Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 28, 2020

Toward a Universal Pizza Theorem. First, Make Pizza!

In times of stress, one food sustains us: pizza.

Not everyone on the planet likes pizza. In my opinion, those who don’t like it have simply never been exposed to the infinite adaptability of pizza to whatever stress or strain occupies an ordinary life … especially in these extraordinary times of global warfare and pandemic.

Before we get to positing some universal theorem, let us make pizza. No, we will not pick up the phone and ORDER pizza. Not everyone has that luxury, nor — during a pandemic — doth everyone wish to have pizza delivered by a stranger.

Let us make pizza, from the ground (flour) up.

Take between 3 and 4 cups of flour (your choice of grain), a tablespoon of oil, a teaspoon of salt, 3 cups of warm water, 2 teaspoons of yeast, and blend them together. After 8 or so minutes of mixing or — if you’re dedicated to hand-work, kneading — you’ll divide the resulting dough into two hand-shaped “boules,” like this:

Already, you feel better. You are now in charge of the universe. No one can tell you what sort of pizza you will make, nor can they prohibit you from making pizza. To my knowledge, no legislature on earth has yet outlawed the production of pizza dough. If they try, prepare for the onslaught of popular uprising.

Cover those boules lightly with a damp cloth or towel, place them somewhere warm, and let them rise for between 45 minutes and an hour. If your place is cool or drafty, set ’em in some enclosed place (an oven or a cupboard is good) next to a few cups of hot water, to get the ambient temperature up a few degrees.

After that, they should look about doubled in size. Any bread dough will tell you if it’s done rising if you poke a finger into it, and the resulting holes don’t close up, like this:

Meanwhile, during the time that dough’s been rising, you’ll be busy, preparing what will go ON the pizza.

A Pizza for Everyone

What makes pizza the universal food is that there is — so far as I know — no diet preference that cannot be accommodated by pizza. Even during times (like now) during which an uncountable number of things threaten to divide us and splinter us into haves/have-nots, reds/blues, greens/blacks, pizza can encompass us all.

It is, after all, just bread: Staff of life, the sustainer of life for the 10,000 or so years of human existence that’s preceded us, pizza is an opportunity to turn mere bread into precisely whatever we want to eat.

Here at the Under Western Skies kitchen, pizza is — like all food — pescatarian. You may wish to add ingredients not on the menu here, but here we have the following:

This would be a good time to get your oven heating to as hot as it can get. The UWS oven goes to 500 degrees, and we give it 30 minutes to get there, with a pizza stone in it, on which we’ll cook our creation. If you have one of those designer ovens that can get to 600, 800 degrees, go for it.

Unless you’re making two pizzas, you can put one of those boules into a sealed container or bag and freeze it for up to a month. We’re going to make one pizza here. With hands covered with olive oil, shape one boule into a compact ball and let it rest for 10 minutes.

Once you’re ready, oil up your hands, and set to work: On a board or clean surface, press the dough gradually, working it into any shape you want (circle, rectangle, whatever) about 1/4 of an inch in thickness (devotees of “Chicago Pizza” will go for half an inch, but they’re outliers, and will use all this dough to make one thick pizza. All due respect, Chicago, I love you, but I’m a “thin crust” guy).

Brush or smear some olive oil on the dough.

Now: The magic begins. Every aesthetic and culinary art you possess comes into play. This is the moment. No legislature or politician will gainsay you. You alone are the arbiter here. Array your ingredients — from mozzarella to parmigiano cheese, from Roma to Beefsteak tomatoes, anchovy to pepperoni: Spread ’em out.

Oven heated, pizza dressed, the moment of truth arrives. Carefully move that creation by whatever means onto the cooking surface in the oven. Not for the faint of heart, but what must be done. We rely here on a large “peel,” covered with cornmeal, to slide it onto the stone in the oven, as in the photo above.

If your oven’s at 800 degrees, it might take from 2 to 5 minutes. At 500, the UWS oven needs 7 minutes.

And then, let there be pizza.

The Universal Pizza Theorem: Where Is the World’s Greatest Pizza?

I’d like to state that I know precisely where one can find the greatest pizza on earth. If I knew, I’d tell you. I’d be famous as the travel writer who’d studied the pizzas of the world and found The Best. Believe me, I’ve tried. Anthony Bourdain, himself, probably never attained that Everest, strive however he might.

I might tell you that a long-ago spot in some Midwestern college town, or maybe an unheard-of storefront in Manhattan, or — yeah — that iconic place on Rush Street in Chicago, had the best-ever pizza.

But I’d be wrong.

The best pizza you’ll ever have depends on who’s there to share it with you. At this moment, I could book a flight to Rome, get on a tram to the Trastevere neighborhood, sit down and order what I think is the most excellent pizza I’ve ever tasted. I know that place. Come with me, I’ll take you there.

