Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Happy San Jacinto Day!

On this date in 1836, Texas forces under the command of General Sam Houston defeated the army of Santa Anna in a surprise attack along the banks of the San Jacinto River near present-day Houston. The complete destruction of the Mexican army secured independence for Texas. Many Texans know that a significant credit to the victory is due to Emily Morgan, a mixed-race indentured servant of reputed beauty. She was captured by the Mexican army and Santa Anna became enamoured with her. Santa Anna, eager to bed her, ordered his army to encamp along the banks of the San Jacinto River over the objections of his generals who argued the position was indefensible. Thus was Sam Houston able to catch Santa Anna with his pants down--literally. The song "Yellow Rose of Texas" is specifically about Emily Morgan, as mixed-race people of the time were often referred to as "yellow." I'm partial to the late Stan Freberg's version, myself, despite his mispronunciation of "Rio Grande."

People sometimes wonder when I insist the story of La Grange's Chicken Ranch brothel is very much that of Texas itself, and I stand by that assertion. But as you can see, the republic (and by extension, state) of Texas owes its very existence, at least in part, to illicit sex. It's literally embedded in the cultural fabric from day one. Amazing what history isn't taught in history class!

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Weekend in review (or, a study in self-destruction)

So, Saturday I did not get to sleep late on my one day of the week I normally get to do so, on account of Bug having a make up baseball game that morning. The game the night before had been rained out by the storms that rolled through, and Saturday morning was the only alternative as more rain was predicted for the other options. Naturally, when we get there it turns out the Orioles win by default, as the opponent didn't bother to show up. There were two other teams there with defaults as well, so since everyone was up early and in uniform, the coaches combined the three teams into two and held a scrimmage. I'm happy to report that Bug hit a single off the other side's starting pitcher, and ultimately scored the only run for his side. Yay! Coaches noticed that he's gotten hits in back-to-back games as well, which is always good.

Back home, I tackled some much over-due yard work. I planted two caerulea passion flowers (blue) and three caerulea var. Constance Eliott (white), which I'd grown from cuttings taken from the old house. Caerulea are known for producing pretty, bright orange fruit with deep red arils inside. The edible fruit looks delicious but is so bland as to be offensive. My particular Constance Eliott actually produces fruit with a mild sweetness, so while it's still a long way from being "good" it is at least palatable. So I'm happy I've been able to perpetuate them. Unfortunately, I'd grown the cuttings in plastic soda bottles, and to get them out for planting I had to cut them. Using a pocket knife to slice through the plastic, I slipped twice and gashed my left thumb and ring finger pretty good. You'd be surprised how much little cuts like that bleed and hurt. For first aid, I had my pick of Angry Birds and Frozen Band-Aids. Such is my life.

Once the bleeding stopped, I planted out the Li jujube and Austin pomegranate. Both of these went in without any significant bodily injury, although the clouds abruptly burned off and the sun made my back yard an instant sauna about halfway through the enterprise.

Then I went to work on the studio, which, were my name King Sisyphus, would be my personal boulder. The Wife had the studio booked all day Sunday, so I went to work on detail work that would give it a more completed look. I installed vintage-style track lighting on the ceiling, casing on the entry window and about half the crown molding (with the requisite wood puttying as well). I'd meant to tackle the three north windows as well, but didn't get around to them. That list may not sound like a lot, but it kept me working until midnight, with the exception of a one-hour break to shower and take the kids to Herbert's Tacos for dinner. I have to say the studio is rounding into final form, and will look damn impressive once all is said and done (the flaws and corners cut are glaring to me, but I am assured the casual observer won't ever notice). The Wife is growing more giddy, as the aesthetics are turning out to exceed what she'd envisioned. Which is good, because the goal has always been to give the studio a luxurious feel, so that clients never for a second feel they've stepped into a converted garage.

Naturally, I wrapped up the evening's work by spraining my right wrist. I know, right? Whilst cleaning up to make the studio usable for the next day's bookings, I had my left arm filled with tools and other stuff so I reached with my right to unplug the drill from the wall socket. I'm still not clear how I managed it, but when I pulled, my wrist popped and the plug remained in the socket. Wow. Now any lateral stress--picking up, lifting, pushing--generates an impressive amount of pain. Not enough to incapacitate, but enough to get my attention. Fortunately, it's faded significantly now (otherwise I wouldn't be writing this) but it's still reminding me to take it slow. Considering how much I'm using table, band, jig and chain saws of late, I suppose I should be happy that I still have a wrist to sprain.

