Friday, September 28, 2012

Friday Night Videos

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the premier of The Jetsons. To recognize such a momentous occasion, I present the Violent Femmes performing their cover of Jet Screamer's "Epp Opp Ork Ah-Ah." Enjoy:

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Swingle Singers.

Now Playing: Billy Joel 12 Gardens Live
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Texas Mead Fest 2012

Last Saturday I went with The Wife to La Grange. Believe it or not, we didn't go to conduct additional Chicken Ranch research. Instead, we went to Rohan Meadery to partake in the inaugural Texas Mead Fest.

The fact that there's such a thing as Texas Mead Fest, sponsored by the recently-formed Texas Mead Association, is a pretty nifty thing in and of itself. I started homebrewing my own mead quite a few years ago, and since then I've had several good batches of flavored mead--prickly pear, blueberry, plum and spiced--along with a few that were wretched (the muscadine experiment did not turn out well at all). The fact that honey wine (I've found many people think you're saying "meat" when first discussing mead) has reached the point of popularity where it can support boutique meaderies and an actual festival in Texas impresses the heck out of me. The mead makers behind the TMA and the festival are the afore-mentioned Rohan Meadery outside of La Grange, Dancing Bee Winery in Rogers and Enchanted Manor Winery in Magnolia--just down the road from the Texas Renaissance Festival. Apparently, there was a fourth meadery that was supposed to take part, but they backed out at the last minute.

Bees were a special guest at the inaugural Texas Mead Fest

The most excellent Texas Pizza Wagon at the inaugural Texas Mead Fest

Patrons sample mead at the Texas Mead Fest

I have to say, I was blown away by how many people turned out for the event. Mead, being a relatively obscure beverage, wouldn't attract a tremendous number of folks. Or so I thought. People were coming and going all day, with the crowds probably pushing 200 at any one time. Total attendance easily topped 300. There were a number of vendors set up in little tent pavilions like you'll see at any fair. Most of these were related to wine or honey or the like. One booth had amazing leaves from a tree that grows in Mexico with artistic scenes carved into them. Another sold flattened wine bottle cheese trays. There was a bee keeper there, with custom designed bee hives--one of which had a swarm of bees within we could watch through a glass window. One woman got close to take a photo, then freaked out when a few bees flew out the bottom, as she'd thought they were sealed up inside the hive. There was one food vendor, Texas Pizza Wagon, that made excellent brick oven gourmet pizzas. There was also a free bouncy castle for kids. My only suggestion for next year would be to perhaps move the vendors back into the open oak woods surrounding the winery, because even though they were covered, the open field was still hot and the shade of the trees would be quite comfortable. And at least one additional food vendor would be nice, because as good as Texas Pizza Wagon is, they still only offer pizza.

Judging during the Texas Mead Fest homebrew competition

Judging during the Texas Mead Fest homebrew competition

Judging during the Texas Mead Fest homebrew competitionJudging during the Texas Mead Fest homebrew competition

Judging during the Texas Mead Fest homebrew competition

Judging during the Texas Mead Fest homebrew competition

One of the big reasons I went was to enter in their homebrew contest. I've been making mead for a while, but unlike beer, mead is a lot more challenging to get right. I wanted some expert opinions on my efforts, so I took along a bottle of my fig mead, and another of my recent vintage prickly pear. Apparently, a lot more Texas brew mead than I thought, because once the dust had settled, they had 79 entries! The folks running the competition were overwhelmed by the participation, and one told me they'd expected maybe 30--if turnout was good. The judges took their task very seriously, and I watched some animated discussions take place. I didn't medal, but my fig mead ended up reaching the second round of judging (needs some back sweetening and a bit too much alcohol up front were the key takeaways on that one). It took more than four hours for the judges to work their way through two rounds of evaluations. The great thing was that after the end, everyone got to uncork their bottles and sample the others' brews. I tasted one very nice blueberry, and another made with chocolate nibs that had a very dry, dark-chocolate bite to it. Quite interesting and unexpected in a mead. The winners, pictured below, were "Booty Vino," the moniker of a family (pictured below) that took its meadmaking seriously. They had half a dozen entries and I believe they medaled in every category as well as winning the silver "best of show" cup. They were quite celebratory about it as well!

Booty Vino won the best of show silver cup as well as multiple medals in a variety of categories in the homebrew competition at the inaugural Texas Mead FestBooty Vino won the best of show silver cup as well as multiple medals in a variety of categories in the homebrew competition at the inaugural Texas Mead Fest

And there was musical entertainment as well. During the afternoon, a guitar-oriented classic rock trio performed, with a larger zydeco band taking over later in the day. Both were good, but I have to say the zydeco band was a lot more fun to watch.

