Friday, July 21, 2017

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Aerosmith had a heck of a run from the late 80s through the 90s, with an outrageous number of hits and excellent albums for a band that initially rose and fell in the 1970s. The last song of theirs that I consider really good is also one of their "social consciousness" songs, where Steven Tyler waxes philosophical about society in "Livin' On the Edge." The band had some hits after this, and a handful of decent albums, but the creative magic that seemed to flow so effortlessly before slowed to a trickle. Music From Another Dimension was a superficial piece of fluff, for example, with a number of tracks that'd make a decent B side on a single, but nothing that made listeners sit up and take notice. That's fine, I suppose, because there are countless bands out there that will never achieve something as good as "Livin' On the Edge."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The GoGos.

Now Playing: Jimmy Buffett Boats, beaches, Bars & Ballads
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Thursday, July 20, 2017

How to get caught in a flash flood without really trying

I spent last week in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, camping with my son's Boy Scout troop. While I enjoy camping on occasion, and West Texas in general, this was not my first choice on how to spend the week. But, as things are wont to do, I ended up driving a van packed with 11-14-year-old boys whose idea of high humor culminate in which one can squeeze out the most toxic fart.

The first few days were brutal hot, as one would expect. The nights didn't cool off as much as one would expect in the desert, but the night skies were spectacular, the Milky Way a bright blaze with dust lanes fully visible. I was also amazed to discover West Texas lightning bugs are quite different from the local variety, in that they are aggressive fliers that blaze electric green for up to 6 seconds at a time. Wow. By day 4, however, the weather changed, and began raining intermittently. Until Thursday, that is, when it dropped the intermittent part and rained all evening, all night and into Friday morning.

This was a bit troubling, because we're in a mountainous area with many dry washes and had gotten plenty of warnings about being wary of flash floods. Our assistant Scoutmaster specifically sought out the camp head to ask about the dangers of flooding. "Nothing to worry about," the guy answered. "We have people way up the mountains who will notify us if anything happens. All's clear." So, with the rain easing up, we went on our hike.

The hike took us through Little Aguja Canyon along the mostly dry stream bed. We had about 14 boys in our troop. Several other troops joined us, and once you count all the adults and camp staff, we had a party pushing 60 people. That's a pretty big number, so the hike, which was a short one of 5 miles round-trip taking just about two hours, moved pretty slowly. The line got strung out on the trail so that they had to stop regularly to let everyone catch back up. We reached the Needle--the outcropping of rock pictured above (photo by David O'Neill) about an hour in. I'd thought about bringing my camera, but I didn't have any rain gear and rain continued off and on. So I left it. After a 15 minute break at the Needle, we pressed on toward the Notch, a spring-fed pool that boasted a small waterfall that was reputed to be a gorgeous spot to swim. This deep into the canyon, the air was pretty still and humid, so a swim was looking pretty good.

We met another group of scouts coming back from the Notch at the second-to-last stream crossing. This crossing was actually pretty wet, and tiny tadpoles and baby frogs abounded. They'd started out an hour before us and had enjoyed a good swim. They assured us the Notch was gorgeous and that we were a mere five minutes away. Slowly, our group crossed the stream bed onto a high, grassy meadow strewn with boulders and bordered on one side by the vertical face of the mountain. In the distance, we heard a distant roar. "The waterfall!" folks exclaimed. "That's the waterfall!"

But the roar kept getting louder. Looking through the trees that followed the dry wash along the edge of the meadow, I saw water flowing. Water shouldn't be visible, much less flowing. Our hike leader ran back to the crossing--which the last members of our party had passed--to find it under three feet of muddy, rushing water. She then ran ahead to the last crossing under the Notch and found it in a similar condition. What's more, she discovered a troop of a dozen older scouts caught on the opposite side. She radioed base camp, telling them of the flood and saying "The water's moving really fast." Basecamp answered, "Don't worry, it'll go down in a few minutes. Just wait it out." Two hours later, the water hadn't gone down an inch, and the camp reluctantly dispatched several riders on horseback to help up back.

