Guilty of their own murders

We have had an extraordinary 2014 so far, given all the events transpiring domestically and abroad.  Striking are the number of incidents involving teenagers killed for no or minor reasons. I don’t want to be too technical in discussing this, because if we zoom in too closely, we tend to get buried in the specific details of each case and lose an important bigger picture, the long view that affords perspective.

I was not going to blog about Ferguson.  For one thing, Geoffrey and I have been hashing it over ever since it began and for another, there are new developments every two hours, it seems, on this roiling cauldron of issues.  But, from the standpoint that I can offer the social and behavioral scientists’ points of view, perhaps it is appropriate for me to share my take on all this, basically off the top of my head.

Some friends and I have been talking together about this for the past week, some online, others here in California.  I see this post as a chance to discuss this with my WP community, if you are interested. Since I view what happened in Ferguson as a symptom of underlying forces at work in our society that will require major legislative actions and then attitudinal shifts — as do all macro-level cataclysms to revolutionize hearts and minds — it really isn’t about one town, one kid, one type of crime, as much as it is the roots of all these similar instances which are buried deep below the social surface, so to speak.

So jump in and add your thoughts if you care to and don’t hesitate to differ with me or one another.  It may be we are all tired of the discussion (I know people expressed this exhaustion to me this weekend), or still awakening to a disturbing and growing threat.  And let me say, there are wonderful things happening in this country, like, for example, the way the Ebola emergency is being managed by the CDC — I wasn’t sure they could handle it.  They are doing so, amazingly, so far.  There are advances in every aspect of our lives and I don’t forget them when I also say, we need to address something dangerous that keeps popping up, before it gets away from us altogether.

I won’t go into all the many cases (the 16 year old walking with soda and candy, the kids playing loud music in their car, the girl in a car accident who bangs on a door for help in the middle of the night, and a kid who is shot multiple times as he walks down the street, and the husband and father choked to death on suspicion of selling illegal cigarettes — not a teen, but a sadly similar event).

But let’s just look at the beginning of the latest foment-ferment incident in Missouri.  Start at the beginning not in the convenient middle when riots break out in response to the mishandling of the death.  An 18 year old is shot multiple times, after witnesses say he put his arms up to indicate surrender, and was left for four hours, dead in the street.  When he was finally picked up — no 911 call made right after he went down, mind you — he was not taken to a hospital.  He was spirited away to an undisclosed location and the man who shot him, equally tucked away from public sight.

There are a lot of moving parts to this and similar stories.  Let’s just take a few of them here, for the purposes of an informal discussion but one we can have because we have been or should have been thinking about this subject for the past year, if not years, if not decades.

Race and gender

One of them, perhaps the key factor for me, is racism and cultural blindness.  You cannot look at the black community’s behavior today and judge it without considering the last 300 – to 400 years of white-black relationships starting with how they were brought here and what their lives have been like from that day to this.  It is quite easy to say, ‘get over it’, that was then and those were our forebears, not us, so let’s just start behaving ourselves today and don’t bring in the past.

Well, you and I couldn’t eliminate our pasts and start as a tabula rasa wiped clean the day we were born and neither can the communities of color who have lived in this country under the terms of the dominant white, European culture.  We act as we do today because of a fabric of expectations and opportunities in which we and our entire families and social groups have been woven and held closely for thousands of years.  So have people of other ethnic and racial groups.

We have to recognize that this incident would not have erupted into a full blown melee so quickly if people of color had not felt that there has been a systematic campaign to exclude them from voting for the past multiple election cycles.  All the reports of long lines, eliminated voting days and methods, requirements for very specific forms of ID, voter registration rolls purged are fresh in their minds.  They are well aware of the attempt to keep them from having a voice and electing representatives that look like and understand them.

Do we think it is lost on them the way the first AA President has been vilified, slandered, and ridiculed? All the nonsense and disinformation about Obama being associated with terrorists, being a foreigner from Kenya, a Mao-Mao, a colonialist, an Arab. Do we wonder that other people of color are incensed?

When communities are told that they must be indoors and off the street after dark, do you think it doesn’t remind them of the infamous Sundown Towns, the last remnants of which have only been abolished in the last decade? In fact, Ferguson was a Sundown Town until the late 1960s — that’s recent enough for me!

How about the way the media reports crime in this country.  Just take a look at this example.

Just these few examples of discrimination on the basis of race and color should be sufficient to drive the point home.  There are dozens and dozens of others, including the rise in neo-Nazi hate groups that target minorities, to enable us to understand that this shooting was just a match that lit an already smoldering pile of tinder.

One other thing to recognize about this from a racial or civil rights perspective and that is inter-cultural blindness.  What I mean by that is simply that it has been proven that races have a harder time seeing each other than they do members of their own race.  So, for example, a Caucasian attempting to identify African Americans in a lineup, is more likely to be mistaken than another African American would.  Research has been done to verify that this is so.

It was useful to consider this when looking at Captain Johnson of the State police handling a young black protester last week, who was very aggressive verbally, shouting threats and wearing a scarf as a mask.  Instead of retreating from him, Johnson walked toward him and spoke to him in such a way that the individual calmed down, removed his mask and spoke quietly with the Captain.  When he removed his mask, he looked like a young boy, and Johnson dealt with him with a soft kindness and compassion. With the mask on, the protester was menacing and looked fierce and older, more formidable.  When Johnson saw the young man, he saw fear and desperation.  What many white people see is a thug, an angry black man, and are afraid.