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, TexasInaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, TexasInaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, TexasInaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Really, the whole day was great fun. The Wife and I took our tickets to the various booths and sampled a great variety of meads. Some were good, some not so much. From Rohan, their cranberry mead and sweet, Czech-style honeymoon mead were very good. Enchanted Manor had a complex, intriguing bochet, a sparkling pear and a spiced mead that we both enjoyed. Dancing Bee, however, stole the show. Every single mead they offered had fantastic flavor and balance. Their dry raspberry really stood out for me, with a bold, fruit-at-the-forefront taste and a dry, crisp finish. Goodness, it was good--not syrupy like so many raspberry meads can be. I talked with them a bit, and it became clear they're about as close to a ringer in mead making as you can get--Dancing Bee is 100 percent owned by Walker Honey, a long time honey producer in Central Texas. A few years ago they realized they were selling a lot of wholesale honey to mead makers and asked "Why aren't we doing this?" They're first-class all the way, from their product design to their promotional copy to the outstanding quality of their meads. Yes, they have a lot of sweet meads, as that's what the public expects, but to their credit they have more dry meads than any other Texas meaderies. That shows they've done their homework and plan to expand their market base and appeal to the palates of wine drinkers as well. Of course, it doesn't hurt that they've pretty much nailed every type of mead they've attempted (although they admitted to me that they've botched a batch or two in the learning process--those never see the light of day).

While waiting for the judging results, The Wife and I bought a bottle of Dancing Bee's apple cyser mead and split it between the two of us, lounging on a blanket in the shade of the oak trees on the property. It was a lazy, relaxing afternoon. A breeze kicked up every so often to keep things comfortable. The cyser, heavy on the apple and just a bit this side of "slightly" sweet, was cool, refreshing and went down very, very easily. It was the most fun she and I had doing nothing in a very long time. The Texas Mead Fest has definitely earned a regular spot on my calendar. Highly recommended.

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, TexasInaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Inaugural Texas Mead Fest at Rohan Meadery in La Grange, Texas

Now Playing: Django Reinhardt Classic Jazz Archive
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, September 24, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 29

La Grange Chicken Ranch brass token (fake)
This is going to be a "getting up on my soapbox" kind of piece, so if you're just interested funny stories about the Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange, you might want to look away.

Still here? Good.

A few days ago, Friday to be exact, I finished the paper which I'll present this coming Friday (September 28, to be exact) at the East Texas Historical Association's fall conference over in Nacogdoches. The paper, titled "The Last Madam: The Unexpected Life of the Chicken Ranch's Edna Milton (1928-2012)," is essentially a biographical sketch giving context to her life before and after the Chicken Ranch. This kind of material is important, I think, because it moves our understanding of Texas history beyond simple, superficial caricatures. Since paper presentations are limited to 20 minutes, I left a great deal of Miss Edna's personal story out, but the resulting paper is still a solid piece (and don't worry, the rest is in the book).

Unfortunately, this paper may well be my first, last and only foray into academia. If I may allow myself a bit of brazen self-congratulation for a moment, I uncovered a hell of a lot of unknown (and certainly unpublished) history of the brothel and behind the scenes goings-on that have roots growing deeply in Texas politics, society and the evolution of our state. This is the kind of... well, not "secret history," because that treads a little close to genre territory. Let's call it "hidden history." This kind of hidden history is tailor-made for historical journals, right? So I looked up the submission guidelines for the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, published by the Texas State Historical Association. And that pretty much ended that. The most prestigious journal of scholarly writing on Texas history not only does not pay contributors (which I already knew going in, because hey, I work for a university) but also claims ownership of copyright as a condition of publication. In essence, they are forcing the author to pay them to publish the piece. Technically, this copyright grab means the TSHA could charge me a fee for the right to use my own work in the future. For instance, if I wanted to include such information in a book on the Chicken Ranch. They might not, mind you, but it's within their legal power to do so. I believe the technical term for this is "a shitty deal."

There is something about the "Publish or Perish" peril university faculty face that leave them open and vulnerable to such exploitation. There's also a vague notion in academia that accepting payment for publication is somewhat vulgar and debases the work (not so prevalent today, but I've still encountered it). Coming up through journalism and freelance writing, as well as my long-time membership in SFWA has taught me the value of the written word, and how many people love what I've written so much they're willing to take it off my hands for exactly zero in compensation. So, I recoiled from the TSHA's onerous demands--it's not like the TSHA is a poverty-stricken press at a tiny regional college doing this only for the love, after all. I've since found that copyright grab is pretty standard operating procedure for these scholarly journals. That's a bridge too far for me. As a journalist, I'm familiar with giving up copyright in work I produce--but you're going to compensate me, by golly.

