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.

9693479468_c3b18fda3a_z Cruisin Hollywood Musso and Franks

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.

13997425608_d81e76cfe7_z Palos Verdes CC

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.

13285833245_38ba2a9787_z the Queen Mary Long Beach

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 …

16585403846_19c427b102_z The Natural History Museum

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.

12674350185_1fdcf10afb_z tea room at the Biltmore

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.

13306235795_dac947ac8a_z Cruise to Catalina Long Beach

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.

14664414507_03def08848_z Rodeo at Wilshire

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.

9298839942_bbe4b9aed3_z Union Station

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



The newbie wed – our journey continued

It’s time for levity, no? And nothing conveys mirth like the long tale of mishaps that represented my twenty-something marriage and honeymoons. Where did we leave off? Recovering from jet-fueled indigestion at a Raj-worthy urban mansion in Bombay, our “perils of Pauline’ adventure continued. Here is the part IV of my five part series.

Quality Hotel Regency

It was the season finale of Mad Men with Don chanting at Esalen that triggered my recollection of having left you all suspended in the riveting :-D story of my westward journey to California when I was a mere wee bairn. [I hope you are doubled over at this point.]

Since my birthday is in August, my new husband had planned this trip so we could celebrate together in a place he knew I wanted to visit.  But he also had his own motive for going to India.

Geoffrey had been in the Semester at Sea program during college, that took him around the world — something his mother, Greta, thought was a valuable Grand Tour after college. I don’t know much about it other than the fact that all six of Geoff’s siblings did it as well, essentially a family tradition.  Typically I think of semesters abroad as a waste of time, academically, while valuable for life experience.  I did one in the summer in London and spent another summer in Switzerland so I could get credits, enjoy living in Europe and improving my French in a supposedly protected environment and not fritter valuable time on requirements during the regular school year.

To this day, I don’t really know what Geoff got out of that program, other than he did spend time in India and it made a strong impression on him.  He discovered the whole realm of Eastern mysticism or cosmology.  It is hard to know how to characterize it. There is a great deal of New Age quackery that immediately comes to mind when this subject is raised, but to give him credit, or luck or fate (depending on your POV) he ran into a couple of truly interesting and serious figures.  The first was Meher Baba, who was long deceased.  However, he did leave behind a sober and dedicated community at Meherabad in a former British resort near Poona.

Taj Majal Palace

Geoff read extensively on the Eastern spiritual traditions, despite going to twelve years of parochial school like every single member of his entire family had. He balked at attending a Catholic college and headed to Yale for business, instead.  However, he was searching for higher principles, for a better road map to being an aware and responsible member of the human species.  I admire the fact that he was able to sift through the considerable choices available in the history of human philosophies, to find those that at least made sense from an intellectual if not rational standpoint.

But, we can discuss this topic another time.  For me, also interested in this general subject area, the trip to India was both epic and a pain in the derriere.

We had two ways to get to Ahmednegar from Bombay — a many hour train ride (oh, if you haven’t been on or even seen an Indian train, there is no describing this option) or driving. Geoffrey, flush with honeymoon funds, decided we would hire a limousine to drive us. It is only about 300 km, but the road conditions were so poor that it took us all day at the hottest, wettest time of the year.  You name it, we encountered it: torrential rain, mud, deep holes, dead ends, skeletal-pass-for-cattle crossings, flea-ridden beggars blocking our path, soaring heat, insects of every description — creating an unforgettable scrap book on our windshield, and a distinct lack of food or restroom options.

Vivanta Hotels

By the time we arrived at our hotel, we were filthy, sweaty, cranky, and starved. We had barely dropped off our bags in the room when Geoff decided we needed to hike to the ashram on foot, without changing the clothes we had been in, it seemed, since we left New York.  I wanted to try out some duds I thought looked more ‘native’. If any of you know NYC shopping, I had gotten some hi-ticket items in saffron colors at Bendels, that I was sure would make me blend in. Ah, the naievete of children. I looked like a nouveau arriviste Rajster and stood out like a sore digit, not the thumb kind.  My silk boho threads, stitched in France, seemed like a rebuke to the entire ex-post-hippie crowd that was gathered the next morning for Tai Chi, biscuits and solar greetings.  But, I am getting ahead of myself.

