Ooh la LA

The weather has been so delightful this past week, that I realized it was time to invite people to visit Southern California before it’s too late and we are either roasting alive or dying of thirst, LOL! These are my insider’s tips on visiting La-La land: the only five places you will need to know to party like a native. ;-)

Rooftop Bar, Hotel The Standard, Downtown L.A., Los Angeles, California, USA

New York is the place to visit in autumn, as I wrote last year.  Spring is the time to visit LA. When I was reflecting on Los Angeles, and trying to summarize what it is about LA that is so attractive to people — apart from endless sunshine, that is, natch — the word seductive came to mind.

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A few years ago, I read this book about France and the French character.  It is worth reading just to see how differently the French look at everyday life, relationships, food, tourists, Americans etc.  Not to say that they are right or wrong, necessarily but truly it is a culture apart. France is seductive.

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Los Angeles is like that. Someone should write a book about it (note to self). Unlike NYC that instantly triggers love or hate, Los Angeles sidles up to you and lures you in with that sultry come hither environment that allows everyone to be utterly, nakedly themselves. And that is no mere metaphor. You have permission to be as uninhibited and as outrageously ‘you’, as you want here — and that is what I love most about this city, its welcoming diversity.

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There are three urban hubs that you need to hit if you want to understand California.  In some ways it should be two or three states.  San Francisco and San Diego are distinctive megalopolises with their own sphere of influence and mindsets.  You won’t get to know or understand all three, by just visiting one of them.

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People everywhere are drawn to Los Angeles, but not for the beaches, because, honestly, there are others far more beautiful.  If you are looking for the ideal beach environment, go to Cape Cod, Monterey, the Northeastern coast of Brazil or the Caribbean.  Don’t come to LA for that.

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People love Los Angeles because of its gigantic entertainment industry and the allure of being close to the stars. If you are a wannabe, the magnetism of LA is powerful and rightly so. But, I think the true main attraction of LA is that, you can park philosophies and ideologies at the threshold when you land at LAX and step into a completely welcoming, accepting culture that signals immediately: anything goes. Relax, have a great time. Not a Hawaii-lie-around-the-pool great time.  A get-out-there-and-have-a-ball. Mingle, go to barbecues, hit the club scene, do a night on the town. Be free to enjoy yourself, however you like. Angelenos are incredibly outgoing and friendly, right away.  They don’t need time to warm up to you.  For a transplanted NYer it was palpable immediately. Smiles and welcomes, sincere ones, not papier-mâché politeness, characterizes the citizenry.

13081782663_936de88270_z the patio at Citi Group Plaza

Last week, my cousin was in Los Angeles on an assignment. She always stays at the London West Hollywood.  Claire and I chatted in her sleek ultra-modern suite and then went up to the roof patio for dinner.  It was a beautiful clear day looking out over LA on the top floor of the hotel in late afternoon.  As we were sitting there gabbing, afloat over the city, evening fell, draping everything with its violet shawl. All around us was a crystal view of the sprawl that is the LA metropolis,  its lights flickering on and the stars popping out overhead. Some miles to the east, Downtown appeared as a cluster of glittering stacks that huddled together like intimate giants sharing a secret. Farther along Wilshire, Century City was gazing across the concourse toward Westwood. It was pure magic.


Come to Los Angeles between April and July.  Summers here are too brutal now, the autumn is unremarkable and the winters, well, they can be misty and dull.

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Here is where I would start.  Stay at one of the newly restored more affordable hotels Downtown or on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood. There is a lot to do at night on this stretch of the Strip. If you like off-off-off Broadway entertainment, lol, the Strip is the place to go.  Start at the Whiskey.  You can walk to it from the London WH, and frankly, that is where I would stay.  Rooms average about US$350, reasonable by LA standards. The other advantage you would have is being able to get to Beverly Hills, Century City, Westwood, the Melrose restaurant row very easily, even using LA’s notoriously limited public transportation.  I have ridden the Metro bus and train system locally and they are clean, air conditioned, safe and comfortable.  Not like London, Paris or NY, not efficient, fast and ubitquitous, but good. You can even get to Downtown and Pasadena using public transportation, from a central hub of West Hollywood. Hollywood itself is also east on Sunset, so you couldn’t ask for a better place as home base.

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Not to oversell this location, you can also take Sunset to Santa Monica, Brentwood and Venice Beach. Although, as I will explain in a minute, I would suggest the South Bay or Beach Cities instead.  They are far more exemplary of what Angelenos consider beach living, while Santa Monica and Venice are for tourists.

From the hub you choose, I would visit the following places, depending on how much time you have:

  1. Downtown, LA
  2. West Hollywood/Hollywood/Melrose
  3. Pasadena
  4. South Bay beach cities: Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach
  5. Beverly Hills/Westwood

As you plan your visit, just remember the LA Golden rule:

Everything is always 45 minutes away from everything else …

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Downtown, as I have said previously somewhere on this blog, is really hopping now.  If there is a happening place in LA, DT is it.  It is packed with restaurants, clubs, bars, loft-hotels and entertainment.  The Disney Concert Hall, the Chandler Pavillion complex and other similar venues for traditional theater- and concert-going are at the north end.  There are museums and cathedrals as well as the very trendy and cool Grand Central Market that is worth an afternoon of eating and coffee in itself.