And it appears others within academia are starting to realize the gross inequity of the current model. Hugh Gusterson has a column titled "Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No" in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. In particular, this bit made me sit up and say, "Yes! Exactly!":

But I get paid nothing directly for the most difficult, time-consuming writing I do: peer-reviewed academic articles. In fact a journal that owned the copyright to one of my articles made me pay $400 for permission to reprint my own writing in a book of my essays.
That is, simply put, an egregious abuse. The Chicken Ranch book is currently under consideration by an academic press (which is a whole other issue entirely) because of the profound disinterest shown by literary agents in my work, which essentially eliminated the possibility of my selling this to major publishing houses (most of which have "no unagented submissions" policies in place). The difference between a major commercial publisher and a university press is potentially tens of thousands of dollars in advance payment (an "advance" in publishing terms is the amount of money a publisher pays an author up front based on how well they expect a particular book to do). The average advance for a first novel is in the neighborhood of $5,000. Non-fiction generally sells better than fiction, and commands higher advances. For my book Voices of Vision, the University of Nebraska Press paid me the princely sum of $1,000, which allowed me to make a house payment with just enough left over to take the family out to dinner.

In the past 3-plus years I've spent working on this book, I've invested several thousand dollar of my own money in research. Flying out to Phoenix for a couple of days to interview Miss Edna back in 2009 alone probably cost me more than I'll see in any advance from a university publisher, and I've had many research-related expenses since then. I'm in the hole on this book, unless it sells really, really well and royalty checks somehow make up the difference. Yes, it is somewhat vulgar breaking a passion project down into dollar amounts, but I've got three kids and a whole separate writing career I put on hold for this book. In light of all that, you can see how having to pay an additional $400 (or whatever) for permission to incorporate my own work in my book (which is what I conducted said research for in the first place) would be an onerous burden for me--both financially and ethically. Gusterson, again, lays it out clearly:

So why not try this: If academic work is to be commodified and turned into a source of profit for shareholders and for the 1 percent of the publishing world, then we should give up our archaic notions of unpaid craft labor and insist on professional compensation for our expertise, just as doctors, lawyers, and accountants do.


We could also insist that these publishers pay a modest fee to acquire our intellectual content if they publish our articles. To prevent chaos, our professional associations could recommend standard fees for refereeing articles and for compensating authors of articles.

Corporate publishers will complain that this suggestion, if adopted, would undermine the profitability of their industry. I will leave this question to the accountants. But I do know that if a factory said it could not be profitable without paying less than minimum wage, decent people would respond that it is indecent to pay people below minimum wage for honest work.
I am not going to pay someone--no matter how academically prestigious--for the honor of having them publish my work. I am not going to go to them, hat in hand, asking "Please" for the right to use my own work. I've not spent all this time and effort and money on the Chicken Ranch just so someone else can reap the rewards. If, when I arrive in Nacogdoches later this week, the conference organizers present me with a contract insisting that I transfer copyright of my paper to them, I will turn and walk out and drive home. Simple as that. I have worked too long and too hard to simply give away my blood, sweat and tears.

I've been published before. And I guarantee I will not perish if I walk away from such exploitative "deals."

Now Playing: Clandestine ReD
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, September 21, 2012

Invaders from Mars!

Invaders From Mars lithograph poster featuring Marvin the Martian, signed by artist Juan Ortiz
About 17 years ago, give or take, I'd started seeing a new woman. We got along quite well. We had fun together. Things were going good, but there's always that period early in the relationship where you wonder if this person is The One or infatuation is making them look like a more complete package than warranted by reality. Well, for me, she clinched the deal with a birthday present for me. It wasn't expensive or elaborate, it was just a simple tee shirt (we were both poor journalists back then) but it had emblazoned on the front the spectacular 1950s-style Invaders from Mars poster you can see to the right. Marvin the Martian, you must understand, is my all-time favorite Warner Brothers animation character. I used to imitate his voice with startling accuracy. I'd once planned to make a Halloween costume of him using an old Coors Beer party ball. So that my new girlfriend would not only get me a Marvin the Martian shirt, but one so chock-full of awesome, simply blew me away.

Realize that up until this point, previous girlfriends, if they got me any kind of birthday present at all, generally limited themselves to gifts that appealed to them. Things like turtleneck sweaters or a certain brand of cologne or a CD of some band I'd never heard of but she loved (which was fine, I guess, since the CD stayed at her place and I never actually got to listen to it...). But this Martian shirt simply boggled my mind. When, in my utter shock, I managed to sputter out a half formed question asking what made her choose this particular gift, she just shrugged and said it looked like something I'd like. Now I don't think I'm a particularly secretive person. I don't hold my passions close to the vest. If anything, I'm borderline evangelical in my adoration of Godzilla, the Kinks, Farscape, Tolkien, Green Arrow, Billy Joel, Marvin the Martian, etc. But so help me, this woman was the only one who'd ever actually gotten me even that much.

