Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the category “TOWN CRIER”

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.

 

 

Legacy (Los Altos Town Crier, June 2016)

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A few weeks ago I attended a couple of celebrations which set me thinking.

The first was a reunion of  my high school alumni and faculty members from the ‘50’s, 60’s and 70’s  , a picnic where students had a chance to tell some of their teachers  as well as each other how things they had learned decades ago had affected their lives.

To Claire Pelton, English Teacher:  “I went into tutoring students for AP exams because of your class.  And I can still quote the witches’ spell from Macbeth.”

To Marilyn Young, French teacher: “Because of you I was an exchange student in France.  You met with me and my mother to encourage both of us to travel to France.  I’ve loved France ever since and am going back next month to celebrate my birthday.”

Of Betty Allen, Public Speaking teacher :  “She forced me to get up and speak.  “Impromptu or extemporaneous?” she would ask.  And she allowed no mumbling.  I can still hear her saying,  “Diction,Gary, Diction!”

Of Principal “Dude” Angius: “He knew my name.  He was the principal, and I was a snotty little kid, and he always called me by my name.”

Of Leonard Helton, American History teacher:  “Those little pamphlets on American Problems – it was the first time I understood that there could be more than one view of history, more than one side to a question.”

Of Virginia Kurzweil, typing teacher:  “She made me stick to the rules, and practice. She showed me if I worked hard I could get better, I could do well, not be a nothing.  She changed my life.”

I used to be a teacher, and loved preparing lessons and lecturing, didn’t mind paper-reading, but was a washout at keeping order in the class.  The more academically -inclined students and I had great learning experiences together, but the ones who were just serving chair time made me miserable.  Eventually I was able to switch to another line of work where I got to prepare “lessons” and “lecture” only to interested “students”.  The “lessons” were sales pitches, the “lectures” were sales presentations, the “students” were executives in large companies who needed to be educated on why they needed to purchase the high-end business software I was selling.   I got to travel around the world and enjoyed almost every minute.  The downside:  I don’t think any of my customers is ever going to approach me years from now as I sit in my wheelchair and tell me how purchasing that software changed his life.

The second celebration was a presentation of awards in appreciation of people who had made a difference in their community after retirement.

One man had seen how the character of his town was changing as historic buildings in his town were being replaced by ever-bigger and ever-blander structures, and spear-headed the establishment of an Architectural Review Board to make sure that new buildings conformed to some aesthetic needs as well as engineering and functional ones.

One woman established a non-profit which began as a drive to put books into the hands of children who had few or none, and expanded to include literacy programs and tutoring for parents as well as children in her community.

One man became interested in the trees lining the streets of his town, and became a champion of the Urban Forest, planting and maintaining thousands of trees to refresh the air and eye.

One couple plunged into their community’s government, , serving on committees and taking leadership in local, and state politics, long before politics meant polarization.

Another couple began a scholarship fund to assist students who are just on the cusp of being able to afford college, enabling over 250 students to attend four-year schools.

All this after retirement from their first careers.  I guess it’s not too late for me to leave a legacy. But I’d better get cracking.

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Coastal vs Central California: It’s Still About the Water

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Left side of the road

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right side of road – just add water!

My husband and I took a road trip a few weeks ago, driving from Los Altos down to Bakersfield and then east, returning via Bakersfield and Paso Robles and then up 101.

As far as the Pacheco Pass, the landscape was lyrically green with oaks and buckeyes sporting fresh foliage, and  wildflowers filling the crevices between the hills with streams of yellow mustard, buttercups,  and golden poppies. Rock outcroppings were wreathed in ribbons of late-rising fog like the karst peaks in traditional Chinese landscapes.

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On the other side of the pass, we dropped down past the San Luis Reservoir, much healthier-looking at first glance than the last time we had passed this way almost two years ago. But a second look showed us the thirty  feet of rocky scree which separated the current level of the reservoir and the grassy level of the normal shore.  Despite heavy rain in March, the reservoir was still only at 52% capacity, 57% of the average fullness for the end of March.

