Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

My Photo
Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Allergy Help Request

As many of you know, I discovered two or three years ago that I have an anaphylactic-shock reaction to...something. All I really know is, I went into the hospital with my tongue and throat swelling, and the last thing I ate was some almond candy my Dad had brought home from Spain.

I've just been to an allergist and---surprise!---I apparently don't react to almonds. So there was something else in the candy (assuming the candy was the problem) that, owing to Spain not having an FDA, probably wasn't labelled. My allergist would like to know what it is, and has asked for the specific candy in question. (Apparently there are allergy databases that can pinpoint recorded allergens, if only he knows where to look.)

My Dad doesn't remember, except to say it was "The Spanish equivalent of Hershey's." So it was the product of some candy-maker in Spain whose work is available everywhere. What I recall is that it was an almond-brittle type of plank that was rather tiny---it would have just covered the length of my thumb and was pretty thin. (Which is why I'd downed six by the time the shock started.) The package ingredients said, in toto, "Ingredients: Almonds, Almond Paste."

Does anyone have experience with Spain, or know of sites that display pictures of Spanish candy? I'd like to nail this down so it never happens again. Even the name would help. Thanks ---much thanks!---in advance for any help any of you can offer.

(UPDATE:) The maker would seem to be Turron, and I've put in a request at a candy-obsessed website to see if anyone can confirm the ingredients list. Thanks to everyone who commented and e-mailed! You're wonderful, and you don't need to search anymore!


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Story I Told Last Night

Came in third by score. but any night where my total is 25.5 or higher (three judges, 1 to 10 scale, so I shoot for an 8.5 average) counts as a good evening, and I scored 25.6 under the harshest-to-everyone judges I've ever seen. The theme was "Vices." Here's my story---a much-abridged version of something I've long intended to send to This American Life.

I was working as a writer at Hallmark and I had just been moved from humor cards to serious, mainstream cards. This was a promotion. But I had only been in my new position for two months when my mentor---Ed, a sweet old guy, looked like Santa Claus---pulled me aside and said, with an embarrassed look, "Dave, you're using too many literary allusions in your casual speech, and people are complaining."

I defy you to have a sane response to that assertion. I mean, I've had a lot of employers, and they were all convinced something was wrong with me, but that sentence was the craziest thing I've ever been accused of. Neither half of that sentence made any sense! But I did the only thing I could do. I nodded and said, "Okay, well...I'll try to do better."

But the thing was, I went searching back in my mind----literary allusions, literary allusions---and I could literally remember only one. A week ago! G. K. Chesterton! And it took five seconds! One a week? Is that too much? Is that so much that people actually get together and complain? It seemed clear to me that "literary allusions" was code for something else that they either didn't want to tell me, or that they themselves weren't quite sure about. Maybe I was just giving off bad vibes.

Anyway, I started watching myself, and maybe two weeks later I was hanging out with some of my old humor writer friends, and one of them spoke up and said, "Hey, you know, I've been thinking. We do a lot of monkey cards here. But they all have pictures of chimpanzees. Chimpanzees aren't monkeys, are they?"

And I said, "Actually, chimpanzees are apes, along with gorillas, orangutans and gibbons. They have no tails and they're not exclusively arboreal. And you know what's weird? In the Planet of the Apes they don't have any gibbons, and they never explain it! But my real favorites are primitive monkeys they call prosimians---the lemur, the tarsier, the bush baby, the kinkajou. Really cool, weird animals. If they had a movie called Planet of the Prosimians, I would totally watch that movie!"

A brief silence descended, and one of my friends said, "Hey, Dave, speaking of animals, would you like to see the rat's ass that I give?"

And I thought, Oh. It's stuff like that, isn't it? That's my vice. I inform people against their will.

I tried to stop it, but I found it impossible. I was looking in a rhyming dictionary, saw the word "stockyard," and I thought, "Hey! If you remove the Y you get Stockard, like the actress Stockard Channing! And I know she was in Grease, but was she in Grease 2?" And suddenly I couldn't concentrate, I couldn't work, I couldn't do my job unless I first went to the reference shelf and looked up Grease 2! It took me a while to realize that this was my brain's way of saving itself from starvation in a job that was boring it to death. There's a lot of creativity in greeting cards, no question, but after four years you find yourself thinking, "If I have to write Happy Birthday one more fucking time..." So I assumed the problem was just the job.

But then about a month later I was at a party, no Hallmark folks, and someone brought up that they'd just seen A Bug's Life. You remember at this time A Bug's Life and Antz came out at the same time, two animated movies about ants. As it happened, I'd just written a very silly story about giant ants taking over the world, and what I said was, "You know what's interesting? All the ants you ever see are female! The only male ants are underground drones who live just long enough to impregnate the queen and make more female ants. And it's such a shame that in the movies they just made all the ants male with just the two token females, because wouldn't it be great to have a subversive film about a martriarchal society where the women do the work, fight the wars, make the money, and the men are just easily cast-aside sex objects? It could have been so cool."

And someone in the radius of my oration said, "Dude. We're not in college anymore."

So it wasn't just Hallmark. I saw that now. And I stayed at Hallmark for another year. But the whole time I kept thinking, "I wonder if somewhere there isn't some, I don't know...smarter city."

Thank you very much.


Monday, November 27, 2006

My Unusually Eventful Thanksgiving

For Thanksgiving I had sort of planned to eat with Sherry Weaver of SpeakEasy Stories, who, as an old-school hippie type, has a standard open table at her place in Brooklyn: Come one, come all! Unfortunately, I didn't think about it until the day before, and then realized I had no real way to contact her except through her website, which I imagined she probably wouldn't be checking, what with the turkey and the guests and such.

I had also planned to go to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, but I went down two hours early (7 a.m.) to Columbus Circle, and discovered that the weather was horrifying: hard pelting rain, umbrella-bending winds, and the worst chill of the season. (Note to self: buy gloves and scarf!) The parade starts at nine and goes to noon, and after only a few minutes, I thought, "three hours of this? Not worth it?" So I plan to just stay here another year and hope for better weather next time. (Not as silly as it sounds; Friday was gorgeous!)

