Let there be Lightroom

For someone who did not want photography to turn into another obsession, I am giving a good imitation of a fanatic, lately. And, some of my photo safaris do not go the way I imagine them when I first dream them up.

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Did I ever tell you about the time that Deanna was staying with my family for a summer while her parents went to Europe?  Our neighbor gave her a goldfish from the boardwalk nearby in Asbury Park.  I had never had fish — just birds, cats, dogs and a turtle.  We knew nothing about caring for a gold fish, so being us, my parents and I studied up on it and learned that you can’t just put a goldfish (or any fish) in a bowl — it is cruel and they won’t thrive or be happy.  I won’t torture you with all the minutiae, but we ended up spending $1500 on a tank, filters, pumps, lights, plants, toys, stones, food, and of course, a companion for the fish, which Deanna named Billie. For a 25 cent goldfish.

That is what I feel happened with this photography gig.  I started out just taking snapshots with a pocket camera and here I am only a year and a half later with an investment for which I could have gone on a luxury trip to Jamaica (one of my fave places on earth, by the way), instead.

The new computer prompted me to take a chance on downloading new programs, including and especially Lightroom 5.  I won’t launch into a long exegesis of my experiences with Photoshop, but suffice to say, I have an older PS program with CDs on my main computer in the office (the one with the shiny new monitor).  Oh, hey, and by the way, when I cleaned out the west end of the office (my side — well, they are both my sides I guess, the other end has my Vaio, which I gave to Geoffrey as his desktop computer when he works at home), I found a brand new program for my older PS, called Chromatica.  It says right on the box (and I believe every word, hee hee): Revolutionary Tools for Photoshop, with over 1000 palettes and cool effects.  Alright! Never even opened it but eventually I will try it on the older computer. It pays to reorganize!

Anyway, I have worked with Photoshop for a dozen years or so, for one reason or another, but I have never mastered it.  When it came time to process photos for the DSLRs, I looked at several programs including Photoshop Elements and Photo Ninja, settling on the latter.  I stupidly bought PE and found it was turning all my 16 bit photographs into 8 bit reduced quality versions.  It was also rather slow processing RAW.  I gave it away.

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Photo Ninja, which is downloaded only, is a different story.  It is a reasonably priced program and incredibly intuitive.  Within a few minutes, I understood almost all the controls and spent very little time on the tutorials. Now, maybe that was a handicap, because I suspect there are some awesome refinements that PN is capable of that I don’t know about.  I will probably learn more after finishing my experience with Lightroom.

When I was reading up on all the processing programs (including the one that came free with the Canon — Digital Photo Professional, with which I have seen people do truly amazing things), I had read that Lightroom was tedious to learn and that it would reorganize all my photos into its catalogue system.  So, I decided not to go with that to start.  For the past six to eight months, PN has done the job quickly and well and I have been happy.  The limitations of my photographs can be attributed to the newbieness of the photographer and perhaps the shortcomings of cameras and lenses that are for amateurs like me.

However, one thing that is a possible drawback of Photo Ninja, is the fact that, for the most part, all the tweaking is done on the entire image file.  You cannot go in and adjust certain areas, leaving the rest of the photo space alone.  Also, you can’t heal or remove flaws.  One thing I was doing was taking the RAW file into my old Photoshop, fixing ugly spots, turning them into TIFs, sending those back to PN, tweaking the TIF, converting it to JPEG and then loading them to Flickr or Shutterfly or whatever, depending on what project I was working on.  There is always the chance that you are losing image quality when you move between programs that way and it makes me nervous as well as absorbs a great deal of time.

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Something I noticed was that people on Flickr who were serious about their work, even as experienced amateurs, were using Lightroom (or Nik) most of the time.  Now, you can get dozens of programs to do certain things if you want special effects.  Like Nina Y, how in the world do people do stuff like this? OK, I can imagine a fleet of software, Illustrator, Corel Draw, of course Photoshop, and on and on.  Well, if you are getting paid to do this or are one of the Sultan of Brunei’s harem (Geoffrey works at that guy’s palace in LA from time to time, lots and lots of gilt and glitz, brocade may be involved, and jewels), you can spend the bank and time. Not I.