Further down the hill, we began the long trek down the west side of the Central Valley on Interstate 5 . Except for irrigated fields and orchards, the green was gone – and the signs began.

On a barren field of scrub brush “Congress-Created Dust Bowl.” Next to an expanse of almond orchard, “Dams, Not Trains.” Several signs showing a perplexed looking boy and the query “Is Growing Food a Waste of Water?”  On the side of a truck parked next to the Interstate: “Politicians Created Water Crisis = Higher Food Costs, Lost Jobs.” The signs reflected the anger of farmers who had lost their historically unlimited water rights through recent  legislation.  No longer could they rely on digging ever deeper wells to enable cultivation of whatever they felt like growing.

More telling were the signs which began to appear further south: “For Sale – 100 Acres Almonds”.  Still more poignant were the dead orchards – acres of almond trees uprooted, some already brown and dead, some appearing to have been sacrificed only a short time ago.  We saw one backhoe in the process of destruction.  I took some pictures: on one side of the road were healthy almond orchards stretching off into the valley haze, irrigation hoses clearly visible.  On the other side: no hoses, no trees, no greenery, only scrub brush and bare dirt.

Almond trees are currently one of the most controversial crops of the Central Valley.   Almonds are a lucrative product, but they require a lot of water, and the largest percentage of the crop is grown for export to Asia, where demand is rapidly expanding.  With water increasingly scarce, it is argued, why should we allow irrigation of non-essential crops for export, rather than focusing on nutritional basics to be consumed locally?  But who or what will decide what is or is not “essential”?

We crossed the California Aqueduct, sparkling with Northern California water headed for Los Angeles.  More signs: “Food Grows where Water Flows.”  “California produces 50% of US Fruits, Vegetables, and Nuts.”

We passed a well-tended farm house with a pillared porch and tiled roof, surrounded by shapely almond trees.  We passed an abandoned stone bungalow, its roof caved in, surrounded by scrub brush.

With enlightened, long-term, apolitical water management, many well-tended farmhouses will survive.  But there will inevitably be many rotting bungalows amid the desert scrub. And fewer almonds in my Chinese chicken salad.

 

Sunshine on the Sports Page (LATC April 2016)

 

One morning a while ago I sat down with my morning coffee to read the paper.  List of headlines included

  • Tech job engine cooling off?
  • 8 Years in the NFL… then the Downward Spiral
  • Foster child’s death probed.
  • Trump insults walk fine line
  • Officers on Paris terror raid met with gunfire
  • Thousands flee Texas flooding
  • Toxic water worries in Vermont, N.Y.
  • Undercover sting entraps sex-traffickers
  • Republican Senators stonewall Supreme Court hearings
  • Syrian forces advance on Palmyra
  • Climate change accelerating- hottest February on record
  • City, 49ers in dispute over rent
  • Ex-coach faces 10 felony accounts for sex abuse of students
  • Lower drug prices stalled
  • Toy guns spark visit from police

What a world!  No wonder it takes at least two cups of coffee to wade through the variety of bad news, bad outcomes, and bad behavior!

Then I got to the sports page – “CIF Girls basketball: Pinewood socks nation’s No. 1 team.”  Wait – is that our local private school, the primly painted white- with- green- trim establishment that has been steadily expanding along Fremont Ave. next to Foothill Blvd.?  I read more: “Pinewood pulled an upset for the ages…,rallying from a 10-point deficit to beat St. Mary’s, the no.1-ranked team in the country…. ‘We had nothing to lose…, Pinewood’s Akayla Hackson said.  “So we just went for it.’…. When the buzzer sounded, Pinewood, the tiny Division V school from Los Altos Hills, had knocked off the top-ranked team.”