So I resigned myself to spending Thanksgiving eating turkey alone at a local restaurant, which is the way I've celebrated Thanksgiving for most of the past seven years. (Two of those years, I recall, whole groups of us grad students got together. It was still at a restaurant, though.) I've never actually paid that much attention to holidays, and tend to think of them as "days where I don't have to work and can get some real writing done!" So eating at a restaurant wasn't actually a depressant like you'd think.

But along about 4 p.m., my roommate knocked on my door and reminded me that he was meeting a bunch of people he knew down in Hell's Kitchen, and I was welcome to come along. I said no. He insisted. I demurred. He cajoled. The problem was, these folks were all friends of his from AA, and I couldn't help but think that I, with my bar-hopping ways, might not be entirely welcome among them. Also, although my roomie stressed that there'd be women there, I thought, "Even if we hit it off, how would dating even be possible?" As I understand it, you get a plant your first year, and if you keep it alive, you're allowed a pet for a year, and if the pet's okay after a year, THEN you're finally allowed to date. I've never been to an AA meeting, but it's hard enough meeting women under normal circumstances. How much harder is it if, in addition to being attractive, smart, funny, etc., you add the requirement of three years of sobriety? Really, what are the odds?

"You're overthinking it," said my roommate, and he was right. I went with him, on the theory that, if things got dull, I could just hop over to Rudy's (cheapest bar in Hell's Kitchen and the home of the original Drinking Liberally club) and get a little more writing in.

But, oh my goodness! What delightful people! I can't tell you their names, of course (Anonymous), but they were the coolest bunch of fun-loving folks I've had the pleasure of spending an evening with in almost a year. The hostess was a hilarious comic-book loving Pilates instructor who, especially for the evening, wore absurdly high-heeled shoes she'd bought for a pole-dancing class. Her friends included a downstairs sister whose roommate was dressed like a Cure devotee from back in the day, and a fellow AA-er who was tart-tongued, whip-smart, and mentioned she might be going on a date with a character actor's brother. A million fun stories! I didn't want to leave. Except that they were all going to a meeting at 10:30, and I figured that'd be a good enough excuse to check out Rudy's.

So I left, promising to return later if nothing prevented me, and on the way, I thought I'd call my friend Ryan, who was (I thought) probably in San Francisco, but why not call him up and wish him well?

A woman answered the phone, and said, "David? This is Kelly." Kelly is a mutual friend of ours going all the way back to high school. I hadn't seen her in years. "I've got Ryan's phone right now. We're at St. Vincent's hospital. Ryan took a fall and we're waiting to see if he's okay." Apparently, Ryan, pursuing someone's pet dog out of the apartment, fell ten feet down some stairs (no one saw it but everyone heard it), and fell unconscious. Actually, "unconscious" might not be the most accurate word. Apparently he was snoring. When the paramedics came, he knew his name, but not where he was. They piled him into the ambulance and sent him off to get a CAT scan and an X-ray for his leg.

So I raced on down to St. Vincent's. Apparently, Ryan WAS in town. Twenty years ago, he and two other Sabino High School graduates who went to Cornell all went to New York for Thanksgiving, and this year they'd arranged to do it again. They'd had a great meal, relived old moments, and had been just about to go see the new James Bond movie when Ryan fell.

I sat in the waiting room with Kelly, Alison, and Alison's husband, and we caught up. It was surprising, really, how comfortable we were with each other, given how infrequently I've met with all of them. I suppose I could add suspense here, but instead I'll just say: Ryan came out fine. Nothing wrong except a black eye. What this means, as I pointed out later, is that they could have literally left Ryan in the stairwell and waited for him to wake up, and they'd have still been able to make the movie. (Well, maybe not. Ryan's a very sound sleeper.)

In one of the books my father sent me recently, the author quotes G. K. Chesterton, who said, "The worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank." I disagree (after all, when you're grateful with no one to thank, we often call that emotion "happiness"), and I'd like to express my very real gratitude to my wise and persistent roommate, to his wonderful and lovely friends, and to the strange train of circumstances that led me to spend Thanksgiving in a hospital waiting room, thankful for old friends, thankful to be available to help, and thankful---very thankful!---that Ryan's doing fine.

[LATER:] Friday was my real Thanksgiving, because my friend Susie came up from Boston and we hung out together at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She's terrific museum company, we had a great talk, and I could kick myself for not having visited Boston sooner, now that I know it's only sixty bucks away. So I'm also thankful for Susie, who I've known for almost ten years now, and who gave this Thanksgiving its only carefully planned high point. See you next payday!


Come See (and Probably Hear) Me!

I'll be at the Moth Story Slam tonight at The Bitter End (147 Bleecker St. bet. Thompson and LaGuardia). Doors open at 7, show starts at 7:30, and there's a $6 cover, along with a two-drink minimum that I've never seen enforced. Tonight's theme is "Vices." Should be fun.

Oh, by the way, I'm feeling much better now. Thanks to everyone for your offers of soup and lozenges.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

HTLG: How To Make An Evangelical Christian

[This excerpt has been removed to protect the integrity of my work in progress.]


HTLG: Saving The Evangelical Mind

[this post has been removed to preserve the integrity of my work in progress.]


Saturday, November 25, 2006

A Drinking Game to Ease the Pain

Those of you who have known me year-round for at least one year are aware that, every so often—usually in the fall—I come down with a doozy of an allergy attack. It usually lasts a full month, and is accompanied by deep, painful-sounding motor-starting coughs that rack my chest, wake my roommates, and cause people around me to say, “Dear God! You should go home!” Which, of course, I can’t ever afford to do for that many weeks. My other option is to dope myself up on Benadryl or similar HCL-based antihistamine, which is not only expensive (I go through the pills at maximum speed, so the average packet of Benadryl only lasts three days) but it also makes me want to sleep all day, and reduces my productivity by at least 50 percent.