There is also a fab Art Walk that takes you around to galleries and the hidden creative underground/grunge that makes LA appealing for millennials right now, from burning men to urban hipsters.  The Natural History Museum and the Staples Center are at the bottom of DT LA and both are worth the trip.  Just walk up and down the north/south artery of Figueroa and you will see a history of architecture from the 18th through the 21st centuries, rising on either side of you.  While you are doing that, make sure to stop at Fig&7th to have a snack or a drink and get in a bit of shopping. Just a block or two north and you can eat at the famous, original Pantry, continuously open since 1924. Or take Wilshire from DT, via the Metros, all the way West to the beach, and watch the progress of the city the automobile built, materialize as you go.

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And while you are there, make sure you have afternoon English tea at the Biltmore Hotel. It is an LA institution and I guarantee you will gape at the world’s glitterati parading around you as they stream into DT in droves, snapping up refurbished buildings to re-rent out or install start-ups. It is very reasonably priced at about $200 per night for old world luxury.

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When we are DT, we eat at various places.  You can always grab a bite at the Grand Central Market, with all its many food stalls. If you are deep in the dough, try the Water Grill for perfect food in a flawless upscale environment.  If, like us, you are on a budget, head to the Fisherman’s Outlet.  An LA legend is Philippe’s for sandwiches.

West Hollywood/Hollywood/Melrose I probably don’t need to tell you too much about this part of LA, West of Downtown.  This is the hub of the night scene. There is shopping, of course, with a robust array of boutiques and galleries. But clubs and restaurants are the main draw. The Viper Room, Whiskey a Go Go, the Roxy Theatre and all sorts of sky bars are strung along Sunset.  Just drop your stuff at the hotel and head out in either direction on the Boulevard and you will stumble on them.  Whenever I am in this area and I have time, I make my way over to Little Ethiopia for lunch.  Not only is it affordable, it is exotic and exquisite food made and served by natives.  Try Messob, my fave.

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Pasadena may be a bit more staid but for my money, skip the Getty and the LACMA and head straight to the Norton Simon Museum, Gamble House, Asia Pacific Museum and Huntington Library and gardens that stretch from one end of Old Pasadena to the other.  There is more shopping and eating in Pasadena, with every kind of food from all over the world, than in any place outside of DT LA. It is a beautiful, pristine, elegant old city that has been updated and now boasts an influx of condo dwellers at an unprecedented rate.  Every possible kind of entertainment is available and you can walk to it, from the Metro which has several stations in Old Town. Definitely check out The Pasadena Playhouse for live theater, as well as various cinema complexes up and down the main east-west thoroughfare — especially at The Paseo –, Colorado Boulevard.  You can attend free concerts all summer at the Levitt Pavilion or the symphony at the stunning, world class Ambassador Auditorium.

Make sure you stop by the largest independent bookstore in Southern California, Vromans and have a homemade sundae at the 100 year old Fairoaks Pharmacy in South Pasadena. Eat dinner at the incomparable El Cholo, for Mexican food, SoCal style.

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Southbay/The Beach Cities This may be a bit out of the way, unless you have a car. If so, head west on Sunset to the 405/San Diego Freeway and points south.  Get off at Rosecrans and go west to Pacific Coast Highway, turning south again.  You will be in Manhattan Beach, the largest of the three.  Turn right on Manhattan Beach Boulevard and take it down to the Ocean. There you will find yourself amid the real coupon-clipping laid back millionaires that teem all over this part of LA.  These are the Angelenos who never work. Everywhere around you will be bronzed blonds zipping along in Italian convertibles.  There are literally dozens of places to eat, in every price range, as well as boutiques and bars.  But, of course, as you rise over the crest of the hill on MB Blvd., you will see the Pacific gleaming and winking ahead of you.  Bring a towel and beach wear. This is the place to watch the roller-bladers gliding along The Strand in front of the multi-million dollar manses that perch at the sand’s edge.  Take your margarita down there and imagine what life would be like if you had nothing to do every day but gaze out at the ocean liners and Catalina, while your help kept you supplied with refreshments.


MBch is the best kept secret in the Southland.  Try the ancient Kettle for lunch and Love&Salt for dinner. Farther down PCH pointing south is Hermosa Beach.  Like Manhattan, it is for play not work, but trendier, younger, hipper and more bohemian.  Finally, a bit farther down is Redondo Beach.  It has the Pier and attracts an older, quieter crowd.  You can’t go wrong with any of the three.  Hermosa has a comedy club that is actually fabulous. You never know who is going to do a gig there, often well known comics, so check before you go and reserve a seat.

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Beverly Hills/ Bel Air/ Westwood I typically avoid the first two.  By the way, Century City is in this area but it is largely businesses and residential.  There is not much there to recommend you spend time in CC when you could be Downtown, in Manhattan Beach, or Pasadena. Beverly Hills needs little introduction. If mansion-crawling is your thing, just go west on Sunset from West Hollywood, and you will be in Bel Air in ten minutes.  It is self-explanatory once you see the sign (you can’t miss it). If you find yourself in Bel Air, visit the North side of the UCLA campus, the old part of this 419 acre magnificat.  You shouldn’t waste time looking at houses in BH, the main attraction of which is that Sultanic mecca known as Rodeo Drive. By the way, if you want to stay in this part of LA and actually go to the LACMA anyway, you can stay at the iconic Beverly Wilshire (Pretty Woman). But, it’s pricey.

