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June 26, 2013
Familiar With Memes
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 06:11 PM * 149 comments

He once wrote an eight-volume trilogy. He published his first sonnet in a paying market at the age of three. He ended a novel with the revelation that it was only a dream, and people loved him for it. He only uses prepositions when it is entirely necessary. He doesn’t misplace commas: He helps commas go into the Punctuation Protection Program. The characters in his novels send him fan letters. The New York Times apologized to him that there was no slot on their best-seller list higher than #1. He once wrote a story that consisted of a single sentence—which was serialized in three issues of The Paris Review. When he publishes a hardcover it uses up the entire world paper supply for a month just to print enough copies. When Michiko Kakutani dreamed of giving him a bad review she woke up and begged forgiveness. He is his own genre. He turned down the National Book Award because it seemed too faddish. Charles Bukowski went on the wagon after reading one of his poems. His ink-jet printer never clogs. He abandoned Emacs as a word processor because it wasn’t flexible enough. You need more adjectives to describe his adjectives than most people have in their working vocabularies. He once made up a word and Webster’s added it to their dictionary the same day. The Pope has him on speed-dial for when he needs help with a sermon. When he was in a coma after an automobile accident he made his deadline anyway. A copy-editor once queried one of his sentences—and he remained gracious. The financial crisis of 2007 was caused by him cashing one of his royalty checks. When he responds to Amazon reviews the reviewers thank him. He opened a novel with ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ and made it work. He invented metafiction—on a bet. He considers mere words to be a necessary evil. He makes cliches fresh. People read his prologues. His grocery lists have gone for six-figure advances at auction. Grammarians adjust their rules to match his realities.

He is the most interesting writer in the world.

“Keep writing, my friends.”

June 23, 2013
What I’ve been reading
Posted by Patrick at 03:24 PM * 77 comments

Digby: This really is Big Brother: the leak nobody’s noticed

Charles P. Pierce: The Snowden Effect, Special Sunday Edition

John Naughton in the Observer: If you think GCHQ spying revelations don’t matter, it’s time to think again

Juan Cole: Top Ten American Steps Toward a Police State

The last piece from the late Michael Hastings: Why Democrats Love to Spy on Americans

I agree with the observation that cynicism is consent, but man, this has been a hard week for optimism.

EDITED TO ADD: Digby, with more on who Michael Hastings was, and what his work meant.

Memo to Time: Also, infectious disease not caused by witchcraft. You can look it up!
Posted by Patrick at 02:42 PM *

I suppose it’s very ten-years-ago to be appalled by anything written by the appalling Joe Klein, but this, from the cover story in this week’s Time, really does take the cake. Reporting on the work of a relief group helping with the aftermath of the Oklahoma tornadoes, Klein says:

…there was an occupying army of relief workers, led by local first responders, exhausted but still humping it a week after the storm, church groups from all over the country—funny how you don’t see organized groups of secular humanists giving out hot meals—and there in the middle of it all, with a purposeful military swagger, were the volunteers from Team Rubicon.
Of course, the claim that “secular humanists,” or non-religious people, or atheists, never do this kind of thing…is either stupid as a bag of rocks, or a bald-faced lie. Hemant Mehta has the details. And shame on the editors of Time for letting this piece of straight-up bigotry go to press.

June 21, 2013
The Taser, savior of law enforcement
Posted by Patrick at 07:13 AM * 108 comments

Evidently this past Sunday night, Oregon state police were so overmatched by a disoriented 11-year-old girl that they had no choice but to electrocute her.

It’s a good thing the Taser was invented, because before it came into wide use, police officers were constantly being fought to a standstill by old people, blind stroke victims, epileptic 14-year-olds, and Alzheimer’s patients. It’s tough being a cop, you know. You have so few means for taking control of a situation.

And as a commenter helpfully pointed out, who knows what crazy drugs this 11-year-old in Oregon might have been “on”? “I thought she was drugged,” the officer said. “I thought she was on bath salts, too much meth, something.” Because, as we know, the Scary Drugs invariably give 11-year-old girls the strength of ten men. Happens all the time.

