Conversations in My Head: Waiting for Old Navy

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAId: “Our new jeans left El Paso but won’t arrive until…Friday? They could be here today! It’s possible to get here in one day from El Paso.”

Ego: “Don’t be ridiculous, Id. You know it takes time for a bureaucracy to do simple things like deliver your jeans. Settle down.”

Id: “What if I met the driver and took them from his truck? We could meet them halfway.”

Ego: “You’d have to leave work and drive all day, and somehow find that one truck on the highway. And for what? It’s just jeans. Our inner stoic would say–”

Id: “We wouldn’t need an inner stoic if we had jeans with stretchy waist bands!”

Ego: “We wouldn’t need jeans with stretchy waist bands if you wouldn’t hog tamales like it’s the end of the world.”

Superego: “I told you morons on Sunday to opt for quick delivery or you’d be stuck in this conversation all week! But does anyone listen? No…no one listens to Superego…”

Id: “…”

Ego: “…”

Id: “Who let him out?”

Ego: *puts fingers in ears* “Not listening. La, la, la…”

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The Historical Mystery of a Strange Spanish Building: Santa María la Blanca

I traveled to Toledo with the job of lecturing my colleagues on Santa María la Blanca, surely one of the oddest buildings in Spain.

Plaques and encyclopedias tell you Santa María la Blanca is a synagogue owned by the Catholic church. Nothing too weird about that, but it begs a few questions. “Why does the Catholic church own synagogue?” comes to mind.fde13-espana252520621

But trying to learn about the history of this building becomes immediately frustrating.

Older history books tell different stories about the building’s origins, but as time went on those descriptions stopped being printed. I kept digging and discovered these stories were either 1) being conflated with the histories of another nearby synagogue, or 2) that they relied heavily on unreliable stories or documents we have lost. To sum up my research: there doesn’t appear to be a single document that explains where the building came from.

But I was in for a real shock when I arrived and saw it in person. Somehow, none of the books mentioned that the Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca is shaped like a mosque, complete with the niche used for Muslim prayers. (Some of us, scratching our heads, wondered if we had wandered into the wrong building and went back out to double-check the sign.) Despite the design, there’s no record of the place being used as a mosque.

All relevant scholarship claims that Muslims built Santa María la Blanca, even though we can’t identify the patron. Did these Muslim builders, being unfamiliar with synagogues, design Santa María la Blanca to be similar to their own places of worship? That’s one theory, but no one knows.

Disappointingly, none of the books I read explored the idea of medieval Jews worshiping in a mosque-shaped building, but it paints a fascinating picture.

It’s been used by nuns for centuries, and they use it for training younger nuns and selling hand-made crafts.

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Another oddity: no one’s fighting over the building’s origins. Every other old building in Toledo comes with a mountain of scholarship explaining why it belongs to one group or another, and there’s usually an ongoing academic battle over which culture should claim it. But Santa María la Blanca somehow avoids this mess, even though it contains a piece of every part of a medieval Iberia. No one could explain to my why this building alone escapes that academic contest.

I think Iberian scholarship has long accepted Santa María la Blanca as an outlier; as an newcomer to the subject, I found myself asking questions that researchers had long give up on answering.

I had to content myself with appreciating the miracle of a Christian building that was once a synagogue built by Muslims. There was a time when these three great faiths lived together in medieval Spain, maintaining an impressive, if sometimes troublesome, alliance. Santa María la Blanca reminded me that peace is not a hopeless pursuit if I’ll just remember to love my neighbor.

17 Things I Saw in Roswell

Just finished a trip to Roswell, NM, and I know there’s nothing more interesting than vacation pictures from the desert.

So, here they are:

1 – Alien-Themed Stuff

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It starts well outside of town, so as you’re driving through endless southwest desert (and trying not to pee in the car) you begin to notice a theme…

 

 

2 – Unintentionally Funny Signs

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If you can trust your stuff with Billy the Kid, then who can you trust?

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Someone call Mulder and Scully–we saw a Blockbuster sign.

I couldn’t (from the road) see a big dome made from Ramen, but that image will live on in my dreams.