Down the dusty path we flew, just in time for vesper meditation, having to shed our footwear and reveal my gritty manicure — deepening my malhumor considerably.  By the time we got back to our room, all that was available was dosa and tea. Both of us continued to drop weight, so much so that by the end of the trip, all my State-side clothes were hanging off me like a Biafran refugee.  One thing we did while we were there, was a stupefying amount of shopping because you can go to the endless fabric stores that every town in India is riddled with and have your clothes custom made.  I simply went in, dressed in the outfit I liked from Bendels and the ladies, sitting on the floor of the ‘factory’, made it in a dozen glorious colors of silk or cashmere.  Whenever I run across the few of those outfits that remain, they look as if they were made for an eight-year old, they are so small.


Our stay at Meherabad went very well.  We enjoyed the teas, the calm and quiet, the silent, serious Westerners that trekked to the ashram to spend time with other Baba-lovers, as they call themselves. It was clean, fragrant, serene, music-filled and we savored each day marked in tinkling brass bells accompanied by blown-glass wind-chimes. We learned a lot of practical things, including how to do short, three-minute stress-relieving meditations and sprinkle them throughout the day. I still use many of the techniques I learned there.

When we got back to Bombay — this time by train (first class, but, oh boy …) we were relaxed, skinny, energized.

It didn’t last.  The taxi delivered us to a subterranean mall that was supposed to take us via scooter, sheltered from the pouring rain above, to an underground passage to our hotel.  Sitting exhausted on a deep cushioned gilt bench we thought we recognized (from somewhere) a sleek, darkly beautiful girl, impeccably groomed and attired, dragging on a slim French cigarette in a diamond-studded (we later realized) holder.  She had a languid look of boredom on her face, but for whatever reason, the minute she saw us, she walked over, sat down and began chatting. She was a Lufthansa stewardess, native Indian, raised and educated in London, and her name was Maya Oberoi.  That meant nothing to us at the time, but she said, scribbling on a scrap of paper, “Look, stay at this Sheraton and just say you are my friend”.  Hah, ok, we like discounts and so we ditched the hotel we had booked and trotted over to the Sheraton.  Uh, yeah, OBEROI Sheraton.  The minute the concierge, dressed in full Raj regalia heard that name, we were taken to the honeymoon suite and comped the most sumptuous dinner I have ever had in my life, served on our private patio.  I say patio but it was more like the mezzanine at the Taj Majal.

fabric dyes

That night we had the second verbal brawl of our abbreviated (at that point) marriage.  My platinum-spoon husband ordered an estupidu costly bottle of French wine and butchered the pronunciation to the sommelier.  Being the bête noire that I was, I corrected him.  What ensued was an eight hour non-stop philosophical disquistion on the age old question that — I am certain — plagued the Sophists: when you know the idiom, do you express it with the proper accent, or, like most of our compatriots, blurt it out Anglicized, SoCal style? To be fair, G’s position was that he couldn’t be bothered feigning native familiarity with every language on earth, that we were in a former British colony and they would understand him well enough, and that I sounded pretentious.  My point was, if I knew the language well enough to know proper pronunciation, I was not going to pretend I didn’t.

This debate boiled down to Cornell vs Yale, both our hot faces blazing school fervor, shooting academic rivalry from flashing irises, teal vs green. We had eaten so little that both of us, on one crystalline goblet of the grape each, were summarily toasted.

Yats wine cellars dot com

The next afternoon, when we dragged ourselves from the velvet stupor we were still marinating in, we realized we needed to find Maya and give her something as a gift for this sumptuous honor that she had bestowed on two complete strangers.  But what? Not, certainly, anything local, nor as tacky as a gift from the hotel shoppe. Oh, wait, wow, genius!  The CHOCOLATES we had carefully conveyed from Europe. We had distributed a few in Bombay when we were staying there at the beginning of our trip but most of them remained.  They were still in our bags.  Excellent!

