Valenciaga Garden Couture

I borrowed this title from my Flickr Photostream so I could yak about our yard here. :-D Seems the right time to do it, since our warm ‘winter’ has just melted into a hot spring.


You will probably remember that, as a transplanted NYer, I have been struggling for over a decade to turn my high desert yard into a garden oasis and wildlife refuge of sorts.  It hasn’t been easy, because when we first moved here we didn’t understand the climate and terrain at all, and made a lot of expensive landscaping mistakes.


I grew up in a straightforward four-seasons environment.  Autumn was cool, crisp and sunny, winters were very cold and it rarely rained but often snowed, and the snow would stick around for weeks even under clear skies.  We rarely had an overcast day until the spring, when it would become humid and warm with light showers — just as the saying goes, April showers were common.  Then came the very hot, very humid summers with frequent sultry days that climaxed in thunderstorms and late August hurricanes.  These hurricanes were the kind that, unless you lived right at the water, were completely benign.  You bring in your lawn furniture and ride it out.


In that environment we  grew vegetables without any problem, had flowers three seasons — all kinds. There were insects, natch, including annoying mosquitoes and gnats and flies but only in late spring and summer. There was a full array of birds and rabbits and friendly yard creatures. You planted a tree and it shot up, thriving. No one chopped them down, stupid pruning was almost never seen — certainly not the ignorant butchery one sees here in SoCal nowadays.

This is the mindset we applied to Valencia.  Uh, nope, no-go.


I picked our current house because not only is Valencia a sort of high desert wilderness with huge rolling foothills — the outcroppings of the San Gabriel and Santa Susana mountain ranges, but it also has, still to this day despite being developed, vast areas of arroyo. Technically, an arroyo refers to a river bed, dry or otherwise and is typically associated with various types of desert lands.  The arroyos in Southern California tend to be full of wildlife: trees, bushes, wildflowers and other types of wild plants and vines.  They are also home to all sorts of creatures including rabbits, rodents, coyotes, snakes, birds, insects and other naturally occurring life.


The arroyos that intersperse our neighborhood are semi-wild hiking areas and stunningly beautiful, all year long.  They are home to the protected Live Oak tree.  I have posted pictures of them in the past, as the paseos that run throughout Santa Clarita for miles and miles, wind around and next to our house and neighborhood and drop down into these fluvial hollows enabling residents to enjoy their natural beauty rather seamlessly, by just stepping onto them and wandering.


If I had been smart, I would have studied those arroyos when I first came and noted what grows effortlessly in our conditions. Instead I planted annuals and trees that didn’t survive. Then, we stumbled on a class given by a local certified horticulturalist/arborist and learned all about our Sunset Zone 18.  He told the class (and we took four more classes with him) that we should only plant the trees, flowers, vines, bushes, shrubs and vegetables for our zone and nothing else.  Luckily, we found out that there were a lot of beautiful plants of all kinds that work well here and that is what we added from that time to today.  We also have him come twice a year to walk around the yard and garden with us and assess what needs to be done so things continue to thrive.


I won’t torture you with details on all our mistakes but fast forward to the point where we finally understood what we were dealing with.  We now have over a dozen fruit trees, dozens of flowering plants, and an area where we raise vegetables in planters.  We have found that the best system for this is a tall cylindrical column that allows roots to grow deep instead of spread out. In that system you can raise tomatoes and all kinds of beans, squash, and of course herbs.  We have just gotten heirloom seeds to put in baby lima beans and snow peas in a week or so.  As all of you who garden know, some plants prefer to be started in the Spring and others in Autumn. Since actual ground space is at a premium in Southern California, with few people having more than a quarter of an acre, vertical planting of this type is a good solution.


Our main challenge with our fruit and vegetables is the slap-fight the local squirrels engage us in every single summer, as they teem up out of the nearby arroyo and set up shop at our place.  Not only do they eat our fruit and seedlings, but flowers as well, stripping our Pineapple Guava and Camelias.  As I have mentioned before, at one time we used to escort them to another location a few miles away, but the count reached almost 50 one month, so we gave up.  The only solution to pests of this type is spraying plants with natural products that they don’t like the taste of, but that has only had limited success and can take a lot of time and money. Deanna and Al, who have a large piece of property back East, have had luck with tenting their raised bed ‘square foot’ garden. Luckily they are also in a temperate, four-season location where plants thrive and so their pests (rabbits, which Annabelle delights in having live on the property, naturally) have plenty of other places to dine.


Unlike at least half our neighbors, if not more, we have created a virtual paradise for local creatures of all kinds.  The only ones we have not seen on our own property are coyotes, which do come into the neighborhood occasionally.  Everything else makes its way to us from huge snowy owls to peregrine falcons, to praying mantis and ladybugs.  There are many people here who live in what appear to be expensive penitentiaries, completely devoid of any plants, other than grass (more on this below).  They just don’t know how to or don’t want to struggle to maintain a garden.

Not all of Southern California and Los Angeles County have inhospitable climates like ours. Pasadena and Beverly Hills, for example, have milder, slightly moister weather all year long, which makes it easier to grow a wide variety of plants.


Our one advantage in having hotter heat and colder cold, if that doesn’t sound like a truism, is that we can grow apple trees in the same yard with Middle Eastern citruses, like Buddha’s Hand, an Israel citron that is very rare (and we have struggled to keep alive and bearing its unique fruit) and our latest acquisition, the Kaffir Lime, the leaves of which are used in Thai food.  I also have a treasured Pomelo.  If you have any chance to try a Pomelo, you will savor one of nature’s truly exotic treasures.  It looks like a grapefruit but the fruit and rind are completely sweet, aromatic and almost perfume-like.  To me, when I think of the caravan treasures being carried along the ancient silk routes, the Pomelo comes to mind.


