Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “TOWN CRIER”

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.

 

 

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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

A Piece of my Mind: Things My Mother Said to Me (Los Altos Town Crier – April 5, 2017)

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  “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”

But also: [Of a small tear or a crooked seam on a dress].  “It’ll never show on a galloping horse”

 “What did Thumper say?” [It was actually Thumper’s mother in “Bambi” who said “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”]

“ If you ever say that word again I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap!”

 “I grew up in a house with no men -my widowed grandmother, my widowed Aunt Em and her daughter, my divorced mother, and me.  When I got married I didn’t know anything. I used to go in and watch your father shave. It was thrilling!” 

“Aunt Em always said: ‘Never ask a question that can be answered by a number.’”

“My grandmother and my Aunt Em had always done all the cooking.  I barely knew how to boil water.  Your father had to teach me how to cook. “

“Everything I knew about being married I learned from the “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” articles in the Ladies’ Home Journal. Everything your father knew about being married he learned from the Boy Scout Handbook.  Somehow we did all right.”

“Your father would take any job offer as an opportunity.  I never had any security – never!  until I got my first teaching job.  Mac never said no to an offer; I never said no to him – I was such a doormat.”

  [On the age gap between my younger siblings and me]” We had our family all set. One boy, one girl.  Then we moved to East Texas and there wasn’t much else to do.”

 “It’s not so much whether your child is ready to do something; it’s whether you’re ready to let him.”

 “I didn’t care so much about being the first to do something.  But I wanted to be the best. Well, actually, I liked being first too.”

“One of the worst things about being a widow is that you are not #1 with anyone anymore.”

“If you’re going to be famous, Allyson, don’t wait until it’s too late for me to enjoy it.”

 [About the visions which began appearing after cataract surgery] “I know they’re not real, but they’re a lot more interesting than my reality these days.”

 “Mac [dead 20 years earlier] comes and stands by the bed at night, but he never says anything to me.  Do you think he is angry with me?”

“Promise you won’t give up on me, Allyson.”

[As I was helping her walk from her chair in my living room to the dining room table] “They didn’t tell me it would be so long. “

                Me, thinking she meant the distance to her dinner:  “It’s the same distance it’s always been.”

                Mom: “No, I meant old age.”

[While living at  her home of 60 years with 24/7 care] “Shouldn’t there be a pill I could take now to get all this over with?”

[Near the end of her life and memory] “I was looking forward to moving, but I can’t decide between moving in with Aunt Em or with Mother.”

“Are you a patient here too, or are you one of the staff?”

“Am I going home tonight?”

My mother died in her own bed a week later. P1040062

A Piece of My Mind: Could Local Lucre Grease our Wheels? (Los Altos Town Crier March 1, 2017)

P1050177cropI am a big fan of public transit, taking the train regularly to Sacramento and San Francisco to visit family, taking BART to the Symphony or to museums in San Francisco, riding Light Rail and Muni in San Jose and San Francisco.  But I am somewhat reluctant to recommend these services to some of my more fastidious friends, since CalTrain and BART in particular are more than a little grungy.

In the past 20 years I have traveled on public transit systems made similar to BART, and have seen cars and stations in Taipei, Atlanta, and Washington DC get upgrade after upgrade.  In the same period of time nothing has happened to BART, except that the forty-year-old cars have gotten dirtier, smellier, and more worn.  The windows have become so scratched that it is almost impossible to read the signage at each station (especially since very few of the station signs are lighted) and there has never been any interior electronic signage to tell where you are.  And the rails have become noisier and noisier, to the point where going around a bend in a tunnel is now acutely painful to the ears.  The noise is so intense that any on-board announcements are completely indecipherable.  When I take BART to San Francisco, I wear earplugs. 

So why can’t we update BART as often as Taipei updates its MRT?  Of course, we have an absurd idea that public transportation should be self-supporting, and with fares kept low there is little money for upgrades and maintenance.  Yet there are other public services that do not pretend to be self-supporting, and yet manage to stay up to date.  We don’t expect libraries to be self-supporting through their collection of fines, or schools to be self-supporting through sales of tickets to sports events and concerts.  Why can’t…. but wait a minute!  What do schools and libraries have that BART doesn’t have?  They have Friends!  They have Foundations! 

