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!

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Things I Love About New York: Hot Dogs

New York City sort of runs the gamut, hotdogwise, and it's always pretty good. On the low end, you have Gray's Papaya (this photo taken at 72nd and Broadway, though there are a few others, plus innumerable pretenders with names like Papaya King and Chelsea Papaya, etc.). The "Recession Special," which has been around since the LAST big recession, gives you two hot dogs and a juice drink for $3.50, which is a better deal than the price I paid for two hot dogs and a coke on the Florida State campus in Tallahassee. And the hot dogs really are amazing for what you pay: crisp, with lightly toasted buns, and a flavor that somehow suffuses the entire thing. Not health food by any means, but as guilty pleasures go, it's quite understandable.

On top of this, Gray's Papaya itself has a lot of odd character. Not just because it's selling papaya juice drinks ("great for digestion!" say the signs--there are hand-lettered signs all over the walls, each one as effusive as a cartoon panel), but because they sell "Polite New Yorker" buttons for a dollar each, and--as you can see from this picture--aren't afraid to advocate enthusiastically for things that have nothing to do with hot dogs or papayas. Before the current Obama sign, they were all in favor of Mayor Bloomberg. "Let's vote for a President who takes the subway!" said the sign. With so much character flying around, you almost don't care that there's no place to sit and you're elbow-to-elbow with other people, hovering over a slightly messy, very thin outcropping of a ledge? Almost. It depends on the day.

When you want a classier sort of dog, you can go to F & B, on 23rd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. I took my friend Charles here today and he was quite impressed. What you see in the picture is the remains of the "guard dog" (a chicken dog with sauteed mushrooms and onions), and the "great dane" (a pork sausage, with imported pickled cucumbers, ketchup and mustard dressing, and German roasted onions). They're not only pretty large, but absolutely tasty--this is, for my money, the best chicken dog I've ever had. You can also get such delights as the "champion dog" (veal & pork bratwurst topped with home-made sauerkraut and dijon), the "hound dog" (french pork andouille stuffed with aged cheddar cheese and topped with coleslaw), or any of seven veggie dogs, including the "veggie healthy dog", which comes topped with hummus and carrots. So brilliantly simple; why didn't I think of that ever? The dogs will run you $3.50, but that's still not a whole lot, and it's a fun thing to think about later.

By the way, the cup contains shoestring fries and the sauce is the "sweet Thai chili" sauce, though they also offer garlic aioli, blue cheese, honey dijon, horseradish, and tartar sauce. Again--I want to slap my forehead and ask, "Why has no one thought of these simple variations before? Why aren't they widely available outside New York?"

Also, you may see bits of powdered sugar here and there. I had a beignet. It was very good, and only cost 70 cents.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Let Us Now Mock Crappy Puzzles

I've got nothing against Mensa, qua Mensa. Let me just say that up front. Lately I've been working my way quite happily through Henry Cox and Emily Rathvon's Mensa Cryptic Crosswords 2, and enjoying the cleverness and high quality of the puzzles inside. So Mensa has done good things, and I'm not actually sharpening my axe here with malice aforethought.

But while I was looking around my temporary country lodgings the other day, I noticed a puzzle book on the shelf titled Mensa Publications Presents the Ultimate Puzzle Challenge--a book of 400 or so puzzles published in Britain in 1995. Not only is the book ugly--printed on something just one step above butcher paper--but the puzzles are the same ten or so types of puzzles repeated over and over again: Deduce what these symbols weigh; Find what's next in this series; Complete this magic square. They're almost all mathematical, and they're all pretty damned boring. (Admittedly, there is a color section on much nicer paper, with color versions of these same puzzles, but since I'm colorblind there's no point in torturing myself with those.)

And yet, as I was flipping through it, I noticed a few other types of puzzles that were even worse. Take, for example, the Aunt Hildegarde puzzles. As aficionados of Aunt Hildegarde puzzles know, they follow a distinct pattern: Aunt Hildegarde has just visited [Name of Relative], and now she loves X but hates Y... and you have to figured out what's guiding her preferences. If she visited Uncle Wallace, and she loves CHALLAH but hates BREAD, loves OFFENSE but hates DEFENSE, and loves MOUSSAKA but hates FUDGE, you might guess that she likes double letters--as exampled by the double L's in Uncle Wallace's name. It's a potentially fun type of puzzle, and when done well, the variations are always interesting: she visits Uncle Septimus and only likes words that contain chemical symbols; she visits Aunt Mildred and only likes words that contain the names of colors; she visits Cousin Liv and likes finding Roman numberals; and so on.