Next up: More studio work plus planting the pindo palm and loquat tree!

Now Playing: Stevie Ray Vaughan The Real Deal: Greatest Hits Vol. 2
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Night Videos

In honor of Stevie Ray Vaughan getting his much-deserved induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and seeing as how we've had some pretty serious thunderstorms blow through the state these last few days whilst dropping not-insignificant amounts of rain on us, I present to you Texas Flood.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Stan Freberg.

Now Playing: Prince The Black Album
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Friday, April 10, 2015

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos
No actual video today. Stan Freberg passed away this week and I can't let that go by without featuring one of his brilliant, satirical songs--"Elderly Man River." Unfortunately, very few videos exist of his work since his career peaked long before that became a thing. I don't think it matters one bit, though. Freberg is funny, whether you see him or not.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Ray Stevens.

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Thursday, April 09, 2015


One of my biggest regrets about moving from our old house was leaving behind my fruit trees. In the 10-plus years in that house, I'd planted pear, pecan, peach, plum, fig... and that was a pretty small yard. Last year was the first time they all produced fruit. Some had been more productive than others, sure, but last year marked them all reaching maturity. Talk about frustrating, leaving that behind after all that time and effort, grafting, pruning, cultivating... you get the idea.

So, in light of that, imagine my delight to walk through the back yard of my new house, where I've spent considerable effort planting new and various fruiting plants, to discover a lot of them a bursting out with flower buds! And that's not even counting the plum and peach trees I planted, which flower young but don't set fruit for a year or two after that.

ArcticFrost mandarin

First up is my Arctic Frost satsuma mandarin. This is a new cultivar developed in San Antonio that supposedly thrives in our climate and soil conditions, and is cold-hardy down to at least 20F. That's pretty impressive for citrus! I picked this one up in December for $12 on clearance in a one-gallon pot. Later I learned they're supposed to be precocious, setting fruit at a young age. Well, yeah, but I didn't expect it to start flowering this small. Color me impressed.

Mandarin Orange Frost Satsuma

This is Orange Frost, a sibling cultivar of Arctic Frost above, also developed in San Antonio. It's not quite as cold-hardy but supposed to be every bit as vigorous and productive. I got it at the same clearance, also in a 1-gallon pot. The kids love mandarins, and are eagerly looking forward to our first crop. I won't let either set fruit this year, though. I'd rather they put all their energy into growth.

Li jujube flower

Jujubes have long been on my wish list to grow. They're supposed to thrive in Texas and be a trouble-free fruit tree. I got this one in a 5-gallon pot two weeks back--sadly, not on clearance--and was surprised to see the young plant (maybe 4' tall) set a whole bunch of flower buds as soon as I got it home. They're not really self-fertile, so don't expect any fruit this year, at least not unless I get another type to pollinate it.

Saijo persimmon flower bud

Another new fruit crop for me at the new house is persimmons. There are some astringent persimmon trees growing at my late grandmother's farm, but I've never grown any myself. This year I planted three commercial types--a Prok American persimmon along with Saijo and Ichi-Ki-Kei-Jiro Asian persimmons. The Prok is growing well, but not setting any flower buds (as I expected). However, to my complete surprise, both the Jiro and Ichi are setting flower buds--the Ichi is seriously covered in them. Wow. That's a Saijo bud above. Again, I won't allow them to fruit because I want the trees to get some size first, but wow.