But, if I were by myself, it wouldn’t be the same. Pizza’s just bread dough covered with one or more ingredients. What makes it remarkable is who’s there to share it with you.

THAT’s what distinguishes good pizza from great: Who eats pizza with you.

Or, I advise, don’t fly to Rome. Make it at home with someone important to you, and have it together. Without someone else, pizza is simply bread dough cooked with toppings. In a time of global disaster, a pizza shared is the definition of togetherness.

Make pizza. We might be locked down. We’re not locked out. And whether you make pizza or not, hold on to one another.

© Brad Nixon 2020. One photograph © Executive Chef M. Vincent, 2020, used by kind permission

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 17, 2020

Who Says Wear a Mask? Smilin’ Jack! That’s Who.

I’ve written before about a longtime fixture of the Halloween season that appears every year at — of all places — an oil refinery near the Port of Los Angeles.

That’s Smilin’ Jack, the world’s largest jack o’ lantern, painted each year on a petroleum storage tank.

That gap-toothed smile has been supervising the scary season every year since 1952, almost unchanged. After Halloween, Jack’s painted over until time for his next incarnation.

In this pandemic year, Jack is mindful that things are different, and we all have to hew to new precautions. Here he is, looking out from his accustomed spot, mindful that everyone — especially 68 year-olds — have to be careful. He’s rocking a new look.

The masks that cover Jack’s twin faces — which look roughly north and west — are eighty feet wide.

In a year in which the petroleum industry’s been hit hard by a downturn in economies, with traffic in the port drastically reduced, the company’s gone forward not only with the investment in community good will, but added a timely message.

Refinery employees will again hand out treats to kids who show up in a long line of cars, so long as everyone in the car wears a mask — just like Jack.

This year’s event will be 6 to 9 p.m., October 30.

Jack is visible near the intersection of W Anaheim St and N Gaffey St in Wilmington, south of Los Angeles, on the northern edge of San Pedro. The official address of the sprawling facility is 1660 W Anaheim St., Wilmington California.

To get in line for treats, you’ll enter the refinery from eastbound Anaheim. Expect a line. Kids who showed up for the tradition in its early days are grandparents now, introducing another generation to a happy side of Halloween, during a season when here, at least, there’ll be little or no door-to-door trick or treating.

And wear your mask, over your nose. As Jack does. Beneath it, I assume he’s still smiling.

Caution: There are few places along busy Anaheim and Gaffey to safely pull over for a photo of Jack. Even walking along Anaheim, as I did to capture some of my photos above, is not recommended: no sidewalk. My view of masked Jack is from a hard-to-find local street with no legal parking, requiring a rather long walk to a viewpoint. Be prudent.

A happy and safe Halloween to all.

Photos © Brad Nixon 2020. Smilin’ Jack image is the property of Philips 66 Company and may not be used for commercial purposes without permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 30, 2020

Putting the Band Back Together: Quarantine Edition

One of the most memorable aspects of my corporate career was not about my job of writing or producing video or events.

My employer, a large technology services company, had about 90,000 employees around the world.

About a dozen years ago, a handful of colleagues on the east coast of the U.S. — acquainted with one another — were also musicians. They proposed finding other musicians amongst the company’s work force. Most employees were technologists or engineers of some stripe. Were there any musicians among them?

The goal would be to have a well-rounded representation of voices and instruments, bring everyone together at the firm’s annual technology conference and perform together.

The call went out.

After a great deal of planning, painstaking development of arrangements, and solo, remote practicing by each member over many months, a couple dozen former strangers arrived for the conference, rehearsed during free time away from the meeting (sometimes quite late, sometimes very early), and went onstage at the final farewell gathering for the conference.

The Global Jam was born.

The Global Jam
The Global Jam

The Global Jam was a feature at company events for a number of years. The level of musicianship was high. With a focus on danceable music (the scene was, essentially the conference’s farewell party), the band performed 30 or more numbers each year.

Vivek (Australia) leads the Global Jam in a number

Numbers ranged from well known rock n’ roll to ambitious arrangements of BIG performance numbers that capitalized on the depth of the group. Talented singers in every range, a horn section with saxophone, trumpet, trombone, backed by guitar, bass, percussion.

Global Jam
Global Jam

All things pass. Eventually, the company shifted away from holding the event. Global Jam became a halcyon memory for the several dozen colleagues from perhaps 20 countries who participated during the run.

I last wrote about the band at this link.

The Global Jam

Now … The Quarantine Edition!

Early in 2020, as all of us around the world turned to remote conferencing and virtual communication in the face of anti-virus lockdowns, our music director saw an opportunity: Get the band back together … virtually.

And So It Was.

During a series of video conferences, former band members in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Japan, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, U.S. and Vietnam (I hope I didn’t miss one) discussed how to accomplish this, chose a number to perform, and started working out individual parts.

Here’s one example of a call I’ve labeled to show locations.