You can guess what we found when we removed the carefully constructed wrappers and lifted a lid to peek inside. Uh, yup, that’s right.  How should I put this, our lovely, can’t-get-them-anywhere-but Germany confections now resembled uncurbed canine product.  They had melted into one, sticky, self-reconstituted solid pocked mess. By the end of our stay in Bombay, Geoffrey and I had eaten our way through each ruined box, apparently consuming between us, seven pounds of German chocolate in one week!

melted chocolate

(To be continued: next up, shopping in Bombay, the crazy scene at the airport, the caravan across country to our new home in LA.)

Images: IndiaLuxuryVoyages.com, HenriBendels.com, NYDailynews.com, YatsWineCellars.com, Ichiwah.com


Las Vagues

Every decision we make involves a gamble. What we bring to bear when we make a choice is key.  Is it fact or opinion based? I think this question goes to the heart of every controversy we face as a species today, and especially as Americans in our current overheated political environment.

As a personal aside, though, this has been a pivotal spring for me. How we spend our time is especially difficult, choice-wise, these days.  I have had such a hectic week, I wasn’t sure I would even post.  But, I had been rolling this topic around for awhile and like to be consistent and routine, so I am going to put a few thoughts down, as they are gelling. This is a think piece in development and I hope it will not be overly abstruse. I’ll try to keep it short, for a change. (Unless that is unnerving, LOL).

For one thing, I have been learning to use other social media a bit more, because I am planning to launch a side business and have become interested in developing a good sales platform.  That took a lot of work this week along with doing some regular work at my so-called ‘day job’, lol (since I work for myself out of my home office).  But one of the concepts that has been plaguing me for awhile, is why there is so much unrest and anger in America lately. It seems to be permeating every venue with few exceptions and that is a shame.  Don’t we want some place to go to just be happy? I myself am trying to kvetch less (can you tell yet, LOL!?).


I was chatting with a cousin this week about one of his kids who at 26 is suffering ‘failure to launch’.  Part of the dilemma is that he is both angry and depressed, despite having a good entry level job and having graduated from a good university. It occurred to me that one reason there are an increasing number of kids returning to live at home and feeling they are failing is that the entire nature of our workforce has changed dramatically.  There just aren’t the same kinds of jobs available to people starting out, that there were in past decades.  It is getting harder and harder for someone to graduate with a liberal arts degree and find a position with promise, leading to a worthy career.  I still contend that the best education is a broad and classical one, but then, determining how you leverage it into a career, is far harder than simply emerging from a technical program.  It is nigh on impossible to advise kids as to what path is right for them and I don’t envy college counselors today, sending someone off into a bleak job market.


But another key factor in the current ennui, that all of us are feeling, is the uncertainty all around us.  Society today is characterized by change, hopefully progress — but not always, and a steady stream of confusing messages. That alone makes almost everyone uncomfortable.  We are now subject to contradictory input on every single subject.  Just think of the fight about the Trans Pacific Partnership.  Who would have imagined it would cause so much divisiveness.  And where do we even turn to get reliable information on which to form an opinion.  I have personally heard a dozen different analyses on the subject and am at a loss to know who is right, at this point.


I just heard Geoffrey Toobin say, “Opinions don’t matter in this case, only facts.” Don’t you think this is true of many things in life? In the past two weeks, a number of controversies have been featured in various media.  Things that are fuzzy, not clear, and since I really like clarity, I find them annoying.  Such as (and these are just a random few off the top of my head, mind you):

