Bourbon Cowboy

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

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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!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

T.S. Eliot Must Have Spent Some of That Nobel Prize Money on Cat Pills

As many of my friends can tell you (Hi, Jenny in Ohio!), I'm allergic to cats. It's a mild allergy by my usual standards--I itch and sniffle, but I don't collapse while clutching at my throat--and I have even successfully lived with as many as two cats at a time--in a wooden-floored apartment with a roommate who cleaned constantly, while I furtively darted in and out of my room. (Hi, Kansas City Jen!) I've even dated women who have had cats living along with me. (Hi, Jennifer! There are a lot of people named Jen, aren't there?)

Mostly, though, I've known a lot of cats secondhand through knowing cat lovers, and from my external view, I really don't see the tradeoff. Admittedly, I can't touch them for long myself without taking a chemical shower, but even barring that, I have to wonder. Play with them, and they scratch and bite in ways that leave an (often infected) impression. Leave them alone for even two days and your house smells like it contains boxes of shit. They'll jump up on anything you're reading or writing and sit on your face when you're sleeping, et cetera. Beyond that, though, there must be something addictive about them, kind of like tattoos, because I know almost nobody who has contented themselves with a single cat. In a way, I guess this makes sense: if you've resigned yourself to having ruined furniture, you may as well get twice the purring at least. But this has resulted in things like another friend of mine in Tallahassee (one of about six Ashleys I met in the south) who I once found on the phone talking to a friend of hers and sharing tips about how to adminster cat insulin. Two women, and three diabetic cats between them. If this were a human relationship, I'd observe, shake my head and think, "Well, the sex must be amazing." Cats, though: I don't grok 'em.

And yet by some fluke, I've TWICE been forced in the past few weeks into close cohabitation with cats. First I was housesitting for my friend Tracy for a week (Hi, Tracy! You're not named Jen!), where one of the conditions of the deal was that in addition to keeping her two cats fed and alive, I also had to apply eyedrops to the infected left eye of one of them twice a day. "How do I do that?" I asked. "Well," she said, "you can let him into your lap and pet him into a slowly purring, helpless state, and then grab him once he's limp. Or you can do the firm but determined power grab." I went with number two, so I didn't have to wind up taking multiple disinfectant showers. But man, did that cat hate me. Fortunately, although her apartment was lovely, it didn't have many hiding places. She also added, "If the other eye starts to look a little goopy, I've left some cotton swabs and some eyewash you can use. Also, you may notice that the other cat also has a kind of regular brownish-red excretion from his eyes. That's just how he is. Ah, the joys of pet ownership." That cat, Cat #2, who had a tendency to leave brown eye-smears on things, was also quite affectionate. So in many ways I preferred Cat #1.

Now I'm in Vermont visiting one of my oldest friends (I've known him so long, he's actually male, dating to before I knew women were mostly better), and he also has two cats. I am a forgiving person, and though I don't love cats, I generally bear them no ill will. So the deal was going to go like this: Cary would clean the house, and put towels down on the (I guess thickly be-dandered) furniture, and I would stay very still, hopped up on Benadryl, and try not to attract any feline attention. It's worked before, and since I'm from Manhattan, it was absolutely worth it to visit my friend and live like a human being for a few days.) But when I got to his house, I set my bags down on the floor, and he looked concerned and said, "let me get a large plastic container for those. If bags are left lying around, one of the cats pees on it, and it smells awful." Yesterday, he asked me, "Did you need a hamper for your dirty clothes? Because if you leave them lying out, I can't promise anything." Cary's cat ownership has been a boon for the makers of Tupperware and Sterilite.

Ultimately, I guess what I'm saying is that I feel about cats much the same way I feel about Kansas City: "This is an occasionally beautiful place," I asseverate, "but I'm glad someone else has to deal with it." But if anyone ever asks me, "Why don't you get a cat?" it's experiences like this that have hardened my opinion.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Books I Done Stole: Unforbidden Fruit by Warner Fabian

(I finished the first chapter of How to Love God, despite chronic computer problems, but it'll take some organization before I can post part 2. Instead, here's the first in a planned series where I review all the rarely-read books I stole when I drove across the country two years ago:)

Book: Unforbidden Fruit by Warner Fabian (1928)
Stolen from: Actually, I purchased this for $1.50 from a used bookstore in St. Augustine, Florida. So maybe it shouldn't count, but it was about to be thrown out anyway, and at $1.50 it was certainly a steal to me.

