Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 10, 2018

Sunlight on Water

First, a few words. Then pictures.

One of the simplest but most profound things I ever learned about painting is that painters aren’t depicting objects, people, buildings or landscapes; they’re painting the light reflected from them. The craft of painting demands mastery of illumination, reflection, color, tone and shadow.

So does photography. A large majority of people are now photographers thanks to the ubiquity of cameras in phones, computers, tablets, doorbells, refrigerators, and, yes, actual cameras. But few people snapping selfies in front of Angkor Wat or the Grand Canyon think about capturing light. They’re “taking pictures” of objects, people, buildings, etc. As a result, with each day that passes the human race generates another few billion images washed out by bright sun, obscured by dense shadow or missing the superior view of something had the picture-taker simply walked ten steps to get the light at a better angle.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of superb photographers, videographers and lighting directors. The man who was my first mentor in the biz, G., was the head cameraman where I had my first corporate job. Do you know what he said to me one day when I showed some impatience about how long it was taking him to set up a shot?

“This is what video’s all about. You’re painting with light.”

That’s an exact quote from nearly 40 years ago.

Living on this planet, we have a big advantage as photographers. The distance from the sun, the diffusion of our atmosphere and a number of other cosmic elements combine to provide us with an enormously powerful and highly variable source of illumination, free. Sunlight gets screened by clouds, tinted by its elevation above the horizon, etc. etc. All you need to do is walk outside when the sun’s up, figure out where the sun is and look at whatever’s around, bouncing back some light at you. A photo awaits.

Take sunlight on water. You need the sun, and some expanse of water, large or small. Decide where to stand. You’re set.

Enough words. Let’s look at light on water.

Sailboat bright Brad Nixon 0526 2 680

Coldwater Lake Brad Nixon 2075 640

Container ship LA Brad Nixon 0497 680


LA harbar night Brad Nixon 2969 680

Ocean light Brad Nixon 1214 (640x468)

Pelican Cove Brad Nixon 2188 (640x480)

Ship silhouette Brad Nixon 2978 680

4 tugboats Brad Nixon 1 680

Redondo silhouettes Brad Nixon 2691 680

Ocean rays Brad Nixon 1522 680

Lake McDonald MT Brad Nixon 2891 (640x441)

Lake McDonald MT panorama Brad Nixon (640x315)

Admittedly, I stuck a night shot in there. It’s permitted to shoot photos after sunset if the light’s good.

Capturing Light

Typically, the soundest advice is to photograph subjects with the light falling over your left or right shoulder, ideally at a time of day when there are at least a few shadows to give your subject some shape or definition.

Shooting light on water is another matter. If you want to catch boats silhouetted as I did above, the sun is in front of you.

If you have a camera that permits you to attach filters, invest in a circular polarizing filter. It can do a lot to emphasize or minimize reflections or sharpen objects surrounded by reflections.

The business of photographing scenes with placid water reflecting mountains, trees, etc. is a world of its own, and requires patience, time and a certain amount of luck. The last image above, Lake McDonald at dawn, was made extremely early, before any breeze had stirred the lake. The only light is the glow from the sky, well before the sun was up. I like to point out that when I got there, another photographer had beat me to it, standing at the end of the dock with his camera on a tripod. I didn’t dare step out on the dock lest I shake it and spoil a long exposure. The early bird and all.

Most of all, you have to practice, and be prepared for disappointment. The more settings you know on your camera, the greater will be your ability to deal with demanding lighting. Don’t be surprised when your photos don’t look like what you saw. The combination of your eyes and brain vastly exceed the ability of highly sophisticated cameras to deal with contrast or shades and tones of light and color. Your brain makes all those adjustments thanks to a few million years of evolution. Your camera has no brain, and relies on yours.

In the end, remember you’re recording light, not things or scenes. That’s why it’s named PHOTOgraphy. Mother nature’s painting with light, and you’re trying to capture it.

With the following exceptions, all photos are from the California coast near Los Angeles or the Port of Los Angeles.

3rd photo: Clear Lake, Washington, near Mt. St. Helens; Last two photos: Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park, Montana, midday and dawn.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 3, 2018

Holiday Decorating Tips … Waterfront Edition

It’s a common pastime at this time of year: Take a walk after dark to see the holiday lights and decorations in the neighborhood.

Even neighborhoods you don’t immediately think of are decorated. For example, regular readers know I occasionally walk along the main channel of the Port of Los Angeles. After dark, the place is a festival of lights, regardless of the season.

LA harbar night Brad Nixon 2969 680

I was there tonight, and, sure enough, a couple of the neighbors did go out of their way to, um, spruce up a bit for the holiday.