This is where the fun began. With horsemen on either side of the flooded stream, the men on the hike (numbering about 15) linked arms, elbow-to-elbow, and formed a human chain from one bank to the other. The water was cold, thigh-high, and filled with branches and leaves. And moving very swiftly. The women on the hike (maybe 10) and scouts--some of them under-sized even for 11-year-olds--held on to us as they crossed nervously. A few had their feet swept out from under them, but we were able to grab them and help them get upright again before they went under. More than a chain, I guess you could say we were a human wall. It took maybe 20 minutes for everyone to cross safely. On the other side, we joined up with the group of scouts we'd met just before the flash flood hit, and also the ones who'd been trapped on the other side of the final crossing before reaching the Notch (they'd followed the stream along the opposite bank to meet us, climbing over some difficult rock formations and thick brush to do so). Our group, including horsemen and camp staff, now numbered 93. That's a lot of people. And the flood had not subsided at all. We crossed the stream a couple more times, and skirted up the steep side of the canyon once when the entire trail disappeared under water for a 50 yard stretch. Then we reached the Needle. The scene was... intimidating. Two other washes met here, and although they weren't nearly as flooded as the one we were in, there were rapids galore. The ground changed level several times here, and a sort of raging moat had formed around the Needle rock formation. It was waist deep here, and swift. A simple human chain wasn't sufficient for this water. The horses were none too happy about it, but they carried a thick rope across, which was fastened to boulders on either end. Then we all went across, hand over fist, through waist-deep water, adults interspersed with kids, horses 5-10 yards downstream to catch anyone who slipped into the water. Nobody did. Another crossing demanded the rope, but this time we linked arms over the rope. In all, we crossed that flood 13 times, getting back to camp just before 5 p.m. A 5-ton military truck shuttled us over the final water crossing before camp, and then from the camp sites to the side with the mess hall, etc. The next day, when we packed up to leave, the water had only subsided a few inches.

The thing I remember most is how much gravel ended up in my hiking boots every time we crossed. My hiking boots themselves, several years old, didn't survive the ordeal. Between the gravel and the rocks we stumbled over in the water, the soles were pretty torn up. The insides were coming apart. The "waterproof" aspect of the boots had been pushed beyond all reasonable measure. They went in the trash, never to be seen again.

At no time after the initial crossing was I worried we couldn't handle the flood. It was dangerous, yes, but nothing we couldn't compensate for to get all the kids safely back. The biggest worry of myself, and others, was the constant threat of more, and heavier, rain. Ominous dark clouds gathered and broke up throughout the day, showering us and occasionally rumbling thunder. If a real flash flood, with a six-foot wall of water, came roaring down on us, we'd be in real trouble. That never happened, though, and the kids now have dramatic stories to tell all their friends.

All things being equal, then next time we have a hike in the desert scheduled when it's been raining for an extended period, I believe I'll pass.

Now Playing: Aerosmith Unplugged
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, July 07, 2017

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

I've been on a Go-Go's kick lately, so it's Go-Go's time on Friday Night Videos! Unfortunately, most of their videos seem to be missing from YouTube, even on the band's official channel. The good news is that one of the videos available is "Head Over Heels," a masterfully-crafted pop earworm. I had the Talk Show album from which this single sprang forth, and it was pretty darn solid overall, showing their growth and maturity as both songwriters and musicians. Alas, which the album did okay on the charts and produced a couple of hits, it wasn't enough to keep internal tensions from breaking up the band for a couple of decades.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Jimmy Buffett

Now Playing: David Gilmour About Face
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Tiki build-along, pt. 8

It's July in Texas! And do you know what that means? It means 90 percent humidity and 100 degree temperatures! It also means my outdoor projects--including the tikification of the back patio--are on hold in favor of things that can be completed in the relative comfort of air conditioning. Fear not--the tiki bar and pool are getting quite a bit of use now as myself and The Wife retreat to our personal tropical paradise on a nightly basis.

