Model America

Ah the good life! California: sun, sand, sea.  Valencia — clean, safe, elegant, safe, beautiful, efficient, pleasant and, well, safe.


007_v1.JPEG small

This morning, as we faced another scorching hot, humid day here in Shangrila with temperatures soaring up over 100F (40C), I ran Geoffrey over to the train station.  No way are we leaving our precious roadsters to the vagaries of the local citationist (wasn’t there a car called the Citation at one time? What could they have been thinking!).

When I got back, at 6:15, to wipe down the car (we are not allowed to wash our cars now — three straight years of hotter and hotter temps and no rain) and sweep all the walkways and the driveway (something I do every day.  Not gonna pay a “gardener” aka slash-and-burn artist, to blow our mulching material away — what do they do with that stuff? Probably sell it!), my neighbor down the street came running over.

042_v1.JPEG small

She was breathless. Did I hear the news?  Home invasion robbery at gunpoint in our neighborhood! Scheiße, no! We just got rid of the meth heads across the street.  Five months of gutting and rebuilding that house.  Now a young couple has bought it and they are spending another month “renovating” the renovation.  Now this home invasion?

You know, I have lived in all kinds of places and never, never run into this.

When we lived in Manhattan, we were on the second floor in an elevator security building (no doorman).  It was a restored historic 150 year old warehouse that was reconfigured to have large coop lofts with high ceilings (18 to 20 feet) and enormous seven foot by 12 foot windows. We had a deck with huge French doors that opened from our family room and master bedroom. That deck was an easy climb from the ground level for any nimble marauder.  Yet, when we took off on trips, we just locked it up and didn’t think twice.  Granted, we had a four-way vault-lock in the main door, a heavy-gauge steel affair with thick bolts that shot up into the ceiling, into the frames and down through a stone threshold, far into the concrete sub-flooring. If anyone wanted to break that door down, they were going to have to blast it clear out of the structure itself. We had a closed circuit video intercom system that connected us to the lobby so we could see and talk to anyone buzzing us to come up. Nope, we felt perfectly safe, even when walking Snowflake early and late.

076_v1.JPEG small

When I was going to grad school, I had an apartment in what could be charitably called a neighborhood in transition.  After the relative serenity of going to school in safe, bucolic Upstate NY, and growing up on lower Fifth Avenue and a horse farm town in New Jersey, called Colt’s Neck, on five wooded acres, I had to mentally and physically adjust to this new reality. My solution at first, while I was just taking classes, was to wear all black, formidable ankle boots from Olof Daughters of Sweden and a backpack.  I had a canister of Mace that a friend got me from a local police department (it was illegal to have it at the time, but I figured, I’d use it if I had to and deal with the infraction later) in my pocket and money in my bra only.  Just plain gold studs in my ears — nothing to steal, nothing interesting and ready for a sprint.  And I had to use it too, I was chased once from Columbia to the subway.  But that was only one time and I outran the guy.

085_v1.JPEG small

Then, when I taught a few classes and did some research in South America, I lived in a very nice city where — as is the case in all Latin countries — there are only two groups of people: very very rich and very very poor.  How many rich people you ask? About 2 percent.  Ergo, poor people, well, you do the math.  In said lovely city, I had an apartment in a compound of the one the local patricians.  When the Dono de Casa went away with his family he simply rounded up a family of peasants, armed them with rifles and installed them on the roof of the premises for the duration.  His instruction was simple: shoot first, then haul away the casualties.  So, I never had to worry.  Oh, and when the family was home? That same team lived outside in what I had at first thought were the animals quarters.  We Americans jokingly called him Juan Valdez and his seven shooting sons.  It was really no joke, though.  The compound was ringed by a very high wall, on top of which was broken glass around the entire perimeter, embedded in very rough stone.  Every wealthy family in the city lived in a similar cordoned estate.  Literally, outside the wall, the poor eked out a living, selling food in small niches they carved out — the walls were that thick.  It has to be where the term “hole in the wall” came from, to describe a shabby eating establishment.

095_v1.JPEG small

No, I never had a problem there. Nor in Morocco when traveling, nor in Greece, nor India, nope, not once.

I had to come all the way to the Safest City in Southern California, according to the Valencia Tourist Board and “one of the safest towns” in the US, in order to feel scared out of my wits.

Apparently, there have been a string of these home invasion robberies at gun point over the past month.  Two, just this week.

Lovely. Then Bunny, my neighbor went on to say that she and her husband had to attend a funeral at the other end of LA and they were frantic about leaving her pets, afraid that they would be shot while she and Joe were away.  So, they loaded the dogs into the car and took them with them.  That’s all I needed — I am already so uptight and suggestible! I stopped sweeping and ran inside to close and lock all the windows.  On a stifling day.  I wasn’t looking forward to my electric bill, because this meant I had to turn on the central air.  When it is on, the utility bill doubles. I could see my next lens rolling out of reach.

