Thursday, December 26, 2013

Farscape: DNA Mad Scientist

My Farscape rewatch continues with "DNA Mad Scientist." And holy crap cakes, is this an insane episode. I mean, "PK Tech Girl" was my first exposure to Farscape and that was pretty damn hallucinatory-trippy-bizarre. I can only imagine what someone would think if they happened upon this episode with no prior warning!

Moya's crew arrives at the laboratory of a famed scientist called NamTar, who has amassed the largest cross-referenced DNA database in the known universe. So large, in fact, that he can pinpoint the system of origin of any species in the galaxy if he has a sufficient DNA sample. Since the crew is lost in the Uncharted Territories with no idea how to get back to their respective homes, they jump at the chance to obtain star maps from NamTar--even though the DNA extraction process involves a horrific needle in the eye. Yikes! Aeryn is the only crewmember who refuses to participate, since she is a Peacekeeper and can never return "home" without being executed as a traitor. NamTar announces he's located the home systems for every crew member... except for Crichton, of course. Earth remains distant and unknown. But NamTar demands a steep price--an arm of Pilot, since that species is rare and valuable to the scientist. What's worse is that Zhaan, D'Argo and Rygel go behind Crichton's and Aeryn's backs and assault Pilot, with D'Argo slicing off Pilot's arm with his Qualta blade. This naturally sets off some serious conflict amongst the crew. Crichton, as desperate as he is to get home, takes the others to task for their ruthlessness. While the arguments rage, Aeryn returns to NamTar, asking the scientist to find her a Sebacean colony far from Peacekeeper space, so she might live out her life among her own species. Instead of taking a sample of her DNA, however, NamTar injects her with Pilot DNA, which spreads like a virus and begins to transform Aeryn into a grotesque chimera.

Crichton takes Aeryn back to NamTar hoping to force the scientist to cure her, but the mad scientist proves immune to blaster fire--he simply regenerates the damage--slaps Crichton around and claims Aeryn as a lab specimen. NamTar wants to graft Pilot's vast multitasking capabilities to his genome, but his efforts thus far have failed and so he is using Aeryn as a bridge. Crichton learns from Kornata--NamTar's much-abused lab assistant--that NamTar himself started out as a simple lab rat, that Kornata herself was the lead researcher at the lab. As her team experimented with various genetic techniques, NamTar gained intelligence and began "improving" himself, unknown to anyone else, until he was able to take over. The maps home NamTar provided Moya's crew in the form of a crystal is actually a double-cross, meant to erase Moya's memory once downloaded, leaving the Leviathan lost in space. Crichton destroys the crystal just in time, Kornata develops an antidote for Aeryn on Moya, and also a drug to strip the grafted DNA from NamTar's genome. Crichton then confronts NamTar, who shows him Aeryn, almost completely transformed. NamTar then delivers a soliloquy about all creatures striving toward perfection, comments which remind Crichton very much of Hitler, or maybe Josef Mengele. Kornata surprises NamTar, injecting him with the reversion drug, and Crichton injects Aeryn with the antidote to return her to normal. NamTar is reduced to a rat-like Muppet that looks suspiciously like Salacious Crumb from Return of the Jedi. The ordeal leaves everyone shaken, Aeryn most of all, and trust amongst Moya's crew is at the lowest point it's been since the pilot episode.

Commentary: This is a cold-hearted episode. Up until this point, the disparate, occasionally antagonistic crew had been growing closer and opening up to each other. In fact, Moya's crew was in danger of marching happily into a Kumbaya, everyone-loves-each-other dynamic until this episode, which pulls the rug out from underneath the viewer's expectations. Zhaan, the peaceful, meditative Mr. Spock analog, suddenly became a ruthless enabler when her interests were at stake, fallout from her "dark" reversion in the battle against Maldis the previous episode. This episode showed that events in Farscape had consequences and the crew carried a lot of baggage along with them. I appreciated that. One of my big beefs with Star Trek: Voyager was that there seemed to be no consequences, and that the Maquis and Starfleet officers, who were ferocious adversaries, quickly fell into a trusting, disciplined relationship with each other. It seemed like every other episode a shuttle craft got blown up, yet nobody worried about replacing it--by the next week they'd replicated another, ready to be blown up whenever the script called for false drama. For a small starship cut off from all support and succor, this rang very, very hollow for me. Farscape never fell into this trap. Hell, there are episodes where the crew is desperate and on the verge of starvation. I'd have liked to see that on Voyager.

Also, lest I forget, the NamTar design is over the top. Crazy. Wild. The head is insanely articulated, but what really sells the alienness to me is the backward-facing knees and the stilted way he walks. A straightforward, practical effect, sure, but one rarely seen on SF television. It was much appreciated by me.

Crichton Quote of the Episode:: "Well, gotta give me a clue here, Aeryn. Is this something new? Or is this just your usual PMS, Peacekeeper military sh--"

Now Playing: Various Artists Best of Bond... James Bond
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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A very Picacio Christmas

Looks like Santa Claus paid an early visit to the Blaschke household. Although, to be fair, it wasn't the Jolly Old Elf himself, but rather the helper elves of the U.S. Postal Service that delivered my 2014 John Picacio Art Calendar along with various other Kickstarter goodies. You know what folks? Those oversized Loteria cards are even more gorgeous in person than online, and that's saying a lot. And the sketchbook... oh my. It's okay to be jealous. :-)

Now Playing: Genesis ...And Then There Were Three...
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Monday, December 23, 2013

Farscape: That Old Black Magic

My Farscape rewatch continues with "That Old Black Magic." I could've sworn I already wrote this up and posted it, but I can't find it anywhere. Bizarre.

While visiting a commerce planet, Crichton is lured into a trap by a jester-looking fellow who knows Crichton is from Earth and promises to help him return home. D'Argo and Aeryn find Crichton's body crumpled and unconscious in an alley--In reality, the being is Maldis, a kind of psychic vampire who feeds off hatred, anger and conflict. Crichton's spirit has been transported to an extradimensional labyrinth ruled by Maldis. Meanwhile, across the Uncharted Territories, Commander Crais, the maddened Peacekeeper who is pursuing Crichton for the death of his brother, receives a communication from Peacekeeper High Command, ordering him to break off pursuit of the fugitives and return to Peacekeeper space. Crais discusses the orders with his second-in-command, then retires to contemplate them. At this point, Maldis transports Crais to the same labyrinth as Crichton, forcing the two into conflict. To stoke the anger, Maldis pulls painful memories from Crais' mind--the death of his brother, their conscription by Peacekeeper command--all to undermine Crichton's desperate attempts to reason with Crais.

Back in the physical world, Zhaan learns from a local priest figure, Liko, that Maldis arrived some time before, killed half the planet's population and enslaved the rest. Liko's spiritual powers are too weak to defeat Maldis, but Zhaan, being a Delvian priestess, might be able to with Liko's guidance. The trouble is, when they attack Zhaan has to do so with intent to harm, which seemingly goes against her nature. Zhaan reveals that she has a violent history, which she's spent years trying to subdue and suppress within her spirit--but to save Crichton she is willing to unleash it. Crichton figures out Maldis feeds on conflict, so avoids Crais entirely. Maldis, frustrated and running low on energy, makes Crichton an offer: If he kills Crais so Maldis can feed, he'll then return Crichton to his friends. Crichton, worn down by running, agrees. He fights Crais, but just as he's about to kill his nemesis, Maldis transports Crais back to his Peacekeeper warship. The goal, Maldis explains, was to re-ignite Crais' burning hatred of Crichton so much that he'd bring the Command Carrier to the commerce planet, whereupon Maldis could take it over and then roam throughout the galaxy, wreaking havoc and feeding off the results. Maldis then moves in to kill and consume Crichton, but is surprised by Zhaan, who abruptly enters Maldis' spiritual labyrinth. Zhaan tells Crichton she's used her abilities to make Maldis temporarily tangible. Crichton doesn't need to be told twice, punching Maldis and reducing him to dust. Afterwards, Aeryn attempts to thank Zhaan by telling her she is much more of a warrior than Aeryn ever thought. D'Argo quietly informs Aeryn that her comment is quite possibly the greatest insult she could've inflicted on a Delvian priestess devoted to peace. Zhaan confesses to Crichton that she doesn't think she can suppress her savage side again.

Back on the Command Carrier, Crais asks his second-in-command if there's been any further communications from Peacekeeper High Command. When she says no, he kills her. She was the only other person to know of his earlier orders, and with her dead, he is free to redouble his pursuit of Crichton without anyone in his crew questioning him.

Commentary: Crais is back. Having seen the entire series, and the big role Crais played throughout, it's more than a little surprising to realize this is the first time Crais has appeared since the pilot episode. This was a deliberate strategy by the show runners, who wanted to prevent Farscape from becoming The Fugitive in space. That's kind of funny, really, when you consider that the series title was originally Space Chase. Crais shows himself to be the heartless bastard we all know him to be. When Crichton explains beyond a reasonable doubt that the death of Crais' brother was an unintended accident, Crais simply responds, "I don't care." Obviously, the re-introduction of Crais prods the series back toward the over-arching season narrative.