Iowa holiday Brad Nixon 2968 680

Yes, there’s nothing like a few twinkling lights to add some holiday pizazz to your ordinary, run-of-the-mill, 900-foot, 46,000-ton battleship. In this instance, the USS Iowa.

Boat owners near and far go all-out to decorate their craft — large or small — and participate in what must be thousands of holiday boat parades at marinas, harbors, lakes and rivers. The Iowa can’t exactly parade; it’s moored along the pier, and hasn’t motored around under its own power for several decades.

Next door to Iowa is a smaller, highly mobile watercraft, tiny by comparison to the battleship, that was all dressed up for the L.A. Harbor Holiday Afloat boat parade.

Fire Boad holiday M Vincent 0242 680

At 105 feet long, with two 1,800 horsepower engines, Fireboat 2 isn’t petite. Here’s how it looks on duty.

LAFD Fire Boat 2 Brad Nixon 1273 (571x640)

The LAFD went all out. The forward “monitor” in the bow can pump 11,000 gallons of water per minute, but in honor of the holiday, it sported a colored wrapping of lights and a friendly fire dog.

Fire Boat holiday M Vincent 0258 680

Aft, the big hydraulic boom provided a perfect launch pad for Santa and three of the reindeer.

Fire Boat santa M Vincent 0247 680

I assume the other reindeer were in the ready room with the LAFD crew on duty, maybe eating Santa’s milk and cookies, ready for the call.

Here’s Iowa in its just-your-ordinary-battleship mode. You can see the forward mast when it’s not strung with holiday lights.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 0471 680

I’m sorry to say I missed the harbor boat parade. I’m sure it was fun, and I’d loved to have seen Fireboat 2 out there among ’em. We caught it berthed in its firehouse. My thanks to The Counselor for getting shots my lens couldn’t manage at close range through the windows of the big structure.

Happy decorating. Let me know how your aircraft carrier or container ship looks once you’re done stringing lights.

To read more about Fireboat 2 and see additional photos, read my blog post at this link.

I wrote about the USS Iowa, with more photos at this link.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Some photos © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission.

Here’s today’s hint for corporate success: When they send the guy you work for home, it’s time for you to leave, too.

Every writer knows the underlying rationale. An editor  — whatever they’re like: skilled or unskilled, competent or ignorant — MUST revise what you’ve written. Otherwise, no one will think they’re earning their keep.

In a similar vein, anyone who takes the reins of an organization with tens of thousands of employees and makes billions of dollars a year has to replace the management.

It happened to me. The old CEO left. I was suddenly part of the old guard, identified with the old boss. Meet the new boss.

I found myself reporting to a new VP. He proposed new communications programs, new approaches, couched in unfamiliar phrases.

New programs and approaches? Fine. I’m a liberal arts major, dude; right up my alley.

It was the phrases that bamboozled me.

They may have represented excellent ideas. I have no clue. I couldn’t grasp what they meant. I understood the individual words: each one a bona fide English word. But assembled as they were and applied in the contexts he used them, they kept bouncing off me, slipping away — mercurial, evanescent, refusing to be corralled or comprehended.

Looking back, that was the clue: the thing that should’ve told me it was time to skeedaddle. A barrage of incoherent stock phrases my boss and all the new bosses used. We were the corporate communications department, for crying out loud. Shouldn’t we communicate with language a bit more concise? Perhaps something that had meaning?

I wrote a few of them down, but wearied of recording gobbledegook. Besides, most of them were variations on themes already shopworn before I started my first job: teamwork, going the extra yard/mile (did these people attend college solely to play football?), innovation (don’t get me started), thinking outside the box (you mean the box you’ve put me IN?).

The one that flummoxed me — still does — was what the boss would sing out as a rallying cry when he’d describe how we — his professional team of world-class experts — would prevail in some difficult task:

“We’re going to divide and conquer.”

Some History

The original Latin phrase, divide et impera, is attributed to Philip of Macedon. Later, both Caesar and Napoleon adopted it as divide ut regnes — “divide and rule.”

One more phrase from the language of war applied to business, like innumerable others:

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity. Dwight Eisenhower
Those who are victorious plan effectively and change decisively. Sun Tzu
We will either find a way or we will make one. Hannibal

(Career coaching point: If your new boss tends to quote Sun Tzu, flee.)

“Divide and conquer” is a strategy of identifying and isolating opposing forces into the smallest possible units in order to attack and defeat them.

It’s a classic military strategy, and can work. It requires considerable knowledge and planning, as well as highly capable, disciplined and determined field unit leaders.

