Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 15, 2018

Rejavination! It’s the Brew, Not the Scenery

When does a cup of coffee taste good? What about while sitting in the sunshine of the French Riviera, looking out on the Mediterranean?

Mediterranean Brad Nixon 6693 (640x411)

Or, perhaps you savor that perfect espresso at a table, in, say, Rome, looking onto Piazza Navona?

Piazza Navona Brad Nixon 030(640x439)

The more adventuresome might say that the perfect setting for that steaming cup of joe is poured from the thermos on a trail high in the mountains.

Sandia View Brad Nixon 4533(640x427)

Ahh, these java fanciers declare: This is how to enjoy a cup of coffee!

To them I say, nonsense. You, friends, are coffee wimps, coffee pretenders, coffee poetasters; you expect little of coffee and derive even less.

What — be honest — would not taste delectable in those settings? Day-old beer? Pureed Brussels sprouts juice? You’re not enjoying coffee, mes cheres, you’re basking in ambiance. Mr. Outdoors at the crest of the Sandias overlooking the desert, above, might well exclaim, “Mmm boy! Nothing like a jolt of pond scum here at the edge of the wilderness!”

If your appreciation of the caffeinated brew requires conditions — setting … ambiance — you’re not providing coffee an arena in which to test its mettle, strut its stuff, show what its made of. You’re selling coffee short, propping it up, letting it off the hook. Put your coffee to the genuine, acid test.

Take, instead, a drizzly, January day with the temperature outside hovering between discomfort and misery, the sun unlikely to show its face for days or perhaps weeks. Deadlines are looming, your computer hard drive has locked up, the drains are clogged and the car won’t start. There’s little prospect of getting everything taken care of before it’s time to fix dinner, and, besides, you checked the refrigerator and the vegetable broth you were counting on is three weeks past its “best by” date.

THAT is when you want, desire, need and require coffee! Then is the moment in which you uncap the beans, pause and breathe in the dark-roasted scent. Beans in the grinder, and the irritating jangling, whir is — to your expectant ears — a symphony of angelic tones. Ah, then, spill that cache of granular promise into the basket, screw on the top and delight to the “whoomp!” as the flame lights beneath the pot.

Bialetti Brad Nixon 9069 (480x640)

Only moments now to wait. You select your cup — but with care! Volume, color, heft and style all matter when existence itself depends on the success or failure of the experience that awaits you. Will it be your trusty decade-old pottery mug, or perhaps a vintage coffee cup from the collection, with some fresh banana bread?

AmMod Coffee Rattan Marcy Vincent (640x511)

No, not the the chipped and stained “McGovern ’72!” souvenir. Maybe the hefty cup from a long-closed chain of diners, with a plate of delectable madeleines ….

mads coffee on blk Marcy Vincent 5886 (492x640)

How about a colorful, hand-painted demitasse from Deruta, sitting in the sun by the pool

espresso-pool Marcy Vincent 8772-3(480x640)

All right, so I sneaked in some ambiance. But as much depends upon the choice of vessel as the treasure it will carry.

The sounds of perking — you didn’t hear it there on the Mediterranean (nor did Sophocles, long ago on the Aegean). The aroma! Something you missed in your charming Italian trattoria, distracted as you were by the fountains. Nor was the atmosphere suffused with heavenly scent there on the trail until you opened the thermos and poured. Only now, mired in the quotidian glum of a fractured day can you fully relish those moments of sensory anticipation.

Then, the moment of exquisite pleasure: the pour. Perhaps, in the end, a cloud-white cup for that potent black brew.

White cup Brad Nixon 9066 (640x490)

You gaze, relishing the way light gleams on the surface of the liquid; you watch tendrils of steam rise, swirl and evanesce. The moment has arrived: coffee time!

This is the job coffee was sent to do, the destiny it was meant to fulfill, the apotheosis of java!

The reeking sump of life is now forgotten; you are armed against the slings and arrows of bills, clients, bosses, schedules, budgets, obsolete machinery, ineptly engineered vehicles and aging plumbing. Nothing matters beyond that cup and what it contains.

It needs no seaside vista, no view of ancient monuments, no rocky trail between the Douglas firs. It exists in and of itself, in the moment, of the moment, and you are there, solely, nowhere else. Other pressures, demands, requirements and contingencies will eventually intrude, shouldering aside the guards at the gate of heaven to wreak holy hell on paradise, but not yet. Not yet.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2018, available on Click on photos to access them on the site.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 12, 2018

My English Teacher Lays Down the Law and Tells It Like It Is

Cross my heart and hope to die, as I live and breathe, I’ll never forget the day. If I live to be a hundred, it’ll still seem like it was yesterday.

The holiday break was over, we sharpened out pencils, gritted our teeth, girded our loins and headed back to high school. Little did I suspect ─ I had no clue ─ it would be the moment that changed my life, turned me topsy-turvy and ─ I kid you not ─ made me the writer I am today.

First period was Mrs. Drake’s Senior English class. She was one of a kind. They broke the mold after they made her: firm but fair, a heart of gold beneath a steely exterior. She laid it out for us, spelled out the requirements for the year’s big project: research reports ─ every Senior’s bête noire, avenging angel and day of reckoning.

Then she gave us some writing advice, and it really rang my bell; you could’ve knocked me over with a feather. It landed on me like a ton of bricks, although for the rest of the kids it went over like a lead balloon. I didn’t know which end was up, whether I was coming or going; I was fit to be tied. It packed a wallop, carried the day, filled the bill, and that very moment, I woke up and smelled the coffee. I jumped for joy and felt like a kid in a candy store. Just wait ‘til I tell you; it’ll knock your socks off.

