Friday, December 30, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Well, here we are at the end of 2011. The year has been challenging and frustrating, but also rewarding. I turned 42 and dove into writing the Chicken Ranch book head first. So naturally, life made sure the water was shallow. Ah. well, I will get by. Seems to me like the Grateful Dead's only Top 42 hit, "Touch of Grey", effectively sums up these past 12 months.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Roy Orbison.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Even with his most "happy" songs, Roy Orbison has a powerful strain of melancholy running through his music. It is inherent in the man's soul, I believe. So when Orbison took a stab at his own original Christmas song, it's no surprise that he didn't take the standard "isn't the world pretty and wonderful" approach so many others have. Here is the man himself, singing a stripped-down version of "Pretty Paper" on the Johnny Cash Show.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Stan Freberg.

Now Playing: Earth, Wind & Fire The Eternal Dance
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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Chicken Ranch Report no. 14

Riddle me this: When is two weeks off not two weeks off? When I'm home with the family. Seriously, distractions and stresses abound--only a fraction of which are generated by the kiddos, mind you--but it's still enough to make productive writing a challenge. I knew this going in, and it will only get tougher as Christmas and New Years approach. Still, I am making steady progress and have reasonable hope that this current chapter will indeed be completed by the 31st, thus putting me back on schedule. Yay!

The current chapter, which I haven't spoken of much, is essentially a biography of Edna Milton, better known as Miss Edna. The last owner of the Chicken Ranch, her story is a bittersweet one at best. She never aspired to prostitution or wanted to become a madam--and in all honesty, who would? She wanted what any teenage girl in the 1940s would want: the handsome husband, a brood of children, a cozy little house with a white picket fence. Suffice to say, she didn't get any of that dream, yet she still lived an amazing life.

The most challenging part of writing this chapter hasn't been the actual writing (unlike the previous chapters) but instead sifting through the reams of interview pages I have from Miss Edna and piecing together a chronological narrative. She's one of those people who breaks off on tangents more often than not, talking about whatever pops up in her memory at the moment. This means that, say, her reminisces about living in Fort Worth are broken up by several hours worth of memories of the Chicken Ranch, family trees, pets she's had, and her thoughts on Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Sorting through all that is time consuming, and exhausting. Rewarding, yes, but no less a challenge. On the bright side, I'm rewarded with the account of how Miss Edna first came to the Chicken Ranch, which to my knowledge, has never been published or recounted in any form or fashion:
Suspicious of the Chicken Ranch, Miss Edna instead headed to Austin, where legendary Texas madam Hattie Valdes operated several houses catering to horny University of Texas students and Texas legislators in equal measure.

“She didn’t have any openings at that moment, but she asked me if I knew about La Grange,” Miss Edna said. “The lady in Austin was telling me about it, then she called down there and they said somebody’s going to be gone a week. I said, ‘Well, at least I’ll go down there and see what it’s about. I may not even want to stay.’ But you can tolerate almost anything for a week.

“It was pleasant driving up to that old thing, seeing the trees and everything, you know?” she said. “After having looked at the city for a few years, that white house in the distance, among those green trees, it looked real pleasant. I didn’t know how it’d be like inside, you know, but I went from there.”
There's more where that came from--a lot more, but it's getting late, so I'll wait until tomorrow to write up that part of the story. Now, it's off to bed for me!

Now Playing: Christopher Franke Babylon 5: Messages from Earth
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Friday, December 16, 2011

Friday Night Videos

It's too bad Stan Freberg's heyday came long before MTV and music videos, because his particular brand of insane genius lends itself particularly well to visual mayhem. Take, for example, "Nuttin' for Christmas," which Joe Crow pointed out to me. It's an excellent 2009 animated adaptation of Freberg's definitive version of the song, with just enough subversiveness to turn sappy holiday sentiment on its ear. Enjoy!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Stevie Wonder.

Now Playing: Peter Gabriel Security
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Thursday, December 15, 2011

Power women!

Lord help me, I've been sucked into a meme. When someone posted on George Takei's Facebook wall an updated image with Star Trek Voyager's Captain Janeway of all people, I lost it. This will put me on many folks' black list, but I've always found Janeway one of the milquetoast captains in the Star Trek universe (outdone only by Enterprise's Archer). So I couldn't help but double down with Ivanova. Click to get the bigger version.
My initial reaction was to go with Aeryn Sun, being the Farscape fan that I am. But how could I argue with Ivanova's quote?