  • Mayweather Pacquiao – 5 years waiting — do we really know who won and why?
  • The national media ‘paints things with a broad brush of the known’  according to NPR’s Steve Inskeep who has been trying to find the real Baltimore — were any of us paying any real attention to that city, or other rust belt cities of its type? I was touched almost to tears by that poignant scene from The Wire of the mother and little girl gazing out the window and the Mother relating Good Night moon to the junkies and the cops and the other ‘hood’ figures that were the view from their tenement window. My heart breaks for those little children.  I want their world to be safe and wonderful, not filled with horror and fear so early.
  • Soledad O’Brien on the loaded use of the word thug. Why and to whom to we apply that word? Should we be using such pejorative terms instead of forcing ourselves and our public figures to be more analytical and specific, and describe actions in detail, rather than being evaluative, judgmental; a glaring example: Rush Limbaugh’s comment that ‘eighteen arrests and they finally got Freddie Gray’.
  • State’s Attorney Mosby – if ever there was a lightning rod.  Did she do the right thing? I have no idea, still.
  • The Boston bombing trial — the prosecutor and defense are arguing the merits of death sentence vs life imprisonment. I was struck by the prosecutor’s saying that being close to death imparts mental clarity like no other event.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the 30 year log-jam on moving a comprehensive infrastructure program, combining private with public funds, to prevent the tragic disaster of the future that cost 8 lives this week, is being endlessly tied up in partisan, personal interests, not those of the people.  There is almost no meeting ground in congress on this issue and the heartless manner in which this is being delayed is not only reprehensible, it is essentially un-American.


I think a lot of this confusion comes from clever talking heads deliberately using the fuzziness that envelops most people’s thinking to plant falsehoods and then spread them virally. It plays into our primordial inchoate fears and nothing is more effective than triggering conserved animal traits like fear. We don’t develop methodical, systematic, clear thinking and analysis automatically.  We have to be taught, hence the reason for an excellent education system, and then we have to make it our own priority.

Both clarity and progress are necessary for moving forward and growing, individually and collectively.  Yet these are elusive because they require constant alertness, awareness and flexibility.  An openness that is hard to maintain because that very presence and threshold-poise allows our psyche’s to be flooded with information, a lot of which is noise.  Building a mental structure that enables evidential input while screening out nonsense and opinion is complex and daunting.  It means having exceptional consciousness almost from birth.  How many people can we point to with congenital heightened acuity?


One place you see it again and again is in those who have suffered severe trauma and lived to put their lives back together and report on it.  I was thinking that a perfect laboratory for observing this would be the people who survived the Amtrak crash on Tuesday.  An event like that is sobering and enlightening.  But who would want to endure that kind of catastrophe in order to sharpen one’s awareness?

It strikes me that this is an age old dilemma at the highest levels of human inquiry.  Here is something I have been studying for years.  It has at least helped me to sort out the duality that typifies virtually every discipline and endeavor. You can read this discussion with Peter Coveney and it should be more crystallized than this post, which I am laughingly realizing is vague too!

I am coming to the conclusion that the primary mark of intelligence is the ability to be effective in the face of unclarity, confusion, contradiction, rapid change, disorientation — you get the idea.  The person who can construct a temporary and semi-solid platform of order out of the chaos that bombards the open mind, is the winner of the future.  It will never return to what it once was and we have to stop pining for it.  America will never again be a colony, a wild frontier in any physical sense.  The wild frontiers are in the mind and those who have a mental and emotional fortitude to venture to its edges are the ones who will emerge as each new cycle rises from the ashes of the previous one, like the proverbial phoenix, to be the victor.  Not in terms of spoils, but in peace of mind.  Only with a stable mental constitution can we be productive in the face of tumult and turmoil.  I don’t think it is any accident that there is now an explosion of social media with names like ‘Tumblr’, ‘Twitter’, ‘Instagram’, etc. Those very terms demonstrate an accelerated future that will require lightning movement from idea to idea, task to task.


If that makes us uncomfortable, we are vestigial and we will be left behind.  We are either open and sufficiently robust to withstand the incoming, or we will retreat to darkness, confusion, fear, paranoia and ultimately failure and in my view, premature death.  As for me, I am continually seeking out the black swan. This dovetails into a future consideration of what it means to be Progressive, capital P. I hope I have made the right choices, but who knows?

