Friday, May 25, 2012

Flying Submarine!

I spent most of yesterday over at Aquarena Center, riding herd on the media gathered to watch an unusual sight--the removal of the 400-plus-ton Submarine Theater from Spring Lake, the headwaters of the San Marcos River.

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Photo by Lisa On Location photography.

For those of you keeping score at home, the university, in conjunction with the Corps of Engineers, attempted to remove the old theater back in February using an assortment of heavy-duty construction cranes, the largest being a 500-tonner. They failed to lift the Submarine Theater after several days of trying. The pause button was hit and the situation re-evaluated. The Theater, it seems, was heavier than originally estimated, and the angle the cranes had to work at was too low for effective liftage.

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Photo by Lisa On Location photography.

Not so this time. Using one of the largest industrial cranes in the U.S. with an 1,800-ton lifting capacity (it took 100 semi trucks to bring it in and assemble in place), the massive underwater theater came out with nary a ripple. That's not an exaggeration--the crane lifted the huge bulk very slowly to guard against any accidents (lifting straps snapped on one attempted lift back in February, sending the Submarine Theater crashing back into the lake) but also to avoid stirring up sediments and polluting the river and lake. The lifting began around 9:30 a.m., paused around 10:15 for more counter-weights to be added, and by 11:30 the entire Submarine Theater had successfully moved to dry land. The slow pace also allowed an estimated 100 tons of lake water to drain from the enormous ballast tanks.

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Photo by Lisa On Location photography.

The old theater was once the centerpiece of the Aquarena Springs amusement park, and would submerge to treat audiences to "mermaid" shows in the crystal clear waters. By the time Texas State bought the park in the early '90s, competition from other entertainment destinations had nearly driven the park to bankruptcy. In 1996 the university closed Aquarena Springs for good and began the restoration project, converting it to Aquarena Center for the study of water science and the preservation of quite a few endangered species that live in the waters. The decaying theater needed to be removed because of its potential to contaminate the lake and river. Not to mention the fact that it'd become a dangerous eyesore. It will now be cut up and dismantled on shore, and trucked off for recycling. The glass windows may be removed and incorporated into an art project for a planned visitor's center at Aquarena, but not much else is salvageable. Personally, I think they should relocate it to Bobcat Stadium and renovate it into luxury suites. It'd be unique, if nothing else!

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Photo by Lisa On Location photography.

Me being me, I couldn't resist shooting a few images in infrared. The clouds drove me nuts by changing the light quality constantly, passing over the sun as they did, but ultimately I got a few images with some decent contrast. I never get tired of that white, infrared foliage on the trees!

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Infrared photo by Lisa On Location photography.

The 400-ton Submarine Theater is lifted out of Spring Lake at Aquarena Center, Texas State University-San Marcos. Infrared photo by Lisa On Location photography.

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Friday Night Videos

I've been in a major Flight of the Conchords mood lately. With "Man or Muppet" winning the Oscar for best original song, and "I'm Not Crying" playing a prominent role in The Pirates! Band of Misfits, who can blame me? It's enough to make a fellow go "Boom!"

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 20

It seems the farther I progress on the Chicken Ranch book, the more headwinds I encounter. At times, it feels like I'm trying to plow a field of molasses the resistance the words put up is so strong. I understand why, though. The earliest chapters consisted, by and large, of straightforward chronological narrative and assorted anecdotes. Putting the pieces together and fashioning them into a seamless whole might've been challenging at times to get right, but the approach was not terribly complex. Now, though, I'm dealing with a number of different narratives, juggling a bunch of different perspectives and timelines regarding the actual closure of the brothel. Sticking with a strictly chronological approach won't work, because there's too much stuff happening simultaneously hither and yon. Different people and sources have conflicting accounts of how something went down. Other times, various sources agree about something that happened, but disagree over the dates or the people involved.

That might not seem like such a big deal, but as I'm trying to make this book the definitive, end-all, be-all "story of record" for the Chicken Ranch and related tangents, it makes a great deal of difference to me (and presumably those people directly involved). Relating the "true story" is pipe dream, though, an unattainable mirage, which is why I've avoided using that particular phrase when describing my project. Where there are multiple versions of how events unfolded, I've done my best to focus on those with evidence to substantiate it. Sadly, in many cases the only evidence I have is circumstantial, if that. Sometimes I have to deduce how we got from Point A to Point B with nothing more than gut instinct, guessing what course is most likely implied by the surrounding events that I do know happened. In at least one instance, I made a whopper of a jump because I had no other alternative. It made me very uncomfortable but to me, the hypotheticals could only unfold in one particular matter if I were to reconcile various sources. Imagine my delight when a new, first-person source dropped into my lap last week, confirming the overall timeline I'd constructed but also filling in some significant details I had not inkling of, not to mention giving me concrete names and dates with which to plug holes in my prose that I'd done my best to wallpaper over in the hopes nobody would notice.