There is such a thing as racial profiling.  Keep in mind, the 53 man police force in Ferguson was comprised of 3 African American officers and 50 Caucasian officers.  Of 5000 police stops last year, 4600 were blacks, 400 whites.

African Americans are rightfully fed up with the biased light in which they are viewed in America, to this day. And, we need to remember that they are not monolithic as a community. There are just as many variations within the group we characterize as AAs as there are variations between that group and other groups, other racial and ethnic categories.  So, just because some young African American males commit crimes, does not mean that every time we see one, we should assume they are up to no good.  When white teenagers pilfer cigarettes from a convenience store, does any one of us think, “shoot and kill them”?

Poverty and socioeconomic conditions

You cannot understand the tensions in Ferguson and other equivalent towns without considering the high unemployment level it is suffering.  Much of this is the aftermath of the Wall Street’s cavaliere gambling with the economy that resulted in a Depression, which started in 2008, if not earlier.  This is increasingly a two-class economy, irrespective of race and ethnicity.  A great many young men and older women are out of work, disproportionately to the national averages, which are low to begin with.

Zip codes are the key to understanding this problem, especially when it comes to goods and services.  If you are in a depressed area, schools, food, law enforcement, peace protection, banking, infrastructure will vary widely from one area to another.

Living in poverty, going to schools that are pipelines to failure and even imprisonment will certainly affect your attitude and behavior.

The social dysfunction that plagues poor communities and breeds seething tensions on a continual basis makes them ripe for outside agitators to exploit and manipulate.  A lot of the rioting we saw in Ferguson, it is now clear, was committed by people who were not members of the community.

Militarization of police forces

In the wake of 9/11 and two costly wars in the Middle East, the Pentagon finds itself with surplus equipment.  Additionally, to help local police forces cope with terrorism of various forms, legislation was passed to enable their departments to purchase subsidized materiel from the military.  Things like fully automatic machine guns and tanks, called MTRAPS, for example.  Along with this, full SWAT gear, including uniforms and complete head armor and face masks.  This has been going on behind the scenes, largely, for the past ten or more years and thousands more local law enforcement units have orders in for the kind of gear we just saw deployed in Ferguson.  These are meant to fight an enemy. They have no place in the institutions that are designed to protect American citizens at home, other than in true SWAT emergencies.

The casual use of extreme measures and objects of warfare have had a large hand in the explosive violence taking place in Ferguson.  If Congress does not act immediately to put tighter restrictions on the issue and use of this military equipment in local peace protection departments, Fergusons will continue and intensify.  The size and nature of the equipment and its potential force are intimidating to the peaceful citizens who make up the vast majority of our American communities.  What is the point of needlessly frightening them?

Drug wars

This is related to the previous topic.  The simple solution is to end the drug wars and all the collateral damage they create.

We don’t know the details yet, but it’s apparent that, in spite of all we went through with Trayvon Martin so recently, in a clinchthe mean, messy place where these things always happenthe Ferguson cop Darren Wilson assumed that a big black guy was trouble, serious trouble, and shot him dead. It’s what happens in that clinch that matters, and we can now see that no amount of articulate protest can cut through such visceral human tendencies as bias and fear.

The prison-military-industrial complex

America has become a full blown corporatocracy along the lines that Eisenhower and even some of the Founders foresaw and warned against.  We have privatized so many services that used to be handled by public agencies that we have inadvertently created a greedy incentive to funnel customers to them.  I am speaking not only of the vast war machine and all the private contractors and vendors of supplies that the Pentagon feeds with our tax dollars, but also private prisons.  These are popping up all over the country and are providing in most cases sub-par care and treatment of the inmates, many of whom are there for minor infractions, drug possession (see heading above) and living while being young, male, and black.

In a way, I see this as entrapment.  The oversized and over-powerful weapons, uniforms, and vehicles are sold to the local peace enforcement units, who are given no restrictions or guidelines on their appropriate use. This stimulates confrontation that will likely end in peace officers walking away without any accountability beyond a slap on the wrist, and the incarceration of new clients into the private prison system.  Those private prisons are also subsidized by tax dollars but not overseen in the same way the public prisons are.  The corporations in this country, through entities like ALEC, are writing the rules and our pay-to-play Congress is enacting them into legislation, verbatim in most cases. Our Congress no longer represents the majority of the people of the United States, they represent international corporations, democracy be damned.

Is this what Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Franklin had in mind, do you think?

