Talking to a Therapist

Talking to a Therapist

Matt Valdespino is—along with his twin, Greg—one of my oldest and best friends. When I first met the two of them, I honestly could not tell them apart. I spent years mixing up their names. But as time went by, they diverged in fascinating ways.

The brothers share the admirabe ability to mix seriousness and humor—loving to laugh without trivializing the important things. But whereas Greg’s serious side was channeled into his passion for learning, Matt has always been pulled between art and activism. His urge to help others eventually won out, and culminated in his decision to become a professional therapist. This is his story:

ROY: What is your educational background? What did you study, where, and why?

MATT: I went to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and I studied Political Science, with a concentration in Political Theory. My minor was in Modern Middle East Studies. The reason? I guess I’ve always wondered this myself, since I’ve strayed so far from that, personally and professionally. But I guess the reason is that it was the Obama years, working in politics as a liberal progressive was a valued and exciting thing. It felt like being young and politically active was really in vogue, and also really useful. So I got really caught up in that. My older brother studied political science, too, and I look up to him as an example of what a good person does.

And we talked a lot about politics in my family growing up. I definitely loved the horse race elements of it—following legislation, following campaigns, who’s up, who’s down. It was like a game but it had stakes and a moral punch to it. And the Middle East stuff, it’s because it was the post 9/11 era, and I wanted to help people in the Middle East and Americans come together—you know, the whole idyllic, Obama-era, get everyone holding hands. That was the vision I had in my head.

R: After graduating, didn’t you work on a farm?

M: Yes, yeah, I did end up working on a farm. Because all of that political stuff—despite the idealism and the interest, the more I got into it the more I realized that I didn’t like politics as a process. And even policy was really complicated and hard for me to follow. It’s so intensely convoluted and everyone says it’s all wrong, anyway. I just couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

The only thing I really could understand and feel connected to was political theory—like Locke, Hobbes, Machiavelli. Like that vague stuff. The stuff that was really not about doing anything in politics, I loved that. And slowly I realized that that wasn’t what politics was going to look like. If I worked in politics, nobody was ever going to ask me what I thought about Leviathan. Nobody was going to give a shit about any of that. So I said, ok well then I don’t give a shit about you, and I’m going to farming.

R: Tell me about that experience.

M: So I graduated from college, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had been working in political internships that I thought was just selling snake-oil, selling “change” but just really fund-raising to keep our jobs. Or trying to scare-monger people to fight against the other scare-mongers. It felt fake to me. And I was reading political theory, which also felt fake, even though I liked it. So I thought, “Let me do something that’s undeniably real. Let me pick fruit for a year.”

So I ended up in Washington State. I did WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), so they just put you on an organic farm. And you work for your room and board. And the owner of the farm also had a farm down in Chile, so they flew me down there for the spring harvest (or their fall).

R: After that I understand you got into stand-up. What attracted you to that?

M: I’ve always liked stand-up. I remember the day I got Comedy Central in my house. It was a ground-breaking moment in my life. Like, oh my God, a network that’s always funny! I just loved that. And I’ve always considered myself to be funny and enjoyed making people laugh. I feel comfortable doing that. But while I was farming, I was listening to all these podcasts, especially WTF with Marc Maron where he interviews comedians. And they were all so emotionally screwed up. But they had found a way of talking about it through comedy.

And also it was a way that I could talk about the big things, personally and globally, without being so condescending. I could just provide my impressions of them in a way that was sort of digestible to people. It was a way that I could talk about intense things without it being hard for people to understand. And without having the accountability of making a flawless argument. I could just say what I felt without backing it up with a full five paragraph essay.

R: Is five paragraphs a lot?

M: Yeah, in grad school we don’t write. Five paragraphs? I can’t even think of it!

R: So what do you think is the most challenging part of being a comedian?

M: The whole idea of stand-up is that you’re funny in your real life with friends, so just translate that to stage. So the problem is that, the reason you can be funny with your friends in real life is that they have all this context—of your relationship, shared experiences, and all of these conscious and unconscious parameters around who you are. And this allows you to subvert those expectations, or touch on these older identities, yadda yadda yadda. But in stand-up (unless you’re really famous) the audience doesn’t really know you. So then you need to take what you think is funny and translate it so a stranger thinks it’s funny. Then the challenge, for me, was finding an impression of me and my sense of self that other people can understand and connect with.

