Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Marvin Zindler (1921-2007)

On this date in 2007, KTRK consumer affairs reporter Marvin Zindler died of pancreatic cancer.

Zindler, of course, is forever linked with the Chicken Ranch, as his series of exposés on the brothel directly led to its closure. And for that reason, many people (mostly men) who are old enough to remember curse his name. Despite being a raging egomaniac, he was a powerful champion of the downtrodden in his lifetime, and did a tremendous amount of good. Where the Chicken Ranch was concerned, he let his lust for fame and the spotlight get the better of him, and this allowed people with a vendetta against the Chicken Ranch to manipulate him from a distance. Zindler was a person who firmly believed in his own righteous infallibility, and once it became clear the vast organized crime conspiracy behind the Chicken Ranch's operation did not exist, well, Zindler doubled down on the conspiracy angle rather than admitting he'd been duped. He went to his grave insisting on criminal conspiracy and corruption, although he was never able to prove any of his claims.

Despite this, nobody could argue Zindler wasn't committed to his job. Despite constant pain from the cancer destroying him, he insisted on delivering his restaurant report from his hospital bed on Aug. 20. It proved to be his final report. Just over a week later, he was dead.

Now Playing: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Grofe: Death Valley Suite
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, July 28, 2014

That was the Armadillocon that was

Ted Chiang, Bradley Denton, Mark Finn, Armadillocon 36
I cannot remember being so exhausted during and after a con as I have with Armadillocon 36 this past weekend. I don't know what was up with that, but despite turning in way early on Friday and Saturday, I operated in zombie mode most of the weekend. Hopefully I was able to cover it up and not infect too many folks I came into contact with. One might think that with such depressed energy levels, Armadillocon would've been a complete bust for me, but surprisingly the exact opposite is true. I had a blast. Despite an asinine, patronizing set of conduct rules distributed to all the programming participants that was relentlessly mocked throughout the duration of the convention (and rightfully so), most folks there seemed in great spirits.

The guests-of-honor list turned out to be a great lineup: GoH Ted Chiang, Special GoH Ian McDonald, Editor GoH Jacob Weisman, Artist GoH Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, Science GoH Sigrid Close, Fan GoH Michael Walsh and Toastmaster Mario Acevedo. Unlike most years, I managed to spend time with, or attend panels featuring every one of the major guests. They proved to be a witty, insightful bunch that brought their A game. Seriously, they all seemed to be running full steam ahead all weekend. I was fortunate enough to sit next to McDonald during the writers workshop panels on Friday, and learned he's that kid from high school who has a funny retort for practically anything anyone says, ever. It was a struggle to not double over laughing and have everyone in the room turn and stare at me. The workshop portion went well, and one participant, Shlomi Harif, brought a short story that I am utterly convinced can be expanded into a complex relationship novel steeped in strangeness. In a good way. That evening's Pirate Panel lurched along like a drunken schooner--mainly because I was moderator and hadn't prepared nearly enough--but my arch-enemy Stina Leicht, Cassandra Clarke, Dave Hardy and Rob Rogers gamely filled in the gaps. Hardy, in particular, proved to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every pirate who ever lived and could've run a two-hour discussion solo without breaking a sweat.

Jacob Weisman, Rick Klaw, Armadillocon 36

Scott Cupp, Jacob Weisman, Armadillocon 36

Saturday I brought Monkey Girl along to wreak her particular brand of havoc. After an unfortunate example of impulse control failure at Worldcon last year, the first thing I did was remove her bank card from her possession prior to her entering the dealers room or art show. To buy or bid on anything she had to come through me. She wasn't happy about it, and I know the vendors weren't happy, but we can't always have a geyser of money spraying out as her bank account is emptied in minutes. There were also discussions amongst myself and several other con-goers regarding her decision to stop participating in my Babylon 5 reviews on this blog, mainly because she complained writing her thoughts "was too much like homework." When Monkey Girl learned people were discussing her opinions shared on my blog, and expressing disappointment she was no longer participating, she expressed shock. "Why? I told you people were commenting on the posts. They liked reading what a fresh set of eyes thought of these episodes." To which she responded, "Yeah, but I didn't actually think you were telling the truth." So, she has expressed interests in rejoining the review thing. Heh.