As I push on to the end of the book--I have 11 chapters completed, with one under way and two to go--I can see some clear problem areas in hindsight. There are several large chunks of information that demand inclusion but simply don't fit in the narrative. I've spent a great deal of effort trying to work my way around the problem, but nothing is satisfactory. I strongly suspect at this point that the only resolution is to move these pieces to an appendix at the back of the book. I don't particularly want an appendix, but all together, this uncooperative information is nearly equal in length to a full chapter, so I don't see many alternatives. Leaving the stuff where it is won't work--it disrupts the narrative flow, and bogs down the reading experience. I'm also running into the problem of overlap. Now that I'm 11 chapters in, I've used some sources many, many times. This includes my first-hand interviews with Miss Edna and others, but also extends to several books, magazines and newspaper articles. I'm having to double- and triple-check to make sure I didn't use this particularly good quote for chapter 11 earlier in, say, chapters 4 or 5, where it'd make an equally good point. The reverse is also true, as I don't want to not use a great quote because I mistakenly thought I'd used it earlier, when I hadn't.

But that comes with the territory. I had not idea how demanding and complicated all of this would be when I first undertook this project, but it'll make for a much better book when all is said and done. It is particularly frustrating, though, knowing that getting bogged down has pretty much killed off any hope of my finishing up the first draft by June 1. With a bit of luck, I can finish this chapter by that self-imposed deadline, but the last two are realistically out of reach. Fortunately, chapters 13 and 14 should be straightforward and comparatively short, so I should be able to get them completed in June even with our vacation travel. The inevitable rewrites for the second draft will take some time as well, addressing the previously-mentioned problems I've identified as well as incorporating additional research information since unearthed, but after spending more than three years researching and writing this thing, the rewrite's going to be a walk in the park in comparison.

Enough of my bellyaching. Here's a sample of what I wrote last week, when I finally finished chapter 10. It involves a name most have never heard of, but believe me, he plays a pivotal role in the saga of the Chicken Ranch:

To Hancock, a former state trooper and Nacogdoches native, the prospect of continuing to bang his head into a brick wall with little chance of getting any results held zero appeal. There had to be a different approach, he reasoned, a different strategy that could succeed where others failed. And suddenly, a name jumped out at him like a lighthouse beacon through the fog: Marvin Zindler.

“We weren't ever going to close the thing down unless somebody other than the local officials got involved in it. The Governor wouldn't do it, because the local representative and senator were not going to stand for it,” Hancock explained. “So the only avenue left was just to get an aggressive person with the press to get involved in it. Marvin was just new at Channel 13, and he was about as wild... he was a little bit innovative in the way he handled things, and he was not afraid of the old devil himself.

“Marvin was kind of an odd duck at best,” he said. “I guess when I started out at the district attorney office he was one of my better friends. I was always attracted to oddballs, and he fit into that category.”
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Friday, May 11, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show had a string of catchy hits, but never managed to earn the album sales or fan following they deserved. Maybe that's because their drunken stoner antics prevented people from taking them seriously. Or maybe the fact that they didn't write much of their own material in the era of singer-songwriters had the same effect. I don't know. What I do know is that the late, great Shel Silverstein wrote a whole heck of a lot of their songs, including the heartbreaking "Sylvia's Mother." This single, based on an actual incident Silverstein experienced in his younger days, is deceptively simple but lays out a complete, multilayered narrative using an economy of words. The lyrics are masterful, and a fantastic example of concise writing. Enjoy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Beastie Boys.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 19

When is a writing report not a writing report? When there's damn little writing to actually report. This Marvin Zindler chapter has turned into a long, painful slog which shows no signs of easing up or indeed, ever ending. It's blown my time budget so far out of the water that there's no realistic hope of my finishing the first draft of the book by June 1, as has been my goal. There are quite a few reasons for this--not least of which is my habit of being a slow writer. But other obstacles have imposed themselves on me to make the task that much more challenging. Last week, The Wife was away in Dallas for Texas School, a huge photography learning conference. It fell upon me to play the single parent, and by the time the last one went to bed in the evening, I was far too drained to produce anything useful during my traditional late-night writing period. Maybe 500 useable words emerged unscathed from last week.

So yesterday I took a rare day off from my job at the university to stay home and write, my intention being to complete the Zindler chapter. Fat chance. I'd just settled in to a writing groove, halfway into the first paragraph of the day's new work, when word came from school that our eldest had just encountered an unpleasant bit of bullying at middle school. Not being a helicopter parent, I try to let my children fight their own battles, but this situation demanded intervention--besides, the punk in question had made comments directed at myself and The Wife, and I absolutely took offense. It angried up my blood, as the great Satchel Paige would say. So I spent the morning at the school, meeting with the assistant principal and getting the matter resolved (which I believe it has been--I was particularly adamant regarding retaliation by the punk in question against my daughter for "snitching," so I'll be keeping close tabs until the year ends). Afterwards, I was still too stirred up to settle in to writing, so I went on some errands with The Wife and grabbed a good lunch of Jägerschnitzel at Friesenhaus. We'd never eaten there before, despite talking about it off and on for years. New Braunfels, you see, has a really bad habit of playing lip-service to its German heritage, but being really bad on the follow-through. All the other restaurants in town that claim German cooking are mediocre Americanized shadows of the real thing (a close relative is married to a retired German butcher, so he cooks the real thing for us on occasion. It is mind-bogglingly good). I'm happy to report that the Friesenhaus is the real deal--at least, closer to the real deal than anything else we've ever had in town. We're definitely going to explore the menu further in the future.