At lunch in the cafeteria that day, I sat with the guys, Jeeks and Ho-Jo, the genius and the jock. Lunch was the usual: looked like fish, tasted like chicken, smelled like a locker room. We bemoaned our fates, faced with the dreaded specter of the research reports. Jeeks lightened our load with some choice words about being back at school that had us laughing like hyenas.

At that very moment the cutest and smartest girl in the class, the apple of everyone’s eye, sashayed past us. Ho-Jo dug deep and gave her his best shot: “So, Cassie, got your research report written yet?”

Without missing a beat or batting an eyelash, she was on that quip like white on rice and rolled over him like a freight train. She lowered the boom and settled his hash.

“At least I know how to write, Ho-Jo.”

I flipped out, Jeeks blew his cool, snorting with laughter and Ho-Jo simply lost it. He was down for the count, flat on his back, dead as a doornail. She’d laid him low, locked him up and thrown away the key.

Let’s face it, gang, when it came to girls we were all a day late and a dollar short. I was glad I’d held my tongue because there but for the grace of God went I. No doubt about it, those were halcyon times.

What did Mrs. Drake tell us about the secret of writing success that never-to-be-forgotten day? It was the piece de resistance, the frosting on the cake and it hit me like a thunderclap:

“Under no circumstances ─ ever! ─ give me writing that uses clichés. They’re the indication of a lazy mind, the product of careless thinking, and proof you have nothing worthwhile to say. You must be cognizant!”

As you can see, it was a word to the wise and I bend over backwards to put it to the acid test. To this very day I thank my lucky stars. It was just what the doctor ordered.

Katherine Drake was the memorable individual who taught my freshman and senior English classes. I hope she’s laughing, somewhere. If not, I’m in trouble. Thanks, Mrs. Drake.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 10, 2018

The Free Harbor Fight – Los Angeles, 1890

One of an ongoing series of posts about the Port of Los Angeles.

You see them everywhere. In public squares, in the grand halls of civic buildings, on mountain tops: the statues. Statues of statesmen, kings, queens, mythical figures, religious icons, industrial barons, generals, poets, artists and musicians. Visitors rarely have time to examine them, determine who’s depicted or why their statue is there. You know there’s a story, but there is more to see, and too many statues. Here’s one I photographed in a piazza in Verona, Italy.

Verona Dante Brad Nixon 6440 (640x480)

The inscription said “Dante.” I don’t know if that’s a first or last name. I have to look him up. No doubt some famous local figure.

If you visit Cabrillo Beach, at the southern end of San Pedro Bay, where Los Angeles Harbor meets the Pacific Ocean, (see map, below), you’ll find this bronze statue:

Stephen M White statue Brad Nixon 1594 (440x640)

The plaque on the pediment indicates the individual is Stephen M. White. Who was he, and why is his statue there? Ah, there’s a story. I’ll compress it as much as possible.

The Fate of a City

In the late 1800s, the growth of Los Angeles was limited by its lack of a natural harbor. The center of the city was 15 miles inland from Santa Monica Bay to the west and 20 miles from San Pedro Bay to the south, but neither offered deep water sheltered from the ocean. San Pedro’s harbor had been the de facto shipping and fishing port since the earliest days of Spanish dominion, but needed a breakwater to protect against the open ocean in order to realize its potential growth. The Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce sought federal support to build the breakwater for a port to serve the city.

The Tycoon

The wealthy and influential Collis Huntington, proprietor of the Southern Pacific Railroad (among others), saw an opportunity: Build a rail line west from Los Angeles to a manmade pier extending into deep water at Santa Monica, and use his clout in Washington, D.C. to secure federal funding for a breakwater to protect it. If he accomplished that, the harbor of Los Angeles would, in effect, be a private monopoly ─ freight and passengers moving from Huntington’s wharf via Huntington’s rail lines along rights-of-way Huntington and associates owned.

Huntington used his considerable power (including bribery) to block approval of the San Pedro breakwater and generate support for his. His enterprise began building the massive pier into Santa Monica Bay: the Long Wharf, nearly a mile long, carrying dual railroad tracks, north of the current Santa Monica Pier. It was completed in 1893, the longest wharf in the world. Shown here in 1895:


Enter the Native Son

Confronted with the prospect of a private enterprise controlling — and charging fees for — freight moving in and out of the city port, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce sued to stop Huntington’s lobbying effort. The suit was led by the brilliant L.A. district attorney, Stephen M. White. They coined a rallying cry for the effort, “The Free Harbor Fight.” The battle lasted 7 years, during which time White became California’s first native-born U.S. Senator. In 1897, a federal commission decided in favor of the Los Angeles San Pedro Bay project. Breakwater construction began in 1899 and was completed in 1912.

Here is the San Pedro breakwater, shot on a misty morning early in 2018.

IMG_0532 (640x337)

The port it protects is now an immense complex of channels, piers and shipping operations, the busiest container port in the U.S. That is why there’s a statue of Stephen M. White a few hundred yards from the base of the breakwater, looking out at what he helped create.

IMG_0545 (640x389)

Demise of the Long Wharf

Huntington’s Long Wharf continued to operate until 1913, its success hampered by vulnerability to ocean waves and currents. Failing to compete against San Pedro harbor, it ceased operating and was entirely removed in the 1930s. Today, no sign of it remains other than a plaque at Will Rogers State Beach.

