Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Surely you joust!

Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels

So, I may or may not have mentioned before, but I took The Wife to Scarborough Faire for our first date. It was her first visit to a renaissance festival. We've made it a point to visit a ren fest every year since, but after moving to New Braunfels, Waxahachie's too far for convenience, so we more often attend the Texas Renaissance Festival these days, simply because of easier logistics.

This year, we went on opening weekend. I've blogged a little bit about the general experience (the kids loved it, as they always do, and burned through all our money in record time) over at the Lisa On Location Photography blog. In this particular post, I want to go into some extended detail about a set of photos I took.

To recap, last Christmas The Wife gifted me with a Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Which, over the ensuing six months, I converted to Canon EF mount and inflicted a little bit of nerve damage on myself in the process. I painstakingly documented my conversion, but then apparently deleted all the files. sigh. The long and short of it is I have an extremely long focal range lens that cost $10,000 less than Canon's EF 500mm f/4 IS lens, or $800 less than Sigma's 50-500mm alternative. The FD 500mm is also about 10 pounds lighter than either of those, but has the disadvantage of being a pretty slow f/8 lens that can't be stopped down. And it's also strictly manual focus. It's a tough lens to use, to put it bluntly. My first real efforts with it I chronicled here, and ended up throwing away far more shots than I kept. But attending the Texas Ren Fest, the idea struck me that the joust might prove to be a suitable subject to practice my lens-fu on with this challenging mirror.

Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels

All the photos you see here were shot with the 500mm reflex. That German princess in blue in the upper right corner? Yeah. The jumping squirrel immediately above? Absolutely. You can tell by the blurred circular bokeh of the background behind them--that's an inherent trait of the mirror lens design. Some people hate it, and it can become very distracting with busy backgrounds (the squirrel is a good case in point). But such effects can be controlled with careful shot composition and background awareness. Which I'm still working on. But I was quite pleased at how quickly I was able to manually focus on this darting squirrel across the arena--it came running in from the left, leapt up onto the retaining wall to steal some dropped food, then darted back the way he'd come.

Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels

The biggest problem I faced was overcast skies. Heavily overcast skies. Since the mirror lens is slow, ie it doesn't let that much light in, it does best under bright conditions. That means sunny skies or thin, hazy clouds. Nothing doing this day. And because it's such a long lens, I needed to use a shutter speed of at least 1/500 of a second to control camera shake and stop the action I was shooting. Under ideal circumstances, I'd rather use a 1/800 shutter speed, but there just wasn't enough light. As it was, the cloudy conditions forced me to use ISO 1600 rather than ISO 400 or 800 I'd rather use (higher ISO--that is, the image sensor sensitivity--film sensitivity in the old days--introduces more random noise and loss of detail to an image).

Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New BraunfelsTexas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels

The German knight, all in blue, turned out quite nicely as you can see above. I am particularly pleased with the color and detail sharpness in the second image, with his great helm on. My best shot of the afternoon--in my opinion, at least--was the jousting clash between the English knight and the French knight, below. I tracked the English knight as he rode toward me, using his shield as a focal point. That's why his shield is in focus and his great helm is slightly soft, and the French knight is very soft. A 500mm lens has a very narrow depth-of-field, even at f/8. The blurring of the lance shards is a result of motion blur. If I'd shot this at 1/800 of a second shutter speed, everything would've frozen motionless. Alas, the overcast conditions made even 1/500 that I shot at marginal.

Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels

But look at this! While looking at the image at 100 percent resolution, I noticed a bit of discoloration in the eye vent of the English knight's helm. I applied some lightening and contrast tricks in Photoshop, and was surprised to discover my lens had resolved the knight's eye inside the helm! I don't know about you, but I found that quite impressive.

Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels

Then, we have the fighting on foot sequence. Obviously, the knights didn't move as far in distance terms as they did on horseback, but the back-and-forth, side-to-side unpredictability of the fights led to a lot of slightly out-of-focus shots. None, save for the very last image here with the English knight saluting the crowd, are perfectly focused, but I include them to show how close I managed to get with such a narrow depth-of-field, with an elbow here or a bit of chain mail there perfectly sharp and the rest of the subject rapidly blurring into softness. Case in point is the third one down, the Spanish knight's "blood geyser." The back of the English knight is very sharp, but that's not where the focus should be. Even so, I'm including it simply because it's pretty darn cool (if disgusting) and as such appropriate for Halloween!

Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels

Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels

Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels

Texas Renaissance Festival 2012, joust. Canon 7D. Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex mirror lens. Lisa On Location photography, New Braunfels

Now Playing: The Kinks Sleepwalker
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

It's better down where it's wetter

So, I started scuba lessons last night.

Didn't see that coming, huh? Well, I did, although it was 23 years in the making. See, I've always thought scuba a fascinating thing, the next best thing to traveling in outer space and exploring alien worlds. Must be a result of all those Jacques Cousteau documentaries I watched growing up. Once I got to college, my sophomore year I discovered scuba certification was offered as a for-credit PE course at Texas A&M, so naturally I signed up. I was very excited at the time. At least until my father found out about it. I'm still not sure what his deal is, beyond shitting all over any fun thing his children ever try to do, but in true asshole fashion he threw a major fit and ordered me to drop the class. I did. And regretted it ever since. To rub salt in the wound, my brother took the same course about five years later and dad thought it simply wonderful. Then my other brother got scuba certified. They went on countless dives over the past decade and I've just kind of grumbled at the injustice of it all. Then The Wife surprised me (not really) with scuba lessons for my birthday. Which made me very happy. So here we are.

I can't say the whole experience isn't intimidating. A little scary, even. But I've found that as long as I don't over-think things, I'm good to go.

I'm taking them with the Dive Shop in San Marcos. Because of my ever-changing schedule, they're private lessons, which should allow me to push through to certification a bit faster than normal. I hit the pool for the first time for my swim test. It's kind of humbling when, at the end of the first lap, I realize my two daughters on swim team could complete the test without breaking a sweat while I'm starting to breathe hard and still have a lap to go. I've never been a terribly fast swimmer, and powerful isn't an apt adjective either, but I've got enough belly to be naturally buoyant so I can generally hold my own as long as it's not a race. That buoyancy worked against me on the underwater swim part of the test (I only managed to go 30 feet) as I broke the surface well before I needed to take a breath. By comparison, treading water for 10 minutes was a breeze. After that, I worked on kicks and dives. I didn't do awful, but I'm not a poster boy for great form, either. And breathing through a snorkel is taking quite a bit of getting used to.

Still, progress is progress. Tonight I strap on a regulator and air tanks for the first time. We'll see what kind of havoc I can wreak with that.

Now Playing: The Kinks Arthur (or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire)
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, October 29, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 30

As reports from first readers begin to trickle back to me, I'm encouraged by the fact that overall the response to the Chicken Ranch book is very positive. It's not flawless, mind you, but a couple of the issues raised are easy fixes (if the remaining first readers agree they are issues) and the others amount to repeating quotes and brief passages in multiple chapters. That last part is something that concerned me whilst writing the book, but when juggling so many facts and sources with overlapping timelines, it's almost inevitable that'll happen. Now that these duplications are identified, it should be another easy fix.

Beyond that, I'm still in a "hurry up and wait" relationship with the current potential publisher. The bad news: at this point, there isn't a realistic chance the book will be out by Aug. 1, 2013, the 40th anniversary of the closure. But it's still possible the book will be far enough in the publishing pipeline so that it'll be available for pre-order. That's good. But again, all dependent on the publisher at this point.

More evidence came to me over the weekend that there is continuing demand and interest in this book, aka "Good things come to those who wait." Out of the blue, I received an email from a complete stranger who is a relative of the late Miss Jessie/Faye Stewart. What's more, he has inherited Miss Jessie's personal photo album and additional documents. His wife is in the early stages of putting together a Chicken Ranch cookbook (!) using Miss Jessie's recipes, which I think it pretty cool right there. But of immediate interest is his willingness to share some of those photos with me. I've accumulated a good collection of Chicken Ranch-related photos (mostly through Miss Edna's generosity) but despite my efforts, two major players in the Chicken Ranch history have eluded me: Miss Jessie and Sheriff Will Loessin. I'm excited by the possibility of including Miss Jessie. Amazing how the book continues to grow more complete and exhaustive without my even doing anything! Fingers crossed...

