Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 20, 2021

Me and Algy

Back in ’99 — 1899, that is — Algy and I used to cover wide swaths of London, back in those years in which he’d retired with Watts-Dunton to The Pines, down in Putney, not at all a particularly prestigious part of the city.

It was an odd time to be in London.

Rosetti, Burne-Jones, and William Morris had died within the past few years, and the town felt empty.

My acquaintance, Sherlock Holmes, had just invited our mutual friend, John Watson (Holmes being rather pressed for funds) to share his digs on Baker Street. I knew John from our student days, and I’m sorry Holmes and and Algernon never met, because who knows what might’ve come from that encounter. Algernon never expressed any interest in meeting the consulting detective, despite my best effort to make it happen.

We did occasionally cross Putney Bridge to drop in to see Lord Tennyson. He always detested that I addressed him as “Al,” preferring the “Lord” title Victoria had bestowed on him, despite the fact that he was simply another middle-class kid from Lincolnshire.

“Hey, Al” I’d say. “Been out to Windsor lately?” and Lord Tennyson would level a fierce look at me, then turn to Algy.

“What about you?” he’d ask. “Written anything shorter than 10,000 lines lately, or are you still suffering from logorrhea? Someone has to be Poet Laureate once I’m gone, and all fingers point to you.”

I have to admit, Lord Tennyson did serve an admirable cup of tea, but our visits there tended to be brief. The guy was insufferably proud of his Poet Laureate status, and never failed to rub it in with ol’ Algy, and there was always a certain edge to those conversations.

Only once, I managed to lure Swinburne out of London. Watts-Dunton collaborated with me, arguing with Algy that if we didn’t do it then, we’d miss our chance. I met them at Paddington Station, Ed and I (although he hated being called that, and insisted on “Theodore”) got Algy hauled into a carriage and we were on our way to the Lake District.

John Ruskin’s estate, Brantwood, on Coniston Water (not far from where my own grandfather was born) was as idyllic a place as one could dream of. Once we were seated, in front of me were two of the masters of the English language (not to mention Greek and Latin), Swinburne and Ruskin.

And I waited.

Mr. Ruskin, I’m sorry to report, was near the end of things, and I’m not certain he knew Mr. Swinburne had been pointed to (although not appointed) as the likely future Laureate.

Algy, after all those hours in the train, looked as if he needed a pint, or perhaps several of them. Having personal experience of what a pint or two elicited from the potential Laureate, I said nothing, and the day drew down to anticlimax.

A dozen years later— with both Algy and Ruskin gone — Marcel got my name from John Watson (by then dissociated from Mr. Holmes) and made contact with me via the then still novel invention of the telephone. 

He was then translating Ruskin’s “Amiens Bible,” and asked me if I had any personal recollections, since he knew I’d met Mr. Ruskin. He was particularly interested to learn about what he understood to’ve been a meeting between Mr. Ruskin and the English poet, Algernon Swinburne.

“Ah, je regrette, Marcel. It was not very notable. There was one odd moment, though, which you might find interesting.”

“Eh, ca c’etoit quoi?

“It seems odd to relate after all these years, Marcel, but Algy told this story about dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea. It seemed to’ve made a significant impression on him. He said it was the one thing he always thought of, attempting to recapture some lost time. Does that even make sense?”

“Eh, peut-etre. I will think about that. Thank you for talking to me.”

That was the last time I heard from Marcel. I don’t know whatever became of him.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. And, no, I never spoke with Marcel Proust, nor walked around London with Algernon Swinburne, however much I’d’ve liked to, and this is a work of fiction.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 12, 2021

Only Collect

Human beings, it seems, are inherently prone to collect things. It must originate from our earliest days as a species, when we sought and collected food for survival: Existence depended on our success as food collectors. Later, we gathered wood for fires, stones and bones to use as tools (or weapons), and so on.

Once we developed some technology, we made and collected first plants for basketry and then clay for pottery in which we could collect food and water. We learned more sophisticated things to do with stones, and ended up with prized collections of scrapers, arrowheads, axes, grinders and even sewing needles.

Today, some people collect those ancient stones, tools, baskets and pottery, not to use them, but to enjoy looking at them and — yes — occasionally to sell them for more than they paid.

Sometimes, though, things just pile up, without having been actively gathered or garnered.

Dust accumulates, as does worn-out clothing, old magazines and ideas for great stories or blog posts that simply don’t play out. Ahem.

I’ve actively collected my share of things: rocks and fossils, old rulers and measuring tools, vintage dinnerware, books, and have the storage boxes to prove it.

It occurred to me recently that there’s a classification of things here at Under Western Skies HQ which seem to have accumulated on their own and — without any effort from me — have formed a collection: bookmarks. In fifteen minutes of searching around the manse, I found these:

You can see they came from a variety of sources: libraries and bookstores, publishers, philanthropic organizations, museums.

Very few of them came here intentionally. They simply arrived and took up residence.

