is stocked with rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, and catfish. In warm weather one can swim in the lake. (In late March we did not try this.)

We arrived at Meridian State Park in the late afternoon and settled into our screened shelter with its 270-degree lake view. The evening was fine, so we set up camp chairs and a cardboard box outside and had a Mediterranean supper of sardines, flatbread crackers, hummus, and cherry tomatoes. As the sun set we scrounged enough twigs and shards of firewood from vacant campsites to have a small fire in the fire pit. (We had not noticed the split oak wood available for sale at the ranger station). The half moon rose so brightly that it intimidated the myriad stars. It seemed there could be no bad news in a world so lovely and quiet.

Life in a Covid-19 Hot Spot – Week 37 – What’s the Point? (LATC 12/9/20)

Setting up for Thanksgiving was difficult this year.  I brought out my late mother-in-law’s harvest-red paisley tablecloth and the bin full of Thanksgiving cornucopias, fake fruit, and fold-out turkeys for decorating the table.  Since we didn’t need to put any leaves in the table, I had to fold the cloth under at both ends to keep it from dragging on the floor, and we only had room for one cornucopia and one turkey.  What’s the point of polishing the silver and setting out my grandmother’s crystal  candleholders if it’s just the two of us?

But the two of us are important.  I realized how thankful I was that I wasn’t eating Thanksgiving dinner alone.  I got out the silver and the candleholders.

The day after  Thanksgiving we usually start decorating for Christmas.   I dragged the artificial tree out of the attic and found the outdoor lights in a box behind them, buried under a year’s worth of odds and ends.  We have this light-stringing business down. The lights are put away in orderly coils labeled “Garage”, “Kitchen Window”, “Front Porch Swags”, “Porch Eaves”, “Living Room Window”.  The cup hooks which hold the strings are painted white to blend with our trim, so they become invisible out of season.  My husband has taken apart my garden shuffle hoe to devise a tool which enables him to lift the strings onto the cup hooks with minimal trips up and down a ladder. This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20201211_164842web.jpg

As we arranged five over-size  lights on the lemon tree in front of our picture window, I mentioned “The only trouble with these big lights is that they block the view of our tree inside from anyone passing by. “

“We don’t do it for the neighbors, we do it for us,” he answered.

Just then our neighbor, who happens to be Jewish, walked by.  “Putting your lights up again!” she called out.  “It always lifts my spirits when I see your lights go up each year!”

“Mine too!” I called back, trying hard not to smirk at my husband.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20181220_170501web-1.jpgThe lights and the tree are for us, but they are also for others.  At least a few times a week during the holiday season I know we will be driving around different neighborhoods looking at holiday light displays. And each  display tells us something. Whether  it is the flickering candles of Dewali,  blue and white lights surrounding a menorah, old-fashioned multi-colored incandescents strung along the eaves, dazzling LED displays zigzagging up and down the tree branches, or even Darth Vader and Yoda wearing Santa hats and battling with red and green light sabers,  someone in this house is reaching out to let us know a little bit about who they are.

In this difficult time of separation, custom and tradition are comforting.  So we will put up our Christmas tree, even though  our four- year- old granddaughter can’t come to help  us decorate it.  I’m hoping someone else’s granddaughter might walk past and see our tree, and that it will make her smile. 

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot – Week 27: Do’s and Don’ts for Skype-ing Story Time

In the Before, I was used to taking a commuter train up to the City, then catching a trolley across town to my son’s apartment, where I would give my son and daughter-in-law a break while spending quality time with my pre-school age grand-daughter. Of course, you can see the Red Flags popping out all over this scenario now. But with pre-schools and offices locked down, the need for a break for the harried parents has been greater than ever.So twice a week we Skype Story Time.

It has taken awhile to get the hang of doing this. First I had to find story books suitable for Skyping. I burned through the collection of books that were left over from my kids much faster than I expected. My kids and my grandchildren had always settled on a favorite book, which they requested again and again. But not being side by side with the child, not being able to share pictures and point out details, meant I could only show the pictures, recite the text and hope that my little audience would stay tuned. I learned to imitate motion by zooming in on part of a picture, then panning out. This helped keep the pre-schooler’s attention, but after three or so readings of “The Box with Red Wheels” she demanded “A new story this time!” and soon it was every time.