Turned on its head, it’s also a fundamental basis for guerrilla warfare — in which small, highly decentralized mobile units attack often-larger targets too swiftly and unpredictably to be anticipated or repelled.

Sense and Sensibility

I assume what my boss meant to say was that our dedicated team would astutely — a more trendy term would’ve been “proactively” — “attack” various carefully identified aspects “targets” as a group — Latin: ut coetus — in order to accomplish the job — whatever that was. Other current jargon might have included “leverage,” “synergy” and “integrated.”

However, something was missing. I got assignments and was expected to do them because … they were my assignments. What part of an overall plan they represented, how they meshed with work being done by others and what the overall goal was were unknown to me. I doubt that any of those things existed; I never saw them.

Instead, what he accomplished was dividing and conquering his own employees. We knew nothing, had no authority, no grasp of any plan. We had a leader with no leadership, tactics that lacked a strategy.

I was, in fact, the victim of one of the classic forms of mismanagement: mushroom management.

Mushroom Management

I occasionally worked at a racetrack when I was younger. One thing racetracks produce is prodigious amounts of horse manure. You might describe it as their gross national product. There was one guy who spent most days of the week shoveling horse manure-packed old straw out of the stables, onto a truck and hauling it a few miles south of town. Why? There was a big commercial mushroom producer there. Ideal for growing mushrooms.

Mushroom management consists of keeping your employees in the dark and feeding them horseshit.


When the people around you use language that’s patently evasive or nonsensical, don’t wait. Get out of Dodge, and don’t let the sun set on you there. Only mushrooms grow in the dark.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 28, 2018

A Picture from Mars

Today, November 27, 2018, InSight, a NASA spacecraft, landed on Mars. It sent back pictures.


Really. That’s an actual picture. From Mars.

I refuse to let this be just another day in the universe. Sure, I grew up seeing images from outer space. When I was a teen-ager, I saw live video from the moon, narrated as it happened by the human beings who were there, although the images were extremely blurry, and the audio wasn’t all that crisp, either. Only a few years before that, the mere task of transmitting first data and then voice from orbital craft were major accomplishments, let alone going into space.

Earlier in my career, I worked with people who’d been involved with getting the first telemetry down from orbiting satellites. Now, here we are. I’ve been to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, where the scientists who run NASA’s InSight mission are based. That’s big-time science.

We risk being inured to the startling reality: live photos from another planet. I refuse to let myself get jaded.

The Hubble Space Telescope has been sending us staggeringly high resolution images from the farthest reaches of the observable universe representing events that happened a billion years ago. I’ve interviewed people who spent their careers working on Hubble — more big-time science.

Other NASA space probes have sent pictures of methane volcanoes on a moon of Saturn, frozen seas of chemical ice on other worlds, immense, swirling storms of chemical weather larger than Earth itself in the atmosphere of Jupiter, and recently, pictures of the dark, pitted surface of poor Pluto, once a planet, now merely a lonely, disenfranchised husk orbiting the sun, probably beyond our ability to visit in person in any number of human lifetimes to come.

We might get to Mars, though. And — cool! — that’s what it’ll look like! Sooner or later, someone will get out of a lander, look around, and walk across a landscape like that!

Just look at that photo: That’s a landscape you could walk across. What would that be like? We could go there.

InSight won’t cure cancer or stop war or end hatred or death. It won’t prevent us from wrecking our own planet or treating our fellow humans as if they were furniture or woodwork. We’ll still have poverty and disease and uncertainty. Those things are inherent parts of being human.

Dreaming is part of being human, too. So is marveling at having lived to see pictures from Mars simply SHOW UP! If you can get me to Mars in the next 25 years, sign me up. I’ve seen the pictures. What would it be like to walk out across that red, sandy plain toward the horizon? Let’s go! If you get there before me, please, please leave a comment. Or call me. I’ll take any call originating from Mars, regardless of the charge.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Photograph by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 26, 2018

San Pedro Kress Building; No Nickel-and-Dime Five and Ten

What do I hope for when I walk out the door? Find a winning Mega Millions lottery ticket lying on the sidewalk? Bump into Penelope Cruz in the grocery? Nah. To quote Clint: A man’s got to know his limitations.

I do keep my eyes open, but I’m not picking up cast-off lottery tickets. I might be headed for the grocery, but I assume Ms. Cruz shops in another part of town when she’s in L.A. I never see her. I might have my camera along, but pictures aren’t all I’m after.

I hope for a story.

I don’t expect a story to walk up and introduce itself, although that happens occasionally. I have to look for one. Sometimes, though, the signs are all there, and one simply has to pay some gosh-darned attention. Here’s an example.

