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, April 30, 2008

Exchange From a Short Play I Should Write Someday

STEVE and JAMAL are in Steve's apartment. Jamal is waiting for Steve to collect his things. As he does so, he looks around.

JAMAL: You've got a sock on the floor and a t-shirt on the couch.


JAMAL: So you should clean it up.

STEVE: Oh, that. I keep wanting to, but then I think, "If I wait, maybe someone else will do it."

JAMAL: But don't you live alone?

STEVE: Yeah, but I keep the door unlocked.


From Zero to Frantic

I just realized that I'm leaving Friday morning to go to the Berkshires (well, Hudson NY), and I have only two days to get everything done. Days, because I was foolish and brokered away my nights. Tonight I see the revival of Sunday in the Park With George at Studio 54, and tomorrow I'm volunteering at a Moth event--apparently I'm an excellent ticket-taker, and they needed an expert on hand. So I have only today and tomorrow during daylight to solve a potential problem with the DMV and an overdue parking ticket I can no longer locate for a car whose plate I don't know. I wonder if this is enough time...

Found an amusing thing under a lid of Diet Snapple (an old lid; the new Crystal Light mix is working great, thanks) and I intend to share later. But it may be much later. If it is, I blame the DMV. Or possibly the Mid-Manhattan library, since that's on my to-do list also.

I also have a surprising number of pants-related errands. There may be photos there too. This could be a big day for everyone.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Fin De Siecle Graffito

Saw this today in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, near Myrtle and Spencer. I'm guessing it dates to 1999 or 2000, because I remember the phrase really jumped the shark when Aretha Franklin said it to that cute little girl in the Diet Pepsi commercial (Hallie Kate Eisenberg; remember her?), and I doubt that graffiti artists are late adopters.

Of course, it might also be a sign of impending gentrification run by enthusiastic people from out of town who still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea. Any graffiti cops recognize the tag?


Evangelical Collapse Update

Christine Wicker, a longtime religion journalist and (apparently) former Baptist, has written a book called The Fall of the Evangelical Nation that's about how things are much worse for evangelicals in America than they think. This would seem to fall in line with what David Kinnaman discovered, and which I blogged about last year: That basically, because more and more people in this country believe homosexuality is a normal variation on human behavior, and because more and more people believe there are many ways to God, the evangelical faith is becoming astonishingly unpopular with people 29 and under (actually, I guess they'd be 30 now). As Kinnaman reported, evangelicals are consistently perceived as "homophobic," "judgmental," "narrow-minded," "too political," and "out of touch."

As I noted in that post, Kinnaman got the diagnosis right but the cure wrong. (Instead of fixing evangelicalism, Kinnaman presumed that evangelicalism was fine, and that individual evangelicals just needed to be better Christians when selling it--or at least nicer when talking about the ugly parts like Hindus going to hell.) It looks like Wicker's book might be the more global view of the fallout Kinnaman detected. Apparently, Wicker was writing a book about evangelical domination of the culture and then found, in survey after survey and statistic after statistic, that it wasn't actually true. Hence the alternate book.

I'm mentioning this now because Christianity Today just wrote a dismissive review, and Wicker has responded on her blog. I'm not 100% crazy about her response--she seems a bit hyperbolic, at least in her open letter--but the details she mentions look interesting, and since the thread is open for comments, I'm really curious to see where this conversation is headed. And I think I'm going to be helpless to resist buying the book.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Wanted: A Consistently Bloodthirsty Dictionary

I'm about to head out for the day's errands, but I just had to mention something. While idly scanning through my NI2 for X words (it's only, like, 3 pages), I noticed the following discrepancy. Here's the eye-popping definition for Xipe:

Xipe (he pa). n. The Aztec god of sowing, and patron of workers in precious metals. Human victims sacrificed to him were flayed.

Now, a page over, we read this:

Xiuhtecutli (he oo ta koo tle). n. The fire god of the Aztecs.

That's it!? One bland sentence? Conspicuously absent from this description is the fact that the slaves who were sacrificed to him were burned alive, and then had their hearts removed before they died. (This article confirms that Xiuhtecutli and Huehueotl were basically the same god, which might explain why NI2 doesn't even list Huehueotl; This article gives the gory details of Huehueotl's worship.)

At first, I thought, "This is the relatively prim NI2 from 1959. Maybe they didn't mention the immolation sacrifice for reasons of taste, and the flaying reference was a fluke." But then I checked up on the definitions for "Tlatloc" and "Tezcatlipoca," and the sacrificial details are given for both of those guys. And the listing for Quetzalcoatl deliberately mentions that he wasn't worshiped with human sacrifice, which seems like an odd thing to mention unless--as happens in the NI2--you're in the habit of mentioning human sacrifice, one way or another, whenever the Aztecs come up. Looks like Xiuhtecutli got screwed.

What I'm saying is, although I love the NI2 deeply and profoundly, I'm forced to admit that someone back in the day fell asleep on the job, and as a result, the New International Unabridged, 2nd Edition, is one sentence less interesting than it should have been. I know it's a big dictionary, but hey, Merriam-Webster: let's see that that doesn't happen again.


Sunday, April 27, 2008

Atheists Going to Church, and Other Forms of Happiness

Interesting article here about atheists who attend churches. (via Andrew Sullivan.) It doesn't say anything particularly mind-blowing, but it does strike at the ways in which religion can be a positive force in the world, and the importance of a community. As it happens, I'm already up on the actual importance of community because...

...I just finished reading The Geography of Bliss, in which NPR correspondent Eric Weiner (writing in a style much like Bill Bryson) journeys to the happiest places on earth (Iceland, Bhutan, Switzerland) as well as some unhappy ones (including the unhappiest: Moldova) and comes to several consistently interesting conclusions about happiness. I expected it was just going to be a travelog-ish lark, and I've found instead that my thinking has been altered. Highly recommended.

Okay. Back to more writing.

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 26, 2008

That Sucking Sound You Hear...

...Is Sudafed draining all the fluid from my body--and with it, a good part of my elan vital. It's the tradeoff I make for breathing.

It seems like my recalcitrant body is always looking for an excuse to generate histamine. Yesterday it was tree nuts; the day before it was mold. Today it's pollen. If it were possible to be allergic to your own saliva, my vengeance-seeking body would find a way.

This has traditionally been a deadly time of year for me: this and early fall. In both seasons, I've traditionally wound up with a nerve-rending cough that causes even passersby in cars to start with alarm. It rears way back, calls emergency meetings to get every vocal cord involved, and then launches an IPO that makes banner headlines in second coming type. (Plays hell with my metaphors, too.) Every job I've ever held, every school I've ever attended, I've had teachers, office managers, and lookers-on overhear me (sometimes for hours), blanch, and say, "You should go home." To which I always have to reply, "There's no point. It'll be like this for weeks."

It generally starts like it did today: I wake up feeling like I've been pummeled, and every muscle in my body aches whenever I move it. I move slowly and timidly, so that you might think I have a hangover. It feels, in fact, almost exactly like the flu. But then a day passes and I can move around again...but some fluid or other has gotten into my lungs, and keeps sneaking back in no matter how I try. Those of you who are merely reading this are lucky: the joy of writing is that anyone in whatever shape can still, in sentences, feel like they're bounding around sprightlily on the page. In person, I'm a swollen, congested wreck. I suspect I even smell like--well, not like death, but perhaps like death's breakfast nook. Not unbearable, but why go there at all?

