Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “TOWN CRIER”

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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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.

 

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. 

 

 

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.

 

 

Opportunity Knocks Again (Los Altos Town Crier, November 1, 2017)

Some decades ago I was a stay-at-home Mom, but planning to return to work as soon as my toddlers became primary schoolers.  However, the teaching career I had prepared for was undergoing a slump – the baby boom had become the baby bust, and schools were closing all around. I decided to get re-educated.  Fortunately, at that time even a single-income family could afford the $5/unit fee for community college.

The local community college offered a special certification as a medical translator, which appealed to me as it offered a decent work environment,  and an element of helping people.  But the course presumed a knowledge of basic Spanish greater than I had picked up as a kid on the playground .  Learning medical vocabulary wasn’t going to be very helpful if I was ignorant of how to fit the words into sentences.   Scratch that idea.

A different branch of the junior college system offered a certification as a para-legal.  Again, this seemed to offer a good working environment, etc., so I signed up.  I enjoyed the courses on legal procedure and the structure of the court system and blazed through the curriculum until I got to the course on legal research.  I told my counsellor “Spending so much time in the stacks of the legal library sounds boring. I’m more of a people person.  Is this course  really a requirement?” 

“Actually,” she replied, “if you become a para-legal that’s what you will spend 90% of your time doing.”  Scratch that idea.

My father had always regretted having to drop out of Harvard Business School, and he suggested I go for an MBA.  Of course, I would need to take some basic business courses before applying to biz school, and again I turned to the local 2-year colleges.  I polished off a couple of basic accounting courses, a very useful course on tax accounting, and a couple of entry-level computer programming courses in Fortran and COBOL. 

My kids by now were almost ready for K-6 schooling,  and I felt I really needed to get a job. I saw a “Help Wanted” ad in my local news weekly  for a “Part-time job, could lead to full time.  Ideal for someone returning to work world.  Knowledge of basic accounting, income tax preparation, basic  COBOL computer programming all big pluses.”  This job as marketing manager for a small income-tax software company was tailor-made for me and my recent slate of community college courses.

So it wasn’t my two degrees from a prestigious private college that launched my successful 30-year career in tech sales and marketing, but rather my third stab at a vocational certificate through my local 2-year college. 

Over the years I have taken a number of other community college courses, and been dismayed at how the cost per unit has escalated as the system struggles with loss of property tax revenue.  How could someone like me afford two false starts at CC before finally finding the right niche, when the cost of a single course was in triple digits?

That’s why I was excited to read that as of October 13, 2017 California is joining New York and Rhode Island in making the first year of community college tuition-free for residents who are full-time students.  Although I personally won’t  qualify for this opportunity, it definitely will open doors for people who are in the situation I occupied all those years back.

Per an article in our local paper, our local   community college  district is already  preparing to implement and augment this opportunity with a College Promise program offering  supplementary assistance for costs of textbooks and transportation for high school students enrolling at the JC for college credit.   If you are a high school student, or know a high school student, or are simply interested in the latest frontiers of education, and you are looking for ways to control the cost of a college degree,  take a peek through this open door.

 

 

Freeway Free in California: a New Point of View on Silicon Valley (Los Altos Town Crier October 4, 2017)

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For years the inscrutable gray monolith  had loomed over us from the summit of the forbidden mountain.  Now the curse has been lifted, the prohibition ended – how could we not hurry to visit the newly opened summit of Mt. Umunhum?

When I moved to the Peninsula  Mt. Umunhum was an off-limits Air Force Base, directing the surveillance of the wasp-tailed submarine chasers flying out of Moffett Field.  With the end of the Cold War the summit with its surroundings was purchased by the Mid-Peninsula Open Space Trust (Midpen) , but it was still off-limits, poisoned by toxic waste left from its radar and other installations. The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged the radar tower, making the location still more hazardous. 