Don’t bother eating in BH either. Overpriced, overhyped, mediocre food.  No celebs will be eating there, just tourists.  Eat instead in Westwood, the home village of UCLA, SoCal’s other premiere University (beside CalTech).  There are so many fantastic places to eat in Westwood, I would need another post for them.  Our favorite is Native Foods.

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Ok, ok, I hear you saying, but what if I absolutely must tell people I ate in Beverly Hills and money is no object? Then absolutely, you have to go to Crustacean, if for nothing else, the experience of the place.  You won’t be sorry — broke, but happy.   If you just need to use a restroom and grab a snack so you won’t faint while shopping, go to Neiman Marcus, located on Wilshire.

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Then head over to Westwood, gape at billionaire’s row on Wilshire as you approach the Westwood Village, and rest on the UCLA south campus after all this activity.

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By the way, there are three more items you might want to consider: LAX, Burbank Airport and Union Station.  If you want to start in the South Bay and see these three beautiful and entertaining beach cities, by all means fly into LAX.  They are just 15 minutes south on the 405 Freeway.  If you want to start in Pasadena or West Hollywood? Use the very nice, easy, safe Burbank Airport, you will be just minutes away from both.  If you plan to start Downtown, consider taking Amtrak to Union Station and see a classic with one of the best restaurants anywhere, Traxx.

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That’s it.  If you just hit those five key spots, you will be immersed in LA and totally ‘get it’ ever after.

Images: Beth Byrnes, The London West Hollywood and The Examiner



A Bridge-t-oo far


Here I go re-blogging a post again, something I rarely do, but this is so germane now, I just couldn’t help myself! Tell me what you think, given Paul Fishman’s announcement just this past Friday and Ms. Kelly’s unprecedented news conference immediately following her indictment …

Originally posted on Beth Byrnes:

I think the key to this whole New Jersey Bridge-gate will be Bridget Anne Kelly.


Any moment now, she is going to unleash on Christie, who accused her of being stupid and mendacious.  Steve Kornacki has an interesting explanation of why this is likely.  It has happened to Christie before.  Despite his protestations that ‘this is the first time his staff has lied to him’ and that he was ‘taken totally by surprise by their lying’, he had the exact same kind of problem with Bret Schundler, his Secretary of Education, who embarrassed Christie in August, 2010 by failing to submit a proper application for $400 million in Federal funding for the Race to the Top competition.  Christie was humiliated by Schundler’s bungling and threw him under the bus, calling him a liar and an idiot (sound familiar?).  Days later, Schundler released e-mails showing that he had tried to get…

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I am always skeptical when ideologues start pontificating about American morality, but it is a subject that interests me, so I read and analyze anyway.  David Brooks, with whom I do not agree politically, has written a book and some articles lately advising us to consider the quality of our eulogies above our resumes.  Hmmm. He has a point, but …


Simultaneously, recent events that have grabbed our airwaves again are the riots and protests taking place in Baltimore and other US cities over yet another senseless death of a young man, simply for running while black.  How many of these have we had in the past year? It is hard to fathom what is going on, other than, it has always been going on but now we have millions of photographers and cameras documenting actions around the clock and posting the results to social media for the world’s scrutiny.


Then I also heard Joe Biden invoking some famous American lawmaker from the past saying in essence that the purpose of our lives on earth is to try to make things better for everyone.

When I was choosing a future career, I didn’t have to think twice.  From the time I was a very little girl, I knew I wanted to study people and to be a psychologist.

When I got to school, even though it was taught by really smart people, the field of psychology seemed a bit chaotic. There are many competing schools of thought and practice, so choosing among them was a bit daunting.  I decided to focus on children, early childhood, and those who had emotional challenges (which used to be referred to as the emotionally disturbed). While I was at it, I got a degree in special education along with my psych credential, just in case I didn’t plan to go on to grad school.  To do this, I had to take courses literally around the calendar year and ended up with a lot of credits.


Part of this work was practica, both student teaching and internship.  I did both, somehow, in an inner city ghetto. This was, I now realize, along the lines of my mother’s career.  Hers  began as a kindergarten teacher of Down’s Syndrome children in Harlem. If you could imagine my red-haired, very young English mother facing down some formidable adolescents in the school where she was teaching, you would get the idea of what strength and conviction she must possess.

Not so her daughter.  My assignments put me among some very sad, disadvantaged, and abused children, too. But, not having her non-plussed  equanimity, I found myself totally absorbed into their lives.  An inner city teacher or counselor must be a social worker as well, even though they are not really trained for this. When you are working with children who have been severely traumatized, even once, much less repeatedly, their lives outside of school become part of your world.

