Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sailing Venus: The story so far

The other day I gave my eldest, Monkey Girl, a copy of the Writers of the Future anthology containing my story "Cyclops in B Minor." She'd complained in the past, "When are you going to write something that I can read?" Much of my output is written for older audiences, and as such I'm not comfortable with my kids reading it. Ever. But here's a girl who's devoured Hunger Games and Doomsday Book and a hundred others besides, so I think, "Hey, I do have some published stories she might like." So I gave her the anthology, knowing that a mere manuscript wouldn't impress her as legit.

So after a couple days of ignoring it, she came into my office as I worked on Sailing Venus with an odd look on her face. "Why is there a cyclops there? Is he just chillin'? Where'd he come from? How can he see music?" The barrage of questions caught me off guard. I answered honestly, but not in much detail, so as to not ruin the story with analysis. Then she just stood there, still staring at me, as if I were some unusual hamster-like creature she'd just discovered in the woods.

"What?" I said finally.

"You can, like, write." I gestured at my monitor, filled with words. "What do you think I've been doing all this time?" "Yeah, but I didn't expect it to be good."

So then she takes a keen interest in the words upon my screen, noting names and dialogue and the like. Sailing Venus is, after all, my effort to write a YA novel in response to her original challenge above. After I failed miserably in my attempt to write it during NaNoWriMo, I left the story untouched as other demands consumed my time. But earlier this month I opened it back up and started re-reading the chapters I'd started. Making cuts here and there, adding a sequence to better develop a concept, replacing a serviceable word with a more focused one... essentially a second-draft pass. And then I reached the end and picked up where I left off. The words haven't come quickly (as I complained elsewhere, just once I'd like to go all Robert Silverberg on a project) but they are coming steadily, as opposed to the fits and starts from before. There's a precision in my language I'm not sure I've achieved before, packing in a lot of world-building in a limited amount of space. Implying rather than explaining, that sort of thing. I do think it is working. I'd already completed chapter 2 and was well into chapter 3 before going to Armadillocon over the weekend, which left me recharged and enthused to get back to writing, as it always does. So that's what I've been doing since, every night for a couple of hours, writing slowly but precisely, working out thorny little logistical problems in my plot I hadn't anticipated along with getting to know my characters better. It is, I must confess, progressing reasonably well.

"So when this is published, and there's a copy in my school library," she said, a slight bit more excited than it was cool to be, "you need to go in there and sign it. That's all, just your name." And then she bounded off, back to her world of texts and Tweets.

But you know what? I might just take her up on that.

Now Playing: The Moody Blues Time Traveller
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The "M" word

It looks like we're moving. This does not fill me with joy. There are few things I despise more than moving. I'd make a terrible nomad.

No, I haven't gotten a new job or anything drastic. We're staying in the New Braunfels area. We're just selling and leaving the house we've lived in for the past 11 years. We like this house quite a bit. We've put our stamp on it. I love my office with ceiling-to-floor bookshelves I built myself. I'll miss the wine rack I built in the kitchen. And I'll really, really, really miss the pecan, pear, peach, plum, pomegranate and fig trees I planted in the yard and are only this year all producing mature crops of fruit and nuts, for the first time in the 10 years I've grown them. I'll also miss the passion vines (and passion fruit) and grape vines I've been growing for 10 years now. Now I'll have to start over from scratch, and wait another 10 years for all my plantings to mature. Moving really, really sucks.

But you know what sucks even worse? Neighbors. Neighbors who refuse to weather-treat their side of the privacy fence, so that it rots through from their side. Neighbors who let their dogs rip the fence apart so they can get into our yard and wreak havoc. Neighbors who constantly park in front of our house, blocking our mail box so that the post office refuses to deliver. Neighbors who throw raucous parties every other weekend that last until 3 a.m. Neighbors who laugh you off when you politely--or even not-so-politely--complain about these acts of inconsideration. You know what also sucks worse? An HOA run by a corrupt property management company that continually raises HOA fees and provides absolutely nothing in return for it. Public areas of our neighborhood are a disaster. Fences falling down. Fences unpainted and rotting. No parks, no playgrounds, no club house, no pool. Absolutely nothing that other HOAs with far lower fees take for granted. Pockets are being lined, and lined lavishly. From the full-throated defense of this property management company from our HOA board, someone's getting kickbacks as well.

The final straw came the day before we left for vacation last month. When the city passed an ordinance last year permitting homeowners to keep a certain number of backyard chickens within city limits, I picked up some chicks from the local feed supply. I grew up with chickens, as did The Wife, and we wanted our kids to have the experience of gathering fresh eggs. They raised those chickens from hatchlings. Those chickens were outright pets, following people around, looking for attention. Whenever we took table scraps out for the beagles, the chickens muscled right up in there amongst our dogs to claim their share. So when we got home from a wedding to discover the neighbor's dogs had once again broken through the fence to get into our yard, killing all of our chickens and leaving a horrible, feather-strewn mess to traumatize our kids, I'd had enough. So had The Wife. We're moving.