The Kaffir is a very delicate tree that we will have to tent or build a cover for to shelter it from our occasional frosts on winter nights (should we ever again be so lucky to have them, despite the damage they inflict — we need them for our apple tree). We got the Kaffir, after a one year wait and application to have it in California, because Deanna and Al are into Asian cooking and want the leaves for their use.  See how nice we are to our family and friends?  Now we baby that thing as if it were a child.


So, the Kaffir, the roses and now for our newest challenge.  You who think there is no such thing as proven, man-made climate change are clearly not living in one of the areas impacted. Although, despite the deliberate attempts by industries impacted by EPA rules resulting from the attempts to stave off impending disaster, low lying coastal regions are experiencing rising sea levels that will swallow up wetlands and places like the Florida Keys and some islands off the coasts in South Carolina, for example.  Equally indicative of what is happening are the increased number and ferocity of storms, including blizzards, hurricanes and tornadoes.

But for us, the alteration means aridity and heat as never before experienced — everyone is talking about it. It is criminal for anyone to lie to the American people about what is transpiring.  Here in Valencia, we have had higher temperatures every summer and that season has been swallowing autumn and spring, increasingly. To boot,  we have had virtually no rain for a decade. There are parts of California where tap water consumption has been severely restricted.  No showers? No flushing the toilet? OMG.


So, late last summer we received a notice from the local water authority that we had to restrict our automatic sprinkler systems to two days per week from that day forward.  This had never before happened in the history of the Santa Clarita Valley.  Never.  What this meant was, of course, that grass lawns, which suck up a disproportionate share of outdoor watering, would wither and die.  And that is what happened.  By December 15, when temperatures were still 15 degrees above normal and not a drop of rain had fallen, everyone in our expensive, highly managed, model community had a dead, ugly, brown yard wherever that putting-green surface that was so mandated and regulated by the HOAs had been.

Geoffrey and I decided to favor our trees and plants, increase the percentage of xerigraphic/drought tolerant blooming ground covers, like Gazanias, and gradually eliminate all lawn areas.  So we got two flats of bright Africans that we hope will take over the entire front lawn. And we are going to keep planting roses all over, especially the unusual ones that Weeks Roses offers.  We lost a couple last year to grubs, so I have to compensate.  I want a garden full of flowers and fruit all year long, as a way to make up for the climate.


If I were to summarize what we should all be doing, regardless of where we live, right now in our yards it would be this short list:

  • Stop all pruning, trimming and transplanting until December 21;
  • Plant spring flowers, fruiting trees, bushes and vines, plant spring vegetables;
  • If you want birds, provide low, middle, and high shelter;
  • Fertilize, preferably with organic products, avoiding at all costs anything like Miracle Gro, which is a destructive steroid;
  • Spray organic solutions like Neem oil or Australian Red Worm ‘tea’, diluted 1:6 in water, to prevent ovipositing by pests like moths;
  • Mulch around all plants except citrus trees with yard clippings (everything except thorns; nothing else should leave the yard);
  • If you haven’t done it, start composting, either in unused corners of your yard or in bins.  The only organic material that cannot be composted is anything composed of proteins: eggs (the shells are fine); nuts; meat; fish or oils (except avocados and untreated olives);
  • Let natural friendly garden creatures control undesirable insects, so don’t spray outside to kill spiders and ants – we encourage both outside.  Ants aerate the soil and recycle debris. Spiders catch flies, mosquitoes, ticks and all kinds of parasites. You should only call an organically aware exterminator in dire circumstances to get rid of rodents.  If there is a honey bee infestation,  see if the hive could be relocated safely first, before doing anything that might kill them, if at all possible.
  • Small lizards, geckos, salamanders are actually helpful in the yard as they will rid your yard of harmful insects and small vermin.  We do remove grasshoppers, and their relatives and release them in the arroyo.  We have had a few small, harmless snakes from time to time and leave them alone. Naturally, if you are lucky enough to have frogs — treasure and protect them. Butterflies like sun and to be left alone and admired from afar, touching them kills them slowly.


That’s it except for watering and perhaps monthly fertilizing with the product meant for that plant, i.e., roses, beans, orange trees all require different fertilizers and foods.  It matters!

Images: Beth Byrnes archives, our yard and its ornamental gardens 




It must be Spring, because for the first time, this week, I realized that we are finally going to have a woman President of this country after nearly 250 years. How do I know? The best the opposition can do is nitpick about minutiae and petty issues like who selected the 30,000 private, personal emails for deletion.

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Whether it’s taking a pledge to stand up against gender-based violence, donating an old cellphone to help reduce maternal mortality, or supporting women-owned businesses in your community – you can do something today to help build on progress and close the gaps that remain for women and girls in every corner of the globe. — Chelsea Clinton

I am not sure what is really happening in this country that enabled the very people who have so mismanaged our resources to the point that they virtually brought the global economy to its knees less than a decade ago to be re-elected in 2014 but I do believe we will eventually emerge from our stupor. That is what the tides of history show: a steady march toward greater awareness and solving humankind’s problems. In other words, progress.  In the short term, we will have to endure the adolescent schoolyard antics of the politics of our day, which I choose to ignore for the most part.

While the news is increasingly positive in other arenas, the fact that no woman has been able to assume the top leadership position of this country to date is something that should give every one of us pause.  Just like the myth that we have overcome racial bigotry, we apparently have not yet accepted the fact that women are just as if not more capable than men in managerial and leadership roles. And, if you happen to be African American while brilliant, experienced, mature and female? Watch out (hey Dems what were you smoking to allow Loretta Lynch to be pushed into 2015? Can you never stop being naive?).