Ultimately, though, one thing remains clear. Be they fans of Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars, Babylon 5, Buffy or Farscape, everyone is united in their utter contempt for Twilight and dumb-ass sparkly vampires.

Now Playing: AC/DC Who Made Who
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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 13

The Chicken Ranch restaurant on Greenville Avenue in Dallas, circa 1978
I did it. I got on a roll last night and knocked out the rest of the current chapter, a full two days ahead of my self-imposed Dec. 15 deadline. Which gives me 17 days to complete the new current chapter before the end of 2011, which means I'll have a quarter of the Chicken Ranch book in the can. Not shabby, considering the huge amount of time I've invested in research. The downside is that I went to bed close to 1 a.m., and the Bug, who'd been sick over the weekend, developed a fever and pretty much ended any chance of my getting any sleep at all (turns out he'd developed a secondary ear infection. A quick trip to the doctor and he's all fixed up with an antibiotic prescription and feeling much better). So I'm groggy, achy and punchy today, and not a whole lot of fun to be around.

Still, that can't take the joy out of getting another chapter finished. And last night's writing session covered two fairly high-profile Chicken Ranch stories, adding a considerable amount of detail to one and thoroughly debunking the other. It also contained one of the best quotes thus far, one that I'm very happy exists:
"There’s more hockypoo about that place than anything else."
Seriously, how many other writers get to use "hockeypoo" in their book with a straight face? Okay, I'll admit I cracked a grin while writing it, but still. That quote aside, here's a sample of last night's output, quite possibly the single most well-known aspect of the Chicken Ranch:
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and Miss Jessie hit upon a solution almost as old as the oldest profession, itself: Barter. Area farmers didn’t have money, but they did have livestock, and the brothel began accepting stock in trade. Before long, the going exchange rate became jokingly known as the “poultry standard,” that is, one chicken, one screw. Needless to say, Miss Jessie’s girls were up to their eyeballs in chickens in no time.
Printing out the draft of the chapter for my files, it suddenly strikes me that I've already written quite a bit. Curiosity got the better of me, and I compared my page count to that of Jan Hutson's Chicken Ranch book from 1980. Now, there's not a 1:1 correlation between manuscript pages and a published book, but I'll wager my wordcount at this early stage isn't that far off her's in its entirety. And I know for certain I have more facts in mine--at least, facts that can be attributed and verified.

Now Playing: Peter Gabriel Peter Gabriel Plays Live
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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 13

Train keeps a rollin'. I keep waiting for the wheels to fall off, but thus it is full steam ahead. After the ordeal of the previous chapter, this one's surprised my by its amiable nature. I've gotten to the point where, even with just a limited window to write, I'm able to accomplish a few hundred words. Good words, too. The kind that don't make me retch when I re-read them the next day.

I'm thinking this is because I've finally gotten into the meat of my own research. I'm no longer merely recasting mythology that everyone from Saul Friedman to Jan Hutson to Al Reinert to Larry King has written about. I'm bringing new and original history to the table, stories and incidents that have never seen publication. That's a pretty nifty feeling. Also, in the case of oft-repeated stories such as the World War I anecdote below, I've been able to connect a few dots and give it a more thorough historical context.
One of the first opportunities to ingratiate herself with the community came with America’s entry into World War I. As plenty of young Fayette County men headed overseas with the legendary doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force, Miss Jessie had her handful of girls write encouraging letters to the lads, sometimes even sending along care packages filled with home-baked cookies.

That show of compassion went over well in La Grange. Unfortunately, the War Department wasn’t nearly as impressed. Concerned with the debilitating impact venereal disease could have on the troops, the U.S. government launched a full-on war against prostitution. Following the advice of Teddy Roosevelt, Secretary of War Newton Baker spoke softly and carried a very big stick: any Texas city that wanted an army post (or wanted to keep one they already had) must shutter their vice districts, period.
I'll have my work cut out for me when it comes to revisions, of course. I find all matter of historical minutiae fascinating, much of which cause other people's eyes to glaze over. Ensuring the book is a lively, engaging read is an ongoing concern for me (yet you are thinking "It's a book about a brothel? How could it not be fascinating?" Trust me, anything can be boring if the writing is bad enough. This is my personal nightmare).

I'm also starting to give serious thought to cross-promotion opportunities, journal and magazine articles and the like. Serious work on that is going to have to wait until the new year, once I have a few more chapters in the bag. But anyone with any brilliant ideas, feel free to send 'em along!