Ineffectual leadership and disorganization

If ever there was a poster child for ineffectual leadership, from the police chief to the prosecutor (who should recuse himself) to the Governor of Missouri, this case would be it.  Eric Holder brought in the FBI to interrogate witnesses because it is a federal crime to lie to the FBI. There were three independent witnesses who claimed that Michael Brown was surrendering and was down when the two final fatal shots were fired. Michael Brady, who saw Michael Brown just as the final four shots were fired, said that Brown had his arms tucked across his stomach, he had been shot twice as he tried to flee after Wilson had reached through a car window and grabbed him by the neck, allegedly on the suspicion that Brown and his friend had stolen a handful of cigarillos earlier. Wilson had fired two illegal shots at Brown who was fleeing.  Brown turned around and stumbled, then fell, as Wilson continued to fire, one shot through the top of Browns head, which killed him. There have been no witnesses to corroborate Officer Wilson’s contention that he was in fear of his life and that Brown advanced toward him, arms down, after the first four bullets hit him. Is it plausible that an unarmed, wounded teenager, shot twice, would actually try to advance toward a fully trained, armed law enforcement agent?  Ridiculous!  Brown did not have a criminal history. Wilson’s actions, if this story is true — and three independent witnesses give some version of this account — were illegal and criminal.

What can be done, then?

The people of that community want a forum where they can be heard.  If there are no other means, then, in the wake of this murder of an unarmed teenager who had his hands up and was heard to yell several times, “Don’t shoot!”, then peaceful, non-violent protest may be the only way to be heard until the better alternative is instituted.

There needs to be a place where any citizen can interact with community leaders. There needs to be a sense that the peace force is protecting the people of the town and has not morphed into a paramilitary brigade that seeks to terrorize and confine them in their homes.  The leadership in both the law enforcement and political arenas needs to reflect and be sensitive to the array of socioeconomic and ethnic groups that comprise the population. The largely white, middle class team of officials overseeing Ferguson, and that area of Missouri, apparently turn a deaf ear and blind eye to the plight of their constituents. In a town with 67% African Americans, why is there a white mayor? One reason is that it takes money to get someone elected. People of color in economic distress do not have disposable cash to fund a campaign, nor are they part of the power elite that attracts outside money for their candidates.

A mechanism for bringing the two entities together so there can be a dialogue that leads to practical solutions and improved communication and understanding when problems or disagreements arise has to be established.  The lack of just such a tool can be blamed for a lot of the despair and anger that has been expressed for the past two weeks.  This should not be happening in America.

Furthermore, this community needs jobs.  With over 30% unemployment, is it any wonder that people are miserable and hopeless? There is a bill sitting and waiting for approval for tens of thousands of jobs to be created all over this country if we would just let infrastructure renewal move forward.  What kind of idiocy and partisanship has stood in the way of this win-win project?  Please explain it to me in any other than political terms.

And, justice needs to move quickly, fairly and transparently.  The victim has no voice, but the defendant will be able to meet with and present his rationale to a Grand Jury, behind closed doors.  The process has been estimated to last through October.  This will only breed more tension, frustration and distrust.

The DA, Mr. McCullough has known conflicts of interest when it comes to police shootings and racial tensions. He needs to do the right thing and step aside.  If the county and state don’t act, then the Justice Department will step in and adjudicate this fairly and expeditiously.  We owe the community that much.

The public, the country, the community want the truth, wherever it leads.  An independent prosecutor, one with no close ties to law enforcement, needs to be appointed to shepherd the indictment process and fairly identify the charges.  It does not seem to me to be a complicated case.

It goes far beyond Ferguson.  There is a pattern of these murders of unarmed people who happen to fit a certain profile that we can all recognize as exposing them to greater suspicion than any of us would face if we were to find ourselves in their circumstances.

In my opinion, most importantly, we the people along with the media have to stop blaming the victims for their own murders. We need to look beneath the surface, behind the curtain and get the facts with as unbiased a mind as we can manage.

Image: Wikimedia Commons,




Birthdays can be a beach

On my birthday each year I review the last twelve months and think ahead to the new one.  For the past few birthdays, one of my friends who is an astrologer, has given me a summary glimpse of the year ahead.  They were quite positive but this year she didn’t say anything. Uh-oh. I am too apprehensive to even ask her.


One of the things one learns in astrology about a birthday, which is the ‘solar return’ or the return of the sun to the place in the terrestrial sky where it was positioned at the moment of birth, for each of us, is that the day itself is a preview of the next 364 days.  So just in case ;-), I try to make everything that happens on that day be what I want for the year to come.  I try to pick the events and people for that day as a harbinger of positive things ahead.


On my actual birthday, last Monday, I spent it with Geoffrey and we did the things I like:  ate out at one of our favorite local places, B.J.s (me for the pizza, for Geoffrey their home-brewed beers); went on a little photo safari; stopped and picked up the next day’s lunch at Poquito Mas, which is a Mexican food cafe in Studio City; went shopping; and watched some things we had DVRd.  It was  a lovely, relaxing day.


We also treated ourselves to a DirecTV upgrade by adding their Geni system.  We have had DirecTV for 15 years and love it.  It has to be one of the best companies and products ever, and one of the smartest choices I have ever made.  I remember distinctly what prompted me to make the switch.  After years of infuriating poor quality service and transmission from the local cable monopoly, out of the blue they announced that our older boxes were now obsolete and that we would be issued new ones, “when our turn came”. What?#$%&!? Meanwhile, half the channels stopped working and the others were full of snow.