In other words, “collect” can be both transitive and intransitive.

One can actively collect bookmarks (which people do), in which case the verb has an object: That’s a transitive verb.

On the other hand, dust, old shoes and bookmarks simply accumulate in the intransitive sense: they collect.

Which seems to’ve happened with our bookmarks. Yes, I’ve intentionally picked up a few of them along the way, but they’ve also arrived in the mail or shown up in books acquired in yard sales or library used book sales.

Some of the earliest bookmarks were vellum, fabric or leather, often attached to the binding in order to protect books, which were — in early times, inexpressibly valuable.

Some books, like the one below from the Modern Library, still have that feature.

Heaven forbid that you mark where you fell asleep with some casual slip of paper. This is Willa Cather, after all!

Investigating the business of collecting bookmarks, I’ve learned there are serious collectors of the genre. Bookmarks apparently showed up soon after the first manuscripts were sewn into codices, right around Zero A.D., and there are extant examples from at least the sixth century.

Admittedly, the Under Western Skies library includes few manuscripts or bookmarks from the sixth century.

At various times in the past century and a half, and still today, decorative bookmarks have taken a variety of forms, made of fabric, leather, even precious metal — sometimes enormously elaborate.

Why not have an attractive, well-designed bookmark while reading a great work of literature? It can only enhance the experience.

I have at least one bookmark in that category, an embossed leather one with an Art Deco design I received as a gift. Here it is paired with a work of literature that was one of the first subjects of this blog, a dozen years ago: Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” marking that memorable passage: the madeleine episode.

The mass-produced, printed bookmarks that accumulated here are something else. They are, strictly speaking, promotional pieces. The word for items like this in the collecting biz is “ephemera.”

In the serious world of marketing, everything depends on identifying a target audience and sending them a message that induces (incites? motivates? compels?) them to buy or do something.

Who defines readers of books as their audience?

Obviously, as those bookmarks demonstrate, publishers and book stores print bookmarks. So do museums, assuming their clientele are readers. There are theaters, arts organizations and so on.

A bookmark makes a difference. No one wants to get a book from the library or — worse — loan a book to a friend to find the corners of the pages turned down. Use a bookmark! Even if it’s a playing card, colorful autumn leaf or a theater ticket.

Have a favorite bookmark? How’d you acquire it? Any collectors of bookmarks out there? Please leave a comment.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 7, 2021

On Leaving Facebook

A few weeks ago, after years of being one of its ever-growing number of participants, I resigned from Facebook.

There are a lot of reasons to be a Facebook subscriber — good and bad, positive and negative — depending on your point of view.

I had excellent reasons to be part of The Social Network. There are all these siblings, cousins, friends; not to mention the sons and daughters of those people, and Facebook let them tell me — and most of humanity — what was happening at some human level, once removed.

One of the reasons to subscribe was that a few people saw this blog posted there.

There are also plenty of reasons to quit.

Like most subscribers — or so I think — I’d weeded out (“unfriended”) the irritating people who inherently opposed whatever it is I believe to be so. Some of them — as I thought more than once — would never have wanted their sainted mothers back in Iowa to see the horrific things they posted there. But their mothers are either gone to their eternal reward or don’t subscribe to Facebook.

As a result, I occupied my own bubble of siblings, nieces and nephews, friends and former colleagues who are more or less of one world view as I. With — I must say — really cute photos.

Still, it wasn’t enough for Facebook.

Yeah, yeah, okay, I did sign up to belong to a few groups with interests in things like old neon signs and pictures of iridescently colored birds that live in tropical climates.

Why, then, did that subject me to an incessant barrage of promotional messages from companies that wanted to sell me water filtration systems or ways to improve my quality of life by ingesting drugs not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration?

That, in the end, was what did it.

No, we cannot be responsible for every act or lobbying effort by every company included in our IRAs or 401Ks, try as we might. But, really, Facebook, does every other message that shows up have to try to sell me something I neither want, need nor care about?

I wearied of clicking “not relevant,” because there was always some other pitch Facebook’s algorithm thought might be “more relevant.”

So I quit.

I miss seeing the photos of kids who are now 65 years younger than I am, and will only see a limited number of times again. Send ’em to me in an email.

It’s unfair, of course, to invoke people who lived in another era, long before the concept of “social media” existed as avatars.

Still, somehow, Tolstoy wrote compellingly about Napoleon’s march on Moscow, and wrote a book about it, years after it happened.

Had there been Facebook, Tolstoy followers would’ve inundated his author page, second-guessing his description of how it was that Napoleon, whose troops burnt down a considerable portion of Moscow, had to retreat, and — in the course of things — lost a third of a million humans to frostbite and starvation.

Dante imagined hell, and had there been social media in Florence in the 14th century, well ….