The episode also does some heavy-lifting to differentiate the characters from their Star Trek analogs. D'Argo, the Luxan warrior, is naturally equated to a Klingon (and more specifically, Worf from TNG) and Zhaan, the Zen-like Delvian priestess, is easily equated with the logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock. The revelation of her savage background reenforces that comparison, as Spock constantly works to keep his emotions in check (and "Amok Time" shows his savage background), but from here on out, Zhaan proves to be more unpredictable, dangerous and selfish than Spock ever was. That's an interesting development that goes against the expected character trajectory.

Crichton Quote of the Episode:: "It's not Kansas, and you're way too homely to be Auntie Em. Come here, Toto."

Now Playing: Led Zeppelin Greatest Hits
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Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Night Videos

If Christmas is just around the corner, then it's time to play the best rock & roll Christmas song ever. Yes, you know it can only be the Kinks with "Father Christmas!"

Previously on Friday Night Videos... MST3K.

Now Playing:
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Friday, December 13, 2013

Friday Night Videos

So, the Christmas holidays are upon us, and I have done nothing to acknowledge this fact. Lest I be accused by Sarah Palin or Ted Cruz of perpetuating the "War on Christmas," I feel compelled to observe the season in this week's installment of Friday Night Videos with a classic, time-honored carol. Here is the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 with a heartfelt rendition of "Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Artists United Against Apartheid.

Now Playing: Various Artists HO 2013: Christmas With Daleks, MST3K and Snoop Dogg
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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Sailing Venus: NaNoWriMo post-mortem

So, this grand experiment I participated in this year, this NaNoWriMo, has come and gone. After careful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that I suck at it.

With November coming to a close a full week ago, my total word count came in at just a shade above 4,000 words. That's a decent length for a short story, but far short of the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words (which is itself somewhat short of novel length, traditionally 60,000 words or more). November simply wasn't a good month for me. Apart from the Thanksgiving holiday and associated travel, I had all manner of challenges present themselves to me this month. I had some medical issues to take care of, there was the funeral for a relative I got to be pall bearer for, family issues and a host of other little things that added up to exhaustion--both emotional and physical. Some nights it was all I could do to crawl into bed at 10 p.m., which is traditionally when my writing time begins. Couple that with the fact that I am by no means a fast writer, and this endeavor was clearly doomed from the start.

I never intended to write 50,000 words. I think I've written 2,500-plus words in one day exactly once in my life. My goal was the still-ambitious (for me) 30,000 word mark, which would've demanded an average of 1,000 words a day. That's doable, but would demand more hours in a day than I can normally spare. I ended up averaging a modest 500 words a day. Divide my 4,000-word total by that rate and you'll see the ugly truth: out of 30 days in November, I actually wrote productively on just eight of them.

The good news is that I intended NaNoWriMo to simply kickstart Sailing Venus, and this is has. I completed the first chapter and part of the second. I've outlined the entire novel, something I've never done before, and I continue to work on it. Hopefully, without any major headwinds like I experienced in November, I can have the first draft wrapped up sometime this summer. I wouldn't complain about that at all. And now, just to show that I am doing real, for-true writing on this story, I offer the following worldbuilding snippet:

The disembarking station curved around the berth, an unremarkable seamed white wall and slate gray carpet. Ages before, several mobile columns of ivy had been positioned at aesthetic intervals to break up the functional monotony of the room. Through neglect, all the ivy had died, leaving the bare, scalloped columns, now oddly threatening without vegetation to soften their hard edges.

To the left of the rightmost column, the large airlock hatch scissored open.

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Oakland 1977
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Friday, December 06, 2013

Friday Night Videos: Mandela edition

Nelson Mandela died yesterday at the age of 95. As I've said elsewhere, I shed no tears for Mandela's passing, because how can one be sad for a life so well-lived?

Although I've lived my life 9,000 miles away from South Africa, Mandela has been a major public figure my entire adult life. When I first arrived at Texas A&M as a callow youth the fall of 1988, I didn't know anything about Apartheid, had never witnessed the chronic, overt racism that blighted our own country even during the years of my childhood. I was sheltered, yes, but also naive and unobservant. During most of my college years, I maintained this blissful ignorance: during my years at A&M, the student body elected its first black student body president in Stephen Ruth as well as the first black Yell Leader in Ronnie McDonald.

But I did witness something that sticks with me to this day. Between the Academic and Harrington buildings on campus, the student group "Aggies Against Apartheid" had secured a demonstration permit from the university and erected an "apartheid shack." The tumble-down structure was painted with slogans against the oppressive South African government. About once a week the shack was destroyed by vandals at night, only to be rebuilt a few days later. While nobody ever spoke openly in favor of apartheid, there were always plenty of students--sometimes from the Corps of Cadets, sometimes from fraternities, sometimes unaffiliated with any organized group--decrying the shack in the pages of the Battalion as an "eyesore" that deserved to be destroyed and removed. This battle went on throughout most of 1989, culminating with the ruins of the destroyed shack lying untouched and un-rebuilt for the better part of a semester, the debris taken away only after South Africa's apartheid laws were officially repealed in 1990. That give and take opened my eyes for the first time to the hypocrisy of some people intent on making a political statement, yet at the same time disavowing any negative consequences their stance might provoke (in this case, being rightly branded as a bigot). Seeing some of the venomous attacks against Mandela from right wingers today, I have to wonder about those who destroyed the apartheid shack back in the day. Did they truly believe their actions were not racist? Did they somehow convince themselves their opposition to those protesting apartheid did not constitute support for a violent, oppressive, racist regime? When justification of bitter resentment toward "the other" has to constantly be prefaced with, "I'm not racist, but..." maybe self-delusion and denial has taken root far more deeply than that person is willing to admit. What they really mean is, "I'm not racist, but I wish apartheid was still in effect because it really put blacks in their place." "I'm not racist, but things were so much better under Jim Crow." "I'm not racist, but slavery was da bomb."

The international community didn't just decide one day to pressure South Africa into scrapping its evil divided state. A grassroots movement, arising from college campuses across the U.S. and the world drew attention to the problem. Drew attention to Stephen Biko's death and Mandela's political imprisonment. Artists and governments followed. Corporations pulled out of South Africa--slowly and reluctantly to be sure--but the stigma grew too great. Determined, persistent youth effected change in the world, leading to the end of apartheid and the release of Mandela from prison in 1990. That was a good thing, and regardless of the strife South Africa is going through these days, the world remains a better place for it.

Anyway, enough pontificating. Here's Little Steven Van Zant and Artists United Against Apartheid with "Sun City."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Lindsey Buckingham.

Now Playing: Derek and the Dominoes The Layla Sessions
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Friday, November 29, 2013

Friday Night Videos

Okay, the annual Thanksgiving pilgrimages to visit the family, in-laws, relations and friends-of-relations, not to mention spending untold hours in the car with squabbling kids as we trek from one destination to another, battling crazy holiday traffic, has come to a close. I hope. I have to say, Lindsey Buckingham sums the experience up nicely.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Pink Floyd.

Now Playing: Dire Straits On the Night
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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Count me among the many fans of Suzanne Collins' dystopian teenage arena combat novel The Hunger Games. It's a tight, lean piece of writing, with subtle and deft foreshadowing, sly detail and above all, an engaging sense of purpose. It's not hard to see how YA audiences far an wide fell in love with the reluctant, bow-slinging heroine, Katniss Everdeen. The follow-up, Catching Fire, suffers in comparison. Here, sequel-itis is in full bloom, with Collins trying to give the audience more of what made the first book so popular, but simultaneously adding new elements and raising the stakes so that the narrative isn't just a re-hash of the first book. The foreshadowing is not quite so deft, the plot not so tight. The story meanders a bit, particularly through the first half of the book, as Collins devotes a lot more of her writing efforts to back story and world building. She also does a good bit of set-up for the final book in the series, Mockingjay, and that undercuts some of the effectiveness of Catching Fire, which is very much a "middle book." As for Mockingjay, Collins didn't stick the landing. I see what Collins is trying to do with the book, a big meta statement on the consequences and inhumanity of using child soldiers in warfare, turning the revolution into one, big, kill-or-be-killed Hunger Game, and the Capital itself into a chaotic arena. The reality of war crimes and unintended consequences are a major driving force here. But it doesn't hold together. Mockingjay reads, to me, like a first draft that Collins rushed to get finished in order to make contractual deadlines. Foreshadowing here amounts to telegraphing what's going to happen at the end of the chapter. There's a lot of narrative flailing going on, political intrigue that isn't all that intriguing, clumsy infodumps and a general uncertainty about how all these loose ends are going to be tied up. The arena battles and traps, so crisply defined and clear in the first two books, are vague and baffling and--more often than not--nonsensical. But worst of all, Katniss is very, very passive in the final book, not driving the narrative, but instead watching from the sidelines as most of the action takes place without her until the final quarter of the book. Even then, her actions aren't really of her own accord, as she's essentially set up by The Powers That Be. Given another six months to do tightening and rewrites, I expect Collins would produce a book worthy of the first in the series. As it is, many readers are disappointed with Mockingjay, and with good reason, I say.