If politicians and voters want to understand the unrest and feelings of abandonment and hopelessness that plague the poor in our country, I suggest they become teachers in the disadvantaged communities of America.  This is not to say that everyone should be a community activist — although I think some neighborhoods need exactly that kind of attention and assistance, but that those who think they know what people’s lives are like, should actually immerse themselves in the community first.  The easiest way to do this, is to just sit in a classroom for one year. Just sit and observe. I assure you, they will understand when emerging from that environment. Perhaps with hardened hearts, unmoved, but at least with first-hand knowledge of what is really going on.


In a sense, anyone who has the power to influence the policies that affect an entire nation, needs to be a cultural anthropologist first.  The current theory of trickle-down economics is severely flawed.  But how would you know, if all you do is ‘think’ about the issues involved, manipulate algorithms and discuss among your peers the notions of what ‘should’ be, rather than what actually is.

I found that I had a hard time extracting myself from their world, while these children were my daily companions. I literally brought them with me to the sorority whenever I could, to get them decent meals and I will give my sisters credit, they welcomed these impoverished and traumatized kids without hesitation.  Of course, the problem was, I returned to my life after college and the children returned to theirs.  It almost broke my heart and was so dramatic a realization for me, that I decided I was not really ready at 21, maturationally, to be a special ed teacher, after all. My mother at 20 was far more emotionally intelligent than I was even years later.

So, after a soul searching summer taking classes and traveling around, I presented myself to the graduate psych department of my choice one week before the new fall semester was to begin.  As I have mentioned previously in this blog, I am sure the impression I gave was of a bored socialite, looking for a place to land, dabbling in the field before finding a man and escaping into marriage.  In fact, that may have been an unconscious motive on my part.  But somehow, I talked the head of the department — famous, activist, brilliant psychologist, scientist, probably a socialist too, into taking a chance on me.  I am eternally grateful that he, in a moment of pique, brought me on board, much to the consternation of every other male faculty member there.


When you are in a good doctoral program, your time is no longer your own.  For that entire time period, I lived for the degree, around the clock.  I stopped watching any television — in fact, I didn’t have a set in my apartment.  My days were buried in work, classes, the library (where I had my own small room, so I could lock up my research materials and those from the library itself, many of which were not available in the stacks) until I had a viable and accepted research topic.  That, as any doctoral candidate knows, is the hardest part of the entire process: having your topic approved.  It was a turning point in my life, as some people labor for years in a “maintaining matriculation” limbo, waiting to achieve that make-it-or-break-it benchmark.  While I was doing my work, I taught as an instructor in the US and as an Assistant Professor in Latin America, where I went to do some of the dissertation research itself. Along the way, I got an MS in social psychology, which enabled me to capitalize on my love of travel and foreign cultures.   As in everything I do, I was 110% committed to the fields I was in, the people I hoped to understand and ultimately help, and the process of getting a doctorate itself.

Last Sunday, I happened to be watching Fareed Zakaria interviewing Ray Dalio, who oversees the world’s largest hedge fund at 160 billion dollars. At one point Zakaria asked Dalio how he achieved the pinnacle of his field as a financial genius.  His answer was interesting.  He said, the secret was not in what he knew, but in how he deals with what he doesn’t know.  Hearing that, I immediately recognized that the key to the ultimate reward of getting a PhD or a PsyD is the mental training and rigorous organizational demands upon your time that this system confers.  To this day, I use every one of the skills I developed during that training period.  They enable me to pick up and master almost anything I must learn and do. It gave me discipline of every kind, as it was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting.


While I was doing my research for the final dissertation, I lived among some of the poorest, most forgotten people on earth.  When we merely visit a country as tourists, we rarely have a chance to truly step out of our American bubble, and know the people of that country or culture.  I saw this over and over again.  While I was living in S. America, my mother came down with a group of educators, including a school psychologist who was a good friend as well as employee/colleague.  They drove me crazy.  The friend had been all over the world, so my mother naturally deferred to her in all decisions.  That meant that they did the typical tourist things, taking in the boilerplate, what I call American Express tour: canned restaurants, shops, sites, attractions that provide kickbacks to the tour guide.  I could not convince them to come to the places I knew, from having actually lived there, instead.

No one can truly understand the reality of poverty until they have lived it, in my opinion. My ideas about it today are not born merely of library time, or sitting around imagining how the world ‘should’ work. I deliberately put myself in those places so I would know them viscerally as well as intellectually.  If I want my purpose on earth to make the world a better place for as many people as I can, I can’t see any better way.


My so-called ‘soft’ (uh, compassionate?), progressive approach to life came from being steeped in the gritty reality of life at the bottom. I was also growing up in one of the most diverse, both economically and culturally, cities in the world, spending time in the slums along with the country clubs.  Once I did my own work as the guest of these people, most of them people of color and from other countries, I had hands-on vivid experience of what life is like for them on a daily basis.  I didn’t sit somewhere, observing from a safe perch, second-guessing their desperation, violence, misery, crushed hopes, and heart-wrenching aspirations.  I was there in the thick of it, trying to justify the system that keeps them dependent, distracted just trying to survive, making them promises that are repeatedly broken, while they watch those more fortunate live the American dream, so hard for them to imagine, let alone achieve.

