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 Make You a Better Writer

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.]

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.

There is Some Good to Come out of this Mess

Trump’s travel ban has ignited in the nation into an unprecedented, bilateral protest. The situation is dreary, but, for once, most of us are on the same page.

statue_of_liberty_1917_posterIt was not surprising to see Liberals take to the terminals in protest. Since they are apparently planning to make picket lines every time President Trump blows his nose, this has become business as usual.

But they were quickly joined by others.

Members of different church denominations poured in with their support, often reminding parishioners of Jesus’ words about helping travelers, or His kindness with the Samaritan woman at the well.

Familiar Conservative voices joined the fray. John McCain explained why he thinks the ban will be disastrous for keeping the country safe from terrorists. The typically right-leaning National Review pointed out the lunacy of barring green card bearers.

It’s an amazing display, I think. People of various religions and political ideologies putting aside their disagreements to solve a bigger problem. Hippies and soldiers and church curmudgeons are all holding hands in the picket lines just to help a relatively small number of refugees find a home.

I realize the situation is still a problem, but when I see the majority of our country stand up and fight for the helpless I know I can afford to be encouraged.

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Tom Servo’s Best Musical Moments

The time his music was so good it was hilarious.

The time we learned that Kevin Murphy isn’t just sort of talented, he’s really talented. It’s a silly song, of course, but you have to be impressed that Murphy could record himself over and over until he’d layered his own voice into these complex and effective harmonies.

The time he was asked to write his own theme song:

The time he tried his best to heal the rift between the United States and Canada. A noble effort.

The time he honored the 70s. Literally.

This one feature the whole crew, but it’s my favorite MST3K song. (And I always think it should be the theme song to Game of Thrones.)

Thanks for the music, Mr. Murphy.