The long and short of it is that I'm not likely to have much in the way of build-alongs for the remainder of the summer. Just so you know. But before I temporarily sign off on this particular series, I want to share my efforts on the ceiling. Most traditional tiki bars have interesting ceilings. Very often they're adorned with lauhala matting, fishing nets, bamboo, reed and other texture-rich materials. They look great. They're also almost always inside, in climate-controlled environs. That's not the case with me, and my primary concern was 1) that it not act as a haven for dirt, spiders, wasps, etc. and 2) be easy to clean. Obviously, that's something of a challenge, to hit those targets whilst still being suitably tiki. The existing white ceiling had to go, though, lest I get a scolding from the legendary Bamboo Ben about "No white ceilings!"

Fortunately, The Wife and I had a plan for the ceiling even before we were bitten by the tiki bug. There's a tradition in the Southern U.S. of painting porch ceilings blue. Supposedly this discourages insects (ie mud daubers, spiders, etc.) from nesting there. The blue confuses them, thinking it's the sky, supposedly. We tried this at the old house, painting the unfinished drywall a sky blue. And it seemed to work. A section of the garage we never got around to painting did have mud dauber nests, but the painted sections stayed clean. So for the tiki porch, we'd paint the ceiling blue to simulate a marine environment.

First up, I pressure washed the ceiling. It was amazing just how much dust and grime had accumulated over the years. What had been a dull, grayish-white became a much brighter dull white. Then I used an edger to paint all the corners where the ceiling met the walls. I laid plastic tarp on the ground and taped more plastic to the walls where I was painting, to catch any drips. Regardless of how careful you are, there will be drips. There are always drips. Also, regular broom handles aren't really designed to handle the stress of paint rollers. I snapped two of them and had the roller fall on top of me, making me look part Smurf, before I got smart and bought a metal handle with a reinforced screw thread. No more broken handles.

Note the ugly, UV-yellowed ceiling fans. Until we started painting the ceiling blue, we didn't give them much thought. They kind of blended in with the dull ceiling and went unnoticed. They were effective at moving air on the patio, though, and on hot days make it quite comfortable, so removing the fans entirely was never considered. But oh, how hideous these old fans now look!

Surprise! The Wife gifted me with two new, tiki-appropriate ceiling fans for our anniversary!

Naturally, the old ceiling fan mounts were incompatible with the new ones, so what should've been a 30 minute switch-out ended up taking most of the day. But eventually, I triumphed. And the new fans look fantastic. The lights aren't terribly tiki, though, so I'm reading threads on TikiCentral.com and taking cues from people like Tiki Skip on how to scratch-build tiki lights. Eventually, the existing lights will be replaced with tiki versions. Two fans down, three to go!

Now, let's discuss best laid plans. In going for an undersea, marine vibe, I took another cue from another home bar build on Tiki Central and tracked down some Valspar color crystals to add to my paint. This is essentially very fine silver glitter, and I added four packets per gallon of paint (It seems Valspar has recently discontinued this product, so finding it in stores became rather hit-or miss, and online options are in price gouging territory). The idea is to simulate a glittery, underwater look, and I have to say the effect is subtle but nice with angled light. The next step, however, didn't work out quite so well. We thought we'd paint caustic ripples--the refracted light pattern you see in swimming pools, etc.--on the ceiling. Simple enough, right? Wrong. I got an assortment of pattern photos and used a projector to throw them onto the ceiling. Looked great! Then I took a lighter blue paint--with the glitter added--and painted over the projected pattern. Looked great! The I turned the projector off. Looked terrible! The fake wood grain texture of the ceiling panels did me no favors, but even without that, it just looked a mess.

We discussed various options for trying to salvage the idea, but ultimately decided it would just be a case of throwing good money after bad. Sometimes you have to accept failure and move on. So move on I did. The caustic ripple patterns had only been step one. Step two is what I hoped would really sell the undersea concept--silhouettes! Again, I used the projector to throw the image where I wanted, and used a black Sharpie to quickly sketch the outline.