Our next home will be in the country, with some amount of acreage to buffer us from any neighbors. I'll have a shotgun to deal with any feral dogs or coyotes that choose to violate our property with their presence. The girls can finally have that horse they've pined for all these years. I'll re-plant my orchard, bigger this time, and include jujubes and avocados and mandarins and loquats, if only to break up the number of fruit trees starting with the letter "P." The Wife will get a full-blown photo studio--we'll build one from the ground up if we can't find a property with a barn or workshop or such that's suitable for conversion. We'll also do some landscaping to support her studio work, and have the most obnoxiously dense field of bluebonnets Texas has ever seen.

The trouble is, while The Wife and I are doing better financially than we ever have and have paid down our debt significantly, we still can't carry two mortgages. We have to sell our current house in order to finance the new one, which obviously puts us in the untenable position of being homeless if we can't find a suitable new home and close on it within a few days of selling. That's not likely (as we hate moving, this new place better be as close to perfect as it can be. We're not settling for "meh") so we're looking at short-term rentals, and that is no fun, either. It'll work out in the end, somehow.

So where does that leave us? Packing. We're boxing and boxing and boxing. Well, The Wife is boxing. I'm mostly hauling and stacking. We've rented a big storage locker and are doing our darnedest to fill it. It's amazing how densely we've lived in this house, expanding to fill every nook and cranny. But cozy and comfortable to us is cluttered and cramped to potential buyers. We're emptying the house with an eye towards showing staring in September, and already the results are impressive. I haven't started on my office yet--boxing all my books is a daunting task, and I swear one box of books from our previous move (with some of my Greg Egan collection) has yet to turn up. My 18" Bill The Cat doll vanished during the last move as well. And the disruption of the move comes right as I'm back to seriously working on Sailing Venus. Conducive to writing the moving stuff is not.

It's all for the best, I keep telling myself. I hope so, because it's too damn much work for a lateral move.

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Oakland 1977
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Marvin Zindler (1921-2007)

On this date in 2007, KTRK consumer affairs reporter Marvin Zindler died of pancreatic cancer.

Zindler, of course, is forever linked with the Chicken Ranch, as his series of exposés on the brothel directly led to its closure. And for that reason, many people (mostly men) who are old enough to remember curse his name. Despite being a raging egomaniac, he was a powerful champion of the downtrodden in his lifetime, and did a tremendous amount of good. Where the Chicken Ranch was concerned, he let his lust for fame and the spotlight get the better of him, and this allowed people with a vendetta against the Chicken Ranch to manipulate him from a distance. Zindler was a person who firmly believed in his own righteous infallibility, and once it became clear the vast organized crime conspiracy behind the Chicken Ranch's operation did not exist, well, Zindler doubled down on the conspiracy angle rather than admitting he'd been duped. He went to his grave insisting on criminal conspiracy and corruption, although he was never able to prove any of his claims.

Despite this, nobody could argue Zindler wasn't committed to his job. Despite constant pain from the cancer destroying him, he insisted on delivering his restaurant report from his hospital bed on Aug. 20. It proved to be his final report. Just over a week later, he was dead.

Now Playing: Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Grofe: Death Valley Suite
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, July 28, 2014

That was the Armadillocon that was

Ted Chiang, Bradley Denton, Mark Finn, Armadillocon 36
I cannot remember being so exhausted during and after a con as I have with Armadillocon 36 this past weekend. I don't know what was up with that, but despite turning in way early on Friday and Saturday, I operated in zombie mode most of the weekend. Hopefully I was able to cover it up and not infect too many folks I came into contact with. One might think that with such depressed energy levels, Armadillocon would've been a complete bust for me, but surprisingly the exact opposite is true. I had a blast. Despite an asinine, patronizing set of conduct rules distributed to all the programming participants that was relentlessly mocked throughout the duration of the convention (and rightfully so), most folks there seemed in great spirits.

The guests-of-honor list turned out to be a great lineup: GoH Ted Chiang, Special GoH Ian McDonald, Editor GoH Jacob Weisman, Artist GoH Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, Science GoH Sigrid Close, Fan GoH Michael Walsh and Toastmaster Mario Acevedo. Unlike most years, I managed to spend time with, or attend panels featuring every one of the major guests. They proved to be a witty, insightful bunch that brought their A game. Seriously, they all seemed to be running full steam ahead all weekend. I was fortunate enough to sit next to McDonald during the writers workshop panels on Friday, and learned he's that kid from high school who has a funny retort for practically anything anyone says, ever. It was a struggle to not double over laughing and have everyone in the room turn and stare at me. The workshop portion went well, and one participant, Shlomi Harif, brought a short story that I am utterly convinced can be expanded into a complex relationship novel steeped in strangeness. In a good way. That evening's Pirate Panel lurched along like a drunken schooner--mainly because I was moderator and hadn't prepared nearly enough--but my arch-enemy Stina Leicht, Cassandra Clarke, Dave Hardy and Rob Rogers gamely filled in the gaps. Hardy, in particular, proved to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every pirate who ever lived and could've run a two-hour discussion solo without breaking a sweat.