I had specifically requested that at least one new cable box be put in the room with our largest TV at the time because there was a Friday special that Geoff wanted to see, and we had invited a large group to view it with us. Crooked Cable (my name for them, they shall remain anonymous — we were living up North at the time) promised just-in-time delivery of the box for that Friday. We set up the gate with a huge sign to tell the delivery guy we were home and to just come in, the gate was unlocked. You can guess what happened.  He pulled up, he saw there was a note, didn’t read it, didn’t try the gate and just left a tag saying he had been there and the gate was locked.


I was livid.  We took the whole group to a sports bar to watch the show instead and on Monday, bright and early, I disconnected all three cable boxes, loaded them into the car, stacked them on a luggage cart and set out to wheel them into Crooked’s bricks-and-mortar.  When I got there, there was a long line snaking out the door and down the block.  Everyone was loaded down with their cable boxes. While I was on the line, one guy literally smacked the service window with his box and cracked it, screaming at the woman behind the glass. Then I called DirecTV and within 24 hours, the whole house was wired, a new satellite was on the roof and we had crystal clear, flawless reception and warm, friendly, US-based customer service thereafter.  We never looked back or regretted it for a minute.


Now with the new Geni, all five TVs are programmable, access the same DVRd cache of programs, we have two Terabytes of storage for hundreds of saved shows and really cool new remotes that do all kinds of fun things.

One thing I did not want to do is spend this birthday, as I have every year since we got married, with certain people that were calling us to set up a birthday dinner.  If I didn’t want an unpleasant start to the new year, I wanted to avoid any anxiety, especially the kind of nerves that come with being with the In-Firm (Geoff’s family — forgive me, I know it sounds horrid).


Well, they conceded the day itself (inconvenient for them anyway, as it was a weekday) but insisted on a brunch on Saturday to cover four family birthdays in August, in their neck of the woods, natch.

Valencia, where Geoff and I live, is really an upscale town.  I picked it because it is as close to being on the road to points North, including my beloved San Francisco and colder climes, as one can be in Los Angeles county.  Haven’t I mentioned somewhere else, that I pictured myself in a house that I could somehow drag and drop onto the 5 Freeway and just ride it up like a conveyor belt to the places I prefer, should there be any need to get outta Dodge, LOL!? That’s the way I imagine it.


[You can't see it clearly via this little camera shot, but that spot in the center is a guy hang-gliding.]

But, on the other side of the 5 North opposite to Valencia is that infamous plague known as Magic Mountain — an overpriced, constantly-hyped amusement park that only a superannuated 17 year old could love, surrounded by inflated, garish food holes serving schmooey.

So, when the in-laws bring up Valencia, they always make a comment about its being the home of a second rate high ticket Disney-land wanna be.  And hence, they wouldn’t dream of sullying their tires by coming to us.  We must needs make the pilgrimage to the beach cities where coupon-clippers love to play.


[This was our table.  This time we were only 16 people -- a small group for the In-Firm ...]

Something Marey Mercy said on her most recent blog post, about recognizing that one does not have to be the life of the party all the time, really struck me when I read it this morning.  I should follow that myself. One of the primary (among many) reasons I dread going to these conclaves is that I am expected to be the performer.  All eyes are on me, for some reason. Whenever I am with these people, even though they consider me to be the step-relative charity case (read all my previous posts on this subject), they also somehow look to me to provide the entertainment, I guess because I have a million stories and the gift of gab. For one thing, whenever Geoffrey tells one of our stories, he gets the facts wrong and the punchline falls flat. He just doesn’t have a comedic gene.  So, naturally, I am appointed to do the honors. It is exhausting.


If you are always supposed to be “on”, you must be dressed for the part.  Heidi, Geoff’s sister, is the one with the budget to look like she stepped out of Vogue, always Betty-Draper-flawless. Vanessa, David’s ex, who is a knock-out, used to do that naturally, coming off as a movie star when all she was wearing some rag her grandmother dragged back from the Balkans.  Franny, another SIL doesn’t even bother. She and Geoff’s brother control the family purse.  They are constantly running off on trips. They buy whatever they want at the drop of a hat.  When she wants to, Fran has lovely clothes, most that my worshipping BIL buys for her.  But when she shows up to the Firm’s events, it is usually in shorts and a tank top with flip-flops.


But, yours truly is expected to look “a certain way”.  You know, NYC-over-educated-Euro-pricey-uber-hip-but-modest-chic. What a pain.  So I forced myself to put together a perfect outfit for the day: a fitted, above the knee black sheath with cream trim, that has a line of big round black buttons down the front,  and black polka dot flats. When I am at home, I slop around in cropped leggings and t-shirts.  But for this performance, I had to get dressed up.


We got to the place early, oh joy!  I was able to take some pictures on the down low with my little pocket camera.  I think you will get some sense of the area from seeing these poor quality but representative shots. It also enabled me to pick the right seat, so that others could look out the window.  It was around 10 am and my back was to the beach and shade.

What you don’t see is the endless stream of nubile, bronzed, townies issuing from some of the most expensive real estate on earth, descending in a stupefying beeline toward the sand.  This is not just a Saturday phenomenon — it takes place every single day of the year in a town where the majority of residents do not (have to) work for a living and their kids have never even heard of budgets or tight belts (metaphorically and actually).