102_v1.JPEG small

OK, went around checking all the doors.  Why do these houses have so many doors? We have 9 doors! Twelve if you count the three garage doors. Crap! What a pain.  OK, also, tilt the shutters so no one can see in. What else? Make sure the gates are all locked. We have five gates. the two main gates are very tall — at least as gates for a normal house go.  They are eight feet high, very sturdy and have ornate iron grillwork but spikes at the top (hey, at least it isn’t broken glass!) and technically, we slid them in there when we first moved in without going through the red tape required.  Actually, the new CC&Rs of the Houstapo prohibit having those spikes but ours are now grandfathered in.

What’s more, the locks I put on them cannot be opened without a key — they are double keyed on each side.  We keep the keys handy in case we need to dash out of there, so we don’t worry about that.  The rest of the property is ringed by a high stone wall.

So, with a sloppy front yard and walkways left half sweeped, I had secured the domicile and was feeling reasonably at ease.  I went to the back of the house to the office and set about to start a project.

NIKON 10 TO 24 mm WIDE ANGLE 017_v1.JPEG small

Just as I was relaxing with my second cup of coffee, Ricky started going crazy, barking and jumping around like a maniac. Unlike our other lab, Ollie, who is in canine valhalla now, Ricky is a barker.  Where Ollie would invite every fulano, beltrano and syncrano in, and welcome, Ricky is suspicious even when Deanna and Al come to stay.  So, I didn’t take it too seriously and started to yell at him for making such a racket and putting me even further behind. What, me, worry? No!  I have the gates, right?

Apparently not.

To my horror, someone was actually pounding hard on the foyer door.  I literally thought I would fall through the floor, I was so terrified.  I tiptoed to the peephole, which is a fish eye, thanks gott, and looked out to see two men on the little vestibule patio between the main gate and the house door! Ricky was still jumping around and I really started to sweat, thinking that they would somehow push in the flimsy California construction front door with the beveled glass and some old Schlage deadbolt that any kindergartner could probably defeat in their sleep. And, these two men seemed to feel I should open that door, because they were peering through that fish eye from the outside!

As you can imagine, we do not “pack heat”. I do keep a baseball bat under my side of the bed for when Geoff is out of town as he is tonight — wouldn’t you know it — but that was just no plan.  Moreover, I was wondering how the heck they got through the gate? There is another gate between the front gate and the back/side yard, so they would have had to scale one or the other.  The back gate has a creeping vine and it wasn’t disturbed.  The front gate has those angry spikes.  I just couldn’t process this.  I called 911.

071_v1.JPEG small

Yup, for the first time in my life, I called the cops.  Why I didn’t hit the panic button on our alarm system and reach out for the security company on-call agent is beyond me.  That is what the system is for and it works instantly, we know, because we tripped it ourselves a couple of times and the sheriff was at our door it seemed like 30 seconds later.

As I am breathlessly whispering into the phone my address and what was going on, I see the shapes of the two men passing down the walk and out onto the sidewalk in front of our house. I couldn’t see them clearly because I had all the shutters closed and I didn’t want them to see me opening them! What a comedy of errors.

081_v1.JPEG small

The 911 operator was very with it and said she would send a deputy over to cruise our street, just to see who these men were. There is also a neighborhood security company that we are supposed to call but I wasn’t about to go fishing for that number while these guys were pounding on my door and my dog was going postal in the foyer.

I finally caught a clearer glimpse of them from an upper window and they were dressed in dark slacks and light colored button down shirts.  They were tall and well groomed looking from what I could see of them from upstairs.  By this point, I was holed up in the solarium office with Ricky and Psyche, both of whom were now totally flummoxed by all this pandemonium.  I was so unglued, I shot off a brusque email from my phone, with no punctuation, to my client, backing out of the project. Man, what a mess.

How did they get through my locked gates? Once I was sure it was safe to venture out, I dashed out the front door and down the steps and tried the big gate.  It was locked! It is a key lock and the thing was totally tight, not budging. Honestly, at first I could not imagine how they came and went with that gate locked.  The only thing I can think of is that in my haste and worry when I came in this morning, I had locked it but not made sure the latch caught and so it was locked but not shut, and those guys must have shut it behind them.  (Come to think of it, if they had let the gate slam when they came through it to my door, they would have been trapped inside. Wouldn’t that have been a Tijuana standoff? LOL!). That fact, more than anything, made me relax.  No thugs were going to shut the gate carefully behind them.

NIKON 10 TO 24 mm WIDE ANGLE 015_v1.JPEG small

The funny thing is, the news report that the sheriff put out this afternoon (and I plan to check for updates regularly, believe me, since I will not feel safe here until those guys are behind bars) admonished us to be suspicious of everyone, even someone wearing a suit and driving a late model car.  Can you believe that? If I had read that first and then saw those two clean-cut guys out on my doorstep, I would have died of a heart attack there and then. And of all days for these two, what, from some church or charity, to be out strolling this particular neighborhood. Don’t they listen to the news? They didn’t drop off any literature.  Who were they? Why did they come to our door? Why did they pound? Crazy!  Meanwhile the real armed robbers are still on the loose.  Great.