White died in 1901 at age 48, his end reportedly hastened by the stress of the Free Harbor Fight.

Locations in This Post

Port of LA map Google

Cabrillo Beach is at 3720 Stephen M. White Dr., San Pedro, California. The statue (red flag at bottom of map) is immediately outside the park entrance.

The former location of the Long Wharf (red star in upper left) is at the lifeguard headquarters on Will Rogers State Beach, 15100 West Pacific Coast Highway.

The overlook for the wide view photograph of the breakwater, Lookout Point Park, with views of the Port of Los Angeles, is 3433 Gaffey St., San Pedro.

Is there a statue in your town that tells a little-known story? Leave a comment.

The photographs of Dante and Stephen M. White, and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Map © Google. Photograph of the Long Wharf is public domain, retrieved from Wikipedia 1/9/18; immediate source, Los Angeles Water and Power,

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 8, 2018

Two-Wheeling in Los Angeles; Can You DO That?

Foreign visitors to my city, Los Angeles, are often daunted by the requirements of getting around in this vast metropolis. Not every traveler wants to rent a car and brave our legendary freeways.

LA 110 - 105 interchange Brad Nixon 4290 (640x469)

Public transportation options here are limited. Until recent years, they were virtually nonexistent, beyond the relatively large network of bus systems operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LA Metro) and other LA-area cities.

The cityscape is changing. Metro now operates several light rail lines that converge at LA’s Union Terminal on the edge of downtown, like the Blue Line from Long Beach.

Long Beach PO metro Brad Nixon 8770 (492x640)

When I came to LA 25 years ago, there was NO light rail system. Progress!

Bicycle Sharing Gains a Foothold

Transportation in most American cities has been predicated on the notion that the majority of people drive everywhere, even to and from the termini of rail and bus lines. That’s changing in the form of bicycle sharing systems, which are multiplying rapidly to provide “final mile” connectivity to destinations.

I never expected to see it here in LA, despite the mild weather and the fact that much of the city is relatively flat. We’re drivers. However, we’re witnessing the introduction of two approaches to bicycle sharing: docked and dockless.

What’s Up, Dock?

You retrieve a docked bike from its station by entering your passcard, credit card or other ID at a kiosk, ride the bike and return it to a docking station. That’s the approach adopted by the LA Metro Bike Share pilot program.

Cabrillo Metro bikes Brad Nixon 9043 (640x453)

The docking stations are being tried in four areas: downtown, Pasadena, Venice and the Port of LA. The one pictured above is at Cabrillo Beach, at the southern end of the port near the ocean, near the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. From there, you can cover the waterfront, including the LA Maritime Museum and the Battleship Iowa, 2.7 level miles north.

Dockless (Even on the Bay)

Many bike sharing enterprises operate without docks. Bikes reside almost anywhere — on sidewalks or parking areas, campuses, transit stations, bus stops. Users unlock them with a mobile app, ride, and park them wherever they end up. That’s the approach taken in LA by private operator LimeBike. Below is a group of LimeBikes parked 100 feet away from the above-pictured LA Metro docking station at Cabrillo Beach.

Cabrillo LimeBikes Brad Nixon 9059 (640x419)

The bike sharing trend is good news to travelers looking for a better way to navigate urban areas. Downtown LA, for example, is a fascinating place, not nearly so dense or extensive as New York City (which also offers bike sharing). One could reasonably pedal from Union Terminal to the happening area around LA Live, Little Tokyo, the Fashion District or other parts of town, reducing walking, eliminating struggles with bus routes. You could ride from Union Terminal to the bike dock at Broadway and Third in just a few minutes. Right there, you could visit the Bradbury Building.

Bradbury Building Brad Nixon 3433 (640x458)

Once you’ve gawked at that location of the final climactic scene of Blade Runner, cross the street to eat something at Central Market (lots of hip options), exit the other side of the Market and ride the 1901 Angels Flight funicular up to Grand and see Disney Hall!

Angels Flight Brad Nixon 3449 (640x480)

Some limitations of docked bikes are obvious. You have to return the bike to a dock. That requirement kept us from trying the Biketown system in Portland, Oregon earlier this year.

PDX Biketown Brad Nixon 7853 (640x469)

There was a dock down the street from our apartment, but not enough places to re-dock them specifically where we wanted to go in PDX.

Undocked bikes solve that problem. But you’re at the mercy of locating one or more available bikes on your mobile app, and they could be anywhere … or nowhere.

One advantage seems clear: cost. Like the system in Portland ($2.50 per trip), the LA Metro Bike Share is more expensive than LimeBike’s $1 per ride: $2 for the first 30 minutes and $3.50 per 30 minutes after that.

China has sparked a revolution (pun!) in dockless bikes: 15 million of them. When I was there a dozen years ago, I thought bicycle use was already high, as here, in Shanghai.

20050427 Shanghai street w bikes 2

Those millions of new undocked bikes have made ridership soar further. It’s a trend that could even affect us here in car-obsessed LA. A bicycle won’t get you comfortably from Venice to downtown, but it will help bridge the gaps in local areas.

A lot will have to change, though, including how drivers deal with cyclists.