I did my bit, going through my deep memory file of mishaps and malaprops that seem to be the hallmarks of my relationship with Geoff and his clan.  The newest member of the group, Laura, is the best audience.  A Gemini, she is just all bubbles and Cheshire-cat grins.  She used to work for a famous self-help guru and I can see why.  She may be quite different when away from us, but around her new husband’s family, she is the most superlative-spinning, hyperbole breathing human being I have ever met. It works, I felt quite at ease and all my anxiety melted away by the time the exquisite desserts arrived.

The whole event went better than I thought, despite the fact that I looked more Sutton Place than Strand in my city-girl garb and that it was close to 90F and humid at the beach. Wearing a crepe dress in that environment made me feel like a sticky blob of Fimo.


Only two things marred the day.  One, I was sitting facing the sun and just on a whim, whipped out my mirror to check my makeup.  Never look at yourself in full sunlight after the age of 18.  To my horror, I saw lines on my neck! How come they don’t show up in my mirrors at home? So, I stupidly asked my SO, did I indeed have said offending lines, expecting him to say, ‘of course not!’ or better.  Guess his off-hand reply.  I changed seats.

Then, when I got home, and tried to take off my cute cream and black polka dot shoes, I discovered the inner soles had literally melted in the heat and were glued to my nylons.  I had to peel the shoes off my feet and toss the stockings.

Good thing I didn’t try to audit my toenail polish at the restaurant during the bash, after all! :-D

Images: Beth Byrnes archives; click to enlarge them if you care to.



Bleeders in a world of sharp edges

My grandfather used to compare me to a cartoon character named Nippy, who was always mischievous and often wrong. Today we found out that many in the media who rushed to judgment about the cause of Robin Williams’ depression and suicide being attributable to relapsed substance abuse got it wrong.

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In a statement released Thursday, his widow Susan said:

Robin’s sobriety was intact and he was brave as he struggled with his own battles of depression, anxiety as well as early stages of Parkinson’s Disease, which he was not yet ready to share publicly.”

Behavioral specialists who deal with the illness of depression and suicidal ideation will tell you that suicide has deep roots and multiple triggers.  Certainly a physical illness as serious as Parkinson’s would be one of those.

I watch MSBNC and CNN.  The former is for the editorials and the anchors, the latter for breaking news.  Even though MSNBC would be considered to have a liberal slant, what I like about the hosts of the individual shows is their devotion, which I take to be utterly sincere, to accuracy in reporting and facts above hearsay and opinion. They also seem like smart, nice, decent people who would be interesting and enjoyable to have as friends.

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Every day, I also read an e-mailed devotional message from Dr. Charles Stanley — a curious thing for a somewhat fallen-away Catholic to do.  But, despite the evangelical background, founded in the Southern Baptist tradition, I think Dr. Stanley is a genuine spiritual teacher, someone who truly understands the human condition and is a kind, caring human being. There is no angry, accusatory God in Dr. Stanley’s cosmology.  He simply has human understanding and compassion.  Every day, one way or another, he reminds us to be good to ourselves and equally to one another, no matter who we or they are.  This morning’s passage quoted to illustrate Dr. Stanley’s message was this:

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you. Ephesians 4:31-32

Fully four-fifths of this country profess to be followers of Christ. Why are we all so hard on ourselves and one another then? Why is there so much hatred, violence, venom, spite, bigotry, racism, rejection and worst of all, unforgiveness then?

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We live in a world that is full of sharp edges, to quote Barry Levinson who said this, this week when asked about Robin Williams. If you read that short tribute, you will see words that should give us all pause:  too intelligent, delicate, fragile, sensitive, hurt — trying to make sense of the madness of this world and frankly, I would add, the anger of other people.

This is no longer about Robin Williams, exclusively.  It is about all of us human beings and what kinds of people we are in the 21st century.  It is about people like you and me.  Are we similar? I wonder sometimes.

I have spent my entire adult life trying to understand selfish, callous, exclusionary people. I want to know how a Christian country can turn its back on the poor and marginalized,  the disenfranchised (usually through no fault of their own), the handicapped, elderly, single mothers, children, groups of color, up to and especially including those with what we mistakenly term craziness or “mental” illness, as if it is all in the mind, and you can just think it away, if you are strong — the list goes on.  What philosophy, what type of mind and heart enables someone to be so harsh or hard?

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I don’t understand hard people.  Not that I count myself in his league, but I am very like Robin Williams in one particular trait: I feel deeply for others, both human and otherwise.  This is not weakness. This is intelligence and openness to life.  I literally feel pain when I think of the way children are misunderstood and entrusted to ignorant, thoughtless, unconscious adults, parents or otherwise. It is almost intolerable for me to witness cruelty and suffering.

I once accompanied Geoffrey to a project that involved retrofitting and restoration of a nursing home in Downtown LA.  The people there were so desolate, drugged to keep them from taking up too much of the staff’s time up with requests.  It was heartbreaking — as if, like the Eskimos, we simply exile the elderly to ice floes when they are no longer materially vital to our economy. When I saw Sarah Palin stand in front of a machine into which were fed live birds — turkeys — to be ground up for some unimaginable “food” product, I almost wept.  It was also remarkable to me how she stood there oblivious, unconcerned.  People who inflict suffering are turning their fear and anger outward.  People who commit suicide turn it inward, perhaps after years of witnessing barbarity like this.