I did the projecting and sketching at night, for obvious reasons. Some of the images were too large to do all at once, so I had to break them up into sections, completing one outline then moving the projector and lining up the second section with what I'd already outlined. Tedious work. Also, sweaty work. Even with the sun down, the humidity was sweltering and I was soaked completely through by the time I finished.

In the daylight, I used a 3/4 inch flat brush to paint in the silhouettes. I thought this part would go quickly. I thought wrong. Two hours per silhouette, minimum. Aching neck, aching shoulders, cramping hands were bonus prizes. And, much to my chagrin, a single coat of paint wasn't enough. Single coats looked splotchy and uneven, requiring a second coat to even things out. But the sea turtle--the only one that's received both coats--looks pretty darn good. This one greets visitors when they arrive. Eventually, I'll paint over the ill-fated ripple patterns. That'll be tedious work, so I need to run out of excuses not to first.

Here's the hammerhead shark, the largest silhouette. He's somewhere along the lines of 6-7 feet long. I knew I wanted a big shark on the ceiling, but didn't think a tiger or Great White would present well in silhouette from underneath. A hammerhead was perfect. He still needs a second coat.

I pretty much had to do a manta ray as well. They're huge and instantly recognizable. He needs a second coat as well.

There is more paint work yet to do. Because the water ripple pattern didn't work out, there's a lot more blank blue ceiling that needs attention--there's 64 feet of it, after all. The farthest end will feature a mermaid in profile, but I'm holding off on that one because it will be the most detailed and I want it to be realistic, not cartoonish. That's not an easy target, and I'm still trying to come up with exactly the image I want. And I need more undersea silhouettes to fill in some of the other blank spaces I wasn't anticipating. An octopus seems all but certain at this point, and maybe a sawfish. Beyond that, I'm undecided. Regardless, I'm happy with what I've got at this point.

Now Playing: Talking Heads The Name of This Band is Talking Heads
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, June 30, 2017

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Folks, we're got a holiday weekend of sorts coming up. Yeah, the Fourth is on a Tuesday, which means a lot of us have to work Monday, but still, it's a short work week! Who better to get us in the proper frame of mind than Jimmy Buffett? I remember when "Who's the Blonde Stranger?" came out in 1984. It was during Jimmy's country phase, and it was a decent hit for him on the country charts at a time when chart success had started passing him by. I remember it was a heavy rotation favorite on KULM that summer, and I heard it so often I knew the lyrics by heart. He's always had a kind of special relationship with Texas, which is to be expected considering the fact he wrote "Margaritaville" in Austin. I like how he gets the distinction of different parts of Texas in the song, and really, in the 80s Galveston was kind of a hedonistic Gulf Riviera, still trying to find its identity in the aftermath of the casino closures two decades before. Jimmy looks like he's having a blast making the video, and you have to appreciate the fact that "Frank" is wearing an A&M jersey. It's a silly song, with an even sillier video, and never fails to make me smile.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... ELO.

Now Playing: Wynton Marsalis Quartet Live at Blues Alley
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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sailing Venus: Verdandi Outpost

I am remiss. It's been some months since I last posted an update on Sailing Venus, and there's really no excuse for that. I have not abandoned the project, although work progresses slowly as usual. My writer's group continues to meet, and provides valuable feedback every few weeks. More importantly, it provides a looming deadline that inspires frantic writing whenever time gets tight. That, possibly more than anything else, has kept me plugging away at this novel despite the myriad interruptions, distractions and setbacks that come my way.

Between you and me, chapters 6 and 7 were real bears to write. Originally envisioned as a single chapter, a good chunk into 6 I realized there was no way I could cram in everything that needed to happen without giving all the events and character moments short shrift. At that point I did what writers do and split the chapter in two. For some reason, twice as many words took me four times as long to write. With 7, in particular, I knew where things ended up, but little of what happened on the intervening pages. That proved to be quite the learning experience for me, and necessitated quite a bit of crash research into the Pyrenees Mountains (I was probably more surprised by that than you are).