 

3 – A Newspaper about a UFO

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I think this is gonna be a big story.

 

4 – Those UFOs under my eyes.

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Dear goodness, someone call a bellhop to help me check these bags.

 

5 – A Spot Where the Enola Gay Once Parked

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6 – Emilie de Ravin Making Out

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Okay, that might be something I remember from the show. It’s hard to keep it all straight. Who knows?

 

7 – Aleins. Everywhere.

 

 

 

8 – Aliens Who Have Given up on Life

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9 – Emilie de Ravin Moving Stuff with her Mindtumblr_ok1scvvlow1rerzc4o1_400Full disclosure: This also could be something I remember from the TV show.

 

10 – UFO Research

The UFO museum is a fun slice of Americana, but take a look around back and you’ll find a serious research library with every document a UFO researcher could need.

 

 

11 – The Iron Cross of Germany Embedded in a Creek

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Interesting story. Some German POWs were kept in Roswell during WWII, because it’s the middle of a desert and there’s no where to run. They built lots of stuff before being returned to Germany after the war…but these prisoners found that their homeland was not in good shape (for obvious reasons) and came back, sometimes with their families, to live in the New Mexico desert.

There’s also a lot of German culture in Texas (where I’m from), and most of it predates WWII. It’s a part of southwestern culture most people don’t know about.

 

12 – This Donut Shop with a Happy Alien Landing

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Yes, I prefer the Donut spelling. “Doughnut” takes longer to type and life is short.

 

13 – A Magical Mountain Community

 

Less than 90 minutes from the dry, empty desert of Roswell is a lush mountain community called Ruidoso, where it’s cool in the summer and often rains. (When we first got to Roswell, the temperature was 113 degrees. Ruidoso was in the 60s.) There is endless shopping and excellent coffee, so we felt like hobbits stumbling into Bombadil’s house.

It’s surreal to see such different climates right next to each other, with almost no transition between the two. You’re in the desert, then you blink and it’s the rain forest.

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This dog stood in the doorway of a candle shop. He stared and panted expectantly until we drew near, and then he retreated into the store. We followed him in and he ran to the back to join his owner at the register, apparently proud of bringing in some potential customers. I told you, it’s a magic village. The dogs work the shops.

 

14 – The local TV station and the Live and Amplified Show

Live and Amplified is a podcast run mostly out of Roswell, and since my wife’s a songwriter they asked us to play a few songs for them. I didn’t expect a podcast to have such a technically impressive setup, but these guys really know what they’re doing.

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(The episode isn’t out yet. I’ll let you know.)

 

15 – The Abandoned Air Force Hangar Where (I’m Told) they Kept the Alien Bodies

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16 – Emilie de Ravin was there Posing as Air Force Personnel

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This one I’m pretty sure happened for real.

 

17 – A…Protest Horse?

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This horse is covered in newspaper articles in an effort to combat the official Roswell UFO story. I don’t understand any part of that sentence I just wrote, but apparently there was once a tradition of doing this sort of thing in the Southwest. This country is so huge that lots of American culture seems foreign to me.

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Just a weather balloon? Naaayyyy!

These Four Books Will Knock Your Writing up a Notch

I’ve read a lot of how-to books for writers. They tend to have grandiose titles, like How to Write the Next Big Book Everyone Talks About, and dispense obvious advice from writers who, curiously, are almost completely unknown. But a few have earned a spot on my desk, always within arm’s reach.

1 – Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup

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If you read one book about writing, make sure it’s this one. Style explains everything you need to know about making your words sound cool. Managing long sentences. Describing actions. Lyrical paragraphs. (Even successive sentence fragments.) Every chapter felt like a mystery being unlocked, showing me how to use writing techniques that had previously been out of my grasp. This book is the key to good writing, and older editions are so cheap they’re practically free. [Buy it.]

2 – The Elements of Style, by Strunk & White

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A little obvious, but it’s surprising how many people haven’t heard of this classic (and remarkably brief) set of English lessons. It’s in the public domain, so read it online. It will only take a few minutes. Even though it is novice-level stuff that you’re supposed to already know, many authors produce poor writing because they never bother to brush up on the basics. Don’t be like that. Spend a few minutes with this book to make sure you’re not writing with a huge blind spot.