Normally I'd go to a doctor, but of course at the moment I have no money and no insurance. By the time both of these factors have changed, I'll probably be over the worst of it. (Though if blooming things are the problem, I imagine the Berkshires of May will take me from grim to grimmer.) So in the meantime I'm just doing my best, like a Civil War commander: I never remember what worked (or worked well enough) last time, so I'm just buying the whole set, and hurling them one at a time, crossing my fingers with increasing seperation: "On, Loratadine! On, Actifed! On, Claritin and Benadryl!" And then I watch as they get chewed up by the cannons.

I think Sudafed is going to do journeyperson's work on me, but I won't know for sure until tomorrow when the aching subsides and the threat of real coughing begins. In the meantime, I just wanted you to know that if my postings seem sluggish or if I don't get around to a few, I blame the pharmaceutical industry and their loose definition of "Non-Drowsy."

Oh! And one more thing: In the past, every time I've been improving my health--workouts, diets, etc.--I always get hit with an allergy attack (or the flu, if God is particularly vengeful), and I fall off the routine. This time around, because my life as a writer is less stressful than it it ever was as an office worker/commuter, I have every hope that I will finally be able to do something I've never managed in my life: exercise while on Sudafed! I even have motivation: not only have several attractive women commented on my healthy weight loss, but I went shopping for jeans yesterday and discovered that I have a plausibly 34 waist for the first time in years. I could almost work in Japan! Since 35 waists are incredibly difficult to find, having and maintaining a 34 will simplify my life immensely. Plus, of course, it's healthier.

By the way, in my shopping, I discovered something kind of alarming: I have no idea what kinds of pants make my butt look nice. I tried on pair after pair and thought, "Is it supposed to be that flat? Is it possible to hug too much?" I just knew I was one impulse buy away from an expensive faux pas on par with pleated fronts. (I thought pleats and flat fronts were two neutral and equal options, pants-wise. Turns out that the fashion advisors all think pleats are AWFUL. You may as well wear a sign that says "revile my taste in public.") In fear, I walked away without purchasing a thing.

So I'm actually looking for some woman with taste--presumably one who actually likes me and wants me to do well in life--to help me buy pants, possibly in the upcoming week. It will involve looking at my ass, and you'll have to sign a waiver relieving me of any resposibility that might accrue if you become overwhelmed by my manliness and start losing sleep. But you'll be doing me--and, really, certain entire parts of Manhattan--a huge favor. I take email.


Friday, April 25, 2008


I'll be spending a lot of today on the subway, which is as good an excuse as any to talk about the New Jersey PATH train. For those from out of the area, the PATH train (short, apparently, for Port AuTHority) is the subway train line that links much of New Jersey (Hoboken, Newark, and Jersey City) to Manhattan.

My brief tenure in Jersey City as a house-sitter has acquainted me pretty well with the PATH train, and I have to say that it's pretty irritatingly inferior to the New York City subway in almost every way. With one exception: it's way cleaner. I don't have the statistics near to hand (and don't care enough to look them up), but I assume the main reason it's cleaner is fairly obvious: way fewer passengers. That's in its favor. But here are its many sins.

* No maps in the terminals. None! They have very handy maps inside the cars, but not in the places where you wait for them. It's amazing. Admittedly, there are only about 9-12 stops on the PATH train (depending on which one you're taking), but unless you've memorized the schedule ahead of time, when a train pulls up and says JSQ on the side, and you're trying to get to Grove Street, there's absolutely no way to figure out if the Grove Street stop is on the JSQ line unless you actually climb aboard the train and read the map. Then, if you're on the wrong train, run back out quickly before they shut the doors and you're trapped in this tube, to be dumped in a place that will confuse you further.

(Note: I'm primarily going to and from the Grove Street station. If there are maps elsewhere--I seem to recall seeing something vaguely helpful at 14th Street--that's only a minor improvement, as far as I'm concerned. How much can a map possibly cost?)

*Almost no signage. At the World Trade Center station--one of the biggest PATH stops--the only sign over each track is "Track 3--Newark." Which, again, isn't helpful unless you already have a grasp of the geography involved. On the New York subway, the signs over the tracks say things like "2 uptown to Queens via Broadway. For the 1 local, go across the platform. Doesn't run weekends." Plus there's a huge map (called "The Map") at every station. See my first point.

* No trash receptacles in the PATH terminals. They sell food in kiosks topside, but you can't eat it on the train, and if you eat it while you're waiting, you have to stick the wrapper in your pocket and wait till you get out at Christopher Street. Admittedly, this makes the PATH train's relative cleanliness all the more impressive. But I ask again: how expensive is a trash can? Yeesh.

* Far fewer seats on the train itself. Admittedly, most PATH trips aren't that long. But still. Even in the middle of the day, I've found myself forced to stand--and when it's busy, I often find myself actually far away from the nearest grabbable pole. If you're going to make people stand, at least add a grabby-bar down the center, like track lighting. As a result of this dearth of seats, I've seen people on the PATH routinely do something I've almost never seen on the New York subway: they actually sit on the floor. (Good thing it's cleanish!)

I should add that my former British roommate, Lizzie, informs me that the London Underground is even easier to use than the New York Subway. So I'm willing to be still further impressed if I ever get to travel abroad. But until then, New York is my gold standard: I got on the subway and figured out how to use it immediately, even though I'm not only a yokel but pretty bad with directions. The PATH is about twenty times simpler and STILL puts up a series of unnecessary obstacles between me and my transit confidence.

If I actually lived in New Jersey, I'd write someone a sternly worded letter. But since I'm a gypsy wayfarer, this blog will have to do.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Tea Monkey

Since I have recently foresworn alcohol (causes heartburn), caffeine (upsets my calm), and carbonated beverages (upsets my stomach), I have found myself skipping past juice (too caloric) and water (way too dull) and am now captive to a $3.75-a-day Diet Snapple Iced Tea habit. It happened so fast I didn't even realize it until I noticed how heavy the recycling bin was getting. In a time of rising food prices and other environmental peril--and a day after Earth Day, which is when this started bothering me--it strikes me that this is one hell of a one-man carbon footprint to be toting around, even if it does get recycled. So I need new options.

What I'd like, I guess, is flavored water--something sweet but without actual sugar: a member of the Sucralose family. But it occurs to me that even those drinks (Nestle's H2O Splash and others) also come in bottles that I'd also tend to go through swiftly. Clearly the best thing to do would be to find some way to fill used bottles at home and still make them sweet.

Today I was reminded of something I saw at Hallmark many years ago. My friend and co-worker, Steve, had been commanded by his doctor to give up coffee (too acidic or something), and so he switched to taking caffeine pills with water in the morning. A co-worker expressed concern, and he shrugged and said, "It's the same drug I've always been taking. I'm just changing the intake mechanism."

So I'm tempted now to just buy a bunch of packets of Sucralose (which, per Snopes, has never been reliably linked to any health problems, panicked email forwards notwithstanding) and add them to my tap-filled water bottles. On the one hand, it feels creepy and unnatural. But logically, it's like with Steve: I'm just changing the intake mechanism of something millions of people ingest, and turning it into something that's better for the planet.

But it strikes me that even this option has a flaw: I like my water to be flavored with actual flavor: strawberry, kiwi, and the like. A raw, plain sugary taste is apt to be a little much even for me. So I ask the populace at large: is it possible to get fruit-flavored packets of Sucralose/Nutrasweet anywhere? Or maybe with vitamin supplements added? There's a lot of glass and plastic at stake in your answer.