Check here for updates, I will keep you posted :-D.

Images: Beth Byrnes archives, yeah, this is our neighborhood where the home invasion robbery took place just a few blocks away from us, second one in town this week. Roll over the pictures to enlarge. You may notice some nice dark clouds in some of these pictures.  Alas, they were from late October last year.  I haven’t seen a cloud in months, this year …







A tale of two cities on 9/11

In memory of all those who perished during the tragedy in New York thirteen years ago, I am republishing my post from last year, which I had shown briefly and then made private.  Here it is again.  Peace, everyone.

In an earlier post, I talked about the unusual coincidences around disaster that have occurred periodically in my life.  One of them took place a week before 9/11.

Nostradamus had  predicted a major attack on NYC  (we can talk about this some time, I know, I know, but I have a theory on Nostradamus, anyway …), so in a vague backwater place in my mind, I had always planned to get out of NY before 1997-9, the year that this was supposed to take place, just to be on the safe side.  We left in the mid-90s to relocate to California where my husband wanted to be for other reasons. Of course I was sorry to leave NY but considered my self lucky to be well out of there in time, just in case, ;-).

After the 1993 WTC bombing, I thought no more about it.  That certainly didn’t qualify for the description Nostradamus gave of a world shattering event. Naturally when there was a lot of chatter the summer before the second wave of attacks, I paid a little more attention. Particularly to the fact there was some  faint buzz in the media about FBI warnings on Bin Ladin.

On Tuesday, September 4, 2001, our family was at LAX having a little send-off for a small group heading to a cruise, that was departing from Boston.  My husband and I, early for the airport soiree, were sitting in the gate area (remember when we could do that? That was the last time.) when I happened to look over and see a strange scene in the lounge across the aisle.

Here, I should mention that I had traveled through Frankfurt airport in Germany once and distinctly remembered signs all over warning about terrorists.  Apparently this was a remnant of the hijackings of the Seventies. German airports were especially alerted to suspicious activities and so signs abounded, ‘Unattended luggage will be detonated'; ‘Do not accept a package from anyone outside your party’, ‘Report suspicious activity’, etc., etc.


Being hypervigilant at airports anyway, I really don’t like hanging around them unless I am traveling and then I want to be in and out quickly. Given my particular mindset what happened next would likely only occur with people like me, with this somewhat paranoid frame of mind with respect to flying.

I had nothing to do but scan the airport in my usual periscope-up mode, so as my eyes swept the vicinity they swung by a young couple over in another seating area  and then snapped back.

The guy was in his late 20s, early 30s, I would say.  He was dressed in  what I would call an ‘athletic’ outfit, as if he were headed to the gym: stiff brand new jeans, a spanking white T-shirt, unprinted, perfect Nikes and he was carrying a new bowling-type bag.  He was clean shaven, dark skinned, with closely cropped hair.  His head was down a bit and he was looking intently at his cell phone.

What made my heart stop though was the girl he was with. She was about the same age, maybe younger. Same dark skin, black hair and dressed head to toe in the black version of the beekeeper suit, as Bill Maher calls them – she looked like a Saudi nun.  There in a California airport was as incongruous a duo as I had seen in my entire life.

But it was even stranger than that.  This girl was clinging to that guy, while he largely ignored her, and was crying and carrying on like nobody’s business.  She was having a serious meltdown.  And he was having none of it.  He started getting agitated and furtively looking around. Now, mind you, Middle Eastern women do not behave this way in public – it is all about shaming. This is extraordinary conduct for a group that is habituated to being virtually invisible.  Picture, for example, that hilarious scene with Habib and his wife in Father of the Bride where he shuts her down with one barked command, after she ventures a timid opinion.

I immediately whispered to my husband to look at those two!  What was going on? What did he think of them.

You would have to know my husband.  He was draining a beer and wolfing down a huge bag of something salty, forget what it was.  Nothing ruffles this guy, well, nothing that bothers me anyway. He snorted and said something the equivalent of ‘Don’t be ridiculous‘. End of story for him.

But now I was in full emergency mode.  The rest of the family arrived with the travelers and things went on as per usual, all the bon voyage stuff, buying mass quantities of airport crap in honor of the occasion, etc., etc.

Then it was boarding time.  OMG, that guy — not the beekeeper gal in black — just the suspicious-acting character she was with, was getting on the same plane to Boston. As I was helping and hugging the people from our family that were boarding, I panicked.  I am not the type of person to sit back and say nothing. I wanted to go talk to the people at the counter and tell them what I saw.

Remember, this was September 4, 2001.