The GoH interview with Weisman--conducted in tag-team fashion by Rick Klaw and Scott Cupp, with color commentary by Bill Crider--was an interesting capsule history of Tachyon Publications, enhanced by a liberal distribution of Crackerjacks. Afterward, I got to speak with Weisman--quite a thoughtful fellow, if a little more low-key than most of the other lunatics frequenting Armadillocon--and was able to discuss a side project I've taken on. He was intrigued, yet justifiably cautious. I'm to follow up with him this week on it, and he's promised to offer advice and direction if nothing else. Yes, I know that's maddeningly cryptic, but I'm superstitious about some things that way. As soon as I have something concrete to share, I promise I will. It will be a Good Thing if I can pull it off (and no, it's not an anthology pitch, so don't send me your stories).

Peggy Hailey, Scott Zrubek, Joe Lansdale, Armadillocon 36

Howard Waldrop, Lawrence Person, Armadillocon 36

Bradley Denton, Scott Cupp, Armadillocon 36

Scott Zrubek, Joe Lansdale, Bradley Denton, Armadillocon 36

The Neal Barrett, Jr., memorial panel (see the four images above) was a sad affair, but gut-bustingly funny. Howard Waldrop, Lawrence Person, Peggy Hailey, Brad Denton, Scott Cupp, Scott Zrubek and Joe Lansdale kept themselves as well as the audience in stitches with stories of Neal's eccentric brilliance. It turns out that Neal really was the Forrest Gump of science fiction authors, because he was directly connected with almost every significant event and celebrity of the 20th century. And then Lansdale demonstrated Neal's driving technique. It was simply amazing. I miss Neal. If you've never read his work, change that. You'll be hard-pressed to find anything as strange and wonderful as what Neal wrote.

My guest of honor interview with Ted Chiang seemed to go well. At least insofar as Chiang hasn't taken out a restraining order on me. In my devious ways, I put him on the spot by asking the title of his first story submitted for publication--at age 15. He declined to share the title (much to my disappointment) but then proceeded to give a synopsis of the tale, an action-packed space ship adventure of the type one would expect from an enthusiastic 15-year-old. And very much different from the type of fiction Chiang has become known for. That was one of the highlights of the convention for me.

What else? What else? The Fireside Chat could've been a complete crash and burn, but Brad Denton came prepared with a set of moderator questions tailored for the other panelists. He ended up getting me to talk about the Chicken Ranch for 20 minutes or so, which had most everyone there asking to buy the book on the spot. Alas, I'm still waiting for a publisher to show as much enthusiasm for the project. Sunday morning I stumbled into the "Best Cons" (as in confidence games, swindles) in SF, and exhausted my contributions early on by invoking Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series. Fortunately, Don Webb revealed a previously-unknown grifter streak, and pretty much held court. I learned a pretty nifty (if simple) mind trick from him that I'm going to pull on my kids. But yeah, there's no way I'd ever go against him in a game of chance. I caught most of the "Women in Science" panel, and have to say, it rocked. Mel White, Rachael Acks, Sigrid Close and Paige Roberts kept things moving at a brisk and funny pace, touching on an array of gender issues including (but not limited to) overt and institutionalized sexism. As the father of two daughters, some of the points they brought up were all too familiar. Much progress has been made, but there's still a long way to do. The con wrapped up (for me, any way) with the "Contagion" panel, which I moderated. I was prepared for this one, and Gabrielle Faust, Rhiannon Frater, Stina Leicht and Nancy Jane Moore dove right in when I prodded them for their favorite fictional diseases, after which we followed with a long discussion on actual nasty afflictions that exist today. We then segued into the evolution of diseases, both in the wild and laboratories, before concluding with diseases we'd created ourselves for fiction. Poor Faust admitted to being a hypochondriac, so the panel was probably torture for her, but she handled it well.

By then I was too drained to make any of the remaining panels, so I headed home (which took twice as long as it should have because of a wreck on I-35). I came away from Armadillocon with a renewed enthusiasm for my current Work-In-Progress, which isn't all that unusual. But I also came away with a whole lot of new writers to follow on Twitter and several other potential projects and deals. I saw so many people I didn't get to speak with nearly enough--Rhonda Eudaly, Lillian Stewart Carl, Katharine Kimbriel, Rie Sheridan, Sara Felix, Alexis Glynn Latner, Mark Finn, Claude Lalumière, Tim Miller, C.J. Mills, Jess Nevins, Jessica Reisman, Josh Rountree, Patrice Sarath, Patrick Sullivan, Martha Wells, Sanford Allen, Lou Antonelli, Aaron de Orive--the list just goes on and on. I also got much-needed encouragement from all quarters regarding the Chicken Ranch book, that despite publishers' continued reluctance to green light it, there is a substantial audience for this book just waiting for the chance to buy it. So yeah, good weekend all around. Here's hoping that next year they ditch the silly rules sheet and make the event even better.

