Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

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Freeway Free in Texas: Quirky

We drove three hours through the Texas Hill country to my brother’s house in Georgetown.  Along the way there were plenty of testaments to the ongoing quirkiness of the Texas character.

We passed a ranch house style building with a sign saying “Deer Dressing.”  Not a fashion center for bucks and does, but a place where you could drop off your after-the-hunt booty and have it carved into steaks, chops, hides, and heads for display in your family room. The fence was decorated with skulls of deer, wild goats, and longhorn cattle.  Atop a tower at the entrance was a human skeleton (artificial, I hope), underneath a camouflage net, dressed in camo, riding a bicycle, and flourishing a rifle.  Not sure what the message to potential customers was meant to be.

Later we passed a pasture in which a life size (I suppose) replica of Bigfoot tromped through the grass in lieu of a scarecrow.

At lunchtime we followed a Yelp recommendation to Alfredo’s in Lampasas, not the hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant we expected, but a large indoor-outdoor event venue nestled in a ben of Sulphur Creek.  The patio features thatched huts a la Baja sheltering each table, and a menagerie of life-size fiberglass or bronze  parrots, tigers, lions, and longhorn steers. In addition, a trio of larger-than-life-size mariachi bandsmen concocted from rusted metal machine parts.  The food was pretty good, too.

            To settle our lunch, we stopped off at the Hanna Springs Culture Garden, adjacent to the new but deserted Swim Center.  Here Texas quirky was fully on display.  My favorites were the basketball court painted as an homage to Mondrian, and the rusty pickup  with a giant sheet-metal catfish flopped on top.

            As we approached Austin, we began to see signs with the slogan  “Keep Austin Weird.” Looks like the surrounding environs give Austin something to draw on.

The New Normal is Already Sneaking Up

(Victor J. Blue/The New York Times)

Lots of talk has been generated over the past months about how our lives have been permanently changed because of the pandemic, and what the “New Normal” will look like. But if you consider the pandemic as one of the many consequences of climate change, then in many ways the” New Normal” is already here.

I used to let the water run while I brushed my teeth.  Now I just wet the brush.  I used to pour soapy water from the dishpan down the drain.  Now I carry it outside and dump it on whichever plant looks thirstiest.  I used to soak in a hot bath.  Now I take 2-minute showers.  That’s the “New Normal” after five years of drought.

Formerly, in our bedroom suburb, the tallest building in town was the movie theater.  Now the movie theatre is gone, but we have several three-story buildings.  A few of them have trees growing on the roof.  A five-story building is planned. That’s the “New Normal” for smart land use.

Once upon a time, my aunt from Southern California would come up to visit in the summer so she could get away from the constant whirr of air conditioners.  She would have been dismayed when my husband added air conditioning to our home several summers ago.  But where we used to have “an occasional day over 90” we now get “an occasional week or two in the 90’s”. That’s the “New Normal.”

But it’s not just climate that has wrought change.

I used to get a chunk of suet from the meat counter to put on top of my chuck roast to tenderize it and to generate more pan juices for the gravy.  Now if I eat beef at all, it’s the leanest cuts, and if I have to chew longer, it’s probably good for my gums. Low cholesterol is the “New Normal.”

Re-reading a classic chlldren’s book from the 1950’s, my eyes widen as the mother sends her 9-year-old daughter to an art class in the community center, sending  along her 4-year-old  also with instructions “Let your sister play in the sandbox in the park while you are in art class.”  In our New Normal, this lack of parental supervision would be deemed at best irresponsible, at worst criminally neglectful. 

When I was a child I used to ride my bicycle all over town.  I felt as free as a bird, choosing my own road, my own speed, my own stops.  As long as I was home by dinner time, no one worried.   Now if I see a child riding a bicycle to school, one of the parents will be alongside.  More security, less freedom.  That’s the “New Normal.”

(Did you notice how carefully I avoided using a gender specific pronoun in the above sentence?  That’s the “New Normal” too.)

The changes brought about by the pandemic maybe will happen faster than those listed above.  The comfort comes from knowing that however new they seem at first, with the passage of time they will just be normal.

