Friday, June 26, 2015

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

It's that time of year again, when we pack up the kids for a trip down Holiday Road and I do my best Clark W. Griswold impersonation. Pray for us.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Irish Rovers.

Now Playing: The Go-Gos Return to the Valley of the Go-Gos
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Thursday, June 25, 2015

About that flag

I had no intention of wading into this controversy, but I'm seeing a bunch of "history" and "heritage" posts floating around from otherwise reasonable and intelligent people of late. Which frustrates me to no end, as this is an issue that has bugged me for a very long time outside of the current "Confederate flag" controversy. If you're going to cite history in your defense, you'd better have paid attention in history class. Sadly, most haven't, and haven't bothered to check the accuracy of claims they're parroting.

If we want to get historical, that particular flag was ostensibly the battle flag for the army of Northern Virginia, and the man who designed it expressly attached racist meaning to it in his official description. The flag was popularized during the early decades of the 20th century by the KKK for expressly racist purposes (the Klan wasn't exactly a social club and/or sewing circle). And (this really, really bugs me) everyone claiming this flag as heritage or history overlooks the fact that the actual battle flag was expressly square, not rectangular. So this isn't even a historical flag people are fighting over, but a modern invention that was never actually flown by anyone during the Civil War. Then we have the southern states that incorporated it in the 50s and 60s into their state flags, and others just skipped that incorporation part and flew it alongside their state flags as, again, an intentional and expressly racist defiant gesture against integration. So, from a purely historical perspective, I cannot see much evidence at all that this particular flag is worth defending in any context. You want to talk about the Stars and Bars or Stainless Banner or other actual flags and insignia? Fine. But this doesn't belong in the same conversation.

The Civil War was about more than slavery. Correct. And omelettes are about more than eggs. But without slavery, there would never have been a Civil War. Period. Virginia and Georgia and Alabama aren't going to take up arms to fight to mint their own money, or treat with foreign powers, or impose tariffs on goods from neighbor states. Not gonna happen. Henry Clay did not earn his reputation as the Great Compromiser by settling boundary disputes with a survey crew. The Jayhawk Wars did not happen because of a basketball rivalry.

Finally--and this is really the gist of it, regardless of any of the other arguments--if someone has had a family member eaten by Jeffrey Dahmer, don't lecture to them that Silence of the Lambs is really an amazing movie, and that their willful bias is the only reason they don't recognize it as such.

Now Playing: Johnny Cash The Essential Johnny Cash
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, June 22, 2015

Why does the Chicken Ranch matter?

During Apollocon this weekend I was asked a question that brought me up short: "How'd you become so obsessed with the Chicken Ranch?"

It wasn't meant as a put down or a jab, but it was a little off-putting nonetheless. Me? Obsessed? I'd never thought of myself as obsessed with the defunct brothel, although I can understand how it may appear that way to the casual observer. I'd just finished the "I Suck!" panel, and during the discussion I shared how the Chicken Ranch had effectively derailed my SF writing career just as I seemed to be attaining that elusive "critical mass." In early 2009 I stopped writing fiction to research this book--I thought it would be an easy sell, and expected to earn significantly more of the non-fiction history than I ever would with a genre novel or short fiction collection. I also expected the research and writing to take about six months, tops. Absolutely none of those predictions proved accurate.

Now, five years later, I'm picking up the pieces. I'm working on Sailing Venus in fits and starts, and sending out short fiction again. I'm doing rewrites on some that are long overdue and taking a second look as some unfinished projects that have languished. I'm not exactly starting from square one, but there's no denying I've lost that momentum I'd fought so long to establish. So, yeah, from the outside it looks as if I threw all that away to indulge an obsession with prostitutes from a half-century prior.