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When I see a parent mistreating a child, it is almost impossible to bear without acting or at least saying something.  Truly, I want to understand: who are these people?  What manner of obtuseness or numbness leads people to be so tough? Is it better to be so closed, walled off to other living beings? This callousness and inhumanity are taught, modelled by unthinking adults.  Children are born naturally empathic and vulnerable.  Indifference comes from mistreatment and indoctrination, make no mistake.

Any child psychologist will tell you that the signs of a damaged personality are evident very early on.  These include hurting others, especially other children, small animals and even parents.  It almost always signals serious parenting failures.

I am sorry to tell you, toughness is not strength and almost all anger is self-generated and while it may serve to spur action, it almost always causes more trouble.  Caring people, sensitive, intelligent, heart-centered people turn their anger inward, unfortunately, not outward.  If you hear me criticize the tea party, it is because to me they appear to be a group of angry white people who just don’t want to share their good fortune (and luck!) nor responsibility for the well-being of the community that surrounds and supports them. In lashing out at others publicly they are demonstrating childish, immature and at worst destructive behavior in their self-centeredness.  It is a sweeping portrait of a type of person and one we need to retrain to feel their humanity and oneness with other life, not retrench in their privileged corners and fight off everyone else. Their anger is outer directed, when the problem lies within them.

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Just a couple of nights ago Geoff and I watched Paul Muni in the 1959 film classic, The Last Angry Man. The central character of what was a novel, then a play and finally this exceptional movie is an aging physician who gives of himself his entire life and whom no one understands. His anger was born of despair at the inhumanity of man to his fellows.

We have a broad segment of our population who are downright ignorant of the severity, etiology, and treatability of psychiatric disorders and diseases.  These are illnesses no different from diabetes or cancer or heart defects.  Such backward people imply that the sufferer of these very physiologically based pathologies caused the problem and therefore could simply suck it up, so to speak, and correct it.  That kind of willful stupidity is appalling to me.

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Just one example, Fox News has faced a furious backlash after it branded Robin Williams a “coward” following his suicide. “A petition calling on the right wing news channel to fire its anchor Shep Smith and immediately educate staff about mental illness and suicide has already received more than 100,000 signatures in less than 24 hours. Fox has been accused of ‘perpetuating dangerous and completely wrongheaded views of mental illness,’ after Smith called Williams a ‘coward’ live on air.” Rush Limbaugh, a wily huckster who makes money inciting gullible people to anger and violence, while he rakes in millions spewing bile, had the nerve to accuse Williams of being “angry”. Anyone who has listened to Limbaugh and his ilk of snake-oil salesmen can see that this is calculated and hypocritical. A man addicted to controlled substances, ridiculing someone with addictions, who as far as everyone knows, never lashed out at others. What irony.

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Michelle Cornette, director of the American Association of Suicidology said that William’s taking his own life, after a severe episode of depression, may actually have been a final act of kindness, trying to spare his family the continual roller coaster ride that is characteristic of the disease.

And then this  New York Times article caught my eye.

“Peering through his camera at Robin Williams in 2012, the cinematographer John Bailey thought he glimpsed something not previously evident in the comedian’s work. They were shooting the independent film “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn,” and Mr. Williams was playing a New York lawyer who, facing death, goes on a rant against the injustice and banality of life.”

Why continually blame the bleeders? Why not run interference against sharp edges?

When you get a minute, you might want to listen to this podcast when Mark Maron interviewed Robin Williams in 2010.

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My husband and I decided to make a run to the Hollywood Boulevard memorial at Robin William’s Star on the Walk of Fame. This was a spur of the moment decision.  I shared some of the many photographs we took on Flickr and another handful here.  It helped us get past our sadness to see the outpouring of love the day after Robin Williams died. One thing that struck us as touching was the effect of many arms and hands held high in the air for various reasons. The overall effect was one of a silent prayer being sent up high above the crowd, or possibly people reaching up for Robin, as if each single hand was clapping silently, one more time.

Images: Beth Byrnes archives.  Click to enlarge them if you care to.

Depression is an affliction of the gifted

I certainly did not plan to post this morning, but given the news yesterday about the passing of a great talent, artist, and human being, I thought I would just throw out a few thoughts.

It has been my observation that extremely intelligent people comprise a disproportionate percentage of those who suffer from clinical depression.  Part of our problem in discussing this psycho-physical disorder is the use of a word that has another meaning in common parlance.  A lot of the language we use to address what are science-based phenomena were developed before the science itself came into maturity, often from the 17th and 18th centuries. So, it is easy to misunderstand them.

Scientific breakthrough could significantly alter the treatment of depression

It would not be necessary or appropriate to go on at length about the psychiatric definition of clinical depression (that is easily found all over the internet and I am sure there will be many medical professionals speaking out about it again today, in light of Williams’s passing) but I do want to remind people that they need to act on behalf of a close acquaintance, family member or loved one who shows signs of the disorder.  It is even more acute if that person has been diagnosed.