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Wish You Were Here
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Night VIdeos

For your entertainment today, we have John Mellencamp's cover of the Van Morrison classic, "Wild Night." I'm a person who normally doesn't get excited over covers, but I have to say I like this version much more than the original. The fact that Me'Shell Ndegeocello brings a whole lot to the song doesn't hurt. My one criticism of the video is the fact that I've never, ever encountered a cabbie that looked like Cindy Crawford. Well, except now that I think about it... nope, they all pretty much look like Danny DeVito.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Flight of the Conchords.

Now Playing: Ray Davies Return to Waterloo
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Another Aggie joke

I swear, Aggies have more solutions in search of problems than any other people I know. And I say that as an Aggie. The latest? Apparently there is a great deal of hand-wringing over the lyrics to the Aggie War Hymn, which explicitly references our former conference rival, t.u.:

It begins "Good bye to texas university/So long to the orange and the white," and then takes a few swipes at the University of Texas. The stanza is then repeated. The song ends with repetitions of "Saw varsity's horns off" and "Varsity's horns are sawed off. Short! A!" So that's a little problematic.
Apparently, there's a number of students on campus who want to change the lyrics. Let me say right here, stop. Just stop it. All this energy and angst being expended should be put to better use elsewhere, because the War Hymn ain't never going to change. Want to know why? Because Aggies won't allow it.

As is reported in the linked article above, the War Hymn was written in during World War I, and the single verse of "Goodbye to texas university..." repeated twice before going into "Saw varsity's horns off." Well, an additional verse not making mention of t.u. was introduced in 1928. It didn't take, although it's still officially the first verse. I've never heard anyone willingly sing it, other than the Singing Cadets on an A&M CD I own.

Let me clarify: If it exists at A&M, it exists as a time capsule, unchangeable. After A&M changed its name from the Agricultural & Mechanical College of Texas to Texas A&M University in the 60s, the alma mater, The Spirit of Aggieland, had its lyrics changed from "We are the Aggies/The Aggies are we/We're from Texas A.M.C." to "We are the Aggies/The Aggies so true/We're from Texas A.M.U." Guess which version I have never heard sung by anyone other than the Singing Cadets?

If they do continue with this harebrained scheme to change the War Hymn lyrics, it will never take. Mainly because Aggies resist change with every fiber of their being, but also because t.u. will always and forever be our main rival, no matter how vicious the LSU rivalry becomes. Anyone who believes the annual football rivalry (and other sports) won't resume between the state's two flagship institutions as soon as Deloss Dodds A) retires or 2) gets over his hissy-fit about A&M scuttling his Pac-16 dream, simply hasn't been paying attention.

Changing the War Hymn lyrics is a useless waste of time. Aggies will never sing new lyrics, and will continue to "Saw Varsity's Horns Off" until kingdom come.

Now Playing: Blue Öyster Cult Workshop of the Telescopes
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Real life prostitution!

Zumba Madam Alexis Wright joins a long list of madams prosecuted for prostitution--
There's a news story regarding prostitution starting to hit the national news cycle today, Maine Zumba sex case: John suspect names released. I tend to notice these things when they come up, because of my extensive research into the Chicken Ranch. To recap for those of you who aren't going to click through to read the whole piece, a Zumba instructor in Maine has been busted for running a prostitution operation in her studio, where she secretly videotaped herself and her clients in the act. That last bit's a bit of an eyebrow-raiser, but overall, there's nothing here that hasn't been rehashed a million times before. Except that the judge in the case has ordered the clients' names released, as would be the case with anyone charged with a crime.