If it hasn’t occurred to you, time zones were an issue: The local time for those gatherings ranged from nearly midnight in Australia to 6 am in western North America.

Then the Real Work Began

It was up to each member to learn, practice and synchronize their part with the master recording, a well-known popular song.

Each player recorded their section and sent it to our producer/editor in the north of Spain, who’d volunteered to take on the task of synchronizing and arranging onscreen something in the neighborhood of 70 discrete tracks of audio and video.

And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen …

… From living rooms, basements, back yards and home offices around the globe, recorded individually, but playing ensemble …

… The Global Jam performing “Band on the Run,” by Paul McCartney and Wings.

I hope you’ll play the clip. Credits identifying the players and their respective countries appear at the end.

It’s good to have the band back together again!

How are you dealing with this virtual world? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020. This recording is strictly for the personal enjoyment of the Global Jam, its members and friends. No commercial application is permitted. “Band on the Run” words and music © Paul McCartney. Any commercial use of the words or music without express permission are prohibited by international copyright covenants.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 24, 2020

Close to Home: Angels Gate Park; the Old Fort on the Hill

The phrase, “stay close to home” may be wearing on many of you as the pandemic continues to inhibit travel.

You may complain if you wish.

Here at UWS, it’s a test of what is — if you hold me to what I’ve vowed for more than 10 years — one of this blog’s fundamental principles: You don’t have to go far to find interesting things; you simply have to look.

In the American idiom, that’s called “put up or shut up.”

I’m looking.

I’m looking for places to take long walks relatively free of crowds of people not wearing masks (which rules out the popular walks on the bluffs of the Pacific Ocean, right off).

I’m looking for sites, locations, buildings I’ve walked or driven past dozens, scores or hundreds of times without paying attention.

Welcome to Angels Gate Park

Angels Gate Pano Brad Nixon 680

Late in the 19th century, as the Port of Los Angeles grew into a major port, President Grover Cleveland declared there would be a military installation to protect the port. In the next 20 years, what became Fort MacArthur would occupy the lower (entrance of the port), middle (administrative and housing) and upper (fortified gun emplacement) reservations. Like this one:

Battery Farley Catalina Brad Nixon 8172 (640x480)

I’ve written previously, at this link, about the well preserved historic gun batteries built high above the port on the upper reservation. It may be worth noting that they never fired a gun “in anger,” and were nothing but a nuisance to the local population, who occasionally had their windows shattered by the concussion of massive guns fired during training operations from the concrete bunkers.

Bunker Battery 1 Brad Nixon 8325 (640x453)

As World War II erupted, making it clear that the U.S. would be heavily engaged in military operations across the Pacific Ocean, Fort MacArthur (named for the father of future U.S. General Douglas MacArthur) became a key training center for thousands of soldiers bound for combat service.

In short order, in about 1942, dozens of buildings for barracks, administrative offices and support operations were constructed on the Upper Reservation overlooking the Port of Los Angeles.

Angels Gate 3 Brad Nixon 9357 680

After the War

At the end of the war, those buildings were abandoned: obsolete. Despite the hurried manner of their construction, and due to some preservation efforts, with help from the mild California climate, they still stand.

Angels Gate B Brad Nixon 9110 680No longer part of a much-diminished Fort MacArthur, the Upper Reservation has been given to the City of Los Angeles, and is now Angels Gate Park.

It’s a quiet, little-known corner of the vast metropolis, offering panoramic views overlooking the ocean and the busiest container port in the U.S.

MV S9165-LR LA port-mts redo-680

The old buildings at the top of the hill now house a variety of artists and craftspeople, with studios, classrooms, performance spaces and galleries: Angels Gate Cultural Center.

Angels Gate H Brad Nixon 9351 680What sort of artists work there? This picture gallery gives you an idea (Click on any image to expand it.):  

Not all of the former base is part of the Cultural Center. Several dozen buildings are vacant, clustered on the slopes of the high ground above the harbor, reminders of a day when the entire country mobilized itself almost overnight, built entire towns and converted existing industries from manufacturing washing machines or automobiles to building for war.

Angels gate bldgs Brad Nixon 9390 680Today, it’s a quiet place to walk, overlooking the harbor, the ocean, and the Korean Friendship Bell, which I wrote about at this link.

Korean Bell Brad Nixon 9135 680A few people show up late in the day up at Angels Gate Park to watch the sun set into the Pacific Ocean. At other times, there are only a few vehicles parked outside the old buildings: sculptors, painters, potters — perhaps even a writer or two — pursuing whatever it is that compels them to follow their craft.

Angles Gate E Brad Nixon 9353 680The coasts of North America, Europe, Asia — everywhere — are lined with old, even ancient fortifications to ward off enemies that might appear: a sail, silhouetted, dark on the horizon. Or merely the threat that a sail might appear.