So I married her. Good call on that one.

Fast forward to last night. Many birthdays, anniversaries and Christmases have come and gone, and I admit we like to shower each other with gifts probably more than is entirely healthy. Some have been more expensive or elaborate than others, some have been downright WOW-inducing, but for me, that simple Invaders from Mars shirt remained the high-water mark. I literally wore that shirt until it fell apart into tiny scraps. And then I tried to wear it just a little more, even though the screen print had long before worn away into mere hints of light and dark. I loved that shirt. No way she could top it. That is, until she gifted me with a limited edition lithograph print (signed by artist Juan Ortiz) of that very same poster, a 21x32 technicolor marvel of Marvin, K-9 and hoards of instant "Just Add Water" Martians descending from space to wreak havoc on the Looney Tunes populace. I'm going to get it framed today.

So yeah, The Wife can still surprise me. And I love her for it.

Now Playing: Art Tatum The Best of Art Tatum
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday Night Videos

After yesterday's post (and believe you me, the situation's far more stressful than portrayed even in that bleak write-up) we're in definite need of a pick-me-up. I'm afraid this is beyond even the powers of ELO. This is a job for... the Swingle Singers! Odd choice, I know, but I stumbled across their flash mob rendition of Soul Bossa Nova and was simply blown away. How can anyone not feel better after seeing (and hearing) this?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Electric Light Orchestra.

Now Playing: Art Tatum The Best of Art Tatum
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A cautionary tale

If you have an elderly relative and at some point a person or situation strikes you as a red flag, for Pete's sake, do something about it. Don't just write it off to your own paranoia or timidity or assumption that it's someone else's responsibility to deal with. Because that shit's going to blow up on you, and then you'll have a much bigger, much more painful mess to clean up.

I speak from experience.

Follow: My maternal grandmother is 91 years old, about to turn 92. She's functionally illiterate, what math and reading skills she'd had throughout her life undone by fading eyesight and an increasingly addled mental state. But she's always been a strong personality, set in her ways, with an independent streak a mile wide. Her contempt for nursing homes, or "assisted living facilities," is epic. So this is a woman nobody in the family wants to cross, as she will let you have it with both barrels.

Around the beginning of 2009, she got a new renter on a 17-acre property she owns. Nobody thought much of it at the time, because she's always renting out the old houses she owns. But something was different with this guy. Grandma talked of him incessantly whenever we visited or called on the phone. She talked about his big business plans and how different people were doing him wrong. By that Christmas, we discovered he's opened a barbecue restaurant in town that promptly failed, losing all the money he'd invested in it. Money which he'd gotten from my grandmother. Not only that, but she'd signed contracts with service providers for stuff like credit card readers and whatnot which weren't tied to the restaurant at all, but rather a set, multi-year time frame. Which meant the monthly bills had to be paid regardless of the success or failure of the business. This fellow told her to throw away all those bills. She had some serious collection agency action going on, jeopardizing her otherwise sterling credit rating. I intervened, negotiated a settlement, and Grandma was briefly surprised and upset to discover how much she was on the hook for. But the instant I placed the blame on her renter and his bad advice, she got very defensive of him, forcefully enough to make me back off. I saw this fellow once during this time--a very slick-dressing guy, almost a cartoon, really--and let him know I was not happy having to clean up after his mess. Lots of my relatives were also concerned about the situation, but not enough to risk crossing Grandma. I guess we were all pretty much afraid of her, as much as we loved her and worried about her. The only way to separate her from this guy would be to have her declared incompetent to make decisions (which she obviously was) and set up a guardianship. Absolutely none of us was willing to take that step, partly because Grandma would hate us from that point on for taking away her independence, but mostly because nobody wanted to accept that kind of responsibility. There were some mumbled comments like "Maybe he's learned his lesson" and lots of crossed fingers that the problem would somehow solve itself.

Fast forward to today. The problem hasn't magically solved itself. In fact, it's gotten far, far worse. This guy, instead of learning his lesson, has doubled down on exploiting Grandma for all she's got. That 17 acres of land he was renting? He had her sign a warranty deed transferring ownership to him. He's represented himself as her son in legal matters. He's closed her bank accounts and transferred all of her savings to God knows where. He's driving a brand-new, $40,0000 pickup and opening a new restaurant. Plus, he's waving around Power of Attorney for her. Grandma doesn't really get any of this, but she is pretty clear on the idea that we're spreading lies about this great humanitarian who is bleeding her dry. I figure there's a secret will hidden away somewhere giving everything that's left to him. I mean, that's about the only outrage not currently on the table.