Caveats: Cycling in a U.S. City

American city drivers aren’t acculturated to cyclists, which are sometimes viewed as intruders in the land of the automobile. By law, cyclists are entitled to use traffic lanes (except on freeways), but motorists aren’t habituated to sharing the road. Legally, a driver must allow 3 feet (one meter) of clearance between her car and you if she passes you. Those regulations are fine, but they won’t help you if you’re struck by a heedless, careless or impatient driver. Take care.

There are an increasing number of bike lanes on city streets, but not everywhere. Again, drivers are not yet accustomed to a cycling culture and may turn across your bicycle lane without paying attention.

Helmets typically aren’t available with rideshare bikes. In LA, helmets are required for riders younger than 18. You must provide your own. Rules vary by state and city.

On the other hand, the weather here’s excellent! Far better than rainy Amsterdam and not nearly so smoggy as Beijing (really). Let’s get on our bikes!

I have not yet ridden either an LA Metro Bike Share bike or a LimeBike. I will, and I’ll let you know what I think of the relative merits.

Have you ridden either one, or other bike share systems? Suggestions, likes/dislikes, recommendations? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 6, 2018

A Twelfth Century Southwestern Winter

Here in the northern hemisphere, it’s early winter. Much of North America and Europe are experiencing severe weather, with record cold and heavy snow, even in unlikely areas like the southeastern United States.

One of our strengths as humans is our ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation. In Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina, people may be asking, “What if I lived in Portland, Maine or Mankato, North Dakota, and had to expect weather like this all the time? How would I prepare?”

I try to envision the life of the original inhabitants when I visit the sites of ancient civilizations in places like Mesa Verde, Colorado and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. I’m usually there in summer, when the environment is hot, dry, and it’s easy to imagine the 12th-Century inhabitants struggling to find water, searching for elusive game in dry country and tending crops struggling in the harsh conditions.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 4119 (640x420)

But for the original inhabitants, even in midsummer, there would be a steady undercurrent of thought: Winter is coming. What would that be like?

Winter in the American Southwest varies by elevation. At 3,000 or so feet above sea level, it can be cold, there is some snow, but the climate is more temperate than at the 6,000 – 8,000 foot altitudes of places like Mesa Verde, where sustained cold and deep snow can prevail for many months. Yet all across the southwest, native people built societies that endured for hundreds of years, including here at Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9769 (640x480)

To persist for so long meant that through spring, summer and autumn, they were constantly preparing for winter. If they failed to prepare adequately, they would freeze or starve.

In winter, everything changes. Any naturally-available food remaining in fields and forests is scant, more difficult to collect. Game patterns change, with many mammals reducing their activity and others migrating to lower, milder areas. While tracking an animal in snow has advantages, the difficulty of pursuing it, reduced hours of daylight for hunting and the challenge of being outdoors for extended periods can severely limit success.

The primary element of the communities’ food supply was the crops they grew, which were critical to winter survival and at least somewhat within their control. From the earliest days of human cultivation 13,000 years ago, to the present, farmers have watched the timing and progress of every step: planting, sprouting, growth, ripening and harvest. Rainfall, sunshine and temperature affect everything, and those who depend on the crops’ success know at every stage how things stand: There will be enough food — it’s a bumper crop; or ─ dire news ─ there’s not enough. Winter is coming.

With dozens of generations of experience to draw on, passed on from older to younger, everyone in the ancient communities knew the situation with the maize, nuts, seeds, roots and vegetables in the stone-lined storage bins. It will be a good winter … we’ll scrape by … or, if things weren’t right, there will be long, lean days of hunger and thin rations.

Spring, summer and autumn, in addition to the labor required for daily living, the need to prepare for winter was ever-present: preparing skins and fur for clothing, yucca and wood for sandals and soles, gathering tinder and firewood, chinking cracks against wind and weather. In cliff dwellings of the Gila Mountains and the adjacent Mimbres river valley, northward near the Manzano Mountains in the pueblo city of Gran Quivira, at Hovenweep and Chimney Rock, the work varied slightly with local conditions, but never ended. Remember last winter!

Today, farmers consult complex meteorology reports compiled from data collected by satellites, ocean buoys, mountaintop observatories and the water levels in reservoirs, looking for trends, predictions, expectations for the elements that will mean success or failure.

12th-Century farmers relied on what had come before: generations of knowledge passed along: when to plant and harvest, when rain should fall, when the elk would move, when snow could come. It’s no wonder that nearly every structure-building culture we know of devoted work to establishing some solar observatory, aligned to tell them how long ‘til midsummer and then midwinter, when the sun would touch that far point of its travel and begin to return: so many days or moons until the first new food would sprout on the bushes, then ripen. At Chaco, Cahokia, Fort Ancient and everywhere, the mounds, earthen lines and carefully engineered gaps in walls that marked the sun’s position weren’t there simply to investigate curious phenomena. They tracked the very essence of life. So far as we know, they had no system of writing, no written numbers, but their survival relied on knowing where they stood in the cycle of the sun, the rain and the growth of the world.

A particularly harsh winter, or one without enough snow to provide water once the dry days arrived, could both spell disaster of different kinds ─ one sooner, one later. Throughout the winter, someone had the task of watching the storerooms, pottery and baskets filled with food collected and carefully preserved. Too little food left with too many days before first harvest required delivering the news that there wasn’t enough. The foragers increased their range, seeking overlooked nuts and late berries, the hunters traveled farther, staying out for more days: long, cold days in the snow, searching. Failure wasn’t merely disappointment; it meant starvation.