So, I finally broke down and got Lightroom 5.  I got the upgraded Photoshop, too.  I put LR5 on the new computer in the solarium upstairs because it has the latest operating system. That thing is still Sanskrit to me.  My desktop now looks like Geoffrey’s iPad.  So, that is my first hurdle.  Just even figuring out where all the programs are, amid the hundreds of apps loaded on that thing slows my work down measurably (I have a Kindle Fire HDX — and I put very very few apps on it, same with my phone.  I really don’t like the clutter and I never use them, once the novelty wears off).

Installing LR5 was no problem.  Using it is another matter.  To say I am merely stabbing around on it would be to elevate the process to something approaching rationality.  I am literally just stumbling along blind.  Hence the pictures you see here with their strengths and weaknesses.

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Last weekend, we decided to get out of Valencia, where we were roasting for the entire month of August and September in 100F heat, and head to Koreatown for the annual Korean festival. We figured it would be colorful — there was a parade last Saturday at 3 pm that I wanted to make sure we stayed for — and of course there might be intriguing food and trinkets to buy. Seemed like a good way to escape the heat and walk around during the day, something we dare not do at home for fear of being fried to a crisp.  Both of us have fair skin. Geoffrey is Irish/Swiss (although, he does tan, infuriatingly, even with his reddish brown hair and blue eyes). With those English/Irish pig-underbelly tones in mine,  I really suffer in midday sun and am dreading the day when I find out what those early foolish years on a beach in mere strings have done to me.  I imagine it all popping out all over me at once like some grotesque Fellini carnival character.

Anyway, when we got to Koreatown, we found they had (smartly) blocked off all the streets for what seemed like miles around the park where the festival was held for five days.  We had to park and walk for at least two miles, which wouldn’t have been so bad except … wait for it … it was scorching hot and horror of horrors, humid! Worse than Valencia. Yech!  By the time we got to the festival from our parking spot, we were both melting.  We felt sticky and that drat sunblock seemed to be sliding down our bodies and pooling in our sandals.  We were both wearing shorts but that just made it worse.  We got there at 1 and were gone by 2.

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For one thing, I didn’t know this, but Koreans adore barbecue.  We could smell the festival long before it came into view.  Then there was the steam and smoke from all these open pits and grills, adding to the heat! OMG! What were they thinking? Did any of them look slippery and cooked like we did? No! They all seemed kool as kimchee. Maybe this was because, somehow, they all had fans! We kept looking to see where they got them, obviously all these fans were given out free, but no one handed us a fan and we didn’t see any place to ask for one either.

I don’t know what I expected, but there were few non-Asians there at all and those that were, were Hispanics from the neighborhood. It really didn’t and usually doesn’t matter to either of us. I am a veteran traveler, social scientist, an ethnic  culture aficionada, and grew up in NYC. I love being in multi-cultural environments.  It just made the photographing more difficult though, because we stood out like the light in the forest. We not only looked different, we were carrying cameras and camera bags. Plus, my triathlete husband had his “survival” gear pack with the water bottle and spray and all those other tchotchkes he carries as if to be perpetually ready for a competition.  We felt conspicuously out of place, as if we were intruding.

All this is by way of telling you that the pictures I took (haven’t even glanced at what the SO took, if he even downloaded them somewhere), are not that exciting and were taken in relative haste to be as down low as we could.  All around us were Koreans taking pictures, both pros and non, including media photographers.  But, when I tried to stand and take pictures where they were taking theirs, I could feel some frosty glances drifting my way.

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So, I only took about 100 shots.  The ones I thought could be amped, I took into Lightroom 5 and just noodled around.  Some are a bit over-torqued, I know, but I had fun bumping up the color a bit — there was a lot of it around me.  Not in the festival, it was pretty boring, about as exciting as a church bazaar.  But the people who attended were quite interesting and brightly attired.  So, what the venue itself and yours truly lacked, was made up for in LR5. You will see that for the first time I was able to add a signature.  It is way too big but I was afraid to change it for fear I would screw it up. Next set of photos will have a more demure and scaled down version, as I do not need to have my name screaming. Oh, and you will see, somehow some of them doubled — I have no idea why!