Even earlier, once Beowulf had knocked off Grendel, one can only imagine what Grendel’s mother’s followers (and, I point out, no author in the history of the language has ever written “Grendel’s mother’s followers”) would’ve warned her about Beowulf’s superhuman ability to hold his breath under water while wielding a mighty sword.

Still, one can imagine ol’ Beowulf, hunched down there in Heorot, once he’d dispatched Grendel and his mother, paging through endless dross on his laptop, clicking “Not relevant” to endless appeals for the latest: “We Make Your Viking Funeral a Snap,” or “Call us if you need dragon-slaying gear.”

If only he had known.

And even earlier, one can only imagine Agamemnon’s followers, after ten years, camped there outside the besieged city of Troy:

“Ag, baby. Forgive Achilles and let him go out there and face Hector. And sign up for our no-risk one-year warranty on all armor at a special introductory rate!”

And, at the end of the string of western literature — after Agamemnon, Beowulf, Dante and Tolstoy — we have Jake and Brett in that cab, rolling through the streets of Madrid. Brett is paging through her iPad and shows it to Jake.

“Look at this,” she says. “One of your followers. She says you should forget all this nonsense and live with me.”

“Ah,” Jake says. “Yes. Wouldn’t it be be pretty to think so?”

And so I (and Jake and Agamemnon, Dante, Leopold and Beowulf) left Facebook.

Copyright Brad Nixon, 2021

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 2, 2021

Fire! Grab Your Pulaski.

As you must know, we’ve been sweltering in the midst of a blazing summer here in the American southwest.

In recent months, fire has burned more than two million acres of forest land, and driven hundreds of people from their homes.

“Fire” is an interesting word.

Compact, only four letters, “fire” has — for most of the English-speaking world — two syllables.

It’s an old word, recorded in the earliest versions of English, when it was “fyr,” and may have been pronounced as a single syllable, still extant in some parts of England and currently in the southern United States as “fahr.”

A word to reckon with. Wherever you are, don’t cry “Fire!” and not expect a response.

As I type, wildfires are consuming hundreds of thousands of acres of forest, grassland and chaparral across the American west and southwest. That is not hyberbole. If anything, it’s an understatement.

Some of the world’s largest and oldest trees — Sequoias — are at the absolute edge of catastrophe.

In this new world of an overheated planet, fires are also burning in Sardinia, Turkey, Siberia and … too many places to count.

Ignited by lightning, sparking power lines, human carelessness, they’re burning. Some of this season’s fires — and “fire season” has become a nearly year-round event — are, as in most years, in some of the most rugged, remote terrain imaginable.

Tens of thousands of firefighters are at work in heat, low humidity, sometimes nearly surrounded by flame, smoke and blowing embers. That’s not an exaggeration. A single fire in northern California currently has more than 6,300 members of fire teams at work. They work in demanding conditions, with different strategies and tactics than the emergency crews who staff your local fire station. Their primary task is not the standard image of extinguishing structure fires — although it sometimes comes to that.

Instead, they work in steep, rugged back country, clearing fire-breaks, intending to stop or at least slow the advance of what can only be called walls of flame, some of them so intense that they create columns of heat that generate weather of tornadic power.

Both sorts of firefighting require skill and training, not to mention daunting physical labor.

Battling wildfires, crews carry the tools they use into those forbidding environments.

I grin in a self-effacing way when I say that I’ve hiked on trails across the west and southwest in some of that country. Hiking a trail and looking at the untracked wilderness to either side of me, I can only imagine the labor it requires to cut across canyons and climb slopes across unforgiving terrain.

Those crews don’t carry the hoses and ladders of urban firefighting, but shovels, axes, chainsaws and a tool specifically developed for back country fire-fighting: the Pulaski.

Often called — not quite correctly — a pickaxe, the Pulaski combines two functions critical for wild land firefighting. The horizontal blade — technically an “adze” or “mattock” — is a digging tool, while the vertical blade is an axe for chopping.

Versions of this tool have existed for several hundred years. Adopted by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) early in the last century, the tool’s current form is credited to Ed Pulaski, an assistant ranger with the USFS, who served for nearly twenty years, much of his time after having his lungs and eyes burned during a disastrous wildfire in Idaho in 1910.

Digging fire lines is an essential, back-breaking component of wild land firefighting, hence the mattock. Only in desperation does one use the axe to actually fell a tree. More commonly, that edge is used to chop out burning embers from standing or fallen trees. Chopping down a standing tree by hand is the most severe labor imaginable, but fire crews are sometimes driven to do it, if there’s no chain saw within hailing distance.

Sharpen your edges. Fire is coming to a warming planet. As I write, crews are working to keep the KP Complex fire from burning into the heart of California’s Sequoia National Park. As a last resort, “General Sherman,” the world’s largest tree, and others, have been wrapped in protective foil.

