Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “Memoir”

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.

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.

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