Kress San Pedro Brad Nixon 2914 680

I’ve driven by that building on the corner of 7th and Pacific in San Pedro, California dozens of times. I’ve wondered about it, but never investigated. Some things about it are immediately apparent: cast concrete, curvilinear Art Deco trending toward Streamline Moderne, abstract-geometric details molded into the facade, probably from the 1930s.

Kress San Pedro Brad Nixon 2913 680

In that era, Pacific Avenue was a thriving downtown district, as were downtowns across America in a day before shopping malls and big box retailers. It’s a storage facility now, but no one would’ve built a warehouse along a shopping street, even with the Port of Los Angeles a few blocks away. There were then — as now — vast acres of warehouses along the waterfront, any one of which could hold entire ships’ cargos. “Self storage” facilities didn’t exist in the ’30s; people stored their own stuff at home, because they didn’t have so much stuff.

What was it? Who built it?

Story Time

In 1887, 24 year-old Samuel H. Kress started a stationery and notions store in Nanticoke, Pennsylvania. He opened several other stores, and in 1896 established the S. H. Kress & Co. chain of five-and-ten-cent stores — also known as “five-and-dimes” or, as we called the one in my childhood hometown, “dime stores” — competing with Woolworth’s, W. T. Grant, S. S. Kresge, J. J. Newberry and numerous others.

The Five-and-Ten

The Woolworth Brothers pioneered the five-cent-and-ten-cent store in about 1879. They stocked inexpensive household goods, personal care items, basic clothing like socks and underwear. By the 1930s, inflation required prices above ten cents per item, but five-and-dimes persist, often called variety store, pound shop, dollar store, etc.

The Competitor

Kress differentiated his enterprise by opening stores in small- or medium-sized cities, not just major urban areas. He sought out downtown locations in areas poised for growth. At its peak, the Kress chain had more than 250 stores operating in 29 U.S. states.

Another distinguishing aspect of the Kress chain were the store buildings. They were often the most impressive structures in their retail districts — stylish, refined — retail palaces with goods for the ordinary shopper. Enter Edward F. Sibbert.

Kress hired the 40 year-old architect in 1929, and Sibbert spent the next 25 years as Kress’ chief architect, designing more than 50 store buildings, often in distinctive Art Deco styling. Many still stand, quite a few listed as historically significant structures.

Sibbert designed the building at the corner of Pacific and 7th in 1938. It remained a Kress store until it closed in 1980 as the chain was being acquired and mostly liquidated.

Kress San Pedro Brad Nixon 2912 680

The interiors of Kress stores were noted for their appealing style, and in the mid-thirties stocked more than 4,000 items.

I spoke to a member of the staff at the storage company who recalled being in the Kress store when she was a young girl. She described it as a lively, pleasant place, and especially remembered the soda fountain and lunch counter in the basement. Today, all the furnishings have been removed, and only details molded into the concrete, along with the original wooden floor remain. It’s a large, concrete box.

Kress San Pedro Brad Nixon 2729 680

Most of the Kress buildings’ exteriors were clearly identified with the Kress name. In the case of San Pedro’s, gold letters at the tops of those pylons spelled out K-R-E-S-S, now replaced with the name of the storage facility.

Kress San Pedro Brad Nixon 2908 680


Samuel Kress became a wealthy man. He devoted much of his personal fortune to acquiring one of the 20th century’s most significant collections of Italian Renaissance art. Many of his acquisitions are, today, considered priceless treasures. He established the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars’ worth of artworks to 18 U.S. museums, including — to the National Gallery of Art alone — 376 paintings; 94 sculptures; 1,307 bronzes and 38 drawings. Kress died in 1955.

Edward Sibbert had an interesting career prior to his years with Kress. A native New Yorker, he worked in Florida during the boom years of land development early in the century. He died in 1982, age 92. Ironically, Sibbert’s life — 1889 – 1982 — coincided almost exactly with the duration of the Kress store name, 1887-1981.

That Sibbert-designed Kress building at 644 S. Pacific Avenue is now 80 years old. It’s only one of many historically significant or notable structures in the old port town. It may be suitable for redevelopment as apartments, lofts, retail space, but the fortunes of the town may not warrant it. There are efforts to revitalize the historic core as an arts center, and the Kress building is well located should that endeavor prosper. Significant redevelopment investments are being made along the Port of L.A. waterfront, four blocks to the east. It’s extraordinarily difficult to bring faded American downtowns back to life. The structures were built for another era, a different pattern of life. Only time will tell, and time destroys as well as renews.

How’s that for a story? More await. There’s a surviving Kress building over in Long Beach and several others in the L.A. area. A 1930 Montgomery Ward store is a block away from the subject of today’s post, and a few steps beyond that, what was once a Newberry’s five-and-dime. It was a happening scene on Pacific Avenue in the 1930s.