But the first day is the worst, and today is that first day. The whole thing sweeps over my body like the flu, and right now, right on schedule, my body feels like one huge bruise, like I’ve been in a bar fight that made me really sleepy. I find I talk to myself ("hoo-boy!", etc.) and I have to seriously weigh decisions like whether to settle for what's on or actually lift the damn remote. Like a kid huddled on the couch and sipping Kool-Aid, I’ve been hunkered under the covers on my bed, watching my TV. And today, two days after Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the Sci-Fi Channel.

I’m too miserable to read, too tired to solve puzzles, but TV takes away some of the pain. And the Sci-Fi Channel, at least on weekends, seems perfectly designed for mindless watching. They always string together tons of cheesy monster movies in mini-marathons, usually with some theme or other. Today’s theme seems to be dinosaurs and reptilians. I just finished watching Dinocroc, and now Raptor Island is playing, which will be followed (Lord willing and my gorge don’t wise) by King Cobra, Pterodactyl, and Basilisk: King of Lizards.

In fact, I’ve suffered through so many of these movies that I think it’s time for another drinking game, which I call...

The Sci-Fi Channel Monster Movie Marathon Drinking Game

*Drink as soon as it becomes clear that some of the characters form a group of commandos.
*Drink whenever a B actor is brought in to add credibility. (First appearance only.) (Raptor Island has Lorenzo Lamas, King Cobra features Pat Morita, and Pterodactyl promises none other than Coolio!)
*Someone says “That’s impossible!”
*Someone says, “Are you all right?”
*A woman announces, “I’m a biologist!”
*A bad guy commits sabotage in an attempt to protect the marauding creature.
*The bad guy gets ironically killed by the monster.
*And, in the closing credits, have a shot for every three actors who have Eastern European surnames.
*Oh, and a bonus shot every time the monster and the human actors are clearly in separate camera shots to save money on special effects.

Of course, to actually play the game, you have to be as miserable and bed-ridden as me. So I kind of hope no one does. May things improve soon.

Labels: ,

Evocative Subway Graffito

On one of the trains on the A line, fourth car from the rear, next to the window.


More Storytelling on the Web

I've talked about James Braly, and here he is, competing on The Moth's new, official MySpace site! All the stories are fun, so why not listen to them all and vote?

Adam Wade, by the way, just won the Moth Grand Slam this year, and James is the only two-time winner, and they both live in the New York area (as, curiously, each of their stories mentions.) So I don't know what they're supposed to do if they win a trip to New York. Maybe they could win a trip to someplace that makes them appreciate New York on their return. I vote for Lafayette.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Bar Napkin Cartoon 14: Special Thanksgiving Edition

Sorry for the blurriness. The hand turkey on the right is supposed to be smoking a cigarette.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

My Praxis

I've been doing a lot of reading and writing this month, and it's kept me away from the blog. I've downloaded sermon tapes (to make sure I'm characterizing evangelical teaching more or less accurately), I've been reading books (both ones my Dad sent me and a few I haven't been able to resist, like Mary Roach's Spook), and I've been trying like hell to get at least one new chapter of the book into enough decent shape to post it for you all.

But last night, while reading Alan Watts's Tao: The Watercourse Way (and I highly recommend the Alan Watts lecture clips available on iTunes in podcast form), I realized a few things. First, that I really like Taoism. And second, that this leaves me no actual religious practice to perform. I actually like the world and myself as they more or less are, and have no desire to suddenly start meditating to achieve satori or go to a guru or anything. Taoism truly is a philosophy, not a religion. There are no rites, no decorations (except the yin-yang symbol), and only a few slim texts that merely repeat what the Taoist already knows: do all things without unnatural striving; be like the willow that bends in the wind, or like water that seeks out the low places, etc.

So this may seem strange, but it has occurred to me that this blog is the equivalent of my religious practice. According to Watts, Buddhism (and especially Zen, my favorite flavor of it) delights in the dichotomy between knowing and not-knowing; the absolute absorption in the moment, broken by the realization that you were just in a moment and isn't it weird and special that we're alive. Every religion that vacillates between sacred and profane time brings us to these realizations; only Chinese religion (Tao and Zen), so far that I'm aware of, sees equal value in both, and tries to make every living moment a dance between sensory absoprtion (which I think of as being in the zone) and detached wonderment.

And this, if I may dignify such silliness, is what I feel when I write my cartoons, post my poems, and otherwise comment on some absurdity or other that I've seen in this lovely character-filled city. Ignoring life's bemusements, failing to report them, is damn near sacrilegious. At least for me.

So I think I've decided that this weird lapse in posting, for the purposes of focusing on a book, may be unhealthy or otherwise imbalanced. (Of course, I no longer believe in abstract "shoulds," so let's just call my last few weeks suboptimal.) If things are working well--and most of you know I'm a fast writer--I should be able to post *and* write the odd book or two. I'll be getting this book finished in another two weeks, I imagine. After that, I hope to post a helluva lot more than I have. Too much good stuff has gone by. So for now, here's my promise: no more Novembers.


Watch Me Regale!

Andy Christie, who runs The Liar Show ( has video of the last show available on that website and his own ( So click here and see a short clip of me performing! (The link doesn't go there directly. Scroll down to "In Video Veritas" or click on "See the Video" over in the right-hand column.)

My own thoughts: Actually seeing myself on video is giving me strong second thoughts about the hat. (Am I always in that much shade?) Also, although everyone's stories were great, Mike Daisey's was flat-out hysterical and involved a time when, in high school, he and three fellow drama student were obliged, as a favor to their drama teacher, to go to a local elementary school and perform as the California Raisins. You should have been there.