Start no fire. Smokey said it best.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021

Note: There’s an enormous amount that’s been written about fire and the American west. I’m not an authority. Still, if you start somewhere, I encourage you to read “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean. You may know him as the author of “A River Runs Through It.” I consider it one of the great books of the 20th century. There, if ever, you’re given a glimpse into the dire conditions of fighting fires on inhospitable terrain.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | October 1, 2021

I Write What I Post. I Post What I Write.

The title of today’s post suggests several topics for consideration. One is the importance of word order in English. Since we have few inflectional endings to indicate how a word is being used, the position of a word in an English sentence is often the only way to know if it’s the subject, direct object, indirect object, etc.

Yes, action has primacy, so I may wish to place greater importance on whether I’m writing or posting, but — aside from some relatively arcane differentiations — the net effect is about the same: However I state it, I write things and post them here on the blog. Rhetoricians may debate some deep, underlying difference between the two clauses, but they both wash out to about the same color.

Typically, interchanging subject with object radically changes the meaning of an English sentence.

“Dog bites man” is different from “Man bites dog” in significant ways.

Only one merits newspaper headlines.

We don’t have to change the form of nouns when they change functions in English, unlike most of the world’s languages. And that’s where the fun is.

As today’s blog post title demonstrates, that’s not always such a clear-cut matter.

This came to mind recently as we shopped at one of the local organic farmers’ markets that are a fixture in Los Angeles.

At the Farmers Market

Local organic farmers markets are a longtime fixture in innumerable locations across Los Angeles County and across California. Situated in parking lots, along city streets, they feature produce and other goods from certified organic farms. These are often family-operated farms, sometimes representing generations of farmers. They load up trucks in Bakersfield, Fresno, Riverside and the far corners of the Central Valley, and set out long before dawn, bound for Los Angeles, often seven days a week.

Note: The photos above were shot in 2019, hence the lack of face masks, which are now de rigeur.

The farms at these markets offer an impressive array of produce that one never finds in any grocery store, and the people in the booths can tell you an impressive amount of lore about any of the fruits and vegetables there — some of which are things I had never seen, growing up in the Midwest. To my knowledge, we did not have watermelon radishes in Ohio, nor did we shop for daikon or Persian cucumbers at the local Kroger store. Okra? Nope.

The Theme

All the booths proudly display the names of their farms, often touting how many generations they’ve been farming.

And one phrase — or, rather, two iterations of the same idea — is ubiquitous.

Below, one version of that statement.

As you see, they sell what they grow.

You’re ahead of me. You already know what’s next. An equal number of those banners have the same thought, flipped around.

At one booth featuring artisanal cheese, they manage to hew to today’s theme, with a simple verb substitution.

There was, I trust, some long, intensive discussion around the family dinner table, generations of cheese-makers pondering that existential question: “Do we make what we sell, or sell what we make?”

That Is the Question

Does one live to eat, or eat to live? Do we reap what we sow or sow what we reap? Does it matter?

I actually have an opinion about whether one should say one grows what one sells or sells what one grows. There is — if one dares wander into the senior faculty lounge and ask the rhetoricians (never go there, rhetoricians make terrible coffee) — a difference.

What do you think? Sell what you grow or grow what you sell? Please leave a comment. And let me know if you have a killer recipe for all this okra I bought. I already know how to pickle it, which is the only way I’ve ever found it edible.

Click on this link for a list of certified organic farmers markets in Los Angeles.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 18, 2021

It’s Sultry

In North America, it’s midsummer: the dog days. Heat and humidity … except here in the American southwest, where it’s dry beyond imagining. Farmers in California’s Central Valley, who supply some significant portion of the world’s produce, are making desperate decisions about how to use a diminishing supply of water. If the price of almonds, pistachios, tomatoes suddenly skyrocket, don’t blame the famers: They have no water.

Seasonal “monsoon” thunderstorms are sweeping across eastern Arizona and eastern New Mexico. If it doesn’t rain now, they won’t see precipitation again until midwinter brings a minimal amount of snow.

2,000 miles to the east of me, in the middle of the continent, where I grew up, it’s “sultry.”

“Sultry” is an interesting word.

It means “hot and humid.”

“Sultry” first shows up in English in the middle of the 1500s. It’s probably derived from an ancient word, sweltan, which has been with us since it appeared in one of the earliest versions of ancient Germanic, Gothic.

From sweltan, we have “swelter.” Originally, the word sweltan meant “to perish.”

The earliest recorded instance of the word in English is in good ol’ Beowulf, where it appears several times.

The best instance in Beowulf is at the end of the terrific battle that defines all conflict between man and the forces of the unknown: Beowulf is in the lair of the dragon, in utter darkness, illuminated only by the dragon’s fiery breath. Dragon-fire burns through Beowulf’s armor, while the dragon sinks its teeth into him. Burned and bitten, the mighty warrior strikes the dragon again and again, his massive sword (which only he could wield) glancing off the dragon’s scales.