A Poetic Milestone Reached

With the creation of "vaccary," I have now written at least one vocabulary poem for every letter in the alphabet. Unfortunately, it turns out that many of them (like the Z series that started the whole thing) began life in my old "Dave Update" email list, so at least six letters remain currently unrepresented on my blog, including my "zetacism" mini-collection. What's more, they're all on an old computer that doesn't have a monitor right now. When this is fixed, I'll run a special post with links to 26 vocabulary poems, one for each letter. In the meantime, let's just have a quick toast: to the entire alphabet! Even the letter H, which was a pain in the ass to find words for!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I Didn't Know They Could Do That

Announcement on door of Jersey City Police's Internal Affairs building, Erie and 1st Street. Combine city pride with intradepartmental rivalry, add a phalanx of strict authoritarian personalities, and it's sure to be an evening of cataclysmically intense hypermasculinized dick-swinging. I'm getting exhausted just thinking about it.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bush Breaks Through The Outhouse Floor

President Bush set a record today: he is now officially the worst-hated President in the 70-year history of the Gallup poll. Technically, I suppose he's merely the Most Disapproved-Of, but I assume being widely loathed is part of that package.

Of course, this could change tomorrow, to the mere 60-65% disapproval he usually enjoys these days, but this is the kind of thing I think about when people say McCain has a shot at being President. Not unless he either switches parties or agrees with the 65% of the electorate that says the Iraq war was a mistake. At the moment, McCain has been shedding his maverick image as fast as he can, and sucking up to people--like the religious right--that he's not nearly as good as Bush was at sucking up to. In the process, he's been backing pretty much every one of Bush's policies: more Iraq! More tax cuts! Less health care for all! Help the extremely wealthy not lose money on their homes! And so on. A more quixotic platform could hardly be devised unless he snapped his tether completely and joined the Natural Law Party. The only way to win as a Republican in November, it seems to me, is to promise to fix the Republican party and take it back from its self-destructive idealist extremists. To say, "same as Bush but more of it!" is maverick only in the sense that it's not what you'd expect any politician with an actual dream of getting elected to say.

Bush, by the way, also set a similar record last week: the longest any President has stayed at minority approval since World War II, when Truman had it locked up for over three years. Bush hasn't been above 50% approval for pretty much his entire second term. Place this on the heels of an informal poll of historians where over 60% of them rated his Presidency as the worst ever (and 96% rated it in the bottom ten), and you start to see a pattern. (Good commentary on the historian thing here; lots of fun quotes once you scroll past the first few charts.) No wonder he's also taken more vacations than any President in history. He's clearly just waiting to get fired.

I know the feeling. When this happened to me back at Hallmark, I eventually started ignoring my job altogether, spending my days just reading in my cubicle for fun, and checking out the Internet for good graduate school programs. But since Bush never reads or studies, I assume he's just doing the lazy-and-ignorant equivalent of that: walking around pretending to talk on his cell phone, spending lots of time in the bathroom, and occasionally forwarding YouTube videos of cats. I'm not actually worried about this being the case. If anything really bad happens, I assume Cheney will know who to torture.

Anyway, it's the long-term unpopularity that's more important to watch in these matters. Anyone can have an unusually bad or good day--and the best day Bush ever had was September 12th, 2001. It's only when you can see a President be consistently hated, day in and day out, for years on end, that you can start to appreciate the achievement involved. Of course, history hasn't yet been written. It's possible that Bush's gamble in the Middle East will one day create a haven of democracy and peace for all; that all the sacrifice of lives, all the mortgaging of our future monies, will turn out to be worth it in the end. But I wouldn't wager $280 million a day on it.

That Was Fast...

It's now 1:30 and I just finished my writing quota for the day. Turns out denying myself the Internet was all I needed to do! I'm no expert, but this delayed-reward system must be the way that addicts of other sorts also get their work done: just get a trustworthy friend who won't give you the syringe until you show them your ideas for the Preston account. As systems go, you could do worse. Let's hope this keeps up.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Two Blogging Notes

First, it turns out that my new $200 laptop, while it is wonderful in many respects (it's clean, it's stable, and does both Internet and word processing without any drama), it's a little light in RAM and uses Windows 2000. The surprising result of this is that I can't download iTunes (so I'll be listening to This American Life in the stream from their website), and--more importantly--I can't load the scanning element of my printer. So I can print, but I can't scan, which means no more Bar Napkin Cartoons (except for the photographed kind, perhaps) until I upgrade in a few months.

Second, and more importantly, since I have a book to write, I've noticed that the Internet is killing me with its thousand shiny-object-like distractions. So I'm about to try a new policy: I'll be removing the wi-fi card at night, and I won't be allowed to put it in until I write 2,000 words. This should only take me a day, but it might take two or three sometimes. If I'm strict with myself about this, then there may be a lapse in posting on the site--and a lag in my response to people's emails as well. So take it as a warning. If you don't see an update for a day or so, this may actually be good news. For the book, at least, if not the blog.


Expelled Review

Here's a link to the New York Times's dismissive review of Expelled!: No Intelligence Allowed. The review itself isn't much (but then, I want a detailed rebuttal, not a shrug and a grimace), but I laughed out loud at the very end where they sort of let the facade drop:

“Expelled” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It has smoking guns and drunken logic.

(Still haven't seen it myself, but it might be fun to watch and then complain about. I'm just checking out other reviewers first for the sake of my blood pressure.)


When Protestors Embarrass Themselves

Andrew Sullivan has a great picture here that made me laugh and groan. Someone get that protester some history, stat!

Labels: ,

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Naughtiest "In Bed" Fortune I Have Ever Held

Obtained from a Chinese retaurant near 15th and Union Square called, oddly, The Cottage. The picture was taken in my Jersey City guest room, where I'm living out of a suitcase, which is why the hangers are bare. I may try to get a better picture later with an actual camera, but for now I just wanted to share, and my phone was handy.


Friday, April 18, 2008

Return of the Urinal Fly

Andrew Sullivan takes a choice quote from an L.A. Times article on design to point out something that I misinformed everyone about a few months back: It turns out flies in urinals aren't there to save money on urinal cakes; they're there to diminish splashback and keep the place cleaner.

Of course, if they wanted things really clean, they could just attach a hose or have a huge trough with little glory holes in it to pee into. That's the problem, I guess. The solutions that would really be the cleanest are also the most disgusting to think about.


A Goddamned Hallmark Moment

My friend Jason sent me a link to this article and I found myself surprisingly exercised over it: Woman Claims Hallmark Card Promotes Teen Sex.

Essentially, a woman in Portsmouth named Ms. Desrosiers walked into a Hallmark store and saw a card, described as follows: The front cover of the card features two glasses of wine held by two hands and reads, "Pardon me..." On the inside is printed, "Care for some liquid clothes remover?"

The woman, who works for a substance abuse prevention program, and who has a teenage daughter, was so scandalized that she demanded that the card be removed from the store, because it sends the wrong message to teens about promiscuous sex. She won; the cards are gone. She then appealed to Hallmark. If I know my history, she won there too. So a perfectly good card is gone because one ignorant bat couldn't get a fascismectomy. "That card offends me," she thought, "So no one should be allowed to have it."

Because of my own fundy background, I guess this pushes my buttons more than other people. But what frosts me is not just that she demanded a card be pulled; it's that she did it with no idea of what she was talking about. She says in the article, "The target audience, in my opinion, is young adults."