The family chimed like a Greek chorus, ‘don’t you dare’, ‘oh god, you’ll make a scene’, ‘we’ll be so embarrassed’, ‘you better get a grip’, ‘your fear of flying is outta control’, the usual drill from that crew.  The SO was now openly laughing in disgust.

So, I went over to where our group was boarding and made it a point, as I made my goodbyes, to fix my most withering glare on that guy, while they were all on the line slowly inching toward the door.

For one long second we locked eyes.  I know he saw something in mine, because I saw a flicker of wariness in his as he looked back at me, and quickly looked away.  I made a mind-print of him.

So, OK, life went on.  Back in the routine.

One week later, I was home with a nasty cold (probably caught it at that dang airport, typical) when I got a phone call early in the morning from a co-worker saying, ‘Have you seen what’s happening in NY? Better turn on the TV’.  I froze.

Literally mesmerized in horror I watched Katie Couric and Matt Lauer discussing a plane that had lost its way and wandered into the city’s airspace,  hitting the tower. What?! How does that happen.

I stood there, watched the first tower fall, the second, and the horrible dust cloud thunder up Broadway.

Right then I knew: I had seen one of those guys at LAX exactly seven days before.  I called my husband and told him and again, he just dismissed me but of course, it was harder to do and even he was a bit shaken up.

By Wednesday, they had the pictures of those 19 hijackers up on the news.  I looked at every one of them carefully and I found ‘my’ guy.  His name was Kahlid al Midhar. He must have been, I figured out later on, on a practice run.  I don’t know if he returned to LA or hung out back East but he was at LAX on September 4.

Tribute in Light

That same Wednesday I filed a report with the FBI.  I thought they might want to check the manifest for the 9/4 flight and talk to other passengers. Even though they gave me a case number and took down the information, they seemed pretty disinterested.

No one in the family gave it any credence either, but I take it as another one of those close encounters I have periodically, glimpses into the abyss.  They all seem to be in NY or LA and have to do with travel.

Make of this what you will.

Images: Wikimedia Commons


Iraqional exuberance

Well, my recent return to Twitterdom is already sparking new screeds.  Liz Sly of the Washington Post recently tweeted from the Middle East in essence that there is no one there that isn’t scared to death, totally confused, and utterly depressed.

I don’t want to appear glib or flip here, by this title.  This is a deadly serious matter. ISIS is a threat to the civilized world.

The entire Fertile Crescent is under attack. I think we should allow the Sunni and Shia to sort out their thousand year old (or more) feud themselves but keep ISIS/ISIL from metastasizing. The world has to coalesce to extinguish this incubus in its crib. These are brutal barbarians, a well armed gang little different from those that maraud through Sub-Saharan Africa.  Just their treatment of women alone should be a wake-up call to every decent human being on this planet, and certainly this country. Tell me what kind of men advocate re-instituting female genital mutilation?

Let’s also stop elevating them to their self-aggrandizing “State” status. They are just a prowling troop of ruthless murderers, a far cry from any kind of organized governing body of a people. Why does the media continually adopt the language of offenders?

My purpose here is always to voice a personal point of view that is based on a number of factors, but primarily a behavioral or social scientist’s perspective as well as my own opinion. This topic is so big and I have been mulling over Iraq and the region for so long (over a decade) that I could probably write a tome or a post that would exceed the patience of any of you, here.  And I know that in some ways, there is no need for me to say anything, as the situation will be whatever it is, without my help.  But I do want to express these thoughts because I am a Progressive and this is just one more issue that cannot be boiled down to red or blue.  It defies being simplified along those lines. So I will just share a few of my conclusions, for what they may be worth and if for nothing else to dispel the notion that people like me are just outright pacifists.

While I understood the reason for the first Gulf war, I could still argue that there were probably other avenues open to us to address Iraqi aggression at that time. The second incursion, our invasion of a sovereign country, was a completely different matter. That was the largely the mercenary and miscreant brainchild of the Neocons and it has turned out to be a complete fiasco, to put it charitably.

When I vote, by the way, I don’t just go by party.  I study the individuals involved, their backgrounds, training, IQ, philosophy, ideology and business ties as well as to whom they are beholden.  In the 2000 election I did not want Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics or Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, Jean Kirkpatrick, David Frum and Bill Crystal running this country.  In my opinion, that analysis was totally justified by the squandered trillions on a feckless and catastrophic war, and a broken economy that can also be laid at the door of runaway Wall Street hoodlums. The entire thing collapsed on them in 2008.  It was a pyrrhic victory for the rest of us, though, because we ordinary citizens bore the brunt of these failed practices while the Dow has almost tripled, so the perpetrators walked away unscathed and are at it again. I have read that they have added bundled rental securities, based on the thousands of foreclosed properties they scooped up (these guys win either way), to their credit default swaps strategy. As a Keynsian, the ignorance of anyone who swallowed trickle-down theory (it has never succeeded in practice anywhere) is appalling.  Here we are in stagnation for the the ordinary American, and now the same voting public is about to put control back in the hands of the people that tanked the economy.  What can be the matter with America?