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I grant you that to be taken seriously, none of us, male or female, can be silly too publicly.  In fact, I have been a serious person from earliest memory and one reason for that is I was heightened from an early age to injustice by virtue of the work my mother did.  Maybe that was also the result of where I was born and raised, in a major metropolitan city with direct connections to the rest of the world. When I would travel east to Europe, I found a sober populace that had just recovered from two catastrophic world conflagrations.  Then I would take a trip to California and there everyone was surfing, barbecuing, and struggling to be glamorous.  New York was in between.  People there are not depressed, they are industrious and involved.  I was raised by active, problem-solving parents and it was assumed I would take a similarly constructive role in society, irrespective of my gender.

One of my favorite authors, P.L. Travers, said that women have three stages, essentially, the maiden, the mother, and the crone. By crone she meant to convey a woman of experience and wisdom who has  put aside feminine wiles and gets down to the business of working and contributing to the betterment of mankind.  The sooner we women assume that mantle, the more effective human beings will be at fixing whatever problems are at hand.

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For six years now, we have seen the thin veil of racial parity ripped back to reveal an ugly prejudice that some people still hold toward anyone that does not conform to the old, white, male ideal.  We have had to endure rumors, myths, conspiracies, attacks, and outright lies about anyone with dark skin because we elected (how dare we!) a non-Caucasian President.

I can only imagine the misogynistic chauvinism we are in for during the next two, as well as the eight years that H. R. Clinton is in that office.  Why would Clinton do this unless she truly believes she has something to contribute that cannot be supplied by yet another rural, conservative man?

Ah, I hear it now, but, the Clintons are so “untrustworthy”. If you believe that, you are heeding the Faux News Network, where this myth was born. If you are still looking to the Murdoch/Koch group for your information, let’s talk after the 2016 election.  I will simply not address lies and ad feminem slander.


I have said it before, Clinton is not the only woman in this country who could do the job. I may not like every single thing about her.  I think she should be less Wall Street and more Main Street — notice I said less.  But, compared to any of the people that are hustling to be elected from the other party, she is a downright populist.  I don’t want another idiotic war draining my tax dollars, and I don’t think H.R. will make that mistake again.  How she could have believed those patent liars last time, is beyond me, but I accept it and that she has learned her lesson. The Iraq war was a disaster that continues to reverberate all over the ME. I don’t care who is marauding over there, we cannot afford another violent engagement, on any level — we don’t have the spare cash, no American should be blown to bits for it, and we are not the Daddy of the world! If ISIS Haram is rampaging, let the Saudis, Turks, Jordanians, Kuwaitis, Emirates, and their allies rise up and take these people down.

We have serious issues to grapple with here.  Violence (including the rise of crimes with guns), racism and inequality are chief among them. We absolutely must repair our crumbling infrastructure, give every willing American a living wage, provide a reasonable floor to health care for everyone (it is our moral duty — especially if we profess to be Christians; read your New Testament and tell me whether Jesus would ignore a dying or suffering neighbor).  We have to strengthen our public schools, our mail service, purge our government of greedy crooks who go to Washington to become celebrities instead of civil servants doing the people’s business. Primary among the areas in which we need to concentrate is extracting ourselves from the stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry by expanding alternative energy supplies to the point that they are more cost-effective and thus pragmatic.  I have nothing against fossil fuel as part of our history as an increasingly industrial world, but they have served their purpose and have long since proven to be too environmentally costly at every level, to be sustainable for a healthy future.

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From time to time I remind myself of what more wakeful people have to say about things.  This week I am reading a Byron Katie book, reminding myself to disassociate from my assumptions whenever possible and thereby being open to a more positive reality.  When we are wedded to our thoughts, we are ‘identified’ with them and lose objectivity.  It is easy to be miserable when you are mired in your own zeitgeist. Katie suggests we imagine what a wonderful world it would be if our negativity was baseless.

It is.

Katie uses a short list of questions that we can apply to vetting our thoughts and assumptions. One is, ‘Is it true?’ and another is ‘What would it be like, if it wasn’t true?’.  She forces us to examine the veracity and basis for our negative thoughts about others, and to imagine how life would be for us, if those thoughts proved to be unfounded.  Can you just imagine if we all thought that despite being who Secretary Clinton is (female, white, older, plain, overweight, guarded, Democrat), we saw her positive features outweighing the negative? It is a matter of perception, because that is exactly how I see Hillary Clinton and so I am looking forward to her time in office.

It doesn’t matter to me what nonsense has been circulated about Mrs. Clinton.  She is the most vetted woman on earth, no less capable than Merkel, who runs Europe. If she were hiding anything in those emails, don’t you realize that whomever they were sent to could un-mask her effortlessly? Have they? They are not lost. But, I am completely uninterested in them. If you are comfortable with Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Cheney and Bush having lied you into a two Trillion dollar war, then what could you possibly fear in Clinton’s personal emails?  It is simply ridiculous.

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Every woman in this country, billionaire or not, should be voting for this woman in 2016.  If we need a man to lead and tell us what to do and how to think, we may as well be chained to the sink, barefoot and pregnant.

But we need to do it for another important reason.  No one should be discriminated against merely because they are female, or black, or gay, Transgender, or old, or young for that matter. If you haven’t done it, pick up a copy of Mo’ne Davis’s new memoir,  Remember My Name, and give it to a child or parents you know.

Think about it everyone. And ladies, let’s know our value.