Now Playing: Roy Orbison In Dreams
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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 12

So we've come to suspect that H1N1 has infiltrated the homefront. In a lemons-into-lemonade kind of way, this has been good for my writing. With everyone else lying around lethargic, there's nowhere we're going or the like. So, other than the lack of sleep from staying up late with vomiting children, I've been able to put my waking hours to good, writerly use.

As I write my way deeper into the book, I'm coming across a surprising number of serendipitous realizations. Nothing earthshaking, mind you, nothing that makes me shout, "AH-HA! This proves Lee Harvey Oswald didn't act alone!" Even so, they're significant to me. For instance, several disparate facts lying around--most of which are well-known to people who've written or read up on the Chicken Ranch before--but as I'm writing they click together with a few other bits and pieces I've unearthed all the way, and suddenly, blam!, it's like staring cross-eyed at a colorful, pixellated poster for hours on end before it suddenly resolves itself into a 3-D image of a possum eating a watermelon or somesuch. Only in my case, a timeline magically appears where none existed before, complete with dates, records and motivations, effectively bridging a gap where before only innuendo and hearsay held sway. That's cool.

These random discoveries have also helped me deal with an over-abundance of information. Believe it or not, the history of the Chicken Ranch is a feast-or-famine affair, with certain eras utterly devoid of meaningful information, whereas other eras the cup runneth over. This is particularly true in the case of tangential stories and events, those that aren't necessarily about the Chicken Ranch per se, but the people and events around it that provide a much-needed context, allowing the reader to understand why and how things unfolded as they did. Too many tangents overwhelms the main narrative, but what to do when one particular tangent is pretty darn significant? Enough so that folks may well ask why I skipped over it? Well, in the course of double-checking some dates, I came across a previously-unknown newspaper archive online that included articles on that particular event. More importantly for my immediate needs, it was kind enough to inform me that Jim Flournoy--the man who'd later become Fayette County Sheriff and a major figure later on in my book--was deeply involved in the event, something I'd not come across before. Armed with this new knowledge, I'm moving this particular tangent later in the book, so as to flesh out Sheriff Flournoy's early career more effectively. Pretty cool how this works out, eh? Here's a sample of the latest:
Cooperation, mostly, seemed to be the key in forming a lasting alliance between the brothel and the sheriff’s office. Law enforcement everywhere maintained useful networks of informants who’d pass along information overheard from the underworld. In La Grange, this boiled down to the fact that petty criminals tended to brag about their exploits to whatever pretty whore they happened to be bedding. Miss Jessie made sure to pass any such confessions along.
And yes, I am still on track to finish this chapter by the 15th, which will give me an even-money shot at wrapping up the next chapter by New Year's Eve. Momentum, as they say, is a wonderful thing.

Now Playing: Miles Davis Kind of Blue
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Friday, December 09, 2011

Friday Night Videos

"Superstition." Probably Stevie Wonder's greatest song. There is a hard edged, funky genius about it that cannot be denied.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Traveling Wilburys.

Now Playing: Lenny Kravitz Are You Gonna Go My Way
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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 11

Just a very short update for you tonight. Rest assured, I had another good night of writing (what's up with that?) and the words are flowing as spice must (Dune reference, for non-skiffy types). But I had to share this one sentence, which I've desperately wanted to write since the idea for this book first took root in my fevered brain:
Neither version is accurate, but the first tale is unique in its almost complete disconnect from reality.
Yes, I do demolish the wrongheaded, misguided and just downright bad writings of a writer who hath trod this ground before me. I confess to enjoying it a bit too much.

Now Playing: Marvin Gaye Anthology
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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 10

Another good night of writing. I'm sort of in a state of disbelief. I've hit something of a sticking point, so that's as good a place to hang it up for the night as any, but I can clearly see what lies on the other side. This is good. At this rate (knock wood) I may actually hit my goal of finishing this chapter by the middle of next week. And I'm about to jump head long into my own primary research, which should be loads of fun (just the raw quotes from the interviews I'll be using in this chapter take up 20 pages, so I've no shortage of material).