What a relief that our nice police now have personal electrical torture devices on hand 24/7, so that they’re no longer constantly overwhelmed by austistic adolescents, wheelchair-bound amputees, and people in diabetic comas. Because, you know, amputees and people in comas are so difficult to manage if you can’t shoot 50,000 volts directly into their bodies. They’re probably on PCP!

June 18, 2013
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 05:30 PM * 83 comments

Spieglein, Spieglein an der Wand:
Wer ist die Schönste im ganzen Land?

Disney has gone on a trademarking kick lately. This has included such high-profile misfires as attempting to trademark Seal Team 6 and the Dia de los Muertos.

Less well-known in this wholesale attempt at cultural appropriation is their application to trademark Snow White in all forms except literary. “All” includes all dramatic forms and visual media, as well as bed sheets, jams and jellies, video games, and a whole Disney-trademarked laundry list of others. I suspect they left off literary because that wouldn’t pass the laugh test.

Visual and dramatic art prior to Disney’s 1937 animated feature include at least one film in 1902, the 1912 stage play by Jessie Braham White (the first time the dwarfs have individual names), a 1913 film, the 1916 movie with Marguerite Clark (Famous Players in Famous Plays) made from that stage play, another 1916 film (Snow White in the Dark Woods), a 1927 Little Snow White three-reeler, and the Betty Boop Snow-White cartoon (1933, featuring Cab Calloway singing the Saint James Infirmary Blues). Graphic representations include practically every illustrated version of Grimm’s Kinder und Hausmärchen from 1812 to date. Later works number into the dozens, including a so-racist-it-can’t-be-shown WWII-era parody of the Disney Snow White, Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs, Snow White and the Three Stooges, a Mr. Magoo version, 1997’s Snow White: A Tale of Terror, and the recent film Snow White and the Huntsman (and its coming sequel). The German dance-metal band Rammstein used Snow White in a transformative work (possible under copyright, not possible under trademark) in their music video for Sonne. Let’s not even mention the twist into surrealism as Snow White surfaced in the recent Mormons-Behaving-Badly Jodi Arias Murder Trial (in which it became clear that neither the prosecutor nor the witness were terribly familiar with the story, but which did get us the defense attorney rising to her feet to deliver the astounding, “Objection! Relevance, speculation, fairy tale!”).

The story of Snow White.

Once upon a time there was a queen who was sitting at her window sewing. (This is unusual in fairy tales—more commonly the women spin rather than sew.) She pricks her finger on her needle and spills three drops of blood onto the window sill. She says, “I wish I had a daughter with skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as dark as ebony.

She does so, and names the child Snow White.

[The Queen dies and the king remarries.] [The new queen|the queen] has a magic mirror, which always tells the truth. She asks it “who is the fairest in the land,” and the mirror replies “you are.” Then, one day, the mirror replies “Snow White is the fairest in the land.” The queen becomes jealous of [her daughter|her step-daughter] and decides to kill her. The queen [[takes her [daughter|step-daughter] into the woods, planning to abandon her there so she will be eaten by wild beasts] [commands her huntsman to take her [daughter|step-daughter] into the woods and slay her]. [The queen does so|The huntsman, however, rather than slay the girl himself, abandons her in the woods assuming she will be devoured by wild beasts.] [The huntsman slays [a deer|a wild boar] and brings back the [heart|liver and lungs| of the animal. The queen [is pleased|commands the cook to prepare the meat, then eats it.]

The young princess wanders in the woods. Far from dying by misadventure, however, Snow White comes to the house of the Seven Dwarves while the dwarves are away. The house is [neat as a pin with tempting food set out|incredibly messy]. Snow White [samples the food (too hot, too cold, just right) and the beds (too hard, too soft, just right)|cleans the house and prepares a delicious meal] then falls asleep.