In the Mensa Ultimate Puzzle Challenge, here are the answers to the three Aunt Hildegarde puzzles: she doesn't like words with S; she likes words containing a U; and--in a puzzle that said, "She likes LILLE but hates PARIS, she likes ANTWERP but hates BERLIN"--it turns out she doesn't like capital cities. Three puzzles, no mental challenge at all worth mentioning. What a depressing waste.

But, having established that the editor (Robert Allen, director of Mensa Publications) is enigmatically tone-deaf, I was appalled further by his occasional tendency to add old-fashioned, full-page riddles. Bad Riddle #1 says in essence,

"Little Johnny wanted to go under the sea. Although his father protested [I've cut out a lot of tedious dialogue], they eventually agreed to do so, even though neither of them swim, there would be real sharks (who somehow wouldn't hurt them), and they were afraid of getting wet ('we won't get wet,' said Johnny). Johnny and his dad are not going diving, or taking a trip in a glass-bottomed boat. So how are they going under the sea without coming to any harm?"

The answer, it should pain you to hear, is, "Johnny wants to go through the glass tunnel at an aquarium." Which ought to, but does not, include the subclause, "...which, in the interest of keeping the puzzle consistent, was actually placed under a real sea, not a series of tanks made to simulate it for tourists." But even after that addition, I feel like adding further, "Or they hopped in a submarine; that would work too."

Bad Riddle #2: "A man came home to find himself locked out of his house and his backyard full of water. An upstairs window was open [which would allow him to get in and unlock the door], but he had no ladder to help him reach it...Then he had an idea. What was it? It did not involve ladders, steps, or climbing up the walls of the house."

I'll give you one sentence of spoiler space, so stop here if you want to think about it before proceeding.

Answer: "The water in his garden was snow. He rolled several giant snowballs, built a pyramid, and climbed up."

I came up with a better answer. "The snow was actually frozen ethane, and he was able to use it for fuel to propel himself skyward. Did I mention he was wearing a jetpack?" This is a guy who will go to any lengths to avoid simply smashing a downstairs window.

Bad Riddle #3: "I have five hands, but you would pass me in the street without comment. Why?"

Official Answer: "Because three of them are on my wrist watch."

My answer: Because they're hidden in my backpack, where I keep all my victims' trophies.

But once you get to the end of the book, in the Brain-Buster section, you get two of the crappiest puzzles of all. Here's the final, brain-busting, be-all-and-end-all riddle:

Bad Riddle #4: "Joshua Shrimp had been at sea for forty years and in that time he had been around the globe many times. However, he had always spent his nights in bed and on dry land. How?"

The answer is so depressingly bad that I've relegated it to the Comments section so you can click it for yourself.

That would be bad enough. But here's one of the final word puzzles. It consisted of a picture of three crates, each one covered with letters. Three crates, mind you. Now here's the text.

Bad Word Puzzle:


These letters, when joined together correctly, make up a novel and its author. Can you spot it?"

It's really that bad. "Lets just take a title and its author, scramble all the letters, and ask people to reconstruct whatever the hell we were thinking about." But to compound the insult, the visuals of the crates are completely irrelevant to the puzzle! It's not a clue, it's not a "take one letter at a time out of each crate in order" type of thing; he just literally threw down a bunch of random letters and said, "You know, I've got some clip art of a crate that would work here; three of them would give me enough space for all these letters. Good luck, solvers!" This is, hands down, the laziest goddamned excuse for an alleged "puzzle" I've ever seen, lazily tossed off by someone who doesn't seem aware that puzzles are supposed to be fun.

The answer to that one is also in Comments. In the meantime, I have a puzzle for Robert Allen:

The following letters below--divided into three groups for no reason at all--can be rearranged to spell out a three word message. Can you figure out what it's saying?