People with clinical depression should not be left alone when they are suffering an exacerbation or flare of the disorder.  We will find out what happened to Robin Williams, but it is my guess that he must have been alone for too long a period of time, or this could not have easily occurred in this manner. The manner of death appears to be one that would take some time to bring about (and again, I am only going on what the media has reported.  Today we will likely get clarification on this).

Some people who suffer from this disorder manifest symptoms like mania (as in manic-depressive bi-polar disorders), and others by self-medicating with drugs, alcohol and even cigarettes (not that mild use of any of these indicates someone is about to take their own life, let me be clear).

It is my experience that, because this culture does not understand, nor support the admission of psychiatric conditions, those with syndromes like depression will try to mask their suffering, as if they have failed.  They are often bewildered by it and the kind of initial reaction they get and care they do or do not receive, will often make the difference in how they deal with the stresses it causes, for the rest of their lives.

Treatment should be ongoing, for life.  It is no different than any other physiological ‘disease’ and should be viewed and dealt with as such.  There are old drugs that seem to help, like lithium.  Lithium has been around for over 100 years or more and I have never heard of anyone dying from its side effects (although any time you introduce a pharmaceutical medicinal product into a living organism, there will be adverse effects). New treatments are being developed all the time.  A person with this issue needs a caring and up-to-date professional to guide them through the process of identifying the management therapy that is right for them.

On a purely temporary basis, diet can help.  Many times what appears to be depression can be caused by low blood sugar disorders.  Simply changing the diet to a series of small, balanced, protein-enriched meals can even out mood, when this occurs.

Another thing that can help, temporarily, are herbal-based products available over the counter, like SAM-E, St. John’s Wort (be careful here, as it has been implicated in liver dysfunction) and taking a calcium/magnesium multivitamin.  This is just to get past a down or ‘blue’ mood.  Sometimes exercise can help, and of course getting outside in sunshine.  If you are with someone who suffers from bouts that might be a sign of true depression, you can help by staying with them, talking to them, getting them a protein-rich meal (not too heavy, of course), getting them to take a walk in fresh air and even just putting a full-spectrum bulb in a lamp and seating them near it while you converse.

There is no substitute for professional help.  The depressed individual often does not reach out, because affect flattens during these episodes and they truly believe there is nothing that can be done. Or, when they are on medication and feeling better, they assume they no longer need it and often stop taking it, without letting anyone know.  There can be a crash of sorts when the chemical imbalance that triggers flares occurs. Those are dangerous moments.

If it were up to me, every clinically depressed person would have a buddy, similar to the system used, in many substance abuse support programs.

In any case, they shouldn’t be alone.

I will personally miss Robin Williams.  I don’t need to say anything else about him, as others, even President Obama, have said it so eloquently, I wouldn’t presume to tread on that territory.

But I would like to say: not one more.

Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between.  But he was one of a kind.  He arrived in our lives as an alien — but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit.  He made us laugh.  He made us cry.  He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most — from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams. — Barack Obama


Palette cleanser

I thought it might be nice to give you a break from all my personal stories or political and philosophical dissertations and just talk about my latest favorite hobby (apart from our butterfly sanctuary — more photos and discussion of that down the road). I like to do this on my Flickr photostream when I want to transition from the previous series.  Even though I prefer projects with a theme, in a set, because that is the way I learn best and can be methodical about taking pictures, I do get bored and don’t want anyone viewing them to be. So, I am wiping my canvas clean, so to speak, and embarking on a new and different set.


For my birthday, Geoffrey got me a new Nikon camera, then a 35 mm lens for it, and finally a wide-angle lens to complement the wide-angle fisheye on my Canon camera, that he got  me last year for my birthday.

I did a fair amount of reading before selecting the Nikon wide-angle lens.  This TechRadar article comparing eight lenses was particularly helpful.

Here is how Nikon describes the wide-angle lens I got:

AF-S DX NIKKOR 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED Lens
Offering a dramatic, ultra-wide 110° picture angle, the 2.4x AF-S DX NIKKOR 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED lens is ideal for landscapes, interiors, architecture and more. With two ED glass and three hybrid aspherical lens elements, Nikon Super Integrated Coating (SIC) and the exclusive Nikon Silent Wave Motor, the AF-S DX NIKKOR 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED lens delivers the exceptional image quality and fast handling that defines NIKKOR optics. Experienced Nikon DX-format photographers will immediately recognize the power of the new 10-24mm ED.


Awhile back I wrote about the fun I was having with the previous acquisition, a wide-angle lens I got for the Canon, a fisheye.

Here is how B& H describes that lens:

“Specifically designed for digital SLR cameras equipped with APS-C size image sensors, the Sigma 10mm f/2.8 EX DC HSM Fisheye Lens is a lens that captures a rectangular 167° view in all directions (when mounted on Canon SLR camera). The diagonal field of view of this fisheye lens produces striking images with exaggerated perspective and distortion.”

This is the quasi-180 degree kind, not the circular fisheye.  The 167 enables me to get a wide shot with minimal edge distortion or bend, unless I want it.  It also doesn’t automatically vignette or frame the picture with a dark edge. What this means is that with just a little effort, you can get an amazingly wide shot that takes in a lot of the scene you are viewing, both vertically and horizontally, without making it look rubbery or surreal. It often picks up more than the eye notices.  So, sometimes when I open the picture on my computer, I see the unexpected, not all of it desirable.