Graduate school redesigned my mental architecture. Not only was I learning a specific field and subject matter in depth, including my dissertation research topic and all the methods for carrying it out, I was learning how to study what I didn’t know. It is impossible to know everything, as I am sure we would all agree. There may have been a time when you went to school and learned whatever the basics were considered to be.  But now those basics fill zettabytes of chip space. You don’t need to know any facts, per se, you don’t need to memorize (it wouldn’t hurt to know your times tables, just saying …).  What is vital, is to understand how to approach that which you don’t know, and understand it. And in the case of all this injustice, it gave me the courage and tools to do something useful with my life, to unpack and deal with problems calmly, analytically, and productively.


I learned so many other tangential things, too numerous to list here, like thorough and neat, organized note-taking as fast as some people write short-hand (using speed writing); being even more orderly than I was previously; thorough; questioning; and dedicated to the ultra fine sieve of proven, hard, objective evidence. I learned what the true meaning of scientific inquiry was and how to apply the method and paradigms in an array of fields to every human question and problem, not just my field. Most importantly, it taught me to be fearless about change, the unknown, learning new skills, getting out of my wheelhouse and leaping into the new, different and difficult. I have also used the tests and verification systems I learned there, to evaluate the seemingly endless instream of information and conflicting messages that we are now bombarded with daily in what could otherwise seem to be a chaotic and undiscernible world, to winnow the wheat from the chaff in all things.  It helps me identify solid parcels of truth when they cross my path, as well as the false and ephemeral.

That training stimulated my lifelong excitement about the vast array of human disciplines and lines of inquiry that change, emerge and proliferate every single day.  That foundation has been my bedrock, giving me the courage and even patience to deal with the staggering number of problems and setbacks that we all face in life as individuals and as a species. It was a practical training that I have applied to every single thing I have done from that time to this. It was not an ‘elite’, ivory tower wasted experience.

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Somehow too, it bolstered the moral maturity that eventually comes with age and experience, to work under almost any conditions and not shrink or become an emotional amoeba. I don’t know what I would have been without it.

Images: Beth Byrnes, UCLA


My Jersey shore – revisited

Somehow the graphics were skewed on my reblog yesterday and I was unable to fix them. Here is my attempt to re-reblog. Forgive me for posting this again.  The link to the original post from 2013 is below:

I had originally posted this in 2013, but, in honor of hitting a milestone with my newest follower today, the Jersey Shore Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, I am releasing this again.  Thank you to that wonderful organization for honoring me by reading my blog.  I can honestly say, having been all over the world, that the true Jersey Shore has the most beautiful beaches and communities I have ever seen. Read the original post to find out why …


Coff drops

One of my husband’s many siblings had a birthday party at the beach, where almost all my in-laws live, this week. I usually snap photos on the down low with a pocket camera but this time I brought one of my two Nikons and shot a full round of pictures.


Geoffrey got his brother a new chipper and I got him a coffee maker and coffee.  We had a small difference of opinion as to what was the right gift this time, so we got both.

The last time the whole group got together, we discussed K-cups and how everyone who had become obsessed with those machines and plasticized coffee was now moving back to drinking the real thing, made in a more traditional way.

At our house, we never invested in one of those. For one thing, we like Peet’s coffee best of all the chain coffees available.  I don’t think the others come even close.  I know there are people who swear by Starbucks, but to me it is cut with Robusta beans, making the product harsh and usually bitter or acid.  Even going to a Peet’s is for the courageous because all these coffee houses brew to super high temperatures.  I once had to wait a full 45 minutes for a Starbucks Tall to cool off.  After I ventured a timid sip, it was so intense that I tossed it.  I wouldn’t have even tried it normally but I was stuck at a freeway rest area back East and that was the only stuff they had. That was my last Starbucks, over five years ago.


During our discussion, I reflected on my long off-again, on-again love affair with coffee and caffeine. Growing up, my parents drank instant coffee at home, I am sorry to report. They both worked and could get a brewed cup at their respective offices, and they didn’t drink coffee late at night, so that was all they kept in the house.  I certainly didn’t care, as I was not allowed to drink it.  Amelia, the woman who took care of me when I was young, drank Medaglia D’Oro, which is still an excellent choice if you can only get to a supermarket. But she made it in a percolator and it looked pretty frightening.  The only way I got a chance to taste it was when Malo would spill some out onto a saucer from his cup, which was laced with grappa. My parents had no idea.  Now that I reflect on it, I always thought it was a treat, but maybe he was trying to make me sleepy so I would take a nap, LOL!

As time went on, I had some additional positive experiences with non-American coffee.  One was with my Puerto Rican boyfriend in high school.  His family drank Bustelo, which I think you could get ground or instant at that time. It was far better than the dishwater instant my parents had, but it was dark and strong and I was not accustomed to having coffee anyway. When I started traveling (which, of course we did a lot as a family and with friends), I got a chance to drink Turkish coffee, French café filtre, Italian espresso, and Brazilian cafezinho.