Texas persimmon flower

Asian and American persimmons aren't the only species of that fruit I have growing. There is a grove of oak trees in my front yard, and what I took to be weedy saplings and low branches has turned out to be a companion grove of native Texas persimmons! The fruit are small and seedy, but have a reputation for being sweet and flavorful--deer absolutely love them. And these trees are flowering very, very heavily with their very, very tiny flowers. Hopefully I can save some from all the neighborhood deer for myself.

caterpillar on Texas persimmon

This isn't a fruit or flower, but a little caterpillar I spotted on one Texas persimmon. Just thought I'd share.

dwarf apple blossom, unknown cultivar

I don't know if I've mentioned it here or not, but during my battles to cut back massive primrose jasmine thickets, I uncovered two feral dwarf apple trees. I have no idea what types they are, but after pruning back their shrubby growth, they look halfways presentable. And they are flowing like crazy, so I hope it's something worth eating. The fact that two neglected apple trees thrived in the back yard encouraged me to plant heirloom Arkansas Black and Royal Limbertwig apple trees as well (at the old house I tried several times, but the apple trees never lasted more than a year or two). I also planted two Blanco crabapples in the front yard, but all of my new apple plantings are far too young to flower.

Brazos blackberry flower bud

At the old house I tried growing dewberries for a while, but the yields were always disappointing and drought finally did them in. At the new house I have enough room to seriously grow berries, so I've planted Brazos and Ouachita blackberries. They're growing well, and son of a gun, the Brazos is already showing off with flower buds!

muscadine flower buds

Finally, I've been growing a muscadine grape vine in a pot for several years now. I really like the nutty flavor of muscadine grapes, and love wine made from them. I don't know why I kept it in a pot rather than planting it, but I'm glad I did. It's fruited sporadically for me, but it was seriously root bound and should be much, much happier now that it has room to grow.

I've got other trees that still need to go into the ground--pindo palm and loquat--and I haven't even gotten around to getting the bananas, paw paws and avocados I have plans for. But this is a good start indeed, and takes some of the sting out of the fact that someone else is going to enjoy the fruits of my old orchard this year.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Chicken Ranch report: Rotary!

Good grief! I wholly intended to write up this report of my trip to La Grange last Thursday, but a whole herd of Distractions with a capital D afflicted me and, well, here we are.

My presentation to the Rotarians went swimmingly. There was a packed house, and I overheard more than one person say they'd come that day specifically for my talk. I had a full half hour to use this time, and I like to think I put it to good use. I went through my slide show--which is always popular, as I have some of the only existing photos of the inside of the Chicken Ranch--and then read my paper from the East Texas Historical Association conference, which audiences seem to find moving. After that, we had a lively Q&A session in which I learned something new that somehow hadn't come up before in my research. It seems that the first madam, Jessie Williams, was known locally as Aunt Jessie as opposed to the Miss Jessie I'd been using all this time. Which just goes to show that there are always new details and facts waiting to be uncovered.

This marked the fifth presentation I've given in La Grange on the defunct Chicken Ranch brothel in the past couple of years, and every single time there has been a significant percentage of those in the audience that regard me with wary civility. These are, invariably, the people who lived through the final years of the Chicken Ranch and suffered through the Marvin Zindler-led media circus that led to its closing. Lots of inaccurate and outright wrong things have been written about it in the ensuing years, and even more rumors and whispered stories. So it's understandable that they view me, an outsider, with no small amount of suspicion, expecting me to just repeat those old, tired stories based more in a Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton fiction than in reality. Each time, I've won them over. I've had reports of elderly ladies planning to "set me right" only to depart with smiles and laughter. I've received emails thanking me and offering suggestions of additional sources. Following the Rotary presentation, I had folks come up and commend me for my extensive research far beyond what they thought possible--bearing in mind that this is for a 30 minute audio-visual presentation. The history book itself is 110,000 words long! But more than that, the Rotarians wanted to reminisce. I heard stories of visiting the short-lived restaurant in Dallas, scribbling down license plate numbers in the parking lot to see if any classmates were "visiting" the brothel, others whose fathers and mothers as local merchants did brisk business with the Chicken Ranch and all the philanthropic gifts Aunt Jessie and later Miss Edna made that improved the quality of life for everyone in La Grange. I also confirmed that H-E-B's "Texas Chicken Ranch Eggs" are indeed available in town.

But do you know what really topped the day off? Their presenting me with the Speaker Appreciation Award. Oh, I know it's not a Nobel or Pulitzer, but is a kind and considerate gesture and I appreciate it deeply. It's hanging on my office wall as I write this. You know, a fellow could get used to this public speaking stuff...

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