What fun!  Everyone loves David when he has knocked off Goliath (before he got entangled with That Woman.) And when David (or in this case, Davida) is a Local Girl, that makes the story even better.

Further along, another  Cinderella -type story made the Sports mid-section:  “Blue Raiders bag biggest upset in years.”  In the first round of NCAA March Madness, “the No. 15-seeded Blue Raiders from Middle Tennessee State ended the title hopes of second-seeded [Michigan State] Spartans in a 90-81 first-round victory that sent brackets around the country into trash cans. ‘I’ll be honest with you, in my wildest dreams I didn’t think they’d hit some of the shots they hit,’ Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.”

Wildest dreams coming true!  Maybe a hint of miracles!  We love that too!  I’m not a big follower of basketball, or any other sport, but I love the story lines, and the way every victory can be made to seem like a moral  triumph, whether  of will over skill, or vice versa.  So much easier to digest over breakfast than the intractable problems of the Real World.

So you go, Pinewood girls!  Keep it up, Middle Tennessee State!  No matter how dark the tales of  wars, natural disasters, and human frailty which fill the world, national, and local news, there’s almost always sunshine in the sports section.

 

Light Hearts and Heavy Metal (Los Altos Town Crier March 2016)

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I am at the Caravan Lounge in San Jose, the darkest, smallest public space I have ever visited.  I am surrounded by black T-shirts, black denim jeans, and black leather jackets. A singer at the other end of the bar is screaming over the noise of two extremely amplified electric guitars and a snare drum set.  I have earplugs in my ears, but the vibration of the base guitar is still rattling my breastbone and echoing in my shoulder-blades.  I am wearing black slacks and a black T-shirt emblazoned with two skeletons, one of which is stabbing the other.  My sister M is standing next to me wearing the same shirt.  She turns to me with a wide grin and mouths above the din, “Isn’t this great?”

I am here basically because my sister’s husband was brought up in Brazil. When M heard that a trio of Brazilian women musicians needed a place to stay while they recorded their next album, M and her husband  volunteered their spare bedrooms, expecting perhaps a nice string trio.  Instead they got Nervosa, an up-and-coming Brazilian thrash metal band. thumbs_nervosa-4

They had a fine time.  M and her husband B introduced the band to zydecko, bluegrass, and some of the African artists they had learned about in the Peace Corps.  The Brazilians loved “listening to vinyl.” They danced to the new music, played foosball, and cooked dinner for M and B one night. 

Then Nervosa suddenly and unexpectedly got an invite to participate in “70000 Tons of Metal” a four day Caribbean cruise featuring performances by sixty (!!) heavy metal rock bands from all over. They dashed off to Florida leaving a lot of loose ends behind them, including two large crates of T-shirts and CD’s that ended up loaded into my husband’s car for transport to Nervosa’s first California gig after the cruise, in San Jose.

Which leads me to the Caravan Lounge.  My husband was fairly beside himself at the thought of two unescorted women at a dive bar full of black-clad metal-heads.  He hinted darkly of various forms of disaster lurking as we wandered around the mean streets  of San Jose in the depths of night. He insisted that I call several times during the evening to confirm we had not yet been assaulted.  In fact, the streets of San Jose on a rainy Wednesday night are not so much mean as they are empty, and the only approach made to us was by a sad-faced lady outside the Greyhound bus terminal begging for bus fare.

At the Caravan Lounge we introduced ourselves as Nervosa groupies, showing off our T-shirts.  It was early, but the security guard found the girl with the cash box; she took our money and fitted us each  with a plastic  bracelet decorated with skulls.  As we walked off to find dinner M overheard the ticket seller saying to the security guard, “Aren’t they cute!”20160217_222824crop