Brazil is a major coffee exporter and they are all addicted to the stuff, which they serve at regular intervals, all day long, in little demitasse cups.  The coffee itself is something akin to espresso, but thicker, like Turkish coffee and much smoother.  They drink it black with gobs of sugar.  To put a dairy product into a cup of coffee in Brazil would be akin to putting whipped cream on filet mignon here.  It was the best coffee I had ever had and they make it everywhere in a really low-tech way:

the Brazilian coador or colador in Spanish, what my Puerto Rican boyfriend’s mother called, rather unappealingly, ‘the sock’. The first time she made coffee, I marveled at how great it was (compared to the swill at home, naturally) and asked her how it was done.  I almost passed out when she said she poured it through a sock, picturing the not-too-fastidious kitchen and her casual approach to housekeeping in general.  I was relieved when I saw what it was, even though it was probably not washed, let alone replaced for over a decade (or more).


When we lived in New York, we got into one of those obsessive phases — OK, truth be told, I got into it — where we bought the green beans in one place, took them to a roaster, had them custom cooked, then raced the beans home, froze the bulk of it and ground each morning’s batch, fresh.  That got old real quick, just like our once nauseating experience with having fresh wheat grass juice delivered to our co-op every morning, after having failed to properly juice the stuff we tried growing ourselves out on our balcony.  That was about the same time that I was buying fresh wheat berries and grinding my own whole wheat flour.  Manhattan being what it is, all this was easily doable, for a price. I know for a fact that one can do this in Berkeley too — but why would we want to? It was a thing, at the time.

There is another reason that I never went in for modularized coffee.  I hate flavoring added to coffee or tea, for that matter, with the exception of the bergamot put in Earl Grey and Lady Grey teas.  It is just a personal fetish, but the addition of vanilla or hazelnut or maple or whatever, literally screams cheap coffee to me.  If you know otherwise, I would love to hear it. To me it is the equivalent of masking low quality beer by adding salt.


The in-laws maintain that the only way to make a single cup of coffee is with one of those K-contraptions.  No! We have a Cuisinart 12-cup machine that makes one or twelve cups with equal ease and consistency.  But if we really want to get into it, honestly, the best way to make a single or dual cup of coffee is with that sock.  Nothing could be easier and we keep a few on hand.  I don’t like washing mine, and technically they should just be rinsed and reused. When we use them though, we just cut them up and put them in the compost and use a fresh one for the next occasion. When I open up a new one, I rinse it out with cold water to remove lint, then position the wet coador on the rim of the cup, spoon in the right amount of freshly ground coffee and pour the hot water (180F) through the material, letting it drip through naturally, slowly on its own.  By wetting the flannel first, you eliminate a lot of the coffee liquid being absorbed and thus lost in the fabric. All of the coffee ends up in your cup. By the way, I always pour plain hot water into the cups first, and let them sit while I prepare the coffee, discarding it before I pour in the brewed liquid.  By the time the water has dripped through the coador, the coffee has cooled to a slightly lower temperature so you never burn your mouth and throat.

My favorite coffee is Major Dickason, which has Sumatra beans in it, which are smooth but spicy — again, my preference.

But, most of the time we simply pre-program the Cuisinart the night before, put in the ground coffee, which we make ourselves once a week from the beans we get from Peet’s.  We are up so early that stumbling around making coffee is not high on my list, even though it would be the purist thing to do.


By the way, burr grinders are the best.  We got Geoff’s brother a Cuisinart grinder, but we have a Capresso and love it.  The one thing you absolutely must do with a burr grinder is clean it between uses.  If you grind all your beans once a week, cleaning it is not too much of a chore. If you don’t, the whole thing bogs down and makes an unspeakable mess.  Once a month or so, we clean the coffee maker with hot water and vinegar. We have had our coffee maker and grinder for about ten years and they are still going strong.

There is a part of me that questions the need for a stimulant like coffee.  I really don’t care for decaff.  If you need a low caffeine product, try the ones they carry at Whole Foods.  I used to drink naturally low-caffeine Allegro back in the day but I am not sure it is made the same way it once was, as Whole Foods has somewhat mainstreamed a lot of its now proprietary products.

While I may not have appreciated the mental boost that coffee imparts at one time in my life, I sure do now. And when I am feeling a bit down (which is almost never, thankfully), coffee is virtually medicinal.  First of all, I really love it.  Not so with any alcohol product and those of you who have followed this blog for some time also know that I am averse to most pharmaceuticals except in dire cases.  So, having reviewed and researched coffee somewhat extensively in my typical Plutonian way, I have concluded that, net-net, it is safe and rather therapeutic.  It is for me, anyway.  I have a delicate princess-and-the-pea sort of constitution, so I have to be judicious about the strength and amount of coffee I drink.  It definitely varies from day to day.  Geoffrey could drink a whole pot with no adverse reactions but he really isn’t that much of a fan.  He has one cup, I have two, typically and only in the morning.


In Brazil, they put an unrefined block sugar called rapadura in their coffee.  It really isn’t easy to get in its original form (hard blocks) here, so brown sugar can be used instead, but it isn’t quite the same.  Rapadura has a distinct density and clinginess that somehow thickens coffee.  It is hard and dark, like a rock, but friable. If you can get it, or better yet, find a genuine Brazilian restaurant (honestly, there are very few around — most are just glorified barbecue joints serving schwarma , which they borrowed from the substantial Lebanese population there, called rodizio in Portuguese) and ask for a cafezinho (cah-feh-zeen-yo) with rapadura (if there are actual Brazilians running the place, believe me, they have it to drink themselves, even if it isn’t on the menu).  They will probably fall over with surprise, but it will be worth it. And, for heaven sake, don’t go to a place that serves guava paste with cream cheese or worse, flan, and pretends those are Brazilian deserts. They aren’t!