Jesus, lady. If you did a moment's research you'd discover that the target audience--the people that make up 80% of the card-buying market--are women aged 40-60. That's why you were in the store and your daughter had to be informed about the card secondhand. In fact, teenagers hate Hallmark stores so much (and the feeling is mutual) that if I'm ever being pursued by a group of teenage hoodlums, I'm going to duck into the first Hallmark store I see; they'll think I've turned invisible.

Hallmark isn't for teenagers. You know what should have tipped you off? The fucking wine glasses. If the card showed two kids bumming a six-pack of Pabst from an unscrupulous stranger outside a convenience store, you might have a point. If the two wineglasses were plastic, and the background was clearly the back seat of a shitty first car, and there was a paper bag around a bottle of Boone's Farm, you've got the target market. But since when do teenagers out to get drunk and screw bother to be within miles of a tablecloth? In fact, as far as I'm concerned, the card sends a wonderful message to kids: Go someplace nice first. It dilutes the shame.

And the other sad thing is that of course her complaint worked. Hallmark folded like a mixer set on "fold." That's Hallmark's tendency when anyone complains about anything, because they're more concerned with good PR than any company I know. During my tenure there, we had a card with the caption "Still Life With Butt Crack." (You can imagine the picture.) It sold really well. One jackass complained, and not only did the card vanish, but we got a new rule: you can show a butt crack, or you can say the word "butt crack," but not both. That would be too intense. I once wrote a card that said on the outside, "You should be a princess!"--showing a fairy princess on a throne, smiling and wearing a crown. On the inside it said, "You'd kick ass." Don't bother looking for it. One person whinged, and it's dead now.

Which brings me to the other thing I wanted to complain about. The fact that the wineglass card is inappropriate is the joke. When you see two wineglasses on the outside, you don't expect the inside to say, in essence, "Let's get drunk and screw." The shock of the move from elegant night out to sexual proposition is why it's funny, and the fact that the point is made obliquely makes it even smarter: this is how Niles Crane would hit on someone if he were tipsy enough to be scurrilous and louche. If you don't see that, you don't deserve to have jokes.

Hallmark will almost certainly not stand up for itself, so I just wanted to say, on behalf of the people who actually write the cards, many of whom also care about the craft of a decent joke, that this whole story is bullshit. So let me lay out your sins, Ms. Desrosiers: you got angry at a satire (which proves you didn't get it), you complained about a card that wasn't even related to why you were in the damn store, you completely misunderstood the card industry, you can't read subtext--and you have just won an idiotic moral battle of your own creation, which must make you even more intolerable to be with at the moment. Enjoy your lap around the track.

But if there were any justice in this world, you'd be banned from buying cards altogether until you get a license showing that you understand irony. And in the future, I hope that before you write an angry letter in high dudgeon to some perfectly harmless corporation, you first pause, count to ten, get an enema, and read the Constitution. And as someone who used to be a child and survived all kinds of "bad messages," here's one from me: You're Not Helping.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Contra Ben Stein

Just found a website called Expelled Exposed that strives to correct the disinformation in the movie Expelled!, which I groused about in this post here. I particularly liked this section here which discusses how evolution actually works, along with other topics that I don't find covered often enough. Nice general grounding of information.

Note also the sections in the sidebar, which debunk the spurious claims of the few researchers the moviemakers were able to find, all of whom claim that they were hurt in the academy because they taught creationism...and all of whom are misrepresenting the issues. (In the case of the takedown of Caroline Crocker, I found myself wondering why anyone would hire this person at all. If you actually say, "Well, we have doubts about evolution because a cat has never turned into a dog in a laboratory," surely you're actually saying, "I don't know even the basic facts about what I've been hired to teach, and I wouldn't know a common ancestor if it offered me tenure." If a theology professor was fired because he taught that Catholics believe that the Holy Wafer is made of actual muscle tissue and that all Christians are cannibals, he'd wind up fired because of incompetence, not because of a conspiracy to hide some scandalous truth.)

The "film" (I think I'll call it a "dickumentary") opens tomorrow just ten minutes walk from here. I'm not sure I'll be able to resist. If you knew there was going to be a spectacularly stupid car crash nearby, wouldn't you want a seat? Of course, if it was an insultingly stupid car crash, I might have second thoughts. I still have to examine my conscience on this one.

UPDATE: I take it back. This is my favorite section of the site. It gives historical examples to show how scientists have, in fact, successfully challenge the scientific mainstream on evolution. In doing so, it repeatedly demonstrates how science progesses even when someone has an unpopular opinion: the researcher continues to present testable hypotheses and gather evidence so that other people can replicate the results. The fact that Intelligent Design people don't even bother to write scientific papers is exactly what damns them. (Of course, they don't write papers for good reason: "God did it by magic" isn't a scientific assertion so much as a demand to stop asking questions; it's the complete opposite of curiosity.) My favorite quote comes from here, after a section describing the paucity of Intelligent-Design research despite decades and decades of work and untold millions of dollars: "[T]he failure of intelligent design can readily be laid at the feet of its advocates, whose main activity appears to be to carp about the success of evolution."

Labels: ,

Heads and Other Things To Play With

If you've got a little time to kill--say, you're waiting on hold, or you can't watch the movie because your kids are still washing up after dinner--I hereby recommend the following games to divert you. They're free, they're incredibly low budget, and they have all the freedom and joy that comes from not giving a hoot. This is why I love low-budget movies, too: at their best, they think, "If you can't be slick anyway, why not surprise people with something weird?" These games are all strange and lovely.

Feed the Head. Loopy, fun, and I can't tell you anything more except that it actually has an ending. And when in doubt, grab whatever you can and obey the title.

Mr. Mothball. A hop-around-on-platforms game that's mostly quite easy, very forgiving (you never really die; you just restart each single-screen-sized level), and what I love most of all is the fact that it looks really cartoony in the best way.

Levers. Utterly simple and Zenlike. I'm totally stuck at the moment (the birdhouse just dropped) and I don't even care. All I know is, you can pluck things out of the water by fishing around, and you're trying to get the balance more or less even for a certain length of time.

The Tall Stump. My favorite of the lot, even though it's way longer than the others and a lot more intricate. But it's also nicely episodic and unfailingly cute. I even like the music. Just remember to shoot everything once you get the bazooka, and use your coins to save your place. Because this is one where you really can die.

Just doing my part to destroy everyone's productivity.



A bunch of things conspired to prevent me from blogging the last few days. My free computer turned out to be too primitive to write transferrable files in. So I bought a replacement computer, and its Internet capabilities stalled. Then I had a couple of other things--like a trip into Brooklyn, which is so far away from Jersey City now that there and back is close to two hours before you even do anything.

Mostly, though, the problem is that I have a lot of writing to do, on a deadline, and I've been sort of figuring out how the routine is going to work. When I'm up in the Berkshires, with no New York City around and very little night life, it'll be a no-brainer: wake up, write, sleep, repeat for two months. But until the end of April, I'm distracted by other things and I'm trying different recipes: work out, shower, then write, or write first thing and try to remember to shower? Eat before exercising, and if so how much and how long before the exercise? Is it safe to watch TV? Check my email? And so on. As long-term readers know, when I have an assignment or I'm trying to work on a book, I have a hard time justifying doing anything fun when I could be writing for money. Blogging is one more thing I'm trying to figure out how to make time for.