Jacob Weisman, Rick Klaw, Armadillocon 36

Scott Cupp, Jacob Weisman, Armadillocon 36

Saturday I brought Monkey Girl along to wreak her particular brand of havoc. After an unfortunate example of impulse control failure at Worldcon last year, the first thing I did was remove her bank card from her possession prior to her entering the dealers room or art show. To buy or bid on anything she had to come through me. She wasn't happy about it, and I know the vendors weren't happy, but we can't always have a geyser of money spraying out as her bank account is emptied in minutes. There were also discussions amongst myself and several other con-goers regarding her decision to stop participating in my Babylon 5 reviews on this blog, mainly because she complained writing her thoughts "was too much like homework." When Monkey Girl learned people were discussing her opinions shared on my blog, and expressing disappointment she was no longer participating, she expressed shock. "Why? I told you people were commenting on the posts. They liked reading what a fresh set of eyes thought of these episodes." To which she responded, "Yeah, but I didn't actually think you were telling the truth." So, she has expressed interests in rejoining the review thing. Heh.

The GoH interview with Weisman--conducted in tag-team fashion by Rick Klaw and Scott Cupp, with color commentary by Bill Crider--was an interesting capsule history of Tachyon Publications, enhanced by a liberal distribution of Crackerjacks. Afterward, I got to speak with Weisman--quite a thoughtful fellow, if a little more low-key than most of the other lunatics frequenting Armadillocon--and was able to discuss a side project I've taken on. He was intrigued, yet justifiably cautious. I'm to follow up with him this week on it, and he's promised to offer advice and direction if nothing else. Yes, I know that's maddeningly cryptic, but I'm superstitious about some things that way. As soon as I have something concrete to share, I promise I will. It will be a Good Thing if I can pull it off (and no, it's not an anthology pitch, so don't send me your stories).

Peggy Hailey, Scott Zrubek, Joe Lansdale, Armadillocon 36

Howard Waldrop, Lawrence Person, Armadillocon 36

Bradley Denton, Scott Cupp, Armadillocon 36

Scott Zrubek, Joe Lansdale, Bradley Denton, Armadillocon 36

The Neal Barrett, Jr., memorial panel (see the four images above) was a sad affair, but gut-bustingly funny. Howard Waldrop, Lawrence Person, Peggy Hailey, Brad Denton, Scott Cupp, Scott Zrubek and Joe Lansdale kept themselves as well as the audience in stitches with stories of Neal's eccentric brilliance. It turns out that Neal really was the Forrest Gump of science fiction authors, because he was directly connected with almost every significant event and celebrity of the 20th century. And then Lansdale demonstrated Neal's driving technique. It was simply amazing. I miss Neal. If you've never read his work, change that. You'll be hard-pressed to find anything as strange and wonderful as what Neal wrote.

My guest of honor interview with Ted Chiang seemed to go well. At least insofar as Chiang hasn't taken out a restraining order on me. In my devious ways, I put him on the spot by asking the title of his first story submitted for publication--at age 15. He declined to share the title (much to my disappointment) but then proceeded to give a synopsis of the tale, an action-packed space ship adventure of the type one would expect from an enthusiastic 15-year-old. And very much different from the type of fiction Chiang has become known for. That was one of the highlights of the convention for me.

What else? What else? The Fireside Chat could've been a complete crash and burn, but Brad Denton came prepared with a set of moderator questions tailored for the other panelists. He ended up getting me to talk about the Chicken Ranch for 20 minutes or so, which had most everyone there asking to buy the book on the spot. Alas, I'm still waiting for a publisher to show as much enthusiasm for the project. Sunday morning I stumbled into the "Best Cons" (as in confidence games, swindles) in SF, and exhausted my contributions early on by invoking Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat series. Fortunately, Don Webb revealed a previously-unknown grifter streak, and pretty much held court. I learned a pretty nifty (if simple) mind trick from him that I'm going to pull on my kids. But yeah, there's no way I'd ever go against him in a game of chance. I caught most of the "Women in Science" panel, and have to say, it rocked. Mel White, Rachael Acks, Sigrid Close and Paige Roberts kept things moving at a brisk and funny pace, touching on an array of gender issues including (but not limited to) overt and institutionalized sexism. As the father of two daughters, some of the points they brought up were all too familiar. Much progress has been made, but there's still a long way to do. The con wrapped up (for me, any way) with the "Contagion" panel, which I moderated. I was prepared for this one, and Gabrielle Faust, Rhiannon Frater, Stina Leicht and Nancy Jane Moore dove right in when I prodded them for their favorite fictional diseases, after which we followed with a long discussion on actual nasty afflictions that exist today. We then segued into the evolution of diseases, both in the wild and laboratories, before concluding with diseases we'd created ourselves for fiction. Poor Faust admitted to being a hypochondriac, so the panel was probably torture for her, but she handled it well.