My story was about going with my fraternal-twin brother to our 20th high school reunion and finally being able to pull a twin-switch. There's an embarrassing moment on Andy's clip where, during the quiz-the-panel segment, someone asks me, "What's your sister-in-law's name?" And I can't remember. (It's Emily. Sorry, Emily!) I'm surprised everyone didn't vote for me as the liar right then and there.

It's a great show. Another one's coming up. Attend! Attend!


Friday, November 17, 2006

HTLG: Why I, Personally, Am An Atheist

[This post has been removed to preserve the integrity of my book in progress.]


HTLG: Again--Why the (Atheist) Hostility?

Here's another section from the same part of the book. You'll note there's some overlap with the previous post. I haven't quite figured out how to stitch them together yet. That's why we have first drafts! Anyway, suggestions are welcome. And if it's not clear, I'm still basically talking to Rabbi Cohen in this one.


I’m a dictionary nerd. Within the dictionary-loving community, there are a host of lightly-held allegiances, and room for informed people to disagree. For example, I’m a huge fan of Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary, and turn to it first in all things lexicographical. But I would never bother to claim that 11C (that’s what we call it) is the only reference worth consulting. I can recognize the virtues of any decent dictionary—Merriam-Webster’s New International Second (also called the NI2) has an amazingly large number of bizarre words, and the New World probably has the best-written definitions—and I can spot a shitty dictionary as soon as I read the generic “Websters” on the spine. But my preference for 11C is, I will admit up front, one of pure personal taste. The dictionary I choose is a reflection of who I am and what I use the 11C for. (A few things I love about 11C is that the 11C is the only dictionary that lists the date a word entered the language, and it’s the only one I know of that comes with a fully-searchable CD-ROM in the back that was designed by puzzle people and helps you to find anagrams, cryptograms, words in definitions, and so on. I don’t care that all the definitions are one sentence long and occasionally cumbersome.)

But if I’m faced with a person obsessed with the NI2—and they certainly have a point—we can both see each other’s perspective, and we can agree to disagree. That person seeks, and gets out of, their dictionary reading something different than me. But at heart we’re essentially the same.

Now, let’s assume that at a convention of dictionary lovers, there comes some guy who loudly declares that the New World Dictionary is not only the perfect dictionary but is the only one that anybody should use. And let’s say that this person hands out literature and argues vociferously and tries to get everyone to accede to his dictionary Weltanschauung. I think you’d be safe in assuming that this person was sort of missing the point, and that their claims to certainty were merely a mask for some kind of obvious insecurity. How do you think other folks at the convention would treat this guy?

But we’re not done yet. Let’s assume further that this New-World-only guy---wouldn't it be safe to call him a jerk, even if his motives are pure?--- also insists that, say, the word “picnic” is offensive because it comes from a term for old lynching parties, and it’s short for “pick a nigger.” Anyone who can read a dictionary knows that this etymology is false—it comes from the French word pique-nique which means, not surprisingly, “to dine lightly, al fresco.” So now this guy who irrationally claims the superiority of one dictionary over all others is also aggressively claiming something that his own dictionary flatly declares is untrue!

Now add the fact that this ignorant, pushy jerk is actually the holder of an extremely popular opinion. So popular that—as actually happens—I can’t use the perfectly innocent and useful word “picnic” in a crossword puzzle without wincing because I’ll get an angry letter from an ill-informed person who would rather write an angry letter than, say, look up a nearby fact.

Those of us at the convention were already tense when this yahoo showed up and, in the name of dictionary-loving, threatened to ruin all the joy that dictionary lovers actually feel. Add the fact that this guy is 100% certain about something he’s 100% wrong about, and that the entire culture at large , who are not dictionary lovers and don’t know any better, assume this ignoramus has a real point.

But wait! I’m not done yet! Now let’s assume that if any true dictionary lover—one who has actually done the reading and studied the history—bothers to object, this same guy (let’s call him Jerry Falwell) is actually condescending, and declares publicly that the person who disagrees with him is afraid of truth and goodness, and could only hold their views because of moral depravity or intellectual cowardice.

Can you see how someone like that might piss a person off?

That’s your dictionary version of the evangelical Christian. Evangelicals are far and away the most likely to assert the superiority of their worldview while a.) insulting people who disagree with them (usually very nicely, but the hellfire is implied) and b.) showing rank ignorance on almost every fact that real Bible-studiers actually think about and discuss. (The most obvious example would be their odd tendency to harmonize the four gospels, a strange unliterary courtesy that isn’t extended to any other historical books, and which leads to frankly nonsensical results a child could notice.) And this worldview is so pervasive and popular despite its ignorance that well-meaning Bible Studiers can’t move two obvious steps without defending themselves on several touchy but (to Bible experts) boringly basic points. So I’ll admit it: when I hear someone say, “Hi. I’m a Christian, and I’d like to talk to you about God,” I start to feel around in my holster. Because I’m being threatened with a well-intentioned battle, down to the ground, over things that serious scholars dismissed a century ago.

And I further assert, Mr. Rabbi, that that’s not actually hostility; it’s beleaguered irritation. And it seems entirely justified.


HTLG: In Defense of the Allegedly Angry Atheist

Here's what I've been writing instead of my blog. I thought you al deserved a few samples. Bear in mind that this is a rough first draft, and so there are things like "[FOOTNOTE:]" in the text where I want to indicate a footnote, and the examples are often the first thing I thought of, rather than the best.

The book itself ends with a section called How To Be An Atheist And Not Be a Jerk. This seemed sufficiently provocative and sufficiently new that I figured I'd post it here, even though it's not the main point of the book.

Several months ago, Marc Cohen, a Rabbi who writes a religion column for Newsweek online, wrote an essay called “Why are Atheists So Angry?” In it , he professed a bewilderment about the hostility he constantly encounters from the atheists he meets. “Where does this hostility come from?” He asks, concluding—with question marks aplenty—that it might be some kind of past trauma, or possibly a fear that belief in God would make too many moral demands of the atheist. But forget that for now. At the moment, I’m here to answer the question, “Why are atheists so angry?”