© Brad Nixon 2018. I found helpful references at Roadside and entries for the company, Mr. Kress and Mr. Sibbert, including a partial list of other Kress buildings at this link. Special thanks for the friendly welcome I received at Plaza Storage. Always ask a local.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 23, 2018

Rummager Rummages Through Rummage Sale

I have the impression the phrase is less commonly used now than when I was a kid: “Rummage Sale.” I associate it with church basements and the Grange Hall in the town where I grew up. Far more common are signs on utility poles or stuck on street corners: yard sale, garage sale, estate sale and the like.

What say you? Is that merely an anecdotal perception resulting from the fact that I’ve left the small town environment? Is the term still prevalent where you are?

We encountered it just yesterday, along busy Pacific Coast Highway in suburban Los Angeles: a handmade sign on a utility pole, “Rummage Sale.”

Rummage Sale Brad Nixon 2835-2 680

Inevitably, I had to ask: What sort of word is rummage? Where did we get it? It sounds so archetypically English, doesn’t it? Like baggage, cabbage, carriage, cribbage, drayage, stoppage. One could think of several dozen other –age words with little effort.

Off to the dictionaries!

Rummage is one of those words that bedevil non-native speakers. Both substantive and predicate forms are spelled the same. Rummage can be an assortment of things, a substantive meaning “a search” or a predicate for “to search.” It’s an entirely valid English sentence to describe a search as a rummage to rummage through rummage. Anthony Burgess would’ve liked that one.

Like thousands of other words, we acquired it (perhaps after some rummaging) from French. By the time little Will Shakespeare was toddling around Stratford, the French word, arrumage, was in wide use to describe cargo stowed on ships (stowage!). There were substantive and predicate forms of French indicating both the goods themselves and the act of stowing them.

English speakers, those inveterate borrowers (despite Polonius’ admonition) and revisers of words, adopted it in the nautical trade, shortening it to “roomage,” which became our “rummage.” It’s likely there are speakers of the language who still pronounce it “roomage.” The technical term for such shortening is aphesis — usually involving the dropping of an unaccented initial vowel (droppage!).

Along the way — because the beauty of English is that there really is no single correct way to spell anything, when you get right down to it — we’ve been through romage, rommage, rumidg, rummidge, and other obtuse orthographies. What a great language.

Citations in the Oxford English Dictionary spanning the last 80 years of the 16th century  primarily concern nautical descriptions of cargo itself, assortments of cargo, loading and packing cargo, searching a ship’s contents (rummaging) and so forth. By now, of course, one can rummage through almost anywhere for anything, especially at rummage sales.

Normally, we English speakers do the heavy lifting, adopting and then adapting a word to work as noun, verb, adjective, adverb and so forth, but in this case, both the noun, arrumage and verb, arrumager already existed in French, as well as similar words in Spanish and Portuguese. They’re still so common in those languages that you won’t need unabridged dictionaries to find their modern forms: French arrimage, arrimer and Spanish arrumajer, arrumar. Portuguese is identical or similar to Spanish, but I lack a dictionary to make certain.

In that mystifying sort of serendipity that comes without warning, an hour after spotting the rummage sale sign and starting to think about the word, I encountered it in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, used as a substantive, when his narrator describes the odds and ends of possessions in his house: “… the gifts of lost in-laws, the hand-me-downs and rummages.”

So infuriatingly vague is English that it’s impossible to say whether Mr. DeLillo intended the word in its sense as a collective term for an assortment of things, or things once searched-out and collected — rummaged — from somewhere else. My heart goes out to those who have to learn this language later in life, and keep expecting it to make sense, the way their native ones do.

That other writer I mentioned, the kid from Stratford? He ended up being moderately successful. He did find occasion to use “romage” — exactly once: Hamlet, Act I, sc. i. Horatio is delivering background explication of the conflict between Hamlet’s father and Fortinbras of Norway, in which Fortinbras was killed. Now his son, young Fortinbras, is collecting an army threatening Denmark’s border. Typical of Shakespeare, he uses rummage in an extremely unusual sense of the word:

… and this, I take it, 
Is the main motive of our preparations, 
The source of this our watch, and the chief head 
Of this post-haste and romage in the land.

In other words, there’s a lot of commotion and bustle out there, one additional substantive meaning for rummage. That guy.

So much for rummaging through the dictionary. Never know what rummage you’ll turn up.