That same avaricious group of amateurs pulled the pins out of the Middle East and look at what we have today as a result.  They have the temerity to blame it on the current administration. I really don’t want to hear another word out of them. They have zero credibility.

It would be so easy to fall back on merely storming and bombing our way out of this crisis right now.  But it would be another disastrous error and the problem, which has been seething for the past 100 years years since the British foolishly tried to re-design the map in that area, would just worsen exponentially.

In his book The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman offered valuable insights on this subject. Friedman said the confluence of young, frustrated, disaffected Muslim men in the Middle East, subscribing to a selective sharia version of the Koran, absent gainful employment and with instant access to social media, where they can now see the prosperity the Western world enjoys (they think, at their expense) has sparked a groundswell of irrational enthusiasm for violence and anarchy.  Just as teenagers in this country love to play graphic bloody video games, listen to gangland music, and are supporting an entire industry of death-cult books and films, these men in the Middle East are drawn by blood-thirst to jihad.  Having our boots re-enter or entire villages blown to smithereens by daisy cutters will only feed that beast and support the lies they are being fed by their radical leaders.

Before I forget to mention it.  I have read dozens of books and articles on the 2003 Iraq war and about the way in which we bulldozed over that region in a simplistic, almost eighth grade superficial underestimation of the complex dynamics of the factions coexisting there. There were probably only a handful of Americans who really understood the Shia/Sunni feud, the cultures of the Middle East and how Beduoin Arabs differ from Persians, and Ottoman Turks. Yet we sent in contractors to occupy the Green Zone like Paul Bremer and his team of high schoolers to make decisions as to how the country would be (mis)managed, once shock and awe subsided.  There isn’t much point in going into it now, the horse is out of the barn and the barn destroyed, but I continually asked at that time in one place or another, why didn’t they hire some social scientists who were experts in the region as advisers? There are anthropologists and social psychologists who specialize in the area and who could have helped avert some needless errors.  I still shake my head in disgust when I think about how incompetently the post-military logistics were carried out.

But, let’s put that aside for the moment, because we have the current situation to deal with and now it will require a much more comprehensive and cerebral plan, and execution that will likely entail global hands-on involvement added to micro-tuning as we go along.

Here are my suggestions based on what I see happening, what I know of the area from my own studies, and what some people far closer to the issue have advised. There is a chorus of voices clamoring to have their ideas put into action, so I will just tell you what I would recommend, hubris aside, if the President’s team cornered me at the local Ben & Jerry’s and asked my advice.

US Navy Seals

1. Continue and increase funding the peshmerga in Kurdistan substantially and help stand that territory up as an independent country.  Put a sizable embassy and base there and shrink that albatross in Baghdad or sell it to Xe Corp. Keep funneling humanitarian aid to the peoples of Iraq who are being terrorized by ISIS.

2. Pressure Turkey into using whatever part of their 650K-man trained armed forces to take this fight on the ground to the ISIS recruiting centers.  Right now, in Mosul, the second most important city in Iraq, the Turkish embassy and its personnel are being held hostage by ISIS. It seems to me Turkey has a huge dog in this fight.  Get them moving on this, now.

3. Continue the drone strikes on ISIS columns and find a way, through intermediaries like Iran to penetrate Syria and obliterate their training centers. Taking out Mr. Baghdadi may not solve this problem, but it sure wouldn’t hurt! And it would in part avenge the deaths of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, at least in the minds of most Americans.  Maybe this is the place to consider involvement of a small elite group of our Special Forces.

4. Force Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAR and Jordan to get involved.  As people have been saying all along, we beefed up the Saudis’ defense systems, let’s call in that chit right now.  If not now, then when? What was it for?

5. Bring in those who typically hang back, as in: China, with relatively full coffers. Russia (some suspect Chechen fighters trained ISIS, what role does Putin have then — is he backing Syria or them?)? Japan. Are they involved at least in economic terms any more?  No question, like G. H. W. Bush did in the first Iraq war, Obama is putting together a strong coalition. Well and good, but if it doesn’t include these people, then I think we are leaving assets on the table.  How about South Africa? Bring them all in to own this problem. What about Israel? They should by now be the world’s experts in dealing with and crushing Islamist gangsters — are we picking the brains of their advisers? How about Mexico? I assume they are or should be part of the team going forward.

We also need help from the region in cutting off the flow of supplies to ISIS, shutting down their support network.