Now Playing: Prince Around the World in a Day
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Armadillocon looms!

Tomorrow beings Armadillocon 36, and although I posted this earlier, it seems appropriate to offer a refresher.

Most of my Friday will be devoted to instructing at the Armadillcon Writers Workshop. The impressive lineup this year includes Mario Acevedo, Ted Chiang, Nicky Drayden, Mark Finn, Derek Johnson, Claude Lalumiere, Stina Leicht, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Ian McDonald, Joe McKinney, Alex C. Renwick, Kat Richardson, Dr. Anne-Marie Thomas, Martin Wagner, Jacob Weisman, Martha Wells and Skyler White.

Here is the rest of my official ArmadilloCon 36 schedule (* denotes panel moderator):

Friday
9-10 p.m. Beyond the Plunder: Which genre books, movies, shows correctly portray historical pirates?
Blaschke*, Clarke, Hardy, Leicht, Rogers

Saturday
1-2 p.m Autographing
Blaschke, Wells

8-9 p.m. Interview with Ted Chiang

9-10 p.m. Fireside Chat: The quartet talk about anything and much mirth will be expected.
Denton*, Blaschke, de Orive, Lansdale

Sunday
10-11 a.m. Best Cons from Genre Books: Not many people are good at writing capers. Which books do it right?
Webb*, Blaschke, Maresca

2-3 p.m. Contagion: What diseases/syndromes/parasites could kill the entire population of the world if we didn't have current restrictions set. (Not including malaria.)
Blaschke*, Faust, Frater, Leicht, Moore
Now Playing: Sheena Easton Fabulous
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Babylon 5: The Parliament of Dreams

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series. I had not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along and find out.

In Valen's Name: Earth Alliance has imposed a week-long religious festival on Babylon 5, so that all races might share the dominant belief of their civilization and learn something about each other. The human contribution to this festival has been dumped on Commander Sinclair with no guidance, and he's at a loss on how to present "Earth's dominant belief system" to the other races. To complicate matters, his on-again, off-again girl friend Catherine arrives, and tension between them mounts. Meanwhile, Ambassador G'Kar receives a courier from the Narn homeworld bearing a message about an impending assassination attempt on G'Kar's life. G'Kar, who has made many enemies, grows paranoid. He suspects his aid, Na'Toth of being part of the plot. An alien bodyguard he hires is promptly executed by the mysterious assassin. Finally, the Narn courier reveals himself, torturing G'Kar, but Na'Toth rescues G'Kar and they turn the tables on the hit man. The episode ends with Sinclair introducing the alien contingent to a host of humans representing the vast spectrum of Earthly theological belief, ranging from atheism to Catholicism to Buddhism and everything in between. The scene pans along the line of humans religious, and fades to black before the end is reached.