 20160217_221004cropApparently silver hair at a heavy metal concert is irresistible.  No less than three different groups of black-clad, pierced concert-goers approached us to ask “Can we have our picture taken with you?”  We were turning from the last set of admirers when Pitchu appeared beside us and invited us backstage.  Behind the shelter of a cinderblock wall and a steel door we were able to remove our earplugs and enjoy watching Pitchu practicing her drumming on the steel locker, Prika in lotus position on a crate checking notices from the previous gig, and Fernanda applying the makeup which transformed her from a clear-skinned smiling All-Brazilian Girl to a wild-eyed punk rocker. 20160217_224756crop

The place is packed.  We stand in the wings as Nervosa comes on stage to wild applause.  Thrash metal seems to require having long hair and waving it wildly – one young man near us has a shaved head with a top-knot of long blonde hair which he whips around and around at the risk of dislocating his neck. Another fellow waves a Brazilian flag to the beat of the drums. Two burly security guards keep the pulsing crowd at bay while somehow seeming to dance to the rhythm also. Almost everyone is smiling.

My sister and I are smiling too. Our real lives are just outside the door, and we will re-enter them as soon as we step outside and put on our brightly colored raincoats, but for this moment we are visiting another planet, where everyone wears costumes and it is always Halloween.

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Read This Book (Los Altos Town Crier, Feb 3, 2016)

Imagine a dolphin swimming through the ocean depths, and suddenly becoming aware of the water’s being salty – something it had never noticed in the environment surrounding it every day – something it had taken as a universal fact. Then imagine that dolphin struggling with the concept of fresh water.
That would be something of the way I felt on reading Between the World and Me, Ta- Nehisi Coates’ award-winning exposition on what it is like to be “black” in America.51nX2wGTFXL._SX333_BO1,204,203,200_[1]
It had never quite gotten through to me, despite reading a fair number of books by African and Afro-American writers, that the concept of “race” which so permeates our society is almost a uniquely American idea. Other societies also make distinctions by skin color, preferring light-colored skin over dark-colored skin in their ideal of beauty, but only America makes the abrupt unilateral distinction between “black” and “white” which places a segment of our citizens irrevocably on one side of a chasm which the rest of the citizens do their best to ignore.

 

Coates refers to “those who believe they are white” to remind us that pink, peach, ivory, yellow, honey, or copper –colored skin is no more “white” than tan, chocolate, coffee, or ebony – colored skin is “black”. He tells us that racism is part of our American heritage, the dark side of the Constitution, Mt. Vernon, and Monticello. And he offers no suggestion of how to rid our society of this pervasive poison.
My parents grew up in Salt Lake City Utah. Until they were in their twenties and moved to the Bay Area, they had few ideas about race, as they had seen almost no African Americans in their lives thus far. Ironically, their innocence was a direct result of the Mormon Church’s deep-seated racism of the time, a doctrine which identified black skin as being “the mark of Cain” and excluded anyone with this taint from participation in Mormon society.
When my parents moved to East Texas, with two small children in tow, they entered a segregated society, complete with water fountains labeled “White” and “Colored”, separate waiting rooms for “Negroes” at the train and bus stations, segregated schools, and a shantytown. They did their best to keep us innocent, but racism was in the air. My parents almost never resorted to physical punishment, but I can remember my mother slapping my 5-year-old sister for hollering The N Word out the car window at a passerby. I knew what The N Word was about years before I had a clue about The F Word.
Decades later segregation is officially gone, and everyone drinks from the same water fountains. But Coates’ book opened my eyes to the constant and enduring presence of the idea of race in our American lives. Last month’s headlines about the lack of “black” actors and directors in the list of Oscar nominations could be understood only in American newspapers. The “Black Lives Matter” protests could only have caught fire in a society that accepts an artificial distinction between “black” and “white”.
If a dolphin discovers that the water he has been swimming in all his life is toxic, he has no choice – he has to keep swimming in it, even though it poisons him. Coates offers no easy fix” to our deep-seated beliefs about race . But perhaps as he makes us aware of the poison we breath in with every headline, we can somehow purify our toxic environment, thought by thought, word by word, deed by deed. Read this book.