I wrote this book because it needed to be written. Robin Moore was supposed to have written this book in 1978, but he abandoned the project before it ever got off the ground. I'm not going to lie--he probably would've done a better job than I. He certainly wouldn't have had as much difficulty interesting a publisher. Marvin Zindler had three books written about himself that touch on the Chicken Ranch affair, but those are limited to his direct involvement and are, to a large extent, exercises in self-aggrandizement. Zindler died in 2007. Sheriff Jim Flournoy died in 1982. If I did not write the book, there would soon be no original sources left alive, and a piece of Texas history would be lost forever. The rest of the world had nearly 40 years to do so, and nobody took up the challenge.

The Chicken Ranch isn't just a piece of Texas history, rather, it is a constant that spans the entirety of all Texas history, from the very beginning up to this very day. The Chicken Ranch was born of frontier Texas, survived the Civil War, endured floods and the Great Depression, boomed during the "regulation/containment" era of prostitution at the turn of the previous century and survived not only the social purity movement of those early decades but also Attorney General Will Wilson's anti-vice crusade that brought the so-called "Free State of Galveston" to heel. It was part and parcel of the Jim Crow South, but perplexingly, organized racism in the form of the KKK never took root in Fayette County. Uniquely, from the day it relocated outside of city limits in 1915 to its much-publicized closure in 1973, the brothel was owned and operated by just two women over that span. Organized crime didn't call the shots, men didn't pull the strings behind the scenes. I would not go so far as to describe it as a feminist operation--the owners' primary concern was making money off the backs of the female boarders, after all--but there was a persistent "us against them" mindset that offered a degree of safety and security foreign to other brothels in the state. Edna Milton, and Jessie Williams before her, lived the hard life of a prostitute in less-than-savory conditions, and made an effort to spare their women the worst of that life.

Texas changed over the decades--from the oil boom to the space age--and those changes were reflected in the brothel. It was the nexus of politics in the Lone Star State, and rare was the elected official who didn't at least know how to get there from Austin. Texas Rangers, DPS Troopers, sheriffs and deputies from around the state and beyond were common visitors, cultivating it as a source of intelligence. Other brothels in the state did not share the Chicken Ranch's reputation and clean and straight-laced. During my research, I encountered several sources who held human life in shockingly low regard.

This is a part of Texas history most are unaware of, or pretend doesn't exist. Just as every generation pretends sex and vice did not exist for their parents and grandparents, so too is there the insistence that the good old days were filled with flowers and sunshine. Texas retained a frontier mentality long after the frontier had faded to distant memory. This land was a violent, brutal place, the likes of which Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were just the most famous faces of. Pretending Texas was anything other does a disservice to those people who lived through that time as well as those who call Texas home now.

For most of its existence, Texas was mostly rural and agrarian. The frontier mentality dominated, and the state's politics were an odd mix of self-sufficient libertarianism leavened with unexpected progressive ideals. Abruptly, almost overnight in relative terms, Texas became urban and high-tech, sending men to the moon and amassing untold wealth from petrochemicals before diversifying into all manner of cutting-edge industry. The abrupt closure of the Chicken Ranch in 1973 serves as a stark demarcation between the Old Texas and the New. Change happened rapidly, and the Chicken Ranch was a victim of that change.

I don't collect every piece of Chicken Ranch memorabilia I can get my hand on. I don't rewatch The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas with religious fervor. I don't wish I'd been born a couple decades earlier so I could've patronized the place. I don't curse Marvin Zindler. The Chicken Ranch is history--mostly forgotten and deeply misunderstood, but history nonetheless. Many of the people I interviewed had vivid recollections of their place in that history, but nobody--from Edna Milton to Lt. Governor Bill Hobby to the clients to the Assistant Attorney General to the reporter who "infiltrated" the operation--had enough pieces to put together the big picture. That's never existed before.

I've had agents and publishers alike decline my book because "there's no market for it." Just as many have said no because "the market's saturated." One publisher dismissed it as tawdry and beneath them. One publisher acknowledged the value of the work, but declined because they worried publication would be akin to an endorsement of prostitution. Other people worried I was "stirring up trouble" by revisiting events from almost a half century ago. The fact that this subject matter can provoke such diverse and passionate reactions shows how relevant it remains to this day.