I plundered every Little Free Library within a 5-mile radius for children’s books. But the books which end up in the Free Library are NOT the ones which were anyone’s favorites, and my little audience was quick to let me know when she didn’t like a story by burrowing under the couch cushions.

Fortunately, our local libraries hit on a brilliant idea for their limited availability during lockdown: they put together bundles of books – Toddler bundles, Picture Book bundles, Teenage bundles, etc. I could check out ten picture books at a time, a grab bag of possibilities.

I quickly discovered, though, that out of ten books only three or four would really be suitable for my little audience. Alphabet books held no interest. Books with a boy protagonist were less interesting to a little girl. Books designed to increase a child’s vocabulary (e.g. a lot of Richard Scarry) tended to have very weak story lines. And most disappointingly, many books with beautifully detailed illustrations were either too monochromatic or too finely drawn to be seen and understood on a computer screen.

Big hits include classic stories like “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, in editions with large clearly outlined graphics. Babar the Elephant and Curious George are warmly welcomed. Rhyming stories like “I Can Fly”, again with vivid illustrations and a girl protagonist, get repeat requests, as to thee simpler Dr. Seuss readers like “Bears on Wheels” with their goofy illustrations.

So we Skype along. My little audience is fiercely protective of her story time, not allowing Daddy or Mama to attempt any grownup conversation on HER time. And until we find a New Normal, I’ m keeping a list of beautiful picture books for when I can sit down side by side with my little audience again.

Life in a Covid – 19 Hot Spot: Week 26 – The new Normal?

My sons have always gone camping together in September.  The only miss in the last 15 years was the September that the younger son got married.  This year any campground that was not already restricted by COVID-19 was shut down due to wildfires raging through the state and national forests.  What to do?

Solution: Urban camping.  We have a back yard which has a lawn.  Occasionally wildlife (rabbits, possums, raccoons, an occasional coyote pack, an occasional deer) appear unexpectedly.  And we have adjacent foothills so far unscathed by fire.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20200919_095141web-1-e1600887575283.jpgSo we had a family reunion, properly distanced.  The campers set up their tents in the yard (separate tents, properly distanced)  and set off for a 16-mile hike which included a fair segment of asphalt and sidewalks, summited the local peak (Elevation, 2,812 ft) and a stop at a local pub able to serve a cold beer with outside seating.

Cooking out was pretty civilized, using our Smoky Joe for burgers, and sitting around our propane-fueled portable fire pit for after dinner cookies and conversation, six feet or more apart. 

The next morning the guys settled for a breakfast of coffee and French toast made in our kitchen, rather than bacon and biscuits on the camp stove. We ate together on the patio, using single-use plates and napkins and utensils fresh from the dish washer.  

No, it wasn’t the same.  But it was still a slice of wonderful to see and hear my family together in real time, real space.  I’ll take it.

A Piece of my Mind: 100 Years of Expectations

suffrage

A century ago the 19th amendment was ratified by a margin of one vote in the legislature of the 36th of 36 states which were needed for approval.  It’s hard to believe now that the decades-long struggle of women to gain political equality with men was ended by such a narrow margin.  At the time, there were many worries and hopes tied to the prospect of women voting.  Let’s see how it worked out.

An early  argument against giving women the vote was that they would simply vote as directed by their husbands or fathers.  Having grown up in a politically divided house I can personally testify that this is not true.  My mother idolized Franklin Roosevelt;  my father said that “I always vote for the best man, but he always happens to be a Republican.” Our dining room discussions were lively.

Many expected that women would vote in a bloc, with a focus on “women’s issues”, including education, health, religion, and other domestic matters.  But it turns out that women, like men, have differing ideas about what should be done regarding these “women’s issues”, and the bloc melts away in the face of such divisive proposals as unrestricted abortion access,  school busing,  and federal vouchers for private schools.