For the moment, however, I think I've figured everything out, and I'll be okay, so you can expect to hear stuff from me on a more regular basis. Sorry for the hiatus. It was wholly involuntary.


Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Crosswording World Waits...

Poster for Eliu Rivera. Eliu! I believe that's a brand-new crossword tetragram. Let's hope he goes from Freeholder of the 4th District to some national cabinet position...

Labels: ,

Friday, April 11, 2008


Scientific American gives a nicely thoughtful review here of Ben Stein's Expelled!: No Intelligence Allowed, the creationist celluloid delusion that will be entering a smattering of theaters on the 18th unless Jesus returns first.

As I've said before, it's on the question of evolution that I have the least patience with evangelicals, because it shows evangelicals at their most nakedly and willfully ignorant. But this movie in particular shows the absurdity from its very premise: Ben Stein goes around to various evolutionists and scientists (who, by the way, were lied to in order to obtain their footage, as P.Z. Meyers and Richard Dawkins have chronicled) and the repeated upshot is: If these scientists are so interested in theories, why are they so unfairly biased against the theory of intelligent design?

The most obvious question to ask such people is, "What fucking evidence do you fucking have for a single fucking element of your alleged fucking theory?" (Sorry. I told you this made me impatient.) Over and over again, in this movie (to judge from the reviews) and on innumerable websites and other writings, the pattern goes something like this:

a. evolution teaches that process x works in some specific way;
b. but here's an example of this process failing, and science can't explain it!
c. Therefore, God exists and Genesis is scientifically accurate.

I trust you can see the huge-ass leap being made here. But the creationist articles and stories (and the Creationism Museum) all tend to end with

d. Also, evolution is immoral, and that's why we have moral chaos like the Holocaust.

This is another easily dismantled argument. (if God provides morality, how come entire countries with no God--such as Buddhist Japan--are actually lower in crime than average? And if the only reason people are good is because God will punish us if we don't behave, then doesn't that mean that human beings really DON'T have any inherent value?) But it exhausts me to do so, because as I've shown in other posts, the answers aren't even the point.

What evangelicals really want in the evolution "debate" is to be able to nakedly assert the superiority of the Bible over against the knowledge we've actually amassed over the last several centuries--which is why the obvious compromise (to admit that evolution makes sense, but to assert that God set evolution in motion), which should technically satisfy evangelicals, is dropped as anathema. This isn't about science. This is a power play to try to get the rest of the world to worship the Bible the same way evangelicals do.

Of course, evangelicals don't see it this way--it's not like a conspiracy. What's happening from the evangelical perspective is that everyone seems to be adopting a scientific worldview that the evangelical finds morally uncomfortable. They shouldn't be troubled by it, but an evolution-based ethic, while not exactly hard to derive (we're all from the same stuff, we're not all that different from each other, therefore the Golden Rule is a sensible way to run things), it's still more subtle than the Bible-says-x system that evangelicals are accustomed to.

To put it another way, evolution's sin is not that it is obviously immoral. Its problem is that it introduces gray areas into our understanding of human life, and the evangelical, with her belief that humans are morally corrupt, can only assume that this gray area will be exploited to the worst possible effect. (That in many ways our life has improved--women's rights expanding everywhere, mostly no more slavery anywhere, greatly improved health and life expectancy, etc.--has little argumentative effect on people who are determined to worry.) If they had a little more faith in human decency, they'd be able to stop worrying so much--but of course, if they had faith in human decency, they'd stop being evangelicals.

I don't really have a solution to this, obviously. But I do think that the way to start is to quietly and patiently defuse the phantom fear that is animating the evangelicals' desperately wrongheaded assertions. But you can start with the facts, too. Maybe if they become rightly embarrassed about claims about a 6,000-year-old earth, an actual worldwide flood, and all the rest of the myths they helplessly literalize, we can at least have this conversation less often in public, and it'll retreat to the ghetto of the coffee-and-donuts narthex from whence it should never have escaped in the first place. Yeesh.

Sorry if this was angry. I really do have a hard time being patient with this stuff because it's all so embarrassingly weak and so obviously wrong. I want evangelicals to be worthy intellectual adversaries and proud participants in our cultural conversation. Evolution-didn't-happen is just amateur hour. Jesus deserves better from his alleged friends.

Labels: ,

Quick Afternote

In light of the last post, it should be obvious that there may be a slowdown in postings until I get the computer-and-internet details worked out. And yet I'm saying it anyway. I'm so helpful!

(This post was written from Net Zone at 32nd Street in Koreatown. Buy their many amazing products!)


CYBERCRISIS!: A Drama In Real Life

Okay. Without going into too much detail, I'll say this: I've scored a really nice writing gig that will pay enough that I don't have to hunt for a job for a little while. Much needed relief! The downside, of course, is that I need to write. Today was day three of the project.

So I woke up this morning, as the blues songs have it, and my computer was dead. I should have seen this coming. I bought the computer after my last computer's collapse, and it ran me only $200. It was a pretty good friend for a few months there: portable, clean, responsive. The only problem was that it would occasionally collapse completely, turning into a blue screen filled with scary half-sentences. ("IRQ not less or equal. Restart in Safe Mode and remove Bios shadowing, which we assume you know how to do...") These collapses became more and more frequent, but by my calculations, I only needed the computer to last two more months.

Obviously, it didn't make it. I defibrillated for a little while, but there's not an ounce of current moving through the damn thing, and so I--with about $1500 to my name--had to go about finding another computer.
I called my brother and asked if he could overnight one of his old ones...but he doesn't have any old ones anymore. "There's one out in the garage, I think," he said. "But you might want to try Craigslist. Anything you pay there is about what I'd pay to overnight a desktop computer."

Excellent idea! Well, it's not an excellent idea, because I could see a fifth of my money vanishing instantly. But it's not like I had any choice. I had to buy something. But first I needed to get online...and from what little bumbling I managed to do, it seems that there are no Internet cafes in Jersey City (where I'm currently housesitting.) And there are CERTAINLY going to be no Internet cafes up in Hudson New York, where I'm going to be sequestered for May and June. So I have a relatively brief window of opportunity to make this purchase.

So I went into the city, hoping to find just such a cafe. I took the PATH train to 14th, because it's pretty busy and has lots of students. (There are more students below 14th, but that's off the grid and I get lost easily.) But when I went to Union Square--which is right near NYU, for God's sake--I discovered that the Kinko's AND the UPS Store were both Internet-free.

"How the hell do I get online?" I asked the UPS Store guy.
"Right around the corner at Tasti D-Light," he said, pointing.

What a notion! I've seen Tasti D-Lights all over town, but I've never really given them much thought because a.) they only sell dairy products I can't eat, and b.) every time I see their signs I want to correct their spelling. Also, honestly, there's no way to look cool while standing near the word "Delight." (Sunny D orange drink has been fighting that problem for years, never winning convincingly.) But apparently they have Internet access as well! I'm not ashamed to say it: Tasti D-Light kicks ass.

So I went to the Tasti D-Light...and discovered that it opened at noon. It was 11:27. Well, great, I thought. What do I do for exactly half an hour? I was making my way north on 4th Avenue when I heard a guy say, "Looking for a story?"

I turned, and it was...a guy. I'd forgotten his name, but he's a regular at all of Sherry Weaver's Speakeasy shows. He knew who I was! I didn't know much about him, really--we've talked a few times at parties--except that he seemed likely to be a nice, lefty, Boomer-era hippie type, since that's what most of Sherry's friends are. "How are things?" he queried.