When the dwarves arrive home from a day of mining [tin|copper|gold] they discover [someone has been eating their food and sleeping in their beds|someone has cleaned the house]. They discover Snow White sleeping, wake her, and hear her story. They agree to provide her sanctuary, but warn her she must never speak with strangers.

Meanwhile, the queen asks her magic mirror who is the fairest in the land. The mirror informs her that Snow White is still the fairest in the land and that she is living in the house of the Seven Dwarves.

[The queen disguises herself as a peddler, goes to the house of the Seven Dwarves, convinces Snow White to buy a corset, and laces it on so tightly that the princess cannot breathe. She falls down dead and the queen leaves. When the dwarves arrive home they find Snow White, cut the laces on her corset, and she revives. The dwarves renew their warning not to speak with strangers.]

[The queen learns through her mirror that Snow White is still alive, so she again disguises herself as a peddler, goes to the house of the Seven Dwarves, and convinces Snow White to buy a (poisoned) comb. When she puts it in her hair she falls down dead. The queen leaves. The dwarves arrive home, find Snow White, notice the comb, remove it from her hair, and she revives. The dwarves again warn her not to speak with strangers.]

The queen learns through her mirror that Snow White is still alive so she poisons [an apple|one side of an apple], disguises herself as a farm wife, and goes to the house of the Seven Dwarves. Snow White informs her that she isn’t allowed to speak with strangers. The queen offers her an apple. Snow White [is suspicious at first and asks the queen to show it’s safe by taking a bite from it herself. The queen does so from the white (unpoisoned) side of the apple] Snow White accepts the apple and takes a bite [from the red (poisoned) side of the apple]. It catches in her throat, she chokes and dies.

When the dwarves arrive home they can’t tell what’s wrong with Snow White. But because she is so beautiful they put her in a glass coffin, with her name and position written on it in gold lettering. They put the coffin [on top of a mountain|in a forest glade|in a cave deep under a mountain].

[The king, Snow White’s father|A handsome prince] [becomes lost and stumbles on the glass coffin|hears from travelers about a marvelously beautiful princess in a glass coffin|has a dream involving a princess in a glass coffin], [seeks it out|sends his servants], and fetches it home. Along the way back to his castle [the cart in which the coffin is being carried hits a pothole|one of the servants carrying the coffin stumbles] and the piece of apple is jarred out of Snow White’s throat. She recovers.

[The king [puts aside|executes] his wife and marries Snow White|The prince marries Snow White].

[Snow White invites her [mother|stepmother] to her wedding.] [The magic mirror [does not inform the queen of the situation because Snow White is now the fairest in some other land|informs the queen that the new princess is the fairest in the land]].

[The queen accepts the invitation. On her arrival [she is so surprised by the identity of the new bride that she falls down dead|Snow White has red-hot iron shoes put on the queen’s feet and makes her dance until she falls down dead]].

The End

We skip over a mid-19th-century Swiss version in which a traveler finds Snow White living with seven men and slays her for her immorality, and the 1970s porno film, 7 Into Snowy.

The Disney version introduces the idea that a) the prince has some kind of relationship with Snow White prior to the poisoning incident, and b) the dwarves are the ones who bring about the death of the queen. The love’s first kiss theme is added. The dwarves’ names differ from those in the stage play.

Graphic and dramatic versions tend to leave off the gold lettering on the glass coffin.

So, what is my interest in this?

I myself, with Doyle, wrote a Snow White story (not based on Grimm, nor yet Disney, but on a family telling from my mother, who would have learned it from her mother (from Vienna) or father (from Bavaria). In the family version we don’t have dwarves (Zwerge) at all, but rather Zaubermenschen (magic men). The working title for our story was “Snow White and the Seven Vampires.” It was published (with an illustration, which Disney’s trademark on all graphic representations would forbid) under the title “The Queen’s Mirror” in A Wizard’s Dozen: Stories of the Fantastic edited by Michael Sterns, Jane Yolen Books, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1993. Later, I re-published the story, using the frontispiece of the 1912 stage play’s printed edition in the cover art. If Disney’s trademark goes through I doubt I’d be able to do that, or, indeed, use any illustration whatever for a cover.