Even in midsummer at Chaco Canyon, with the temperature at a hundred degrees, I think of it.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4214 (640x399)

Or in Mesa Verde, as autumn colors the deciduous trees in the canyon, it’s easy to imagine…

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9799 (640x480)

…An inner awareness drove those communities in a common purpose: Winter is coming. Too many winters like last one, and what will we do? Too many dry summers and how will the corn grow? This is our home, and our lives are tied to it.

Eventually, something failed. Too many hungry winters. Too many summers of drought. The game animals were too few, too far away. And now there are only walls of stone.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4188 (640x429)

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 4, 2018

My 2017 Book Report

2017 was an active year of reading for me. I’ll share some high points and a few disappointments. I hope you’ll comment with your opinions. This is a selection; the point isn’t how many books one reads ─ it’s what you derive from them.

You can click on the following links for blog posts about two books I greatly enjoyed: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric.

Catching Up with the Times

My reading life’s been heavily weighted toward “classic” literature, but I’m determined to read more books published since 1990 or so. Here are a few of 2017’s discoveries.

Despite being a lifelong sci-fi fan, I’d missed a big one: William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer. Not simply a compelling story with inventive language, it’s a remarkable imagining of cyberspace (a word he coined), describing an Internet- and web-connected world that essentially did not exist at the time.

I’d never read anything by Michael Chabon, and enjoyed both his first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh and the popular, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Recommended.

I have a lot of catching up to do with a now-established American writer I’ve missed, Jhumpa Lahiri, and started with her debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies. On to her novels.

Also in this category, books by 2 well-regarded British writers and one from Japan: Brick Lane by Monica Ali, There But for the by Ali Smith and Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I’ll pursue more by all of them.

Tried and True

Reading fulfills many purposes, and one is pure enjoyment. Mysteries? I returned to some favorite writers, including Donna Leon’s Venetian homicide detective, Commissario Brunetti. In the American Southwest, The Song of the Lion by Anne Hillerman, continuing her father, Tony’s, legacy, with attention not on Leaphorn and Chee, but on Officer Bernie (Bernadette) Manuelito, long a regular player, now taking center stage.

Sci-fi, of course. I reread Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick. 40 years after I read it initially, it’s less compelling now than his best work. A far better experience was reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead, a biography of Dick by Emmanuel Carrere, a prominent French writer worth knowing.


I’m an inveterate rereader, a tendency I’ve tried to restrain so that I can try more new books. Along with the P.K. Dick novel, above, I repeated a couple of others, including 1984, by George Orwell, which I must have first read 50 years ago. It stands the test of time.

Thomas Pynchon appeared as a major literary force while I was in college, and I may have read (and reread) his work more than any other writer’s. 2017’s revisit was Mason & Dixon, which I think in some ways is his most “human” book, with the bittersweet friendship between the astronomer, Charles Mason, and the younger surveyor, Jeremiah Dixon.

Other authors I consider among the best I know include the American, Richard Ford, whose The Sportswriter is actually the start of a trilogy that I’ve been reading in reverse order. My 2016 reading included a number of books by Graham Greene, and I continued with The Comedians and a 1954 collection of shorter work, 21 Stories. I hope Mr. Greene never fades from the attention of the reading public.

I could, probably, read a book by Mark Twain each year of however many years remain to me without repeating one. 2017’s was A Tramp Abroad, the first of his travelogues I’ve read. It’s an uneven book, ranging from high hilarity to some rather mundane grinding through observances about travel that fail to shine. In the best moments, it’s Twain at his best.

Previously Omitted

I have a (long) list of “major” works yet to read, and tackled a few of them. One welcome discovery was O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. I enjoyed reading but was not entranced by two Russian novels I’d never opened: Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak. My grasp of Russian culture and history is limited, perhaps explaining their failure to catch fire for me.

The most dazzling omission had been on my list for many years: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. I recommend it, but prepare yourself to pay attention throughout a dense and compelling flow of story, character, language and themes. Masterful, showing the promise of a writer gone too soon.


Two classics wore me down, twisted me to the edge of tolerance and, in one case, beat me. Regarded as a pioneering psychological novel, Stendahl’s The Red and the Black (1830) never engaged me, although I labored to its tragic conclusion.

Worse, though, was my attempt to read The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James. Written in a prose style so densely packed with compound-complex sentences, apposites, asides, parenthenses and dependent clauses, it constantly made me pine for the master of sentence complexity, Proust, who could pull the same tricks without causing me to lose track of who was being referred to, who was speaking or what was being described. Halfway through, I was done, and couldn’t continue.

Unreservedly Recommended

Briefly below, I recommend the very best of the books I discovered, by authors past and present. They’re good enough that each merits a separate blog post. I encourage you try them if they’re unknown to you.

The Portrait of a Lady (1881). THAT is what people are talking about when they say “Henry James.”

Strangers on a Bridge (1964), James B. Donovan. A fascinating memoir about the cold war-era legal defense of a Russian spy in the U.S., and subsequent exchange for the downed U.S. airman, Francis Gary Powers.

John’s Wife (1996) and Huck Out West (2017), John Coover. A principal American author I regret overlooking ‘til now. Madcap metafiction and brilliant storytelling.

The Autograph Man (2002) and NW (2012), Zadie Smith. One of the most skilled and insightful tellers of human stories now writing, in vivid language that sings.