A lurid title. A garish orange cover. Lettering that anticipates acid-rock posters by thirty-five years. A note on the inside under Mr. Fabian's name calling him "(Author of 'Flaming Youth,' 'Summer Bachelors,' etc.)" And then, before it even starts, we get the following "Forestallment":

Objection will be made at once by loyal alumnae of various institutions that "Unforbidden Fruit" is not representative of girls' college life as a whole. It is...not meant to be. I have deliberately chosen to present...girls of the modern, restless, experimental-minded, keen, cynical, adventurous and slightly neurotic type, pleasure-hunting and in the peculiar atmosphere of compressed femininity which produces an untellectual and social reaction not unlike the prison psychosis of our penal institutions. There is no doubt but that, in this environment, normal tendencies and appetites, including sex, become at times exaggerated and inflamed...

So before I had even met a single character, I'd fallen in love with the book five times. There is literally nothing to dislike. The only thing the novel could do now is renege on its early promise.

I'm tempted to say, "and it reneges with a vengeance," but that may be unfair. The book is from 1928, after all, and perhaps it was the height of salaciousness in that era to picture undergraduate girls as rude, trashy-mouthed smokers who discuss "necking" and are in constant violation of the Volstead Act.

We open at page 9, at the beginning of the school year, with the girls all lolling in the lounge, and by page 12 we have discovered that one of the characters is "lithe" (Sara La Lond, dark-haired and mysterious) and another is "tawny" (Starr Mowbray), as the girls sprawl in negligee, talking about how they spent the summer and what they plan for the year, saying things like "I never want to see a drink or a man or a nightclub again in my life," "What I heard about her not coming back, even the tabloids wouldn't print"--and, curiously, "Always beefing about sex complexes. They faire me a mal a l'estomac, that bunch." You can practically see the camera panning slowly as the author, barker for this particular sideshow, nudges you in the ribs and says, "Step right up, folks, and choose your favorite!"

But wait--on page 15, "with a single, lithe movement," Starr leaps to her feet. I thought Sara was the lithe one! How will we tell them apart? Relax. By the end of the chapter, the characters have divided themselves into fairly tidy types: Starr Mowbray is buxom, adventurous, and sloppy, and although she drifts in and out of litheness, she never stops being tawny. Her roommate, Sylvia Hartnett, is the Felix to her Oscar: Prim, Puritan, and mannered--but determined. While Starr is a committed virgin who necks with young men all up the coast and across two continents (there's a German officer looking for her, and he's presumably walking uncomfortably), Sylvia, also a virgin, nevertheless declares that she sees no point in getting all worked up and then not going through with it. When she goes, it'll be all the way. They are the two most popular girls in school.

The other two characters are Verity Chase, a dewy-eyed freshman whom the girls take on as a project, and Sara La Lond, the brilliant scholar with a dark past who spend a lot of time in her room upstairs, pacing late into the night. Although there's a promise of lots of raciness, really everyone has just one beau: Starr has her German cavalry officer, Verity falls for a hunky local boatman, Sara's tortured past is revealed (hint: she's not a virgin!) and Sylvia intrigues with young hot and popular Professor Patterson Gifford, a severe taskmaster about whom we are told that, when he discouraged gum-chewing in class, "[his] searing sardonicisms upon the subject of 'super-induced prognathism in the adolescent female jaw' had afforded vast delight to all the class..." So that's how you get laid.

But aside from the plot--which rambles happily from speakeasy to ballroom, with plenty of characters sneaking in and out of windows--the other real joy is the anachronisms. When the janitor tries to sneak a few girls out in his car, he "buttons the curtains" so no one can see inside. On one boring midsemester day, Starr and Verity pass the time by "hitch-hiking"...and Mr. Fabian helpfully explains what this radical new pastime is. A minor character turns up married, and when someone asks, "to Harvey?" the retort is, "Who did you think? Lucky Lindbergh?" And finally, there's this snippet from the night after Verity Chase tries out for a play and discovers she enjoys acting:

Upstairs, amid the steam of a potent perfume, [Verity] was gigglingly regaling her new friends with the delights of life under the bright lights, which, she wanted to tell 'em, was sure the Queen's beans!

The Queen's beans. That's this book clean through.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Let Me Make This Obvious Joke Before Someone Else Does

News Item: Marcel Marceau dies at age 84.

Can we have a moment of silence? [snare drum.]


Saturday, September 22, 2007

What My Unconscious Mind Considers Good Stockbroking Advice, According to a Dream I Just Had Where I Was a Stockbroker Getting Advice

"Keep selling those things."

"Low and high. Always remember that."

"Never forget: the more you sell, the more you maintain."