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I’m learning, so bear with me.  More of these are coming up on my Flickr page. And, if anyone out there has some tips on this program, please enLighten me! :-D

Images: Beth Byrnes Archives, Nikon D5200, Nikkor 16-85 mm lens, and Lightroom 5! Rollover them to enlarge.





Does not compute

I don’t know what your week was like but mine was strange.  It started with the home invasion scare (all this time later, nothing new, except we changed all our locks to key only and are just paying more attention when we are outside).  Then I had the silliness with magazine subscriptions.

Next, as I was checking all my balances, I saw a weird notice on my PayPal account, something to the effect of, ‘your account is frozen unless you complete your profile’. Say what? I have had the same PP account for ten years or so (can’t remember).  I started it so I could buy things from eBay, and then it became a convenient way to pay for other things.  Some of my clients use it so they don’t have to write checks.  I am not wild about it, because PP does take a percentage, but it has worked effortlessly.  One thing the instructions told me to do was link another credit card to it. So, I did that and I still got the same message.

Now, I would not fall for any of that if it came in an email.  But, as things go according to Murphy’s Law, for the past few weeks I had been getting all kinds of spam telling me my account was about to be frozen.  So, when this was actually a message in the account itself, I took it more seriously. Long story short, I gave it a couple of days and then called them.  It turns out to be a software glitch and they are supposedly working on it.

When you get up at 4 am every day, you are not in the calmest, most rational state of mind — I don’t care how much sleep you get.  I try to get no less than 6 hours of sleep.  All my life, I have been a light and minimal sleeper.  There were times in college and grad school where I was existing on four or five hours. When I go to visit Deanna, Al and Annabelle I get about that because they go to bed late and I get up very early.  Plus it is three hours ahead there and I never seem to adjust while I am with them.

What getting up at 4 means is, the first thing that happens or goes awry starts the day off in a panic.  Well, if you are high strung and maintenance as I am.  Plus, when I wake up, somewhere around 3:45, I immediately start to anticipate what I need to do and any issues I am grappling with at the moment.  You know how people say everything seems worse and more dramatic at 3 am? Well, that applies to 4 am as well.

The Perfect Office - Samsung Door Lock, LG UltraWide Monitor and more

So, anyway, yesterday, I get up, go brush my teeth and hair in the semi-darkness with a nightlight (not ready to see myself with no makeup at that hour in the a.m., lol), and get settled at the computer to see what has come in since the evening before.  This is a lot of email because I have two accounts, work and personal, and I usually don’t check email after 8 pm the evening before.

I sit down, Geoffrey hands me my mug of coffee as he always does, and, being pretty much on auto-pilot, I get ready to tackle whatever inquiries came in during the night, update today’s to-do list, etc. OK! Tap on the keyboard in the office to wake up my main computer. Tap, tap, tap, tap-tap-tap.  Nothing. Ugh. Nightmare.

Since I have a five year old computer, and I have only about 70 gigs of available HD space, it is not unheard of for it to be sluggish.  But this time it seemed to be frozen.  I had left a lot of large files open and some web pages so I could begin without too much prep time (by now it is only 4:15, so who has the brain for a lot of extra work?) so I was really not happy at the prospect of hard booting the computer.  Which I did.  And still, despite hearing that happy Microsoft tune, the screen was black. Re-boot. Ugh, painful. Nothing. Black.

Nooooooo! I have so much to do.  Geoffrey sat down at the computer, even though he was trying to take care of everything he does before he goes to the train. Oh and now he is taking a bus to the train because I don’t like leaving the pets alone (ala Bunny and my suggestible mind) in a dark house while invaders are lurking about.  Poor guy! What a princess I have become (yes, always been, I guess). While he did that, I ran up to the solarium computer and got everything cranked up there except I didn’t have the photograph series there that I am posting on Flickr right now.

Then, long-suffering saint that he is, when he couldn’t solve the problem, he offered to run the tower and monitor over to Staples, where they have free diagnostics (lord, how I pray that store doesn’t close) the minute they opened up, even though he would be late for work. God bless Staples, it was only the monitor. Fried somehow.  They told him that a five year old monitor might as well be a senior citizen. Geeze. Cheap at the price, though.  I feared it was my HD and even though I back up periodically, I am not up to date completely and would have lost some prepared JPEGS that I didn’t feel like re-processing.