R: Meanwhile, you were working as a social worker. Is that right?

M: Yeah.

R: How did you get into that? And what did that entail?

M: So I moved to Washington, and I moved in with my uncle, who’s a therapist. And I love him. He’s really funny, really goofy. And we had all these conversations about what it means to be emotionally vulnerable and emotionally open. And he was telling me what it’s like to be a therapist. So I kind of got fascinated with the idea of just helping people. I think there’s a big part of me—going back to political science—that feels like I need to be helping people. That’s a moral obligation. But I lost that because politics became so vague, abstract, and argumentative. So my uncle showed me a way of helping people where it was direct. And it was kind of fascinating. You get to learn about people, find out who they are, explore them. I applied to a bunch of helping jobs—a nurse, a hospice worker—and the social worker is the one that got back to me.

I got a job as a social worker at a psychiatric center—so people with severe mental illness voluntarily come there. The umbrella term would be a “day center,” where people with mental illness come to spend the day, to help structure their lives.

R: You were doing this, and you were doing comedy. But at some point you decided to become a therapist.

M: Yeah.

R: What, exactly, are you studying now?

M: Clinical psychology. I still really don’t have a concentration, I’m just getting the lay of the land. It’s a Psy.D at Rutgers University. As opposed to a Ph.D, a Psy.D is really for practicing therapists, not researchers.

R: What made you make that decision, that you wanted to be a clinical psychologist?

M: It was a pretty gradual process. For one thing, stand-up is really hard. It’s a very exhausting pursuit. I fell less in love with it over time. It became harder and harder to enjoy it, to create new jokes, and to feel that I was getting better—which was pretty hard for me. I also felt that I was becoming phony, like a character or a persona. And instead of my stage presence becoming more like who I was off stage, the opposite happened. I got scared that it was infecting my whole life, that my life was becoming this kind of performance. It was creepy. Like I don’t know where stage ends and life stops.

And the social work stuff. A lot of it was great and moving. But a lot of it was really, really boring. There’s so much of social work that is just so monotonous. I was just spending the day with people. And a lot of it is just sitting at a computer typing with somebody. But there are moments when people get really, insanely honest with you—just wildly honest—and I liked those moments. That’s what I appreciated. And everything in comedy just felt so performative by comparison.

R: You’ve done some practice clinical work?

M: Yeah.

R: What do you think is the hardest part of being a therapist?

M: There are two things I find hardest. One hard part is just caring enough. I definitely struggle sometimes with, “Uh, ok, lemme just get through this session.” Thinking that somebody is making a problem bigger than it has to be… Basically, people aren’t always the most pleasant in therapy. They’re their absolute worst. And that’s good, they should be. But I can sometimes get annoyed with people.

And the other difficult thing is not jumping to conclusions. A therapist is like an emotional scientist, in that you’re always looking for more information. Your conclusion is the very last thing. Mainly you’re just trying to get more emotion out there, as much as possible in the moment. And that’s hard, because you want to be brilliant, you want to blow someone’s mind like “I got it! You yell at your boss because you hate your dad.” But I think there’s so much more value in just being curious.

R: Then what would you say is the most rewarding part of therapy.

M: Getting somebody to say something that they’ve never said before.

R: Can you elaborate?

M: Absolutely not.

R: What?!

M: Alright, I mean getting somebody to an emotional place that they have been afraid of, or were struggling with verbalizing, or didn’t even know was there. I think that’s the most rewarding thing for me. So they can experience and express a different part of themselves.

R: Is there anything you want to add?

M: Yeah, there is. Therapy is a very weird idea. It’s still relatively new, even though it’s becoming more accepted to go to therapy (and also more accessible). But I think people still go to therapists and don’t really know what they’re doing. And that can be fine. That can be totally fine. But I think one thing people should do when they go to a therapist is to be more comfortable asking the therapists what’s going on, asking for help with a certain thing, and telling the therapist “This is what I need.” I think people should feel more empowered to push back against therapists.

Because I think people get stuck in therapy, and it becomes this passive process that they’re not participating in, it’s just happening to them. But you can own the therapy process.