The one thing one has to be careful about, apparently, with any wide-angle lens is controlling the tendency to let in too much light, even though both the wide-angle and the fisheye have (removable) hoods.  With the viewing screen, I can tell right away if I am washing out the shot by shooting toward the sun. Sometimes I go ahead and take that picture anyway, because I can adjust exposure in a processing program to minimize the flaws that excess light causes. It may be the only way to capture something in a given situation.  Also, since I am still in the experimenting and learning stage, I go ahead and take hundreds of pictures, then only work with the best ones.  I am now shooting in RAW and JPEG so I quickly jumped up into the thousands of photos stored on my computers.

We just got a new desktop computer and added an external hard drive exclusively for my pictures.  I am going to get another external HD for my main, office DT computer so I will have multiple backup copies.  I am no longer storing them on my HDs because RAW photos, especially from the Nikon, eat up a  lot of space. When I get the chance (it has been on my list for weeks), I am going to get Adobe Lightroom 5+ so I can process in both Photo Ninja and Lightroom.


What I am doing here is showing an experiment with taking two shots for each scene: one with the Canon + fisheye and one with the Nikon + wide-angle.

We took the cameras out this past week and went to two spots here in Valencia, just so I could get a feel for the 10-24 mm without wasting a really good venue, like some of the ones we have planned for upcoming photo trips.


One thing I may have already mentioned several times is: Valencia is as dull as dried clay, even during the best times of the year.  In fact, we were noticing how different it was taking pictures in spots that we like (like our neighborhood and the Valencia Hyatt) when photographing in October, April and January.  In July and August, this place is like the Sahara: dry, dusty, withered, with angry light that washes everything out or stabs you in the eye.


When we went out on Wednesday, we thought shooting around 4 p.m. would be good because we had done that successfully in the past and gotten really nice illumination and soft effects, deep shadows. Nope! Not in summer. We baked and called it quits early so we could rush home and take showers again.

Guess we just couldn’t get it right, because Thursday we went out at 5:30.  Hideous.  Still too light, sun too high and piercing, and we still came home dripping, even though we were out for just under one hour.  Other times of the year, I max out at four hours.  Now we are thinking, next time we do this, we will head out at 6:30 in the summer.  If we are ever silly enough to take outdoor pictures in this torrid environment again, that is.


Another problem we ran into the first night had to do with the fact that Geoffrey was on the Canon/fisheye and I had the Nikon/wide-angle. My idea had been that we would each take a photo of the exact same scene, so we had a one to one comparison of the two cameras/lenses. Thinking I had explained this to him, I suggested that if he spotted something interesting, he could take the picture and I would then take the same picture and vice versa.  This started out well enough, but pretty quickly it became clear we were taking completely different shots! Geoffrey gets bored with quiet activities pretty quickly.  First thing I knew, he was angling the fisheye so differently that the scene was out of kilter altogether or a different scene. He picked up trash cans, dumpsters, telephone poles, signs, etc., that I had carefully avoided.


Part of this was due to the fact that the fisheye really takes in 180 degrees and the wide angle only about 110.  But part of it was that at one point he thought it would work to stand behind me and shoot over my head. The result was really comical, if I hadn’t been so annoyed that we wasted a lot of shots that way.  There are camera lenses, lens caps, locks of hair, shadows, silhouettes of us, straps floating in the foreground from that hastily improvised technique.


So the second afternoon we went out, I took all the pictures and Geoff was my camera holder. It must have looked rather unusual.  We went to the Valencia Hyatt, the one upscale hotel complex in Santa Clarita, and having two people marching around with cameras, him handing them off to me, raised a few eyebrows and of course made both of us nervous.  I am still not comfortable taking pictures with people staring at me — especially after a little run-in with someone on a line at LAX last week. He just kept grilling me as to why I was taking pictures. Why does anyone take pictures of traveling family members? What else did he think I wanted them for?


Even more nerve-wracking, was taking pictures in our neighborhood.  Brother, have people become suspicious!  We have lived here for a long time now.  I always dress conservatively when I walk around among all these older, tea-partiers because I have already gotten quite a few curious inquiries over the years, from neighbors (why do you have two Volvos; why don’t you chop down that tree, it makes you sweep every day; why do you have double-locked gates [one of our ex-employees had threatened to kill us a decade ago, when he was fired]; why do you do your own gardening; what church do you belong to? NO church???) etc. This time, every time we stopped to take a picture, even of our own yard, there was someone coming to a window or gate to inspect us.


I think the pictures, side by side speak for themselves.  These are SOOC, straight out of the camera.  Also, it should be kept in mind that I turned them all into JPEGs, which are lossy files, and I reduced the Nikon shots from 300 resolution to 72.  The Canon were already at 72. Finally, I did not use a flash with either.  It is obvious where that flash would have helped and where these pictures would need adjustments in the processing and editing phase.  I did not want to touch them at all, for this post.


Each camera and lens has its strengths.  Some of the results surprised us, when one or the other did something well that we thought the other camera should do.  Anyway, it was fun. Now we can move on!

 Images: Beth Byrnes archives [Click on the photographs to enlarge them, if you care to.]




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