Now I have a nice, new, bigger monitor and everything is back to normal.  But, yesterday, the minute Geoff pulled the computer equipment and all its tangled nightmare of cords out of the office, I got to see how dusty the room was. Yech.  In 105F heat (40C+) — even with the AC going full blast, the office is smallish and my vacuum cleaner was putting out BTUs (therms?) like a madman.  Once you change one thing in a space as limited and “arranged” as my office (and by arranged, I mean, filled to the ceiling with bookcases and shelving and files and books and equipment and framed photographs, etc.), it is like that little plastic game where you have only one open space and somehow have to make a sentence with the scrambled letters.

It was exhausting and I was cranky and sweaty as I started filling up bags to toss.  Things like miscellaneous paper goods that I forgot I had and saved.  All kinds of post-it note packages, boxes and boxes of unsharpened pencils.  A huge collection of white-out that is mostly dried up. Useless glue sticks, old, same thing. Packages of markers, boxes of ball point pens we got by the gross at Staples.  To say nothing of three old computers — my precious Vaio from 2007, Geoffrey’s Acer laptop and his older Mac iBook.  Why don’t we recycle these guys? Because they not only have old data that we have never transferred, they have the old programs that open them.  Geoffrey uses Filemaker, an older version that he likes for work.  If there is a newer one, I don’t know but it probably wouldn’t open his old files. Same with some old version of Peachtree.  Geoff has never used a desktop.  He only likes things that he can carry around with him and even though he bangs them around, especially at job sites, they seem to last forever.  I baby my computers and they are as hypersensitive and fickle as I am.

While I am at it, I have to mention that, good as he is about solving problems for me, especially practical ones like changing all the locks or deciphering computer problems, Geoffrey is too casual about security. He took my precious tower and monitor to Staples yesterday and while he was going out the door, I offered to go with him, figuring he would need me to carry one or the other.  He declined. Turns out, he took the monitor in first and left the tower in the car, on the seat, in plain view! Yikes, typical California laid back.  I am the kind of person that won’t even leave a tissue on the seat inside the car because it might attract attention and lead to a costly break in.  It has happened. Deanna left a cheap pair of sunglasses on the dash of her brand new SUV last year and ended up with a huge bill after someone smashed in the driver’s side window to get the glasses and rifled through the other compartments in the car and stole Annabelle’s backpack, which was stashed under the seat.

Not only did I not want a break-in, I sure didn’t want some stranger having access to all the info on that HD, including financial and personal stuff.  What was he thinking?

My biggest peeve is the way you need to keep upgrading everything in order to use it.  I spent a fortune on that Vaio and now it is a dinosaur with Vista OS on it. Why buy an expensive computer when it becomes obsolete within a year? That is why we stopped buying Macs.


Anyway, the week isn’t over yet, so we shall see. Oh, and I would love it if you experts out there could settle an argument G and I have over spraying equipment with compressed air.  I worry that it will drive dirt into the computer and gum up the works and Geoffrey feels it is mandatory to keep the computer clean.  What do you think?

Also, now that I have two new monitors, this site looks more greenish than orangey as it did when I had my older monitor.  I want it to be a soft Buttercup yellow. Can you tell me how it looks on yours? Thanks!

Images: hgtv.com, nycorganizers.com, abduzeedo.com, aspiremetro.com, inool.com, houzz.com, themodernagent.com, catoss.com, designsnext.com

These are all ideal images, except one, of what I am aiming for in every room of my house, especially my office which is now clean and orderly once again, thanks to this upheaval. :-D



Comped or conned?

Sometime right around my birthday in August, Cosmo started arriving in the mail.  Trust me when I tell you, I would never order that particular magazine.  Vogue, Vanity Fair, Scientific American, National Geographic, New York Magazine, yes, but never, never Cosmo.  I thought it might be a promo, and tossed it.

Then I got it again in September.  And, to make matters worse, Sports Illustrated started showing up. Out it went, pronto.  No way am I sharing face (or other) time with my husband and those airbrushed floozies. I hustled (pun intended) that puppy right out to the trash, so none would be the wiser.

This was getting serious. I wondered what would come swirling in next!