Some felt that the “gentle sex” was unsuited to the rough-and-tumble world of politics, while others hoped that the feminine influence would calm that world down and make it less hard-edged.  It’s true, as an immediate effect of the addition of women to the voting rolls, polling stations moved out of bars and into churches and schools, making the whole process cleaner and quieter.

But anyone who believes that women politicians are  gentler in negotiation, or more willing to find common ground with the opposition, is invited to sit in on some of our  City Council meetings, with our five women council members as frequently and vocally at odds as any group of men could be.

The long-term consequences of the 19th Amendment are still making themselves known. In the past 100 years women have become more and more visible in public, commercial, and political areas, but there are still many issues which are considered “women’s natural interests” and others where women are viewed as interlopers.

Even in education,traditionally a “woman’s area”, progress for women has been slow. When my mother worked at the local high school in the early 70’s, her appointment as Vice Principal of Curriculum was headlined in the local paper as “First Woman becomes Senior Administrator at LAHS”.  Whenmy sons attended the same high school 20 years later, the school finally appointed its first woman principal.  Twenty-eight years later, the district hired its first woman as superintendent.

The early suffragists recognized that the 19th Amendment fell short in many ways.  It states that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” but it said nothing about giving women equal protection of the laws in other ways.  The Equal Rights Amendment first proposed by early US suffragist Alice Paul in 1923, was finally ratified by Congress in 1972, but has yet to be approved by the required ¾ of state legislatures.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if in three years we could celebrate the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment by actually enacting it?womens-suffrage-gettyimages-514700294

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot: Week 21 – Cutting Closer to the Bone

YosemiteB

LIMITED ACCESS ONLY – PERMIT REQUIRED

I’ve gotten used to the lack of retail therapy as most stores have limited access, and aimless browsing is discouraged.  I’ve gotten used to the empty parking lots around offices, schools, and churches.  I’ve gotten used to meeting friends on ZOOM rather than meeting them for lunch. I’ve gotten used to take-out food rather than white tablecloths at my favorite restaurants. I’ve gotten used to bringing my own folding table and chair when I visit a park.

I put up with cancelling a trip to Europe (my husband’s bad knee wouldn’t have stood the trip anyway), cancelling a long weekend at a hideaway inn to the north, cancelling the family reunion picnic we had scheduled for my milestone birthday this year, cancelling my grandson’s 6th grade graduation, my other grandson’s high school graduation.  My monthly visits to help look after my toddler grand-daughter have morphed to bi-weekly story times on ZOOM.

County Library: Contactless Holds Pickup and Material Return Now Available

KatieSurprisecropI’m just beginning to feel some fraying in the social fabric. My son refused to get together for a mid-point picnic between our homes, as his son and daughter had recently traveled and he couldn’t guarantee they weren’t infectious.  For the same reason my other son canceled a planned joint camping trip with his brother’s family – an infection in his four-room apartment would be a disaster, and he couldn’t risk it. Still not “serious”, no-one is ill, but when families are afraid to meet, that’s wrenching.

On the other hand, my sister and her husband just returned from an expedition to Yosemite.  They were able to obtain a day pass, they set off at an ungodly hour of the mroning, and by 10AM they were beginning the hike up the Mist Trail to the top of Nevada Falls. She said “It was like I remember from my childhood – no shuttle buses, but not so many people, and no crowding on the trails.  We picnicked at the top of Vernal Falls and dangled our feet in the pool beyond Nevada Falls.  It was lovely.”

Maybe this is the preview of our future: much- curtailed activity and options for most of us, but for the few who are able to maintain their income stream,  travel safely, obtain the right permissions, and keep their health, a rather pleasantly emptied world.  It’s not the future I want.

Yosemite: Ways to Get a Reservation

Four icons for the four permit types

 

On Another Subject: Slippery Words

 

seg4When I was a child, my parents moved us from Palo Alto to a small city of about the same size in the segregated South. (It was a bad move, but that’s another story.) My parents were from a part of the country where you were more likely to see an antelope walking down the street than a person of African descent.  I had to learn some new words, and meanings of words.