Images: Beth Byrnes archives, featuring Mary, St. Vincent de Paul Church, Los Angeles







Shootin’ the wool

My winter obsession is showing here, as promised.  I put this together rather informally as this past week was filled with other things and I wasn’t sure I would get a post done if it took too much effort.  But, taking these pictures and trying to make them presentable took a lot of time anyway.

187 Franny

When I was eighteen months old, my mother returned to work and I had what we would call a Nanny, nowadays, but my parents simply referred to her as “the lady who takes care of Beth”. She was from Milan, an older woman, married, wealthy, with no children and as warm and loving as if she were my grandmother.  I adored her.  She made me all kinds of Northern Italian specialties, so I developed a passion for gnocchi  and gorgonzola sauce, for example, by the time I was two. :-D

016 Greta

Amelia’s husband, Maurice (Maurizio in Italian) had a gorgeous garden in their backyard a few houses from ours, complete with a grape arbor (in Manhattan, of all places), and so I developed an early love of flowers, fruiting plants and vegetables. They both spoke Italian to each other and to me, so I learned it and can speak it with a credible accent now.

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Amelia also taught me how to knit.  By the time I was four, I was knitting and crocheting (my own grandmother helped with the latter — my mother did neither) scarves and clothes for my dolls.

Along with the sewing that I learned when I was in HS, so I could make my own clothes when my dad put a moratorium on buying more, I have been knitting (and occasionally crocheting) ever since.  To date, I have made literally hundreds of things: sweaters, coats, scarves, shawls, afghans, and hats primarily.  I keep some but mostly make them as gifts.  In the past I took pictures of them to put in an album with the patterns, swatches and the labels from the yarn, so I could duplicate a successful project if I wanted to. Funny, though, I rarely make the same item twice, except scarves to give away. Anyway, I still keep a careful record of each item now, including the pattern, which I usually chart/create myself, using body measurements. If you knit, it is easy to learn to do this.  Try this classic Montse Stanley book, for example.

186 Me

Also interesting is the fact that I never before thought about how influential Amelia has been on my life.  Another thing she was all about was creating a quiet, dark, old-fashioned, ornate European decor in her home which was like many NYC townhouses: tall, narrow, muted.  If you saw Moonstruck, you get an idea of the environment and the family.  Her elderly mother, Nona Rosa, lived on the top floor and an old Uncle, Raffa, lived on the floor below that.

188 Deanna

The kitchen and parlor (how I love that word and concept) were on the ground floor. Below ground was the cellar, which housed the wines Amelia’s husband Maurice made, as well as potatoes and other vegetables from their garden.  It was cold, damp, and black down there and I was afraid to go into it because Nona Rosa once caught me descending the steep open stairs to the cellar and told me the devil lived there.  I took one look at the drain in shadows and decided that must be where Satan came up from Hell.  It cured me of venturing there on my own.

194 Geoff

For years I was angry at Nona Rosa for frightening me, but I now realize in writing this post, that she did it because she was afraid I would fall down that steep flight of stairs and injure myself!

192 Al wrong side out

Amelia’s brother lived next door and had two kids who  were about nine and eleven years older than I, a girl and boy.  I idolized Angie, Amelia’s niece.  She was a beautiful adolescent with long blond hair (as many Northern Italians have, thick, glossy and golden) and she was extremely caring and kind.

190 Al right side out

I was with Amelia until I was five, so Angie was highly influential in my life.  She dressed simply but elegantly, needed almost no makeup, and was the soul of practicality and goodness.  Her older brother, whose name escapes me now, was gorgeous and a lady’s man.  I wonder what happened to them now. How I wish I had kept up that relationship.

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Amelia had a parakeet she named Chi-Chi (CiCi in Italian).  She was so good to that bird, who was like a child to her, that I immediately begged my parents to get me a parakeet, whom I promptly named Chi-Chi.  Unfortunately, I was too young for the responsibility of a bird then, and my parents, inexplicably left its care to me, a four year old.  I was precocious but four, for heaven sake.  The outcome was not good, but it was a lesson.

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Maurizio, whom I called ‘Malo’ for some unknown reason, raised rabbits in the backyard, in a hutch. Now I realize they were raised for food, but I had no idea then.  They were so cute, especially when they were born.  They looked like little white lady’s gloves lying on the bed of the hutch.  Today, I love animals of all kinds.  I didn’t get this from my parents, neither of whom wanted pets, but from Amelia, Malo (which, ironically means ‘bad’ in Italian!!) and my mother’s mother who grew up on a farm and had a pet cow, cat and canary whom she adored.

025 Greta

All of this, which I had not planned to be the focus of this post — more the details on the knitting projects you see here — came up as I thought about the origins of this hobby for me. We must be very careful when we pick early caretakers for children.  I was so lucky and I assume my parents chose Amelia strategically, prudently.  But who knows? It may have simply been that she lived nearby and went to our church.  My experience could have been totally different.  I saw many horrors with modern-day ‘Nannies’ in NYC when Geoffrey and I lived there twenty-something years ago, while we were doing our graduate work.

024 Greta

A word or two about these pictures.  When I first started knitting seriously, I tried very intricate yarn patterns — like Scandinavian sweaters, for example, intarsia, with small needles and very fine finger-weight yarn.  I did a Kaffee Fasset stint and never finished the intricate project I started.  I still have it to do in my old age, if the yarn doesn’t disintegrate by then. I also started a petit point piano bench cushion cover about 15 years ago, with an intricate Tree of Life and bees that I drew on the canvas myself with a permanent white marker (my symbol, Bees, for the obvious reason, lol) that I work on briefly about once a year.  I may finish it just about the time I give my 1920’s piano away. ;-)

020 Greta

You will notice that I took these pictures — truly bad product shots — hastily, in Annabelle’s room, which is now quite colorful and whimsical, the least serious decor in the house since I redecorated it for her.  In a few shots you will see a pillow I wove. Yep, I totally forgot to tell you, in my recent, Photoshopaholic post, that I went through a weaving phase and have a full four harness Schact floor loom.  It sits totally protected (I hope!) in plastic outside in our concrete run/storage area on one side of the house.