Your turn. Agree? Disagree? What should be on my 2018 list? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 2, 2018

Cherchez les Femmes; It’s All Their Fault (per Sir Gawain)

As each New Year approaches, my holiday tradition is to reread the Middle English verse romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This year, I asked readers to suggest what aspect of the poem I should address. I received an excellent suggestion: Focus on the female characters of the poem.

Gawain is fertile ground for the topic. 4 very different women appear in the story. A lot of scholarship’s focused on them. I learned some new things as I approached the poem from this perspective.

The Queen

The story opens as Christmas celebrations prevail at Camelot, presided over by King Arthur and the first of the women, Guinevere (or Guenevere). Guinevere doesn’t have much of a role beyond being the legendarily gracious and beautiful lady of Camelot. As in numerous tales, Guenevere’s eyes come in for lavish praise. They’re gray. Something about gray eyes drove Medieval guys wild, and Guenevere’s got ‘em.

She has no lines and doesn’t take part in the action other than to sit at the main table during the celebrations and look lovely. As we’ll see, her renowned beauty is part of the story.

Another Queen … of Heaven

As Gawain puts on his armor and assembles his weapons for his quest for the Green Chapel, we learn that he ─ the purest and most valiant knight of all ─ has an image of the Virgin Mary depicted on the inside of his shield. When battle gets fierce or fearsome foes threaten him, a glance at her face restores his courage and sustains him.

Mary was a central figure in 14th Century Catholic Europe. It would be difficult to overstate her role as the ne plus ultra of the ideally virtuous female. Gawain’s reputation as a superbly upright man makes it natural for him to be “her” knight.

On Christmas Eve, Gawain’s spent nearly 2 months wandering through the wilderness looking for the Green Chapel, and calls on Mary to lead him to some place where he can at least celebrate mass for the savior’s birthday. Lo! He suddenly encounters a vast castle, greater than any he’s ever seen.

The Lady of the Castle

That impressive estate is ruled by a burly, capable lord who has an astoundingly beautiful wife. She is, in fact, unique in all women ever described in Medieval literature; Gawain thinks she’s more beautiful than Guenevere.

The poet gives us ravishing descriptions of the lady’s beauty, grace, clothing, jewels and manners. In that mysterious castle hidden deep in a forest, Gawain’s encountered a lord and lady who just might be equal to or better than Arthur and Guenevere.

One thing: Although she’s front and center in extensive passages that follow ─ hundreds of lines of the poem ─ with extensive dialog and a rapier wit and a sharp, scheming intelligence, at no time is this woman named. She is the lady of the castle, described with nearly every synonym for “woman,” “wife” “lady” and so on. Neither Gawain nor we ever learn her name, nor does Gawain ever seem to inquire.

The Old Crone

Accompanying the beautiful young lady, there’s another woman of royal degree at the castle. She’s the antithesis of her younger counterpart: old, haggard, with a stout, ungainly figure, wrinkled skin and in every way as unattractive as the poet can portray her. While Gawain’s at the castle, we learn nothing about her relationship to the lord and lady or her name. Although she’s present for all the holiday celebrations, we never hear her speak or see her do anything that affects the story. But she’s always there, and one wonders why this story needs a stock Medieval figure like “the old crone.”

A Temptress Revealed

The beautiful lady of the castle figures in the poem’s central action. That “action” occurs in three memorable bedroom scenes. While her big, bearded he-man of a husband is off hunting on 3 successive days, the lady slips into Gawain’s bedroom, sits on the edge of his bed and proceeds to taunt him fairly directly about the fact that if he’s really the world’s most valiant knight, the envy of all men, shouldn’t he be doing something rather decisive about the presence of a beautiful woman in his bedroom?

Over the 3 days, we get a pointed portrayal of a woman who’s up to something, although we can’t figure out any more than Gawain can what it might be. Gawain’s hard-pressed to respond modestly to suggestive conversation from his hostess, repeatedly falling back on protestations of his desire only to engage in conversation and nothing more.

Each day, Gawain finally yields only when “commanded” (the word the poet uses) by the lady to kiss her: once the first day, twice the second and three times the final day. The notion that the chivalrous knight takes no overt action toward or against a lady unless it is by her desire is central to scores or hundreds of other tales of the era. The woman, however nameless, motivated by something we don’t understand, is in control.

Cherchez les Femmes!

At the end of the story, the monstrous Green Knight reveals he’s Gawain’s host from the castle, transformed through wizardry. The entire year-long travail, including those 3 days of temptation by his wife, were all part of a plot hatched by the ever-devious Morgan le Fay, who was the old crone in the castle. Aha! Endlessly jealous of her half-brother Arthur, Morgan constructed the complex scenario to discredit Camelot and the knights, proving that their vaunted virtuousness was a sham and ─ she hoped ─ literally scaring the beautiful Guenevere to death with the appearance of the horrific Green Knight. One mean old sorceress.

Here, I’m sorry to report, Gawain practically slaps his forehead, declaring that it’s just like women. He cites those tried-and-true examples of admirable men betrayed by women: Sampson (Delilah), David (Bathsheba), Solomon (Sheba) and ─ here it comes ─ Adam (Eve with that apple)!

Gawain actually says at this point: “It were a great joy could we love them well yet believe them not, if only a man could manage it.”

Poor Gawain. His career of near-legendary virtue spoiled by one conniving woman through the agency of another more beautiful than Guenevere herself! What’s a man to do?

My thanks to the brilliant and highly educated woman who suggested this year’s topic. After 4 decades of reading the poem, I learned a number of things I’d overlooked before.


© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 30, 2017

Feeling Whippier

One of the most powerful things about the English language is our ability to generate new words in many forms. We can turn a noun into a verb (not always gracefully), an adjective, an adverb, and so forth. Speakers of many other languages frown on this freewheeling approach of ours. English is messy. I’m certain that Hungarians and Lithuanians marvel that we can understand one another at all without a dozen or more clearly defined noun cases.

Take, for example, one of the first words many of us learn to speak, spell and write: cat. I remember learning to print “CAT” in kindergarten. Somewhere in a box at my dad’s place may be the sheet of paper on which young blaknissan drew a small circle, a large circle, gave the small circle two triangles for ears, two dots for eyes and gave the large circle four descending lines for legs and laboriously and not very neatly printed C A T with a big black crayon. (Perhaps there were whiskers; I was a precocious child.)

It could’ve gone either way at that point; I might’ve followed my nascent artistic genius, but, instead, I became a writer. To prove the wisdom of my choice, I can still spell cat with the best of them, while my drawing hasn’t advanced all that much.

Language is transformative. We make new words from existing words, sometimes with blithe abandon. English speakers have a long history of coining new words from old, and there’s something about the language that’s quite accepting about wrenching nouns into other forms of speech. We not only have the noun, cat, we can cat around, we can be catty and we can behave cattily. Interestingly, we also have doggy as an adjective, but use a different form for the adverbial sense: doggedly. There’s a reason for that, but I’ll go on.

I was thinking of this yesterday when, after a busy couple of days and being beaten down by a cold, I said that I was whipped. That’s a common English convention known as a participial adjective. “Whipped” is a past participle, and, interestingly, past participial adjectives are most often used to describe how someone feels: bored, frightened and interested are examples. The present participle, on the other hand — boring, frightening and interesting — generally describes the causes of feelings described by past participial adjectives.

There are a few participial adjectives that don’t end in -er or -ing, like “misunderstood” and “unknown.”

The reason I dusted off this ancient bit of grammar is that I started imagining the comparative state of being whipped. If my cold lingers and I feel worse tomorrow than today, I could say I’m whippier.

Except I can’t. It’s not done. We generally form comparatives of participial adjectives using “more, less, very” and other adverbs of degree. Several languages work that way.

Therefore, I must say I’m concerned about feeling more whipped tomorrow, not whippier. Likewise with more boring, more frightening; not boringer, frighteninger, etc.

Language is so powerful and so adaptable that you almost certainly knew what I meant by “whippier,” even if it’s not a valid English word.

This is an aspect of language that fascinates me. No one (so far as I remember) instructed me on the proper formation and use of participial adjectives. I doubt that I’ve ever said anything was boringer or interestinger, except in fun. We simply know these things. It’s inherent in our present-day English, which has evolved from an earlier version with many more structural rules than we have now. We’ve shed most of the original noun cases, genders and a significant number of historic verbal constructs.

Everyone learns their native language by imitation, hearing it spoken, then reading and writing. We learn grammar at the same time we’re acquiring a massive amount of vocabulary. Ensconced within our contemporary language are all those earlier rules and conventions that still have power to influence how we use the language, so deeply ingrained that they simply operate without our “knowing” the rules.

It’s no wonder that a common complaint of bored students in boring English class is, “I already know how to speak English.”

Taking a few moments to consider the power of language has brightened my day, and made me feel considerably unwhippier.

© Brad Nixon 2017

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 26, 2017

A Hue and Cry at the Dinner Table

As I’ve written before, this happens all the time here at Rancho Retro. A word or phrase comes up in conversation and one of us stops, gets that pondering look and asks, “Where did that word come from?”

Last week, it was The Counselor, who’d encountered the phrase “hue and cry” in an article she was reading. She knows what it means, of course; it’s a general outcry, typically focused on some misdeed or wrongdoing (whether real or perceived).

What, though, she wondered, caused us to have that phrase in the first place? Since when did “hue” mean something other than a tone or shade of color?

She asked that question at dinner. It stumped me, as it had eluded her.

It shouldn’t have. We didn’t think of the proper angle, but the answer stems from the history of English in ways we’ve both encountered, in different contexts.

1066 and All That

Let’s go back to the conquest of England by the Norman French.

All languages change, although the rate at which they evolve is affected by an almost endless number of factors, including migrations of people (both “in” and “out”), wars, instability in economies, changes in the hierarchy of power, to name a few.

A new king, a new court and the attendant introduction of new laws, procedures and practices, all conducted in French, transformed English to a radical degree. The writer David Crystal (more from Mr. Crystal below) tells us there is no extant text in Middle English that does not contain at least some French words. I find that credible.

You’re certainly familiar with this convergence of French and English. I’m certain to have used a large number of words of French origin in this article that wouldn’t be part of my vocabulary if Harold’s gang had done better at Hastings.

There, in the rapid advent of French as the language of the realm (the official lingua franca) lies the primary source of “hue and cry.” Both words, it turns out, mean essentially the same thing. We’re all familiar with “cry.” It entered Middle English as cri or cry from French crier. “Hue” has fallen from use in the meaning assigned in the phrase, but it derived from French huer, “to shout.”