The Chicken Ranch matters because it was, and is, part of who we are. Denial doesn't change that. Giving a good, hard look at the gender issues at play during the brothel's run might just give some insight--or, at the very least, context--to some of the vexing gender issues society is wrestling with today. I have a sneaking suspicion they're not all that dissimilar.

So, no, I don't consider the Chicken Ranch an obsession. "Obligation" is the word you're looking for.

Now Playing: Peter Gabriel Passion
Chicken Ranch Central

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Apollocon in the rear view mirror

Apollocon has come and gone, and boy are my arms tired! Seriously, I'm wiped. This is due to a number of factors. Firstly, I somehow managed to pull the adductor muscles in my right leg last week and that made walking--or even moving--an exercise in pain-making. By the time Apollocon started, I'd recovered somewhat, but walking stiff-legged so as not to antagonize those muscles wears a fellow out. Secondly, I'd arrived at the con following a three-hour drive to College Station to pick Monkey Girl up from swim camp, which then led to a 90-minute drive into Houston. And today we left the con early to make the hour drive up to Spring (ironically, where Apollocon used to be held) to pick up cousin Sean to spend the week with us, at which point we had a nearly four-hour drive to get back to New Braunfels. So yeah, I'm wiped. And that's not counting the seven hours of programming I completed on Saturday.

It was good to get back to Apollocon, as it was just as friendly as I remember. The location off Gessner is actually more convenient for me under normal circumstances. The hotel itself was somewhat more swank than your regular con hotel, and there was ample space for the con to spread out, even with other conferences going on simultaneously. The hotel restaurant had good food, and (much to my surprise) actually had prompt service. The location's great, too--next to Memorial City Mall and surrounded by all manner of interesting restaurants as well as a nearby HEB. The downside--and I'm sure this will be discussed for quite some time--is that the hotel clearly doesn't understand the concept of convention/conference attendees mingling and meeting after hours. Only the first four floors were accessible by everyone. The floors above that, the residential floors, were only accessible via your room key, which you swiped in the elevator. So far, so good. They have to ensure security, right? Well, yeah, but your room key only granted access to your floor, none of the others. Which proved problematic, seeing as how the hospitality suite was on the 5th floor, and all the room parties were on the 6th. One could only reach those with an escort. The con com did a valiant effort to facilitate this, with volunteers standing by on the 4th floor to "beam you up" to one of the forbidden floors. But really, hotel elevators aren't all that fast to begin with, and the third or fourth time I stood around waiting for a lift to the hospitality suite just to see who was hanging out there... I started thinking "Why bother?" And forget about dropping by anyone's room to chat or make dinner plans. The room parties Saturday night were sparsely attended from what I saw, and I can't help but think the convoluted access restrictions played a large role in this. I simply don't understand why the hotel, as a matter of policy, doesn't have room keys allow access to the residential floors. I've seen that at work in other hotels and everyone appears happy in the end. No fault goes to Apollocon on this one--they did their best under the circumstances.

My only other issue with the new venue is just that--it's a new venue. I never got a real feel for how many people were there, and several old friends I saw in passing--Bill Crider and John DeNardo, for example--I never saw again. It takes a while to learn a convention's ebb and flow in a new venue, and I still hadn't gotten it down by the time I departed.

Still, Apollocon generated a lot of goodwill by treating everyone to a cupcake bar Friday night. Needless to say, the fen swept in like locusts on a Biblical mission. Nothing remained afterward, save some shredded napkins.

My first panel of the evening, "Texas Fen, Texas Proud," was a fun discussion of the history of genre and fandom in Texas. Randall Shepherd and Glenda Boozer (above) were my fellow panelists, and we cast our net far and wide, discussing some of the bizarre "real history" of the state, which no doubt contributes to the predominant mythology. And speaking of mythology, I read a chapter from my infamous Chicken Ranch book that evening. Guest of Honor Jim C. Hines, who confessed to complete ignorance of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," graced me with his presence and left considerably less ignorant on the topic. He may need therapy to recover, though.