Beowulf’s legendary sword, Naegling, which had never failed, shatters from the sheer force of the king’s hands as he pierces the dragon’s scales (in Old English, the dragon is a “wurm” as well as “draca“). The worm has received its death wound, and there’s blood everywhere. Beowulf, too, is at the point of death from uncountable injuries, and will not survive the conflict. This is the end of Beowulf’s epic.

The dragon (familiar as Smaug to Tolkien fans) has been terrorizing the kingdom, piling up a hoard of gold in his lair. Beowulf, the king, knows he must go and kill this dragon that’s terrorizing his realm, even though he (correctly) foresees it’s his fate to die in the attempt.

The passage below ends with the line containing today’s word: “he morthre swealt.” Literally, something like, “It through murder perished,” which our translator, Heaney, has as “Had been mowed down.” In the language of the time, “murdered” did not carry our contemporary implied judgment of guilt or wrongdoing: it meant simply “killed.”

I’ll let Seamus Heaney translate, since he won the Nobel prize, and did an admirable job with the epic.

“… Already the blade

of the old king’s sharp killing-sword

had done its worst: the one who had for long

minded the hoard, hovering over gold,

unleashing fire, surging forth

midnight after midnight, had been mowed down.”

A good word, “sultry.” Here, under western skies, we’re sweltering.

Copyright Brad Nixon 2021. Citation from Beowulf, a New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000, copyright Seamus Heaney. Also consulted, Oxford English Dictionary Compact Edition, Oxford University Press, 1971. Gloss on “murdered” courtesy E. Talbot Donaldson, 1974, then visiting professor emeritus at University of Michigan, recorded during his lecture in my worn copy of Beowulf. His translation is Beowulf, A Prose Translation, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2002, 1975.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 2, 2021

2020: Looking Bakewards

I’d resolved that one thing the world did not need was another retrospective examination of annus horribilus, 2020.

Yet, on the afternoon of the final day of the year, I was in the Under Western Skies kitchen, baking bread. There, it occurred to me, was an aspect of the passing year worth recalling.

By the end of March, 2020, as the pandemic gained momentum, grocery shelves here in Los Angeles (and elsewhere around the world) were denuded of paper products, bread, pasta, most frozen vegetables and any product labeled with the term “sanitizer.” In common with the rest of the world, lines outside stores became a part of daily life.

One section of the grocery stores hit hard by either panic buying or hoarding (you choose) was baking products, especially flour, but including yeast packets, baking powder, etc. — conditions that prevailed in countries all over the globe.

Who’s Baking?

I wonder how many of my fellow citizens who carted home 5- and 10 pound sacks of flour actually baked them into bread, cakes, pies, rolls or other staples of life. Or are some tons of flour still sitting in cupboards, pantries and refrigerators “against the day?”

To the Point: Baking

Here in the UWS kitchen, these long, somewhat indistinguishably similar days of semi-isolation have provided opportunity and motivation to hone some home baking skills.

That is my retrospective angle for 2020: looking backwards: bakewards.

My point is that I’m not an accomplished or practiced baker. With one exception (executed not by me, but the more experienced Counselor), these recipes are doable by anyone with only moderate familiarity with a kitchen, and access to the ingredients.

This post will cover primarily simple baked goods amateur cooks like me can bake, and excludes a significant number of tasty goodies produced by The Counselor, year-round.

Not All Flour Gets Baked

Before we fire up the oven, it bears mentioning that flour goes into more than baked goods. A staple in American breakfasts is pancakes or flapjacks, but most cultures have some equivalent, some of them closely aligned with proud tradition.

Here, two whole-wheat pancakes, maple syrup and strawberries standing by, coffee already in my cup.

Staff of Life

While bread, at its most basic, consists of flour and water, yielding “flat bread,” we baked a few varieties of leavened bread, meaning dough that contains yeast and rises. Leavened bread needs some form of sugar to feed the yeast that makes the bread rise. In addition, recipes typically call for butter or oil. In the UWS kitchen, olive oil is the choice.

To start with the basics, a simple bread from unbleached all purpose flour, water, salt, sugar, oil and nothing else.

A slight shift in the recipe, using a combination of all purpose and whole wheat flour, yields “sandwich bread.”

Despite its name, the texture and crust of this bread won’t exactly resemble the sliced “sandwich bread” you buy in the grocery. It has a looser body, slightly more crumbly than commercial bread, but should taste better, and contains no preservatives or dough conditioners the commercial bakers use.

Elaborating only by moving entirely to white whole wheat flour, plus the addition of 1/4 cup of molasses, yields a darker, slightly denser loaf.

Another recipe requiring only all purpose flour (although you can substitute up to half of it with whole wheat), also uses 1/4 teaspoon of baking powder. The result: English Muffin Toasting Bread. One appealing aspect of making this recipe is that it requires only one rising, in the same pan you’ll bake it.

Yes, it’s perfect for toasting, as advertised.

Baking With an Italian Accent

Not in the amateur baking category, but worth mentioning admidst 2020’s baking highlights were bracciatelle, reflecting The Counselor’s Italian heritage.