A Piece of My Mind: Post Election Reflections (Los Altos Town Crier 11/25/20)

When I first moved here Los Altos was a group of up-scale housing tracts thrown up in the midst of vast apricot orchards, each home a one-story ranch house boasting a gabled roof, two car garage, and a remnant apricot tree or two.  The front yards were set off with split-rail fences covered with fence roses or English ivy, and had velvety green lawns suitable for setting up croquet hoops or badminton nets.

The apricot trees have died off, the one-story ranchers are being scraped one by one in favor of two-story mock-Tudors or mock-Mission or mock-modern homes with an extra garage for an RV, and the lawns are being replaced with drought-tolerant landscaping.  Things have changed.

When I first moved here, Los Altos Hills was a scattering of older farm houses and former summer cottages, with large lots suitable for corralling a horse.  Equestrian trails bordered the two-lane roads or cut between houses on recognized rights-of-way.  Children rode school buses across the railroad tracks to schools in the flatlands.

The farm houses are being replaced one by one with mansions which fill the large lots up to the setback requirements.  The horse corrals have morphed into vanity vineyards.   The equestrian trail I rode on lea has been replaced by an eight-lane freeway, the railroad tracks are overlain by a four-lane expressway, and there are no school buses.   Things have changed.

Los Altos and Los Altos Hills were designed as white-collar bedroom communities, designed to provide shelter for families whose bread-winners were working locally (almost all my teachers lived in Los Altos within a short distance of the schools) or in nearby businesses spun off from Stanford (e.g. Varian)  or related to the military  (e.g. Lockheed).

It was assumed, if anyone thought about it, that our gardeners and gas station attendants would be living in blue-collar communities such as Mountain View or Redwood City or East Palo Alto.  In four years of my high school education there was only one black student at Los Altos High School, and she was a senior who graduates the year I entered as a freshman.  A quick run-down of last names in my graduating class shows, out of 500, only two Mexican surnames, four Japanese surnames, and zero Chinese surnames.  It was understood that El Camino Real, which divided attendance at Los Altos HS from MV HS, was also the dividing line between white-collar and blue-collar families. There was no thought  that a city zoned mostly for single family housing with off-street parking was exclusionary or practicing systemic racism.  Things have changed.

We can’t turn back the clock.  There’s no use in wallowing in nostalgia for a suburbia that no longer exists.  Things have changed.  Let’s do our best to deal with it.

Life in a COVID- Hot Spot: Week 15 – Testing

20200620_224609_docOur hot spot is cooling just a little: elective surgeries that were canceled or discouraged are now going forward.  I have an extremely minor surgery rescheduled for this week, but before going forward with it, I must be tested to make sure I am not, within a few days of the surgery, infected with the novel coronavirus.  So I make an appointment to be tested.

The closest testing spot which will guarantee results before the scheduled surgery is about 15 miles up the road. It is a drive-thru procedure.  I let the scheduling nurse know what kind of car I will be in, and whether I will be the driver or the passenger. Husband decides to be the driver.

We show up on time and are waved through the hospital’s parking garage to the test site – a tent staffed by young aides in hospital scrubs, face masks, and polymer shields.  I signal to the aide with my photo ID and medical group member card.  She comes to the passenger window and asks me to show her the cards so that my name shows – she is not supposed to touch the cards with her surgical gloves.  She asks me to confirm my birth date.  I pass inspection.

I lower my window, and my face mask.  Her eyes are smiling, though her mask hides it. “This will be uncomfortable, but quick,” she says.  “Open your mouth and say ‘Aah.'” She inserts a cotton swab on a long stick into the back of my mouth.  Not so bad.  Then she inserts the same or a similar swab into my left nostril. Waaay in. Tickle prickle want to sneeze. Then into my right nostril.  Tickle prickle want to sneeze. “That’s it. You’re done.”  Results in 2-4 days – in time to qualify or disqualify my minor surgery.  If I test positive, a lot more than my minor surgery will be up-ended.  Cross fingers.

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Life in a COVID-19 Hot Spot – Week 6 -Lockdown Extended 4 more weeks!