"Funny you should ask," I said. And I told him about my situation.

"There's another Internet cafe down this way," he said. He lived in the neighborhood. "Or, if you want an old iMac, I have one of those at home. I'd just need it back eventually."

I goggled and followed him back. Turns out his name's Bob. And sure enough, he had an iMac! (They looked smaller in the commercials.) He even gave me an old golf bag to lug it around in. I went down the block to Starbucks to check it out--it must have been quite a sight, me actually setting up an entire desktop in public--and it works just fine. It's not a laptop, and it's a helluva thing to tote back to Jersey, but the price was right (I'll be in touch, Bob!), and you gotta admit: it makes one helluva story.

Thanks to Bob for his amazing generosity. Thanks for Sherry, for introducing us, and for offering me her house in the Berkshires while I try to pull in a little writing money. And thanks to the universe in general, for throwing together little miracles like this when we need them.

P.S. The iMac only has two USB ports, and it uses one for the mouse and one for the keyboard. This makes it impossible for me to get wi-fi with my handy card. Anyone out there have any ideas? (Oh, wait. Call me if you know the number. Otherwise, if I can't figure this out myself, I guess there'll just be silence for a while...)

P.P.S. This was written at Tasti D-Light. Try some of their fine products today!


Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Broad Definition of "Not Really."

Overheard today on the PATH train:

Person #1: Do you know how to juggle?
Person #2: Not really. I mean, I know how to juggle, but I've never actually practiced it.


Non Sequitur Alert

From Andrew Sullivan's Face of the Day today:

An elephant wears paint on its face in preparation for the upcoming Thai New Year, on April 10, 2008 in Ayutthaya, Thailand. Thai's are getting ready to celebrate the Thai New Year, called Songkran, a three-day holiday which is celebrated with a water festival during the hottest time of the year. A mahout is an elephant jockey.


Dave Fun Quiz: Food and Drink Wordplay

I've been going to a lot of health food stores recently, and I noticed the following fact: if you take the names of two grains commonly found in health food stores, combine them, and rearrange the letters, you can spell the name of a liqueur common to many mixed drinks. What are the words?

UPDATE: As you might expect, the answers are in the comments. So consider this a spoiler alert.

Labels: ,

Vocabulary Poem: Rhipidion

RHIPIDION (rih-PID-ee-un). n. A fan used to keep flies away from the wine in the chalice during the Celebration of the Liturgy. (Eastern Orthodox.)

Before there was MetLife, and back past Providian
Some Byzantine genius devised the rhipidion
As a sort of insurance for Orthodox guys
To keep Jesus' blood unpolluted by flies.

But that wasn't all! Once the fan became known,
Then some other inventors built things of their own:
Like the gagulon rex--a small chisel and mallet
To chip bits of the Host that get stuck to one's palate;

Or the vellux--a cloth stuffed with small bits of cheeses
To capture the wine if some supplicant sneezes;
From the cermyl, a corn-floured, gluten-free Host,
To the etnoi--a cooker for Holy Host toast--

They kept adding--The nouon, the quimmel, the jeltz--
Until Orthodox priests had utility belts!
But through some clumsy mix of tradition and luck,
It seems only the simple rhipidion stuck.

(P.S.--It's just me now, but I wish instead
They'd invented good wine and some tastier bread.)

Labels: ,

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Another Book Update

I've been asked to maintain a media silence on what's going on with my book. But things are proceeding nicely and I hope to be able to tell the public part of the story in about a week or two. Or three. Just be patient, y'all.


What's the Point Of Doubt?

In response to my posts about the Resurrection on Easter (Part One is here; Part Two is here), A reader writes:

My first thought, as I was reading your blog was "Dave, what do you have to gain by not believing in a bodily resurrection?"

What an interesting question! And it raises a larger one: what do you gain by being skeptical at all? (I promised I'd get back to this question, and tonight I finally have.)

The short answer is "peace of mind," or perhaps "epistomological coherence." But since evangelical Christians (and other religious types, but especially evangelicals) don't even see the point of epistemological coherence (which I will define in a moment), it's worth going a step or two back to look at evangelical belief in general.

I'm going to start with a potentially irritating example: Santa Claus. So let me state upfront that, unlike some atheists I could name, I don't think a belief in God is as dumb as a belief in Santa Claus. I'm using it as an outlier example so we can all see what’s going on. Now: what do we gain by not believing in Santa Claus? Goodness knows we give up a lot. It's a pretty nice story, it's full of magic, it makes everyone feel happy (at least here in the states, where Santa Claus never actually beats naughty children), and it's got some really interesting substories (like Rudolph). He gives gifts! He's a lovely guy! Why would you want to disbelieve in him? What possible motivation could you have? Do you hate niceness or something?

If you're like most people, Santa Claus did not survive into adulthood not because you made a choice to say, "screw it; I just won't believe it because I hate happy stories!" You stopped believing because it became practically unthinkable. To believe in Santa Claus today, you'd have to almost wall off a portion of your brain and its understanding of reality and say things like, "Well, I know velocity plus air friction causes space shuttle nose cones to glow with heat, but I also know that that doesn't apply to magical reindeer." You'd walk around with two realities: one real and boring, one magical and interesting.

If these two realities were constantly clashing, it would probably be unhealthy. But of course, the reason people ever believe in Santa Claus at all is because, even for children, this secondary belief is remote and doesn't cost much: Santa only appears once a year, and only when everyone's asleep, and the rest of the time he's way off at the North Pole where no one can see him. If you were trying to tell a story to children that, say, cats will talk if you feed them corn flakes, this belief would only survive among kids who had been too lazy to ever try it, and who refused to believe the testimony of their friends who had. Santa Claus is easier to believe than that—not any more probable, since both are completely false, but healthier for the brain to cope with.

But even belief in Santa Claus gets dropped by everyone--usually unwillingly--not because the disbeliever has decided to hate niceness, but because the story literally raises too many questions to make sustainable sense. The world doesn't work that way, not because the world contains no miracles, but because this particular set of miracles makes particuarly little sense. Elves? Flying reindeer? He sees you when you’re sleeping? The implausibilities mount to an impossible level long before you get to the more advanced questions like "How does he have time to visit every single house in a single evening?" and "What about the other Santa Clauses in other lands, plus that so-called ‘helper’ from the mall?"

There are ancillary benefits that come from disbelief in Santa Claus—like the approval of one’s more sophisticated peers—but the chief benefit is that you’re seeing life as it really is, and acting according to your best possible beliefs in that reality. After all, wouldn’t we despise a kid who decided not to believe in Santa Claus, not because it was troubling her that much, but in order to be popular? Because to do it that way really is to be disloyal to the concept of Christmas joy for the sake of social climbing. How ugly that would be! So at core, what we get from doubting Santa Claus is the joy of truth, and honesty with ourselves; a more mature engagement with, and understanding, of how the world really works. If this were not so, then only total jerks would ever stop believing in Santa. But as it turns out, the only thing more important than Christmas is integrity.

Now, the two weirdest beliefs often held by evangelical Christians—and pretty much only evangelical Christians—are as follows:

a.) the earth is 6,000 years old, there was a real Adam and Eve, a real Flood, and evolution didn’t happen; and

b.) we’re all going to get Raptured into heaven, and the Antichrist will form a one-world government, and then a dozen weird plagues will strike the earth and then there’s a happy ending forever.