This is a not-uncommon perception, and I’ve seen a share of it myself. But my theories are different from the rabbi, and—if I may be permitted this opinion—a hell of a lot better. But first I want to make absolutely clear that most atheists aren’t inherently hostile to religion. However, since most atheists are (in my experience) fairly rational types, they are often impatient with lazy thinking or weak arguments. There’ll be more on this later.

I’ve looked at atheism from both sides now. When I was a fundy, the very idea of atheism seemed baffling and rude. God was so obvious! So present! So important to everyone’s quality of life! Doubting God seemed perverse, and flatly declaring that he didn’t exist was downright dangerous, and would seem to lead to all kinds of evil.

Now that I’m an atheist, when I look back at my religious days I’m stunned that I ever believe it at all. Every major religion—and the existence of multiple competing religions should have tipped me off to the problem, I now think—seems to be erected on a huge series of wild implausibilities that, for some reason, no one bothers to notice. Reams of paper have been printed about heaven, the nature of salvation, the believer’s daily walk, and no one among the faithful ever seems to ask, “But isn’t this all made up?” (For good reason; the moment you ask—the moment you really ask, that is, actually wanting an answer and not the first or second plausible reassurance—you start to edge toward unbelief.)

So what we have, between theists and atheists, is a simply enormous gap where each side finds the other’s point of view frankly impossible to conceive.

Atheists, in my experience, are basically of two types, and therefore when they are hostile (and they’re not all that hostile as a rule), this stems from two different sources.
The first type was never tempted to believe at all. They were born skeptics and just lack whatever it is (an urge to please others? A need for moral order?) That converts other children. Examples would be comedian David Cross and author Richard Dawkins (and—probably—Penn and Teller).

Perhaps an example will help. They lack theism in the same way that I lack, and have always lacked, any interest in sports. I’ve seen grown human beings scream, throw tantrums, hurl things, and—get this—actually get depressed because “their” team has lost a game. And this has literally never made sense to me. I go to a sports bar (and I always avoid sports bars if I’m looking for pleasure) and all I can think is, “That’s twenty guys on a field somewhere in Atlanta tossing a ball around. What possible fucking relevance can this activity have that makes it worth millions of dollars? For that matter, who the hell cares if their team wins? They just have to try all over again next year.” I really, really, really, really, really don’t see the point. (Lest this make me seem unduly or stereotypically effeminate—and gender roles are another thing I’ve always been skeptical of—I should add that I feel exactly the same way about making the bed. It’s my bed, and I’m not leading tour groups, so if I don’t mind it messy then no one else has a right to complain.)

I have friends who are sports fans, and I don’t mind being around them, but I find myself more irritated with them when they become profoundly exercised aobut this “sports” thing. I don’t hate sports per se—remember, I have no particular taste for it at all; can a colorblind person “hate” Van Gogh? [FOOTNOTE: Actually, I’m colorblind too. Maybe that would have been a better example]—but I get edgy at what sports does to them, at this huge waste of emotional ecitement over so litetle of any provable importance. This is not helped by the fact that you can actually prove that sports are meaningless. Unless you make the leap to become an adherent, or react to it unthinkingly, the way coffee addicts immediately take to caffeine [FOOTNOTE: I don’t like coffee either. Gee, I must seem like a grouch.], the whole enterprise has nothing to offer you. Even the cheerleaders are a little bundled up for my tastes. (By the way, I refuse to listen to those people who claim, “I just admire the athleticism involved.” That’s aesthetic and entertaining and I understand that. But if people like athleticism, shouldn’t they just be thrilled for whoever wins? By definition, the winner would be the more athletic, right? That’s a habit I could maybe understand.)

This is, I imagine, what it’s like for an atheist to meet a rabbi who writes a religion column. If I met a sports columnist who asked me, “So have you given sports a try? How can you say it’s meaningless? Did you hate them as a child?, etc.”, then I’m trapped. I know—trust me on this—that nothing he says in the next hour or so is going to convince me to alter my raw intuition about sports’ meaninglessness. The safest thing for us would be for the sports guy to not care, and to take the conversation somewhere else. But that’s almost cruel—he’s a sports columnist! How can he not care? And isn’t demanding that he not mention sports a bit like saying he’s not allowed to exercise his greatest joy in my presence? And how can he not perceive my own obdurate resistance to sports’ blandishments as a passive-aggressive attack on himself and the source of his greatest happiness?

So my first answer to the rabbi is this: if you weren’t a rabbi, you might detect less hositility—not because people hate rabbis, but because rabbis are more likely to pick up spiritual disinterest and find it hurtful. Maybe dial it down a bit on your end.

But then there’s another class of atheists—I’m one of them—who started out religious and became atheists later in life. This is usually a harder-fought, more intensely arrived-at atheism, and it’s far more likely to lead to hostility. Let me explain why.

Most people—even most evangelicals—are not furiously passionate about their religion. You find your truth, it makes you comfy, you do your best with it, and that’s pretty much the end. Such people are the backbone of any church: the nice, good-hearted types who don’t challenge the pastor and are willing to do their best to accept what the Bible (or the pastor, or the Pope...) says without making a federal case out of it. It works for them, so they don’t bother scrutinizing it in more depth than would be polite.

It’s the rarer bunch who are really devout and really care about the truth they believe in. These are the kids who join every church group, go on every retreat, share their faith all the time, etc. They want to be nuns or pastors or missionaries or saints. They want to know, and they seek tirelessly.

And then, for whatever reason, their faith collapses. In many cases, it comes from learning. If you’re raised believing that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, it’s a real shock to discover how foolish (and entirely indefensible) such a position is. You can read the Bible for years as a standard evangelical and never notice that the two versions of Jesus’ lineage don’t match up, or that Jesus attributes a Psalm to David that David almost certainly didn’t write, or that no one seems to agree how Judas died, or what the hell Satan was doing arguing about the bones of Moses. These little errors and weirdnesses are everywhere, and for a person really committed to truth, studying the Bible to find peace becomes like trying to sleep on a series of constantly-sprouting peas.

