Tuesday, October 02, 2012

East Texas Historical Association fall meeting (or, my brush with academia)

East Texas Historical Society fall meeting 2012
So, let me tell you about my brush with academia. I'm not talking about as a student, I'm talking full-blown conference research and paper presentation amongst a bunch of learned folks who dream in footnotes. I embarked on a whirlwind visit of the East Texas Historical Association's fall meeting in Nacogdoches last week in order to present a paper showcasing a tiny sliver of my Chicken Ranch work. The paper's title, "The Last Madam: The Unexpected Life of the Chicken Ranch's Edna Milton (1928-2012)," pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the subject matter. What it doesn't tell you is how unbelievably nervous I was. Writing a book is one thing. Putting together a paper for an oral presentation for a conference teeming with folks boasting Ph.D.s in history and exceptionally accomplished lay people proved quite stressful in the extreme. Yes, I'd uncovered quite a bit of heretofore unknown information in my research, but my inexperience in this form was a big disadvantage. My book is 110,000 words long, and Miss Edna's chapter alone is 30-plus pages. I had to distill all that down to a 20 minute presentation, roughly 10 pages, focusing on my original research while making the whole thing coherent. I expected any minute for someone to rise up, point a finger, and shout "Imposter!"

It didn't help that I arrived in Nacogdoches around 5 p.m. Thursday evening before my presentation, tired and hungry. After checking in to my hotel, I drove around the Stephen F. Austin State University campus, thinking to browse through the botanical gardens and arboretum there, maybe taking some photos. But shadows were already growing long and I was tired, so despite the beautiful campus, I went and had dinner instead. Afterward I went back to the hotel and laid down, feeling rather ill. Lack of sleep or the stress of the drive caught up with me, I suppose. After a few hours I began to feel a bit better, so I got up and did a few read-throughs of my paper before watching a little television ("Big Bang Theory" if you're curious) before turning in.

Hotel Fredonia, Nacogdoches, site of the East Texas Historical Society fall meeting 2012

The next morning I got up, bright and early, had breakfast then checked out of my hotel and headed over to the conference venue, the Hotel Fredonia (yeah, I'm one of those cheap folks who don't stay in the designated hotel. So sue me). It's a nice hotel, but the meeting rooms are some of the most dimly-lit I've ever seen in all my years of going to conventions. Seriously, all they needed to do was start playing some Barry White to turn them into a strange sort of singles' hangout. Lots of conference attendees were milling about, but since my session began at 9 a.m., I didn't dawdle around. My session was titled "The Yellowest of Texas’ Roses: Prostitution in the Lone Star State" and had three presenters. Unfortunately, the moderator cancelled out of the conference entirely, so we three presenters had to muddle through without formal introductions.

Beverly Rowe presents during the East Texas Historical Society fall meeting 2012

Beverly Rowe of Texarkana kicked things off with "Texarkana’s Prostitution District, Swampoodle," a really fantastic history of the organized prostitution in that north east Texas city. She had quite a few laugh lines in her presentation, and it was fascinating how straddling the state line with Arkansas allowed vice to flourish--if one got in trouble on one side of the border, all they needed to do was cross over to the other side. The city and state rivalries were such that little, if any cooperation existed. Hard to believe in this day and age, I know. "Swampoodle" also wins the prize for the most distinctive vice district name. Rowe certainly knew her stuff.

Jennifer Bridges presents during the East Texas Historical Society fall meeting 2012

Next up was Jennifer Bridges of the University of North Texas with her paper, "The Katy’s Ladies: Prostitution in Early Denison, 1872-1880." Bridges initially recruited me to participate in this conference, so she deserves all the credit (or blame) for my going through the motions. Her presentation was just as funny and enlightening as Rowe's--I had no idea that Denison was founded by the city of Sherman as a buffer against the prostitution and vice brought on by the railroad coming to town. Quite a fascinating bit of Texas history indeed. Both of the papers preceding mine were top-notch, setting the bar extremely high for me (as well as validating my assertion in the Chicken Ranch book that La Grange wasn't unique as far as prostitution goes. The oddity was the Texas town that didn't have at least one established brothel at the turn of the century!).

Then it was my turn. Whew. I'll characterize it as a qualified success. Nobody threw rotten vegetables at me. Nobody booed. Of the standing room crowd, there was no mass exodus to the doors once I began speaking. In truth, I think I gave a good accounting of myself. The audience laughed where I expected them to (during Miss Edna's less-than-flattering description of her first husband) and fell deathly silent as I went into the harsh travails of her early life. When I got to the death of her infant son, I heard the sharp intake of breath in the room. I, myself, teared up. It was more powerfully emotional than I'd expected. I've written about and lived with this information for several years now, and read it aloud in preparation many times before this, but the immediate emotional feedback from a live audience proved much more visceral than I'd expected. The audience reactions made it real, if you take my meaning.

The book dealers room at the East Texas Historical Society fall meeting 2012

Afterwards, we three presenters fielded a number of good questions before we had to clear the room for the next session. I met one conference attendee who'd been a student of my father's in high school (no great surprise--I seldom go anywhere that someone doesn't know him. Such is my cross to bear). Two attendees came up and eagerly shared their own personal experiences at the Chicken Ranch. And quite a few people--all of them strangers to me--stopped me to tell me what a good job I'd done, how Miss Edna's story was powerful and gripping. The told me things that were insightful and humbling, but me, being in a state bordering on fugue, remember none of it beyond vague impressions.

I then managed to wander the book room for a few minutes, and get in a brief chat with a publisher (yes, a real live publisher) that offered no resolution on the fate of my book, but did raise some interesting questions that forced me to look at my work with perhaps more scrutiny than I have before. All in all, it was a fascinating few hours. I could've stayed much longer, chatting with engaging people as easily as I do at any SF convention, but alas, my time was short. I had a previous obligation that required me to be in San Antonio by 5 p.m., and let me tell you, friends and neighbors, Nacogdoches is a heck of a long way from San Antonio.

I don't know if I'll ever present in this type of conference again, but this time, at least, I came out unscathed. My paper went over well, and I'm flirting with the idea of posting an audio file of my reading on my website as a sort of permanent record. We'll see how that works out, and whether I'll be able to announce any publication plans between now and Thanksgiving.

Now Playing: Dave Brubeck The Essential Dave Brubeck
Chicken Ranch Central

No comments:

Post a Comment