I will tell you my take on tea in an upcoming post, but I think I have given you enough to swallow and will let you digest this first. :-D

Images: Beth Byrnes









Appeal and core

This month I have been on my own ‘listening tour’, as I am learning more about you, my ever expanding community, and your approach to the same issues that interest me. :-D What amazes me is that everyone I know was talking about the perils of online interaction this week.

Tangentially, I was watching one of our 2016 hopefuls sitting at a table, chatting with students and teachers on Monday. Education as well as perception of personalities have been on my mind for quite some time and this is the week I will be talking about both.

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The other thing I want to touch on briefly is the purpose of this blog, what motivates me, why I am here (I heard the candidate discuss this and it seems like a good thing to clarify on a blog). This will be a topic that unfolds as we sit at this virtual round-table — which is the way I visualize my spot and you visiting.  I see us when we are here on my blog as a community of which I am merely a member.   We are friends when we get together here — and by the way, I don’t see you as virtual. You are real human beings with feelings and ideas and so am I.

There are  many ways to approach this subject.  Since I want this blog to have a variety of posts, some ‘serious’, some merely entertaining, I may reorganize it so there are tabs for different types of discussions.  That way people who want to read what I have written on Southern California, baking or gardening or knitting, etc., can simply head to that area and avoid political or academic editorials.

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That said, and before I get into a discussion on what I meant when I wrote the title to this post, let me just say a few words about what you can expect when you come here, since I truly want to prompt discussion, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with anything I say or with me.

First, what you won’t encounter: sacred cows, land mines, hot-buttons, hair-triggers, traps, and eggshells that would make you tremble at the prospect of treading in the wrong place, violating some unspoken rule, wounding fragile feelings and incurring wrath and abuse. It won’t happen and here’s why: you are my guest. You are busy and yet you took the time to stop here and react to something I have written.  What a privilege for me — I mean that sincerely. I hope you have noticed that I am pretty respectful when I come to your place too, always with a gift in hand in the form of positive reinforcement and a compliment, even if I don’t understand or agree with you on every thing you write.  I always try to find something kind to say.

And who am I, that I should sit in judgment of anyone else? Among true friends, judgment can be laid aside.

In a nutshell: if someone can take offense at a progressive softy like me, then something else is likely operating. Projection, for example. Perhaps the way we are reading one another’s words creates whatever impression we believe we are getting. Often, we have areas in which we are already sensitive and merely a few simple words touches them off.  We are no longer really listening to the other person, but dredging up old hurts and vulnerabilities. If we were speaking with one another, we would likely get the spirit in which those words were intended. And may still not like them.  That’s fine, but at least we would be present in the moment.  Writing is limited. That is why I go to such lengths to be nice.

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Anything I say here, is simply my opinion.  My opinions can be: fill in any adjective you like. But, I don’t fall in love with myself and my ideas.   I may not be enlightened yet and I have my share of hang-ups, but low self esteem and insecurity or overblown/fragile ego and belief that I know it all are not among them.  I will probably give you a bit more background on my life and experience in my field and related disciplines, in an upcoming page that fleshes out my profile. But one thing I hope you will never see here is regression to anger, pettiness, spite, puerility or paranoia.

You are welcome to be yourself here! If my training hasn’t given me the ability to be accepting and kind — no matter who you are and what your issues may be –, then I wasted my time and my parents’ money. :-)

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I attempt to take a Socratic approach to every subject.  That is the way I was brought up, trained, and frankly in my estimation indicates true intellectual curiosity. I question everything, including my own assumptions. No one person has a lock on any topic, I don’t care what it is and what we think we know.  Being smug is intellectual death.

What do you care about my opinion anyway, as long as I express it with a modicum of humility? I try not to take myself too seriously. If we are healthy-ish we can handle a few unsettling ideas.  But if anyone is seeking groupies, they would probably be happier elsewhere — that’s fine! I treat everyone as equals. I don’t want to be on a pedestal and I am not going to go out looking for idols to worship either.

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So below is my point on the concept of core and appeal.  Core can mean so many aspects of life: central beliefs, the heart of any matter, the most important or fundamental values, and so on. Or it could refer to a group of people who make up the inner structure of a movement or organization or cultural institution (in the social scientific sense of that term).

Those cores are all relevant and I have talked or will talk about them in one way or another.  As a behavioral scientist I am fascinated by people’s belief systems and how they develop, function, and change over time.  I like to think of myself as growing and changing and improving.  Hopefully, right?

The core I am focusing on this time — and only briefly — is the philosophy behind  the ‘Common Core’ initiative.  Primarily because it is such a pivotal yet explosive issue now. And it doesn’t need to be.