By then I was too drained to make any of the remaining panels, so I headed home (which took twice as long as it should have because of a wreck on I-35). I came away from Armadillocon with a renewed enthusiasm for my current Work-In-Progress, which isn't all that unusual. But I also came away with a whole lot of new writers to follow on Twitter and several other potential projects and deals. I saw so many people I didn't get to speak with nearly enough--Rhonda Eudaly, Lillian Stewart Carl, Katharine Kimbriel, Rie Sheridan, Sara Felix, Alexis Glynn Latner, Mark Finn, Claude Lalumière, Tim Miller, C.J. Mills, Jess Nevins, Jessica Reisman, Josh Rountree, Patrice Sarath, Patrick Sullivan, Martha Wells, Sanford Allen, Lou Antonelli, Aaron de Orive--the list just goes on and on. I also got much-needed encouragement from all quarters regarding the Chicken Ranch book, that despite publishers' continued reluctance to green light it, there is a substantial audience for this book just waiting for the chance to buy it. So yeah, good weekend all around. Here's hoping that next year they ditch the silly rules sheet and make the event even better.

Now Playing: Prince Around the World in a Day
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Armadillocon looms!

Tomorrow beings Armadillocon 36, and although I posted this earlier, it seems appropriate to offer a refresher.

Most of my Friday will be devoted to instructing at the Armadillcon Writers Workshop. The impressive lineup this year includes Mario Acevedo, Ted Chiang, Nicky Drayden, Mark Finn, Derek Johnson, Claude Lalumiere, Stina Leicht, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Ian McDonald, Joe McKinney, Alex C. Renwick, Kat Richardson, Dr. Anne-Marie Thomas, Martin Wagner, Jacob Weisman, Martha Wells and Skyler White.

Here is the rest of my official ArmadilloCon 36 schedule (* denotes panel moderator):

9-10 p.m. Beyond the Plunder: Which genre books, movies, shows correctly portray historical pirates?
Blaschke*, Clarke, Hardy, Leicht, Rogers

1-2 p.m Autographing
Blaschke, Wells

8-9 p.m. Interview with Ted Chiang

9-10 p.m. Fireside Chat: The quartet talk about anything and much mirth will be expected.
Denton*, Blaschke, de Orive, Lansdale

10-11 a.m. Best Cons from Genre Books: Not many people are good at writing capers. Which books do it right?
Webb*, Blaschke, Maresca

2-3 p.m. Contagion: What diseases/syndromes/parasites could kill the entire population of the world if we didn't have current restrictions set. (Not including malaria.)
Blaschke*, Faust, Frater, Leicht, Moore
Now Playing: Sheena Easton Fabulous
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Babylon 5: The Parliament of Dreams

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series. I had not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along and find out.

In Valen's Name: Earth Alliance has imposed a week-long religious festival on Babylon 5, so that all races might share the dominant belief of their civilization and learn something about each other. The human contribution to this festival has been dumped on Commander Sinclair with no guidance, and he's at a loss on how to present "Earth's dominant belief system" to the other races. To complicate matters, his on-again, off-again girl friend Catherine arrives, and tension between them mounts. Meanwhile, Ambassador G'Kar receives a courier from the Narn homeworld bearing a message about an impending assassination attempt on G'Kar's life. G'Kar, who has made many enemies, grows paranoid. He suspects his aid, Na'Toth of being part of the plot. An alien bodyguard he hires is promptly executed by the mysterious assassin. Finally, the Narn courier reveals himself, torturing G'Kar, but Na'Toth rescues G'Kar and they turn the tables on the hit man. The episode ends with Sinclair introducing the alien contingent to a host of humans representing the vast spectrum of Earthly theological belief, ranging from atheism to Catholicism to Buddhism and everything in between. The scene pans along the line of humans religious, and fades to black before the end is reached.