As you might expect, these two sets of beliefs are only sustainable by sane human beings precisely because they’re temporally remote: the creation of the world is in the relatively distant past, and the Rapture is in the unforeseeable future. They don’t affect the believer’s day-to-day life in any serious way. Both beliefs are intellectually remote as well: arguments about evolution are too abstruse to intrude on an average person’s intellect (you have to try to learn evolution; it’s not obvious without training), so creation-evolution looks like a simple he-said, she-said argument if you’re sufficiently uninformed; and the Rapture scenario, while it’s in many ways incoherent (How could there be a one-world government without people recognizing the signs of an Antichrist? And why do those particular plagues happen in that particular order? What point is there to making everyone suffer right before you save them?) is placed by its adherents, along with the Old Testament, in a kind of mentally bifurcated “Bible space” where huge miracles happen according to some completely different set of rules than we live by today. (A common term among evangelicals for this “Bible space” is that these time periods exist in different “dispensations.”) Even people who believe that huge miracles can happen today in theory don’t actually act it out in practice…which is why (as Sam Harris points out) no believer in the absolute power of God ever prays for amputees to grow their limbs back. For whatever reason, God doesn’t work that way, and even the wildest faith healers know this. Therefore they never have to test this belief in the real world; it’s safe to sort of keep on the mental back burner in case it comes in handy if the rules we live by ever drastically change.

For the reasons I’ve just outlined, most evangelical Christians are capable of holding these beliefs because, for all practical purposes, and for most Christians who believe them, from an outsider’s perspective they’re nothing more than harmless delusions. It’s when these beliefs start to have actual impact on your daily behavior—when you move to Jerusalem to train to fight the Antichrist’s army—that it starts to be very unhealthy.

But some evangelical Christians, like the kind I was, are more than usually sensitive to inconsistencies and weirdness. These people tend to shed weird beliefs sooner—and, I would bet, these are the evangelicals who are more likely to grudgingly accept evolution.

I’ll do as an example. I’d always believed that all truth is God’s truth, and that if what the Bible says is true, then it should be as obvious to unbiased observers as any other set of historical facts. We shouldn’t have to weasel out of our own Bible, the way the Mormons do when they are forced to say, “Well, when the Book of Mormon describes huge tribes of warriors in America, they were really talking about parts of South America that we haven’t explored yet, and some of the numbers may have been mistranslated so it was hundreds of warriors instead of ten thousand.” When I left evangelical Christianity, what I got out of it was the same peace of mind that a Mormon presumably feels when she stops believing that Native Americans are genetically Jewish: the peace of mind that says, “At last, I no longer have to make excuses for things that don’t actually make sense to me either. The world really is the way it seems to be, not the way some ancient prescientific book imagined it.” Until you leave, you don’t actually notice how much energy this has been taking up in your head. But particularly for a contradiction-sensitive guy like me, the removal of that unconscious strain was a huge psychic relief.

That's epistemological coherence: the ability to think about your world without straining to make incompatible parts of it fit together.

That’s what I get out of doubt in general, but that’s not why I wrote the original post. So before I get to the final answer, I should remind everyone that, as an atheist, I don’t actually believe in any of this; I wrote the original post about the Resurrection not because I personally have anything to gain, but because I think Christians who do believe in the Resurrection would gain by rethinking it.

The short answer, then, is this: What Christians would gain from not believing in the bodily Resurrection would be a model of salvation that speaks to actual human need as we feel it today, instead of a series of intellectual justifications of a literalized myth that, even if it were true, would be off the main point.

(If this is unclear, think of it this way: if Christianity were designed to meet some other kind of hunger—let’s use physical hunger as an example—then it would be sensible for Christianity to find hungry people and offer them bread, saying, “Christianity offers the bread that human beings hunger for.” That’s what they should be doing! It would be quite another thing to say (as the Bible would say if there were a written myth of this bread story), “And the most amazing thing about this bread is that it contains spiritual atoms that can’t be measured in any way!” It would be even weirder to add (as St. Paul of the Church of Bread would add), “And in fact, if there aren’t spiritual atoms inside it, then our bread is worthless!” The point of the bread is that it feeds hungry people. That’s important to remember, especially if you’re the one trying to sell it.)


Bar Napkin Cartoon 53


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Sorry No Blogging!

The house has sudden connection issues and it takes twenty minutes for a single page to load. Will rectify soonest. Thanks for your patience.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Out of Town, and Vocabulary Poem Update

I'm heading to the Berkshires for two nights of performances. So I won't have computer access for a while, and therefore I won't be updating for two days or so.

On the plus side, however, I just went over my old blog posts and realized that I have done vocabulary poems on words that start with EVERY letter except R, V, and Y, which have no representation at all. (No R! Isn't that odd?) So I'm taking about two dozen words with me, and when I return I hope to have made up this lack. (I'm particularly optimistic about rhipidion, vaccary, and yaffle, but you never know how inspiration will go, and I'm not saying there won't be a late rally by volvelle or yuzluk.)

(Next up: E, I, K, Q, T, and X, which each have only one poem. Assuming I stay focused on knocking out individual letters rather than simply opening the dictionary at random.)

Labels: , ,

Household Hints From Dave

In my new housesitting gig, I've been temporarily rooming with a delightful British woman (a friend of my friend) who is meticulous in all things, and seems to know her way around a needle and thread. As a result, my usual way of living, which seems just fine when I'm all alone and no one is watching, starts to look a little blunt-edged and dodgy. I honestly don't know if I'm normally this maladroit all the time and simply don't notice it, or if the presence of this calm professional woman is unmanning me and turning me unduly inept.

What I do know is that over the last few days I've come up with some bits of advice I'd like to share.

* When you're cooking brown rice in a rice cooker, and you think, "Gee, it'd be nice to have some butter with this rice," but the butter is in the refrigerator and really really hard, one thing you might want to do is simply set this stiff bar of butter on the lid of the rice cooker, since the lid gets hot and that will soften the butter.

If you do this, however, don't leave to check your email and then get distracted by a quick Wikipedia search, or you'll return to find the butter completely melted and the rice itself boiling in a yellow margarinal equivalent of ghee. (Note: Don't actually eat this rice, since it stopped being healthy the second the butter formed a glistening crust along the bottom. Also, it tastes really salty.)

*You should also be aware that if your rice cooker has a vent through which hot air escapes, that vent should not be placed under a glass cabinet, since the steam contains little rice particles that stick to the glass and have to be cleaned off. (Soap and hot water is fine, but see below.) Isn't it surprising where stains can turn up?

* If you have a pot or a lid or a rice cooker that has somehow become encrusted with molten butter, if you simply leave it soaking overnight, the problem will not actually go away. Your best bet the following morning is to rinse the offending kitchenware with hot water, which will presumably melt the butter into harmlessness. Note, however, that if the water you're pouring was hot, then turns cold, and stays cold for the next five minutes, you may have actually turned on the "cold" tap. Perhaps you should make your own labels.

* When ironing, try to iron in a wide-open area. (Since this is difficult to accomplish in New York, my roommate suggests, "Try moving to the country.") If you can't avoid ironing in, say, a wardrobe area, at least try to avoid having any stray dry-cleaner bags hanging from nearby hooks. But if you do have those around, you should certainly not try, in the middle of ironing, to free the iron's tangled cord with an extravagant gesture. You may find that you've swung this hot iron right through a gossmer spiderweb of plastic. Your first hint will be an unpleasant odor.