While the Chicken Ranch is fondly remembered for the most part, and by most accounts offered the women there some measure of safety and security, the vast majority of prostitutes in Texas had neither. It was a hard life, and often the ending was tragic. Here's a sample of tonight's work:
Although the system offered a degree of protection, a woman’s value only amounted to her ability to bring in money. One Austin police officer took note of a well-known prostitute, Georgetown Ella, who’d fallen deathly ill. With their mother unable to work, Ella’s four children faced the likelihood of starvation, and the brothel’s owner, Charley Cooney, was not the type of man to show compassion to any of them. Society in general was not apt to show much compassion, either.
On a brighter note, I picked up two pieces of Chicken Ranch memorabilia off Ebay this week. Neither item was ever actually produced by or sold at the real Chicken Ranch. One was a money clip, which are pretty common, but this showed up at a cheap price and I couldn't resist. The other, a wine glass, features a Chicken Ranch logo. I've never seen such a glass before, so it's an intriguing find. I figure this was either sold as a souvenir at the failed Dallas restaurant or marketed in La Grange in the mid-80s, during the very brief time when they attempted to commercialize the defunct brothel. Either way, they're nice additions to my collection.

Now Playing: Monks of the Benedictine Abbey el Calcat A Treasury of Gregorian Chants
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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 9

I'm jinxing myself by writing this, I know, but I had a productive writing session last night. After flailing with yet another awkward transition, I caught some traction and had some nice momentum going by the time I called it quits. I just saw an online posting I made back in July where I commented that I hoped the book would be finished by the end of this year. Alas, that's not going to happen--not by a long shot. I'm even behind schedule on my revised timeline, due to a spectacularly unproductive November. Evenings such as I experienced last night give me hope, however. If I can manage that same degree of production the rest of the week, it is entirely reasonable for me to finish the current chapter by the 15th. That would leave me a little over two weeks to get another chapter finished before the end of the year, which would mean a third of the book in the can. That'd be enough to polish up and send off to publishers for consideration.

The big drawback with that plan is the fact that I have two weeks of holidays coming up. That time off from work is tempting to think of as writing time, but my family's also off. I've learned from experience that family time and travel is a mighty powerful black hole that sucks up free time like you wouldn't believe. But still, it's nice to have goals.

Here's some of what I wrought last night. Obviously, I'm not restricting myself to the narrow history of the Chicken Ranch itself. There's a significant of historical context that's going into the book as well.
The ideas that sanctioned prostitution prevented rape and the spread of venereal disease were perhaps the most persistent arguments used by those in favor of a regulated sex trade, and ones that were commonly invoked to defend the Chicken Ranch as late as 1973. These "regulationists" were often police and medical practitioners, those who interacted and dealt with prostitution on an ongoing basis. From their perspective, the world's oldest profession had persisted and even thrived despite centuries of eradication efforts by countless cultures. The prohibition approach had undeniably failed. If prostitution could not be eliminated, then perhaps it could be contained and segregated so as to not corrupt polite society.
It also doesn't help my daily progress when I come across items in my notes and research materials that absolutely needs to go in a previous chapter. That means going back before I forget, inserting the stray material, rewriting the surrounding copy to fit, revising citations...

Now Playing: Various artists Doctor Demento Show 11/29/1997
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Friday, December 02, 2011

And this is what you get for shopping local

The Wife and I have made a conscious effort to shop local this year, avoiding big chains when possible and in general trying to make our spending impact the area economy in as positive way as possible. When it comes to photography, this means we've been making the trip into San Antonio to give our business to the Camera Exchange. Normally, our experience is good.

Today was not a good experience.

The Wife, who is a Certified Professional Photographer with PPA and the owner of Lisa On Location photography drove down there today, braving Friday traffic as well as rain-slick roads because she needed some professional advice on a purchase she needed to make. The sales associate who assisted her--and I use that word very loosely--not only soured a sure sale, but pretty much guaranteed we'll be taking our business elsewhere from now on. He was condescending. He refused to actually listen to what she was saying, instead deciding she didn't know what she was talking about. In short, he assumed she was a ditzy "Mom-With-Camera" photographer wanna-be and treated her with vaguely disinterested contempt. The Wife was so infuriated she called me from the parking lot to vent.

She never gets this kind of crappy treatment from Adorama or B&H. Those online photography superstores based in New York have much better prices than the Camera Exchange as well, but we've tried to eat that price difference to support the local guys. And this is the thanks we get. Folks wondering why local businesses are failing need look no further--just once case of terrible customer service can negate years of good will in just a few moment. Let that be a lesson to everyone.

Now Playing: Original Cast Recording The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas
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Friday Night Videos

After a rough, stressful week I think we'll go with The Traveling Wilburys today to make everything better. Remember, handle with care.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Aerosmith.

Now Playing: various artists Celtic Moods
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