History of a Plague (Los Altos Town Crier, Jan 6, 2016)

A quarter of a century ago, our world was threatened with a plague.  We reacted as humans do – first with ignorance (that’s an African thing), then denial (it’s just a few cases, and they’re all homosexuals, so I’m safe), blaming the victims (That gay lifestyle, what do you expect? If they would just straighten out…) and calls for social quarantine (Gay men should be required to wear a badge!) Mainstream America wanted to feel safe, because AIDS was fatal.  In 1990, if you contracted AIDS, there was no treatment, no cure.

At least three of my classmates died of AIDS.  Homosexuality was still mostly kept secret at this time. The obituaries tiptoed around the cause of death: “Complications of pneumonia”  “A long battle against disease”.  If there was no wife at the bedside, if a “long-time companion” was mentioned, one could guess.

And there were other casualties.  If you were unfortunate enough to need a blood transfusion  at this time, you were unknowingly at risk.  Blood donations were not screened for viruses, and the transfusion that saved your life one day could cause your death months or years later

Fast forward twenty-five years.  AIDS is still a tragic diagnosis, but not because there is no treatment. We now know the cause of the plague, we know how to prevent transmission, and we have medicines to treat it.  The tragedy is that people are still dying.

When the AIDS epidemic was first acknowledged, government decisions were made by the World Health Organization and by the US Center for Disease Control.  The epidemic, from being “just a blip on our radar” was now judged too widespread to make preventative measures effective.  The treatment was expensive.  The policy was announced:   There will be no funds for identifying HIV carriers, or for tracking the contacts of known carriers. HIV will only be treated when it has progressed to full-blown AIDS.  This shortsighted policy resulted in hundreds of thousands of undiagnosed, untreated HIV carriers infecting millions more people.

In the US,  private treatment funds have saved many thousands of HIV carriers ,  halting the progress of the disease,  and  preventing its transmission to others. But for many in the developing world, the cost of treatment is unmanageable. The plague goes on in Africa, where it wastes the bodies and lives of one and a half million victims yearly. 

The Los Altos Rotary AIDS Project, founded in 1989,  has adopted the strategy of the US military: Fight over there so we don’t have to fight over here.  Thousands of dollars have been funneled into Africa through the Save the Children Foundation to educate and treat pregnant women on how to prevent transmission of HIV to their children. There have been setbacks: Clinics established in Liberia were left un-staffed and empty when the Ebola scare dominated headlines; these clinics must be re-staffed and re-energized. But the work goes on.

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to do something to make the world better,  a donation to the Los Altos Rotary Aids project would be a good place to start.   Contact [http://www.rotaryaidsproject.org/howyoucanhelp].

(My thanks to Dr. Art Amman for much of the information about the current state of AIDS worldwide.)

 

 

‘Tis the Season, Here’s the Reason to Give the Gift of Life (Los Altos Town Crier, Dec.2015)

‘Tis the Season, Here’s the Reason to Give the Gift of Life

My brother is not allowed to donate blood.  He contracted hepatitis while serving in VietNam.  My brother-in-law is not allowed to donate blood.  He was exposed to  malaria during his Peace Corps tour in Cameroon. My friend Nathan is not allowed to donate blood.  Gay men are not allowed to donate for fear they might be carriers of HIV.  My nephew is not allowed to donate blood.  He has a genetic blood disease. My former boss is not allowed to donate blood.  He travels to India every year to visit his family.  For various reasons, almost two thirds of the US population are disqualified as blood donors.  I am among the eligible 38%. I can, and I do.

Here’s my  Top 10 Reasons to Donate Blood, in ascending order :

The blood center where I donate has lots of fun contests and give-aways to lure me in; for example:

10: The Stanford Blood Center where I donate has an annual competition with rival al’s Blood Center – you can help the local team!

9: The Stanford Blood Center hosts an Annual Barbecue for donors at their Mountain View center  next door to El Camino Hospial – yummy! 