Note: Little Miss Traveller, host of the far-ranging, always-interesting and -informative blog, “Love Travelling,” writes from England to observe that the typical descriptor of similar sales there is “jumble sale.” I’ve heard the term, but never encountered it in the U.S. “Jumble” appears in English some time in the 1600s, with no apparent etymological roots. OED suggests it’s an onomatopoetic word similar to bumble, rumble, grumble, et al. “Jumble sale” seems immediately and perfectly descriptive of the event, every bit as colorful as “rummage sale.” Thank you.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Quotation from White Noise © Don DeLillo, Penguin Books, Viking Critical Library edition, New York, 1998; The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, New York, 1973; The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 2000; Cassell’s French Dictionary, MacMillan Publishing, New York, 1982; Bantam Diccionario Inglés-Español/Español-Inglés, Bantam Books, New York, 1989. A handy online Shakespeare concordance, where I found the citation from OED is

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 20, 2018

Twenty-Five Years in California

It’s an anniversary. As I write, it’s been 25 years since I arrived in southern California after driving west for three days, covering about 2,200 miles.

I had a specific reason to come here, and that motivation has been justified as reason enough — and more — for all time.

On each year’s anniversary, I ask myself some version of the question, “What have I learned?” If I haven’t learned anything in a quarter of a century, I’m not paying attention.

I’ve lived in portions of Los Angeles for the entire time, and some uncountable number of things I’ve learned are related to what it’s like to live in a metropolis of ten million people, after spending several decades in a small, Midwestern city.

IMG_3411 110 traffic (640x480)

I’ve covered a reasonable swath of the town, but if it were my life’s mission to exhaust what there is to see in L.A., I’d fail. Too large, too diverse, too widespread.

That — in essence — is the challenge that faces lifelong residents and newcomers alike who hope to understand what “California” is. And that’s what’s made these 25 years so stimulating and endlessly challenging: There’s always more to see, more to learn.

A well-known simile compares the difficulty of summarizing large, complex matters to a committee of blindfolded people trying to describe an elephant by touch: One person finds the trunk, four people find legs, another the tail, and so on.

One can never hope to find THE California: there isn’t just one. What do you think of when you envision California? A Pacific Ocean beach?

Redondo Beach Brad Nixon (640x478)


Disney Paradise Pier Brad Nixon 8332 (640x473)

Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevada?


Giant Redwood forests?

Redwood NP Marcy Vincent 8306 (480x640)

Or, some part of the vast tracts of the Mojave Desert, only a portion of which is encompassed by Joshua Tree National Park?

Joshua Tree Brad Nixon 6226 (640x471)

That list ignores a thousand miles of coastline, volcanoes, more deserts, theme parks, movie studios, forests, grasslands … cities. We even have cities other than Los Angeles, and the first thing you think of when you hear “California” might be in one of them.

Golden Gate Brad Nixon 4349 (640x484)


I’ve also left out wildlife, and architecture — all the libraries …

Lincoln Heights Library Brad Nixon P (640x317)

… an enormous number of not-to-be-missed things. Not to mention the people I’ve met, whose diversity, energy, intelligence and creativity make them like people you meet everywhere: endlessly, fascinatingly unique — each one of them.

If this subject comes up at dinner time, each person around the table might name one of those iconic places, or any number of other vastly different California environments. Yet, an enormous portion of California gets overlooked by almost everyone, because it doesn’t have enormous cities, ocean beaches or even many palm trees. Nevertheless, some significant portion of the food you’re eating at that dinner may have been grown in California’s immense Central Valley, which produces about 60 per cent of the produce grown in the U.S.

Central Valley Marcy Vincent 8764 (640x405)

That’s what I celebrate on this anniversary, and what it is I hope I’ve learned: the fact that I’ve had the opportunity to see so much of California. I’ve been blessed by good fortune. The brief list and few photos above are a small portion of what I’ve seen.

And I celebrate a hope my blessings continue, and I’ll keep going. I’ll never see it all, but there’s more out there. In fact, let’s climb up here and take a look around ….

BN on Obsidian M Vincent 3902 680

Oobop shebam

Links in this post connect to some of the hundreds of articles I’ve written about California.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Redwood National Park, Central Valley and BN on Obsidian Dome photos © M. Vincent 2018. Used by kind permission. Thank you, Counselor, for 25 years of discoveries.


Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 14, 2018

Call Me Isthmus

I photographed the isthmus from the promontory today.

Catalina Isthmus Brad Nixon 2786 680

Granted, it’s not a particularly great photo — looking into the afternoon sun on a hazy day.

Can you blame me for shooting that picture just so I could write today’s lead-in? How often do you get to use “isthmus” and “promontory” in one sentence?

Here’s how the promontory looked today.