We've filed criminal charges and gotten Adult Protective Services involved, but really, the damage has been done. It'll take forever to untangle this mess, and once we do, there won't be anything left. Grandma (and Grandpa, before he died) grew up during the Depression and worked hard to save up for a comfortable retirement. It's going to be tough explaining to her how she's got nothing left for her final years because she gave it all away to a con artists we were all too chickenshit to throw out on his ass when we should have.

Don't make this same mistake. Scammers don't learn their lesson--anything less than scorched earth they view as a sign of weakness and an invitation to continue their schemes.

Now Playing: Count Basie Corner Pocket
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, September 17, 2012

One year later

Roughly 12 months ago, give or take a few days, I make a big list of 42 goals I set for myself over the course of the ensuing year (why 42? You haven't been paying attention. For shame!). In any event, it wasn't so much as a realistic list as it was a crazy lunatic compilation of things that would probably kill me from stress were I to genuinely try and accomplish them all. So, hey, good news folks--I'm still here!

Looking over this overly-ambitious list, it's depressing how few items actually got crossed off. On the other hand, it's encouraging how many items actually did get completed. And there are some incompletes scattered hither and yon, so I figure I get partial credit for them. For the record, I'm still not down with the whole "aging gracefully" thing. At all. But this past year came and went without my descending into debilitating bouts of depression (well, not for more than a few days at a time) so that's gotta go down as straight up win, right?

  1. Finish that damn Chicken Ranch book (Yes! The big one accomplished! Although I missed most of my self-imposed deadlines, I did complete the second draft a few weeks ago and the manuscript is currently out with first readers. Yay! There's still work to be done, and I still don't have a publisher, but I count this as an unambiguous accomplishment).
  2. Stop dwelling so much about what other people think of me. Stop censoring and limiting and restricting and misrepresenting myself in some misguided attempt to earn their approval. (Er, gotta mark this as an incomplete. Progress in some instances, backsliding in others.)
  3. Finish my in-progress short story "A Life Less Illustrated." (Ha, ha. No.)
  4. Be a better father and husband. (Another incomplete. I am a work in progress.)
  5. Be a better role model for my children. (Incomplete, although this one, I think, leans closer toward the good column.)
  6. Return to work on my half-finished fantasy novel, Wetsilver. (snort!)
  7. Fill out my Farscape collection with the missing episodes from season 3 I don't have. (Sadly, no. I thought about it, but didn't get beyond adding Season 3 to the Netflix queue. No, wait, The Wife did that.)
  8. Watch the entire run of Farscape, in order, from the pilot episode through Peacekeeper Wars (Did not watch a single episode the entire year, although I did read some of the BOOM! Studios comic books.)
  9. Finish converting the garage into a home photography studio. (This project, I fear, is DOA.)
  10. Lose 25 pounds. (Er, well, I did manage to lose 10 pounds, but that was only after I'd gained 10 pounds. So I'm right back where I started. On the up side, I've now got a gym membership and physically torture myself on a semi-regular basis.)
  11. Watch Deep Throat with The Wife.
  12. Finish my in-progress short story "The Shoals of Cibola." (Nope. There seems to be a pattern emerging.)
  13. Stop yelling so much/Keep my temper under control (Incomplete).
  14. Get back to that radio script I'm supposed to be writing with Mark Finn. (Nope.)
  15. Learn to scuba. (No, BUT The Wife has gifted me with a scuba class. I will commence to learning how to not drown underwater within the next week or so!)
  16. Spend a long weekend in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, photographing landscapes and wildlife. (Damn, this almost happened. But my PT Cruiser started acting up a bit, and I didn't want to get stranded out in West Texas without working wheels.)
  17. Find a publisher for Voices of Wonder, my second collected volume of genre-themed interviews. (This did not happen.)
  18. Read Don Quixote. (Crap. Forgot all about this. But then again, I didn't read much of anything not related to Texas brothels over the past year.)
  19. Enroll in photography courses at Texas State (Incomplete. I attempted to do so last year through my division, but my paperwork vanished into a black hole. I just today turned in the paperwork for classes this spring, so we'll see what happens).
  20. Pull a 4.0 for the semester (see no 19).
  21. Put together that Apollo-Soyuz model kit I bought 20 years ago.
  22. Surprise The Wife with a Canon EF 24-70 2.8 L lens (She bought it herself before I could. :-/).
  23. Read those Hunger Games books. (Read them. The first is great, the second good and the third falls apart.)
  24. Finish that Green Arrow musical thing. (No, but I've looked at it a couple of times. Soon.)
  25. Buy a new car. (This, surprisingly, came about several months ahead of time: Unplanned, Unprepared, Unexpected
  26. Publish (or rather, find a publisher for) my short story collection. (sigh)
  27. Photograph a Division I-A football game from the sidelines. (Check it out.)
  28. Get back to that short story I'm supposed to be writing with Chris Nakashima-Brown. (Nope.)
  29. Spend the better part of a week in New Orleans with The Wife. (Yes, our trip to Imaging USA) worked out as planned.)
  30. Return to, and finish, Memory, my online serial storytelling experiment. (Not even close.)
  31. Visit Cape Canaveral. (It was very cool!)
  32. If that buffoon Rick Perry wins the GOP presidential nomination... (Oops.)
  33. Spend a long weekend in Big Bend National Park, photographing landscapes and wildlife. (See no. 16)
  34. Buy my dream telescope, the Meade LXD75 SN-10AT (f/4) Schmidt-Newtonian. (It's no longer made. Not only that, but when I sent my 6" mirror off to be resurfaced in an attempt to maximize the the telescope I do have, it came back broken and unuseable.)
  35. Begin writing Sailing Venus, my long-delayed YA novel. My kids aren't getting any younger. (No, but this is a high priority now that the Chicken Ranch books is wrapping up.)
  36. Re-unite The Kinks. (Sadly, I haven't even managed to see the Do It Again documentary.)
  37. Write that "Airships and Apes" challenge story put forth by Joe Lansdale. (Incomplete. I wrote a dozen pages before the Armadillocon deadline, but did not finish it. Still, the snippet I read received positive response. Or perhaps that was the Neal Barrett Jr. story I read, since Neal couldn't be there...)
  38. See the Blue Man Group live.
  39. Rewrite "Where the Rubber Meets the Road." (Didn't do it. But I may within the next few weeks.)
  40. More skyrockets in flight.
  41. Get a Canon FD 500mm f/8 reflex lens and convert it to EF mount with an Optix V5+ focus confirmation chip with "Trap Focus" feature. (Amazingly, I did do this. It turned out to be more technically challenging than I was led to believe, and I managed to inflict nerve damage on my left index finger in the process (and bleed. A lot.) but in the end I converted the mount and have a very nice 500mm mirror lens.)
  42. Re-read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
I wonder how many of those goals left unmet I'll be able to cross off the list this time next year?