As the Book of Isaiah advised us to do, we occasionally manage to beat our swords into plowshares.

At Angels Gate, you can walk in a place like that, swords sheathed.

Let’s all go out, walk, and look. Who knows what we’ll see? 

Battery Farley ocean 2 Brad Nixon 8175 (640x480)

If you look closely at the above photo, that small figure is The Counselor, standing atop the old battery emplacement.

Where are you walking? What do you see that you’ve never taken time to see before? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Port overview photo © M. Vincent 2020, by kind permission.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 21, 2020

A Route to the Root of a Routine Routine

The conundrum — a paradox of sorts — confronting tens of millions people around the world has certainly been operational here at Under Western Skies.

The first component of this paradox is that in this extraordinary time of pandemic — closures of schools, businesses, the things of everyday life — our ordinary routines have been severely interrupted.

Secondly, establishing a new routine is … anything but routine.

As a result, a lot of us — perhaps millions of us — have begun to sense a certain … sameness in the days: There are fewer trips to the grocery; few or no visits with family and friends; no casual, last-minute, “Let’s get take-out” decisions. If things that distinguished a Tuesday from a Wednesday, weekends from the work week, are no longer viable, the days collapse into one another. If this is Tuesday, why am I not attending my usual get-together with friends after work? If it’s Saturday, where’s my music lesson?

Here, we miss walking some of our favorite routes, because they’re popular with many people — especially now that recreation at gyms and other gathering places is nonexistent in Los Angeles County. I’m sorry to say that many of those walkers aren’t as assiduous about social distancing or mask wearing as we prefer, so we’re limited in our choices.

Back to the Routine

With that said, I’d like to reestablish my routine of blogging, from which I’ve been — to say the least — recently distracted.

A Few Words about Those Words

This piece, so far, has used three closely-related words that demonstrate why English can be so impenetrably difficult for non-native speakers learning it: routine (noun), routine (adjective) and route.

All three words — by a variety of routes(!) — entered English from either French or Old French route. Prior to that, French acquired it from Latin rumpere, to break. (Spanish retains romper, to break.)

At first glance, this derivation makes no objective sense. That’s not unusual in etymology. Think, though, as blogger Steve Schwartzman at “Portaits of Wildflowers” pointed out to me (gently correcting an earlier version of this paragraph), the notion of “breaking road” or — more simply — a “beaten path.” I’m grateful to Mr. Schwartzman for his contribution.

Whatever We Say It Means

As Humpty Dumpty memorably told Alice, “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean ….”

We English speakers have near carte blanche to transform nouns into adjectives, verbs, whatever we want them to do. To my knowledge, there’s no predicate sense of “to routine,” although we certainly have “route” as a verb. Aggravating, confusing for non-native speakers? Yes.

The Root of Another Problem

We also have the word “root,” the base of a plant or the fundamental aspect of something. While it sounds precisely like one common pronunciation for “route,” not only is it unrelated in meaning, but has an entirely separate origin, from Middle English rot, from Old English rōt, back to Old Norse.

The numerous English homonyms persistently fool native speakers into wrong spellings, not solely those who didn’t grow up with the language.

Back in the Groove?

Will I get my groove back? Reestablish my regular blogging? The route to a routine is rooted in uncertainty. Better routine than rootless.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Quotation from Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll; from The Annotated Alice, Martin Gardner, ed.; W.W. Norton, New York, 1960-2000. Citations from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin; Boston, New York, 2000. Appreciation to Steve Schwartzman for correct information about rupta via, “broken road.” He attributes the interpretation “beaten path” to John Ayto in Word Origins, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2006.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 30, 2020

At the Cataract. Why Is an Eye Like a Waterfall?

I wish I could remember what book I was reading when I first encountered the word “cataract.”

That is, as you likely know, another word for “waterfall,” like this one, St. Mary Falls, in Glacier National Park.

2766 St Mary Falls 680

I remember it was an adventure story, set in some impossibly remote wilderness.

I suspect the book may have been Bomba, The Jungle Boy, at the Giant Cataract.

Published between 1928 and 1936, there were 20 Bomba books: pulp knockoffs intended to capitalize on the popularity of the series of “Tarzan” adventures penned by that prodigious provider of pulp power, Edgar Rice Burroughs (who deserves more credit for all the ideas George Lucas lifted from his “John Carter of Mars” series to write “Star Wars”).

I would have read one of ten of the Bomba books reprinted in the 1950s, tie-ins to a series of of Bomba movies starring young Johnny Sheffield, who played the orphaned Caucasian Bomba in the jungles of Africa, following Sheffield’s screen debut as “Boy” in the popular Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller.

That confluence represents some degree of a wheel-within-a-wheel-within-a-wheel that invites some degree of contemplation I’ll avoid here.