The word means “bracelets” in Italian. The photo below suggests why they merit that name. Americans call that a donut shape, but bracciatelle are anise-flavored savory bread, neither sweet nor iced, more like a bagel than a donut. In addition to standard ingredients, the recipe calls for an egg. It’s traditionally served during a couple of holiday seasons in Italy, including the feast of St. Anthony, January 17, so it’s a good time to think about baking some.

Let There Be Pizza

With indoor dining nonexistent, and unwilling to rely on takeout or delivery, we relied on making our own pizza.

If you’ve never tried it, pizza crust is simpler to make than you may think.

The dough requires flour, salt, sugar, yeast and the patience to let it rise.

No, you don’t need to be able to twirl the dough over your head, pizzeria-style. Once it’s risen (your recipe will direct you), it will look something like this (here, our recipe yielded two pizza crusts):

You can roll out your dough or shape it with your hands. Like this:

The critical question — whether you get it from a restaurant or make it yourself: What will go on it? It’s up to you. Here were our choices for one we made.

Spread ’em out, bake, eat pizza.

Here’s a gallery of 2020 pizzas we made, including both pre- and post-baking (click on a photo to enlarge):

With ten months elapsed since we went to a restaurant or ate take-out food — cooking all meals here — baking was not only an activity we could share, but gave us some sense that we exercise some control over a situation that has millions of people around the world feeling beleaguered.

A healthy and happier 2021, everyone.

© Brad Nixon 2021. Some photos © M. Vincent 2021, used by kind permission.

I haven’t included recipes. There are tens of thousands of recipes available. One reliable resource for baking recipes and tips is https://www.kingarthurbaking.com/recipes. I have no affiliation with the company, but they’re a go-to source here at Under Western Skies. Versions of most bread recipes in this post are available there.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 20, 2020

Mon Ami, Marcel, et Mois, Chez Swann

Now, the funny (or odd, I suppose you would say,) thing (were you inclined to say either funny or odd things, whether or not they involved parenthenses, which this sentence obviously does, which is likely neither funny nor odd, although one might claim it is) is that saying something is odd is not nearly or in any way — when you consider it, which I have, and I invite you to consider it here, too — not nearly the same thing as saying something is funny, because while something that strikes one as odd may, indeed, invoke laughter, but that’s not quite the same thing as invoking humor, because then — as Marcel and I often observed on those endlessly long afternoons at Mme. Swann’s “at homes” — there was very little laughter (there being little wit on display in the room, despite Odette’s admiration for what she called, in that peculiar way she had of using English words, including “wit,” even if Bergotte, already long past his prime, and relegated to imitating himself attempted to be “witty”) however it long it was it seemed we spent in the luxuriously appointed rooms M. Swann had outfitted in which Mme Swann could entertain those of us who spent those uncountable hours, hoping only for a glimpse of Gilberte, despite the fact we knew she’d departed before her mother’s visiting hours, and was walking along the Champs-Élysées with some young man who was going to steal her attention not only from Marcel, who thought he was in love with her (and had filled several journals in that terrible handwriting of his with speculation about whether Gilberte was or was not in love with him, which he’d insisted I read, and — despite my advice to the contrary — insisted on including in possibly the most boring portion of that endless book of his) but from me, as well, and distract not only Marcel but me from writing the world’s longest sentence — that being the thing we’d both agreed would be our lifelong quest — although while I was simply amused by the notion of Swann and Odette’s daughter strolling under the trees in the Jardin des Champs-Élysées with a young man who’d go on to spend an undistinguished career as a chartered accountant, I knew Marcel was writhing in agony with the notion of it, and only endured those endless and “witless” (had it occurred to Odette to come up with an original thought of her own and call them that) afternoons, still hoping at least one of those afternoons in Mme Swann’s salon might actually be the place and time (ah, Marcel, you did have this fascination with “time,” did you not?) in which one could realize the dream of not only writing but — and here I must step aside from being a writer to playing the alternate role of critic — at least one phrase that conveys the sense of being in a place in which Gilberte was not present, because she, herself, was somewhere else, almost certainly laughing in that way she had, at something some other young man had said (which was probably more “odd” than “humorous,” which is where I think I began), walking under the trees in the Jardin des Champs-Élysées, and would, herself, be supplanted by Albertine (who I really must confess, again parenthetically, was extraordinarily attractive, which Marcel, himself, figured out in a heartbeat, and named the entire book he wrote about encountering her, “The Shadow of the Young Girls in Flower,” even though about half the book is actually about him agonizing about breaking things off with Gilberte, which had never amounted to all that much, but I could never convince him to delete those hundred pages or so he’d written about her) but Albertine, (and I met her one day on the beach at Cabourge), really was extraordinarily attractive, and it’s no wonder Marcel was fascinated by her.