20170921_112932webThen a controversy prompted action. In 2009 Midpen obtained Federal funding to clean up the site, and one of its first ideas was to tear down the remains of the radar tower and restore the site to its pristine pre-Cold War state.  Valley residents erupted with letters and meetings – the tower was ugly and dilapidated, but it was an icon none the less, part of the Valley’s landscape and history for 60 years, and we didn’t want it to disappear without ever having had the chance to visit it. 

Midpen back-pedaled, but the residents were now energized.  We passed a bond measure which enabled the site to become a destination, with paved access roads, parking, restrooms, and all the other amenities expected of a public park.  And in September of this year the gates were opened.

Exalted Personages were there on the first day to cut ribbons and make speeches.  But on a weekday of the following week, we made the trip, feeling like pioneers as we drove up and down Hicks Road into an area of San Jose we had never visited before. Finally we reached a STOP sign, and on the right the gate to the newly opened park, now christened “Sierra Azul Preserve”- the blue mountain range.

The wiggly black arrows on the yellow signs are not to be ignored;  this is a seriously winding and steep road, requiring downshifting to second gear both coming and going. But as we ascended, our conversation went roughly

                Me: “Oh, Wow!

                Him: “I can’t look!”

as the views of valley, mountains, and ocean began to come in sight. 20170921_113257doc

At the top, the view expands from a misty Mt. Tamalpais in the north well past Morgan Hill to the south, from Mt. Diablo and Mt. Hamilton to the east to the gleaming ocean west of Santa Cruz.  Far below are the toy skyscrapers of down-town San Jose, the parquet of roof-tops carpeting the suburbs, the tiny white pyramids of the Shoreline Amphitheatre, the blue Lexington and Almaden reservoirs, and miles and miles of woodland and pasture and empty air.  Everything human-made looks extremely small and insignificant. 

Everything, that is, except the tower, looming now right next to us, still inscrutable, and still closed to public access.  

 The park service has added a lot of informational signs about the mountain’s history. (The name, by the way, is an Ohlone word meaning “resting place of the hummingbird.”) 

Some pointers if you go:

·         It takes about an hour from Los Altos to get to the summit parking lot.

·         Dress in layers;  at the summit it was 20 degrees cooler than in the Valley. 

·         The road is narrow, turnouts rare, guard rails incomplete, lots of blind curves.  Take it slow.

·         Watch out for bikers coming and going.  This new mountain road is a biker magnet, and the shoulders are narrow to non-existent.

·         Parking at the very top is reserved for handicapped.  There is a circle to drop people off, but unless you have a blue tag park below the summit at the restrooms. 

·         There are 159 steps to the summit, punctuated by frequent landings with benches where you can sit, admire the views, and catch your breath.

·         There are two picnic tables under a shelter just below the parking lot.

                ENJOY!

 

 

Summer Camp Season (Los Altos Town Crier, Sept. 6, 2017)

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Whenever my summer wanderings take me over to the beautiful sandstone and terra-cotta university campus up the road, I marvel at the multiplicity of signs directing me to this or that summer camp.  There always seem to be squadrons of T-shirted campers on the move, being directed this way and that by polo- shirted counselors, all wearing color-coded lanyards and nametags to make sure they are getting all the perks, and none but the perks, to which their campership entitles them.

When I was in my pre-teens, camp was different.

For one thing, we didn’t wear lanyards, we made them. At the mandatory craft class, the one project you could be almost sure of finishing was the one involving braiding long brightly-colored strips of plastic into keychains and whistle cord.  We could do spiral or diamond pattern for the cords, round or square for the sliders.  We could make keychains from four strand, six-strand, or even eight-strand braids, using school colors, or Day-Glo, or even glow-in-the-dark plastic. After two years of Boy Scout and Camp Fire Girl camp, my parents, near relatives, and most of my teachers were all supplied with all the whistle holders they would ever need.lanyard

For another thing, although our camps were plain vanilla when it came to skin color, they were quite diverse in subject matter.  In one week we got tastes of archery, swimming, sailing, lanyard-making, leather-working, wood-carving, plus campfire building and the songs to sing around them, and skit writing and performing.