Review: A Splendid Exchange

Review: A Splendid Exchange

A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World from Prehistory to Today by William J. Bernstein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Five or six years ago, a Christmas mix-up resulted in my brother receiving two copies of this book. Not knowing what to do with one, he simply gave it to me. In so doing, however, he disobeyed Adam Smith’s doctrine that humanity has a natural instinct to truck and barter. Clearly, a rational animal would have used it to exchange for something he himself lacked, like cinnamon or frankincense or some textiles. What a wasted opportunity.

This book is part history of, and part homage to, trade. Four hundred pages is not nearly enough space to give such an expansive topic exhaustive coverage. But Bernstein does manage to pack quite a lot of interesting tidbits into his narrative. What most struck me was how central trade has been to human history. It has caused wars of invasion, spurred on colonialism, motivated the great journeys of “discovery,” helped to spread epidemic diseases, and stimulated newer forms of economic organization. In short, the urge to turn a profit has helped to join together every corner of the world—leading to many wonderful things and quite a few atrocities, too.

After reviewing this thrilling history, Bernstein ends by examining the old conflict between free trade and protectionism—or, more concretely, low tariffs or high tariffs. It is an interesting question. Low tariffs provide a small but tangible benefit to the general populace in the form of cheaper goods; but they do so at the expense of workers displaced by competition from abroad (and vice versa with high tariffs). So what is more important, knocking off a few cents from something bought by millions or allowing a few thousand people to keep their job? The traditional answer is that the government should keep tariffs low, and “bribe” those displaced with additional support in the form of welfare and job retraining. But in practice most workers are left to fend for themselves, which can eventually create political instability if resentment grows too widespread.

Another question has to do with the development of an economy. High tariffs can be used to shield domestic industries from foreign competition, allowing them to grow to the point that they can effectively compete. But high tariffs can also preserve inefficient companies and obsolete technologies, putting a country at a long-term disadvantage. Orthodox economic logic always favors free trade, but the evidence is mixed. According to Bernstein, several studies actually found a positive correlation between high tariffs and economic growth in the 19th century. Still, Bernstein comes down in favor of free trade, not because it offers an economic miracle (he says its benefits are overstated), but because it helps to foster bonds between potential enemies. But, if you ask me, when a nation is dependent on another (and potentially weaker) country for its resources, this can easily become a powerful source of conflict.

Now, if you don’t mind, I am going to disobey Adam Smith myself and donate this book to a library.

View all my reviews

An Emigrant’s Story

An Emigrant’s Story

(The original interview in Spanish.)

I met Antonio after moving into my current apartment. There was no doorman in my previous place, much less such a pleasant and helpful one. Little by little I got to know him, and his life started to interest me more and more. Finally, I decided that I had to interview him, and I’m glad I did.

R: Can you tell me a little about yourself?

A: My name is Antonio Bande. I was born in Venezuela. My parents are from Galicia, Spain. They were born in the province of Ourense. I was born in Maracay. Maracay belongs to the state of Aragua. Aragua is one of the central states, because it is near the capital, Caracas. Maracay is the capital of Aragua, where I was born. Maracay is located exactly 105 km from Caracas. It is a coastal region, with lots of beaches, and you can also find many open plains in the countryside.

R: What did your parents do for a living?

A: My parents set up a business in Venezuela. My father left Spain first, and then my mother. My father left in the year 1958. This was the postwar era in Spain, and Spain was very depressed, so he went to look for a future. Of my four siblings, the oldest was born here (in Spain), and the rest of us in Venezuela.

R: So you have three siblings?

A: More, really, because my dad got married again. So we are really eight siblings in all. My parents got into sales, and they set up a business. In the beginning, clothes, but later it grew, and it ended up being what you would call here a chain of stores. For a long time, as an adult— once I had finished my studies— I was working in this chain, until my father decided to sell it. He was thinking of retiring. From then on, I began to specialize in administration. And I became an insurance broker. Before leaving Venezuela, in the last 27 years, that was my job, an insurance broker, in my own office. And I trained, in fact, with an American company. It was the owner of the company Seguro Venezuela, the American Insurance Group (AIG). I trained with them.

R: What year did you move here for good?

A: Three years ago, in 2018

R: I know there’s a crisis in Venezuela, and it’s not going well. But what, in particular, made you decide to move to Spain?