I’ve often said—and it happened to me—that the only thing separating an evangelical Christian from a trajectory of apostasy is one good course in Bible history. But I’ve known people to lose their faith over emotional traumas as well, or over desperate prayers that went wholly unanswered. (If you’re gay, the system won’t accept you, so that’s another brightly lit exit door that you can beat your head against for decades. )

For atheists of that sort, you’re facing a whole different level of resentment. Years and years of life misspent in naivete, in willful ignorance, years without drinking or swearing or sex, hearing rumors of life’s pleasures secondhand. This is a resentment that can linger like a stain. And add in the fact that these people (my people) were kind of obsessive and driven to begin with, and you’re looking at a potential counter-proselytizer. And the younger they are in their transition, the more likely they are to feel betrayed, and to long for an argument where they can deploy their newly-discovered facts. It can take years to stop being combative, to get to a point where someone else’s profession of faith doesn’t seem like a sort of passive-aggressive attack that threatens to make you feel like a sinner who needs to repent.

So to answer your question, Mr. Cohen, you’re right, “Something happened to these people long ago.” But it wasn’t, as you assert, “a tragic death,” “an unanswered prayer,” or the asininity of some single religious figure. It really was religion itself that fell down on the job it was supposed to do. So my second piece of advice for you, Rabbi Cohen, is to recognize that the problem these angry atheists have with your religion might, in other circumstances, be your problem as well.

Of course, unusually smart people often socialize late in life, and there’s a certain class of yutz who just wants to turn everything into an intellectual competition. So my third piece of advice to you is to stop going to Mensa meetings. Just a suggestion.


Why For Dave No Post?

It's not only been an unusually hellish week, but two days ago, when I actually had an hour free to post something, the Internet was down for two days. Posting should resume at the usual pleasantly high level very soon.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Clear Symptom of Classic-Movie Geekery

I was hoping to write more today---specificially, I was hoping to have, by the end of today, an essay on "Why the Emergent Church Movement Can't Save Evangelicalism." I even --- gasp! --- downloaded podcasts of sermons from Mars Hill church---which started in tune with the Emergent Movement, but seems to be backpedaling now. (And if I may say it, listening to sermons for research only proves, yet again, why I can't go to church anymore. The inconsistecies are too obvious to swallow anymore.)

Anyway, normally when I want to write on the weekend, I go to a bar---usually The Patriot in TriBeCa, because it's the cheapest venue in town ($1.75 for a bottle of PBR, $3.75 for a shot of Kentucky Gentleman), so I can nurse drinks for hours while typing away at my Jurassic laptop.

Today (and tonight) however, The Patriot was home to not one, but two irritating drunks who literally sang random songs at high volume every time there was a lapse in the jukebox, which made it very hard to concentrate. What's more, the simple fact is that my muse is for shit, and after writing 10,000 words during the week (the equivalent of about 40 pages), she all of a sudden gets worn out and lazy. I got, in short, nothing done. Que lastima.

Anyway, the most alarming thing about the afternoon/evening was that, while I was sitting in the middle of the bar, I saw a distinguished, gray-haired, Latino-looking man at the end of the bar, and I actually thought, "Wow! He looks exactly like Jose Iturbi!" For those of you who don't do crosswords, Mr. Iturbi was a famous classical conductor who also mysteriously wound up in a few Hollywood films, the most prominent of which (for my money) is the Deanna Durbin vehicle One Hundred Men and a Girl. And I experienced the acute isolation that occurs when someone reminds you of a trivia fact that no one knows or gives half a damn about. I bit my tongue and watched with amazement as his every movement---the tilt of his head as he spoke, the very cadence of his words--reminded me of this guy that almost no one I know knows anything about. Thank god for blogs! I finally get this out of my system, and now I can sleep.


Amazing Hollywood Fact

On this somewhat lazy weekend, Turner Classic Movies is showing Madame X, with Lana Turner and Ricardo Montalban. And after a quick scan of the credits, I discovered the following fact, which I am thrilled to announce:

Keir Dullea was in something besides 2001.

I'd heard rumors, but never seen proof. Now I think I need to lie down.

Labels: ,

Weekend Update

Second week, and my book is at 20,000 words. Yay! At 10,000 words a week (and the bonus fact that November is five weeks long this year and contains that nice vacation section at the end), it looks like I'll be done with How To Love God and Not Be a Jerk at its modest 150-page / 50,000-word size by month's end.

And now I need help. I'd love to post some of what I've written and get feedback. But they're chapter-long in many places, and if I simply post a chapter it'll swamp the whole page. This hasn't stopped me in the past, butI'd like it to stop me this time. So I'll ask: I've noticed that a lot of sites say, "More after the fold"---posting just the first few lines of a post, and then showing the rest when you click on it. How do people do that? I'd like to know.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

Beautiful Ad

Broadway and 62nd-ish. Probably a famous opera house I don't know. But isn't it pretty?

LATER: Okay. It's either Lincoln Center or The Met. When I was watching Crossing Delancey back in the day, I didn't actually have a reference map nearby. I am suitably chastened.


Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bar Napkin Cartoon 13


Bar Napkin Cartoon 12


Look Back In Cuteness

My new nephew got dressed up for Halloween. I think this could be an actual cuteness weapon if he was also holding a kitten or some baby ducks.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Drawing Up My Courage

I read somewhere that The New Yorker gets a thousand cartoon submissions every week. This week, it's going up to 1,020, because I just sent a bunch off. Wish me luck. (And if any of them get picked, and there's some sort of overlap, be aware that I'll probably take down any conflicting Bar Napkin Cartoons, just to be on the safe side.)



Okay. As of this writing, the Democrats have the House, and the Senate stands at 49-49 with two seats up for grabs at litigiously small margins. Which means that the balance of power is somewhere between 51-49 and 49-51. Which means that, no mater what happens, the single most important senator in the country is now Joe "The Swing-Vote Weasel" Lieberman---Fox News's most favorite alleged Democrat since Zell Miller.