 

Cooped up with the morning paper and the hourly news, one would think the apocalypse is at hand.  A walk in nature is called for, but where does one go during lockdown?   Many parks are closed, or have closed the  parking lots  in order to discourage crowding, or at least have cordoned off picnic tables and playgrounds.

20200403_172027webWe found a little oasis not too far from our home – theBlackberry Farm Preserve.  Normally, this green dell offers visits to farm animals and truck gardens as well as grassy paths, but these tours and visits are now locked off.  The playground and picnic areas are also marked as dubious.  But the stately redwoods, the creek,  the twisted bay trees, the fearless deer, and the feral vincas are all still available to soothe the restless mind.

 

 

Freeway Free in California: A Serene Escape from COVID-19 Stress

20200310_123757webI live in a COVID-19 hotspot – 43 cases and one death since the beginning of March – and public and private events are being cancelled left and right to prevent transmission.  So what is one to do if you are healthy, not in one of the “vulnerable” groups, and needing some relief from the stress of it all?  Maybe it’s time to visit a local museum.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is one of my favorites.  I visited this week and found plenty of parking in the Civic Center Garage ($12.00 for 5 hours), two featured exhibits of great interest, no crowds, and decent food at the museum restaurant.  And if you are looking for stress relief, Asian art is all about serenity.

20200307_121146webThe exhibit that drew me to the museum featured Zhang Da Qian (Chiang Dai-Chien in traditional transcription) who was the Pablo Picasso of 20th Century Chinese art.  His work spans styles ranging from impeccable copies of venerated Chinese master artists of the past, to modern splash-ink impressions worthy of Jackson Pollock.  He lived in mainland China, Brazil, Argentina, Taiwan, and California, and in each venue did his best to promote appreciation of Chinese art.  One of the featured works in this exhibit is titled “Scholars on a wilderness path”, but the giant monolith in the background must be Half Dome.

Other paintings include a marvelous white gibbon, a black horse grazing in a blue-green pasture, a Tibetan dancer, several giant lotuses, and landscapes formed from giant splashes of ink enhanced with a few brush-strokes to define space, foliage, light, and dark.

After studying Zhang’s various works, a stroll through the adjacent Korean gallery offers a different range of experiences.

You can admire a glowing white “moon jar”, pristine on its wooden shelf, and discover an Asian precursor of the classic patchwork quilt, made from silken scraps.

Or perhaps you will spend some time in another featured exhibit, called “Awakening” which walks you through several centuries of Buddhist tradition, juxtaposing ceremonial vessels made from human skulls, many-armed monsters intricately carved and painted, and dainty gilded bronze sculptures celebrating sensual tenderness.

Or maybe some of the more modern pieces will appeal to you, like this sculpture by Liu Jianhua formed of letters and Chinese characters on view just outside the Korean section. 20200307_121012web

The museum restaurant,Sunday at the Museum, features Asian style street food such as Vietnamese Pulled pork sandwiches, Japanese ramen noodles,  and Chinese dumplings.  You order at a counter and the food is brought piping hot to your table.  Of course you could get better Chinese food in Chinatown, better ramen in Japantown, but the setting attractive and the service is fast and friendly.

If you have children tossed out of their school/daycare, the museum usually has some activities geared toward children set up either in an activity area or  in the Shriram Learning Center on the first floor.

Travels with a Tiny Trailer – Day 2 (cont. again)

20191017_084028webWe get dressed in the confines of the tiny trailer. It’s not easy to pull on trousers without being able to stand up , but we manage it. Our water-resistant jackets are about dry after a night of hanging inside, and our moods improve as we plan on quickly making a hot breakfast on the two-burner stove in the pop-up kitchen in the back of the trailer. Sis fills the water carrier. All we need to do is boil water, and we’ll have coffee and instant oatmeal with fruit and brown sugar mixed in. So much easier than camping with a propane stove – nothing to set up, nothing to connect, just a quick flick of the lighter and….

Uh oh. The list of equipment provided with the trailer clearly lists a butane igniter, with back-up matches. The trailer is a honey-comb of clever contrived storage spaces, and it is quite likely that an igniter and/or matches is hiding in one of them. But we can’t find them. We take apart the under-sink storage, and the over-sink storage, and the behind-the-sink storage. Nope. No sign.