What if we had a BART Maintenance Foundation, similar to the Los Altos Educational Foundation which maintains our high level of school quality , and a Friends of CalTrain, as effective and dedicated as our Friends of the Los Altos Library?   And what if we could inveigle some of our more affluent local residents to become involved?  Just think what we could do!

Latest estimates for total electrification of CalTrain come to about $1.76 billion.  That’s a paltry 3% of Mark Zuckerberg’s current net worth.  A donation to the Friends of CalTrain would certainly earn him a bunch of LIKE’s and maybe a free engineer’s cap to wear when the hoody is in the wash. 

New BART cars are currently running about $3.2 million per car. Why not invite some of our technocrats to purchase naming rights to a BART car?  Certainly more prestigious than buying a Lamborghini that you can only drive in your underground garage because it is too expensive to crash test.  And think of all the rainbow-framed Windows  sending out a subliminal message! 

Upgrading the infrastructure of BART is a bit pricier – $3.5 billion per current estimate – but there are lots of opportunities for appropriate philanthropy. $915 million is needed to update the control system;  maybe one of those companies working on self-driving cars could help under-write the self-driving BART system.  Another $432 million will renovate the Maintenance Center in Hayward.  Might not another local company want to be LinkedIn for naming rights?  That leaves 107 miles of track to be maintained at  roughly $20 million per mile.   Why not set up an Adopt-A-Track program similar to the Adopt-a-Highway program which keeps our highways tidy?  There could be little mileposts along the track: “If you like this quiet ride, you’ll LOVE our electric cars!” “Our software keeps your sales on TRACK!” “Trains or data – easy access is our specialty!”

OK, so upgrading and maintaining public transit isn’t quite on the same cosmic level of good-deed-doing as curing cancer or eliminating malaria.  Still, this is an opportunity to improve the daily quality of life for an average of 430,000 daily riders. Who would like to step up?

A Piece of My Mind: To Green or Not to Green (LATC Feb 1,2017)

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After four years of drought our lawn was a patchy mélange of sparse grass, tough weeds, exposed tree roots, and bare dirt. We have a corner lot, and even with the rose garden, clothesline, and veggie garden along one side, the lawn area still wraps around three sides of our house – a lot of space to replant or re-imagine.

In recent months I had comforted myself that our yard was not yet the ugliest and most neglected-looking on the street, but it was sinking quickly into contention for that title, and one by one the other practitioners of benign neglect were re-landscaping.

Some folks in our neighborhood had opted for xeriscaped yardssuper-water-wise with lots of wood chips replacing grass and featuring agaves, sage, fountain grass, and other drought-tolerant plants.  This style of landscape looks good with mission-style architecture a la Santa Fe, but our house is a modified ranch style.  Desert landscaping doesn’t fit.

Plus, I heard from a reliable neighbor that the cost of such a total re-invention of our yard would be in thousands of dollars.  It would take us a long time to pay the investment off in water savings, no matter how ecologically correct it would be

Our gardener, veteran of many years of rain cycles, assured us that a lawn renewal – not with sod, but with seed, could be done at a fraction of the cost of re-landscaping, and now was the ideal time, with a series of winter storms coming in to break the drought.  So, despite my Sierra Club membership and longing for green cred, we agreed to his plan: first, thatching the yard to get rid of the existing scrubby growth, then reseeding with a drought-resistant grass, fertilizing, and hoping for rain.

The gardener’s team arrived, and in one Saturday morning our patchy, weedy yard was transformed into a smooth brown expanse of tilled soil  It looked so much better that I almost wanted to stop there.  But the gardener had already sowed seeds, and we sat back to wait for our new lawn.

Whoops!  Here come the birds!  Flocks of little brown sparrows and black-capped chickadees descend on that yummy grass seed.  I shout at them and shoo them and toss pebbles in their direction, and they fly back into the shrubbery, then flock out again as soon as I am inside the house.  How will there be any seeds left to germinate against this feathered horde?