LATER: I agree with commentator Trip. I hadn't thought about it, but of course it's more important to have the headship of committees and such if we have to, and now that we're a more or less solid 51, I'd much rather rely on Joe Lieberman than (shudder!) Dick Cheney, who would have been the tiebreaker in a 50-50 Senate. Whew!


Monday, November 06, 2006

A Million Random Digits

I'm sort of late to the party on this one, but for those of you who aren't National Puzzlers League members or who don't follow the posts of Eric Albert, they've just republished a book called A Million Random Digits. It is (as I understand it) the result of the Rand Corporation's early attempt to write a randomizing program, and the book contains...a million random digits. But because this is Amazon, people are allowed to write customer reviews of the book. You have to check it out.


Hey, Could You Stop Being Evil For a Second? Just Asking.

According to this article (and subsequent coverage by Talking Points Memo and Washington Monthly) , voters in Philadelphia are getting tons and tons of robo-calls that claim to have "an important message about Lois Murphy"---the Democratic candidate in the race. But the calls are coming from the Republicans, and seem to be designed to annoy the hell out of voters and make them assume Lois is doing the pestering. Who's responsible? The National Republican Congressional Committee. Is it legal? If it is, it shouldn't be. Fortunately, this article gives the number for the FCC.

Jim Tobin, the regional representative for the RNC tried phone jamming in New Hampshire last time around, and it worked, even though it was illegal. The guy in question got indicted later...after the election was over. God, I hate these guys. Relevant articles are here and here.

UPDATE: At the eleventh hour, the Attorney General has stepped in and stopped the practice ... sort of. Josh Marshall has the details.

LATER UPDATE: Turns out these FCC-violating robo-calls are happening in 20 districts.

P.S. I got hit with some crazy-ass robo-spam in my comments. I'm looking into how to delete the goddamn thing. Sorry for the annoyance.


Jason's Top Ten

This made me laugh.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

That Story I Promised

But first, some news: In the past week, I added 6,000 words to "How to Love God and Not Be a Jerk." (Which makes a total of 17,500 rough words for what I hope to be a slim 40,000 word book. I also calculated that, in my tiny handwriting, a single page of notebook paper generally contains 400 words.) And an agent has requested a fifty-page sample of Travels With Ritalin. So that's nice, and we'll see what happens.

Now, on to the story that won the Moth slam on October 30th. The theme, since it was Halloween time, was "tricks and treats." (This could actually be considered an alternate version of the story, since I'm not operating from a transcript, but simply re-remembering it as I more or less said it.)

We were raised poor. Daddy was a printer, and mom was a nurse, and we lived on 28th street in Tucson, which, if you know Tucson from back then, was a block from the barrio. We learned early on that some years we were going to have to delay Christmas until Dad could gather up enough money. One year all we got was blank tape cassettes to play with. We never went hungry, but we weren't living high. Lots of oatmeal, lots of rice. That kind of thing.

So in junior high school dad actually decided to buy me and my twin brother a pair of bikes. We couldn't get new bikes, but one night after dad got home from work we all got in the station wagon, went to a used bike store in a cheap part of town maybe three miles from where we lived, and picked up two used bikes for a hundred and fifty dollars. A hundred and fifty dollars! This was an unbelievable amount of money. We had never received such an expensive gift.

We were so excited, we couldn't wait to ride them, and dad said, "Do you want me to put those in the car or do you want to just ride them home?" And we said, "We want to ride them home!" And he said, "Okay, but be careful. This isn't a great part of town, and you don't have locks, so don't stop anywhere." We promised we wouldn't, and dad drove off.

Actually we had locks, but they were at home. I don't remember why.

Now this was the first era of videogames, and as my brother and I biked home, we passed a convenience store that had, visible from the window, Asteroids. My brother and I looked at each other. We had about a dollar. That was two doubles games.

We knew we shouldn't stop, but we were in junior high and we were idiots. So what we told each other was, "We'll just keep an eye on the bikes in turns, you know? When you're playing, I'll watch the bikes, and then when it's my turn, you watch the bikes." Perfect! And that is why, at night, in a bad part of town, in a place crawling with homeless people and no-good kids, my brother and I leaned our unlocked hundred-dollar bikes against a parking lot sign and went in to play a dollar game of Asteroids. It made sense at the time. I still cringe when I think about it.

The plan didn't work out like we expected. It turns out that Asteroids is a rather engrossing game, and neither one of us kept our eyes on the outside. And we were good---it took us about twenty or thirty minutes to burn through those four quarters. And then, flushed with contentment, we went outside---and the bikes were gone.

If y'all have never been the victim of crime, it's a little hard to explain how hard it hits you. We just stood there stunned, waiting for the scene to make sense. We looked at each other: what the hell do we do? And with a sinking feeling in our stomachs, we realized we were going to have to walk home ---three miles, through a bad part of town---and tell Dad what happened.

Now, we were good kids. Conscientious, religious. And we loved our dad. But we had no idea what we were going to tell him, because we knew how much this had cost him, and we knew how stupid we'd been, and we knew he deserved better. We cried, we prayed, we tried to console each other, but it was miserable. The walk home felt like a forced march.

And I guess at that low point, a few miles in, that's when I decided I was going to lie to my father. I proposed this story to Dan. We were good friends with our next door neighbors, so I said, "Let's pretend we were at our next door neighbors this whole time. We rode the bikes home, stopped at their place, and decided to keep the bikes there for the night."

"Why would we do that?"

"Because...because they have a covered shed, and we heard it was going to rain."