6. ISIS uses the Internet to put out their evil propaganda, let’s turn it around on them. Create a series of videos aimed at those new Islamist recruits as well as the ISIS leadership.  Have US military personnel, special forces, Marines, Seals, someone knows who the best choices would be, telling these people, head on, what they would individually do if they were to encounter them on any turf.  I am sure the guys who have already been in that region fighting, would know exactly how to strike terror in the minds of anyone contemplating joining up with those thugs, but especially Americans and Europeans who are secretly planning to add to their murderous ranks.  ISIS uses videos to terrorize, let the people who know what it is like to fight them, give it right back to them.  Get right in their face, on their screens, and communicate with them in a language they can understand.

The administration plans to “degrade and destroy” ISIS in a multi-year campaign.  We cannot do it with our usual troops on the ground because the US is now perceived as being toxic in that region. We need a longer term policy that will help us help those people put the Levant back together.

Tonight, the President is going to lay out his plan.  How can anyone believe he didn’t have a strategy? They apparently haven’t studied this man or his accomplishments to date (as well as failures, he hasn’t been perfect). But I don’t want him to disclose too much of the plan or its details, to forearm the enemy. Barak Obama, using our elite Special Forces, got Bin Laden, along with another dozen or so high profile Al Qaeda leaders in half a dozen places and just last week,  the head of Al Shabaab in Somalia.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of 9/11.  I didn’t worry about Sadam Hussein attacking New York, but I am concerned that these Boka-Haram-wannabes will.

Congress needs to act.  Their Constitutional duty is to advise and consent.  This long term military campaign and regional coalition must be brought to a vote and they need to get behind the policy that they as representatives of the American people ultimately devise. They need to back the President.  Remember “if you’re not with us, then you’re against us”? If any member of Congress just plans to punt and be a flame-thrower to attack Obama, then isn’t that, in the words of a former great leader, “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”? Let’s help the President get these butchers in the same, methodical, relentless and surgical way he went after the other terrorists eliminated on his watch.

Let’s put politics to work in that region and leave it aside at home.

Images:, TheTimes.Co.UK



Alas, through the looking glass

NIKKOR 16 85 SEPT 1 2014 VALENCIA 075_v1_v1

Look out what you wish for. This is the latest chapter in my ongoing love affair with my Nikon camera.  It seems none of my passions are of my own choosing. They come seeking me out.

Like Alice, when I am smitten with a project, I fall through some aperture and find myself in a wonderland of new sights and ideas.  That is what’s been happening again and again  since I got this camera and each of its exceptional lenses.

Not all glass is alike.  It is truly incredible to me that by changing one small mechanical component, the capabilities of the camera itself are transformed. And the minute I saw that, I started hankering for upgrades to everything. Natch.

NIKKOR 16 85 SEPT 1 2014 VALENCIA 013_v1_v1

With each of the special lenses I have gotten for this camera, I have been astonished at how effortlessly it helps me take satisfying pictures.  I had been especially impressed with the 35 mm prime lens, because I was able to take, not only real-life-simulating pictures of what was right in front of me, but things far away.  I am still wondering how that was possible with a lens that has only one distance parameter.  The strength of the 35 mm is that with it the camera sees what the human eye sees (well almost, the human eye is the most amazing lens of all).

That is, until I saw what appeared on the other side of the 16-85 mm glass that I just got.

NIKKOR 16 85 SEPT 1 2014 VALENCIA 089_v1_v1

Last Saturday, when the lens arrived, I felt like Ralphie getting his Red Rider BB gun.  Part of my anticipation was the anxiety I was feeling that this latest trinket was not going to work with my camera body.  You have no idea how elated I was when I screwed it on and peeped through the viewfinder at my family room.  I immediately took pictures of everything around me, including six or seven shots of Psyche, whose quizzical expression said it all.  She has wondered for years why her humans so often peered and snapped at her through tubes and boxes. :-)  I took a set of pictures of her in her cage (if anyone is interested, I will add one here) at different settings to see how they would change and what the effects were.

NIKKOR 16 85 SEPT 1 2014 VALENCIA 023_v1_v1

On Monday, I was itching to get out and take some real pictures with this lens.  As I have mentioned before, Valencia is not exactly a mecca of excitement. At first I was lamenting the fact that the only places we could think of to photograph here, were places we had gone and shot up ad nauseum in the past.  But then it occurred to me that it didn’t matter. I realized that I have seen some amazing pictures taken of sewer drains choking with sludge and rusty bottle caps on seedy oil-cloth (well, I may be embroidering here), so it is up to the photographer to make the mundane marvelous.

NIKKOR 16 85 SEPT 1 2014 VALENCIA 051_v1_v1

The strength of Valencia is its clear skies virtually 360 days a year.  Monday, Labor Day, was typical: scorching hot and cloudless.  Learning from my last tedious foray, done too early in the day, which I cranked about in a past post on my 10-24 mm lens, we went out this time at 5:30 pm, to pay our Homeowner’s dues at their office.  Even though that complex is pure 2000s boring, I took a few shots to test the lens. See if you can spot the HOA office here [yes, that's where the magic happens], these guys are pretty humorless and I think the office matches their atmosphere, LOL.