What Jayme Says: This marks the first of what I call the "Poetic titles" of the series. They're evocative and abstract, and generally can be counted on to be a keeper, if not pivotal. "Parliament of Dreams" isn't necessarily pivotal the the overarching narrative, but it is for the first season in general. This feels like the first episode of Babylon 5 where the confidence of the actors, writers and director really manifested itself in the final product. The main plot of G'Kar's assassination is the least important element in the entire episode. Yes, it's fun to see the bombastic G'Kar squirm and squeal, but when you get right down to it it's a very straightforward narrative with no real jeopardy. G'Kar is one of the main characters on the show, and series never kill off main characters. Right? Sinclair's relationship with Catherine doesn't have much substance, either, but it serves as a nice piece of character development for the commander--and works far better than the similar attempt from "The Gathering." No, the best part of the episode is what we only get to see the edges of, the belief sharing amongst the different species. Through deft use of symbolism, the rituals we see reflect the generalized traits of the various species on the show. The Centauri, generally viewed as a foppish empire in decline, has a raucous, drunken celebration of life that dates back to a time when their people were younger, stronger and fighting for their very survival. By contrast, the disciplined, aloof Minbari have a somber ceremony that quotes their great prophet Valen, and introduces the recurring phrase, "And so it begins." But it's the human presentation on religion that leaves the most striking impression. Having all those faiths lined up drives home the diversity of belief we humans engage in. It was deft, nuanced and respectful, all the more impressive since JMS is, of course, an outspoken atheist. Now, there's no reason why an atheist can't write about religion in a thoughtful way. None. But here my own biases and baggage come into play. I know any number of folks with diverse beliefs--Christian, pagan, Jewish, atheist--and by an large they're just swell. Wonderful people (because I try not to associate too closely with jerks). However, on occasion my path crosses that of an outspoken atheists, and more times than not I've encountered visceral contempt from them directed at anyone who might dare believe in anything beyond this mortal coil. Regardless of whether or not they know the particulars of my belief or non-. Add to this the fact that my biggest beef with Star Trek is its pervasive, paternalistic, condescending attitude toward religion and, well, all I can say is that I was primed for more of the same from Babylon 5. JMS turned that on its head. He may not believe in religion, but he understands that it is an integral component of the human condition, something we as a species are not likely to "outgrow" in a few hundred years. He gets that, and what's more, he uses it to create a richer, more powerful story while making meta-statements about our contemporary world. It is not coincidental that the Jew and Moslem are standing next to each other at the head of the line. Would that it only takes a few hundred years for us to reach that level of maturity.

Now Playing: Beethoven Piano Concerto #1 in C, Op. 15
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Night Videos

"Weird Al" Yankovic has a new album out, which is reason for celebration. Of all the tracks, "Word Crimes" has got to be my favorite, but while the animated video is clever, it's can't quite match the shameless lunacy of "Tacky."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Hall & Oates.

Now Playing: R.E.M. Dead Letter Office
Chicken Ranch Central

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Bettie Page Reveals All

Bettie Page Reveals All is a fascinating, if flawed, documentary feature about the world's most iconic pin-up and fetish queen. Page died in 2008 at the age of 85, a famous woman who disappeared at the height of her modelling career to become an enigma. Popularized in part by artist Dave Stevens including a Page-like character in his comic The Rocketeer, Bettie Page's pin-up work saw a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s that continued to grow as the years past. For much of this time, Page was unaware of her return to the spotlight, subsisting on Social Security as she lived a life of anonymity. Eventually, she was located and connected with an agent who ensured she received compensation for the rampant use of her likeness. Her later years were comfortable.

Page rarely appeared in public following her rediscovery, and avoided having her picture taken, as she preferred people remember her as she had looked in the 1950s. Fortunately, before she passed away, she gave extensive interviews about her life, which makes up the bulk of this film. Age had turned her voice gravelly, but hearing her southern accent matter-of-factly discuss this topic or that is fascinating, even if the clip art and stock footage used to illustrate her story in the early going is arbitrary at best.

The fact that Page essentially tells her own story is both the film's greatest strength as well as weakness. Many of the topics she touches on are jarring in their abruptness, one or two sentences at best before moving along. Frustratingly, over and over again she makes a comment that begs for a follow-up question that never comes (the interview was conducted in a Q&A format, but apart from a couple of brief interactions, the interviewer is edited out). Speaking as a professional interviewer (is that even a thing?) the myriad things left unsaid and unexplored are maddening. One example come early on, when discussing Page's education. In high school, she desperately worked to become valedictorian, because Vanderbilt guaranteed full ride scholarships to the top student in every Tennessee high school class. Despite her efforts, she ended up salutatorian, mere tenths of a point behind a male classmate. Instead of a full ride to Vandy, she got a $100 scholarship to Peabody College. The immediate thing that leapt to my mind--and The Wife's as well--was that in 1942, women didn't often pursue higher education. In many cases, they were active discouraged. It doesn't take much imagination to picture a school principal in Tennessee tweaking the grades so that the Vandy scholarship wouldn't be "wasted" on a woman. Page would face gender discrimination--if not outright misogyny--time and again throughout her life, and her valedictorian/salutatorian issue would've added an interesting bit of context. Alas, the question remains unasked, that bit of history unexplored.