That’s one sentence. A clever trick you can learn if you read about 1.26 million words from Monsieur Proust.

I’ve been thinking about M. Proust and his generation during this time of pandemic distress.

Proust was born in Paris on July 10th, 1870. At that time, Paris was in the final stages of the siege and famine that had gripped the city, following the assault from Prussia. There were no horses, cats, dogs or rats alive in Paris, all of them having been eaten for food. The artist Edouard Manet was one of innumerable Parisiens standing guard on the barricades. In his home, like many Parisiens, Manet had burnt much of his furniture to provide heat during the previous winter. Charmingly, M. Manet loved the big “artillery coat” he’d been issued.

Marcel’s father, Adrien Proust, an eminently acknowledged and highly praised physician, was in the field with the French army, working in tent hospitals, in a day before there were antibiotics, when anaesthesia was rare, and hard to come by.

M. Proust died in 1922, at the age of 51, having also survived the First War, and I think we owe it to ourselves to remember that one can still write, even when things don’t look all that cheery, as they currently do not.

And he wrote an extremely good book, by the way, although it takes a long time to read. I hope you enjoyed attending Mme. Swann’s “at home” with Marcel as much as I did.

© Brad Nixon 2020, with a nod to the master, Monsieur Proust.

There’s always a risk, opening that drawer: the one containing the old gadgets. I never know if I’ll find what I’m looking for. I’m just as likely to find something I’d forgotten I owned and used, or even that such an item ever existed.

This time, what I was looking for was not only there, but still in working order, once I’d installed a couple of new batteries.

Miniature, remote controlled flying saucer, you ask? Radiation detector? Compact waffle maker?

Ah, memory — like technology — is fleeting.

In a day before music was streamed through the cybersphere, humans used to encode it onto physical media in a variety of “form factors” (viz: shape and size), which required dedicated devices to produce sound. The item above is a portable version of something known as a compact disc player.

Here’s a depiction of its size, along with a compact disc. Inches top, centimeters at bottom.

Always a late adopter of technology, I still have a considerable collection of compact discs, which those of us who remember call “CDs.”

I do have a CD player attached to the living room stereo. But with both computers in the house no longer equipped with disc players, that portable device is a simple means to play music I haven’t captured into digital form.

At the Interface: Buttons?

We all know that “delivery” media evolve: from handwritten manuscripts, to moveable type, to photographs, motion film, audio recordings, etc. What interests me about this player is not the evolution of digital media, but how radically our way of using it has changed in the 17 years or so since that player entered my life.

Instead of touch-sensitive icons or swipes on the screen of a phone, there are physical buttons and other bits of Jurassic analog technology.

Let’s start by inserting a compact disc. This act, alone, is from an earlier era.

Physically slide a release on the side of the player, and the lid pops open, “clamshell” style.

Set your CD into the player, close the lid, and you’re ready to take your music with you.

If you’re not familiar with this technology, CDs are what’s long been referred to as “rotating memory.” The player spins the disc, and an optical reader picks up the information encoded in a spiral track, then turns it into sound waves.

As it happens, this is more or less the way we’ve played audio “information” from the very dawn of sound technology. Beginning in 1877, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and others developed a means to record audio signals on hollow wax cylinders that spun on a mandrel, the audio signal transferred via a stylus to a crude amplifier. There’s a long, detailed history of these “graphophone” or “phonograph” records, which I’ll spare you.

The cylinders became enormously popular. Here are the boxes for some Edison cylinders.

By about 1910, pressed disc records won out in the marketplace over cylinders, but the core technology wasn’t all that different.

The advent of flash memory is bringing the era of rotating memory to an end, but every computer once relied on it. Computer hard drives used digitally encoded data “read” by magnetic or optical readers, but they were once essential in all their bulky, noisy, heat-producing, prone-to-fail glory. The signals had moved from analog to digital, but still relied on spinning discs: rotating memory.

Going Mobile

“Portable” music, though, was impractical for those analog cylinders and discs through much of the 20th century. In my childhood, there were portable phonograph players, but one had to carry them to a stationary spot before playing.

The advent of the transistor radio made broadcast music portable, but not recorded music.

In 1982, encoding digital information yielded the compact disc format.

Eventually, CDs and players like the one in this article, engineered to minimize the shock of carrying the device, allowed more or less steady play, on the go.

Details From Another Era, Not Long Ago

The liquid crystal display is dim, difficult to photograph, but provides track and time info, as well as how much battery life remains.

Buttons are play/pause, stop, and forward or backward, one track at a time. On the side of the unit are buttons for volume, and another button — advanced technology here — that let you “bookmark” only tracks you wanted to play. Other buttons adjust treble/bass and play modes like “shuffle.”

There’s no speaker. You needed the latest in headphone technology.

The device even had a remote control. That is to say, it was as “remote” so far as the 30 inch wire would reach: no wifi.

Simplifying?