027 Greta

It is too big and delicate to be in the garage or up in the attic. I am certain all the hettles will have to be replaced.  I only made a few items on it and sewed most of the fabric I wove into pillows.  Somewhere I also have a shawl I wove that I might photograph and include here, if I don’t get too lazy. Oh, and … you guessed it, I went through a very very short quilting phase, made a huge sophisticated quilt I designed myself for Greta and David Sr.’s Sutton Place townhouse, and the orange pillow you see here on Annabelle’s bed.  That was it.  I hated quilting.

185 Franny

The knitted things you see here were all made in the past twelve months, except for the mohair sweater, which I made ten years ago, copying a gorgeous piece that Vanessa-the-glamorous, David’s wife at the time, bought in Paris.

Believe it or not, Franny, Greta, Deanna, and Al — all of them have March birthdays!  In fact, get this, Deanna and Al were born on the same day, two years apart (Al is older).

By the way, a properly knitted (or crocheted, or sewn, for that matter) garment will look as good on the inside as it does on the outside. I posted Al’s sweater inside and rightside out.  You can decide which is which. All professional garments should be almost reversible.

195 Me

These were primarily gifts for others.  The most recent is the shawl, which I made for Greta and gave her this weekend on her birthday (sigh) at a family celebration with dozens of people.  I also got her a beautiful rosary made from Lapis Lazuli semiprecious stones.  Geoffrey told me not to do either, that she would forget them and who gave them to her immediately.  But, I had the rosary personalized with her name in case she lost it and I always put small, tasteful custom labels that I had made for this purpose in my handmade gifts that say, simply, “Hand Work – Beth Byrnes”. Sometimes, I hand-embroider the recipient’s initials on the labels too.

In one of the shots you will see dolls that Deanna made when she was in third grade, attending a Waldorf School.  All Waldorf schools teach all the children to knit, sew, make books, make musical instruments, do woodworking along with the best science, math and language arts curriculum on this planet.  Deanna also learned photography and developing film at her Waldorf High School.  She attended three Waldorf schools all twelve years and now, along with being a geneticist, can paint, and sing like a professional.  More on Waldorf sometime soon.

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None of these items is the least bit complicated or difficult.  I realized at some point that it was more in keeping with my busy life and impatient nature to make simple items with complicated yarn.  They look better than they should because the yarns are all interesting. I also try to keep the coloring of the recipient in mind and not just what I like and looks good on me.

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So, there is a sweater here that I made for Deanna, who has dark blonde hair and is an Autumn, for Franny, who is a Summer and for Greta, who is now a platinum blonde. There are sweaters and hats here that I made for Annabelle before we knew her coloring.  I think she is a Summer too.  I am a Winter and so you can see the stark colors I picked for myself.  The coat was inspired by going to Big Bear and Wrightwood, ski resorts.  It is not something I can wear in LA even in winter now.

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There are two men’s sweaters in the group. One for Geoffrey, who has dark, auburn/brown hair and is a sort of Autumn, I think, and for Al, a Winter, like me.

So now, a lot of my passions make more sense to me in light of this early experience.  From 18 months to five years is the key time in a child’s life.  My love of fashion, antiques, Europe, foreign languages, companion animals, gardening, gourmet ethnic food, knitting and older people — all of it can be traced to my time with Amelia, Malo, and Angela.

Blogs can be a personal revelation, I have discovered, especially to the writer.

Images: Beth Byrnes archives: pillows, sweaters, hats, afghan, shawl by Beth; knitted dolls by Deanna, age 8 (at the time).





The Minority Retort

At a funeral a few years ago, I had a memorable conversation with one of Geoffrey’s brothers. He is the InFirm family scholar, a PhD, with degrees in philosophy (Catholic) and law (yup – Catholic).  He is also extremely conservative, has a large family of children, who are home-schooled and then enrolled at a local Catholic college — all of them, no individual choices.  We talked about science and the issue of life and death, since we were both raised as Roman Catholics. His simple point of view was, as he frowned thoughtfully, he didn’t think much of it. Larry lives in a state that is attempting to take advanced science out of the public education curriculum altogether. He grew up in California but never studied science at all.

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Having been raised to respect and admire scientists, I was speechless. Naturally, sitting around at a wake, one cannot engage in a deep enough discussion to address his beliefs, or my data, but I recognized something else: we were not really living on the same plane, in the same world, communicating on the same channel. There would be no discussion, because the foundational underpinnings that would be required for both of us to engage factually, were just not established.

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As individuals we develop our world view based on a number of factors, principal among them the ideology our parents held and imparted to us long before we could evaluate them and independently arrive at judgments as to their reliability and validity. Our education, our social group, and the media are highly influential. When I saw the silly controversy over the white vs blue dress picture last weekend (something so easily manipulated in software — and a rather sub-par photograph to begin with), the division between people who saw one or another color scheme once again drove home the idea of how difficult it is to reach consensus in a world where people hold opposite viewpoints and are immune to contradictory input.

This is all my way of saying, if you base your understanding of the world on ideology vs empirical evidence, you are not necessarily going to hear what I am about to say here.  It is not that I am not interested in your personal point of view — my curiosity extends just enough to find all sorts of good people intriguing. It is simply that I am operating in a different world than many people who negate established physical laws and so am unwilling to argue about it too extensively, because we are simply speaking different languages and basing our lives on very different maps.