Despite the wide swath of questions not asked, Page does cover a tremendous amount of territory with her good-humored voice over. Others who played a role in Page's life, from Paula Klaw to Bunny Yeager to Hugh Hefner provide extensive commentary in their own right, either via new or archival footage. Even if their thoughts are not deeply insightful, the anecdotes are certainly entertaining and amusing. A minor annoyance--Paula Klaw actually took the vast majority of the Page photos sold by her brother, Irving Klaw, but the film portrays her more as a business manager than a creative talent. A very interesting revelation involved the mediocre 2005 movie The Notorious Bettie Page, starring Gretchen Mol (the film's worth watching for Mol's impressive turn as Page). At the time it came out, Page was very vocal in her displeasure with it, yet certain scenes that were dismissed as fabrication at the time are confirmed here by Page herself. There were several other points where Page seemed to be fudging the truth some, or simply mis-remembering events. It would've been nice to have some cross references, a corroborating witness or document to back Page up, but this is very much her show and what she says goes unquestioned. For the most part, she's bluntly honest, and it's a credit to her that her solo narrative can carry the film so long.

To be honest, as I watched this film, I was struck more and more by the similarities between Bettie Page and Edna Milton, who I interviewed extensively before she died for my book on the infamous Chicken Ranch (which is still sitting on publishers' desks, looking for a home). Both were born in the 1920s in poor, rural America--Milton in Oklahoma, Page in Tennessee--to dysfunctional families with the Great Depression and World War II disrupting their lives. Neither had children, yet both went through a string of tumultuous marriages while making a living as best they could before abruptly disappearing to anonymity at the height of their fame. There's a difference between pin-up modeling and prostitution, but in 1950s America the distinction was a very narrow one. They survived in an era of rampant discrimination and succeeded despite the deck being stacked against them because of their gender. It's a sobering thought to imaging how many times that same story played out across the country in that era, and how many women didn't have the happy ending Page did, or even Milton's relatively soft landing.

Anyone who is a fan of Bettie Page--devoted or casual--will enjoy this documentary. After a bit of a slow start, it builds momentum and simply dazzles with hundreds of still photographs of Page (many of which I'd never seen, and some never-before published). Her sad descent into schizophrenia is well-chronicled, as is her religious beliefs and efforts to become a missionary. It's all here. Check it out. You'll be glad you did.

Now Playing: Michael E. Johnson Love Songs for Amerika
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, July 11, 2014

What's Jayme drinking?

Tonight's beer is (take a deep breath) "Harpoon Black Forest Imperial Cherry Chocolate Porter." Whew! That's a mouthful! I'm drinking this beer because... well, upon seeing this in the store, how could I not pick it up? I like good porters. Chocolate and cherry can both be done well. Imperial is more iffy, because often it's just code for "high alcohol, hopped-up IPA." But with luck, those others would balance that element out. I'm not terribly familiar with imperial porters, but my expectation is that it should be pretty malty and roasty, which is right up my alley.

The beer poured a a clear, dark caramel with a thin, transient head. Despite this, it appears almost black in the glass. No lacing to speak of. Right away, this beer is defying my expectations--especially for one with an alcohol content of 9.8 percent! The nose is odd as well--some toasty malt, yes, but also alcohol and cola. First sip, the mouthfeel is thin. Not watery thin or Bud Light thin, but thinner than I'd think a beer with all this going on should be. There's a definite Coke-a-cola flavoring on the front end, that quickly segues into Cherry Coke. The comes malt, then deep, dark chocolate. Alcohol is well-hidden. This doesn't taste hot at all, which is a surprise given the prominent alcohol scent in the nose. Finally, there's a resurgent cola aftertaste. This is a sweet beer, with only a little bit of burnt bitterness. To be honest, it could stand a bit of sharpening more hops would give it (and given my dislike of over-hopped beers, that's saying something). Right now, hops are pretty much absent from the profile. It's not a terrible beer--they certainly managed to get the chocolate flavor right--but it is stratified, for lack of a better word. There are a number of different flavors at work here, but they're all separate, layered atop each other very distinctly rather than blended. There's no real interaction amongst them, no complexity to make this beer interesting. And an imperial cherry chocolate porter should be interesting, if nothing else. Subdued carbonation doesn't help much, either.

Harpoon Black Forest Imperial Cherry Chocolate Porter should've been a winner, in my estimation. It's got all the pieces in place, but ultimately the whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Now Playing: Florence + the Machine Ceremonials
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday Night Videos

Hall & Oates had a big year in 1984, with the release of their album Big Bam Boom. It was a change of pace for them, breaking away from their blue-eyes soul sound of previous albums. The lead single, "Out of Touch, was but the first in a string of hits from the album. The video for it was perfect for the era, gaining very heavy airplay on MTV, Night Tracks and Friday Night Videos. It's not hard to see why: Despite being filled with skads of 80s excess and questionable fashion choices, it is inventive and a whole lot of fun. The giant drum kit alone is iconic in music video history. And the song's not half bad, either.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Chris Rea.

Now Playing: Florence + the Machine Lungs
Chicken Ranch Central

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Farscape: Till the Blood Runs Clear

Farscape Till The Blood Runs Clear
My Farscape rewatch continues with "Till the Blood Runs Clear," a reference to an earlier-revealed fact that when cut, Luxans must stimulate the wound to bleed otherwise they'd suffer a kind of septic shock. While D'Argo is indeed injured in this episode, and his wound is stimulated to make the blood run clear, that event is incidental to the plot, marking this as another of Farscape's throw-away episode titles.