* If you find yourself with plastic melting on the surface of your iron, stop ironing. You might think that it's wise to scrub the surface with the nearest paper towel. This will simply leave paper stuck to the plastic stuck to the iron. You might also think it's a good idea to clean while the iron is still hot, so that the plastic will be malleable. Don't do this, as you will almost certainly burn your goddamn fingers. (Do this where there are no children to hear you.)

*The best way to get plastic wrap off the surface of your iron is to unplug the iron and wait for it to cool down. This may take some time. Then grab a scrubby sponge and go at it. (A little sizzling is normal; it's not your fingers again.) When you are done, towel everything off and you're ready to start again! You have just lost ten minutes of your life forever.

Labels: ,

Quick Jews-and-Hell Question

I've just finished Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament, his very funny book about his very harrowing upbringing as a fundamentalist Orthodox Jew in upstate New York. On the one hand, it was a terrific read for me: I recognized some of the same anxiety, the same fear of punishment, that I'd gone through in my own transition. (I had at least three nightmares about the Rapture in my first year of apostasy.)

On the other hand, it also made me really happy I'd been raised a Christian and not Orthodox. The Orthodox (says Auslander) have to say a specific blessing over every piece of food they eat (one for fruit, one for meat, one for grains, one for milk products, etc.), and they have to combine the blessings if the ingredients are combined (as in blueberry pie), and they have to do them in a particular order. The agonies he goes through for simply eating a muffin are heartbreaking. (And, of course, funny for the same reason.) They have a million rules about what they can't do on the Sabbath; a hundred strictures on the yarmulke, on the mingling of the sexes, all of that. It's exhausting. By contrast, Jesus's own neo-sectarian, let's-get-rid-of-the-sillier-laws theology seems to anticipate Reform Judaism by several centuries. I've got my quibbles with conserative Christianity, but even with those, there's no question but that Christianity made the religious life a whole helluva lot easier than it is for the Orthodox.

But I've also found the book oddly troubling, because Auslander is basically tormented by belief that if he screws up on any of these activities--and especially if he eats a cheeseburger--he'll be punished in hell for all eternity. Hell? Really?, I thought. My understanding was that Jews don't believe in hell. You don't find any reference to hell in the Torah, and the first time anything like hell gets mentioned in the macro-Bible is in the gospel of Matthew. Which, of course, isn't technically a Jewish scripture. The belief in hell surely came from somewhere (in what is sometimes called the inter-testamental period), but I had always thought it was a Christian innovation--which has been one of my reasons to encourage Christians not to take it too seriously. If "hell" as we think of it (eternal punitive torment) is really the way we're supposed to take Jesus's references to "Gehenna" and "Sheol," then the Bible would have said something about it long before 4BC. It would have been too important to overlook.

Now I'm changing my guess. My guess is that Reform and Conservative Jews don't believe in hell, but that the Orthodox do. Or that certain unusually harsh sects of the Orthodox do. But the next obvious question is, where did they get it from? (Babylon? The Greeks?) And how do they justify their belief from reading the Torah?

I know I have a lot of scholarly-minded Jewish readers, so I hope someone can enlighten me. I also accept book references.

CELEBRITY CONNECTION: Shalom and I both appeared on the same episode of This American Life: #332, "Ten Commandments." He had "Do Not Take the Lord's Name in Vain," and I was further down the list at "Adultery." His story opens the episode, and it's really cool. Check it out at


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Thank Goodness Someone Actually Lobbied to Make This Dream a Reality

There is a Senor Wences Way. 54th and Broadway. That's nice to know--I think it's the only street anywhere named for a ventriloquist--but it seems like he'd have been better honored with his left hand in concrete, or a head in a box.


Bar Napkin Cartoon 52

(click to enlarge)


...And Now We Lose Jules Dassin, Too.

Director Jules Dassin died on April 1st, dammit. Like Richard Widmark, it's not a shock--he was 96--but it's really a shame. Thanks to my own forays into film noir, I ran across Mr. Dassin many times and became a big fan. Not only are his films among the best--Night and the City and Rififi in particular, for my money--but if you get the Criterion prints, they always have interviews with Dassin, and he's one of the greatest interview subjects I've ever seen on a DVD: Completely candid, full of interesting stories, and usually very warm and funny. That's the kind of old guy I want to be!

If you're interested in the guy himself, I recommend renting The Naked City, which was his last American film. The Criterion edition contains the interview that got me hooked. (Of course, if you haven't seen Night and the City yet, that'll give you both Widmark AND Dassin. And come to think of it, Dassin himself actually has an acting role in Rififi, so that's another option.)

By the way, although he was best known for Night and the City, which was filmed in Paris, and although he lived in France and Greece (he was self-exiled, thanks to McCarthy's blacklist), he was, in fact, an American from Connecticut. I'm glad to lay claim to the man.

From my Netflix account:

Too dated for mainstream tastes, but for anyone with a taste for classic cinema or a love for New York City, this is essential viewing. It's the Ur-Law & Order, with 107 vintage location shoots. Although the acting itself is pretty thudding, and the police-procedural-noir (shades of Border Incident or T-Men or He Walked By Night) is rather talky and detached by modern standards, the film delivers in spades in its location work and cinematography, the mystery itself is interesting, and the EXTRAS on this Criterion Disk are terrific: not only commentary by the screenwriter, but two brilliant deconstructions of the movie by academics (one an expert in noir, one an expert in New York-based cinema), and a thoroughly charming onstage interview with the director, filmed in 2004. For film noir/police procedural fans, this is a truly great package.

RIFIFI *****
The granddaddy of all heist capers hasn't lost an ounce of muscle in fifty years. Sharp, brutal, and full of energy, it gives Paris a refreshing noir sheen (particularly in this beautiful Criterion print) and would be enjoyable even if you weren't also having fun noticing all the other movies that have cribbed from it since (Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job, The Heist...). Doesn't have a commentary track, but the production notes are terrific, and Criterion amazes yet again: this is the THIRD disc of theirs I've seen that contains an interview with Jules Dassin, and it's a completely different interview, with almost no overlap with the other two (on The Naked City and Night and the City). Just plain heaven for crime movie fans.


Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Josh on Hil's Persistence, And Notes on Skepticism Pending

Here's Josh Marshall with the smartest take I've seen on why Hillary is going to stay in the race, and what it means. (Short version: there's no way she can stay in without attacking Obama ever more harshly.) My hope is she'll run out of money before she scorches too much earth.

By the way, I'm working on a response to the lively debate going on in the comments of my recent posts about the Resurrection. But I've been busy, between moving all my stuff and writing book stuff, and I even have some meetings tomorrow. But the first commenter (the Kansas City commenter) raised a really interesting question, which was echoed by Daniel: What do you gain from skepticism? Why pursue doubt in the first place?

I'm about halfway finished with my own pokings at the question, but in the meantime, I just thought I'd mention a neat thing I read by Brian McLaren (in his A Generous Orthodoxy, which I decided to reread today), where he distinguishes between the hermeneutic of skepticism and the hermeneutic of love. (I.e, a reading of the Bible that seeks to doubt everything, versus a reading of the Bible that's rather more hopeful and forgiving.) I think it's a sort of false dichotomy--since most scholars I know are actually Bible fans; they just find it easier to see what the book really says if they try not to impose their own faith on it--but it's also a helpful difference to notice from the sidelines if you want to have a conversation. It's a really good book, and if I had a highlighter, I'd have used it five times in the first four chapters. Check it out.

Labels: ,