Saturday opened with the writers workshop, organized by Tex Thompson. Sadly, two of our four group participants couldn't make it to the convention, but the two that did had solid work. Ididn't make anyone cry, despite my best efforts. I've struggled through some really bad workshops in the past, but this time wasn't one of those. I love it when I can make a real difference in someone's writing. That took up three hours. After an hour to squeeze in lunch with Monkey Girl, it was back to work on the Westerns in SpecFic" panel, alongside Scott Cupp and C.J. Mills (above) and Tex Thompson. With those panelists we couldn't go wrong, and we discussed all the usual suspects and a whole lot of unusual and obscure ones as well.

Next up came "The Struggle," a panel purportedly about dealing with self-doubt, angst and other things that destroy a writer from within. Pretty grim and heady subject matter, that. My co-panelists for this one were the talented and witty Rhonda Eudaly and Martha Wells (above) and...

The ubiquitous Jim C. Hines! It was at this point we learned that this was actually the Jim Hines panel--he pitched it to the con under a slightly different title: "I Suck!" It wasn't an angsty, gloomy topic at all, but rather one in which we shared the stupidest, most idiotic mistakes we'd ever committed. It became a competition, to see who'd sabotaged their career the worst.

Suddenly, the downer topic became fun! I took the early lead with my story of how, at age 17, having just completed my first novel (a 100,000-word epic Dungeons & Dragons fantasy) I subbed it to Analog. I'll let that sink in a bit. I was gearing up to take my victory lap when Hines unleashed his haymaker, or, "GOblin Quest vs. Jim Baen." He won. Easily. In fact, his story was the Peter Jackson Return of the King of "I Suck" stories, because every time it appeared his story had completed with his life and career in smoking ruins, he had yet another, extended ending to trot out, which left his life and career even more smoking-y and ruins-y. I won't dare repeat it here. You've just got to hear it from the man himself. It is worth it.

My final panel was "OMG! Mars Has No Interent" with Larry Friesen, Maeve Alpin and Mr. Creepy Pasta (above). The description was something like "What will social media-addicted colonists do when they get to Mars and can't get into real-time Facebook flame wars?" As I was moderator, and thought this a profoundly narrow and dumb description, I immediately discarded it and turned it into an examination of how technological limits and demands of future colonists with impact their social evolution. Colonization efforts of Mars, the moon and eventually Venus are likely to develop in significantly different directions considering the unique environs of each of those worlds. Friesen, a former NASA contractor and current physics prof at UH-Clear Lake, kept everyone grounded with his reminders that the real issue facing the internet/social connectivity of colonies with Earth is bandwith rather than the simple time lag in communications. And quantum entanglement is not likely to be a viable solution, either. A very fun an freewheeling panel that went in some interesting directions.

And yes, Apollocon's favorite astronaut, Stan Love, was there Saturday. We actually shared an autograph session (he signed way more autographs than I) and spent the entire time discussing the accuracies (and inaccuracies) of the movie Interstellar with pretty much everyone who approached him. He apparently gets this a lot, and his discussion points were quite polished. I observed that fans weren't nearly so demanding of the science in Gravity, to which Love replied (and I'm paraphrasing), "Everything that happened inside was perfect. Everything that happened outside was garbage." Which really, when you get down to it, is pretty much my argument distilled down to its essence. Thanks to Paul Abell, astronaut wrangler extraordinaire, for the group shot above.

Fencon always knows how to party in style. One of these years I'll make it up there, but this one just falls at a bad time of year for me.

The Montreal Worldcon bid threw a pretty good shindig as well. They had a bunch of Canadian liquors on hand, which I'm not really a fan of (the liquor, not Canada) but then pulled out a triple from Unibroue, which is just about my favorite brewery not located in Shiner. And yes, it was a very good golden triple. They've got my vote.