Then we headed over to the Town Center and revisited the movie theater/restaurant/retail hub that I captured with the Canon and its 18-55 mm in the spring, 2013.  By this time it was after 6 pm and we had the right light, at last. In fact, the photos are numbered — but not placed here — in the order we took them (only a handful are posted here, I will be sharing the rest on Flickr this week as I took about 150 altogether).

NIKKOR 16 85 SEPT 1 2014 VALENCIA 088_v1_v1

Admittedly, I really played around with the camera and lens as well as the processing in this series.  I literally wanted to see if I could do something interesting and slightly different with my ordinary, Americana-everywhere shopping center and transform it just enough to be attractive.

NIKKOR 16 85 SEPT 1 2014 VALENCIA 055_v1_v1.JPEG

For some reason, we ran into all sorts of annoyances.  One was a man and his dog, who parked at and in the reflecting pool, the dog that is — the man was on a bench.  It was silly of me to be put out.  What was amazing was that he had this dog romping and splashing in what is supposed to be a clean, purely ornamental water feature and the security guard was chatting with him instead of shooing him away.  At first that bothered me.  Then, as often happens, Geoff and the guy started talking and I ended up feeling badly that I had been miffed about the dog.  He is a medic alert, trained Shepherd whom the elderly man described as his best friend.  I felt ashamed of myself and went out of my way to praise the dog and cheer the man up.  He said it was the first time he had been well enough to come to the mall and sit by the fountains.

NIKKOR 16 85 SEPT 1 2014 VALENCIA 100_v1_v1

Then there were a group of HS-age skateboarders who were not only making a racket, looking really slouchy in low-riding pants and muscle-shirt tattooed skin but also sporting all kinds of crazy hair and face ornaments. I wasn’t in the mood to have them in these particular pictures and one of them photo-bombed me, in the process of trying to avoid them.  They were parked in one of my favorite places to take pictures, so I couldn’t get even one decent shot of it.  They were also smoking maryjane pretty nosably and yet the little security guard was too afraid to go up to them.  Well, I certainly wasn’t, but Geoffrey grabbed me by the arm and reminded me I didn’t want to “go there” and be one of those, ‘children-get-off-my-lawn-types”. (The little kid in the picture was a hanger-on and looked pretty benign).

NIKKOR 16 85 SEPT 1 2014 VALENCIA 098_v1_v1

When night was getting close and we decided to stop and get a bite to eat, my favorite spot by the big window once again looked out on these kids who had now moved over toward the restaurant we chose.  Wouldn’t you know it? Man, am I becoming a crochety ole biddy.  It was just about the right light to take the last picture that I will be putting up over on my Flickr page, that I refer to as my “blue-hour” shot.

But I usually try to save some of my faves for the blog — like this one as the sun was dipping below the buildings that shows a bench on the left — yippee, almost strobist –, so these are not going up on Flickr — just here.

NIKKOR 16 85 SEPT 1 2014 VALENCIA 117_v1_v1

The alas part of this saga is my now full blown runaway addiction to getting newer and fancier lenses.  O-M-G, not good. I just saw a photo one of my Flickr friends, Eleanor, took with her new Nikkor 80-400 and almost fainted. We’d be eating stone soup for a month. [And, speaking of bank, I have to laugh, my NYT delivery person drives a Town & Country one year newer than the one we had a few years ago -- how is that possible!] No! I have to be strong. The promise of more ventures in wonderland, even if it is just LA and Valencia, more in particular, is so alluring I know I am hooked.  So next up, another fisheye lens but this time for the Nikon. You pros out there, please tell me what other lenses you think I might need.

I’ve chewed on the mushrooms, now I need the glass. :-D

Images: Beth Byrnes archives.  Click on them to enlarge, if you care to. All of these were shot in RAW, converted to TIFFs, then JPEGS for loading here. They are in sRGB for proper display on most screens and tweaked in Photo Ninja (I still haven’t tried out my new Lightroom 5!).




Crying me a Rivers

It is hard to believe that just a few short weeks after we were shocked to learn that Robin Williams died, I am here again registering my sorrow at losing the world’s second greatest woman comedian, after Lucille Ball.

Joan Rivers has a special place in my heart for many reasons.  Not her comedy and not her stand-up routine.  Those were far too blue for my taste.  But, I can applaud Joan for her willingness to go anywhere when it came to making people laugh.  Her belief was that if you could express the humor about something, it took the poison, the pain out of it.  She joked that had she been at Auschwitz, she would have tried to make everyone smile, so they would feel better.

No, not her comedy but her courage and intelligence and stamina are what I admired in Joan Rivers most.  She was a woman who grew up with every mark against her: Jewish, female, daughter of immigrants, plain.  For someone who wanted to be an actress, these features were almost unscalable hurdles and yet she soared over all of them, one at a time, relentlessly, for over 50 years.