Which brings us to Catching Fire, the second installment of the Hunger Games movie franchise, which will be four films once all is said and done, as Mockingjay is being split into two films (I'll wager Peter Jackson is kicking himself for not doing this with Return of the King). I did not like the original Hunger Games movie. The acting was fine, and the film dutifully ticked off most of the high points of the novel, but it felt cold and distant to me. One feature of the novels is that everything is so intimate, so closely tied to Katniss' point of view. That was missing from the movie. There was no intimacy. Rue's death is pretty much the only part of the film I liked better than the book. For everything else, there seemed a distinct lack of gravity, of danger, of pain, of suffering. I understand director Gary Ross was trying to tone down a violent, R-rated book narrative to a family-friendly PG-13 rating, but I felt he neutered the entire theme. Without suffering, without consequences, the entire reason for the Hunger Games books is lost.

Catching Fire is very, very different. I went in skeptical. If the strongest book in the series resulted in such an underwhelming film, then what hope was there for a lesser book? Quite a bit, actually. Director Francis Lawrence is a tremendous upgrade over Ross, and I'm as shocked to write that as anybody. This is the guy who gave us Constantine and I Am Legend, two movies guaranteed not to instill the viewer with confidence. Yet he does excellent work with Catching Fire, keeping the narrative moving without feeling infodump-y, conveying the bleak turmoil of the districts, and crucially, Katniss' emotional suffering and slow, psychological unraveling. The violence is more real here than in the previous film, despite most of the deaths and fighting taking place off-camera. There's fear, concern, pain, pathos here the other film lacked. And that doesn't mean there's simply more gore. There's not much actual blood shown at all, come to think of it. Instead, most is implied (except for Gale's whipping--hoo boy, is that painfully graphic!) and that shows a remarkable confidence and subtlety from director Lawrence. Look, we all know Jennifer Lawrence is one of her generation's great actresses, so I won't waste time praising her performance (although I will question the necessity of having her go the whole movie wearing that weird spray tan. Seriously, that was distracting). Josh Hutcherson as Peta doesn't have very much to do other than look earnest, although his "if it wasn't for the baby" moment brings down the house. Liam Helmsworth as Gale gets a bit more character development this time around, but it's Willow Shields' Prim that comes off as the most changed since the first film, a more confident and assertive character, inspired by her sister's sacrifice. Woody Harrelson's Haymitch was far and away the single worst element of the first film, and director Lawrence must agree with me, because Harrelson's mugging for the camera is scaled way back. If they can find some way of writing him out of the Mockingjay films all together, I'll be one happy camper.

Catching Fire does everything the first film attempted to do, but does it all much, much better. On top of that it raises the stakes, introduces more characters and makes them distinct and memorable. It is a more emotional and intimate film, and at the same time the spectacle surpasses what has gone before. This film has backbone and bite. Some have compared this to The Empire Strikes Back, but that's a superficial comparison because 1) they're both "bridge" films and 2) both end in cliffhangers with a beloved character in the hands of the enemy. These are two very different films, with very different goals and intentions. Such comparisons do a disservice to both. Catching Fire isn't a truly great film, at least by my standards. It shouldn't earn Best Picture nominations from the Academy Awards, although there may be some individual awards in store for the cast and crew. But that's not damning with faint praise. Catching Fire is a very good movie, and I recommend it for anyone who wants a little substance to go along with their popcorn entertainment this holiday season.

Now Playing: Ali Farka Touré & Ry Cooder Talking Timbuktu
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Monday, November 25, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 46: Encouragement/Discouragement

La Grange Chicken Ranch brass token (fake)I am rapidly closing in on a full year in my agent hunting quest. Today, I mailed off 10 proposal packages, some of which included sample chapters, some not, in accordance with the various target agents' submission guidelines. I started out with a carefully considered list of 80 potential agents when I began this thing. These 10 are the final names on my list. Amongst the previous 70 agents I have submitted to are some of the giants in the field. Agents who pretty much deal exclusively in New York Times bestsellers and nominees for various literary awards. Newer agents, start-up and every type in between were in the mix as well. Essentially, if the agent/agency had a legitimate track record and represented non-fiction, specifically history (but women's issues were a plus) then they made my list.

A small percentage of the agents never responded to my queries and/or proposal, which is poor form, but not terribly uncommon. Another subset quickly but professionally informed me that my Chicken Ranch book is not the type of work they're comfortable repping. Fair enough. I get that. The remainder... sigh. The remainder have responded positively. They like my query, and request my formal proposal. They like my proposal, and request sample chapters. They think the sample chapters are good, and request the entire manuscript. A week or three later, they respond with some variation of, "I think this is a very good book with commercial potential, but..." That single "but" is soul-crushing, folks.

A top agent recently said good things about the manuscript, but... he thought it'd be more interesting as a first-person Hunter S. Thompson gonzo journalistic piece. If I rewrote it into a completely different book, he'd take another look at it and might consider repping me. Another agent thought my book was perfect as-is, but... had to pass because my "platform" wasn't high-profile enough. Their editorial contacts wouldn't consider work from authors with fewer than 100,000 Twitter followers, see. Still another saw potential in the topic, but... thought my writing style too fluid, not treating the history with enough deference for potential academic audiences. Another thought the prostitution angle great, but... wanted me to take out all the endnotes and citations, add graphic sex and turn it into a salacious tell-all. But... there's been so much published about the Chicken Ranch the market is saturated. But... there's very little published about the Chicken Ranch, that means there is no market. But... nobody has ever heard of the Chicken Ranch, so there is no audience for this book. But... everyone already knows the story from "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," so there is no audience for this book.

Not a single agent rejected the book because the writing sucked. They found other reasons for rejecting the book, sometimes describing to me in excruciating detail how they talked themselves out of it. If they just said, "This is terrible. I couldn't get beyond the third page," I could understand that. I could accept that. I wouldn't like it, but it would make sense. This brave new publishing world in which a book's worthiness is evaluated by everything but the quality of the work in question is confounding.

So, where do we go from here? If this final round of agent queries falls into the quagmire of buts..., then I will move on to querying regional and specialty publishers that do not require an agent for submissions. These have less leverage in the marketplace, yes, and pay much smaller advances (if at all) but they do know their target markets and have well-established distribution networks, which is no small consideration. I am hesitant to approach university/academic publishers, because frankly, they've got some very strange phobias about primary sources, ie interviews, used in books. Being the cynical journalist that I am, I'd rather not go down that route.

So what happens, god forbid, if the regional presses turn me down? Since I started this project however many years ago, certain parties have been lobbying me hard to self-publish. I am reluctant to do so for a wide array of reasons, chief among them the near-impossibility of getting any sort of distribution for a self-published book. Yes, I believe this book could be successful as a self-published work, but I don't want to spend the rest of my life selling it out of the trunk of my car and begging bookstores to place a few copies on their consignment shelves. Having my byline in print is no big motivator for me--I've had my name in print around the world, and more clippings and credits on top of that. I don't just want to have this book published, I want it in front of people. I want it noticed. I want it read far and wide. I don't want 3,000 copies sitting in boxes in my garage. Some have suggested I could circumvent all of these hurdles by going the Kickstarter route to fund a print run. Which sounds good on the face of it, but I've looked into a little, and books just don't do well on Kickstarter. Printed matter just isn't terribly sexy for the online set. Yes, I could possibly make it work with careful planning and laying a lot of groundwork, but once you get down to it, publishing, book design, sourcing press run bids and the accounting needed to make it all work lies way outside my skill set. And I've seen plenty of gosh-wow worthy Kickstarters wither on the vine simply because they failed to capture the imagination of the interwebz. Not everyone can be John Picacio.

That's where we stand today. I share this not to wallow in self-pity or invite sympathy, but to educate and inform. This is the cruel reality of publishing, even for someone who plays (mostly) by the rules while keeping an eye on the alternatives. Lest you think I'm only about doom and gloom, I do have two pieces of moderately good news to share: I've received my first two cover blurbs for the book!

"Jayme Blaschke has done a superb job in telling the story of the famous (or infamous, if you prefer) Chicken Ranch of La Grange, Texas. He delves into the perhaps mythical history of its ancestor, Mrs. Swine's establishment. He deals affectionately with civic benefactor Miss Edna and her boarders, as well as their protector and civic leader, Fayette County Sheriff Jim Flournoy.

This is the best account of the Best Little Whorehouse In Texas ever written."

                 – Former five-term Texas Lt. Governor William P. "Bill" Hobby, Jr.
Not a bad endorsement for a book that doesn't even have an agent, much less a publisher, eh? I'm just as proud of this next one:

"Broadway and motion pictures popularized--and trivialized--the story of the famed Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange, Texas. The real story is far more interesting, presenting a mirror to mores and conventions not just in that one locale, but for much of America. From its heyday to its ignominious demise, the Chicken Ranch was the story of enterprise, politics, power, and even patriotism, writ in the garish hues of cheap makeup. Jayme Blaschke's [book] is a compelling and brilliantly researched exploration of a unique icon of Texas history and society, and what its rise and fall says about America. One comes away with the feeling that when outside pressure finally closed down the Chicken House, it was an act of cultural vandalism."