Of course, maybe when I dreamed I was a stockbroker, my brain was actually generating a Brechtian satire of corporate culture. If so, it worked. The fourth thing my supervisor said was, "Keep up this volume level, and we'll give you a reward." And then he pulled out of his desktop a medal: a red-white-and-blue ribbon attached to an honest-to-god brass sheriff's star with a ruby in the center. That's when I woke up. Who needs an alarm clock when you've got this much implausibility?


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3

Did a lot of writing this weekend, and came up with the latest rough draft of the first chapter/introduction of How to Love God Without Being a Jerk. It may not be perfect, but at least now I think I've figured out who I'm addressing. Thanks to Cara for the suggestions, and let me know what you-all think, either through comments or personal emails.

Also, I'm planning to post a lot of excerpts, so if anyone knows how to do a blogger cut (you know, where a blue thingy reads "Click on this for more" so the post doesn't take up such massive yardage), I'd appreciate it. I can do it in LiveJournal, but not, apparently, in Blogger. Yet.


This is the hardest chapter I have to write, because if the plan of this book is going to work, it will be the first real, actual chance in years to bridge the gap between evangelical Christians, mainstream Christians, and other religions. (Or, to put it in evangelical terms, to bridge the gap between committed Christians, liberal or nominal Christians, and non-Christians.) This means that evangelical Christians have to be part of the conversation from the outset. And yet, unlike many authors on this topic, I know from experience what it’s like to be an evangelical, and I know that they’re very easy to turn off. To prove this, let me tell a story.

In 1988 I was taking an undergraduate class in The Renaissance and The Reformation with the world-renowned scholar Heiko Oberman. He was a mind-blowing teacher, not only because of his intense erudition (rumor had it that he spoke seven languages, slept only five hours a night, and used the spare time to write ever more groundbreaking research articles), but because he actually cared about teaching. He took the time to give us mere undergraduates honest-to-god oral exams, and every Friday, after doing long, intense lectures on Monday and Wednesday, he devoted part of the class to answering questions that had been placed in a sort of Suggestion Box he kept on the desk.

One odd thing about the course was that it had been cross-listed in both History and Religious Studies, and the class itself seemed to be split right down the middle: half of the students were logical, flinty-minded history majors, and half were devout, conservative Christians like me. The differences tended to come out in the questions we asked on Friday, half of which were things like, “How did the Peace of Augsburg impact the development of free expressions of Anabaptism?” and the other half of which were more like, “How come Martin Luther struggled to understand the concept of Grace, when the whole thing is clearly laid out in the book of Romans?” Heiko divided his attention between both camps and in general things proceeded in a more or less academic vein.

But one day he held up a slip of paper and announced, “This question is a little unusual, but I’ve gotten a few of these and decided I’d better address it. The question is, ‘What do you think about abortion?’”

At this announcement, the guy next to me—an obvious history major—leaned over to me, looking puzzled and a little scornful, and whispered, “What the fuck does that have to do with anything?”

I knew, but I simply shrugged and kept silent. This question had clearly come from one of my people. It would have taken too long to explain to the guy on my right, but actually, I’d been expecting a question like this for weeks. In fact, I had been tempted to write the same question myself, except I was too anxious about intellectual respectability to follow through. Fortunately, one of my fellow religious studies majors had been less fastidious.

The problem was this: Heiko was telling us troubling things. On the very first day of class, he had said, “Before I discuss the Reformation, I want to get out of the way several misconceptions that people often have about church history.” One of these myths was “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church”—i.e., the idea that the church is unstoppable, and Christians who die only cement the church’s determination to spread. Heiko dismissed this as ridiculous. After all, he pointed out, the first Christian missionaries who came to Japan were completely slaughtered, and Japan heard nothing more from Christianity for several centuries. The moment I heard this, it made sense (no Christians in Japan? Of course! That’s why they have Buddhism instead!), but it was at odds with everything I’d felt about my own religion. I realized then, in that very simple example, that Christians rarely hear stories about where and how Christianity has failed. We know about terrible acts and terrible ideas (the Inquisition, the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, etc.), but those are the fault, not of Christianity, but of flawed people. (To evangelicals, the perpetrators aren’t even “real” Christians, so such incidents barely even count as Christian history.) The idea that Christianity itself, in its purest form and deployed by well-meaning people, seeking only the good of others, might sometimes lose most of the battles and all of the war—this was a new thought that I had to make room for.