What Jayme Says: This marks the first of what I call the "Poetic titles" of the series. They're evocative and abstract, and generally can be counted on to be a keeper, if not pivotal. "Parliament of Dreams" isn't necessarily pivotal the the overarching narrative, but it is for the first season in general. This feels like the first episode of Babylon 5 where the confidence of the actors, writers and director really manifested itself in the final product. The main plot of G'Kar's assassination is the least important element in the entire episode. Yes, it's fun to see the bombastic G'Kar squirm and squeal, but when you get right down to it it's a very straightforward narrative with no real jeopardy. G'Kar is one of the main characters on the show, and series never kill off main characters. Right? Sinclair's relationship with Catherine doesn't have much substance, either, but it serves as a nice piece of character development for the commander--and works far better than the similar attempt from "The Gathering." No, the best part of the episode is what we only get to see the edges of, the belief sharing amongst the different species. Through deft use of symbolism, the rituals we see reflect the generalized traits of the various species on the show. The Centauri, generally viewed as a foppish empire in decline, has a raucous, drunken celebration of life that dates back to a time when their people were younger, stronger and fighting for their very survival. By contrast, the disciplined, aloof Minbari have a somber ceremony that quotes their great prophet Valen, and introduces the recurring phrase, "And so it begins." But it's the human presentation on religion that leaves the most striking impression. Having all those faiths lined up drives home the diversity of belief we humans engage in. It was deft, nuanced and respectful, all the more impressive since JMS is, of course, an outspoken atheist. Now, there's no reason why an atheist can't write about religion in a thoughtful way. None. But here my own biases and baggage come into play. I know any number of folks with diverse beliefs--Christian, pagan, Jewish, atheist--and by an large they're just swell. Wonderful people (because I try not to associate too closely with jerks). However, on occasion my path crosses that of an outspoken atheists, and more times than not I've encountered visceral contempt from them directed at anyone who might dare believe in anything beyond this mortal coil. Regardless of whether or not they know the particulars of my belief or non-. Add to this the fact that my biggest beef with Star Trek is its pervasive, paternalistic, condescending attitude toward religion and, well, all I can say is that I was primed for more of the same from Babylon 5. JMS turned that on its head. He may not believe in religion, but he understands that it is an integral component of the human condition, something we as a species are not likely to "outgrow" in a few hundred years. He gets that, and what's more, he uses it to create a richer, more powerful story while making meta-statements about our contemporary world. It is not coincidental that the Jew and Moslem are standing next to each other at the head of the line. Would that it only takes a few hundred years for us to reach that level of maturity.

Now Playing: Beethoven Piano Concerto #1 in C, Op. 15
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Night Videos

"Weird Al" Yankovic has a new album out, which is reason for celebration. Of all the tracks, "Word Crimes" has got to be my favorite, but while the animated video is clever, it's can't quite match the shameless lunacy of "Tacky."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Hall & Oates.

Now Playing: R.E.M. Dead Letter Office
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bettie Page Reveals All

Bettie Page Reveals All is a fascinating, if flawed, documentary feature about the world's most iconic pin-up and fetish queen. Page died in 2008 at the age of 85, a famous woman who disappeared at the height of her modelling career to become an enigma. Popularized in part by artist Dave Stevens including a Page-like character in his comic The Rocketeer, Bettie Page's pin-up work saw a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s that continued to grow as the years past. For much of this time, Page was unaware of her return to the spotlight, subsisting on Social Security as she lived a life of anonymity. Eventually, she was located and connected with an agent who ensured she received compensation for the rampant use of her likeness. Her later years were comfortable.

Page rarely appeared in public following her rediscovery, and avoided having her picture taken, as she preferred people remember her as she had looked in the 1950s. Fortunately, before she passed away, she gave extensive interviews about her life, which makes up the bulk of this film. Age had turned her voice gravelly, but hearing her southern accent matter-of-factly discuss this topic or that is fascinating, even if the clip art and stock footage used to illustrate her story in the early going is arbitrary at best.

The fact that Page essentially tells her own story is both the film's greatest strength as well as weakness. Many of the topics she touches on are jarring in their abruptness, one or two sentences at best before moving along. Frustratingly, over and over again she makes a comment that begs for a follow-up question that never comes (the interview was conducted in a Q&A format, but apart from a couple of brief interactions, the interviewer is edited out). Speaking as a professional interviewer (is that even a thing?) the myriad things left unsaid and unexplored are maddening. One example come early on, when discussing Page's education. In high school, she desperately worked to become valedictorian, because Vanderbilt guaranteed full ride scholarships to the top student in every Tennessee high school class. Despite her efforts, she ended up salutatorian, mere tenths of a point behind a male classmate. Instead of a full ride to Vandy, she got a $100 scholarship to Peabody College. The immediate thing that leapt to my mind--and The Wife's as well--was that in 1942, women didn't often pursue higher education. In many cases, they were active discouraged. It doesn't take much imagination to picture a school principal in Tennessee tweaking the grades so that the Vandy scholarship wouldn't be "wasted" on a woman. Page would face gender discrimination--if not outright misogyny--time and again throughout her life, and her valedictorian/salutatorian issue would've added an interesting bit of context. Alas, the question remains unasked, that bit of history unexplored.