Now Playing: The Kinks Word of Mouth
Chicken Ranch Central

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Chicken Ranch report no. 28

La Grange Chicken Ranch brass token (fake)
I'm happy to report that since we last spoke, I have completed the revisions to my second draft of the Chicken Ranch manuscript and distributed it to first readers. I am now awaiting their valued commentary, and also waiting on word from a prospective publisher, who promises to get back to the on that Any Day Now.

This is a somewhat odd time for me. After working on this book for more than three years, it's a tremendous relief to have the bulk of the work over and done with. Yet at the same time, I'm still not through with it entirely. I'll still have one big revision to go though once I hear back from my first readers. Organizing and preparing the photos and graphics I have still demands my attention, and that's something I'm stubbornly putting off. And then there's the conference paper. Oh, boy, is there ever. I'm going round and round with this thing, which I'm presenting at the East Texas Historical Association's Fall Meeting. One would think that since I've already written 400-plus pages on the Chicken Ranch, a mere 10 page paper would be child's play. One would be wrong. I've spent an inordinate amount of time on the abstract alone--and all the abstract amounts to is a short paragraph describing the paper overall. I really, really need to finish it up ASAP, but this paper is going nowhere fast.

In that aspect, at least, it shares a lot in common with Chapter 13: Hell To Pay. For those who aren't long-time followers of this Chicken Ranch saga, Chapter 13 is the first chapter I wrote more than two years back. I wrote it as a sample chapter because it was the first chapter I amassed enough material for. It's gone through more revisions than the other chapters, had undergone the first reader process and is in pretty much finished form. Yet the second draft work on it took longer than pretty much any other chapter. Why, you may ask? Well, two years back, I hadn't settled on an end note format. I essentially jotted down a general reference note for each one, and planned to come back later to flesh them out. Ugh. Coming back two years later, I discovered I left out the author in many cases, page numbers in many more, and all manner of things were wrong and didn't mesh with the style I'd settled on for the rest of the book. So sparse were my notes I had to go back to the library and spend hours sifting through microfilm trying to hunt down missing info. It's all good to go now, but man, was that a tedious less for me to learn!