The camps up the road are different. The campers are culturally diverse, of all shapes, sizes, sexes, and skin tones. But each camp seems to be focused on  producing mastery in one area alone.  The university sponsors camps for every kind of sport, from Basketball to Water Polo, plus specialized camps of all sorts.  There is the Pre-Collegiate Summer Institute, the Medical Youth Science Program,  the Sports Business Academy, the oxymoronic High School Summer College , and even (for high-school and pre-med students) the Cardiothoracic Surgical Skills Summer Institute. (Sounds like heart-stopping fun!)

In addition  privately sponsored camps offer training in Social Entrepreneurship, Advanced Suzuki Violin, Emergency Medicine, Global Citizenship, Computer Engineering for Girls, Journalism in the Digital Age, English Language Immersion, Performing Arts, Digital Discovery,  and many, many more.

When I was in summer camp, we spent time making up silly songs about our counselors, such as (to the tune of “Pretty Redwing)

                The moon shines tonight on Helen Waller

                If she were taller/ she wouldn’t holler,

                And her old dirty shorts they need a-patchin’

                Where she’s been scratchin’

                                Her chigger bites.

I can’t imagine any silly songs about cardiothoracic surgery, but maybe I’m not trying hard enough.

It happens that the local AAUW branch, to which I belong, sponsors a half-dozen local girls at one of Stanford’s summer camps, one which encourages girls to consider careers in science and technology.  Each August after the Tech Trek camp is over we get thank- you notes from the girls, telling us how much they appreciated the opportunity to learn to code computer games, build hover boards, and do DNA gel electrophoresis.  (I imagine them sitting around a table on the last day, dutifully filling in the blanks in a template as the counselors monitor them. At least that hasn’t changed from when we were “encouraged” to write letters home from camp}. This year’s letters included a blessed hint of silliness; one girl mentioned that she enjoyed an afternoon of fountain-hopping around the campus, as well as a trial of ice-cream making.

Each September we host the scholars at an afternoon meeting where each tells us a bit about the camp.  We will hear about the forensics lab, the robot-building, the rocket launch.  But when it comes to Q&A, I’m planning to ask about the fountain – hopping and the ice cream – there should be some fun left in summer camp!

 

 

 

California Under Fire (Los Altos Town Crier July 8, 2017

Whittier Fire

Ventura County STAR photo

A few weeks ago I drove down to Ojai to visit a cousin and some friends.  East of Los Alamos I took the Cachuma Highwy (CA-154) to avoid the dogleg south on 101 through Buellton, Solvang, Goleta, and along the coast.

My notes describe the cutoff  as “a two lane road with two stop signs and one traffic circle in 40 miles, snaking through beautiful high country along the Chumash Reservoir, which was looking still a bit under filled despite one year of hefty rain after California’s five years of drought. This road is a playground for sports cars, and I had to pull over several times in my sedate 4-cylinder Camry to let a Mustang or Camaro roar by.” I was looking forward to a return trip on the same road, planning to check out the Vista Points overlooking the reservoir and maybe take a rest stop at the little Nature Center near the Boy Scout Camp. CachumaLakeweb

 

The evening before my departure my cousin warned me “Better check your route tomorrow.  The news says a wildfire broke out and Hwy 154 is closed.” 

Google Maps confirmed the closure the next morning, and I took the dog-leg through Goleta.  Beyond the hills behind Santa Barbara I could see the smoke roiling up like a dirty brown thunderhead.  From Santa Barbara to Pismo Beach the valley winds carried the soot from the fire thick enough to make the sky brown from the Coast Range to the ocean.  I aborted my plan of eating lunch on a balcony overlooking the Pacific, and settled for a grab-and-go shopping center sandwich.

All along 101 the fire scars from old and recent burns seemed to jump out of the landscape – blackened hills and leafless trees from summer after summer of drought and burns.  We had had a record-setting wet winter, but I had been warned by a park ranger earlier that the spring growth, now crisped by summer heat in the 100’s, would make any fire even more dangerous.