June 17, 2013
Person of Highly Refined Iron ***SPOILERS***
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 07:59 AM * 35 comments

A new Superman movie is out. Folks want to talk about it. Here is a place where SPOILER warnings are not required, because everything inside is a great big fat honkin’ SPOILER.

Especially the laser-unicorns wearing Superman suits.

June 09, 2013
Why ‘Thank you!’ Is A Dirty Word
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 12:43 PM *

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Raul has gone off to eat some leftover baked ziti. The plums he’d been planning to have for breakfast were, somehow, gone. I’ve offered him some mocha-fudge brownies in their place.

June 07, 2013
Open Thread 184
Posted by Teresa at 09:49 AM *


Myths Over Miami
by Lynda Edwards
Captured on South Beach, Satan later escaped. His demons and the horrible Bloody Mary are now killing people. God has fled. Avenging angels hide out in the Everglades. And other tales from children in Dade’s homeless shelters.
To homeless children sleeping on the street, neon is as comforting as a night-light. Angels love colored light too. After nightfall in downtown Miami, they nibble on the NationsBank building — always drenched in a green, pink, or golden glow. “They eat light so they can fly,” eight-year-old Andre tells the children sitting on the patio of the Salvation Army’s emergency shelter on NW 38th Street. Andre explains that the angels hide in the building while they study battle maps. “There’s a lot of killing going on in Miami,” he says. “You want to fight, want to learn how to live, you got to learn the secret stories.” The small group listens intently to these tales told by homeless children in shelters.

On Christmas night a year ago, God fled Heaven to escape an audacious demon attack — a celestial Tet Offensive. The demons smashed to dust his palace of beautiful blue-moon marble. TV news kept it secret, but homeless children in shelters across the country report being awakened from troubled sleep and alerted by dead relatives. No one knows why God has never reappeared, leaving his stunned angels to defend his earthly estate against assaults from Hell. “Demons found doors to our world,” adds eight-year-old Miguel, who sits before Andre with the other children at the Salvation Army shelter. The demons’ gateways from Hell include abandoned refrigerators, mirrors, Ghost Town (the nickname shelter children have for a cemetery somewhere in Dade County), and Jeep Cherokees with “black windows.” The demons are nourished by dark human emotions: jealousy, hate, fear.

One demon is feared even by Satan. In Miami shelters, children know her by two names: Bloody Mary and La Llorona (the Crying Woman). She weeps blood or black tears from ghoulish empty sockets and feeds on children’s terror. When a child is killed accidentally in gang crossfire or is murdered, she croons with joy. “If you wake at night and see her,” a ten-year-old says softly, “her clothes be blowing back, even in a room where there is no wind. And you know she’s marked you for killing.”

The homeless children’s chief ally is a beautiful angel they have nicknamed the Blue Lady. She has pale blue skin and lives in the ocean, but she is hobbled by a spell. “The demons made it so she only has power if you know her secret name,” says Andre, whose mother has been through three rehabilitation programs for crack addiction. “If you and your friends on a corner on a street when a car comes shooting bullets and only one child yells out her true name, all will be safe. Even if bullets tearing your skin, the Blue Lady makes them fall on the ground. She can talk to us, even without her name. She says: ‘Hold on.’”

According to the Dade Homeless Trust, approximately 1800 homeless children currently find themselves bounced between the county’s various shelters and the streets. For these children, lasting bonds of friendship are impossible; nothing is permanent. A common rule among homeless parents is that everything a child owns must fit into a small plastic bag for fast packing. But during their brief stays in the shelters, children can meet and tell each other stories that get them through the harshest nights.