8: You get other excellent freebies every time you donate: movie tickets, tickets to Stanford sports, Baskin-Robbins  ice-cream coupons, photo books – it varies. C

7: If you donate four times in one year you get a really cool T-shirt.

6: Every time you donate you earn points toward more neat stuff – jackets, tote bags, license plate frames – check out what’s going on at your local blood donation center!

5: The cookies and punch in the recovery room are delicious. 

At any blood donation center the following will be true:

4: You can get your blood tested for 17 infectious diseases and your temperature, cholesterol,  and blood pressure checked, with no co-pay.

3: A pint’s a pound:  Donating blood is an easier way to lose weight than three hours on the treadmill.

2: How many chances do you have to lie back in a comfortable chair with absolutely no interruptions for a half-hour?

And the final and best reason to donate blood:

1: You can save a life.

 Less than 3% of the US population actually donates blood.  Reasons given not to donate include”

                 “I’m afraid of pain” (It doesn’t hurt),

                “I get dizzy at the sight of blood” (So close your eyes!), “

                “I don’t know where to sign up” (http://bloodcenter.stanford.edu or call 888-723-7831 for a convenient time and location) ,

                “I’m too busy” (It takes less than an hour, and you’ll feel so good afterward!)

And the #1 reason given for not donating blood (17%)

                “I never thought about it.” 

If you’ve read this far, you don’t have THAT excuse!  Hope to see you at the Blood Bank!

 

The Plight of the Trees

Dying redwoods in the median strip

Dying redwoods in the median strip

The combination of age and water conservation measures is taking its toll all around my neighborhood.  There are dead and dying trees on every street. Particularly sad are the landscape trees which were planted years ago when Los Altos was a new development, chosen for their rapid growth with no thought to their natural requirements, maintained for decades with irrigation, and now left to fend for themselves in an unnatural habitat.

Many of the redwood trees which tower along our major roads are slowly turning brown at the tips of their branches.  Growth rings on redwood trees show that they have survived drought periods as long as 200 years in duration, but not on the eastern side of the Coast Range.  Redwoods are adapted to get moisture from morning fog.  Deprived of their morning fog drink and  of  irrigation , they are struggling.

The Monterey pines are in even worse shape.   In native stands on the California central coast, a Monterey pine can live 100-150 years.  But “in captivity”, as a landscape tree, the life span shortens to as little as 20-30 years.  Monterey pines are adapted to live in crowded stands on thin soil underlain by bedrock.  As landscape trees, too much space, too much rich soil, and too much fertilizer all combine to put the Monterey pines in trouble..

Without sufficient water in the soil, the trees’ hydraulic system for transporting water to the limbs and leaf tips may fail, weakening the limbs and causing branches and trunks of well-established trees to split and fall.  My son’s car was totaled several months ago when a heavy branch split from the sycamore in his front yard.  Our flowering plum blocked our driveway when a third of its canopy fell.  Around my area old gnarled oaks and pepper trees have split down the middle. Seeing these trees go is like an old friend’s passing.  But when the branches fell from our plum tree we discovered a colony of wood boring grubs had ravaged the interior. It had to go. It felt like a mercy killing.

Gnarly almond hanging in there

Gnarly almond hanging in there

I felt differently about our almond tree.  One of a pair, its twin was sacrificed when my parents subdivided their lot so that we could build our house next door.  My father had worked tirelessly to protect the almonds from marauding squirrels, using his pellet gun to such great effect that for five years after his death the squirrels still avoided the area. The average life span of an almond tree is only twenty-five years and this one had struggled along for at least sixty.   Its bark had peeled off in large sections, leaving the bare wood to weather or rot where water collected in crevices, although it still bravely sported blossoms on its gnarled branches every spring.Almond - after

Finally, a few weeks ago, we ordered the almond tree and the plum tree cut down – too much of a hazard next to our driveway.  “This would make great firewood,” the arborist commented. “Don’t you want to keep the logs?”  But we converted our fireplace to gas years ago.  The logs were loaded into a truck for someone else’s hearth.