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Continents move.
Climates change.
Mammals evolve.


Once something becomes an axiom or law in science, it is considered immutable until a revolutionary concept comes along to mount a formidable and worthy challenge. A well-known example would be quantum physics and its challenge to relativity.  There is a wonderful book on this entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Kuhn. Within the community of trained scientists, those who have proven themselves to have developed the most accurate and explanatory ‘maps’ of the world are those who, over the centuries, have laid down the basic axioms or laws of the physical universe on which we have built our world.

Application of these laws has enabled human society to be increasingly successful in grappling with its needs, from building structures that don’t fall down, to providing sufficient food supplies, to traveling to other parts of our galaxy and beyond, to solving interpersonal problems that we face as social (group) creatures.  It started in our written records with that eminent empiricist Aristotle and continues to the present day, following accepted and productive steps that every recognized and properly trained scientist employs. If you want a wonderful book that traces the development of the scientific method and approach to the physical (and social) world, you might want to find a copy of Robert Bierstedt’s The Making of Society. He begins with Plato.

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An axiom of physical science is the principle of evolution.  Notice I did not say theory here. The word theory in the scientific community has a completely different meaning than in common parlance.  I am not going to argue about this, it is simply true that the word theory often refers to such established laws as gravity and the like as well as to lesser hypotheses or assumptions in the process of being tested.  So, if you want to believe that evolution is held to be questionable by credible scientists, please take that discussion to the Koch and Drudge and Faux network and their participants.  We cannot talk about it here for the same reason I explained at the beginning of this post.

By the way, Deanna and Al (my side of the family) are both science researchers. Deanna and I were chatting over the weekend as she just returned from giving a talk on her work. She told me that there is a PhD student at a well-known research school who is being funded by a group that believes in alien invasions of the earth. Apparently, a colleague there told her, there is a deliberate movement afoot to plant believers in these conspiracy theories at established research institutions so they can get credentials that certain groups can use to feign validity for their beliefs. This simply shows that there are some people who are willing to say whatever you want, for a price. But they are a tiny minority, thankfully.

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So, why am I discussing evolution here? From time to time when I mention something even hinting of science, a handful of acquaintances have challenged me on various topics.  This is one of the favorites. So this is my response to that tiny minority in the world who are doubters.

Here is where a cursory knowledge of complex subjects leads to error. I am not a religious scholar, but I do know a great deal about science.  The Creationist philosophy and discussion belongs in parochial and other religious organizations, not in public school, not on a blog like mine. If I were to visit and take part in a religious/spiritual discussion, evolution would be no more relevant than would the spherical nature of the universe and its circling bodies.  I don’t want any one religious interpretation of life being taught in public schools and I am not qualified to debate its finer points in any scholarly way.  Speaking of Creationism and Science as factual equivalents is a futile endeavor. They are on different channels. Creationism and religion are more akin to philosophy than they are to anything scientific, although I do not see a necessary contradiction between Christianity and science, either.

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Evolution is a given, a law of the earth’s development over billions of years.  The planet has changed as it has cooled internally. Continents have formed, merged, split and undergone metamorphoses. The climate has evolved and species have arisen and extinguished, sometimes in mass extinctions, other times gradually. To the question of whether there are species still developing and evolving, the answer is yes.  The easiest timely example is Ebola – we can see through sequencing their DNA that they are evolving rapidly. Evolution and development are not uniform. They proceed in kicks and starts. There is mutation, there are external cataclysmic forces that interfere with what may have started out as steady progress.

Hence, the dinosaur disappearance and the rise of the surviving species, among them ground rodents that climbed up into trees and were the beginning of the development of many modern species, including primates.  Species either adapt to change and survive, or fail and disappear. These are known, accepted, established facts arrived at through centuries of careful, methodical rigorous research.  The details and specifics of this development are continually being amplified and refined, but the paradigm itself and its outline are established, acknowledged and accepted as true by the great majority of the scientific community.  These facts enable modern medicine.  There was a time when microscopy had not yet been developed when all people knew was they came down with an illness, survived it or died.  At some point, the instruments that enabled scientists of the time to see microorganisms led to a revolution in their understanding of health and disease. Science is creative,  imaginative and practical.

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Are human beings still evolving physically (and socially, etc.)? Of course! Why don’t we see a new human species then? (There is only one right now).  It takes a long, long time — not in an individual lifetime, or even many lifetimes would we see a major change in a hominid species.  I will tell you however that you have these changes in your body already, like a vestigial coccyx and appendix –leftovers from an earlier version of Homo sapiens, literally millions of years ago when we first ranged out from the forests of Africa.

And, something else, our physical environment is vastly different from the one that we emerged in 5 million years ago.  If we were to expect a human-like species to develop today, it may or may not have occurred and would likely look quite different from what came out of the savannas of Africa when the earliest hominid species emerged. Even if we sped up the changes, we wouldn’t necessarily have developed human beings in the more modern day Sahara that replaced those savannas. The latest exciting evidence suggests that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had equal intelligence but environmental factors led to the ultimate success of one species of human being and the eventual disappearance of the other. But here is another easy to understand consideration of continuing evolution. There are thousands of resources and we can’t cover them all here (you may be yawning by now). By the way, this is not a gotcha question as some might think.  It is pretty easy if one is informed about this field.

Some species evolve and change quickly, like fruit flies and bacteria or viruses.  Some do so over millennia, like mammals and other complex creatures, including us.  You won’t see much change in our lifetimes even if an asteroid hits the earth and causes mass extinctions and drastic climate change, as was simply and entertainingly depicted in movies such as Deep Impact and The Day After Tomorrow.

