Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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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

Freeway Free in France: The Flight of the Pig

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W and I were walking along the tarmac road a bit ahead of the D’s when we heard an almighty rustling in the shrubbery on the bank to the left and above the level of the road.  At first I thought it was a gust of wind, but no, there was movement.  There was a shout from behind us.  There was definitely something moving in the shrubs above us.  I saw something white and brown through the brambles.  I looked around and the D’s were gesticulating madly.  Behind them four small trucks had appeared, and a squad of guys clad in international orange vests poured out of the trucks.  There was caterwauling in the shrubbery.   Was it an escaped convict?  A terrorist attack? No, D&D explained. They had seen a pig the size of a small sheep dart across the road.  These were hunters with a pack of dogs.

 Just then the dogs burst out of the shrubs, yelping merrily, one stopping to deposit a trace on the roadside.  There were foxhounds, a setter, a border collie, and a couple of serious-looking shaggy gray animals whose job would probably be to try to take down the pig if they ever caught up with him.  All sported orange collars which seemed to be fitted with GPS trackers. The dogs took off to the right of the road and down the hill into more shrubs.  The hunters jumped into their trucks and roared away at right angles, hoping for a road which would bring them closer to the hounds. As we walked along, we saw the hunters stopped, back-tracking, roaring off in another direction, then returning , sometimes with a dog or two added to the back of the truck,  sometimes not. All seemed to be having a great time.  I was just happy that the pig had not jumped from the bank as we were passing – what an ignominious end, to be on a hiking tour in France and be crushed by a flying pig!img_20160916_115459164doc

Can you spot the pig? (Neither could we!)

Freeway Free in France: Medieval Memories in Aigues Mortes

 

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We spent most of Day 5 in Aigues Mortes ( “Dead Waters” in Provençal), a town which was extensively fortified by Louis IX (later St Louis) back when he was extending his kingdom south and needed a Mediterranean port.  Unfortunately, the port location was badly chosen, the harbor kept silting up, and eventually Louis conquered enough of Provence to make Marseilles his lead port, leaving Aigues Mortes to molder neglected at the end of a rather barren peninsula.

 20160910_035659docNeglect means no development, so the medieval town, with its defensive wall, royal apartments, and battlements are all pretty much intact, despite some quarrying of the walls to build more modern edifices (pig sties, sheep pens, etc.). Later when the Huguenots were being suppressed by Henry II, a number of them were imprisoned here until they would renounce their heresy. Some stayed for 35 years until finally freed by Louis XV.  Still later, imported Italian workers being exploited in the nearby saltworks were cruelly suppressed by the French authorities – some striking artworks made of salt crystals commemorate the injustice.allyson-and-friends-070web

 

 

The day was quite warm, but a nice breeze off the sea and a number of displays, educational materials, and art projects located in cool interior rooms make our tour of the battlements very pleasant. We stopped for ice cream on the way out of town, and Chantal located a boulangerie which sold fougasse, a kind of Provencale specialty bread  made with olive oil, olives, and bacon bits, which I had heard about and wanted to try.  Yummy greasy flaky rich.

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That evening the five of us went out for a seafood dinner at a little harbor town near Lunel.  On a Saturday night the place was jumping, with each outdoor restaurant competing with the next in loudness and variety of bands (mariachi, hip hop, rock, all going noisily at each other across the canal.). It was not exactly the quiet atmospheric dinner we had expected, but it was certainly a change of pace. 

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The Sound Track of My Life (LATC Nov 2, 2016)

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“I feel like I’ve been listening to the sound track of my life”, my sister sighed blissfully.  We were side by side on the bus riding home from Sir Paul McCartney’s concert opening Sacramento’s Golden One Arena.20161004_190914doc

For two and a half hours Sir Paul had delivered the goods:  a heavy dose of Beatles tunes ranging from “Love Me Do” to “Let It Be”, and some songs from the Wings years, and some which post-dated Wings.  The audience of over 15,000 had happily sung along  with “Obla-di, Obla-da” and endless repetitions of “la la la lalalala, lalalala, Hey Jude”.