We planted a new little tree where the flowering plum had been.  It is a Chinese pistache, well known for its flaming fall foliage, recommended as a street tree by our city,  and reputedly very drought tolerant. It’s not going to bloom, but then it won’t be subject to fungus.  Despite drought conservation measures, we will be watering it every few days until the rains start.  Hurry up, El Nino!

 

Car Spotting 2015 (Los Altos TOWN CRIER Sept 2, 2015)

Pagani1 When I was a kid, September was exciting, almost like Christmas, because that was when the Big Three automakers would reveal the new models for the upcoming year.

Previous to the announcement date, there would be mystery and skullduggery, as the new models were trailered to dealerships shrouded in black drapery to maintain suspense while car buffs and rival carmakers would do their best to sneak photos of the new cars before their debut dates.secret1

The Big Reveal came with fanfare and hoopla. The new cars sported chrome and optional vinyl roofs, fancy rocket-ship hood ornaments, candy colors and exotic attributes like “dynaflow,” “swept-wing” and “push-button drive.” Once the new models were officially available, I eagerly scanned the road, hoping to actually see one. The high point of my youthful car spotting was a Chevy Corvette, turquoise and white, which roared down the highway past us one day to my awe and wonder.corvette1

Then cars dulled down. The new models dribbled out over months rather than in a couple of September weeks. The exteriors reverted to one color, chrome was expensive and heavy, vinyl roofs proved not durable, swept-wing fins were hazardous to pedestrians when backing up and rocket-ship hood ornaments the same when going forward. Candy-colored paint contained lead and tended to go chalky on exposure to sun. My interest waned.

But recently the excitement has returned. One of the side effects of the Google/Apple/Facebook explosion is that there are a certain number of folks around our neighborhood who have more money than they know what to do with. And if you are an American male with lots of extra funds, inevitably some of that extra seems likely to be invested in The Car. Not just any car, but a Head-Turner, a Statement, Bling-on-Wheels. Spotting one of these exotic vehicles adds zing to the most ordinary auto outing.

The sporty Mustang has reappeared in bright primary colors; Corvette ditto. I have grown adept at identifying a Tesla, in its various models, a Bentley, a Maserati and a Ferrari. I have driven past the McLaren dealership on El Camino Real and peered in the windows, but I’ve never seen one on the road. showroomPA1

The prize of my car-spotting collection appeared one sunny Saturday afternoon driving home from the beach on sluggish Highway 17. I heard a roar behind me, and there it was. Black, low to the ground, with an Italian name, sexy curved fenders and strange aileron flaps that rose and fell as the car braked in traffic. Comparing this sports car to a Corvette would be like comparing Sophia Loren to Taylor Swift.

Because we were both inching along, it was not difficult to read the name on the rear. A quick thumbing of my smartphone revealed that I was looking at a Pagani Huayra, an Italian sports car with a 720-horsepower engine and a top speed of 231 mph. It is named after Wayra Tata, “God of the Winds” in the Inca Empire. It costs roughly $1.3 million.

I felt a little alarmed. If someone is going to be driving a $1.3 million car on public highways, shouldn’t he or she have outriders as are provided for trucks carrying oversize loads? “Caution: Hyper-expensive car ahead! Pass with care!” In the stop-and-go beach traffic, what if some unfortunate accountant or schoolteacher or retiree bumper-kissed this black bombshell? There goes the monthly mortgage payment!

My enthusiasm for car spotting has cooled a bit. Even if I do see a McLaren on the road, it will seem like a poor substitute for the God of the Winds.

The question I hope someone is able to answer for me: If you build a $1.3 million car, do you have to satisfy U.S. highway crash-testing requirements in order to drive it on the road? And who gets to pick up the pieces?

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