Maybe because we were both born in Brooklyn, both went to Columbia, both outspoken, I identify with someone in another generation altogether like Ms. Rivers, so closely.  Joan didn’t go to Columbia itself, she went to the sister school, the only one open to women with formidable intelligence at that time.  She went to Barnard and graduated a Phi Beta Kappa.  To do that at a top tier Ivy League school like Barnard, getting not only a perfect 4.0 the entire four years, but being invited to that prestigious honors fraternity, was and is an exceptional achievement.

New Yorkers are often blunt and serious.  It has taken twenty years in California for me to soften that edge in myself.  The fact that Joan could go anywhere and turn that acerbic commentary on and off is a testament to her self-awareness and control.

She was a brilliant business woman in addition to being a gifted writer and performer. Making people laugh is the hardest task anyone can undertake and I cannot think of another female comedian who comes even close.

There is another aspect of Joan Rivers that I relate to and that is her elegant and uncanny fashion sense.  Think what you will of her larger than life personality, but if you paid close attention to her wardrobe, all of it her own choosing and design, you will see that her aesthetics and vision about color, pattern and structure trends to come was unerring.  Years before bib and big statement necklaces were on sale in other venues, Joan was selling them on her shopping network show.  Her jewelry looked well made and it mimicked pieces she actually wore herself.  This was no celebrity selling down to the masses.  She liked what she designed and wanted to share it with people who could never afford to buy the ones she herself wore.  But they could look like Joan for a small amount of money and she sincerely stood behind her products.

Before I came to form another and less positive opinion about Donald Trump, Geoff and I watched the early Apprentice shows.  I do believe that, prior to his attempts to curry favor with extremists, Trump had good advice to offer people who wanted to become stars in the corporate world.  When Joan Rivers won over a group of people half her age, who seemed positioned to take home the prize, it was no surprise to me.  I did something I only do with people I admire, I sent her a letter as a woman, a New Yorker and a fan.  I got back an extremely warm letter from Joan, a week later.  That was the kind of person Joan Rivers was.  I framed it and it is in my office right now, on my desk. I am looking at it as I write this post, dated May 19, 2009. I will send Melissa a condolence card to that same address.

Joan Rivers did not have a perfect life. Her daughter’s vaunted marriage, after a spectacular celebrity wedding, ending quickly in an unpleasant divorce.  She lost the opportunity of a lifetime by leaving NBC and Johnny Carson to attempt a late night show opposite The Tonight Show on a new network in 1986, Fox.  It cost her the opportunity to be Johnny’s successor and her twenty year friendship with Carson, a very painful loss for her.  Her show ended after only eight months and not long thereafter, her husband to whom she was devoted, committed suicide.  Her career hit the skids.  It was yet another set of obstacles that Rivers would overcome.

Joan Rivers was relentless.  She never gave up, never accepted second best, never let anyone outsmart her — they tried and always failed, she was that brilliant.  She raised a good daughter, who then had a very nice little boy.  Joan was their matriarch, their foundation and inspiration.

Joan and I would not agree about everything.  Joan was a Republican, she ate junk food, she told dirty jokes, exceptionally vain, she had repeated surgeries to keep her looking as young as she could so she could hold her own with the young and beautiful in Hollywood. She had no problem unleashing her acid tongue on anyone who crossed her. None of these things appeal to me.  But then, I am from another era, so it is hard for me to pass judgment on the way she lived, even if I had the right to.

We don’t know what the manner and cause of her death are, as I write this Thursday afternoon.  It may have been something as simple as an exploration of vocal cord nodes, usually an out-patient procedure.  Her age, her health, the conditions at the endoscopy clinic are likely all factors and we will find out more later.

I will not be going to Hollywood to see her Star, as I did for Robin Williams.  Joan was a New Yorker, not a Californian.  If I could, I would put flowers in front of her 62nd street townhouse, as I am sure many are already doing.

Joan was honest, outspoken, blunt, but a trail blazer, warm, giving and totally devoted to her fans and to her audience.  She wrote her material, performed it tirelessly, and made herself available whenever she could.  Apparently, no one left her shows feeling she held anything back.  She could also ad lib like few others could and did not suffer fools, often unmasking them to their face, as she did famously when Victoria Principle shaved a decade off her age. You had better not be a phony around Joan.

Joan, I will not tear up as I did when Robin Williams died.  Somehow, I feel you won in the end. You did in one lifetime what the rest of us could not hope to do in five.  You did it first, your way, no matter what anyone thought and you succeeded at every single thing you tried to do. You were not a drinker, you did not have multiple marriages, no nanny raised your daughter. No one had to do your thinking and managing for you.  You did it all yourself and I hope and do think you know that once again, you got the last laugh. You went out looking beautiful and being much admired by millions of fans.

I am one of them.  Let me close this, the way you closed your letter to me: Much love Joan Rivers.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 446 other followers