                                   – William C.Davis, author of Three Roads to the Alamo
                                                                                               and Lone Star Rising
Davis' stamp of approval means a great deal to me. I'm not a historian. I'm a journalist by background, and I approached the whole Chicken Ranch project as and investigative journalism piece. It was no small fear of mine that professional historians would turn up their noses at it, pointing out everything I did wrong. The fact that Mr. Davis not only liked it, but was enthusiastic in his approval, is extremely gratifying (and a tremendous relief). If you get a chance, check out his publication history. He's one of the heavy-hitters when it comes to Southern U.S. history.

So, that is where things currently stand. I know people are impatient and have waited a long time to read this book. I just ask for a little more patience. I'm working hard to get it into print, but in the right way that ensures this story is seen by the maximum number of people. We're getting closer, even it doesn't seem like it.

Now Playing: The Pretenders The Singles
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Friday, November 22, 2013

Friday Night Videos

In honor of the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who and all the mayhem that goes along with it, this week's video is Pink Floyd's classic "One of These Days." Why Pink Floyd? Listen carefully around the 2:20 mark.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Sting.

Now Playing: Electric Light Orchestra Afterglow
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Monday, November 18, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 45: Vive La Grange!

Fayette Public Library, Fayette Heritage Museum and Archives, La Grange Texas
La Grange, I love you! And I will fight anyone who says a bad thing about your town!

Folks, if you missed my Sunday presentation at the Fayette Public Library in La Grange, you missed one humdinger of a show. I am not one normally given over to hyperbole, but we had ourselves one heck of a shindig there. I stopped counting at 50 people crowding into the conference room at the library. Every single chair was taken and plenty of people took to standing in the back and sitting on side tables, with more slipping in even after I'd begun talking. I'm telling you, the people just kept coming. We taxed that poor old air conditioning system to its limits, I'm afraid. It got a wee bit warm in there with so many folks packed close together, but we made it work!

I will admit to a certain degree of uncertainty on my part going into the event. As I told the audience, it seems that 40 percent of the local populace are enthused and excited about my Chicken Ranch research, another 50 percent--those too young to remember, or newcomers to the community--are somewhat indifferent and the remaining 10 percent believe I'm an agent of Satan for daring to look into the history of the brothel. If that latter 10 percent showed up, I could've been in deep trouble. Fortunately for me, the crowed consisted exclusively of 40 percenters, and the enthusiasm and support they showed me is profoundly gratifying. One lady had severely injured herself in a fall, yet despite her obvious discomfort, she was determined to meet me and get a copy of Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch. That means a lot to me. It makes me feel that all this work I've invested into this crazy research actually matters. And you know what? A lot of other folks there must've felt the same way, because I sold out of every copy I had with me. To be honest, I'd have given the presentation even without selling a single book, but that kind of positive affirmation sure does make the sky a little bluer and the sun shine a little brighter!

I had some great conversations with more than a few people who knew Miss Edna personally, and lived through those insane days back in 1973. Nobody booed me and said I got my facts wrong. Nobody threw rotten vegetables. I explained the history of the failed Chicken Ranch restaurant in Dallas (which a number of folks were curious about), the origins of the "Chicken Ranch burned down rumors" and the connections between the Chicken Ranch brothel in Nevada and the one in La Grange (there aren't any). It was a whole heck of a lot of fun, and my one regret is that it ended too quickly. Like General Douglas MacArthur, I will return some day--if not for my exhaustive history book on the Chicken Ranch, then for another go-round or two for Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch. You see, after my presentation I was approached an asked if I might come back to give an encore performance for some local church groups...

Now Playing: Emerson, Lake and Palmer The Return of the Manticore
Chicken Ranch Central

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Friday, November 15, 2013

Friday Night Videos

It's been a rough week here. A stupid, juvenile back-and-forth in a classroom at my daughter's high school Tuesday escalated between periods with one boy punching 15-year-old Logan Davidson several times in the face. It ended with Davidson dying from subarachnoid hemorrhaging in a San Antonio hospital, and the other boy in juvenile detention facing potential homicide charges. There are all manner of baseless rumors swirling around right now, and even some "blame the victim" arguments being made. That's all bullshit. Every year I have to cope with student deaths at the university, and the most tragic of these stem from stupid, wrong-headed decision making. This high school death, even though I'm further removed from it, is infinitely worse. So much potential is lost, so many opportunities to turn from this disastrous path were ignored. There are many consequences. There are many victims. There are no winners. There is no way to put a happy face on this horrible, senseless and pointless death.

Life is full of unintended consequences. We, as a society have to recognize that, accept it and live with it instead of always trying to justify and explain away responsibility. It may be trite, but I'm not in a terribly creative mood today. Sting sums up my overwhelming sense of dismay--at least to an extent--with "I Hung My Head." I would say enjoy, but I don't think that's possible.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Sheila E..

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Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What's Jayme Drinking?

Samuel Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout
I've never been much into chocolate stouts. Granted, the only one I regularly see on the shelves is Young's Double Chocolate Stout. It sounds good in theory, but in practice it's pretty much just a bitter, dark stout with little in the way of chocolate--at least not any more than any other stout. That's why comparing Young's to Samuel Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout is so damn unfair. Smith's is a ringer if ever there was one. It's good. Hoo boy, is it good.

This beer pours almost black, opaque and impenetrable. A nice, dense, toffee-colored head forms and lingers. There's a good bit of lacing here as well. One sniff and you know Smith's isn't playing around with the chocolate aspect--the chocolate aroma overpowers pretty much everything else. I've seen comments online that liken the scent to milk chocolate, but who are they kidding? There's a rough edge to this that suggests dark chocolate all the way. So you go in to the first sip, expecting maybe a nice chocolaty aftertaste following the malt or maybe hops, but no, it's BAM! Dark chocolate in your face! I'm serious, this thing is like drinking liquid dark chocolate. There is a nice, bitter undertone that balances the overall sweetness--this is a sweet beer indeed. Now, when I say it tastes like dark chocolate, I don't mean the hard core, 80-90 percent stuff. This is a sweet stout, after all. It's more along the order of 60-70 percent. But still, that's a far cry from the sugary, blandness of milk chocolate. The mouthfeel is very good for this type, medium-bodied, not too thin and not syrupy as you might expect from my description. Carbonation is deeply held and not released easily, so this beer, while not even remotely fizzy, stays active a long time. Served cold, it tastes overwhelmingly of chocolate. As it warms, notes of oak, vanilla and leather kinda sorta make an appearance, but really, the dark chocolate just muscles up even more like the Incredible Hulk and beats them into submission. I keep half-expecting to crunch on a gritty chocolate nib any moment now. This is a dark beer that professed haters of dark beer fall in love with. I know, I've done the field work.

Unlike some other dark, sweet, strong-flavored beers, Samuel Smith's Organic Chocolate Stout boasts an alcohol content of only 5 percent, so there's not much of a danger of it sneaking up on you like some Belgian ales I favor. But it is a bold, powerful beer. This isn't something to sit around drinking during the big game. This is a showcase beer, reserved for dessert or an evening nightcap or to impress your friends. It's not an every day beverage, but when the mood hits, you'll know exactly what hits the spot.

Now Playing: Dire Straits On the Night
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, November 11, 2013

Sailing Venus: The creative process

I believe it is safe to say, by any objective measure, that I stink at this whole NaNoWriMo concept. According to the online word cruncher, I've written just a shade over 2,600 words. By my standard manuscript page counting method, I've topped out at almost 3,200 words. By any metric, that's anemic production for a write-a-thon challenge where the goal is 50,000 words in a single month.

Still, I have reached a few milestones. That 2,600 words represents a completed first chapter. And I've already introduced revisions to my story outline as well as made a handful of interesting discovers--things that just popped up in the course of writing--that should serve me well farther down the line.

I'm nowhere near the 1K daily average I'd hoped for, but progress is progress. Not awful, considering I'm still in the worldbuilding/setup phase without strong plot forces kicking in yet to drive the narrative.

I'm writing Sailing Venus differently than I've written any other fiction. Because I had such an overwhelming amount of information, the Chicken Ranch book forced me to outline it out of necessity. I don't enjoy outlining, but found it useful for that non-fiction project, even though I found myself revising the outline repeatedly. So, I committed to outlining. In fact, I went a step further--I sketched out the narrative structure of Sailing Venus using Blake Snyder's beat sheet (adapted for novel-length work as opposed to screenplays), with additional influences from Dan Decker's Anatomy of a Screenplay. Apart from the "what happens when" framework the basic outline gives, these other approaches help clarify specific character arcs and thematic elements. Using their nomenclature, I've wrapped up the "opening image" with Chapter 1 and am moving into the "theme stated" phase with Chapter 2. There's overlap, of course--these ideas have fuzzy edges rather than sharp boundaries--but my story concept is hewing pretty closely to the model, much to my surprise and delight.