While studying the formation of wormholes around a star that's throwing off massive solar flares, Crichton's Farscape module is damaged and he, along with Aeryn, are forced to land on an arid planet for repairs. The radiation-blasted planet looks suspiciously like the one Aeryn (ie Claudia Black) visited in the movie Pitch Black, but Vin Diesel doesn't turn up and Aeryn doesn't get dismembered. Yay! Crichton and Aeryn discover Mrs. Hoggett--apparently traumatized after the events of Babe: Pig in the City--working as a starship mechanic going by the name of Furlow. Furlow agrees to fix the ship, but there's something shifty about her. Aeryn and Crichton then discover a Peacekeeper beacon in the middle of the outpost broadcasting a wanted alert for Zhaan, D'Argo and Rygel, three escaped prisoners. Bounty hunters--the dog-life Vorcarian blood trackers--are already there, anticipating the fugitives' arrival. Crichton bluffs them into thinking he and Aeryn are bounty hunters as well, and the four agree to cooperate for the time being. Aeryn discovers a coded message for her in the Peacekeeper beacon--Crais promising her "retirement" with full rank restored if she helps turn over Moya and the escaped prisoners. Aeryn explains that Crais' "retirement" means execution. While this is going on, D'Argo lands in search of Crichton and Aeryn. The Vorcarians pick up his scent, ambush and capture him. Crichton discovers the Vorcarians torturing D'Argo. They've cut the Luxan, so Crichton punches and squeezes the wound on D'Argo's tentacle in the guise of torture so the blood will run clear and D'Argo won't die. More and more people are poking around the Farscape module, as word has apparently got out that it's been exposed to wormholes. Aeryn fights one, and is subsequently blinded by a solar flare. Crichton rescues D'Argo, but D'Argo, furious about the whole torture thing, fights Crichton. They do the macho thing until coming to a truce, and them promptly get into a firefight with the Vorcarians. Things get nasty, but Aeryn reprograms the Peacekeeper beacon to project Crais cancelling the bounty on the escapees. With no more bounty at stake, the Vorcarians disengage and let Crichton and D'Argo be on their way. Furlow does indeed complete the repairs to the Farscape module, but demands Crichton's accumulated wormhole research as payment, to which he reluctantly agrees.

Commentary: Not a terribly tight episode as far as plotting goes, this one is still a fun ride. The desert location and over-exposed scenes do a good job at conveying an alien world on a limited budget. Furlow is a simply repulsive character that has a certain charisma about her. The Vorcarians are incredibly stupid--they so easily and repeatedly duped by Crichton and Aeryn that it's a wonder how they don't starve to death as bounty hunters. Indeed, it's a wonder how they ever got off whatever world they evolved on. That's good for some cheap jokes, but doesn't make for a very logical episode. There's a minor subplot in the episode regarding the star's massive flares giving Zhaan "photogasms," which is the first hint in the series that Zhaan is a plant-based life form. Crichton's trading away his wormhole research will come back to bite him in the future, but the whole incident with Crais' offer to Aeryn pretty much closes the book on her long-running internal conflict over her break with the Peacekeepers. Not a great episode overall, but entertaining, in a silly way.

Crichton Quote of the Episode: "I’m Butch. This is Sundance. We're the Hole in the Sky gang."

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Monday, July 07, 2014

Babylon 5: Infection

Babylon 5 Infection
I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series along with my teenage daughter. I have not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run, and Calista was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