I survived this and following classes, but every week, and at every turn, I was aware that Heiko was offering us a view of Christian history that was essentially practical and unsentimental, a warts-and-all view that was far less triumphal than the “Jesus Rules!” history we’d gotten in Sunday school (or, for that matter, from the Bible). He talked like a Christian—rumor had it he was an ordained Reformed Church minister, and he seemed to be theologically accurate when he talked about things like grace and atonement—but he didn’t talk like a fellow evangelical. So was he reliable? Was Christianity susceptible to failure or not? We wanted facts and he was giving us ambiguity. And what had clearly happened on this particular Friday was that one of my fellow religious studies majors had had enough. “That’s it!,” he or she had said, “I’m going to find out once and for all whether this guy is just a really brainy true Christian, or just another godless academic who wants to undermine our faith.”

The abortion question was the shortcut—a shibboleth, really. If Oberman said he was against abortion, then he must be morally sound and, ergo, factually trustworthy, and it was worth doing extra work to actually learn and internalize all he was teaching. If he said the wishy-washy liberal thing, then he would be consigned to the outer darkness of the Secularists To Be Shunned. Oberman clearly didn’t understand this, or he would have addressed it in his response. Instead he waltzed right into the trap, answered the question on its face, and didn’t even survive his first sentence. “This is a complicated issue that requires…”he began, and he went on for several more minutes, but it didn’t matter. Whichever Christian had written that question had gotten their answer at the word “complicated.” And we lost at least one whole student for the rest of the semester, in spirit at least.

Tragically, this is what evangelical Christians do far too often. And while it’s easy for mainstream culture to scoff at a behavior that looks intellectually irresponsible, I’d like to point out that from an evangelical perspecive it’s a perfectly logical way to behave: since the world is divided into the saved and the damned, it’s important to approach books with a critical eye, being careful to divine the spirit of a work, to know whether its author is a believer or not. After all, lies are everywhere, Satan is cunning, and ambiguity is dangerous. So for the evangelical, the weirdness of using a blunt instrument like an off-topic abortion question is worth it if it at least results in an up-or-down vote of moral clarity. How can you walk forward if you don’t even know where you stand?

This is what concerns me. If you’re an evangelical Christian, I hope you can sense two things already: 1.) I’m not a conventional evangelical Christian myself, and 2.) I have not misrepresented you or your faith in any unreasonable way. Please remember this, because this book is about you, and I’m going to say things that are going to make you uncomfortable. I need you to keep reading, and in the process I promise to treat you more decently than most other authors on the topic. I was one of you, I speak the language, and I think I can empathize. And sure, I cuss now and then, but at least when I talk about religion I’m not an arrogant prick who thinks he’s so much smarter than everyone else. That’s worth staying for a few pages, don’t you think?

Of course, you’ll want to know who I am and what my bona fides are, but first, I want to address the rest of the audience, who may be wondering why this book matters, what I consider evangelical, and why evangelical Christianity is so important to address.

UPDATE: Parts 2 and 3 are now available, so you can read the whole introductory chapter. This link takes you to part 2.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Maybe It's Neurasthenia...

It's been a pretty depressing week, outside of the fan mail, because I did something stupid: I tried to get ADD medication. I was diagnosed as ADD back in 1998 and have been off and on various medications since. Usually I haven't needed it, but now that I'm back in a 9-to-5 office job, it's starting to look like it was either medicate myself into cubicle-friendly shape, or lose my job entirely and try some job that requires no attention span at all, like Magpie Wrangler or Street Mendicant.

So I went to my GP's referral neurologist, and after a few minutes of interviewing me, this guy frowned and said, "I don't think you have ADD at all. How much caffeine do you drink every day?"

I had cut out caffeine until a year ago, when my usage started rising. It's a common ADD way of self-medicating. "Um...about a liter of diet coke a day? Is that bad?"

"My god!" he said. "No more caffeine for you. Also, I'm putting you on Paxil to see if this is anxiety." Then when I got the Paxil, I noticed that the label said, "Do not drink alcohol while on this medication."

So: no caffeine AND no alcohol. It's like I became Mormon overnight, and it's been hell. I go to a bar and there's nothing for me to order; I go to a party at someone's house, they say, "Would you like some wine?" and all I can say is, "Do you have sparkling seltzer or grenadine?" The only thing that depressing sentence is missing is "...and if you have any salt-free soda crackers, I'll just dip them in my drink; Dr. Graham says they're a vitalizing tonic for the digestion." Next step is to buy a one-way ticket to Battle Creek, Michigan in the 1910s. It's so unfair. If God had meant for us to not drink alcohol, he would have made it taste like O'Doul's.

On the plus side, I'm certainly saving a lot of money and drinking more healthily, since I pretty much drink water and more water all day. And I really AM doing a better job paying attention at work. So why am I not more thrilled? Oh, right; the suffering.