Thanks to giant Viewtronics screens which zeroed in on the musicians, it didn’t matter that our seats were in the absolute last row of the highest level, and that the actual performers appeared to be the size of ants crawling on a stage the size of a postage stamp far below.  Our aerie gave us a great view of the audience participation (arms and lights waving in synch to the music all around the arena) and the special effects (rear-projection screens, animations, laser beams roaming the audience,  confetti shot from cannons, fireworks going off in rhythm with the music from the front of the stage.)  It was a far cry from my previous rock concert, which involved maybe 2000 people at the San Jose Civic Auditorium to see a rising bad-boy British band called the Rolling Stones.

What my sister said was true for her.  One of her most vivid memories is of the Beatles first performance on the Ed Sullivan show, when her scream at their appearance caused me, emptying the dishwasher, to drop and break our father’s favorite coffee mug. When she was thirteen, my forgiving father had taken her and three of her friends to a Beatles concert at the Cow Palace, taking turns lifting his quartet of  hysterical 13-year-olds on his shoulders so they could see .  She remembers exactly where she was when she heard the news, as an earlier generation remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot, and a later generation remembers the day the Challenger exploded.  “In My Life” was one of the introductory songs played at her wedding.

For me the Beatles would also be on the sound track, but there would be others also.  Earlier on the track I’d include the Mormon Tabernacle choir whose broadcast from Temple Square filled our house each Sunday morning, as did the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on Saturday.  I’d include the scores of  Rogers and Hammerstein, and Gilbert and Sullivan.  I’d make room  for Dorothy Shay and her Park Avenue Hillbillies, a corny old vinyl set which as kids we played over and over again on our console record player with the automatic changer.

Later there would be folk music from Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and the rough poetry of Bob Dylan (now Nobel Laureate – who knew!) And still later the epic movie music of John Williams: the themes from “Star Wars” and “E.T” and “Indiana Jones” and “Superman.”

And maybe at the end I’d come back to the Beatles:

Ob la di ob la da life goes on bra / La la how the life goes on

Ob la di ob la da life goes on bra / La la how the life goes on

 

 

Freeway Free in France: Ambling around Arles in Vincent’s Footsteps

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This morning DM was picked up at 9″30 by her Swiss cousin and his wife who happen to live about a half hour from Lunel.  Right afterward the remaining four of us set out for Arles, known for its Roman ruins and former resident Vincent Van Gogh.  We saw a lot of both.

vvgoghfondOnce we got to Arles and rather miraculously found a free parking space that I could maneuver into, we headed first for the Bureau Touristique for city maps, and then, at WB’s insistence, went first to the Fondation de Vincent Van Gogh, which was sponsoring a special exhibit of Arles’ favorite summer tourist. C scoffed “This isn’t Paris!  There will be no queue!” But there was one, and a twenty minute wait for tickets.  Rather than retrace steps, we shifted our plan of saving the nice air conditioned museum for later in the afternoon and plunged into three rooms of I would say B-level van Gogh’s on loan not from the Rijksmuseum but a less prestigious Vincent van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. 20160909_030921doc

The only well known work on view was the one of fishing boats on the beach.  It is a beautiful work.  There were a couple of others that I wouldn’t mind having on my wall, and a couple that I would NOT want to display  too dark and foreboding. Once out of the museum (including an ascent to La Terrace, with a wonderful view over the rooftops of Arles) we discovered we were starving.  We tried a couple of places with recommendations from Michelin and Routiere but found them with no available places, and ended up rather serendipitously at la Cafe de la Nuit, which was famously painted by Van Gogh, and which I had used as a focus point for one of my Lamaze experiences.  The lunch was better than expected, service snail like, but the locale could not be beat!

We rounded out our VvG experiences with a visit to l’Espace Van Gogh, which is the asylum to which he repaired after falling out with Gauguin and cutting off his ear.  It is a lovely enclosed space with a garden that blends the formal French garden with an Impressionistic flair. It is now a tourist center with one of the world’s greatest collections of postcards, and tour groups ebbing and flowing constantly.  I had to wonder whether the current buildings are painted as they were when Van Gogh was there or painted as he painted them (not necessarily the same.) Then we started our Roman ramblings. Maybe it would be good to consign that part of the day to a separate email.