With those trouble spots behind me, I'm happy to report that chapter 8 is also complete, with work on chapter 9 begun. I've topped 34,000 words--possibly, but not definitively--the most words I've committed to a single work of fiction since The Broken Balance, a terrible, derivative high fantasy mess that I completed when I was 17 years old. That word count places me beyond the 1/3 mark but not yet at the midpoint of the novel. I've hit two of the big milestones set up in my outline (which I'm already deviating from significantly, but it's still proving useful) with the first big action sequence on the horizon. The next two chapters are clearly defined in my head, and have been generally present as a concept from the earliest glimmerings of this story as a potential novel. It's always nice to make these long-gestating writerly ideas tangible on the page.

As I look at my calendar, I see I have 18 weeks to go before the World Fantasy Convention arrives in San Antonio. That gives me 16 weeks--I have two weeks coming up where I will be traveling and unable to do any meaningful writing--during which to complete roughly 12 chapters. At a glance, that should be do-able if I just hit a chapter a week. But I've been averaging maybe a chapter every two weeks, so that looming deadline is nervous-making. In my defense, I seem to be producing good words on the page. My writer's group members have varying degrees of experience, some being published a lot more than me, others a lot less, but they all have offered valuable insight at various times. The last two meetings, more than one has stated that they're reading my submissions less to offer critique and more to find out what happens next. I'll take that as a win.

Here's a sample from chapter 8. Erica's impulsive, leap-before-you-look nature has gotten her into progressively worsening trouble, but that's barely scratching the surface of what awaits the poor girl. Enjoy.

A confusion of voices assaulted her. Strong hands grabbed her and hauled her up from the floor. Ozone tinged the stale, steamy air. Erica blinked. Several ill-defined figures stood around her, all shouting at once. She blinked again, trying to focus. Wan yellow light streamed in through a row of small portholes. Bunks. The portholes were in open bunks, the privacy doors rolled up. Blankets and personal items lay strewn about.

"My dad," Erica managed at last. "I need to see my dad."

"Who are you?" The speaker stared at her intently, his sagging, sallow face crusted on one side with dried blood, his wiry hair glistening with sweat.

"My god, what's wrong with her skin?" a second voice asked.

Erica realized her tattoos had taken on a linear fractal pattern. In the poor light, it appeared as if maggots swarmed beneath her skin. Annoyed, she turned them off.

"I'm Erica Van Lhin. My father's Geraard Van Lhin, Risk Management Chief Inspector," she said. "He's here with his inspection team. I need to see him. Now!"

The cascade of voices fell silent. The Venusian winds howled mournfully outside.

"Child," said a bald woman gripping a bunk for support, one arm in a sling. "The three of us you see here, we're... we're the only survivors.

"Your father's dead."
Now Playing: Ixtahuele Pagan Rites
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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Dolph Briscoe dies

On this date in 2010, Dolph Briscoe, the 41st governor of Texas, dies. Briscoe, a long-time Uvalde rancher, is generally remembered fondly from his terms as governor for being a decent guy. But his administration did earn some dubious distinctions. Briscoe was the last Texas governor to serve a two-year term and the first to serve a four-year term. He undermined two efforts to rewrite Texas' abysmal constitution (which remains a trainwreck to this day). Briscoe once appointed a dead man to the State Health Advisory Commission, and if what I've heard is true, called a press conference in the aftermath to reassure the press and public that he hadn't lost his grip on sanity.

But what most people remember him for--and which doesn't appear in most official biographies--is that he is the governor who ordered the closure of the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange. Ironically, Briscoe had no actual legal authority to order the Chicken Ranch (or any other brothel, for that matter) closed. But he did, hoping nobody would call his bluff. Fayette County Jim Flournoy certainly knew the governor had no authority to do so, but acquiesced to Briscoe and effectively ended a surreal two-week media circus that captured the attention of Texas as well as the rest of the country.

Governor Briscoe died after ignoring my interview requests for the better part of a year. Way to sidestep that writer, Dolph!

Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse is available from Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com and anywhere books are sold.

Now Playing: Ixtahuele Call of the Islands
Chicken Ranch Central