Friday, September 14, 2007

My Snaillike Media Domination Continues...

On the strength of my This American Life appearance, I have just been asked to perform some commentary for an interfaith public radio show out of Maryland. Woo hoo! We're working out the details, but I'll tell more when I know. But I think it's cool; commentating must be a wonderful job for folks who can do it full time...


Thursday, September 13, 2007

My So-Called Fan Base

Okay, I tried. I really WANT to do the funny poems and cartoons that used to pepper this site. (Newbies: want a taste? Check out February through April, and then jump to last December or thereabouts.) But lately I really have been obsessing over this book and I can't stop writing it. Following an obsession is always wise in writing; you never know when it's going to stop.

However, I DO want to start blogging more often now, because between my last two performances on This American Life, I've acquired at least eight fans who have written me! (Assuming my fans include people who have written either here or at my home email, and not counting anyone who quotes windy passages of scripture or promises to pray for me.) So since people seem to be dropping by, and they want to read stuff, here's what I suspect you can expect:

1.) Attempts at the first sample chapter of the book.

I've got a lot of great middle chapters, but if I don't have a good first one, I'm kind of sunk--not only in my proposal, but in my attempts to reach the people I want to reach. Since I've started the book at least six times now, each from a different angle, I expect I'll be posting and fishing for helpful commentary.

2.) Ideas for The Church of the Pleasant Surprise.

I'll be proposing a model for a kind of spiritual life for atheists: a church that can literally do no harm. But although I've got a few fun ideas (we meet in a karaoke bar and everyone has the opportunity to either sing or tell a story, perhaps with a weekly or biweekly theme), I'm still trying to think of ways to make The Church of the Pleasant Surprise effective at grounding meaning. It seems clear that one of the things that makes church different from hanging out with your friends is a sense of being part of something larger than yourself; a kind of tribalism of benevolence. There must be a way of reinscribing that in a secular vein, but I can't think of much besides maybe meeting at the planetarium and holding hands while looking up. Anyway, I'll be floating ideas for that here.

3. Books I Done Stole: Reviews from I-10.

Many of you may recall that two years ago I drove the entire length of I-10 on a sort of spiritual atheistic journey that led me from the Taoist Tai Chi Society of Tallahassee to a burlesque show in Tucson, and all bars in between. The book itself, Travels With Ritalin, remains unpublished for a silly reason: I haven't quite finished it yet.

See, when I was planning the trip but didn't have a justification for it, one of the things I decided I'd do (in the absence of any major motivation) was to go to every major city along I-10, find some restaurant or shop that was using old books as decoration--you know those weird things thing you find on display featuring authors you've never heard of and titles that seem vaguely interesting?--and I'd steal one of these unloved books, read it, and write a review. Well, there's a review section at the end of every chapter, only they're all empty because I've never actually sat down and read them. (At the time, I was too busy driving. Then when I got back I had prelims, and then I defended, then I moved to New York...) So now that I have a longish commute and all these books lying around, I've decided "Why not complete the book?" So I've read a few already--Unforbidden Fruit by Warner Fabian and The Man From San Francisco by Ivan Bunin, and I'm lacerating my eyes with G. S. Street's The Young Matriarch now (if the geneaolgies don't get me the dress descriptions may).

Anyway, those of you who visit this site can thereby function as my first readers on this new hopefully-to-be-published material. I'd appreciate feedback, either on the site or in personal e-mails. So thanks, and keep watching for updates!


Monday, September 10, 2007

This American Life!

My segment just appeared on This American Life this past week in the episode "Battling Demons." (I'm way at the end, in the last eight minutes.) So in case people are Googling me, I felt like they ought to at least have a fresh post to read and/or comment on.

But the fact is that, for the moment anyway, I've essentially stopped blogging. Not because I don't enjoy it--I love blogging a lot--but because I felt like it was taking time and energy away from getting an agent, which is allegedly why I moved to New York in the first place. So at the moment I'm spending all my time reading, and writing, and generally preparing my book(s) for presentation. When this is finally accomplished, you can be sure I'll be crowing to the skies on this here blog. And of course, if I come up with any new poems in the meantime, this would seem to be the place to put them. I ran across a new potential Vocabulary Poem ("NOCTUARY, n. a journal of events that occur at night") and the 70th anniversary of Spam probably merits poetic commemoration... But in the meantime, and with my 39th birthday looming on October 3rd, getting this major life goal accomplished is obviously prominent in my mind.

Also, I guess I should mention that I've got another story in the works for later this year on This American Life, and for once it's not about religion. You'll see; I don't want to jinx it.