Naturally, my febrile mind went into overdrive.  Hmpff! Who could be so capricious, I mused, as to send these two cheap ragazines to us?  What meddling, prankster, hooligan in my husband’s family would do such a thing?  My blood pressure was rising by the minute as I ran my mind down the roster of characters over there.  Was it David, the perpetual playboy, slyly stirring the pot? Brat, getting revenge on me for being contemptuous of his puerile ‘habits’, Heidi, setting me up to get on a crappy mailing list? Or could it be the neighbor who got his drawers in a twist when I asked him, ever so politely, to stop flicking his butts in our yard?

“Cosmopolitan’s Target Market: Today’s fun, fearless female (18 to 35 years old) who wants to the best that she can be!” –SummitMedia.com

I was musing over this and then thinking about my neighbor Bunny, who is off to Las Vegas with her extended clan.  Comped! She said with pride.  I am not a fan of Las Vegas, so nothing could entice me back there but I do understand the concept. To me that place is not only lost wages, but sin city, so I find it really amusing that so many devout Christians love it.  Especially Geoffrey’s family.  They could afford Monte Carlo but the sophistication offends them. Las Vegas is their spot and Geoff’s mother has some sort of lucky star when it comes to money.  If she sits down at a slot machine, the tokens start pouring out.

In fact the In Firm are always playing the lottery and at every special occasion until my MIL started to have cognitive decline, a thick wad of scratchers were placed at every plate.  Since she was the one buying them, people kept winning.

When David was married to Vanessa, they hit the jackpot twice.  One time they won $10K and the other, it was $25K.  Because my MIL bought them.  You would think they would have shared them or paid off debt, but they did what one would expect a Hollywood glamour couple to do: they bought expensive furniture for their house. Anyway, I never win anything and don’t gamble, and don’t frequent the kinds of places where someone might see me as a lucrative client, so I am never comped.

Finally, exhausting all other possibilities, I called Cosmo.  After a long time on hold, I got to the bottom of the mystery.  Apparently, there is a company called M2 Media Group that gives away these free subscriptions in the apparent hope that you will get hooked on that item and pay the bill when it comes.  Or, if you don’t pay the bill now, that you will re-subscribe.  How do they pick the periodicals, though?  I don’t fit the profile of a Cosmo reader.  In my mind — and I hope I don’t offend anyone here — it is a 30-something gal who hasn’t snagged the guy of her dreams and needs to spice up her act a bit. I was finally comped for something, wouldn’t you know it would be a salacious comic book like Cosmo!

But, unfortunately, I would bet Geoffrey fits the perfect mold of the SI candidate. ;-) Luckily he is so thrifty (OK, he’s cheap!) that he would never get himself a subscription, LOL!

And, so I don’t paint that Media 2 Group in too negative a light, the subscription apparently gets triggered when you order certain products and don’t opt out from an offer of a free magazine. It is some sort of disguised process so a lot of people fail to notice and are targeted. Apparently publishers hire M2G to scoop up new readers, a telling sign of the times when hard copies are attracting fewer and fewer subscribers.

It wouldn’t even be so bad, if you could choose the magazine for yourself.  I saw some people complaining online that they were getting Martha Stewart Living, for heaven sake. That would not be half as bad for our household as the ones someone there apparently chose for us! Or some algorithm sure got me wrong. Like the one and only time I ordered a faux alligator leather purse, really nice one, too, from Victoria’s Secret online.  Holy Cleveland, you should have seen the catalogs we started receiving — I will spare you the visuals.

Anyhow, if you have also fallen prey to this practice, it is likely that your perp is M2G as well. Here is how you reach them to cancel.  In the case of Cosmo, which is owned by Hearst, I was able to cancel it with them directly.  But I have read other people complain that the publishers often refer them to M2G and that it is hard to contact them.  I was also told, get this, that I was subscribed for 36 issues, value? Ten bucks! What junk!

Here’s their contact info:  Media 2 Group, 1127 High Ridge Road, #335, Stamford CT 06905/service@m2mags.com or (866) 441-1281 or http://www.cancelmag.com

Good to know!

Images:  insidesocal.com,edsaplan.com,cosmopolitan.com


Model America

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


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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




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