All this needs more thought and your input, if you care to share it.

Images: Beth Byrnes, more Wild Ones, and daily411news.com


Walk on the wild slide

[Today’s impromptu post was tossed together from a fortuitous confluence of events over the past week. It may be a bit ragged around the edges as I am eyeball deep in learning curves, so bear with me.]

California is a quirky, contradictory state.  On the one hand, it has sophisticated cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, on the other it is home to the cowboy culture of Bakersfield and Newhall, the very rural, very russet area of Barstow and ole Mentryville, a real ghost town where Green Acres was filmed way back when.  There are Orange and San Bernardino counties, Santa Paula to the north (coming up in a new series and post), the Antelope Valley with Tehachapi, Mojave, as well as Victorville and, right in my backyard, Little Rock.  Yep, there is a Little Rock, California, 45 minutes east of Stepfordy Valencia.


If you want to travel to the mountains and then out to Las Vegas, the northern ‘back way’, as I have talked about before in my posts on Wrightwood and Big Bear Lake, you take Pear Blossom Highway east and go right through some of the strangest terrain and rustiest towns in North America. The agonized Joshua trees, anthropomorphic rock formations, and sprinting tumbleweeds are high desert signatures punctuating a wide swathe from the Central Valleys to the Nevada border.


Dotting the stark landscape along Pear Blossom are what look like abandoned shacks from its wild west days. They are actually going concerns: stores, the sheriff’s station, a post office, worry-beads of roadside stands selling cotton candy and garlic.  You name it, it can be found in the slumbering hamlets that seem to have been lifted out of an old Gene Autry movie, right along the two lane desert highway.  You might see a toilet with a mannequin rising up from it, holding artificial flowers and you will likely spot a horse or two.


Situated in the middle of this 19th century throwback is Charlie Brown’s.  It is hard to describe this place unless you have been there.  As they say, once you go, you get it.  Charlie Browns is a haven for down-homey-ness and ‘stuff’. Let me hasten to add with due reverence and respect for the treasure that is rural America, Geoffrey and I love going there.  Especially just before Christmas, for stocking stuffers.

There is a world existing in Little Rock that pours into Charlie Brown’s all day, every day and late into the night, around the calendar.  No matter what time we have driven that highway, the parking lot at CB’s is jammed.


An exotic world awaits inside, country music blaring, Texas barbecue assaulting your nostrils, and the most incongruous collection of folks milling throughout its many rooms and out buildings, pushing bumpy, crooked-wheeled carts loaded with bulk items you can’t get just anywhere.


You can order rattlesnake sandwiches along with a rack of elk, dripping in grease. Guzzle down one of 101 cloying date shakes and top the whole thing off with a funnel cake oozing syrup and Pantone.  There are dirt cheap prickly pears and candied cactus, a whole room of Coca Cola memorabilia, a Betty Boop nook, several outdoor picnic areas, a year-round Christmas hall, guns of all kinds, and a refrigerated chamber dedicated to impossible-to-find-elsewhere artisan sodas made with cane sugar. We stock up on carbonated creams like Craft Spicy Ginger Beer that boasts an eye-opening kick and Hippo Huckleberry, made by the same family since 1927. Of course  there are over 50 types of fudge, like cinnamon pumpkin and cherry cheesecake, peanut butter maple, and the like, and dozens of hot, sweet and savory sauces and dips. If it aint salty, oily, or sugary, it ain’t offered at Charlie Brown’s.


The staff at Charlie Brown’s would not be out of place on Duck Dynasty but obviously live in the surrounding community.  They are not the chi-chi bronzed babes and dudes that come to mind when you think Golden State. But it helps to remember that California is a western state established by plucky souls who arrived by wagon train, mule, and bipedal power. Time seems to have stopped in this backwater and every so often we immerse ourselves in it to remind us of living history, another time. When we visit Little Rock, we grunge down chameleon-like and avoid flinching when we hear ‘Howdy’, vibing instead on the thick atmospherics. And even though I might at one time have been embarrassed to even consider buying some of these sentimental tchotchkes that verge on being cringe-worthy, we did buy the sign about the Lab in honor of our pup.