A: When your life is worth the price of a pair of shoes, or the price of a watch, or the price of a phone, then you have to make some decisions. Because the price of life is something intangible, it can’t be determined or quantified. With the rising crime rate, and a complicite government, well, you have to make decisions. So, in the first place, the factor of crime is fundamental. The factor of impunity (that crimes are not prosecuted). I’m talking about insecurity, I’m talking about impunity, and I’m saying that this impunity is rooted precisely in judicial insecurity. Because, what happens? In the state, as a corrupt state, they have made it so that all the powers—that is, the executive, the legislative, the judicial—all the powers are in the hands of the state, including electoral power. So, if you’re in Venezuela it’s not reasonable to think that they’re going to respect your vote. No, no they won’t respect it. But this is not something recent, this has been happening for the last twenty years at least. And it keeps getting worse.

R: I read something about inflation.

A: Hyperinflation. I’m going to tell you something very simple. Up until this month of May, which is about to end, Venezuela has accumulated 1500% of inflation. We’re talking about this cycle, this year. There is no honorable work, there is no honest work, that you can do to support yourself. There’s none. And I’m telling you that back in Venezuela I was a part of the upper-middle class. I had three apartments. I only sold two cars to come here. I had the good fortune to be able to come, and come with my family, with my wife, my youngest children and our dog. But many people arrive alone.

R: So, if you’re earning 1,000 euros a month…

A: Do you know what the minimum wage is for a person in Venezuela? Three euros a month. And those fortunate enough to earn ten times that, earn thirty euros a month. But you can live on that in Venezuela. Because nowadays, Venezuela is an economy that is completely “dollarized.” The bolívar (the national currency) no longer circulates because the necessary amount doesn’t exist to sustain the exchange, dollar-bolívar. If you have 100 dollares, that would be many millions of bolívares. So all transactions are done with dollars. Where do people get dollars? More than 70% of the population receive support from those who have left the country.

R: Is your family here with you?

A: Here I have one daughter by blood, and two stepchildren. In Venezuela I have two more children, and another daughter who lives in Delaware.

R: Do you miss Venezuela?

A: What happens is that… yes, I miss it. But I miss it, knowing that what I’m missing doesn’t exist anymore. The country has changed completely. And it is the quality of being Venezuelan. The gentility, the humanity, of the Venezuelans. And of course I really, really miss the homeland. Because Venezuela is a country where you can go to the beach twelve months a year. It has an enviable climate. It has places with beach weather twelve months a year, places with snow twelve months a year, and even places that are deserts twelve months a year. Truly, it has a range of climates that is something to miss. And, man, the country is beautiful. What’s bad are its politics. It has dreadful politics, and that has totally ruined the country.

R: What surprised you the most about Spain?

A: What surprised me the most was not something very favorable. It’s the difficulty of working, of finding work. In general, in Spain it’s very hard to find work. And this is surprising when you’re a person used to working every day. For someone like me, who wants to manage his own life, you feel a little useless. I never thought of being a superintendent of a building. And I’m not denigrating, or saying that I’m doing something embarrassing, no. I have a job like any other, a job I like doing, not only for necessity but also because I feel comfortable. In Spain, they want young people with lots of training and lots of experience. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand how you can have a lot of experience, being so young.

R: Is there something you like about your life here?

A: There are lots of things in Spain I like. The first is that I have a part of my family here. Not only those who came with me from Venezuela, but also those who were already living here. In Madrid, in Galicia, in Valladolid, for example, or in Bilbao. I like the food and drinks. I have it in my blood because, when I was young, I ate from my grandmother’s hand, who was Spanish. First from my maternal grandmother, who died, and then from my paternal grandmother. Man, Mediterranean food… 

R: Do you like Spanish food more than Venezuelan food?

A: Every cuisine has its pleasure. The good thing about being here, is that here you can eat Spanish food and Venezuelan food, because in Venezuela you have trouble eating even Venezuelan food, since everything is scarce. You eat whatever there is. Do you know the terrible ordeal a Venezuelan has to go through to get a loaf of bread? At six in the morning, you have to be in the doorway of the bakery. Standing in line. There are 150 or 200 people, because those are the 150 or 200 loaves of bread they’re going to make that day. You can buy one loaf of bread, maybe two. And they give you the receipt, and you leave. Then you come back after 2:30 in the evening to pick up the bread.