And that was it. Once I got home, I had the added bonus of repairing a hole in the dog run fence, through which the beagles escaped and wrought havoc in the yard during my absence. Looking forward to returning to Apollocon next year, and maybe arriving in a bit better condition.

Now Playing: Syd Barrett Crazy Diamond
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, June 19, 2015

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

Growing up in small-town Texas, our local radio station played both kinds of music--country and western. So along about 1981 I heard the song "Wasn't That A Party" quite a bit. This was the era of country-rock crossovers, and this silly drinking anthem by the band the Rovers was pretty much the Platonic Ideal of such a song. So imagine my surprise decades later upon discovering the Rovers were, in fact, the famed Irish Rovers during a brief flirtation with a name change. I mean, their vocals are a perfect match for Nashville of the time. The video below is from their 25th anniversary show, and includes quite a bit of silly intro that is worth watching. Sobering to think that the band celebrated its 50th anniversary just last year. So, listen to to the song and then tell me with a straight face that it's obvious this is the same group that rose to prominence with "The Unicorn" all those years ago.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Christopher Lee.

Now Playing: Six Mile Bridge No Reason
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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Apollocon or bust!

I'm returning to Apollocon this weekend for the first time since 2011. So, naturally, I somehow pulled my adductor muscles in my groin and am hobbling around like some demented wind-up toy. Needless to say, I'll be a wee bit more sluggish this time around than my usual manic self. But hey, it's Apollocon, one of my favorite conventions up to the point where scheduling conflicts interrupted my annual visits. As a bonus, the convention's new hotel on the west side of Houston is much, much more convenient for me, and probably shaves close to an hour off my travel time. Yay!

Here's my schedule for those of you in the area and interested in dropping by to witness my antics first hand:

8 p.m. - Reading It's been a long time since I've agreed to a reading, so I have no clue as to how this will go. For the curious, I will be reading a chapter from that Chicken Ranch book I keep going on about. I might even discuss how I've successfully avoided publication thus far!
9 p.m. - Texas Fen, Texas Proud — Everything is bigger in Texas. Some say, weirder, too. What makes Texas fen stand out from the crowd?

9 a.m. - Writer's Workshop Three straight hours of crushing souls and shattering dreams. What's not to like?
1 p.m. - The Best of the West: Westerns in Sci-Fi and Fantasy These days, the Western is the genre equivalent of peanut butter: not often served on its own, and yet, it seems to go with just about everything. Why is the Western so appealing and adaptable, and what are the best examples of great Western fusion?
2 p.m. - The Struggle Professional writers discuss the things they struggle with when writing, including but not limited to: imposter syndrome and failed story attempts.
3 p.m. - OMG! Mars Has No Internet! On Earth, the Internet reaches nearly everywhere. When we colonize Mars and other extraterrrestrial places, there will be no Internet. How will colonists raised with access cope when they no longer have it? (You may need to avert your eyes, folks--I'm moderating this one)
Now Playing: Dire Straits Communique
Chicken Ranch Central

Friday, June 12, 2015

Friday Night Videos

Friday Night Videos

The world was lessened this week with the passing of Sir Christopher Lee at the age of 93. I can't recap his amazing biography here, but I'm not going out on a limb to say he's a leading candidate for the "World's Most Interesting Man." I've been a fan of his for ages, to the point of trying to bring him in as a guest for Aggiecon 22 back in the day (we didn't get him, but his agent was polite and professional, unlike others I encountered). My favorite role of his is Dr. Catheter in Gremlins 2, the only time in his career he got to play a mad scientist. That one's not mentioned much in his obituaries, but it stands out to me because it shows off Lee's great comic timing and willingness to poke fun at his larger-than-life persona, which he rarely got to do otherwise. So today's video is one of Lee's operatic heavy metal recordings (yes, you heard that right), "The Bloody Verdict of Verden." Simply amazing. After watching it, I can't help but be struck by the notion that he and Michael Moorcock should've collaborated on an album. That would've been epic.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Len.

Now Playing: Clandestine Music from Home
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