Here, for the first time, I’m really afraid Sis is going to lose it. No coffee? Her face twists in agony. Fortunately, I look beyond our campsite and spot a familiar item on the table in the neighboring camp – a Coleman stove. Where there is a Coleman stove, there will be a lighter or matches. Sure enough, the young man presiding over the stove has a Bic lighter in his pocket, and smilingly lights our burners for us. The day is saved! The coffee is hot and strong, and the oatmeal tastes wonderful!20191017_091418doc

We linger over our coffee, even though we are sitting on the edges of the still-wet camp chairs. We are not looking forward to dumping the water out of our leaky  tent, or loading the mass of wet canvas into the car. What will all that moisture do to the bikes? But we can’t put it into the trailer – the bedding would never dry out.

Somehow we make it happen. We put the dry side of the rainfly over the bikes, pile the tent and chairs on top, close up the kitchen, and break camp.

Will the chairs ever dry out?  Guess what will be our next stop? Stay tuned – And Happy New Year!

Travels in a Tiny Tear-drop Trailer – Day 2

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I have slept beautifully in the cozy confines of the teardrop, lulled by the sound of rain pattering on the roof. It is morning. I prop myself up on one elbow and open the privacy shade on my window. Outside I can see only as far as two campsites over. The fog is low, but fog is drier than rain. Things are looking up.

I sit up and begin to think about finding my clothes. Sis stretches and yawns next to me, so I wish her a good morning.

“I’m sorry if I disturbed you when I got up in the night,” she says.

“I didn’t hear a thing. You must have been real quiet.”

“No, actually, I was afraid you would have heard me swearing.” She props herself up, opens the door into our attached tent shelter, and gestures for me to look over her shoulder.

If we had practiced setting the tent shelter up in advance, or even if we had been able to set it up in daylight, we would surely have noticed that the shelter is not square, nor is the rainfly which is designed to cover it. Unfortunately, if a rectangular rainfly is set on a rectangular tent at a 90-degree angle from the way it is supposed to fit, the two ends of the tent will protrude from under the rainfly.

In the dark, in the rain, we had a 50-50 chance of doing it right. Unfortunately, we lost the toss.

20191017_084044webIn the morning, in daylight, we can see that the un-protected section of the tent roof is quite obviously not rain-proof. However, the bottom of the tent is water-proof, and Sis’s shoes are sitting soggily in a considerable puddle that has collected inside the tent.

“It was a pretty squishy walk to the bathroom,” Sis says.

“Oh, well, you have your hiking shoes to wear while those dry out, right?”

Sis suddenly looks stricken. “I meant to put them in the car. And then we had the fuss with the bikes. I’m not sure…. “

Will Sis find her hiking boots? Will we get the water out of the tent? Will we ever get a hot meal? Stay tuned.

And meanwhile –  MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Freeway-Free in Spain: Bilbao Re-Imagined – Day 1

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All I knew of Bilbao before arriving was what I learned from Andy Williams in the song about “that old Bilbao moon/I shan’t forget it soon…/While Tony’s beach saloon/Rocked with an old-time tune”.

Whatever Bilbao Andy was singing about has gone, if it ever existed. For one thing, there is no beach at Bilbao; it gained its success as a port because it was situated on a wide river inlet, well away from storms AND sand.

Bilbao was the Pittsburg of Spain, a busy port located near iron deposits, and thus steel mills and manufacturing plants. Like Pittsburg, when the iron gave out, the city verged on collapse.   The warehouses emptied, the port facilities were allowed to become outmoded, and manufacturing jobs left for cheaper labor pools.

City visionaries hit on the idea of re-positioning Bilbao as a cultural center, and reclaiming its idle port as a riverside sculpture park and promenade. Someone heard that the Guggenheims were thinking of establishing a satellite museum in Europe, and Bilbao pulled out all the stops to secure this prize. The result: a voluptuously curved Frank Gehry–designed building which is a destination in itself, supplemented by The Museum of Fine Arts (the second largest museum of Spanish art in the country after El Prado in Madrid) at the other end of the promenade,, and between them a lovely open green space bordering the reclaimed river, studded with sculptures, bridges, fountains, playgrounds, and outdoor performance spaces.