"Opening image," equates to a lot of worldbuilding in a very short amount of time, conveying the idea of a dangerous, expansive world and a complex method of transport in this environment (Spoiler alert! The events in Sailing Venus do, in fact, take place on Venus). I feel I have to establish how technically challenging it is to successfully pilot the futuristic sailplane Windsprint immediately, so that later on, when the story intensifies, readers already have this understanding hardwired into their perceptions. I won't need to waste time or momentum re-hashing these details. This is a deliberate worldbuilding and narrative structure choice decided upon by your humble author. Granted, that's a relatively straightforward application of strategy, but I hope to impart some behind-the-scenes appreciation of the writing process with these mini-essays. My writing process, at least.

"Theme stated," for me, is entirely about character development. Anatomy of a Screenplay defines this section as establishing character structure, drive structure and the objective opponent. In this, Erica's immediate objective opponent is her father, as they have a contentious relationship and can't quite seem to find any common ground despite good faith effort on both their parts. This is the core of the character arc as well as a recurrent theme throughout the book. It provides subtext to every scene--he father is a looming presence even when he's not around. So, classic YA territory here.

But this is a science fiction adventure, inspired by the great Winston juveniles. The real antagonist is Venus itself. This breaks hard from the directives found in Anatomy of a Screenplay, which insists on a character antagonist. I found myself acutely conscious of this conflict as I read taht book, but that work is very clear that its focus is wholly on the Hollywood story model, so it isn't 100 percent applicable to my story needs. But I did find elements I could readily apply to my novel, despite not fitting the norm. If Man vs. Nature was good enough for Jack London, then it (in this case, Girl vs. Planet) is good enough for me. Venus is quite sincerely out to kill every human who approaches it, and is relentless in its determination. In this way, Venus wholly fills the role of antagonist, even though the planet lacks any motivation or intent. Venus simply is, and literally has the resources of an entire world to throw at our protagonist. The fact that it is utterly indifferent to the Erica's fate, I believe, makes the scenario all the more chilling.

Now Playing: Johann Sebastian Bach Harpsichord Concertos 1
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, November 08, 2013

Friday Night Videos

Sheila E. burst upon the music scene in the mid-80s with the rollicking, intense single "The Glamorous Life." I liked it so much that I immediately ordered the album (cassette tape) from the CBS Music Club. Remember that? Anyway, I got it. And it sucked, big time. As energetic and infectious as "Glamorous Life" was, the rest was turgid filler. I still don't list Sheila E. among the endless number of talentless Prince proteges--if nothing else, she remains one hell of a drummer--but his influence clearly shows. I wonder if somehow The Purple One is a talent vampire, sucking it out of those closest to him in order to fuel his insane creativity? Anyway, here's Sheila E. at her prime:

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Ray Parker Jr..

Now Playing: Various Artists Asian Groove
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The genius that is Picacio

The great John Picacio has one of those Kickstarter campaigns under way. If you haven't jumped on board with your support yet, do so now. You've got six days to go. The project's already funded, and stretch goals are adding up, so that's considered a "win-win" situation in common parlance.

Have you gotten that taken care of? Good. Now listen up, because I'm not likely to repeat this outside the friendly confines of a SF convention: John Picacio is pure, unadulterated genius. I don't say that lightly. It wasn't enough that the Hand of God reached down and blessed him with a singular artistic vision and talent to match (not taking away from the years of study and effort John put into developing that talent, by the way). It wasn't enough that John is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet--and by that, I don't mean he's "passive nice" in a quietly inoffensive way. No, he's pro-actively nice, in that he uses his success as a platform to try and improve the lot of his peers, his non-peers and strangers who don't know him from Adam alike. He's humble without false modesty. On top of that, he goes out of his way to simply make people feel good.

But above and beyond, the man is smart. I don't have access to his inner circle, or have been graced with a peek behind the curtains, but from my vantage point, he is developing his Lone Boy company shrewdly, with a laser-like strategic focus. That is reflected in his Kickstarter campaigns. Now, John has a massive following in the speculative fiction community. He needs a U-Haul truck to cart around all his Hugo, World Fantasy and Chesley Awards. So last year, when he produced an art calendar of his "greatest hits," he had a ready audience. Many artists would be content with this, but not John. He's expanded his playing field a thousand-fold by producing original calendar art based on images from the Loteria card game:

This. Is. Genius. Have I used this word too much? Impossible. Look, I've lived my entire life in Texas and grown up as exposed to Tejano culture as a fat white kid from the country can be, but I'd never heard of La Loteria. Now, imagine tens of thousands of other genre fans across the country who don't know tomatillos from vaqueros. They don't know La Loteria either, but they do know gorgeous, fantastical artwork on oversized tarot-style cards. They're all in for a calendar featuring this work. Now pause a moment and consider the tens of millions of Tejanos, Mexican-Americans and Mexican nationals who grew up playing this game and have a deep-seated affection for it? And how would they respond to something many consider kitschy folk art being elevated, if not venerated, as high art? Now it starts to become clear. John is tapping into cultural cross-currents leavened with a generous amount of magical realism that has the potential to turn him into an artistic brand (if I may use so crude and crass a term for something so elegant) with far and enduring reach. And genre fans will buy whatever collectible editions of the game John produces as well, because, damn, have you seen how stunning the art is? A Picacio-designed tarot deck seems the obvious next step, but truth to tell, John's not built himself a successful career by being obvious. At conventions, I'll catch him alone for a moment and ask about an obscure, unexpected or off-the-wall idea that's struck me about his flourishing career, and invariably he'll respond with a sly, "What have you heard?" followed by a quick, "We'll talk later." John literally has more irons in the fire at one time than the average person has in a lifetime, but he keeps them all quiet until he wants to unveil them.

There are times I wonder what would've happened had John pursued his initial career as an architect instead of taking that leap of faith into the uncertain world of genre art. Sure, an architectural career seems staid and dull from the outside, consisting of drafting the next CVS Pharmacy or strip mall to go up in the suburbs, but really, is it possible to believe John Picacio being staid and dull in any career he pursues? He may well have become the next Frank Lloyd Wright, albeit with a distinct and original vision that's compared to Wright simply because no other architect has attained such stature in the U.S. even though their styles couldn't be more dissimilar. Part of me the wonders Picacio-the-architect would've given us, but is usually shouted down by the part of me that revels in Picacio-the-artist. But judging from his past track record and sly, unpredictable strategic thinking, who am I to say that John's inevitable world domination doesn't also include breathtaking architectural marvels as well?

That's the beauty of genius. It knows no bounds.

Now Playing: Gustav Holst The Planets
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Sailing Venus: And we're off

Here we are, five days into this NaNoWriMo thing, and one thing is becoming very, very clear: This novel writing stuff is hard! Now I remember why I used to just write short stories--they're not any easier, mind you, but you get to the end of an 8,000-word novelette a heck of a lot quicker than a 90,000-word novel (even tho NaNoWriMo only requires 50,000 words, we all know better). Despite having outlined approximately half of Sailing Venus, this first chapter has progressed slowly. Very slowly. Pulling teeth slowly. After four days--only two of which I've managed any actual writing--I've put a grand total of 1,000 words on paper. That's four page. In two days. Ugh.

A big part of the problem is that I'm still getting to know my characters. I have a vague notion of their personalities in broad strokes, but other than certain specific topics, I don't really know how they'd respond to general situations, how they'd talk about various things. Their speech patterns and phrasings are still a mystery in a broad sense. Add on top of that a profoundly hostile environment and my own vague notions of how the physics would work in these situations, and I've got a situation where I spend most of my time pondering plausible dialogue when I'm not flipping through my notes and reference books for clarifications.

"Now hold on," you might be saying about now. "NaNoWriMo isn't about checking notes or getting dialogue right--it's about vomiting copious volumes of words onto the page at a breakneck pace!" Well, that may be true for most folk, but nobody's ever going to mistake me for Robert Silverberg in terms of output. A certain degree of self-editing and pre-editing is inherent in my writing process. Leaving something obviously wrong in my manuscript uncorrected is a burr under my saddle, a distraction, an irritant that undermines subsequent writings. So, I write as I do, hoping the cumulative total at some point equals a book worth reading. Here's a small sample of what I've produced thus far, just so you can appreciate the depths of my struggle:

A shrill bleating interrupted her.

"That was a short 20 kilometers," Sigfried said, checking his harness.

"Nanny keeps me on a short leash." Erica sat up, tightening her harness. She gripped the yoke, thumbing the control surface of the central column. The bleating intensified. "Not today, autopilot. Altitude, 56,280 meters. Wind speed, 71 meters per second. You ready, Sigfried?"

"I hate this part."

Erica grinned. "I love it."

Windsprint pivoted under Erica’s control. The long wings flattened, contracted, compressing the hydrogen gas to negative buoyancy. The keel telescoped in, narrowing to a sliver. The sail plane dove into the teeth of the gale.

No, it doesn't exactly sparkle beautifully in the sunlight, but then again, what does? Hopefully, once I get through Chapter 1 and into the meat of the set-up, the words will flow a little easier than they do in these introductory scenes. At least, that's what I'm telling myself.

Now Playing: Sade The Best of Sade
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, November 04, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 44: La Grange date!

For all you folks who missed out on my presentation last month at the library in Columbus, I've got some good news for you: On Sunday, November 17, I'll be giving a presentation at the Fayette Public Library/Heritage Museum and Archives! The show starts at 2 p.m. and should wrap up around 3:30.

Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch

I will be giving a reading and book signing for Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch. The event is free and open to the public. Copies of the book will be available to purchase for anyone who is interested in getting a head start on their Christmas shopping this year!

I'm super-jazzed about this event. Sheri, and Kathy before here, have been tremendous resources and very supportive of my research efforts into the Chicken Ranch. For anyone who hasn't been paying attention, I spent most of 2009-2012 researching and writing the definitive history of the Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange. This history goes way beyond the trite song and dance most people know from the motion picture version of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." It's far more complex and fascinating a history than most people--even those who lived through it--realize. 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the closure of the brothel, and my wife, professional photographer Lisa Elliott Blaschke, along with myself, edited and published a fine art book titled Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch in recognition of the anniversary. I will present a slideshow of images of the modern ruins from Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch as well as other, previously unpublished photos which will be included in the more exhaustive (and as-yet unpublished) history book. I'll read, "The Last Madam: The Unexpected Life of Edna Milton (1928-2012)" which I originally presented at the East Texas Historical Association fall conference in 2012. I'll also read some selected excerpts from the unpublished book, present a short but illuminating 11-minute video and engage in as much discussion as I'm able.

Now Playing: Istanpitta Exiled
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, October 31, 2013

So, NaNoWriMo is a thing...

I've been aware of the even of National Novel-Writing Month for a while now. It's always struck me as somewhat amusing, but I've never participated. Until now. It's with equal measures of apprehension and trepidation (yeah, I know) that I bit the bullet and created myself an account there. My username is jblaschke for those of you out there interested in such things.

In the past, I've not participated in NaNoWriMo for several reasons: 1) I usually had another project in the works and 2) I'm not a fast writer. Seriously. No way I could write a novel in a month, so why bother? I had a gut feeling that the emphasis of quantity over quality was missing the point somehow. I still do, to a certain extent. But there are some very specific reasons why I'm choosing to throw my hat into the ring this time around.

First and foremost is this post. Check out the date: 2005. I've been researching this book, in some form or another, for the better part of a decade. And it's no closer to being written now than it was back then. That is utterly and completely unacceptable. The procrastination ends now.

The next reasons are my children: Monkey Girl prods me every so often, as does Fairy Girl, reminding me that I've long promised to write something for them to read and enjoy... preferably before she graduates high school. And she's a freshman this year. She's also done NaNoWriMo these past two years, and has unsubtly hinted that I should join up and compete with her for daily wordcounts.

Finally, this baptism of fire that NaNoWriMo offers will serve as a sharp break from the whole Chicken Ranch book. I finished that book more than a year ago, but revisions, new interviews, agent hunting and the like have conspired to keep me mired in the project and the mindset that goes with it. Whilst writing fiction and non-fiction do indeed use the same set of writing tools an author develops over the course of a career, they use entirely different sets of writing muscles, if that makes any sense. My fiction muscles have atrophied a great deal. I've tried to limber them up by working on a couple of incomplete short stories, and while that helped some, more short fiction isn't going to jump-start my career at this point. To a great extent, short fiction has become an avoidance strategy keeping me from the (intimidating) commitment novels demand.

So, in that context, I'm using NaNoWriMo as leverage to jump-start Sailing Venus. I have no intent to produce 50,000 words by the end of the month. I don't think that's a remotely attainable goal for me. But I am setting myself a goal of 30,000 words. That's right at four pages a day--some days I'll write more, others, none at all (I'm cognizant of the demands on my life). Producing 30,000 words is reasonable, but by no means easy. Or a given. Even getting close to that mark will put me about a third of the way through the novel, which is a win any way you look at it.

I'll be sharing more thoughts about this process, which will be substantially different from any other writing project I've undertaken in the past. Stay tuned.

Now Playing: Boiled in Lead Old Lead
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, October 25, 2013

Friday Night Videos

Wow, this week has been utterly exhausting! I had a number of blogs planned, but lo and behold, it's Friday already and time for a video. Since Halloween is next week I'll keep it pretty straightforward and go with Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters"--one of those rare songwriting plagiarism cases where the plaintiff wins. In this case, it was Huey Lewis. Huey probably wouldn't have won his case had ho not had documented meetings with the movie's producers stating they wanted him to write and perform a theme song similar to "I Want A New Drug." When Huey turned them down, they apparently said the same thing to Ray. Oops.

This is one of those movie tie-in videos that exists mainly as an advertisement of the film. Note how about half the video it taken up with clips. Not that it mattered--folks were nuts for Ghostbusters back in the day, and the silly cameos--not to mention the Ghostbusters themselves making an appearance and breakdancing (!)--made this one a cut above the type. Amusing fact--Chevy Chase actually burned the inside of his mouth with that cigarette trick.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Matt Nathanson.

Now Playing: Christopher Franke Babylon 5: Messages from Earth
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, October 18, 2013

Friday Night Videos

Why have I not heard of Matt Nathanson before now? His "Kinks Shirt" single has become my earworm of choice of late, for obvious reasons. The video, directed by Bobcat Goldthwait (yes, that Bobcat Goldthwait) is quite amusing in its own right. While I, as a writer, have some problems with the narrative structure that doesn't really play fair with the viewing audience, pretty much anyone who is at all familiar with the Kinks' biggest hits know where this is going from the opening frame. Kudos for Nathanson for playing along with the joke.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Cult.

Now Playing: The Kinks The Great Lost Kinks Album
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What's Jayme dinking?

Le Terrible Beer Unibroue
Today was one of those very much not good days. Suffice to say, once I got home I wanted something to drink to help me relax and chase away the tension currently grinding the bones of my back and shoulders into powder. In my mind, there was no debate: Time to pull out the big gun. Where beer is concerned, the "Big Gun" is Le Terrible, a dark Belgian from the Quebec brewery Unibroue. Now, I'm not going to lie--most of the time I plan on using this "What's Jayme drinking" feature to share my first impressions when sampling a new brew, but in this case, Terrible is far and away my favorite beer/ale of all time. I have a waitress from the Flying Saucer in Austin to thank for this discovery. When she asked what I wanted, I told her to surprise me. After ascertaining I wasn't a hop-head and that IPAs were right out, she came back with this wonder. With most beers, I have to consider them for a while before I know what my long-term feelings are. Not this time. Love at first sip? Pretty much.

A word of warning, if you're only used to drinking watered-down horse piss like Budweiser, Coors and the like, this ale will knock you on your ass. It's alcohol content is 10.5 percent, which is higher than some wines. What's more, you can't really taste it. Tread carefully.

It pours a rich coffee umber, and is so dark in the glass as to be nearly opaque. The head is creamy and short-lived. The scent is spicy and decidedly un-beerlike, with hints of nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, dark fruits and a suggestion of citrus. It does, in fact, smell more like a mulled wine than a beer. So going in for that first sip, you know this is going to be a little different than your normal brew, but wow, not even the nose can prepare you. This is a big, malty brew, sweet as you'd expect, with a muscular, creamy mouthfeel. Carbonation struggles to be felt through the dense liquid. The flavor is fruity, yes, with plum and cherry notes, but there's a equal amount of bitter dark chocolate and coffee. Spicy undertones include nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves, along with some oak.

Simply put, this is a stunning beer. Bottle-fermented, it has all the complexity you'd want in a powerhouse Belgian and then some. Every time I come back to it, I remember how much I like it, but my memory of the rich tapestry of flavor exposed as but a poor after-image with every sip. Make no mistake, this is a sipping beer. It's weight and spice make it an ideal brew for cold winter nights, but the sweet frutiness is appropriate for summer sipping as well. In either case, this ale is at its best (in my opinion) when drunk at about 10-15 degrees below ambient temperature. It's fine straight out of the refrigerator, but as with most complex dark beers, the flavors unlock as it warms. Room temperature does nothing for the flavor, so slightly chilled works best. This ale is also a good option to spring on wine snob friends who dismiss beers as hopelessly unsophisticated. Especially if they like "complex" sweeter wines. I love a good Riesling, but unfortunately, most affordable Rieslings are pretty crappy affairs. And Moscatos, in my experience, are little more than alcoholic Kool-Aid. Hit 'em up with Terrible and they'll never quite look at beer the same way ever again.

So yeah, this is a good one. You can thank me later.

Now Playing: The Kinks Something Else
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 43: Columbus in the rear-view mirror

La Grange Chicken Ranch brass token (fake)Well, my speaking engagement at the Nesbitt Memorial Library in Columbus turned into a nice event. With the cold front threatening to turn the evening into a wet, sloppy mess, I was afraid everybody would stay home and my drive back to New Braunfels would be a trying one. Fortunately, things stayed dry. There was a nice turnout, the audience was curious and engaged, and everyone seemed to like what I had to share. Heck, I even sold a few books--including a couple copies of Voices of Vision, despite the insanely creepy cover. How cool is that?