There was one word that  could be used on the playground if you were using “Eeeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe” to choose out sides for a game, but if you used it anywhere else around my parents you risked getting your mouth washed out with soap.

There was another word that sounded almost the same but was used only by grownups when they were speaking seriously, and you could almost hear the capital letter when they said it.

The ordinary word used in polite conversation, and on rest room doors, and over water fountains, was “colored.”

Usage of this word to label persons of African descent is now archaic, surviving only, as far as I can tell, in the NAACP, almost never spelled out as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.   The preferred word today is Black, capitalized as though it referred to a geographic region or a nationality.

As a child I had never heard “black” ascribed to a person in conversation, although it was used frequently to describe the natives encountered by the hero of my father’s favorite book, “Tarzan of the Apes.”  In that context it seemed descriptive, not pejorative, although the book itself is indisputably racist to any modern reader.  When “black” first came into common usage to describe people back in the 60’s, it sounded rude to me, as would using “red” to describe a person descended from pre-Columbian Americans, or “yellow” to describe a person of Chinese descent.

nomexWhich leads to that awkward expression “person of color.”  Since “colored” historically referred to those people now called “Black”, a new term was needed which would be more inclusive of people who are not of European descent and appearance. This includes those formerly called “Indians” who are now “Indigenous”, also capitalized.  It also includes people originating from south of the US border who were  “Mexicans” or “Spanish” in my youth, and then became  “Hispanics”.  This word has now been discarded as being too deferential to the genocidal Conquistadores.  “Latino” was used next, but this word recently has been interpreted as sexist and supplanted by “Latinx”.

Mysteriously, “Persons of color” does not seem to refer to people of Asian descent.  Somehow they seem to have escaped the baggage associated with having endured prejudice, poverty, and exclusion which other immigrants have carried for generations.  But I am entering a minefield, I know.  Tomorrow may bring some new terms, some new usage, and all I have written here may be outdated and even shameful.  Language is slippery, and morphs without notification.

Maybe we should all just call each other by our names.

Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot: Week 19 – Revisiting a Blast from the Past

tarzan_jumpdocYears ago, my father used to say “Everything I know about life I learned from  Tarzan of the Apes.” Although some tattered Tarzan paperbacks were around the house, somehow I never got around to reading them, though my kid sister read the series avidly.  Some time back I mentioned this family story to my husband, and as a gag gift at Christmas he gave me the first four books of the series.  They sat on my bookshelf untouched until four months into lockdown.  With all libraries closed and the neighborhood Little Free Libraries exhausted, I turned in desperation  to the Lord of the Jungle for escape.

Fortunately, I was able to remember that my father was laughing when he claimed Tarzan as his literary preceptor.  The book was published in 1912, and by today’s standards is offensively racist, with its portrayals of black Africans as vicious and cowardly: sexist, with its portrayals of Jane Porter and other women as helpless creatures instinctively drawn to the alpha male; and even animalist – Jane Goodall would shudder at the way Burroughs describes the life and traits of the Great Apes.TarzanJanedoc

If you can overlook the above offensiveness, the story can suck you in.  Tarzan’s birth, adoption by the apes, upbringing, and his discovery by other white men are ingeniously plotted (though Burroughs probably owes a lot to Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli of The Jungle Book). The first volume, Tarzan of the Apes, takes our hero through the events of the above paragraph, terminating with his unselfish refusal to claim either his title of Lord Greystoke or the woman he loves from the hands of the man, his friend, who has  taken both.

Tarzan2Of course, we couldn’t leave it there.  The second volume, The Return of Tarzan, sees Tarzan transformed into a 1912 version of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher: handsome, well-spoken, without ties, and able to fend off an adoring female or fight off  a dozen malefactors without suffering a scratch. I’m about half-way through this volume, but I’m pretty sure that Tarzan’s true love Jane Porter will end up in his arms by the end.  After all, I still have Son of Tarzan and Tarzan the Untamed waiting on the shelf, and I’m pretty sure Tarzan didn’t get it on with any of the apes.

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