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I am not going to say, it ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ be either. There is another thing I am trying to purge from my intellectual lexicon, what is ‘supposed’ to or ‘ought’ to be.  Instead, I think it might be useful if we used instead, ‘I would like it to be’, xyz, etc.  That is what we really mean. When we use any of those value-judging words we really mean that we have certain preferences based on our own view of the world and want everyone to come around to our way of thinking.  There are 7 billion + people on this planet.  What makes any one of us think every one of them should subscribe to our belief system? Or we to any one of theirs?

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I think for myself.  I am fairly sure that decades of thinking on certain topics qualifies me to analyze and perhaps venture an opinion on some of them. On some of them, I am pretty thoroughly educated or have deep experience, both with hands-on direct contact with the issue and the complex of factors in which it is embedded, as well as extensive intellectual or mental exercise on the topic, whether positive or negative. But, it still all boils down to my conclusions, preferences, opinions.  I have very strong convictions but until I am totally awake and aware, I will always see them as a work in progress. And yours may be just as valid and true as mine.

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For example, I think I am an inclusive person.  I grew up in a diverse environment, albeit with some advantages over which I had no control.  When I woke up one day and saw that I was pretty well off in this world, I decided I had to go out and seek those who did not have the same luck of birth.  That is what I have done from that day to this: sought out those who were in need, tried to understand them, and when possible, to do something to make their lives better.

So, back to the so-called concept of a common core.  This is merely my opinion, based on my history, including my background, experiences and study.

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Every child would likely do better in life if s/he were able to read, write, calculate, speak, analyze at a level that an average local university requires for doing the course work offered.

That’s it!

Now, is that controversial? Maybe.  We could argue that, were you to simply leave school at any point after the third grade in the average school anywhere in the US, that you might progress farther in the direction of your own goals from the age of 9 than you would have, had you stayed and gone on through grade 16. I have no idea of any credible research done on this, but if you do, feel free to share it. There is reason to believe that the earlier you have exposure to certain basic skills and the longer you work on refining them, in a formal setting like the organizational environment we term ‘schools’, the greater your lifetime earnings are projected to be, the longer you are likely to live, and the more satisfying your daily existence.  I am not wedded to that, but it is probably now a given.

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We can also debate the best way to ensure that those core skills and achievements are developed in any given child to the point that they are able to choose from a wider range of options when it comes to moving forward in the realm of academia.  Personally, I am not a subscriber to testing as it is currently done.  There are other methods for assessing individual student performance.  These methods are more teacher-intensive.  But, were they to be implemented in lieu of the eight hours of yearly standardized testing now being administered, time would be released back to the school day and year for the arts, physical education and recess. Yes, recess, an important part of a child (and adult’s) day.

There is also a coherent body of behavioral law that has been devised by theorists and investigators along the lines of Jean Piaget and others of almost equal stature in the area of child development that suggests a fairly universal — human species-wise — sequence to the course of growth during the first 18 to 21 years of life.  If the environment in which we spend those first 18 years supports that sequence in an appropriate way, we are more likely to succeed according to some parameters, like those I touched on above.

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Again, the idea behind Common Core was to have the states create a set of standards that would guide local schools and help them provide their students with the skills that would be expected of them, should they wish to go on to college. Please note the word: local.

This means that if you live in rural, Upstate New York, where I was an undergrad, you might want those standards to include agriculture and all the many necessary skills, practical, theoretical, and generative, to attend a husbandry program, for example. Not that no one in Upstate New York does anything but farm, but farming has been an integral part of that culture and social system for hundreds of years.

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That ‘core’ set of skills and abilities might be very different if you are going to school in Silicon Valley, California or the Maine border with Canada. It would be silly to have someone from Napa Valley telling a school district in Pittsburgh what to teach in school.  Yet both would easily agree upon their respective proposed Core talents and achievements, for their own neck of the woods.

Everyone agrees that this will be a topic for argument over the next many years because we have now and have had for a long time, children who cannot get into the advanced institutes of higher learning, because their elementary and secondary schools did not prepare them as a group or as individuals for that competitive winnowing process.

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If I were Empress of the United States, I would collect a group of people to create a simple framework to send out to the states for consideration in creating their common core guidelines for local curriculums.  That is in fact what was done, on a bi-partisan basis, 25 or so years ago, with the 50 or so governors.  Your state common core curriculum probably looks different from mine.

Is that radical? I hope those of you who are upset by the notion of a common core will share your views here.

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I would guess that most, if not all of us, adults, want to give every child every opportunity to realize his or her dreams, whatever those are.  That is one reason, for example, I love Waldorf Education.  Rudolf Steiner stated that education was just that, “to lead out” (from the Latin educare), to help bring forth whatever is already inside each child, creating an environment that offers the child freedom to be whoever s/he is and to express it safely and completely.

Here is the appeal part of this post.  I ask, no invite, you to come here, express yourself freely on this and other topics, be mindful that some people who visit this blog (bless every one of them) have differing points of view and perhaps tender feelings, I don’t know, and proceed accordingly.

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Until we are all conscious, we will have to stumble around blindly, trying to figure out the best way to navigate with the map we ourselves create, since we weren’t bundled with a manual.

I’m not fishing for compliments here and if you think I have been too harsh, you are encouraged to say so.

It’s your turn.  Feel free to have at it. <3

Images: Beth Byrnes, UCLA 





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