All in all, yesterday was a good day for me. On top of the presentation, I received an encouraging response from a well-established agent. I've been down this road before, and know a simple "no" can dash my hopes within sight of the finish line, but still, it's encouraging. That, coupled with the response of the audience at the library, reenforces my confidence that a market does indeed exist for my Chicken Ranch history. The readers might not know they're waiting for the book, but they are. Universal disappointment came when I explained my history wasn't available, and that I couldn't even give them a publication date. Folks want this story. They want to know what really happened with the Chicken Ranch. That's enough to make me keep plugging away. I learned some other things as well:

  • Trim back some of my reading materials. I was so worried about not having enough content to fill my allotted time that I didn't leave room for much of a Q&A session.
  • The East Texas Historical Association paper I presented last year in Nacogdoches works well as reading material. The intro is a little too academic, but the meat of the paper is gripping, even outside of an academic setting. This is good to know.
  • Scale back the number of Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch images. Specifically, multiple shots/angles of the same thing. What works well in book form can get repetitive quickly on screen.
  • People really liked seeing the ruins and getting a virtual tour of the place. The years of neglect and vandalism sickened them as much as it does me.
  • People really, really liked seeing my historical photos, including the Chicken Ranch restaurant in Dallas and Miss Edna standing in the oh-so-tastefully-decorated parlor.
  • Keep a checklist so I don't forget anything. I was baffled as to how I end my presentation early (15 minutes ahead of time, to be precise). It wasn't until after the throngs had departed that I realized I'd completely forgotten about the 11 minute video I'd brought along. I screened it for the library staff, so it wasn't a total waste, but I'm kicking myself.
  • Bring multiple titles to a signing. I almost didn't bring Voices of Vision along, because it has absolutely nothing to do with the Chicken Ranch. But the $45 price of Ghosts was too steep for some (understandably enough) so they opted for the $15 interview collection instead. Ghosts will make a very good companion volume to take along when I'm touring for the history book (whenever that may be). Lots of potential here, yes indeed.
  • At its core, I have a very good Chicken Ranch presentation. This will play very well to audiences across the state, and can be tailored to specific audiences with minimal effort. Once I get the big history book published, I'm loaded for bear.
Jacob Truchard from the Colorado County Citizen stayed for the duration, taking photos and copious notes. The paper comes out on Tuesdays, so I'll need someone to snag a copy for me next week.

The last thing I learned is that driving from San Marcos to Columbus and back to New Braunfels when the lower back is throbbing does little to reduce said throbbing in said lower back. If anything, it makes the discomfort worse. I know I'm an old man now, because I'm always complaining about back aches. Such is life.

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Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 42: Tonight! Tonight! Tonight!

Okay, gang, in case you didn't catch the word the first couple times around, here it is again: I'm speaking at the Nesbitt Memorial Library in Columbus tonight! I'll be speaking from 7 p.m. until 8:30 or so. I've got a cool slide show ready to share, complete with some rare photos that have never been seen in public. Plus, I've got a nifty video as well. A true multimedia spectacular! Books will be available for purchase, but the presentation, discussion, Q&A is all free. So you folks from Columbus, La Grange, Weimar, Schulenburg, Sealy and Eagle Lake who've been sending me questions about the Chicken Ranch for the past few years, here's your chance to learn a lot of cool history. I'll see you there!

Jayme Blaschke to give a presentation of the Chicken Ranch brothel of La Grange Texas at the Nesbitt Memorial Library in Columbus

Now Playing: Various artists From Byzantium to Andalusia: Medieval Music and Poetry
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Friday, October 11, 2013

Friday Night Videos

I have to admit that until a short while ago, I'd forgotten all about The Cult. This is hard to fathom, as their music comprised a significant portion of my college years soundtrack. After skimming through their videos online, I find it hard to believe that I own none of their albums, because I like pretty much everything they put out. I suspect I appreciate their music more now, 20 years removed, than I did when it was fresh and new. In any event, here's their classic hit, "She Sells Sanctuary".

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Taco.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Chicken Ranch report no. 41: Public speaking!

Nesbitt Memorial Library in Columbus, Texas, will host Jayme Lynn Blaschke reading and signing on the infamous La Grange Chicken Ranch
Who says you can't go home again? Next week, on Tuesday, October 15, I'll be returning to my home town of Columbus. No, I'm not going to marvel at the new Tesla Supercharging Station there (although that's pretty cool in its own right). Instead, I will be at the Nesbitt Memorial Library, giving a reading and book signing for Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch. The event begins at 7 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Copies of the book will be available to purchase for anyone who is interested in such things.

For anyone who hasn't been paying attention, I spent most of 2009-2012 researching and writing the definitive history of the Chicken Ranch brothel in nearby La Grange. This history goes way beyond the trite song and dance most people know from the motion picture version of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." It's far more complex and fascinating a history than most people--even those who lived through it--realize. 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the closure of the brothel, and my wife, professional photographer Lisa Elliott Blaschke, along with myself, edited and published a fine art book titled Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch in observance of the anniversary. I will present a slideshow of images of the modern ruins from Ghosts of the Chicken Ranch as well as other, previously unpublished photos which will be included in the more exhaustive history book. I'll read, "The Last Madam: The Unexpected Life of Edna Milton (1928-2012)" which I originally presented at the East Texas Historical Association fall conference in 2012. I'll also read some selected excerpts from the unpublished book, and engage in as much discussion as I'm able.

I'm pretty jazzed about returning to the Nesbitt Library for this. This was my library growing up. I'm old enough to remember the cold dampness of the old Mansfield Library's concrete floors that predated the Nesbitt, but it was the Nesbitt where I learned to use the card catalog and where I discovered my first science fiction novels that started my lifelong love of genre. Wandering the stacks 30 years ago, I certainly never expected to return to speak about the Chicken Ranch, of all things, but life's funny that way. I hope to see you there.

Now Playing: Emerson, Lake and Palmer Return of the Manticore
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Monday, October 07, 2013

Cute chicks

I have gone and done a foolish thing. Rather than waste a lot of time and space typing it all out, I'll let the photo fill you in:

barred rock pullets, chicks, chickens, Plymouth Rock

Yeah, that's a baby chicken. A barred rock pullet, which will, in theory at least, grow up to become a barred rock hen. See, I grew up with chickens. At various times we had Rhode Island reds and white leghorns and such. And like most kids I thought they were neat for a while but got tired of the chores associated with them. In any event, during the recent Comal County Fair, the chick hatchery/petting zoo area was the most popular attraction for my kids. They all oohed and aahed over the baby chicks hopping around their little pen area, naturally wanting to take them home.

Now, for some surprising reasons I can't quite fathom, the New Branufels city council passed an ordinance earlier this year allowing urban chickens (with some restrictions). As we have a large, currently unused rabbit hutch I'd built in the back yard, it struck me that it could be repurposed with minimal effort on my part. So I checked around, and discovered New Braunfels Feed and Supply had some new chicks in. Barred rocks--a subset of the Plymouth Rock breed--happened to be one of the types available. This is reputed to be a good small farm/yard chicken, because it's a good layer of brown eggs, hardly and disease-resistant, but mostly because they're reputed to be docile (ie not terribly noisy).

barred rock pullets, chicks, chickens, Plymouth Rock

So we've now got chicks, less than a week old, running around in an indoor rabbit cage, scratching and pecking in the wood shaving bedding like nobody's business. In six weeks or so, we'll start taking them outside to begin the transition to yard birds, depending on the weather. Clipping their flight feathers will pretty much keep them in our back yard, and the beagles will either learn to play nice or be relegated to the dog run. Homegrown eggs taste so much better than store-bought, industrial eggs, and are far more healthier as well. These barred rocks are pretty much like chickens as I remember, funny and flighty and not anywhere close to being smart, but that's okay. The kids are fascinated by them, as are the cats. If this keeps up, we might be able to save on the Netflix bill!

Now Playing: Derek and the Dominoes The Layla Sessions: 20th Anniversary Edition
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Sunday, October 06, 2013

Fruit on the vine

Forgive me if I seem unseemly exited right now, but I've been holding my breath for a while and am finally confident enough to exhale. Why, you ask? Because of these, fruit on my passiflora tenuiloba vines:

passiflora tenuiloba fruit

Passiflora tenuiloba is a native Texas passion flower. It is very tiny, and thus not available in cultivation. That's a fancy way of saying you can't buy it at nurseries. Once I got into passion flowers in a big way 7 years ago or so, I decided to try growing all the native Texas species. This is one of the first I got--and promptly killed it by over-watering. Over the years, I acquired more through trades and even going out and digging some up (with the property owner's permission, of course). Maddeningly enough, most of those died from drought or being eaten by caterpillars or other such. The few times I coaxed blooms out of them, I only had one plant, and this species isn't self-fertile. So this summer, the one remaining tenuiloba I had in the ground beneath my big century plant seemed to be growing very well, and I was fortunate enough to acquire a couple new plants of unrelated parentage. Then disaster struck, when the neighbor's yard crew removed the trellis I had protecting the in-ground plant, and promptly mowed it down. I was, to put it kindly, not happy.

passiflora tenuiloba fruit

Fortunately, there is a happy ending to all this. The in-ground tenuiloba bounced back with surprising vigor, and began setting flower buds. Then, much to my surprise and delight, one of the potted tenuilobas set a few buds as well. Fast forward a few weeks, and I've got flowers opening at the same time. Hand-pollinating the flowers is no easy feat--they're barely a centimeter across--and juggling the tweezers and magnifying glass is a challenge. But my patience and perseverance is being rewarded with 11 tenuiloba passion fruit! Hopefully, I'll be able to coax some more out of the plants this fall, before all is said and done. And once they're ripe, I intend to contribute the bulk of the seeds to the Passiflora Society International seed bank, to make this interesting species available hither and yon.