Point Fermin Brad Nixon 2785 680

Those views are along a route we walk at least once or twice a week. It takes us to Point Fermin Park, which projects into the Pacific Ocean a few miles from home. The isthmus is a low, narrow bit of of land on Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles to the southwest. Here’s a view of Catalina from a higher elevation on a clearer day.

IMG_0188 Santa Catalina Brad Nixon (640x473)

You can see the isthmus just to the right of the container ship out in the Santa Catalina Channel. It’s about 800 yards wide.

Catalina Island Map

Catalina Island Google

The isthmus connects the large northern (photo, right) and southern masses of Santa Catalina. There’s a small town there, named Two Harbors because there are harbors on either side of the isthmus, west and east windward and leeward, if you’re a sailor. Two Harbors is on the near, leeward side. On clear nights, you can see lights there from the mainland, although some of the town lies below the curve of the ocean’s surface at that distance.


Regular readers can already guess: etymology ahead.

After living in close proximity to one for 25 years, I finally looked into the origin of that unusual word, so difficult to pronounce, “isthmus.”

The derivation is almost disappointingly straightforward. Ancient Greek ἰσθμός — isthmós  meant “neck.” It’s a neck of land, a phrase familiar in English.

As for “promontory,” what seems rather self-evident is a bit deceptive. You’ll probably recognize it as stemming from a Latin word, thanks to the familiar Latin prefix, pro-: “forward” or “toward.”

But the other seemingly obvious component, “mont-,” which appears to be structurally related to Latin mons or mont “mount,” fooled me. Promontory originated from a verb, prominere, “to jut out.” The original Latin noun was promuntorium. Since promontories are elevated to some degree, it’s likely at some point the identification of mont with height altered the original spelling to substitute “o” for “u.”

Notable Examples

The only isthmus I learned about in school was the Isthmus of Panama, but there are many others. Aukland, New Zealand is on an isthmus. Others include the Isthmus of Kra in southern Thailand, the Isthmus of Suez (and the canal), the Karelian Isthmus in northwest Russia and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, always a favorite here because of the Wallace Stevens poem, “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.”

In that November off Tehuantepec
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And in the morning summer hued the deck

I wrote a blog post with that title, and  unaware of the correspondence  illustrated it with a photo that included the Isthmus of Santa Catalina and duh, a sea surface full of clouds.

Santa Catalina Brad Nixon 1 (640x478)

How perfect is that?

Is there an isthmus near you? Please leave a comment. We’ll compile an authoritative Guide to Isthmuses! Merry isthmus, one and all.

P.S. Friend and former colleague Bill in Australia writes that Sydney’s famous Manly Beach lies along an isthmus north of the city. Another friend and former colleague, Niels, points out that the Netherlands — as one might expect — has many deltas and coastal lands that include isthmuses, the name for which in Dutch is landengte.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Maps © Google with my emendations. Isthmuses around the world information courtesy Wikipedia. Etymology from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, 2000, Houghton Mifflin Co., New York.

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 10, 2018

L.A. Survivor: West Adams Bungalow Courts

I like to tell myself I’ve done a good job of rambling over the greater Los Angeles metropolis in my 25 years here. That’s true to some degree. Although I think of myself as an Angeleno now, I was well into adulthood before I arrived. I’m always cognizant that I’ve had fewer years to get to know the place than longtime residents the same age as I am. The place is vast, seen in this view from a vantage point near my house, looking north across 30 miles of city. The skyscrapers of downtown are a speck against the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance.

roof view northward to Los Angeles

That’s a lot of territory to cover, and it’s just one slice of the city.

All I have to do to be reminded that I haven’t even made a dent in the task of knowing L.A. is to take a freeway exit I’ve never used, or go to an appointment in a new part of town.

It happened recently when I drove into downtown on a Sunday morning to visit a relative who was here for the recent World Series. I knew where his motel was, but my freeway exit and all the streets I’d planned to take were closed to traffic for a street race. It took me twenty minutes — including driving east on a freeway in order to turn around to go west — before I cleared the obstacles and exited the freeway a few blocks from his motel. I was in a part of town I’d never visited, called the West Adams District.

The moment I reached the end of the unfamiliar exit ramp, there it was— an unexpected discovery.

Bungalow Court Brad Nixon 2664 680

It was a happy coincidence for me. That old apartment complex is a version of the “bungalow court,” a form of architecture I wrote about recently in the post at this link. There are several hundred bungalow courts still in existence, scattered across L.A. West Adams has a few of them.