Here comes the rain!  Buckets of rain in storm after storm for almost two weeks in January!

Here comes the grass!  It’s not exactly a smooth green carpet, and the little blades are noticeably sparser close to the shrubs that sheltered those dratted birds, but it is indubitably grass.  Surely those little blades will grow thicker as they push on into the sun!  And then

Here come the weeds! For four years of drought we had not worried about weeds- even dandelions had trouble thriving in baked adobe clay.  Now we have our first new dandelions.  Can oxalis and sticker-burs be far behind?

In another month or so I should be able to tell you whether we should have gone with the xeriscaping after all.  Stay tuned!

 

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Freeway Free in California: The Anderson Valley

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The Anderson valley, centered around Boonville, is so remote that linguists used to visit to study the evolution of “Boontling”, the dialect spoken by the inhabitants when keeping secrets from outsiders.  The valley is accessible only by twisty and nausea-inducing Hwy 128 at one end, and the “Tunnel to the Sea” through a second-growth redwood forest along the Navarro River on the other end. But if you make it over the pass, you will feel as though you have gone back in time and space to  the Napa Valley as it was a half-century ago.

Here in late May the rolling hills are just finishing  with spring, looking like sun-faded green velvet curtains dropped in heaps.

Here wineries make award-winning pinot noir and cabernets, and the traffic is nominal, the parking is easy, and the tasting is mostly still free.

Here you can buy chilled apple cider and many old-fashioned varieties of apples at Gowan’s Oak Tree, just next to the road in Philo surrounded by its orchards.

Here is a State Park where you can see old-growth redwoods without having to take a shuttle bus with a ticket in advance. Hendy Woods State ParkP1040234doc was bequeathed to the state of CA by James P. Hendy, whose fortune came from the steel company whose sign you can still see bordering the railway tracks in Sunnyvale, so there is a local connection.

Here the coffee shop (there is only one, the Redwood Café,) has regulars instead of WiFi, and you can hear the morning’s gossip about who bought Dan’s old truck or admire the 5th Grade Science Fair ribbon won by the owner’s grandson which dangles from the wall along with team pictures of the Boonville Panthers basketball team and the cheerleading squad (which looks to be large enough to provide a cheerleader girlfriend for each guy on the team.)

The valley can be hot  in late spring and summer, so you can go for a dip in the Navarro River (access by the bridge just outside the park) or escape to the coast, with coastal scenery rivalling Big Sur, and a thirty-degree drop in temperature.P1040260web

You can go north at the coast to the famously quaint village of Mendocino, once an artist colony but now the home of film festivals, bed & breakfast inns, and other trappings of cutesification.  You can go further north to Ft. Bragg and the Mendocino Botanical Garden, a floral extravaganza in spring featuring 10-foot rhododendrons and azaleas, turning in summer to feature dahlias and roses. P1040257doc

If you want more of the coastal scenery, you can cross the Highway 1 bridge going south across the Navarro River and wind your way down to Elk (Population 208).  Don’t miss the left turn on the Philo-Greenwood Road or you will find yourself on a very steep, twisty section of Hwy 1 with no guard rails and very few turnouts. The Philo-Greenwood Road itself is narrow and twisty, but encased in what seems like deep woods – until there is a gap and you realize you are perched on a ridge with a steep drop on either side, with the Anderson Valley spread out like a patchwork quilt of vineyards and apple orchards on the right, and the coastal view to the ocean dropping away on the left.

When out-of-state visitors come and want to visit the Napa Valley, I usually direct them to Sonoma or to the Alexander Valley north of Healdsburg instead. They come back happy with memories of the quaint Sonoma town square, and of visits to Dry Creek Vineyard or the Coppola Vineyards Tasting Room replete with “Godfather” memorabilia.  The Anderson Valley is a bit too far for tourists, the road a bit too challenging.  It is still (until now) my secret step back in time.

 

 

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