Now Playing: The Art of Noise The Ambient Collection
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, October 04, 2013

Friday Night Videos

I've been thinking of strange, early 80s videos lately, and for outright weirdness nothing beats Taco's version of "Puttin' on the Ritz." Whenever I hear that song, I always flash back to Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder from Young Frankenstein, which is pretty gonzo in its own right. But still, Taco is just nuts.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... ReFlex.

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Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Credit where credit's due

The super-charged political atmosphere online has put me in an ornery mood. I don't normally go off on political stuff (unless it involves Rick Perry) but damn, too much crap's been flying around today to put up with it. If you're going to criticize, criticize FACTS not bullshit. Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, you don't see George Will running around screaming that Obama and Congress exempted themselves from the Affordable Care Act. That's patently untrue, but it's easier for Teabaggers to cut and past these email forwards than actually, you know, do objective research. Instead of basing their arguments and criticisms on fact (and there's plenty there worth criticism), they choose instead to fixate on the fictitious. I've had several TeaOP folks in recent days confront me aggressively online, demanding I justify (wink wink) and defend any number of easily disproved falsehoods related to President Obama, Obamacare and Democrats in general. When I've pointed out the falsehoods--going so far as to provide multiple links--they dismiss my efforts as propaganda and dance a jig because I "dodged the question."

So yeah, I'm cranky. If they want to point fingers for today's bitter partisan environment, today's government shutdown and the damage done to the U.S. credit rating come Oct. 17 when we default on our debts because of the right wing obstructionists in Congress, okay. I'm game.

I place the blame squarely on the GOP for this mess we're in.

But I place said blame retroactively, dating all the way back to the summer of '09 when health care legislation was still a fluid thing. Single-payer wouldn't fly, that much was clear. The pipe dream of the left, hard-core liberals fixated on single-payer (and still comprise a significant portion of the population polling data shows disapprove of Obamacare). But from a realistic point of view, single-player was never going to pass Congress. Maybe, back in the late 1970s, had Iran not fallen into revolution and the oil crunch not thrown the U.S. economy into recession, a Democratic-controlled Congress with a Carter Presidency might have passed such an animal, and that's a stretch. There has never been a moment in U.S. post-LBJ political history where single payer could've passed. Hell, Nixon couldn't pass his modest health care plan in that era, which is clearly a direct ancestor of Obamacare. There are inherent inefficiencies in the single payer model, and opponents focus on those. Which is legit. But there are other inefficiencies in the individual mandate, cooperatives, and the Clinton's Health Security Act (which adopted an employer mandate, manifesting pretty much as a political trainwreck). Each approach boasts benefits, and each have drawbacks--not necessarily equal in scope, either. And of course, without any health care model in place other than "Them that gots," inefficiency manifests itself as bankruptcy and death for the patient who isn't well off or fortunate enough to work for an employer who provides coverage. So, pick your poison.

But getting back to 2009, President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress brought the health care industry into the inner circle, to preempt the fierce opposition from those quarters that played a huge role in scuttling the Clinton plan two decades prior. What came out of these meetings was a plan based upon ideas put for by the conservative Heritage Foundation and later implemented fairly effectively by Mitt Romney during his term as governor of Massachusetts, aka "Romneycare." Despite the plan being conceived by a conservative, Republican-allied think tank, and implemented successfully by a Republican governor, the GOP immediately lined up in opposition. The cynic inside me says this was solely for political gain--in 1994, Newt Gingrich's "Contract with American" Republicans swept to control of the House of Representatives based in no small part on the Democratic-controlled Congress' inability to pass any type of health care reform despite working on it for nearly two years. The label of a do-nothing Congress, coupled with a series of (non-Clinton) scandals doomed the Democrats. The idea of repeating this pattern was like catnip to the GOP, which had suffered serious election losses in '08. Plenty of political pundits and strategists from both parties openly identified this strategy early on--delay, oppose and obstruct until the next election, then ride to victory by labeling the Democrats a "do-nothing" party. President Obama, naive and idealistic, never quite believed this strategy was real. But it all fell apart in August. Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, the GOP's lead negotiator with the White House and Congressional Democrats, made an uncharacteristically honest assessment of the chances of a bipartisan compromise, essentially saying, "Even if Democrats agree to every single Republican demand on the health care bill, we won't guarantee even a single Republican vote for it." Grassley himself said he wouldn't vote for anything to come out of the negotiations--stop and think on that. Even if the other side capitulates entirely, and lets you rewrite the legislation to your heart's desire, you still won't support it because it would count as a "win" for your opponents.

Around this time, there was an opening for a much less painless alternative in health care reform that avoided single payer and individual mandates entirely. Plenty of Blue Dog Democrats didn't like the individual mandate idea. Being of a more conservative bent (which in the olden days was known as "moderate") they had reservations about a major health care intervention at the Federal level. The Blue Dogs didn't wholly support individual mandates, and neither did more liberal Democrats who tenaciously clung to the idea of single payer. But the Blue Dogs were critical to the passage of health care reform. The Blue Dogs realized the GOP's "do-nothing" strategy targeted them specifically, so they were locked into to passing something. So the Blue Dogs got innovative, and floated the idea of state and national health care cooperatives. The Democratic left howled in protest--cooperatives would effectively scuttle any chance at single payer--but if the Blue Dogs could bring in Republican supporters, the support of the Democratic left was superfluous. Cooperatives addressed pretty much every objection the Republicans had about a federal health care plan. That's not to say cooperatives would be a panacea (see what I did there?) but they'd be a solid starting place toward addressing the inequities in U.S. health care. First and foremost, cooperatives are "owned" by the members, and by definition, keep control locally. Of the handful large, non-profit health cooperatives that exist in this country, two interesting facts emerged during the debate that weren't widely reported at the time: 1) cooperatives did little to rein in health care costs (which was a big reason for the whole health care reform initiative in the first place). This, obviously, is a concern. But to be fair, the sample size was limited and the extant cooperatives weren't really established with cost containment as a primary goal, so there was room for experimentation. And cooperatives weren't more costly than average health care, either. Just not less so; 2) Significantly, although costs rose on par with non-cooperative health care, the quality of the health care services rendered--both as measured by outcomes and patient satisfaction surveys--increased significantly. So, worst-case scenario, Americans would've paid the same as ever, but gotten more direct control and voice in their care while at the same time getting much better care overall. Yeah, I'd say that would be a very good starting point.

The biggest knock on cooperatives (the fiercest opposition came, obviously, from the Democratic left) was that they had never been attempted on this scale before. Well, duh. That's where innovation comes from--trying new things.

The idea was to get a truly bipartisan bill passed and put and end to the divisiveness of the endless health care debates in Washington (ha!). Unfortunately, the GOP withheld support for even this, sticking with their "do-nothing" gamble. The GOP did not believe the Democrats had the nerve or stomach or whatever metaphor you choose to go ahead and ram through health care legislation on their own. Following Grassley's inflammatory comments, negotiations broke down. But then, unexpectedly, Democrats made a choice--faced with getting voted out of office for doing nothing, or getting voted out of office for doing something they generally believed in, they chose to do something. They pushed the Affordable Care Act through Congress for the president's signature. It took a while for the GOP to realize this was really a thing that was happening, and suddenly Grassley, Boehner and others started calling for more negotiations, that maybe it'd be better if the whole thing be punted down the road to the next Congress, after the next elections. Remembering Grassley's comments, the Democrats didn't take them up on the offer--a year of bad-faith negotiations apparently taught them that much, at least. The moral of this story: Don't double-dog-dare someone if you're not prepared for them to call your bluff.

The GOP made a political calculation and gambled. The won half of it--the Democrats were indeed weakened for the 2010 election, and the GOP did sweep to historic gains in the House--but lost the other half, in that Obamacare did pass. And the GOP allowed itself to be overtaken from within by Libertarians and ideologues in the Tea Party, who'd rather burn down a house than spend the money to repaint it. The TeaOP is now probably the most dysfunctional political organization in living memory, with John Boenher the weakest Speaker of the House in U.S. history. They at the point where GOP-sponsored legislation does on the floor because too many TeaPublicans oppose it. If the GOP can't even agree internally, how can it work with Democrats to actually run the country? Republicans sold their soul for an easy win in 2010, but the fallout's been long and ugly.

I am not now and never have been a big fan of Obamacare, but you know what? The Republicans gambled and forced the hand of the Democrats. They could've engaged. They could've influenced the legislation in profound ways. They could've taken "half a loaf," which was once an honorable strategy in America. Instead, they took their ball and went home. Because of that, they own Obamacare and all its flaws as much as any Democrat. Stick that in your tea bag and steep it.

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