Sculptures vary from realistic to very abstract:

The fountains bubble graciously from traditional to naturalistic:

And the playgrounds are well-used (note: the red-capped youth on the rope net are the same ones you can spot starting their school field trip in the first photo above).

20190526_172636webSo – come to Bilbao for the walk, the outdoor art, the architecture, the parks… and that’s only the first day!

Freeway-Free in San Francisco: Bay to Breakers – Still Crazy After All These Years

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When our kids were pre-schoolers my husband took up jogging with some friends. In the spring, they decided to try the Bay to Breakers race/fun run in San Francisco. For the next two years they would set off early to start the race, while the kids and I would hustle into the car later and do our best to get to the windmill in Golden Gate Park in time to wave at Daddy as he went by.

Then I took up jogging, too, as did a lot of other folks, it seems. Bay to Breakers ballooned from a few thousand participants to tens of thousands. The night before the race became a family event, with my sister, my brother, and their families bunking at our house the night before. On race morning Grandma and Grandpa came over to look after the grand-children, while the parents crammed onto CalTrain with assorted crazy people in costumes. The race was always schedule within a few days of my birthday, so I always felt somehow that everyone was celebrating with me.

Fast forward a few years. My kids were both running track, and eager to smoke their dad and uncles in Bay to Breakers. Grandma and Grandpa decided to be walkers, so we found a baby-sitter for the younger kids. Bay to Breakers was up to over 100,000 participants, fueled by baby boomer enthusiasm and the free radio, TV,and newspaper ads put out by the sponsoring San Francisco Examiner. The race route was officially equipped with timers at every mile interval, first aid stations, and volunteers offering water, and unofficially equipped with rock bands on the corners and SF residents cheering us on from their balconies with showers of confetti and speakers blaring Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”.

Some teams ran yoked together as “centipedes”. The San Francisco Dental School carried a giant toothbrush and tube of toothpaste and chanted “Brush your teeth! Brush your teeth!” as they went by. Both men and women ran dressed as ballerinas, as cows, as the President, as nuns, as Elvis. There were some dressed in nothing at all. From the finish line at Ocean Beach participants back-tracked to the Polo Grounds, where the post-race Expo included more rock bands, the race T-shirt distribution tables, food and beer booths, and lots of free stuff. What a party!

More years have passed. I’m an empty-nester and an orphan, my husband has a trick knee, and my family has scattered. I haven’t done Bay to Breakers in years. A friend and I decided to make it a goal. So in the middle of May, in pouring rain, my husband took us up to the Millbrae BART station and off we went.

Since the Examiner folded, the race has had various sponsors: a bank, a grocery chain, an airline. With the lack of free media advertising, it has shrunk to maybe 25,000 participants. At each BART station we picked up people who were obviously headed for the race, but there were few costumes. We popped out of the underground at Powell Street and walked back toward the start.

Something new: lots of barricades to keep hotel guests and convention-goers from getting tangled up with the runners. Some things missing: the rainbow of balloons which used to make the start, the hovering helicopters, the crowd of spectators lined up along the start to cheer the runners.

Miraculouslyt, the rain had let up.  We saw the seeded runners go by.  We saw a centipede made up of twenty women dressed in black robes with lace collars who all managed to look exactly like Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  We saw a bunch of people dressed as cows.  We saw a naked runner carrying an obscene sign.  We decided it was time to jump in.

By the time we hit Golden Gate Park, the sun was shining so brightly that the Conservator of Flowers looked like a puff of meringue on its hill.  In between the rock bands, as we went through the blocked – off park, I could hear the magical sound of hundreds of feet hitting the pavement.  The post race party was relatively small, but we each still scored a bottle of water, a banana, and an energy bar to fuel our way back across the city on the N-Juday trolley to the Cal Train Station.  And we were feeling triumphant at making it from bay to beach with our thousands of friends.  Me and the City – still crazy after all these years.

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