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La historia de un emigrante

La historia de un emigrante

(La entrevista traducida al inglés.)

Conocí a Antonio poco después de mudarme a mi piso actual. No había un portero en mi último piso, mucho menos un portero tan agradable y atento como él. Poco a poco lo fui conociendo, y su vida me interesaba más y más. Al final, decidí que le tenía que entrevistar, y estoy muy feliz con la decisión.

R: ¿Me puedes decir tus datos básicos?

A: Me llamo Antonio Bande. Nací en Venezuela. Mis padres son gallegos. Nacieron en la provincia de Ourense. Nací en Maracay. Maracay corresponde al estado de Aragua. El estado de Aragua es uno de los estados centrales, porque está alrededor de la capital, Caracas. Maracay es la capital de Aragua, donde yo nací. Maracay se encuentra exactamente a 105 km de Caracas. Es un estado de costa, con playa, y es un estado con llanuras, las zonas de campo.

R: ¿A qué se dedicaron tus padres?

A: Mis padres establecieron un comercio en Venezuela. Mi padre se fue de España primero, luego se fue mi madre. Mi padre se fue en el año 1958. Era la época posguerra de España, y España estaba muy deprimida, y se fue buscando un porvenir. De los cuatro hermanos míos, el mayor nació aquí (en España), y nosotros tres en Venezuela.

R: Entonces, ¿tienes tres hermanos?

A: Más, realmente más, porque mi padre se casó otra vez. Entonces somos ocho hermanos. Mi padres allí se dedicaron al comercio, establecieron un negocio. En principio, de ropa, pero después se fue proliferando, y se acabó convirtiendo en algo que se llama aquí una cadena de tiendas. Por mucho tiempo, ya siendo yo adulto — una vez que culminé los estudios — estuve trabajando en este grupo de tiendas, hasta que mi padre optó por venderlas. Porque estaba pensando en su retiro. A partir de allí, yo empecé en una especialización de administración. Y me hice agente corredor de seguros. Antes de irme de Venezuela, en los últimos 27 años, trabajé así, de agente corredor de seguros, en una oficina propia. Yo me formé, de hecho, con una empresa americana. Eran los propietarios de la empresa, Seguro Venezuela, de American Insurance Group (AIG). Yo me formé con ellos. 

R: ¿En qué año viniste aquí a vivir?

A: Hace tres años, en el año 2018.

R: Sé que hay una crisis en Venezuela, y va muy mal. Pero, en concreto, ¿qué te hizo decidir irte por España?

A: Cuando tu vida vale lo que vale un par de zapatos, o lo que vale un reloj, o lo que vale un móvil, pues tú tienes que tomar muchas decisiones. Porque el valor de la vida es algo intangible, no se determina, no se cuantifica. Con el nivel de la delincuencia que se ha exacerbado, y con un gobierno tan cómplice, pues, hombre, tú tienes que tomar decisiones. Entonces, en primer lugar, el factor de la delincuencia es fundamental. El factor de la impunidad (no se juzgan los delitos). Te hablo de la inseguridad, te hablo de la impunidad, y te hablo que esta impunidad tiene su base precisamente en la inseguridad jurídica. Porque, ¿qué pasa? El estado, como un estado villano, se ha hecho de todo de que son los poderes — o sea el ejecutivo, el legislativo, el judicial — todos los poderes están en las manos del estado, incluso el poder electoral. Entonces, si estás en Venezuela no es sensato pensar que se va a respetar tu voto. Pues no, no se va a respetar. Pero esto no está pasando ahorita, esto ya viene pasando desde hace cerca de veinte años por lo menos. Y viene cada vez peor.

R: He leído algo sobre la inflación.

A: La hiperinflación. Te voy a decir algo muy simple. Hasta este mes de mayo, que está a punto de terminar, Venezuela lleva acumulado 1.500% de inflación. Estamos hablando de este ciclo, menos de un año. No hay un trabajo honrado, no hay un trabajo honesto, en el que tú puedes trabajar para cubrirte y costearte. No hay. Y te estoy hablando de que en Venezuela yo era parte de la clase media alta. Tenía tres apartamentos. Solamente vendí dos coches para venirme. Yo tuve la fortuna de poder venirme, y venirme con mi familia, con mi mujer, los dos hijos pequeños y el perro. Pero mucha gente se viene sola.