I do have the advanced skills to acquire a new disc player, connect it to my laptop, and — one by one — work through whatever portion of my CDs I want to “rip.” Then, upload the files to the Cloud and do something more or less confusing to download them to my mobile device.

In all honesty, I’m just fine with technology already in my possession that works, without all the doodling.

What say you? Abandoned all your physical media for The Cloud yet? I’ll award a special bonus point if you actually recognize the album I placed in the player. Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Sony and other names on the player and accessories are registered trademarks of Sony Corporation. Edison cylinder collection photo copyright Steve Goldstein, used by kind permission. “No Other” compact disc design and contents copyright Collector’s Choice Music 2002 and/or Electra Entertainment Group and/or Rhino Entertainment Company.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 21, 2020

On a Junket to a Junk

On two memorable occasions, more than a dozen years apart, I traveled to Hong Kong on business. Pictured below, during the second, in 2005, cinematographer Laurie is working to get a shot of the iconic Star Ferry from the Kowloon, or mainland, side of Victoria Harbor.

Here’s the Star Ferry

I was there to shoot video interviews and supporting footage for my employer’s HK operations. The metropolis is a fascinating place to photograph, whether or not you have a professional camera crew. Late that same day, we were high on a peak on the island, across the harbor, to get a shot of the city as lights came on.

I can do my best to assure you this trip involved a great deal of hard work during long days, hauling people and gear all over Hong Kong, in and out of offices to set up, shoot interviews and depict the work done there. Still, the picturesque scenes above make it look like I was on a fairly cushy junket.

That’s an interesting word. Before I get to “junket,” I’ll go back down to Victoria Harbor.

There, another waterborne icon of Hong Kong, featured in uncountable travelogues and tourism brochures, is the last of its kind: a traditional sailboat known as a junk. I’ve seen it, but never with an opportunity to photograph it, so I’ll rely on a news image.

According to bbc.com at this link, Hong Kong’s junk, named Dukling, long a popular tourist attraction, is the victim of a severe downturn in travel, due to the double jeopardy of pandemic and certain political events, about which I will avoid comment. Dukling’s future is at risk.

Why Is a Boat a “Junk?”

According to BBC, the word comes from Dutch jonk and Spanish junco, terms for sailing vessels in the Colonial period.

That’s correct, but it’s only part of the story.

Before the Dutch, Portuguese (who also have junco) and Spanish began to establish trading operations in China, they were in Java and the Malay Peninsula. There, in the 16th century, they encountered the Javanese term djong and Malay adjong, both generic terms for larger boats.

The association of those words with large sailboats (Dukling is 18 meters/59 feet long), was already well established, at least as early as the 13th century, before Europeans adopted the words into their languages.

All that Other Junk

The more common use of “junk” in English, which denotes … well … “stuff” or “trash” or … any number of other things, including slang for heroin, is unrelated to the term for the sailboat, with a separate etymology.

Coincidentally, it also has a nautical origin.

In Middle English, jonk was the term for old or worn rope or cable aboard ships. That “junk” would be put to a number of uses, including “fenders” alongside a boat, to prevent rubbing against docks or other ships, caulking leaks, and other purposes.

Over time, the term was applied to any cast-off material. The editors of the American Heritage Dictionary hilariously note that there are myriad uses of the word junk, perhaps because the world is so full of it.

Junket?

I was on a junket on those trips to Hong Kong, in one sense of the word. It can mean a trip or tour for some purpose, whether business, politics, etc.

Before that definition of junket arose, there was a prior meaning, denoting a party or banquet. Even earlier in the language, the first definition provided in some dictionaries tells us that junket is a creamy cheese or dessert. From dessert to party to trip: interesting.

That gets us back to the near edge of Middle Ages and Middle English.

Before that, though, some cream cheese was made or molded in woven rush baskets. Those rushes and baskets made from them were both referred to in a variety of spellings too numerous to list in a short piece, all resembling “junk.” Among them are jonk or jonc and jonket, jonkette and others.

The source of those words in Middle English, around 1400, may have been Old French, Old Norman, Italian or … even the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary were uncertain.

Speakers of English are accustomed to the notion that words that look and sound alike may have completely different meanings, and even have distinctive etymologies. “Junk,” meaning rushes or old rope, and “junket,” meaning either a basket or the cheese made in it are examples. OED doesn’t think their first definition of “junk” — rush — and the second — old rope — are directly related: They’re two words that look and sound alike, with no indication they share a historical relationship.

If you’re reading from Hong Kong (should you still have Internet access), I hope you get an occasional look at Dukling, maybe while you ride the Star Ferry. I hope to return to your amazing city, whether or not I’m on a junket. I wish you well there.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Star Ferry photo by mailer_diablo – Self-taken (Unmodified), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=440683. BBC article cited above retrieved on November 20, 2020. Junk photo is the property of BBC. Dictionaries cited are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin; Boston, New York, 2000 and Compact Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English, Oxford University, 1971

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