The Old City

West Adams is one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, dating from the 1880s — once one of the most desirable parts of town. It’s full of Victorian, Craftsman and Spanish Revival houses, as well as some genuine mansions that show what a grand place it once was — home for the city’s bankers, merchants and businesspeople. No longer a prosperous neighborhood, today it might be called “working class,” as inadequate and vague as that term is.

Less than a quarter mile to the east of the structure I photographed is an area of West Adams called the 20th Street Historic District. The houses in that district were all designed “early in the 20th century,” according to Wikipedia, by an architect named W. Wayman Watts. There’s a bungalow court similar to this one in that area. I haven’t done enough research to know if Mr. Watts had a hand in either of the buildings.

Bungalow Court Brad Nixon 2663 680

Much of West Adams is better-kept than the impression you get from this building, and there are some impressive old estates. This court’s on a busy cross street next to a freeway exit, and is obviously down-at-heels.

Bungalow Court Brad Nixon 2662 680

This is a large example of a bungalow court. I guess it’s from the 1920s or early 1930s, in a variety of Mission Revival style architecture, common in L.A. then.

Bungalow Court Brad Nixon 2661 680

I’ll do some digging. If I find information that might be interesting, I’ll write more about this place.

Today’s Lesson

Although I know it’s there — immediately north of the University of Southern California campus —  I’ve never explored West Adams at all. Happenstance sent me there after I’d driven past it on the freeway for 25 years. One more reminder you can never know a place inside-out; you can only keep looking. And have your camera with you, ready to pull over and shoot the gosh-darned picture, even if you’re running late for an appointment.

Do you know a town like the back of your hand and still have it surprise you? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2018

Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 8, 2018

They’re Piping Hot! But How Hot is “Piping?”

There you are, sitting down to breakfast. Your private chef enters the breakfast room (which you, of course, have) bearing a basket holding something that smells wonderful wrapped in the sort of colorful cloth personal chefs wrap baked goods in. At my place it’s a clean dish towel, but your chef will have whatever’s the linen item de rigeur.

With a flourish she sets the basket on the table, unfolds the cloth and carefully lifts a perfectly-crafted fresh muffin with her serving tongs and sets it on your plate.

MV_1045_PumkMuffins (640x480)

“Piping hot chocolate chip pumpkin muffins. Buon appetito!” she says, and withdraws to begin drawing up the day’s luncheon menu.

You eye the muffin, sniff the aroma wafting off it, and lift it toward you, anticipating a tasty breakfast treat. Halfway to your mouth, your hand stops. You give that bit of bakery goods another look and ponder.

Why yes, this muffin is hot. But why is it “piping hot?”

The very same thing happened at breakfast at Rancho Retro recently — except for the breakfast room, private chef, wicker basket and tongs portions.

Rather than leave you pondering there with your hot muffin cooling quickly, I’ll explain as briefly as possible, and then let you eat while I elaborate.

“Piping hot” has some years on it. It’s not advertising hype invented for a marketing campaign in recent times. It’s been around since English was Middle English, late in the 14th century.

You’ve probably figured it out. Extremely hot food is as hot as something sizzling in a pan over high heat, making a sound that might — to the imaginative — resemble the tootling of pipes. It’s an odd example of metonymy in which the sound of something hot is used to describe a hot object. Unusual, but memorably graphic. So memorable, in fact, that we’ve kept using the phrase for so many hundreds of years that we’ve lost sight of the original association. “Piping hot” now simply means really hot.

Go ahead and start eating your muffin if you wish. A brief observation.

When I went to find out how the phrase one of us used that morning came about, it was easy to find both the meaning as well as its first recorded use in English. As with many other Middle English words, the first recorded instance was in a collection of stories titled, The Canterbury Tales.

The Tales runs about 12,000 lines, a work of considerable size. Chaucer was highly literate and well educated. He was also working in a time from which our records of the language are limited. His work was enormously popular, and survived in multiple copies and editions. We’re fortunate to have it, because he was writing English during a time of radical change in the language. He, himself, was an innovator, and almost certainly coined some of the words and phrases. More important is the fact that he recorded the language being spoken at the time, capturing innumerable words for the first time.

Chaucer wrote a large number of works in addition to the Tales. All told, his manuscripts record approximately 2,000 English words for the first time. “Piping” and “piping hot” are among them.

Here’s Chaucer’s use of “piping hot” in line 193 of “The Miller’s Tale,” rendered in modern English:

“Wafers piping hot out of the glede (coals).”

If one’s in the habit of looking up word derivations in the Oxford English Dictionary, Chaucer pops up repeatedly. It was no surprise to encounter him again, but always a pleasure.

Buon appetito!

© Brad Nixon 2018. Piping hot muffin and coffee photo © M. Vincent 2018, used by kind permission. The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, 1971.

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