Still sounds lame? Well, I first heard about The Elements of Style from…

3 – On Writing, by Stephen King

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That’s right. Strunk & White’s plain book about grammar is championed by the Schlockmeister himself. King has a reputation for being edgy, but this memoir  is all about the discipline of the writing craft, like learning grammar rules and making time to write every day. He almost succeeds in making it sound boring, but this book is a must for anyone who wants to know how a writer should get things done. Stephen King is one of the most prolific authors ever, so his advice on getting through drafts and completing projects is invaluable. [Buy it.]

4 – Write Like the Masters, by William Cane.

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This one’s my favorite. I was skeptical about the title, but this little book, written by a rhetoric professor, will take your writing to the next level. William Cane explains the rhetorical devices of famous writers in such a simple, straightforward manner that you’ll soon be impersonating Dickens or Melville with ease. Write Like the Masters also explores the lifestyles and writing habits of these authors to demonstrate different approaches to the creative process. (Balzac’s use of coffee might feel familiar, while Faulkner’s absolute concentration on his projects will make you question your dedication.) Professor William Cane is a very encouraging teacher, and any writer who reads through to the end will feel a surge of energy compelling them to write, write, write like there’s no tomorrow! [Buy it.]

Gaiman’s ‘Norse Mythology’ Shows Us a Better Way to Write Folklore

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Who doesn’t have fond memories of curling up with an old copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology, curled at the edges and filled with countless (but brief) adventures of the world’s most famous heroes? Legendary stories don’t really get old, but Neil Gaiman has shown us how they can be re-told better than ever. With Norse Mythology, Gaiman has perfected—or at least advanced—the art of writing fables.

Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is bound with a common theme, a continuing story, and all of the Nordic fables in his book point to the same place: Ragnarök. The end of times. The apocalypse.

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It’s different than the film (which appears to share the plot of Mortal Kombat).

From the very start, we are told about Loki’s children who will fight on the wrong side in the last war. It’s charming to hear about the origin of Thor’s hammer, but the tale ends with a stark reminder of that weapon’s final use. Loki’s pranks are enchanting and hilarious, but each a bit darker than the other, and eventually the reader cannot escape the conclusion that this trickster will be the architect of a tragedy.

I studied a bit of Norse literature in grad school (a bit, mind you), and I was impressed at how well Gaiman told his stories in the style of the Norse storytellers, with all of the unexpected cleverness and depth hiding behind short sentences and simple dialog. It’s quite a challenge for a writer to make a story come alive while embracing older narrative styles, but Gaiman nails it.

It would be great to see more mythology reinterpreted with a theme. Imagine a collection of Greek myths where the gods fear they will be forgotten as they watch society advance without them, until Zeus and his children quietly climb down from Mt. Olympus to live as men. Or a book of Native American folklore beginning with many faces staring out to sea for inspiration and ending with the arrival of strange ships. Perhaps the simple inclusion of a coherent narrative could make any mythological collection into an unforgettable experience.

Sherlock Holmes is not Quite Dead!

It all started when I saw a cool haircut on Twitter. I didn’t know Lyndsay Faye (shame on me, as I was about to discover), but when her picture appeared on my feed I couldn’t help but comment on her amazing hair. I went on to lament that my own locks would never meet such majesty.

Then I discovered she is a writer…of Sherlock Holmes tales.

And her name isn’t Doyle.

I’m a bit of a snob about Mr. Holmes. No literary character has given me such inspiration and solace as Sherlock; I think of him as a kindred spirit. I don’t like to hear any discussion of the world’s greatest detective from people who don’t know the deerstalker doesn’t actually show up in the books or from the troglodytes who don’t recognize the name Sindey Paget. (Go sit in the corner–especially if you’re still asking yourself what a deerstalker is.)

So, I’m a little touchy about Holmes. As a result, I hadn’t read any of the non-original Holmes stories. Pop-culture’s interpretations of Holmes tend to be irritating, mostly because they center around the most boring aspect of the tales: his sexuality. Honestly, people, you can get more water out of a stone.