The same publisher produced those perennial favorite Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery series. I’ve read my share of Hardy Boys books, and I’m still waiting for the day when, like Frank and Joe, I have my own speedboat and aeroplane and all that other cool stuff those kids had.

But I digress.

How that book came to occupy a spot in my upstairs room in the little house in Ohio is a mystery, but it was probably a Christmas gift, because everyone knew young blaknissan loved to read.

Eventually, that young reader figured out that a “cataract” was a more dramatic word — possibly lifted from one of the Burroughs books — for something he knew: a waterfall.

Here’s one of the iconic cataracts of the American west, Bridal Veil Fall in Yosemite National Park. Photographed in a dry midsummer, it’s barely perceptible as a thin stream of water falling more than 600 feet into the valley.

Yosemite Bridal Veil Falls Brad Nixon006 680

Another notable cataract is Multnomah Falls, one of an impressive string of waterfalls that plunge into the gorge of the mighty Columbia River on the northern edge of Oregon.

IMG_0037 Multnomah 680

Now I ask why the word “cataract” has entered my life, representing an occlusion over the lenses of my eyes. It came up recently after a visit to the optometrist.

What does an optical cataract have to do with a waterfall?

Cataracts in the eye and waterfalls are, as it turns out, two entirely different words, although spelled and pronounced precisely the same way, and with identical etymologies. A waterfall signifies one thing, an optical cataract is another. The difference is a matter of application: not unique in our hodge-podge English language.

We’ve used the term in English since at least 1430. In Middle English, it was cataracte, from Old French, via Latin cataracta, from Greek katarraktes: downrush, waterfall, portcullis, probably from katarassein, to dash down.

And there, in that Greek verb, is the origin of the optical cataract.
Not only does a waterfall “dash down” the face of a cliff, it obscures whatever’s behind it.
That’s what an optical cataract does: It “drops down” to obscure light from passing through the lens of the eye.
At some point, lost in time, a medical terminologist did the typical thing, looking to Greek or Latin terms for a word to describe a medical term to describe something falling over one’s vision and came up with “cataract.”
All I can say is that if you have a cataract in your eye, think of some noble cataract, like this one: Willamette Falls, in Oregon. Bigger, more dramatic, and some consolation.
What’s your favorite cataract? Please leave a comment.
Willamette Falls Brad Nixon 4826 680
© Brad Nixon 2020
Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 22, 2020

Traveling with Mr. Twain: The Innocents Abroad, Continued

In a previous post, I wrote about a steamship journey the writer Mark Twain made in 1867, which he related in regular newspaper dispatches. Those pieces were collected in the book, The Innocents Abroad. My focus in the first article was on the prodigious energy, ingenuity and — sometimes — luck required for Twain and his fellow travelers to carry out the ambitious itinerary that took them from New York to Europe, the Middle East and back.

The current pandemic has many of us constrained or entirely prohibited from traveling far from home. It’s an excellent time in which to travel vicariously by reading travel accounts.

How does The Innocents Abroad hold up as travel writing a century and a half later? How does it compare (or contrast) with travel journalism today?

The Young Journalist

Known today principally for his novels and short stories, Twain — 31 years old in ’67 — was then a journalist, still several years from his first novel, The Gilded Age, 1873, followed by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876.

As a reporter/editor for a series of newspapers in Virginia City, Nevada and then San Francisco, Twain made a successful first foray as a travel writer, filing accounts of a trip from California to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866. In regular letters published in the Sacramento Union newspaper, he reported and commented on the culture, landscape, climate, cuisine and history of the islands. His account — interspersed with both humorous and critical portraits and anecdotes (not all entirely factual) — proved popular.

In 1867, Twain received an assignment for a journey on a larger scale: a voyage of several months that would visit numerous ports and cities in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, present day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, returning through Egypt and the Caribbean Islands.

Below, a photo of Twain as he appeared on the voyage, made in Constantinople in the studio of the accomplished Abdullah Frères.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens September 1-2, 1867, Pera, Constantinople

A General Approach to Innocents Abroad

It helps to bear in mind that Twain was writing to entertain at least as much as to inform. He wasn’t writing a travel guide; his dispatches are accounts of a first-hand experience. He states more than once that he assumes travelers will consult one or more printed travel guides. He doesn’t provide tips on places to stay, dine, how to arrange for transportation or any of the day-to-day business of traveling.

Twain assumed readers expected a point of view, interesting observations, anecdotes, and some insight into what those far-flung places were like.

As a result, instead of travel tips and “be-certain-not-to-miss” guideposts, we get what he thought of his travel experiences.

What Twain Says

The results can be highly informed reflections on the history of a place (despite having only a fifth-grade education, Twain was enormous well read), extraordinarily critical and prejudiced perspectives about the people and cultures he encountered, and they can also be hilariously funny.

Twain is almost never an objective commentator. Don’t expect only Mark Twain, humorist.

Religion is a good example of what I mean.