R: Entonces, si alguien gana unos 1000 euros al mes…

A: ¿Sabes cuánto es el ingreso básico de una persona? 3 euros, mensuales. Y los que tienen la fortuna de ganar 10 veces de esto, ganan 30 euros mensuales. Pero con eso no se vive en Venezuela. Porque hoy en día, Venezuela es una economía totalmente dolarizada. El bolívar ya no circula porque no hay la cantidad circulante necesaria para soportar el cambio, dolar-bolívar. Si tienes 100 dólares, esto sería muchísimos millones de bolívares. Entonces todas las transacciones se hacen en dólares. ¿De dónde saca la gente dólares? Más de 70% de la población recibe remesas de los que estamos fuera. 

R: ¿Tienes tu familia aquí contigo?

A: Aquí tengo una hija consanguínea, y dos de mi mujer. En Venezuela tengo dos hijos más, y otra hija que vive en Delaware.

R: ¿Echas de menos Venezuela?

A: Lo que pasa es que, sí lo echo de menos. Pero lo echo de menos, teniendo la conciencia de que lo que tú estás echando de menos ya no existe en el país. El país se ha deformado totalmente, la calidez, el gentilicio, la humanidad, del venezolano, se a perdido. Y por supuesto echo muchísimo de menos, a la patria. Porque Venezuela es un país de riquezas naturales, donde se puede ir a la playa los doce meses del año. Tiene un clima envidiable. Tiene desde sitios de playa los doce meses del año, hasta sitios con nieve los doce meses del año, hasta sitios desérticos los doce meses del año. De verdad, tiene una diversidad del clima que es algo de echar de menos. Y, hombre, el país es hermoso. Lo malo es la política que tiene. Tiene una política pésima, y se ha cargado una nación completa. 

R: ¿Qué te sorprendió más de la vida en España?

A: Lo que me sorprendió más no es muy favorable. Es la dificultad de trabajar, de encontrar trabajo. En general en España la posibilidad de encontrar trabajo es muy difícil. Y eso, pues, sorprende cuando eres una persona habituada a trabajar todos los días. Para alguien como yo, quien quiere gestionar su propia vida, se siente un poco inútil. Yo nunca pensé en ser un conserje en una comunidad. Y no estoy denigrando, ni diciendo que estoy haciendo algo penoso, no. Tengo un trabajo como cualquier otro, un trabajo que hago agusto, no únicamente por la necesidad sino porque me siento agusto. En España, te piden poca edad, mucha formación y mucha experiencia. No entiendo esto. No entiendo cómo tú puedes tener mucha experiencia, siendo una persona muy joven. 

R: ¿Hay algo que te gusta de la vida aquí?

A: Hay muchas cosas en España que me gustan. Lo primero es que tengo una parte de mi familia aquí. No solamente los que vinieron conmigo de Venezuela, sino los que ya vivían aquí. En Madrid, en Galicia, en Valladolid, por ejemplo, o en Bilbao. Me gustan la comida y la bebida. Lo llevo en la sangre porque de pequeño yo comí de mano a mi abuela que era española. Primero de mi abuela materna, que murió, luego de mi abuela paterna. Hombre, la comida Mediterránea… 

R: ¿Te gusta la comida española más que la comida venezolana?

A: Toda la comida tiene su gusto. Lo bueno de estar aquí, es que aquí se puede comer comida española y comida venezolana, porque allí en Venezuela es difícil comer comida venezolana por la escasez de todo. Comes lo que hay. ¿Tú sabes el viacrucis que hace un venezolano todos los días para comer pan? Tiene que estar a las 6 de la mañana, en el portal de la panadería. Haciendo una fila. Estár de 150 o 200 en la fila, porque esto son los 150 o 200 panes que el hombre va a hacer este día. Al pagar la barra de pan, se dará una, o máximo dos. te dan un tiquet, y se va. Para regresar a partir de las dos y media con el tiquet para retirar la barra de pan. 

(Cover image by Paolo Costa Baldi; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)