Folktales are usually an inheritance from family or homeland. But what if you are a child enduring a continual, grueling, dangerous journey? No adult can steel such a child against the outcast’s fate: the endless slurs and snubs, the threats, the fear. What these determined children do is snatch dark and bright fragments of Halloween fables, TV news, and candy-colored Bible-story leaflets from street-corner preachers, and like birds building a nest from scraps, weave their own myths. The “secret stories” are carefully guarded knowledge, never shared with older siblings or parents for fear of being ridiculed — or spanked for blasphemy. But their accounts of an exiled God who cannot or will not respond to human pleas as his angels wage war with Hell is, to shelter children, a plausible explanation for having no safe home, and one that engages them in an epic clash. …

June 05, 2013
The Farce of Ávila
Posted by Jim Macdonald at 05:04 PM * 91 comments

The fifth of June, 1465, saw a very unusual event enacted outside of the city walls of Ávila in Spain. A broad wooden platform was erected—all the chroniclers were impressed with its size and height—and on it sat enthroned a wooden effigy of the king, Enrique IV of Castile, dressed in mourning, wearing a crown and spurs and carrying a scepter and sword. Then, in front of a crowd of the common people, some of the greatest nobles in the land read out a bill of accusations against the king: That he was sympathetic with the Moslems; that he was a homosexual; that he was of peaceful character; and that he was not the true father of his daughter, the infanta Juana.

As each charge was read, one of the symbols of rank was removed from the statue. Finally, with the cry “¡A tierra, puto!” the statue was thrown from the platform, while the mob lamented the death of the king.

Then Enrique’s half-brother, Alfonso, age 12, was brought forth, proclaimed the new king; crowned and acclaimed by the mob.

WTF, you may be saying. That was the same question that Enrique IV asked when he found out. He was one town over in Salamanca at the time. If they wanted to depose him they could have done it in person. Alas, Enrique didn’t act as if he was no longer the king. In a letter he sent to Pope Paul II a month and a half later Enrique asked that the plotters be punished. The pope sent a nuncio who arrived early the following year, but the question of WTF? remained. WTF were they thinking? remained a major question until the death of Alfonso XII three years later.

So, WTF?

Flashback! Let’s turn to Enrique’s father, Juan II de Castilla. Juan married his first cousin, María de Aragón, and had four children, of whom only Enrique survived to adulthood. Juan had been a big booster of the new concept, hereditary monarchy. Up to that point, the monarch was chosen from a pool of eligible candidates, elected by the nobles and acclaimed by the people, after which he or she could be crowned.

Young Enrique grew up, and married Blanche of Navarre. Blanche was fifteen years old, and Enrique fourteen, at the time of their marriage. Years passed, without an heir. People started talking. The story was that Enrique was unable to perform with her due to a curse. After thirteen childless years the marriage was annulled in 1453. Blanche returned to Navarre, where an examination by pious matrons determined that she was still a virgin.

Juan II was in despair. His son Enrique wasn’t pulling his weight in the nice shiny-new primogeniture program. So Juan, after the death of María, married Isabel of Portugal in 1447. Isabel was younger than Enrique. Juan II managed to have two more children, Isabel and Alfonso, by Isabel of Portugal before he died.

Juan II died in 1454, making Enrique king. A year later, in 1455, Enrique IV married his cousin, Juana de Portugal. (She was his step-mother’s cousin too, as it happened. A lot of that going around: Blanche of Navarre had also been Enrique’s cousin.)

Six more childless years passed. People talked more. Seven years after the marriage, in 1462, Enrique’s wife Juana of Portugal had a daughter, Juana of Castile. Hurrah! The succession was secure! He wished.

Here’s where the soap opera starts. Enrique IV had a favorite, Juan Pacheco, the Marquis of Villena. The two had grown from boyhood together and were very close. But all was not happy in Segovia. Enrique IV met Beltrán de la Cueva, a handsome young man from a minor noble family. Soon honors and riches were falling on Beltrán, and by 1461 it was clear that Beltrán was in and Juan Pacheco was out.

Unlike Beltrán, Pacheco was one of the most powerful nobles in Spain. His younger brother, Pedro Girón, was the richest man in Iberia, with personal holdings that weren’t equaled until the 19th century. His uncle was Alonso Carrillo, the Archbishop of Toledo—Carrillo, among his other qualities, was a noted alchemist, reputed sorcerer, and so deeply political that even his conspiracies had conspiracies.