All this week I have been busy with new software.  I had to purchase an enormous and complicated program for my work that will require studying tutorials and then absorbing a fair amount of instructions for implementing it.  But, I also took the 3 day intensive Creative Live seminar on the latest Lightroom cloud version that just came out.  It was all day for three days and then I bought the entire class which came with a dozen PDFs, some presets plug-ins and 36 MP4 videos. We had a real-time chat room for discussions and were able to ask questions/get answers back in a live Q&A feed, simultaneously.


Lightroom is the Rolls Royce of photography software as far as I am concerned.  Jared Platt, the Arizona photographer who taught the live class in Seattle, is an amazing instructor and one of the most organized artists I have ever seen.  He took us from the very basics all the way up to making videos in Lightroom and posting directly to SmugMug, our websites or blogs and other social media.  I filled up an entire notebook with his ideas and instructions, which started with how to apply an ingenious coding/naming system to all our photographs, making four full copies of the RAW files, turning them into DNGs in LR CC with  metadata embedded — including GPS data so we can return to the exact spot we took pictures — arranging them in catalogues and then uploading the final processed JPEGs for electronic purposes and deleting them from our dedicated drives, to preserve valuable space.


Platt uses four drives that pop into a small, four-slot Raid I CRU dataport that sits on his work table at his studio.  Then he carries additional drives in a pelican case that goes with him on the road, since he travels all over the world.  With his system, there is no possibility of losing any of the hundreds of thousands of photos he takes each year and he syncs all his work in the cloud with LR CC, so he can move seamlessly from studio to home to plane to hotel and back, working on a single project the whole time.  He is inspiring and I am completely revamping my system to match it to his.


The key with the drives he uses is that they are solid state and therefore far less likely to crash.  He simply gets multiple 500 gigabyte drives that can pop in and out of his portable dataport, so they can be swapped and updated every twenty-four hours.  He told us that even tapping one of the large non-solid state stand-alone drives like the ones I have (two terabyte and three terabyte) can ruin them and then the entire device has to be discarded. With his individual drives, if the dataport is damaged, the drive comes out and can be connected to his laptop or tablet directly through a USB port and cable or into a new dataport. So, in addition to my new office computer, my new lenses for the latest Nikon, and all this software, I will be purchasing a J-bod unit with at least two bays for these swappable solid state drives.  Phew.  I am no techie, but one almost has to be to do things properly.


He also reminded us that photography at its start was a science based on mathematics and physics, not an art.  It has become increasingly attractive to artists and other creative specialists given all the newest technologies and software available — his favorite being Lightroom — but what many people lack is the knowledge of its exact technical parameters. That, in his opinion, is one of the differences between the true professional and those stabbing around in the medium.  Most of us who are not professionally trained like Platt, who holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in photography, simply stumble along taking photographs that rarely live up to our expectations.


There is so much more information available on how to approach the entire process of photography methodically and wisely that it might worth looking into this three-day Lightroom CC class.  As I am processing now, I simply run the relevant video on one computer screen while I work on my photographs on another.


In any case, I decided to round up some of my  Mojave/San Bernardino/Antelope Valley shots, including some of Charlie Brown and practice the new things I learned.  This is a sample of them. Now that I have the wilding bug, I plan to shoot an ongoing series, some of which I am currently sharing on Flickr and Instagram, each picture different and a sort of “wild card”, nothing connecting them except applying LR CC to some of my existing captures, which had not been shared previously, almost at random.  Putting discipline and order to the chaos is one of my favorite things to do.  I see myself as a photography hobbyist who really enjoys being an information designer/stylist and Lightroom helps me with both. Voilà, the title for my current passion and this post!


Images: Beth Byrnes/The Wild Slide series – Enlarge these shots to see the details, if you like. 




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



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