A day later the headlines in the SJ Merc shouted “Blazes rage across West;  Thousands Evacuated in State.” The fire that still closed CA-154, now dubbed “the Whittier fire” had consumed seventeen thousand acres and was only 5% contained.  The Boy Scout camp had been evacuated in a bull-dozer-led convoy, but the Nature Center was a total loss;  all of the resident animals had died in their cages.  

Two weeks later the Whittier fire had disappeared from the headlines.  I did a quick Google search;  it was still burning, but 85% contained, with a number of structures destroyed but no loss of life. 

I thought of the miles of sun-crisped golden hillsides that line our local freeways, and the thousands of discarded cigarette butts and back-firing cars that threaten to send a spark in the wrong place.  I remember the Oakland firestorm of 1991 which raged up the canyons of the East Bay hills killing twenty-three people, and I cross my fingers.  We still have a long fire season left. 

 

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A 21st Century Visionary (Los Altos Town Crier, July 5, 2017)

StanfordAlaska37_ZachOratingdocOn my travels in June I met a modern-day visionary.  His name is Zachary Brown, he wears rumpled plaid shirts and jeans and hiking boots, and he is the co-founder, executive director, and so far the sole employee of the Inian Islands Institute, a center designed, according to his business card, to provide “Experiential living and learning in the Wilderness of Southeast Alaska”.

Zack was brought up in Alaska, in a little town of 400 people at the northern end of the Alaskan panhandle, surrounded on three sides by Glacier Bay National Park, and on the fourth side by Icy Strait.  Gustavus is accessible only by boat and seaplane.  When, the residents of Gustavus s feel a need to escape the hustle and bustle of town, they go to the Hobbit Hole.

The Hobbit Hole is a homestead nestled on an inlet of Icy Strait, originally a fishing camp, later expanded to accommodate the owner’s family, then the owner’s brother’s family.  One of the wives was a craftsperson, so a pottery studio was added.  A barn evolved into a workshop with a sleeping loft above.  The brothers entertained visitors from the Lower 48.  For a while it was known as the “Pot Hole.”  

As the brothers aged the old nickname lost its relevance, and it was Zack’s mother who suggested that the place be called “the Hobbit Hole.”  The name stuck.  The brothers built a guest house.  Their wives maintained a garden and a lawn.   Folks from Gustavus became used to holding special events there, or spending a weekend in one of the guest rooms.

Then while Zack was working on a PhD in Earth and Environmental Sciences at Stanford, he heard that the Hobbit Hole was for sale.  The brothers were retiring.  And he had a vision. He could buy the property and set up a hands –on field study center, focused on sustainable living, renewable energy, locally grown food.   But how could he convince others – and himself – that this crazy idea could work?  Maybe he’d have to do something else crazy first.

 On the day he graduated with his PhD, Zack set out from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences building at Stanford and began to walk north. He walked from Stanford to Port Angles, Washington, camping each night.  In San Bruno he was almost arrested for vagrancy, but agreed to leave town and camp elwwhere.  Along the way he was offered many a ride, but turned them down, though he accepted the occasional offer of a cold beer instead.  When he got to Port Angeles 55 days and over 1000 miles later, he bought a kayak.

From Port Angeles, he paddled to Gustavus, another 900 miles. Along the way from Palo Alto, he had talked to hundreds of people about his vision for the Hobbit Hole.  Each time he told about it, the vision became a bit more real, a bit more doable.  And each conversation yielded at least one more potential supporter.

Three years later, Zack and his partners have obtained two major foundation grants.  They hope to complete the contract for purchase of the Hobbit Hole in February of 2018.  Meanwhile the Howe brothers have allowed them to hold seminars, yoga camps,  and work parties at the site.  They have also hosted two sessions of Stanford Sophomore College, and entertained visitors from expeditions sponsored by Yale and Stanford Travel. P1030646web

I was on the Stanford expedition, and the visit to the  Hobbit Hole as one of the highlights of our trip.  It was a mostly sunny day, only a brief spatter of rain, as we pulled into the dock next to a rack of kayaks, including Zack’s trip veteran.  The gardens included blooming daisies, forget-me-nots, and marigolds, as well as lots of edible Alaskan native plants.  Zack showed off the workshop, the pottery studio, the hydro-power station.  And he led us through the woods to a moss-crusted concrete pillar marking the deaths of two people, possibly a mother and son, possibly Tlingit.  The site was a Tlingit fishing camp long before Alaska had a name.