Immigrants in the Capital

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One of our leading politicos has gotten a lot of publicity in the past months by characterizing a group of immigrants to this country as “rapists, thieves, and drug dealers.” Since my great – grandmother came from Australia, where the first white immigrants were transported convicts – rapists, thieves, and drug dealers –– I am a little bit sensitive on this subject. So on my recent trip to Washington DC I paid particular interest in the impact of immigrants to our nation’s capital.

After a long day of exploring the National Mall, the National Holocaust Museum, and the Museum of Native American History, we welcomed an easy walk across the street from our hotel to the Café Park, deciding to sit outside under the umbrellas fronting Pennsylvania Avenue, where we could people-watch.  By the time we had begun to check out the menu, the humidity had resolved itself into a gentle rain, but we stayed out under our umbrellas as the air turned cool and fresh. CafeduParc

Our server dodged raindrops to bring us our wine and our entrees.  She had been in the US only fourteen months, had been “so homesick” for Viet Nam at first, but then found  a room with a Vietnamese lady who had become her “second mother.”  She hoped to earn enough to bring her own mother over for a visit.  Her enthusiasm for her work and her prospects was enough to sweep away the rain.

We enjoyed our evening so much that we returned the next day, hoping to have the same server.  Though she had been reassigned to a different table, she came over to say hello and commended us to our waiter, a sturdy and attentive young man from Lebanon.

The next evening after dinner we went out to the Mall for an evening visit to the Lincoln and Viet Nam Memorials.  These are the nearest things to national holy shrines that our secular society acknowledges.  At the Viet Nam Memorial the visitor descends below the level of the Mall along a black wall listing all those who died.  Here I did have to admonish one immigrant/tourist – a young lady who was chattering loudly in Chinese on her cell phone as she descended into the memorial area. “No loud voices!  Show respect!” She stared at me, confused, then bowed in embarrassment at her faux pas.

frenchbreadWe stopped in between museums at Le Pain Quotidienne, thinking a French bakery would probably offer a good sandwich.  Our waiter was young and dark-skinned, with a flashing smile and an air of pride in his ability to remember our orders and deliver them promptly.   A quick question revealed that he as well as most of the other servers were Moroccan, not French..  I knew from watching “Casablanca”  that Morocco was a French colony at one time;  the sandwich was indeed delicious, with bread worthy of the French tradition.

On our last day we checked out of our hotel and headed for the taxi queue. A  woman driver saw us coming and jumped from her cab, grabbing our suitcases.  Ahead of her, another driver erupted from his taxi, accusing her of jumping the queue. She claimed we were on the street and fair game;  he rejoined that we were coming from the hotel, albeit from the side door, and as he was first in the queue we were rightfully his fare. We sided with the second driver and retrieved our suitcases. He was still fuming as we took off : “These new immigrants, they don’t know the rules.”  We asked “Where are you from?” “Ethiopia.”

 So I didn’t meet up with any drug dealers, thieves, or murderers.  I did see a couple of people who were a bit rough around the edges in terms of conforming to our traditions.  But our stay would have been much less pleasant without the good service and friendly smiles of the immigrants we met, and I suspect our capital, like much of our nation, would grind to a halt without them.

 

 

 

Flight Risk

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“Time to get up, “ my husband D said , his voice roughened by sleep or the lack of it.  I opened bleary eyes.  It was 3:30 AM, the time D had determined we needed to rise in order to make our 6AM plane departure from SFO.  I pushed myself out of bed and wove my way to the kitchen to start some coffee.  My cell phone lay charging in its nest on the counter.  “That’s got to go in my bag,” I thought, as I picked it up.  Then I registered the message glaring from its yellow oval:  “Your flight has been cancelled.”

Shock, amazement, distress.  Our flight has been rebooked through Houston instead of Chicago, leaving at 10:50.  What to do?  Back to bed not a good option – too much adrenaline generated by the cancellation notice.  Tried unsuccessfully to doze.  Finally ate breakfast at 6:30, arrived airport at 9, to find a delay of another hour.P1020899doc

Flight delay. Delay. Delay. Finally a lovely first class seat in a new Dreamliner. We hover over Houston, which looks impossibly green below towering white clouds like the ghosts of Bryce Canyon hoodoos.  We land.  Our connection  in Houston leaves in 20 minutes, no gate info provided.  Mad search for departure info?  Found – ugh! Terminal E, we are in A.  Where is E?  D is looking at the airport map he ripped from the flight magazine, while I flag down a jitney driver.  “How do we get to Terminal E?” “Hop on” he replies, and off we go zig-zagging down the endless corridor, turning right here, left there.  He stops.  “Are we there yet?”  No, change to another  jitney.  Our original savior continues left at the Y, we go right, then stop again with our gate in sight.  We’ve made it.  We are not even the last to get on the plane.  And there is another delay in leaving, so we are even pretty confident that our luggage made it too.  The afternoon of orienting ourselves to our hotel and surroundings is blown, the welcome champagne and a nice dinner ditto, but we are GOING TO GET THERE!