In Valen's Name: Dr. Vance Hendricks, a former professor of Dr. Stephen Franklin's, shows up on Babylon 5 for what is presumably a pleasant reunion with his formal pupil. Down in the station's docking bays, however, Hendricks' henchman Nelson Drake kills a station worker in order to smuggle an alien artifact through customs, which sets an ominous tone. Hendricks explains to Franklin he's returned from an archaeological expedition to the dead world of Ikarra VII, where he's discovered pristine artifacts buried deep underground. The artifacts, left by the advanced Ikarran civilization, are based on organic technology, and he needs Franklin's xenobiology expertise--not to mention advance Babylon 5 medlab--to analyze the find. Despite his misgivings--likening the corporate-sponsored rush to explore dead worlds to grave-robbing--Franklin agrees to help. Shortly thereafter, as Drake is unpacking the artifacts, one discharges, affecting Drake. Franklin returns to medlab and is shot by the transforming Drake with an energy blast, knocking him out. The next day, having regained consciousness, Franklin explains to Commander Sinclair and Garibaldi how it appears the alien artifacts are grafting themselves onto Drake and transforming him into some sort of alien warrior. Garibaldi casts doubt on the idea that the artifacts actually cleared customs like Hendricks claimed, to which Hendricks says, "Yo, that was my evil henchman's job. If he killed your dockworker to smuggle them in, I had nothing to do with it." Meanwhile, Drake/Warrior is getting more powerful, and his battle mode recharge time is decreasing. Franklin, studying the remaining artifacts, discovers what is going on: Ikarra had been invaded so many times that the civilization developed technology to create unstoppable warriors to defend their world. Unfortunately, zealots programmed them to destroy anything that wasn't "pure Ikarran," an ideological definition. Naturally, once the alien invasion was beaten back the warriors turned on the Ikarran population, finding none of them "pure." The only warrior not deployed was, in fact, the one Hendricks had discovered and smuggled onto Babylon 5. Realizing the warrior's mission is now to destroy everyone on Babylon 5, Sinclair arms himself and attacks the Ikarran, luring it into a docking bay where it can be vented into space. Once there, Sinclair begins arguing with the warrior, insisting it failed in its mission to defend Ikarra VII, and instead destroyed the world it was created to protect. The artifact accesses the memories of Drake, who'd seen the dead world, and in grief the artifact deactivates itself and separates from Drake. Hendricks explains to Franklin that the corporation funding his research is actually a front for a bioweapons developer, and that if he could confirm the artifacts' use as weapons technology, he could claim a much higher finder's fee. He offers to split the money with Franklin, but Franklin declines the bribe and two security guards take him away. Later, two agents from Earthforce Intelligence show up and confiscate the artifacts for "research."

What Calista Says: Nothing. Calista has declined to provide further written opinions regarding Babylon 5 episodes. "It's too much like homework." Such are the fickle natures of teenagers.

What Jayme Says: A run-of-the-mill episode. It's not bad and not great, but relies of many science fiction tropes that we've seen time and again. With a cosmetic rewrite, there's nothing to prevent this script from being used for Star Trek, Farscape, Stargate or Battlestar Galactica. It's that generic, and that's the problem. Thus far in the series, there hasn't been an episode that could only exist within the Babylon 5 universe. Everything is so self-contained within this episode--even the evil henchman Drake survives his transformation and gets to recover off-camera. While the stakes are high, there's no indication the show has any teeth. No partial victories or even serious losses or sacrifice from the protagonists to save the rest of the station. It is standard, episodic television. Also, while this is a Franklin-centric episode, the doctor plays no role in the resolution. Sinclair steps in to save the day. It's not quite deus ex machina, but for Franklin's in-episode character arc, it is awkward. Two small touches that are lost amongst the flash and bang of the episode are nice, however. First is the establishing of the theme that Earth is aggressively scouring the galaxy to acquire the technology of lost civilizations so they won't be at such a military disadvantage against the Minbari or any other alien race ever again. In this episode it seems merely incidental to the plot, but the series will return to it time and again in the future. The second is much more self-aware: Garibaldi takes Sinclair to task for risking his life to lure the Ikarran warrior into the docking bay, pointing out that as commander, Sinclair was needlessly putting his life in jeopardy when Garibaldi or any of the security officers could've accomplished the same thing. Garibaldi points out that many survivors of the Earth-Minbari War have a hero complex and put themselves in danger in an attempt to go out in a blaze of glory. Sinclair acknowledges this and promises to work on it. This neatly addresses the Captain Kirk issue, in which the captain of a starship constantly leads exploration teams into potentially hazardous situations away from the ship, whilst in any rational situation the captain would stay aboard the ship and other officers would lead said mission. The answer to this is, of course, that if the captain is the central focus of the television show, then that actor has to be actively engaged in the plot. Babylon 5 acknowledges the irrationality of the captain's actions here, and posits a reasonable explanation for Sinclair's behavior (and Sheridan's to come).

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Friday, July 04, 2014

Friday Night Videos

Happy 4th of July everyone! For the U.S., this is independence day, the one day of the year where we pretend we don't like the British, but in reality just use it as an excuse to eat too much barbecue, drink too much beer and shoot off fireworks illegally within city limits. Whoo hoo!

Beyond that, I'm not sure what Chris Rea's song "Texas" has to do with the holiday, other than the fact that a cliched, stereotyped vision of Texas has come to represent the U.S. in the eyes of much of the world. Unfortunately, the same can be said for the way the rest of the U.S. views Texas, and even many folks who actually live here. In any event, Rea's video has less to do with the song than pretty much any video I've ever seen to any song. What does a U.S. army post in Germany have to do with Texas? Granted, many of the soldiers stationed there likely spent time at Fort Hood, which is undeniably in Texas; and a great number of German immigrants--including Prince Carl Solms, who founded New Braunfels--came from what is now Germany, but somehow I don't think Rea was getting that obscure with his allusions. Maybe they'd already finished a video for some song called "German Family's Car Breaks Down and American Soldiers Give Them a Big-Ass Coke" when the record company decided that wouldn't be a good lead single and instead went with "Texas," forcing them to re-cut the video to fit a different song. Who knows?

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Henry Lee Summer.

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