A Quick Look Back at Precursors

Old English already had some predilection to this doubling of synonyms. Some of it inhered in the essence of the poetry, which was chanted or sung, and alliterative. Emphasizing ideas by repeating them was a recurrent motif, as when the Beowulf poet describes the despair that falls on king Scyld when Grendel is raiding his hall and killing his men. I’ll use Seamus Heaney’s translation of portions of two lines:

“Those were hard times, heart-breaking/for the prince of the Shieldings ….”

Times weren’t just tough, they were both hard and heart-breaking. A still common doubling we have from Old English, also used in Beowulf, is the familiar “to have and to hold.” The words mean the same thing, but the poet emphasizes the point, plus gets alliteration from them.

Back to Anglo-Norman times

Imagine you’re a landholder in England. You speak English. A property dispute leads you to court. Not only are the proceedings conducted in that irritating French language, the very statute affecting your case is written in French. Situations like that became a steady impediment to the conduct of business. As time passed, laws, ordinances and statues were amended with terms that both English and French speakers could understand. This gave rise to an entire genre of “lexical doublets” in official documents, and many of them are still familiar: “breaking and entering,” “fit and proper,” “give and grant,” “peace and quiet,” “wrack and ruin,” “will and testament.” There are many more of them.

Ah, we’re nearly there.

All those examples consist of one word from the English lexicon and one from French. In time, 12th and 13th Century lawyers grew habituated to these restatements, and used doublets when defining crimes and misdemeanors (another example!), even if they both hailed from the same original language.

The Answer

That’s where “hue” and “cry” — both French in origin — were wedded together in a union that still persists, even though we’ve abandoned almost any other use of the word “hue” in that sense. Specifically, the 1285 “Statute of Winchester” required constables or citizens to raise a “hue and cry” when they observed a law being broken.

Wikipedia points out that the phrase is still used in the oath of office for constables in the state of Tennessee: from 13th Century Winchester, England, to present-day Winchester, Tennessee (county seat of Franklin County).

The Counselor might’ve recognized “hue and cry” as a legal doublet, given her training in the law (which, BTW, is why I call her The Counselor). I could have at least guessed at the phrase’s origin, since I’d been exposed to lexical doublets in the course of my scattered and disparate reading about the history of the language.

Fortunately, we have dictionaries; Mr. Crystal’s excellent book, The Stories of English and the odd copy of Beowulf lying around. Now we know.

I hope I’ve aided and abetted one tiny slice of your appreciation of the language.

© Brad Nixon 2017. The Stories of English © David Crystal 2004, The Overlook Press. Beowulf, a New Verse Translation © Seamus Heaney 2000, W.W. Norton & Company.  The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language © The Houghton Mifflin Company 2000.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 24, 2017

Seen Yet Unseen on the Riviera

It’s a fact of life that you can’t go everywhere, see all the sights and do everything. Inevitably, museums, historic sites and sometimes entire cities have to be omitted from the itinerary.

Time is always limited. You have to get back to the hotel for dinner, your train connection is in one hour, and so forth. Eventually, the days run out, vacation’s over and it’s time to head home.

Sometimes, you simply overlook something; no matter how much you research, you can’t learn everything about a place. There you are, steps away from some spot on which a momentous event occurred, and you miss it. Or, you might end your tour of a certain museum gallery, only to learn later that a work of art you admire was just around the next corner.

The big, humongous things are simply too large to be fully absorbed. Like this one:

Milan cathedral Brad Nixon 058 (640x480)

That’s the cathedral of Milan. We explored some of it, and devoted a good portion of our time to the famous tour of the roof and its phantasmagoria of statuary.

Milan cathedral Brad Nixon 012 (480x640)

But one can’t fully explore an edifice on that scale without devoting most of a day to the enterprise. If you do that, you surrender the chance at seeing any number of other points of interest. You keep moving, consulting your notes, scanning the guidebook, hoping to strike a balance.

Sometimes, though, it’s difficult to find a justification for missing something … as when you’re looking right at it, but don’t know what it is.

It happened to me in Nice, France. The Counselor and I were making our way on foot across town toward a museum. We crowded in as many other sights as we could, including some of the city’s busy shopping streets.

Our route let us take a look inside a Nice landmark we’d only seen in passing: the Hotel Negresco, on the Promenade des Anglais.

IMG_7001 (640x480)

The Negresco opened in 1913, and it’s one of the places I visualize when I hear the phrase, “grand hotel.”

Yes, we found, the interior is as imposing as the outside.

Negresco interior Brad Nixon 7074 (640x477)

Lavish, luxe, grande.

We were determined to allow reasonable time to see the museum, meaning the Negresco got short shrift. We breezed through, imagining the lives of the famous and wealthy as they must have played out in its rooms when it opened, in the final days before WWI.

Only this week, 6 years after that visit, I looked at that photograph and did some research. That circular skylit room is named the Royal Lounge. Look at it from a slightly different angle, and notice the chandelier.

Negresco interior Nice Brad Nixon 7075 (640x480)

Among the habitués of the French Riviera before and during the first war were many members of the Russian aristocracy, in exile from the turmoil that was bringing their world to an end. One of them was Czar Nicholas II. He commissioned the chandelier from Baccarat. It’s comprised of 16,309 crystals. If you know a bit of history, you’ll understand why Nicholas was unable to accept delivery for any palace of his in Russia. The chandelier ended up in the Negresco.

I looked right at it, but I didn’t know what it was, and didn’t take a deep breath, pause and ponder something like, “Wow, that’s a spectacular hunk of glass up there. I wonder what it is?”

I wish you a merry Christmas.

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2017

Older Posts »