Those three—Juan Pacheco, Pedro Girón, and Alonso Carrillo—were the main nobles who stood on that platform outside Ávila four years later. Archbishop Carrillo himself was the one who removed the crown from the head of the wooden dummy-king.

With the new king Alfonso (they thought) firmly in the faction’s pocket, Pacheco set about a propaganda campaign: Enrique was given the name “the Impotent.” His daughter, Juana, was dubbed la Beltraneja: the daughter of Beltrán. This lit off a civil war which ran in a desultory fashion for three years, culminating at the Second Battle of Olmedo (where both sides declared victory). Alfonso died a bit later, of natural causes, ending the entire affair.

So that’s the backstory.

Now to the farce.

Pacheco and Girón had originally wanted to accuse Enrique of heresy: That he had attempted to get them to convert to Islam. Carrillo pointed out that this did not pass the laugh test. That left deposing him for being a bad king, for which there was precedent.

At this time the Inquisition was already trying statues for heresy, in cases where the accused heretic had died or was otherwise unavailable. Like the Farce of Ávila, these occasions featured a statue dressed in mourning, which suffered the sentence of the court and was executed. Another precedent was the trial and deposition of the Master of the Order of Santiago in 1431, where a statue representing the master was placed in his chair, then stripped of its symbols of rank by the commanders of the order, who forbade him ever to use his titles again. In that case, it worked. The master went home and didn’t use his titles any more.

Since the time of Edward II in England, a fully dressed statue of a newly-dead king would be carried from town to town, and a new funeral held in each, so that everyone could see that the king was, in fact, dead, and had an opportunity to pray at his funeral.

At Ávila the statue of Enrique IV would have been understood to be the real king, who was accused, found guilty, and stripped of his power. The crowd lamented for the death of the old king, then acclaimed the new king, now dressed with the symbols of state (crown, scepter, sword, and seated on the throne). Presto! a legitimate king. In theory. Or, rather, in untested hypothesis.

Alfonso XII’s elder sister, Isabel, was betrothed to Pedro Girón. (She was also, serially, betrothed to Alfonso V of Portugal (her sister-in-law Juana of Portugal’s brother), and simultaneously to her cousin, Ferdinand of Aragón. Alfonso V of Portugal for his part got over his disappointment in not-marrying Isabel by getting betrothed to his niece, Juana “la Betraneja” of Castile.)

Pedro Girón, for all his vast wealth and huge private army, died suddenly a year later: Some say of plague. Some say of burst appendix. Others that he was poisoned. Others that he was bewitched.

Beltrán de la Cueva, first Duke of Alburquerque, took the side of Enrique during the civil war that the Farce (unexpectedly, at least to Pacheco) precipitated; nevertheless Beltrán too was displaced from Enrique’s court, to be replaced by Juan Pacheco, again. Enrique put aside his wife, Juana of Portugal, in the care of Pedro of Fonseca in order to spend more time with Juan. Pedro promptly got her pregnant. With twins.

The death of Enrique in 1474 was followed by the War of the Castilian Succession, which sought to determine who would be the next Queen of Castile. The choices were Isabel (Enrique’s half-sister), or Juana (Enrique’s daughter). Beltrán fought on the side of Isabel. Pacheco fought on the side of Juana — the woman whom he himself had delegitimized as a child of adultery, “Beltrán’s daughter.”

Isabel won.

A note on the Second Battle of Omedo: When it was over, Enrique held the field. His advisor, Mendoza, told him that he needed to declare victory. Enrique replied, “Where is the victory? All I see are dead Castillians.” Over in the other camp, Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, adviser to Alfonso XII, said, “Get out there and declare victory.” Alfonso did, and thus the matter remained in doubt.

A note about the word “farce.” At the time it didn’t have the connotation of screwball comedy that we understand today. It would have meant only “secular drama” (as opposed to religious drama or judicial drama).

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