The greater part of the trip involved travel through Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim or Jewish cultures. Twain had a severe distrust of all organized religion. At the same time, he came from a Protestant American tradition, and he could in adjoining paragraphs write harshly about religions outside that sphere, then write just as scathingly about Protestantism. One long section about the Italian portion of his trip is nothing short of a diatribe against the influence, wealth and power of the Roman Catholic Church over the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Italian believers.

Not Politically Correct

The same sort of duality applies to Twain’s descriptions of the people he encountered. Unless you’re American or at least, from the former British Empire — you should arm yourself for The Innocents Abroad. Mr. Twain’s judgment can land harshly on every race, religion, culture, nationality, ethnicity, persuasion or world view. Even while appreciating that he was a visitor in another culture, he could be blatantly dismissive —derisive — of cultures that were not his own, simply for being different. Few, if any, travel writers today could do that and expect to be published in the regular press.

At the same time, it’s impossible not to admire how Twain could be simultaneously harshly judgmental and uproariously, piercingly funny in skewering how the wealthy of the world oppress those with less advantage — how governments, kings, religions enrich themselves at the expense of their citizens, subjects or believers. He spared no one, using every rhetorical trick he knew, and he possessed a wide range of them. In one sentence, he could lampoon a local governor or small-time potentate for amassing enormous wealth that impoverished the local populace, then mock those same locals who begged him for pennies at the dock or the train station.

It certainly must have been entertaining reading at home, and is, still. But it’s not a variety of travel writing to which we’re accustomed.

Looking at the Landscape

Perhaps one of Twain’s greatest gifts was his impressive ability to describe a landscape of impressive grandeur or beauty. He relished and helps us appreciate the mountains of the Alps, views of sunsets, moonlight on the ocean, picturesque prospects of ancient towns. He commanded a large vocabulary, and almost never resorted to cliche. Those passages, throughout the book, are some of his most memorable bits.

Then, true to form, he could in the next sentence heap derision on a travel writer who stood in the same spot, and whose guidebook fails miserably to appreciate the beauty before him. Twain sometimes could do that for great comic effect: mocking the irony that a respected travel writer failed to appreciate. He could also take the opposite tack, and heap scorn upon them. The unpredictability of how Twain would “come at” something is one of the pleasures of reading The Innocents Abroad.


The Innocents Abroad is a book that might not still be in print were it not by Mark Twain. There’s some incomparable writing, capturing a world that in many instances no longer exists as it was.  The reading audience of 1867 no longer exists; Twain’s work is a look at another era of “travel culture.”

I’m pleased I read The Innocents Abroad. I recommend it, and hope that my caveats aren’t so strongly stated that you don’t give it a try. And then, yes, I expect to read Huckleberry Finn again, which will likely stand for all time as Twain’s masterpiece.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Photograph of Mark Twain by studio of Abdullah Frères, September 1-2, 1867, Pera, Constantinople. U.S. Library of Congress, public domain.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 12, 2020

My Little Pony: Literary Text Edition

The first time I remember noticing the ponies in class was in second year of high school Latin. They may have been present in Latin I, but it wasn’t until we started reading portions of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War that they proliferated.

For generations, Caesar’s been responsible for the presence of ponies in countless classrooms.

Of course, any student who takes a pony into class does his or her best to hide it.

Riding a Pony Through Gaul

First, the basics. Our English word pony arrived in the mid 17th century from Scots powny. It stemmed from Middle French poulenet, little foal (French still retains related words), before that from — ironically, in the present context — Latin pullanus, the young of an animal.

At some time — which I cannot find documented — the term pony became associated with a translation or “crib” used by students to fake their way through texts like the Commentaries, The Iliad, etc. One was, essentially, “riding a pony” instead of having to translate those unfamiliar noun cases and sentences with mystifying word order.

Where Did They Get Those?

To this day, I don’t know where so many of my classmates secured those ponies. In at least one case, a guy had the one handed down from an older brother. As for the others, perhaps they were simply cleverer and more resourceful than I, seeking out translations of Caesar in some bookstore. Lacking imagination, I didn’t think of that.

In any event, I did not ride through Gaul with Caesar and the legions; I walked: slowly.

The Present Case

Why this comes to mind is because I have, at this moment, a couple of ponies on my desk to assist with deciphering not a text in Latin or Greek, but English. English, at least, of a particular stripe.

I’ve determined it’s time to try seriously to re-read James Joyce’s Ulysses. I did it once — after a fashion — not quite 50 years ago.  After dithering endlessly, I’ve decided not to go it solo, but to ride a couple of ponies.

Joyce ponies Brad Nixon 8979 680

One need not necessarily follow a guide. Ulysses is, after all, written in English … mostly: except for a number of Irish place names, words, phrases and songs in some other languages, including Latin. Educated by the Jesuits, Joyce probably made it through Caesar without a pony. Not to mention words Joyce invented, sometimes adaptations or portmanteau words, other times purely onomatopoetic words or … well, there are some challenges.