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You cannot go to a philosopher to get this information.   I would suggest that you not look for this kind of proof in churches and temples. Furthermore and even more importantly, don’t look to the fossil fuel industry or to politicians on their payroll for this kind of data.  Read the professional articles and books written by evolutionary and developmental scientists.  Once you have done your homework, you will be in a better position to understand the laws that underlie the discipline and its subsidiary fields and how they help us live our lives more successfully.

Just like anything else you study, you need to start at the beginning and make your way to the end systematically and diligently.  You cannot jump into the end zone from the starting line.  I once  got into a discussion with a scholar from Hebrew University about Kabbalah, in which I was quite interested at that time.  He told me that I had a lot of previous study to do about exoteric Judaism before I could hope to understand its esoteric core.  He was right.

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So, rather than spend our time here regurgitating the clearly stated position of science on evolution, you might find this link informative.  Whether you agree or not with what is said, it states the majority position of the world’s scientific community on the topic of evolution. This position is not based on ideology, philosophy, political party, belief systems, mythology, conspiracies or any other non-relevant approaches to the world we live in.  It is empiricism little different form that employed and espoused by the Aristotelian school of thousands of years ago.  It is based on undisputed, proven fact, and dovetails with my many discussions on science already found elsewhere on this blog. BTW, this will be the last time I blog about science here. I have said everything I care to in this venue.

I also like the balanced, clear-headed and calm statement of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles on this topic.

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This is my brief :-D response  and likely the last time I will address the law of evolution on this blog. Sorry to be so long-winded about it, it is a huge subject and this is merely a personal blog. I am not here to be an apologist for scientific proofs or for evolution, for that matter. Still, there are few black and white topics in this world today and this is one of them. If you want to get your information from non-scientific sources, that is your prerogative, but you will be endarkened by following an inaccurate map. If we are on the same channel, you and I will have little to argue about.  If we are not, there is no common ground on which to discuss this topic, you and I.  Let’s talk about whether you saw a white or blue dress instead.  We will likely have a lot more fun doing so.

Images: Beth Byrnes archives/ Natural History Museum of Los Angeles


On Monday, we had a rare cloud-filled sky, since it had rained on Sunday.  I dashed outside at 5 pm and started running around my neighborhood taking sky shots as quickly as I could before the sun set.  You will notice the sky getting darker as we go down the page.  In my haste, I took too many pictures with rooftops and other objects in them to serve my ultimate purpose of building up my sky library for Photo Shop. So, I have to get out to beaches and mountains and take some big-sky shots. We have identified a mountain area just ten minutes away where I can start this, provided I get another sun and clouds day.

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As if I don’t have enough to do, I decided to sign up for a week of Photo Shop and Lightroom webinars.  There are 51 of them total, and they were free in real-time and then Adobe is selling the package for anyone who couldn’t attend the live classes. It is amazing how much one learns about oneself and these programs, as well as photography, just by making an intensive time commitment.  There are ten classes each day for six days (rebroadcast at night!) and I am doing five each day, ending Saturday. The classes are each 90 minutes long and very organized, fast-paced. There was a small audience in-studio and a chat room for online viewers where we could all ask questions and make comments.

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At first I thought I could not sit through these 90 minute classes without my mind wandering or getting bored. But, they were so content-rich and intense, that I had to force myself to turn away to check my email and remember to stand up and move around every 30 minutes or so. I finally set up the seminars to run side by side with my regular screen so I could simul-task.

There was a great deal to absorb and I am a seasoned note taker but even I was a bit overwhelmed by the end of the day. Obviously, I could have bought the series. It comes with manuals and notes and free plugins.  But, not only have I been spending like a drunken sailor on other things this winter, but I also realized that I would just never go through all these seminars on my own.  They would end up with all the other webinar/seminar and tutorials that I keep meaning to view and rarely get to.  I have a long list and even when I watch some, I am always adding to it.

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I did learn a lot.  For one thing, most of the functions in the newest PS are in my older version. The problem is, it makes it so slow that I am demotivated to use it.  So I did buy the newest version.  When I tried to download it on my solarium office computer, there was every complication and I ended up only finding the trial version.  I cannot even figure out where I get my license key number for it, something I will have to address eventually. So now, I have to spend some time working on that computer in PS.  I have other programs there like LR5 and Topaz, so I guess it makes sense.  This summer I am getting a new computer for my main office and will have to switch it all back.

Inspiration is for amateurs, the rest of us just show up and get to work

— Chuck Close

One of the things that was emphasized over and over again, even though it was a Photo Shop series, most of the photographers do the majority of their adjustments in Lightroom first. One primary reason is that you can do the meat and potatoes editing in LR far faster than in Photo Shop. Lightroom saves a ton of time. They all seem to say that other than serious facial flaws and dropping in completely different skies or fore- and backgrounds, you can do everything else in LR, and PS and LR are meant to be used together, jumping back and forth between them with a single shortcut keystroke, seamlessly.  I discovered I was underutilizing all of Lightroom’s features like masking, and healing/dodging/burning as well as gradients. I could go on but you get the idea.  They seem to feel PS is limited to the end of the process, just before stylizing with other plugins, of which they listed dozens of companies I don’t know about at all.  So my workflow would be LR, then PS if I needed those specific features that require layer stacking, and then Topaz.  Between all Topaz’s programs, including Impression and Glow, there is very little I cannot do if I take the time on each photograph, with those programs and Lightroom.