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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Freeway Free: Cruising the James Dean Memorial Highway

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That’s not really its name  – on the map it is merely State Route 46, the connector road between Bakersfield and Palo Robles.  But for people of a certain age, it will always be the road on which the first of the Moody Rebels met his untimely end, driving his Porsche Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard” a bit too fast on his way to a car race in Monterey.

JamesDeanBlkwls_web The ghost of James Dean still hovers over the road, though the CA Highway Dept has done its best to broaden the lanes, smooth out the curves, and improve visibility at the fateful intersection where Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, partly blinded by the morning sun from teh east, turned left across Dean’s path.  The roadside stand where Dean stopped for an apple and a coke , formerly known as Blackwell’s Corner, has done its best to convert its celebrity into cash, rechristening itself as “James Dean’s Last Stop” and adding a candy counter, burger bar, and amazingly modern and clean restrooms to its offerings for passers-by.  A towering figure of Dean in his red windbreaker dominates the intersection, and a  vast souvenir shop sells posters of Dean, as well as of other movie icons like Gable, Monroe, and Bogart.  Placards lining the wall chronicle Dean’s brief career and the investigation into his demise (Turnupseed, only slightly injured in the crash, was exonerated from blame, though stories of Dean’s excess mph over the limit appear to have been exaggerated.)

 But there is a hint of plaintiveness in the air.  Placards announce “Restrooms for CUSTOMERS only”.  Another, even more direct, reminds us to “Help us keep this historic business open for your comfort and convenience.  Your purchases fund these restrooms!”  Indeed, these are the first comfort stations for miles, but it is clear that the days of Dean devotees making pilgrimages to the site of Dean’s doom are numbered.  How many more generations will remember James Dean?signBlkwl

Further down the road is a sign directing the traveler to the “James Dean Memorial”, which turns out to be a plaque just up from the fatal intersection.  The Jack Ranch Cafe here is  a classic diner with a shelf of souvenirs for sale and lots of James Dean photos on the walls. The memorial itself was crafted by a Japanese admirer, and erected on land donated by the Hearst family.    But I wonder how long it will be until James Dean is a name as devoid of resonance as Donna Mauzy, Donald Doyle, Sgt. Daniel Sakai,  and others whose names are memorialized along our highways?  Who, besides his close family and friends, remembers what was Daniel Sakai’s last stop?james_dean_memorial_cholame.jpg.

Paris Remembered

I was a student at an extension campus in Tours.  At that time Americans were still loved.  I could hitchhike (usually with a masculine companion, just in case) with an American flag on my backpack, and be sure of a pickup and a lively conversation and a drop-off in some Paris location where  I would be pretty sure of a cheap overnight stay  and quick access to a neighborhood boulangerie with wonderful croissants – the apex of morning  delight.

Later I revisited Paris on business.  I stayed in the 7me arrondissement, home of the American University, and thus accustomed to the eccentricities of American visitors. In between business meetings, which I reached via the Metro, I walked everywhere – to the Eiffel Tower, the Grand  and Petit Palais, the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay (which I remembered as the Gare d’Orsay, before it had been repurposed as a museum), Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle.  I was never in danger.  I could speak French like a twenty-year-old, minus the slang. I was at home.

Still later I brought my husband along on a pleasure trip. I showed him Paris as if it were my home town – the Metro, Sacre Coeur, the bookstalls along the Seine, Bertillon’s ice cream. Later he gave me a diamond-and-gold pendant of the Eiffel Tower, wrapped in a box with the souscription “We’ll always have Paris”.

To me, Paris has always been a Safe Place, where I knew my way. Today, with the terrorist attacks, I am shaken.  Why would anyone want to destroy something so beautiful?

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