Joyce’s book is densely packed with multiple layers of meaning, inference and association, with a reputation for being somewhere between difficult and impenetrable. It is difficult, but not impossibly so.

One bit of background to know is that the book’s structured on a framework deriving from Homer’s Odyssey, describing the hero, Odysseus, as he spends ten years making his way back from the Trojan War.

Opening my copy of the book for the first time in decades, I encountered the document below.

Ulysses chapters 680

Produced in a now obsolete technology called mimeograph, that’s a list of Joyce’s 18 chapters, with the corresponding names of the episodes in Homer. I must have gotten that from one of my professors. Don’t worry, even the most basic summary of Ulysses will give you that information without relying on some ancient artifact.

The Big One

The primary challenge for one who aspires to get as much as reasonably likely out of Ulysses is the way Joyce adapted a dizzying amount of personal experience into his book.  He packed it full of actual people, events and places he knew from his early years in Dublin. One can still appreciate the book without knowing all these details, so one’s approach to Ulysses is a matter of weighing how much effort to invest in background vs. story..

One way to get at an overview of those references is Richard Ellman’s authoritative and deeply researched biography, James Joyce. You won’t come away from Ellman knowing all the Ulysses references, but you’ll gain some familiarity with how Joyce wove his own experiences into the fabric of the novel.

Send in the Ponies

One could read Ulysses with a certain amount of help from dictionaries, online resources. In the end, I’ve decided to have two guides handy. One, which I’ve seen before, is Anthony Burgess’ Re Joyce — in the UK titled Here Comes Everybody. A longtime student of Joyce’s work, Mr. Burgess isn’t encyclopedic in his approach, but a reliable guide.

The second, I’m exploring for the first time: The New Bloomsday Book, by Harry Blamires. More of an episode-by-episode, event-by-event explication of the characters, action and themes, I hope it’ll prove useful.

Off to the Horizon

How will I do? I’ll let you know. Saddle the ponies.

© Brad Nixon 2020. James Joyce, New and Revised Edition, © Richard Ellman, Oxford University Press, New York, 1982. Re Joyce, © Anthony Burgess 1965, W.W. Norton, New York. The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses, © Harry Blamires, 1988, Routledge, New York/London. I’m reading Ulysses, James Joyce, Vintage Books, New York, 1986.

One of the guiding principles of Under Western Skies is that one doesn’t have to travel to distant places or exotic locales to find things worth seeing.

Now, if ever, is the time for me to live up to that premise.

Constrained by the pandemic, we’re not hitting the road for the traditional midsummer trip to … somewhere. We’re staying at home and going — not precisely nowhere — just not very far.

A few miles from home, at the head of the Port of Los Angeles, is Wilmington, California. Founded in about 1858 on land acquired by the ambitious Phineas Banning, it got its name from Banning’s birthplace, Wilmington, Delaware.

Once a bustling harbor town, Wilmington still boasts its share of once imposing 19th and early 20th century structures, as do many American towns. No longer an independent city, it’s part of greater Los Angeles.

I’ve written before about a few of Wilmington’s historic sites, including the last remaining Civil War era military installation in Los Angeles, which I wrote about here, the Drum Barracks.

Drum Barracks Brad Nixon 8341 680

My objective this week was to see what remained of another local landmark in downtown Wilmington: the Granada Theatre movie palace. Built in 1928, it seated nearly 1,000 patrons in an interior — reportedly — in Art Deco styling typical of the era.

The old house closed in about 1956. After that, it reopened for a time as Teatro Granada, showing Spanish language films.

At some point — a familiar repurposing for old theaters everywhere — it was home to a series of church congregations.

Here, in an undated photo, probably from the 1980s, as the Iglesia Universal. Pare de Sufrir means “End the suffering.” Good enough.

Iglesia Universal Cinema Treasures

Los Angeles — movie capitol of the world — is replete with these old showplaces, although many others have met the wrecking ball. I’ve written about a number of them, not only in L.A., but in towns all over the American west.

Here’s one example, not far from Wilmington, in San Pedro. The Warner Grand, which opened in 1931, has been restored and hosts films and live events.

Warner Grand Brad Nixon 3308 680

Here’s another, in another part of L.A., The Academy, from 1939. Last time I was there and shot this photo, it was a church.

Academy Theater LA Brad Nixon 0198 Academy (593x640)

I knew in advance I’d only see the exterior of the Granada. It’s been shuttered for a number of years. There are few photographs of the interior available, although eyewitness accounts indicate some amount of the Art Deco interior decor is intact, if worn.

Here, according to Google Street View, and a site devoted to the Granada on Facebook is about what I expected to see.

11791913_890622961012864_1211881137674702201_o 680

Nothing lasts forever. Here’s what I saw in early July, 2020:

Granada Theater Brad Nixon 8976 680

All things must change. The old marquee is gone.