One other interesting bit of information I uncovered in these latter days of book work and research is that I am not the first writer to work with Miss Edna on producing a definitive history of the Chicken Ranch. In 1978, author Robin Moore--who partnered with Xaviera Hollander to write the best-selling The Happy Hooker--announced that he, along with his occasional writing partner Fred Halliday, had reached a deal to tell the Chicken Ranch story:

It's got nothing to do with the Broadway play," Moore said. "We're mining a new motherlode of gold--we hope.

"We hope to, expect to and plan to bring from her a whole new series of ideas," he said.
Miss Edna herself confirmed the discussions, although she went so far as to say they'd already signed the deal.

"It's going to be a history of the Chicken Ranch," Miss Edna said. "I'd only read one book about a madam, and I didn't like it. It was A House is Not a Home, you know, about Polly Adler. She said she never hustled herself. I can't believe that. So I never finished the book."
The strange thing is, after 1978 nobody ever mentioned this book deal again. They just abandoned it at some point, without explanation. I wish I'd known this when I interviewed Miss Edna myself, because I would've asked about it. If Moore had written his book, it's a safe bet that I wouldn't have spent the past three years down the rabbit hole. Unfortunately, Moore died in 2008 and Halliday in 2010, so I can't ask either of them. If I can figure out where Robin Moore's papers are archived--some university, most likely--then there might be some insight to be found there. Nothing to be of any use for my book, most likely (and at this stage, I'm not looking to do any more rewrites) but I'm still curious to find out what happened to the definitive story of the Chicken Ranch that never was.

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Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Night Videos

Lots of strife in the world today. I have nothing profound, but thought I'd contribute a little pick-me-up courtesy of Electric Light Orchestra's "Don't Bring Me Down." Dig that crazy hair!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Billy Joel.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

So, I fell down the stairs...

So, I fell down the stairs... no,wait, back up. The whole in media res is fine and dandy, but I need to set some context first. The Texas State University Bobcats, playing their first game as a Division I-A football team (you can tell I'm an old-school sportwriter by my refusal to use the nonsensical "FBS" acronym) upset the University of Houston in a big way. So their home opener, in newly-expanded Bobcat Stadium, against the Texas Tech Red Raiders, suddenly became a very big deal. We expected more than 30,000 fans to pack the stadium, nearly double the previous record. Traffic, parking and crowd control were major issues. Because of the expected crush, the university took an all-hands-on-deck stance. I needed to be there to deal with media if anything non-sports related happened. Since I had to work the game anyway, I got a sideline photo pass so I might practice my sports photography until I was needed.

Some of you may remember The Wife got me a vintage Canon FD 500mm f/8 mirror reflex lens for Christmas last year, which I converted to Canon's modern EF mount. In theory, since the lens is fully manual with a fixed aperture, the conversion is an easy one. Naturally, I ran into a host of technical problems, and inflicted nerve damage to my left index finger before I was through. But I did convert the lens to EF mount, and added a focus confirmation chip as well so that the camera beeps whenever the image in the viewfinder achieves, well, accurate focus. Since modern digital DSLRs don't include focus assist split screens like old film cameras did, this is a very handy feature.

So, I made the decision to shoot a bunch of the game with a manual focus mirror lens, much like old-school photographers did back in the 60s and even into the 70s. After watching my Aggies put a whoopin' on the Florida Gators for the first half of their first SEC football game (and thinking, "Boy, I hope they don't have a second half collapse like last year!") I went upstairs to change into my gameday clothes so I could drive over to campus for the game. When I came back down stairs, my feet suddenly shot out from under me. Fortunately, I broke my fall with my back, hip and elbow. In retrospect, this was probably not a wise course of action. Actually, falling on the stairs was probably not a wise course of action. I sat motionless on the floor for about 10 minutes, in quite significant pain. I had the wind knocked out of me, which wasn't a heap of fun, either. Fortunately for me, I've broken so many bones in my life that I could tell within seconds that I hadn't managed to break any this time around. There's a distinctly sharp pain associated with broken bones, that cuts through even the numbness of shock. I've got a huge goose egg on my hip now that's turning ugly yellow, and bruise lines coming up on my back. My left elbow really, really took a nasty shot, so once I recovered enough to walk, I loaded up on ibuprofen and finished loading my stuff into the car. Then I stopped at Walgreens and bought an elastic elbow sleeve. The pressure helped a great deal. Seriously.