We were two thousand miles from Silicon Valley, where life seems dependent on ever-more-complex technology.  It was amazing to be in a place and with people where life is dependent on a water wheel, a garden, and a storehouse deep in the ground which never warms up.  And exciting to know that our country is still big enough to allow young men to dream dreams and have visions.StanfordAlaska47_HobbitHoledoc

 

A Piece of My Mind: Lost in the Cloud (Los Altos Town Crier April 2017)

20170529_150515docI have been doing what amounts to an archaeological dig at the home my parents occupied for 60 years.  It seems as though every drawer I open, every closet shelf I clear holds traces of the life my parents led starting long before the time I began to exist. I am learning a lot about the people who raised me and how they became who they are. And I am also learning how much I can never know.

When my nephews cleaned out the loft in the garage they brought down boxes of heirloom china and heirloom linens and old tax returns and my mother’s scrapbooks from high school and college, beginning with birthday cards she received when she was seven years old from her father and the grandmother on her father’s side.20170529_150532doc

Now here is the interesting thing:  according to the stories about her childhood told by my mother, she had only fitful contact with her father after her parents were divorced.  Yet the scrapbook contains gift cards for birthday and Christmas from “Daddy” dated for seven un-interrupted years.  And there is nothing else in the scrapbook from those seven years except the gift cards. Then they quit. The scrapbooks contains all sorts of high school mementoes, but no gift cards signed “Love, Daddy.” My guess is that my mother kept and cherished the cards from her childhood until she started the scrapbook in high school. But at that point, did the cards and gifts stop coming? Did she turn against her father and grandmother and reject the presents?  If only I had found the scrapbooks before my mother’s death, so she could tell me more of that story.  But at least I have some of it, thanks to the paper record.

20170529_151829webWhen my sister was putting together a slide show to display at our mother’s memorial, she discovered that there were almost no pictures of her or our younger brother after the ages of seven and five, respectively. She figured out the problem – at that point in the late 50’s or early 60’s, my father  switched to slide film.  Stored in the hall closet are at least a dozen slide carousels, each holding 100 slide transparencies. But who has the technology or the patience to sort through over a thousand slides in this digital age? Even the one shop on the Peninsula which once offered a service of switching analog slides to digital has closed its doors.

This gap in the record caused by lost technology has given me pause.  I have ten years’ worth of photos on my computer at this moment downloaded from various digital cameras, plus another thousand or so backed up from my phone onto Google Photos somewhere in the cloud.  But what will happen to those photos when I am gone?  Will anyone back up my computer before trashing it as obsolete? Will the photos continue to float around as little electronic bursts of static in the digital cloud forever, waiting for someone with the correct user name and password to unlock them again?

I did feel  that I had attained some measure of immortality due to my long relationship with the Los Altos Town Crier.  When I first started writing this column some years back, I searched the archive and found that the good old Crier had preserved mentions of me dating back to when I received an Outstanding Student Award in high school.  At least that part of me would survive.

But to my consternation, when I recently wished to check a date in my personal LATC archive, I found that the Crier is economizing, and  now only the most recent three years of the Life of Allyson can be accessed.  I guess there are only so many gigabytes in the cloud after all.

Fortunately, “scrapbooking” is back in style. When I am gone, the archaeologists will find the scrapbooks from my elementary, high school, and college years encased in plastic storage bins in the attic.  And the deep file drawer in the upstairs desk contains a newsprint copy of every single piece I have published in the Town Crier. I won’t be lost in the cloud, because I’m leaving a paper trail.20170529_152047doc

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