Despite the wide swath of questions not asked, Page does cover a tremendous amount of territory with her good-humored voice over. Others who played a role in Page's life, from Paula Klaw to Bunny Yeager to Hugh Hefner provide extensive commentary in their own right, either via new or archival footage. Even if their thoughts are not deeply insightful, the anecdotes are certainly entertaining and amusing. A minor annoyance--Paula Klaw actually took the vast majority of the Page photos sold by her brother, Irving Klaw, but the film portrays her more as a business manager than a creative talent. A very interesting revelation involved the mediocre 2005 movie The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol (the film's worth watching for Mol's impressive turn as Page). At the time it came out, Page was very vocal in her displeasure with it, yet certain scenes that were dismissed as fabrication at the time are confirmed here by Page herself. There were several other points where Page seemed to be fudging the truth some, or simply mis-remembering events. It would've been nice to have some cross references, a corroborating witness or document to back Page up, but this is very much her show and what she says goes unquestioned. For the most part, she's bluntly honest, and it's a credit to her that her solo narrative can carry the film so long.

To be honest, as I watched this film, I was struck more and more by the similarities between Bettie Page and Edna Milton, who I interviewed extensively before she died for my book on the infamous Chicken Ranch (which is still sitting on publishers' desks, looking for a home). Both were born in the 1920s in poor, rural America--Milton in Oklahoma, Page in Tennessee--to dysfunctional families with the Great Depression and World War II disrupting their lives. Neither had children, yet both went through a string of tumultuous marriages while making a living as best they could before abruptly disappearing to anonymity at the height of their fame. There's a difference between pin-up modeling and prostitution, but in 1950s America the distinction was a very narrow one. They survived in an era of rampant discrimination and succeeded despite the deck being stacked against them because of their gender. It's a sobering thought to imaging how many times that same story played out across the country in that era, and how many women didn't have the happy ending Page did, or even Milton's relatively soft landing.

Anyone who is a fan of Bettie Page--devoted or casual--will enjoy this documentary. After a bit of a slow start, it builds momentum and simply dazzles with hundreds of still photographs of Page (many of which I'd never seen, and some never-before published). Her sad descent into schizophrenia is well-chronicled, as is her religious beliefs and efforts to become a missionary. It's all here. Check it out. You'll be glad you did.

Now Playing: Michael E. Johnson Love Songs for Amerika
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, July 11, 2014

What's Jayme drinking?

Tonight's beer is (take a deep breath) "Harpoon Black Forest Imperial Cherry Chocolate Porter." Whew! That's a mouthful! I'm drinking this beer because... well, upon seeing this in the store, how could I not pick it up? I like good porters. Chocolate and cherry can both be done well. Imperial is more iffy, because often it's just code for "high alcohol, hopped-up IPA." But with luck, those others would balance that element out. I'm not terribly familiar with imperial porters, but my expectation is that it should be pretty malty and roasty, which is right up my alley.

The beer poured a a clear, dark caramel with a thin, transient head. Despite this, it appears almost black in the glass. No lacing to speak of. Right away, this beer is defying my expectations--especially for one with an alcohol content of 9.8 percent! The nose is odd as well--some toasty malt, yes, but also alcohol and cola. First sip, the mouthfeel is thin. Not watery thin or Bud Light thin, but thinner than I'd think a beer with all this going on should be. There's a definite Coke-a-cola flavoring on the front end, that quickly segues into Cherry Coke. The comes malt, then deep, dark chocolate. Alcohol is well-hidden. This doesn't taste hot at all, which is a surprise given the prominent alcohol scent in the nose. Finally, there's a resurgent cola aftertaste. This is a sweet beer, with only a little bit of burnt bitterness. To be honest, it could stand a bit of sharpening more hops would give it (and given my dislike of over-hopped beers, that's saying something). Right now, hops are pretty much absent from the profile. It's not a terrible beer--they certainly managed to get the chocolate flavor right--but it is stratified, for lack of a better word. There are a number of different flavors at work here, but they're all separate, layered atop each other very distinctly rather than blended. There's no real interaction amongst them, no complexity to make this beer interesting. And an imperial cherry chocolate porter should be interesting, if nothing else. Subdued carbonation doesn't help much, either.

Harpoon Black Forest Imperial Cherry Chocolate Porter should've been a winner, in my estimation. It's got all the pieces in place, but ultimately the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Now Playing: Florence + the Machine Ceremonials
Chicken Ranch Central