I planned to live my entire life without reading from the multitude of “new” Holmes stories, until Lyndsay Faye, the woman with incredible hair, responded to me on Twitter. “You look slammin’,” she said, in an attempt to mitigate my previous lamentation.

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You can see why I considered this a compliment.

I swooned, hit the floor, and blacked out.

When I awoke, I rushed to my local library (I still do that) and grabbed a book with her name in it: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories.

The table of contents boasted familiar names. Some of my favorites, in fact. Stephen King. Michael Moorcock. Neil Gaiman. But did any of them ever compliment my hair? No.

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And, seriously, why not?

I poured some coffee into a cup, waited for it to find the right temperature, and then poured myself into The Case of Colonel Warburton’s Madness.

If you’re a Holmes fan, the opening line will blow you away with it’s familiarity and humor. Faye’s yarn contains the Watsonian lexicon of obscure English words that makes Watson such a charming storyteller, and every paragraph is brimming with the warm (but always peculiar) friendship between him and Sherlock. The mystery is a very good one and, just like I often did with Doyle’s work, I found myself stopping to lean back in my chair to go over the details of the case in an effort to solve it on my own. (I got close.) Flipping through those pages was like stepping back into the old stories for the first time, and I experienced a familiar elation I never expected to know again so intimately.

I’ve shed my prejudice. There are dozens more Sherlock Holmes stories in this little book and plenty more on the bookshelves. It’s time I quit avoiding them.

I might even write one myself.

The Only Woman Whose Picture Adorned My Wall…

Other guys had models in swimsuits. Or movie posters featuring leather-clad actresses. How low-brow. I scoffed at their barbarian ways.

I started to collect books at a young age. My family had loads of old books and no one knew what to do with them, but I was more than happy to keep them in my room where I hoarded these tomes like a dragon hovering over a pile of gold coins. I always made sure to keep them neatly arranged, and I didn’t like people touching the antiques. (These books were old.)

I noticed the other kids my age weren’t curating their own libraries, and I pitied them. How did they spend their spare time?

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So there wasn’t room for cheap posters of nude-ish ladies because my bookshelves were in the way, but I did make room for one picture. One woman’s face looked out over the placid study, someone who I would always admire.

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That’s right. Sally Ride.

One of my elementary school teachers tried to teach us about Sally Ride, but her lecture was constantly cut off by my interjections. “She made the robot arm that the shuttle uses!” “First woman in space? You mean first American woman in space, right? Those two cosmonauts…” “Did you know she plucked a satellite out of its orbit?” I wasn’t my teacher’s favorite.

Many years later, I had the privilege of hearing Sally Ride speak. To a group of girls. Really, really young girls. I stood at the edge of the crowd, pretending I wasn’t more excited than all of the children filling the huge courtyard. Sally Ride stood on a platform at the far end, a distant figure I could barely recognize. My stomach swelled with exhilaration.

I probably looked silly. Sure, I was a book-hoarding, scrawny nerd in the old days, but now I’m 6″6′ and 200lbs and I sort of stand out in a crowd of giggling children. Especially when I’m trying to pretend I’m not freaking out. It’s cool. I’m cool. Just Sally Ride, the only woman cool enough for my room. No big deal.

As Ride spoke, I noticed another man standing beside me and, if you can believe it, he was even bigger than me. “Did you know she invented the robot arm the space shuttle uses?” I whispered. He nodded and tried to suppress a grin. “Yeah. I knew that.”

So, there we were, two overgrown nerds joining a gaggle of preteen girls so we could get a glance of Sally Ride. It was time well spent.

There have been plenty of impressive astronauts, and I could have been enamored with any one of them, but there is something special about watching someone defy society’s expectations. Especially when you’re a dorky, young boy who is always told you’re doing things wrong.

Everyone expected me to enjoy baseball and swimming pools as a kid, but I only wanted to read old books and take long walks. For some reason, this made my peers distrust me and I was encouraged to change, to be someone else. I was obviously a problem that needed to be fixed, even though, as far as I was concerned, I was just fine.

People like Sally Ride remind us that it’s okay to be the different one. It’s even okay to be outstanding.