Hobbled but not daunted, I drove to San Marcos and parked in the single remaining parking space outside my office. This surprised me, as this wasn't a well-know parking lot. Then I realized the city was doing some kind of construction work in the adjacent park, and had closed the bridge across the river there. This sucked, because that's my most direct route to the stadium from my office. I had to walk around to Sewell Park and cross the river there, which was a significant hike, given my battered and bruised condition. Once I crossed the river and got to Bobcat Alley, I was amazed at the tailgating going on. Folks, I'll not mince words--these Texas State students and alums--along with a scattering of Tech folk (official Tech tailgating took place on the opposite end of campus)--really outdid themselves with a huge street party that covered acres. I exaggerate not.

Texas State Bobcat tailgating prior to the Texas Tech game

Texas State Bobcat tailgating prior to the Texas Tech game

I've never seen anything like that tailgating-palooza at Texas State in the decade I've worked there. For a school just moving up into the D-IA ranks, I think they're getting the hang of it pretty quickly. Likewise, they nailed the pageantry at the start of the game with a dramatic flyover of Air Force jets. That certainly got the crowd pumped up. (I point out that I didn't use the mirror lens on either the top two nor the two following images).

Air Force fighter jets flyover at the Texas State vs. Texas Tech football gameAir Force fighter jets flyover at the Texas State vs. Texas Tech football game

The new stadium itself, with ribbon boards between the first and second decks, didn't look too shabby either. It seats approximately 32,000 right now, but once the various expansion phases are completed over the next decade or so, it'll be a very respectable stadium in the 45,000 capacity range. Not huge, but certainly comparable to Kansas State and others.

Texas State Bobcats vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders, September 8,2012, San Marcos Texas. Lisa On Location Photography, New Braunfels, Texas.

Alas, the game itself wasn't so impressive, unless you are a Texas Tech fan. As you can see on this ESPN 3 video of the game, the Bobcats actually looked pretty good early on. They forced and recovered a Texas Tech fumble, then promptly marched down the field, feeding off the crowd's energy. Then a Tech defensive back picked off a terrible throw and ran it back for a touchdown. You can literally see the State players and fans deflate when he scores. After that, they pretty much fell apart and the game was over. Had the Bobcats scored on that drive instead, I suspect it would've been a much closer game in the end, something like a 30-21 final score.

Aside from that, I did indeed get to practice using my FD 500mm mirror lens. Did I mention it is a fully manual lens? That means I have to focus by hand. If I hadn't realized it before, I know now beyond a shadow of a doubt that accurately photographing college athletes running full speed down the field, dodging would-be tacklers is hard. I have tremendous renewed respect for the old-school photographers of the 50s, 60s and 70s who worked in the pre-zoom lens, pre-autofocus era when they had 24-36 shots per roll of film and had to make every shutter click count. I got several good photos (the two following were taken with the 500mm, and the final two were shot with a traditional 75-300mm telephoto zoom once the lighting grew too dim for the mirror) with the mirror lens, but I also had a bunch more that I either missed focus on or just weren't very interesting (tackle piles look cool on the field, but they're kinda dull in stills). A 500mm lens also has a super narrow depth of field--you've got maybe a plane of focus a foot deep to work with, and anything outside that narrow sliver is going to be progressively blurrier. And if that's not enough, out of focus highlights turn into circular donuts. That's a distinctive trait of a mirror lens--it can be a neat effect if used properly, but more often can be an ugly distraction. So yeah, I'm still learning that part.

Texas State Bobcats vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders, September 8,2012, San Marcos Texas. Lisa On Location Photography, New Braunfels, Texas.

Texas State Bobcats vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders, September 8,2012, San Marcos Texas. Lisa On Location Photography, New Braunfels, Texas.

All in all, it was a fun learning experience. Some other photographers I know came over and checked out the lens. I'd not taken it out before, and a 30 year old lens like this is a novelty. It's light and works well in bright conditions, although 500mm is a focal length I have a hard time hand-holding steady enough for stable shots. It's really a small telescope when you get down to it, using a Maksutov–Cassegrain design, and gives the best results when I have it mounted on a monopod. I've also come to the conclusion that it's somewhat brighter than a true f/8 lens--maybe by a third or half a stop. I have the auto focus confirmation chip programmed to tell the camera the lens is an f/5.6, because the camera won't operate its auto focus system for lenses slower than that. Initially, I increased my exposure compensation by a full stop to make up that difference when shooting in aperture priority mode, but those images invariably came out slightly overexposed. So I shoot as an unadjusted f/5.6 and only have to increase the brightness of the image slightly in Photoshop to bring it up to par.

Ultimately, I've gained a lot of confidence in this little lens. It's certainly not out-perform Canon's 500mm f/4 L lens, but it's more than $10,000 cheaper, six pounds lighter and about two feet shorter. I'd say, for what it is and what it can do, quite a nice little bargain.

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