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So, here’s the thing. How much time do I want to spend on these series of mine? After all, I am not doing this to make money or draw attention to a business venture.  I don’t even use it when I make the family videos, other than I toss the shots into LR to open the shadows, crop, and correct exposure. I am not really sure that I should be spending hours of time on every single photograph just to make myself look like a pro.  For one thing, I have said this before, people put up what look like masterpieces to me, really spectacular and get less than 100 views and few or no comments.  They use better cameras than mine and still have a very small footprint on Flickr. Other people put up mediocre shot after mediocre shot and instantly have thousands of views.  What’s up with that?

I have restricted my photographs to being viewed only by people I follow.  I have more people following me, than I am following.  And, I just cut out half of the people I follow, marking a select group as friends.  I may eventually restrict my Photostream to that group alone.  After two years, I know who matters to me.  I am not throwing shade on anyone, I just don’t want the public to be able to view my pictures so easily.  I figure that I vet people before I follow them and then thereafter trust them not to abuse that privilege.  Another thing I am doing is ceasing to comment on people who rarely comment on my pictures.  If that means I only get a few views and comments, so be it.  Life is too short.  I tend to be a very diligent person with a sense of responsibility to treat people the way I like to be treated.  But it seems to fall on sterile ground a lot these days, so I am cutting my interactive time down.

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Among the many things taking my time, now when work is a bit slow — it is that time of the year — I am knitting a lot.  I can only manage to knit in the cooler weather, so I like to take advantage of it.  Since I have several sets of photographs already sitting and waiting for processing, I am not as motivated to go out and take more.  Except sky shots.  I am building a collection of sky effects that I can use as stock footage, so to speak, when I need it.  I am not really big on manipulating photos by dropping features into them that weren’t in the original shot.  I don’t mind processing that enhances effects, but pasting people into scenes or switching sky or water is a bit less appealing to me. Still, I want the practice, so I am going to start taking various types of fore-, mid- and backgrounds to have on hand.

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Now I have to decide whether I want to strive for mastery and perfection.  The newest girlfriend in Geoffrey’s family of siblings and their offspring terms herself a “skillionaire”.  I don’t want to be in that category, because it is all too easy for me to be. Whenever I get into something, I take it to the nth degree and then have to find a place for all the accoutrements that go with it.  What have we had in the past, you might ask?  Well, baking — I have a kitchen and garage full of professional baking equipment as well as one whole bookcase devoted to professional baking books — over 150 of them.  And, jewelry making — beads, wire, silk, crimpers, trays, books on gems and beads and jewelry making.  One whole wall of my garage is devoted to that one, from the 1990s.  Knitting, crocheting — fifty-seven forty-gallon bins of yarn and tools/equipment.  Clothing, shoes, purses? Don’t even ask. Gardening tools and books and supplies; vintage watch collecting;  astrology programs and books for professional astrologers; higher consciousness books; vegan/vegetarian cookbooks; history books; professional psychology books.  Honestly guys, it goes on and on and on. Travel books, gear, clothing designed to be rolled and wrinkle-free is another whole area.  Oh yes, and painting on wood with various media.  Almost forgot!  All my music and equipment, both for singing and for playing the piano and mountain dulcimer (I have two, handmade in the Ozarks). I also have a Cuíca that I bought in South America and learned to play from a local band. Ridiculous!  It has to stop.

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OK, here is where more shopping comes in with photography.  During the Photo Restoration and Rescue seminar this week, the photographer said you should really be working with a Wacom-type tablet and stylus because mice cannot control pressure and your process will not be as refined and professional. My last Wacom tablet was ten years ago, so, no-go. Also, for portrait skin, eye, teeth, lips, hair? For layering really quickly? He uses Their Perfect Photo Suite 9 is like Photoshop combined with Lightroom. It also comes with a bunch of cool presets.  You can work in this program stand-alone or inside Lightroom or Photo Shop.  They all use the exact same modes as do all the Topaz programs. So, cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching! By the way, there are sites for offering your services and Photo Shop skill restoring, rescuing and repairing damaged or old print photographs.  Here is one that was recommended as a great way to practice and maybe develop a new business.

And, a friend just sent me this about switching to a standing desk.  Uh-oh, I have been sitting at a desk for 140 years.  All my healthy practices out the window? My SIL just got an adjustable one of these, a cool $2600. I may try it the poor woman’s way with cardboard boxes, LOL!

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Now the question is, should I nip this photography obsession in the bud or just accept it as the next step in this 46 year old project called me. It has something to do with, why are we doing this? Why am I taking pictures and processing them? Why am I buying cameras, lenses, bags, accessories, programs, devices to go along with this?  It can’t be for Flickr.  There are days when traffic is dead on Flickr and you can be Ansel Adams or Vivian Meier and no one is going to click on your picture, period. In addition, I have shrunk down the number of people who can see my photostream to a mere 100.  If I restrict it to friends, that will be about 40, and views will be fewer and fewer. There are photos I love that people just yawn at anyway.  It isn’t for money (at least not now and not my aim right now at all).

My quandary is, at what point does the cost/benefit switch balance and the input (time/money) stop producing  equal output (photography expertise) value? One discussion that was surprisingly helpful was this seminar during which the photographer talked about the balance between consumption time vs creativity time, and developing her style, her space, even the clothes she wears that shapes her life to be supported in her creativity. Too much social media time, or time spent with negative people, nay-sayers — anyone who detracts from one’s sense of self and joy, robs creativity and a sense of accomplishment.

The only thing I can think of in favor of continuing down this particular path, other than documenting my life and world for whoever in the future gives a damn, is that it helps me stretch my brain, lay down connections and maybe lengthen key telomeres.  If I can afford it time and money-wise, maybe that is reason enough.

Images: Beth Byrnes archives — Valencia February skies






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