That, however, is not necessarily bad news. It may, in fact, be good news.

For some years, an organization named Friends of the Wilmington Granada — that link takes you to their Facebook page — has been devoted to restoring the Granada. Does the removal of the marquee — perhaps for restoration, perhaps merely for safekeeping — indicate they’re making progress?

I don’t know. There are no recent posts on that FB site.

We’ll have to wait. If this post comes to the attention of someone involved with a pending restoration, I invite you to contact me.

Is there an old movie palace in your town? Or, if yours is gone, what do you remember of those halcyon days when the lights went down? Where were you? Balcony? Back of the house? Down front? Who else was there? Leave a comment.

Roll ’em.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Iglesia Universal photograph retrieved from, July 8, 2020. “For Sale” photograph © Hunter Kerhart, retrieved from on July 8, 2020.




Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 5, 2020

A Letter to Smokey Bear: 70!

Dear Smokey,

This is my first letter to a bear. I’ve met a number of bears over the years — both black and brown ones — from coast to coast, across the U.S., although not many here in California. Our state flag pictures a California grizzly bear. Unfortunately, they’re extinct here. We’re sorry about that. Nothing personal. We hadn’t quite figured it out back in the 1800s when we exterminated them. We humans are slow learners.

Here’s a grizzly, browsing on berries in Denali National Park. One of a number of notable bears I’ve encountered.

Denali NP grizzly Brad Nixon 018_7

I’m writing to congratulate you on the 70th anniversary of your run as the symbol of fire prevention in the forests and wild lands of the United States. Great job, Smokey. Thank you.

I know you didn’t create the role you ended up playing, but you stepped up. The U. S. Forest Service created a symbolic bear, named Smokey, in 1944, as part of a public awareness campaign to promote wildfire prevention.

In that sense, “Smokey” has been around for more than 75 years. But, then….

After a fire crew found you, about three months old, clinging to a tree in the Capitan National Forest of New Mexico in 1950, your paws and legs burned by a fire, you became the living symbol of the erstwhile Smokey the Bear. You’ve been our Smokey since then.

I know you spent most of your life in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. I hope the 26 years you spent there were good ones.

Today, Smokey, things are tough here in the west.

Out here, I’m sorry to say, we’re struggling with the wildfire issue. Since you left, things have gotten worse. In the mountains of southeastern New Mexico, where you’re from, it’s dry. The towns of Ruidoso, Lincoln, your own home town of Capitan, have all grown, expanding into places your parents and generations of bears used to roam. There and pretty much everywhere, we’ve created a pending firestorm of problems from the low desert down near Las Cruces to far up in the high Sierra, in California, the Cascades in Washington: everywhere.

Still, we’re trying to pay attention. You keep reminding us. Every time I drive into a national forest, whether it’s low desert scrub — mesquite, sage, ironwood — high plains — grasses, ranging up to juniper and oak — or far up at some elevation with ponderosa pines in the Santa Catalinas above Tucson, even redwoods in northern California and southern Oregon, you’re there.


You’ve been around for my entire lifetime, welcoming me to national forests — from Maine to Florida, the Carolinas to Oregon — but always looking at me with that way you have.

You’re looking good for a seventy year-old. Keep your paw on that shovel.

We’re hard up against fire season here in the west. We had a reasonable amount of rain in the late winter and into spring. Good news for bears: plenty of blackberries, huckleberries. Everything’s drying out, though. Darn it, Smokey, we’re careless, despite your persistent admonition.

Some years ago, The Counselor and I passed through your home town: Capitan, New Mexico. You’re still pretty much Citizen Numero Uno there. Just down the road, Lincoln has Billy the Kid. But Capitan has you. I’d trade a bear for an outlaw any day, even up.

Here’s the Counselor with you in Capitan, the Capitan range behind you, not far from where you shinned up a tree to escape that fire.

Smokey MSV Scan 680

Smokey, since you’re there in Washington, I’d like to ask a favor of you. Would you wander over to the White House or the Capitol and advise our administrators and legislators that they shouldn’t turn your wild lands over to the loggers and miners without even thinking about it? We really like it out there, pretty much the way things are. Take your shovel. You’ll need it.

Best regards, your fan,


Note: In 1950, a fire crew of about 30 forest rangers, local crews from New Mexico, —including volunteers from Taos Pueblo — Texas, and the New Mexico State Game Department survived by lying face-down on rocky ground while a fire swept over them. Soon after that, they found a 3 month-old black bear clinging to a tree: Smokey. A year older than I am.

Smokey died in 1976. A reasonable span for a bear. His legacy will outlive me. Good enough. Only you can prevent wildfires. What Smokey says. Do what he says.

© Brad Nixon 2020; Smokey Bear image © U.S. Forest Service.

Older Posts »