The afternoon's writing amounted to fits and starts that produced nothing. I couldn't even finish the sentence I'd abandoned mid-way through when I left for the meeting at the school. After a failed family outing and dinner in San Antonio (don't ask) I got the kids to bed and settled down to write, knowing the day was a total write-off as far as writing was concerned, but determined to salvage something during my normal writing time. It was like slogging through molasses. In the end, once I finally gave up, I think I finished up with 200 useable words. For the entire day. That, folks, is piss-poor production. I am so ready to be finished with Zindler and move on to chapter 11--which tackles the actual closure of the Chicken Ranch and puts events together in a comprehensive way that's never been done before. I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be challenging and time consuming, yeah, but it can't be any worse than the battle I'm fighting right now.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Scarborough Faire

Sunday the family and I paid a visit to Scarborough Faire in Waxahachie. We hadn't been in exactly 10 years, which is a shame, since prior to that I'd been an annual event for us. Scarborough holds a special place for us, since it was where I took The Wife on our first date. For a while I even had an annual pass and tromped around the grounds dressed up in my Herne the Hunter outfit. But once we moved from Temple to New Braunfels, the drive grew from 90 minutes to four hours. That's too far with a car full of impatient kids. So we stopped going.

Until this year. My brother, Chris, now has a place in Waco we were able to crash at on Saturday night, which made the drive the next day quite bearable. We even made it there before the gates opened, which was a first for us. It felt good to be back, but much had changed. Most importantly, all the skinny little trees had grown considerably over the intervening decade and now provided adequate shading (Scarborough used to be a guaranteed sunburn, no matter what). Sadly, the big open field where they had sheepdog demonstrations is now built up, and the fascinating dogs long gone. The mud show is gone as well. The pirate stage has been completely rebuilt. One section of the faire is now blocked off for corporate and group events. The entertainment was, well, entertaining, although it really felt like there was much less in the way of live music than what I remember. The Gypsy Guerrilla Band wasn't there, which I found disappointing, but on the plus side, Donal Hinely was there, and put on an amazing show with the glass harmonica. I first saw him way back in the day when he played guitar accompaniment for his brother, Terry, who played the glass harmonica in the group Glasnots. I've got several of their albums, "Mayfly Matinee" being a particular favorite. Tragically, Terry was killed in a traffic accident, but Donal had learned from his brother and now has become an amazingly accomplished and inventive glass player in his own right. We listened through his whole set, and were treated to an engaging history lesson and personal stories as well as wonderful music. I bought his newest CD, "Glass Stories," which is available on his website and features some brilliant original compositions (including my favorite, the title track) as well as covers of classic songs. He's also got a new Americana CD out, "The Famous Rocket Cage," which I'm going to have to get as well (worth it for the cover art alone). I've got an earlier Americana disc of his, "We Built a Fire," and can attest that the tracks are professional and pleasing to the ear, mixing in a bit of country, a bit of rock and a bit of folk to good effect.

During Hinely's show, the Bug sat next to me and fidgeted, alternately engrossed in the musical performance then desperate to run off to find a wooden sword to buy. "How does he do that?" he demanded, watching Hinely coax ethereal notes out of the water-filled wine glasses. Then he wanted to run off and look at ponies or something. I thought the show was wasted on the boy, although Monkey Girl and Fairy Girl were entranced. Fast forward to today. When I got home, Bug met me at the door and announced he wanted to play the glass harmonica. That's what he said. I didn't think he'd even heard the name on Sunday. But he insists on getting down wine glasses, explains to me that we have to fill them with different levels of water to get different notes, and that our fingers have to be clean and wet to make the sound properly. He parroted things Hinely said almost verbatim! He struggled at first, but eventually got the rim of the wine glass to resonate with his fingers. Then he demanded that I set up an entire octave (although he didn't actually say "octave"). I had to put the kibosh on that, but I was heartened to see how much Bug had actually absorbed in his brief exposure to Hinely. Not bad for a 6-year-old. If he maintains interest, I'll have to start hitting the thrift shops to get him his own set of musical wine glasses.

We're definitely going to have to make Scarborough a regular stop from here on out.

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Friday, May 04, 2012

Friday Night Videos

I just saw where Adam Yauch--better known by his stage name of "MCA"--of the Beastie Boys has died after a battle with cancer. My first inclination is to memorialize him with the video of "Fight for Your Right," since that was the song my generation listened to incessantly when the Beastie Boys hit it big. But it was a snarky satire that too many shallow poseurs took seriously, so the Beastie Boys grew to hate it and haven't actually performed it in decades. So instead, I offer this gloriously bizarre video for "Don't Play No Game That I Can't Win", which doesn't focus on the music very much but is directed by Spike Jonze, so you know it is entertaining. Enjoy.

Previously on Friday Night Videos...Berlin.

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