This last bit has quite a few folks up in arms, crying about the injustice of it all, how these poor men are victims, etc. These quotes get to the heart of the matter:

The list of names was delayed Friday by legal action by an attorney representing two of the people accused of being johns. The lawyer, Stephen Schwartz, said releasing the names will ruin people's lives, even if they're acquitted of the misdemeanor charges against them.

...

Andrew Stanley, of Kennebunk, said the names should've been released sooner. Wright's alleged customers, he said, were mostly people with money or power who attempted to buy their way out of trouble through legal action.

"I think the names should have been released the second they were charged," he said.

But resident Leonid Temkin had mixed feelings about publicizing the names because it could cause marriages to dissolve and men to lose their jobs.

"I think it'll cause a lot of hardship," he said.
And therein lies the double-standard of our society. Nobody is standing up for the woman, Alexis Wright, decrying the fact that her name has been made public even though she's yet to be convicted of any crime. It's the poor men who paid for sex who are the victims! Boo hoo! Pity the johns! Time and time again I've seen this happen--with "Mayflower Madam" Sydney Biddle Barrows, "Hollywood Madam" Heidi Fleiss, "D.C. Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey and "Soccer Mom Madam" Anna Gristina--every time a prostitution operation is busted, there's a brief flurry of titillation where the prosecutors hint they'll release client lists, but at the end of the day, they never do. The women go to jail, but the men who kept them in business get off scott free. Invariably, this is justified to "preserve their good names and reputations."

Here's a newsflash: Men patronizing prostitutes are not good and reputable, upstanding members of the community. Women often go into prostitution to survive, whereas men solicit prostitutes because they can. Notice a little bit of difference there? Prosecutors force a soccer mom into a plea deal for arranging girl-on-girl action for an undercover cop to watch, but the Fortune 500 CEO merely goes online and arranges a date with a $500 and hour call girl for later that night. How much time has Charlie Sheen done for his patronage of prostitutes, which he's not only admitted, but bragged about? Meanwhile, Fleiss received a sentence of 7 years. Palfrey hanged herself rather than go to prison. None of the high-profile Washington insiders reportedly on Palfrey's client list--including Vice President Dick Cheney--ever had to so much as testify, much less face charges.

I am sick to death of the inherent hypocrisy of our current laws regulating sexual behavior and prostitution. They're only selectively enforced at best. If a woman is successful and becomes wealthy as a prostitute, she becomes a target. If a wealthy and successful man patronizes prostitutes, he gets a free pass. The same thing pretty much happened with the Chicken Ranch--Edna Milton got shut down and lost her business and income, but the senators, governors, legislators and businessmen who kept her in business for decades got a wink and a nod before they were slipped the phone numbers of call girls in Houston, Austin and Dallas with which to replace the ladies of the Chicken Ranch.

The hypocrisy disgusts me.

Now Playing: SixMileBridge No Reason
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sherwood Celtic Music Festival

Egads! I've started to work up this write up several times, but never get very far before something distracts me. Now it's been several weeks since the event and I'm shamefully late with the report. That is indeed embarrassing.

Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.
Remember how I went to Texas Mead Fest back in September? Well, the following Sunday, September 23 to be exact, Monkey Girl and myself spent the afternoon at the Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival just east of McDade. It's a fall event held on the grounds of the Sherwood Forest Renaissance Festival. I have to say, I was quite impressed with what I saw. I remember going to an early Cavalier Days festival outside of Smithville--an early forerunner of this one--and being less than impressed since the entire site consisted of tents and performers trying to recreate the ren fest vibe under less than ideal conditions. When Cavalier Days went under, I was actually a part of a stopgap event, Underhill Village Faire, held at Old Cactus Jack's west of Austin. I wore my Hern the Hunter costume and had a good bit of fun, but the faire itself had major problems, mainly because some of the organizers had and inflated sense of self-importance that lent an unprofessional air to the shindig. Shortly thereafter Excalibur Faire started up, but despite good word-of-mount in the early years, went belly-up after moving to a permanent site outside of Lockhart.

Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

So, it's only natural that I was a wee bit skeptical regarding the potential of Sherwood Forest Faire when it launched a couple years back in McDade. But I saw their online advertising for a late September Celtic music fest--and, more importantly, sets by Clandestine, pretty much my all-time favorite Celtic band--and I knew I had to go. And I'm not ashamed to admit I was very impressed with what I saw once I got there. The festival grounds are well-established with many permanent buildings, but more importantly, many flush toilets. Heck, Scarborough Faire didn't even have flush toilets until about a decade ago! The Sherwood Forest grounds are about half the total size of Scarborough, and set in the Lost Pines area of Texas, so you know the setting is top-notch.

Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas. Bedlam Bards perform.

Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

Almost immediately, we ran into Martha Wells and her husband, Troyce Wilson. It's always good to see familiar faces. And several people called out to me, recognizing me from the Texas Mead Fest the day before. Small world, huh? The music was free-flowing as well. The Bedlam Bards, a Texas Celtic staple, were there for several sets. I'd heard they'd retired, but they seemed to be no worse for the wear this day (Apparently, it was the Brobdinagian Bards who retired and reunited for the festival). There were many, many bagpipes around, some playing singly, others roaming in packs. I didn't realize they had herding instincts. Monkey Girl was fascinated by the Highland games--something about men throwing tree trunks caught her attention. There were also quite a few harpists, and although they tended to congregate together, they didn't roam like the pipers.

Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

But the big reason I was there was to see Clandestine. I hadn't seen the band perform in more than a decade, prior to their farewell tour when founding member Jen Hamel departed Texas to pursue graduate school. I never expected the band to reunite, but that's exactly what they did in 2006. Al Cofrin, a NASA engineer and creative force behind the historical music ensemble Istanpita, joined the lineup to make it a quartet, his lute giving the band a distinctly different sound than Hamel's guitar. They put out a "new" album, ReD, a couple years back, and I bought myself a copy first thing. Now I have the complete set!

Clandestine performs at Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

Clandestine performs at Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.Clandestine performs at Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

Clandestine performs at Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.Clandestine performs at Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

A funny thing happened at the start of their set. As soon as piper E.J. Jones began to play, a cicada flew out of a nearby tree and landed on his shoulder, where it stayed for most of the first song--much to Jones' consternation. I guess it was a case of unrequited love. The crowd certainly got a chuckle out of it.

Clandestine performs at Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

The set was lively and over far too soon. They played "Bluebonnets" from the Music From Home album, as well as several from ReD, including "Down," which is perhaps the first modern Celtic-styled song that features the Red Baron so prominently (it's historically inaccurate, but then again so is "The Ballad of Billy the Kid" from Billy Joel, so they're in good company). One particular highlight was a piece titled "The B Reel" by Cofrin, who wrote it as an experiment using a mathematical formula. That sounds strange, I know, but the end result was distinctive and catchy. I found out later they haven't recorded it yet, which is a real shame. It's high time for Clandestine to put out another album.

Clandestine performs at Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.
Clandestine performs at Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.
Clandestine performs at Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.
Clandestine performs at Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.
Emily Dugas on percussion has moved seamlessly into the front woman role, her voice is as strong as ever and from what I can tell from ReD, has become their primary songwriter. Clandestine's music has never been all sweetness and light--"Dunlavy's Castle," "Cannonball," "The Cruel Sister" and "A World Turned Upside Down" are melancholy if not outright mournful--but the vocals on ReD are surprisingly bitter, angry and bleak. That's not necessarily a bad thing--some of the songs are quite strong--but the relentless darkness grows wearying after repeated listens. I hope that in the future she's able to mix the mood up a bit and not rely entirely on instrumentals for contrast. And I'd be remiss without mentioning the excellent fiddle work Gregory McQueen, who attempted to dance a waltz for the audience and promptly fell off the stage. Thankfully, several members of the audience--both young and old--began dancing then so McQueen could focus his attention on remaining upright.

And yes, Monkey Girl had a good time. She stole my copy of ReD the other day and hasn't given it back yet. I suspect I may never see it again.

Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.
Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

Sherwood Forest Celtic Festival 2012. McDade, Texas.

Now Playing: Various artists Celtic Moods
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, October 05, 2012

Friday Night Videos

NEW FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS! The fourth most popular folk band from New Zealand is back with a charity song for Cure Kids! The song, Feel Inside (and stuff like that)" is classic Conchords parody with plenty of New Zealand guest artists I'm guessing most Americans won't recognize. I'm posting the long version, because 1) It's like getting almost half a new Conchords episode with Murray and everything, and B) The song is a heck of a lot funnier when you see where some of those strange lyrics originated. The one downside to the whole thing: I'd forgotten how much I miss the series.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Violent Femmes.

Now Playing: Electric Light Orchestra Balance of Power
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

One obsession down...

I watched the presidential debates tonight, and have to say the entire experience was not a good one. Moderator Jim Lehrer lost control fast than a junior high substitute teacher, and is a good reason why we need someone other than tired, old, white, male journalists running these things. So I'm not gonna talk about the debates.

Instead, I'm going to tell you about the observatory I discovered--or rather, re-discovered--because of the Chicken Ranch. Crazy, huh?

A year or two ago--I forget how long exactly--I was in the Alkek Library at Texas State, going through the mind-numbing and nausea-inducing ritual of searching microfilm of old newspapers for information on the closure of the Chicken Ranch. Or maybe it was hunting down a rare, pre-Marvin Zindler news report of the brothel. Either way, in either the Houston Chronicle or Houston Post I came across a wild art photo (that is, a random photo not accompanying a particular story). In this case, it was a photo of an old, worn-down, domed observatory outside of Schulenburg, Texas. The image triggered one of those long-lost memories that surprise you when they resurface because you'd so thoroughly forgotten them. I'd seen that observatory before. Clearly, I had, although I was probably too young at the time to realize what it was, and only the odd shapes of the building registered. This isn't that particular photo, but it gives a good idea of what I remembered:

Schaefer Observatory, courtesy of http://www.eclipsetours.com/history/
Photo courtesy Eclipse Tours

Over the past year or so, when driving through Schulenburg on the way to visit family in Columbus, I always made it a point to try and see if it was still where I kind of though it used to be. It wasn't. This discouraged me, since what's more depressing than a bulldozed observatory and telescope? But lo and behold, Gary McKee, a historian from Schulenburg with whom I'd corresponded with regarding the Chicken Ranch, told me that it'd been moved when I mentioned my half-hearted search to him. Moved where? To the Blinn College campus in Schulenburg, the site of the former Bishop Forest High School (which, to my surprise, closed in 1989--being Catholic, I got plenty of encouragement to go to Bishop Forest from the local parish. Sorry, but a parochial education--particularly two towns over in Schulenburg--didn't appeal much to me). So today, driving back home from a quick visit to Columbus, I made a quick detour to Schulenburg. And there it was, in better shape than my memory, but the same observatory, plain as day:

Schaefer Observatory at Blinn College, Schulenburg, Texas

The Schaefer Observatory, I've learned, was built by H.P. Schaefer and his sons in the 1940s to observe the moon (and presumably planets and other objects). One site says he hand-ground a 10" mirror for his hand-built telescope, which would have been a pretty darn impressive Newtonian telescope for the day. The dome was metal, and near as I can tell, the cylindrical section was wood. It's been restored and hosts star parties these days, with a great, open southern exposure (if you ignore the power lines running across the field). It makes me happy to know that this piece of history has been preserved for future generations.

I've been fixated on telescopes again lately, mainly because mine still remains mirrorless. I hope to remedy that soon. And some day, I will acquire a much larger telescope with state-of-the-art go-to capability along with an excellent, stable mount for astrophotography. And one we get some property out of town with dark skies, I shall build my very own observatory with a dome and everything. That's been one of my long-time dreams since I first bought my 6" Meade back when I was 13, and I look forward to following in Mr. Schaefer's footsteps.

Now Playing: The Kinks Everybody's in Show-Biz
Chicken Ranch Central

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.

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