This was an idiotic idea, and my daddy was no idiot. (He has a Ph.D. in Medieval Spanish Literature, which is why we were poor.) The whole thing was full of holes. It wasn't going to rain---this was Tucson, for God's sake---and we had a covered shed too. But the thing is, I had a reputation for being kind of dominant, and I was also sort of scatter-brained. If anyone could pull off a story this idiotic, it was me. Obviously, of course, this still didn't explain why the bikes would wind up missing, but honestly, we were both so tired, and so sad, and so overwhelmed, that I think my idea was just to give us time to rest before we told Dad the truth.

So we finally made it home. I was the guy in charge of our lie, and I was the guy who had to ride point and open the door. I swear I stood on the stoop for a whole minute working up the courage, because the light was on behind the curtains and we knew Dad was up reading. But eventually, with hands shaking, I opened the door.

Dad was sitting there, reading the Bible. And there, in the middle of the living room, were our bikes. He looked up and said, very quietly, "Put those in the back. And lock them up."

We did. And I never forgot to lock my bike up after that. But in a way, it almost didn't matter. Because no matter where I was after that, I always felt a little bit safe.

(The end. Click on the comments for Author's Notes.)


Saturday, November 04, 2006

Lefty Research Resource Request

Hey, all my Democratic friends! In my attempt-to-build-bridges manner, I struck up a conversation with a person I dearly love who, I discovered with some shock, had never heard that the rebuilding of Iraq favored young Republicans from the Heritage Foundation with no rebuilding experience (as described in Fiasco) , had never heard of the fake news stories the Bush administration ran like unacknowledged infomercials for the Medicare-D bill, didn't know about the payoffs to that one talk show host to support No Child Left Behind, and knew nothing of the surprise late-night no-Democrats-informed sessions of the House and Senate, etc. I'd like to inform him.

Now, I *could,* of course, simply go back through the last six years of Washington Monthly and Talking Points Memo and get them myself. But I can't help but think that someone, somewhere on the web must be cataloguing these awful, awful acts. Surely there must exist a "Bush scandal timeline" or something. Ideally, these assertions would come with some kind of moderately sourced reference (a single article from the Utne Reader won't cut it, but New York Times should pass muster), and would deal with Bush and the Republicans in the Congress, rather than Republicans in general. (I'd like to minimize the time I spend slogging through references to the Swift Boat Veterans Who Avoided Prosecution For Slander.)

Anyway, send me your tips. Otherwise I'll have a LOT of work cut out for me, and I'm trying to write a completely unrelated book here.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Commercial Announcement

On Monday, Nov. 13th, I'm performing in Andy Christie's next Liar Show in midtown Manhattan! What's the Liar show, you ask? Here's how it's described on the official website:


Each Liar show features four performers telling short, absorbing and, if you're lucky, funny personal stories.

But listen carefully, because only three of these basically honest people are telling the truth. The fourth is making it all up.

When all the stories have been heard, you'll have an opportunity to question the storytellers; consider it a mini-interrogation minus the electrodes. After cross-examination, you'll reason deductively, think analytically and then take a wild guess at who's lying.

If you're right, you'll walk away with an inflated ego and a fashionable "I Can Tell A Lie" t-shirt, amid a bitter chorus of, "Congratulations, Einstein," from the empty-handed losers.


Anyway, here's the website. Note that he seems to think I look dangerous.

The full details:

Monday, Nov 13 - 8pm (doors 7:30)
The P.I.T. (People's Improv Theater)
154 W 29th Street (bet 6th and 7th Aves)
$5 at the door or buy tickets online


Andrew Sullivan Meets The Resistance

Andrew Sullivan, a conservative Tory Catholic gay blogger for Time, has spent the last two years disappointed with George Bush, and has written a book about it. I was reading one of his reader responses, and it resonated with me enough that I decided to reprint it. Amen!

A longtime reader [of Andrew Sullivan] writes:

Why do you think the anger of the left - the decent left - is any less than yours? Do you think we feel less betrayed? Wrong. Do you think we are less betrayed? Wrong.

Like your African-American friends, many of us on the left knew the WMD argument was game. I wrote you years ago that the WMD was a set-up; that they knew it; that they lied about it; that they believed they'd find some old munitions left over from the first Gulf War that they could hold up and justify themselves with; that they were shocked shitless when they found the whole country swept clean and they were left standing there speechless like the idiots they are. But even I never suspected the level of incompetence and perfidy they've shown since - to the American people, and to the Iraqis.

Do I blame you for being mad? Not a bit. But keep in mind that those of us on the left who saw this coming - and saw a hundred other issues coming, from abrogation of the wall between church and state to the ballooning deficit - we have spent the last five years being called every ugly, vicious name in the book because we tried to stop this, because we tried to warn the American people: haters, traitors, pussies, weenies, liars, partisans, hacks, wacks, radicals, commies, atheists, morally confused, mentally challenged and anything, anything except patriots who love this country and everything it stands for - or ought to stand for. Even the name "liberal", that honorable word, has been made into a curse. So don't tell me the anger of the betrayed and decent right and center is deeper. Just tell us thanks for keeping the faith, for fighting the good fight. Just for once, call us brothers and sisters.

By the way, Matthew Yglesias has a terrifically smart review of Mr. Sullivan's book right here.

And for some reason everything I write now looks italic. HTML: what's up with that?


Catching Up

Right now, I can tell I have at least three posts to give:

(1) the winning story I told at the Moth;

(2) a post about the Greenwich Village Halloween Parade and Halloween in general (best night I've spent in Manhattan so far) on Tuesday; and

(3) a quick review of the religious books my thoughtful Dad gave me for my birthday.

Problem is, between the incredibly busy Monday-to-Wednesday and the catching up on a huge sleep deficit on Thursday, I haven't had any time to actually update the site. The excuse would be that I've been out obtaining anecdotes. Expect a lot of posting this weekend instead. That's when not having a life really remunerates in bloggery.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Bar Napkin Cartoon 11

Okay, it's technically the flip side of a coaster, not a napkin. But I wrote it in a bar (Doc Holliday's at 9th and Avenue A, during their Sexiest Halloween Costume Contest), using available materials, so it counts.