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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Brought to You by the Letter C and the Number 22

So I drove to the bank and discovered that (ahem) my ATM card was missing! Oh my god! Better cancel the card! Oh, wait...I can't because of the no phone. (I could have just told them to do it at the bank, but what if I just dropped it somewhere at home?) So clearly I needed to go get my replacement phone (I have insurance!) before I could cancel my card.

An hour's drive later, up at the nearest T-Mobile store in Albany, I found out that in order to get a replacement phone, I needed to call and file a claim. The T-Mobile guys handed me a phone to place the call with, and the woman on the other end said, "Okay, we'll get your phone to you. But there's a $4o fee. Will you be paying with a credit card?"

I've had a day to think about it (and another 3,000 words of productivity, happily), and I think what I should have done is bought a phone immediately and worked on getting the free replacement later. All I know is, I'm planning to travel into Manhattan again this weekend, and if I don't have a phone, things will be very unpleasant.

By the way, I've received a total of four emails from people. Let me reiterate: If you know me, I need your phone number. I'm completely serious about this.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

More Dammitness

Not that this matters, really, since I don't get a signal out here anyway, but in all the moving around from hotel and back, I seem to have lost my cell phone. (Possibly it was stolen. I haven't been Argus-eyed about my belongings.) Also, there's been a huge weird drop in the money in my bank account. Very nervous-making. I'd call to find out what's up, phone.

So it looks like I'll be traveling 22 minutes south to Kingston, where the nearest Chase bank is, and then I'll be driving 90 minutes north from there to Albany, which is where the nearest T-Mobile is, and then I'll be driving 60 minutes south back to Red Hook where I know the grocery store and wi-fi locations. If anyone knows a better way of doing this, just call me at--oh, right.

HOW YOU CAN HELP: If you're reading this, and you actually know me, drop me a quick line at, so I can have your phone number handy to enter once I have my new phone.

Gee, what a pain this day has turned out to be. Good thing the writing, at least, is going swimmingly. Something about the Black Swan over in Tivoli (another 25-minute drive) is really inspiring, to the tune of 3000 words every time I sit down.

LATER: I thought I was crazy when I checked out an audiobook as long as Anna Karenina to listen to in the car. Today I merely seem prescient.

Monday, May 26, 2008


Quick note: I just checked, and entering "Scrabulish" on Google now returns a hit to my original rules to the Scrabulous variant. I guess my plea from a few days ago worked! Thanks so much to everyone who helped out! Together, we can change the world in meaningless ways.

Hallelujah, and also Dammit.

I was all set to write an essay about Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"--which I first encountered in John Cole's version on the Cohen tribute album I'm Your Fan, and which has been appearing in a few threads on Sullivan's blog. But today Andrew Sullivan led me to this absolutely wonderful essay that goes into far more detail and analysis than I could have. (And, like me, the author dislikes Jeff Buckley's version. I'll go further: I really love Cohen's original last two lyrics, which no modern version preserves.) So if you know the song at all, go read this essay. It's a beautiful example of what cultural criticism can do. (Admittedly, it's long. But I think it's worth it.)

I just got back today from the hotel, and discovered that the country house I've returned to has a new flaw: the Internet no longer connects. I don't know why. But this means that posting will be more sporadic until I get this fixed. Story of my life, dammit.

P.S. For a MUCH shorter article, check out the new website Is Barack Obama I assume it's going to regularly expand over the course of the campaign, much like Things Younger Than


Saturday, May 24, 2008

Defining "Historic" Down

Taken maybe 100 feet from the previous photo. This is where I'm staying for the weekend. Much more later, but in a word: Yikes.


Question: What's Another Singular for "Fungi"?

Warren and 7th St., in the window of an apparently abandoned antique shop.


A List of Rude-Sounding Upper New York Towns

All of these names can be found on this map, which I opened recently in an attempt to find something fun to do in the nearby area. I failed, but the map was diverting.

Valatie (pronounced "vellatia," as I learned from a woman at a bar last night)
East Green Bush
Feura Bush
and possibly, depending on what this makes you picture, Coeyman's Hollow.

By the way, I just noticed that this is my third post in a row that relates to sex in some indirect way. Clearly I either need to get out and develop new non-oblique-sex interests, or go the other direction, have actual sex, and stop blogging altogether for a while. In the meantime, enjoy the products of my geographically forced sublimation.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

Flaming Boobies

In this post, a few days back, I mentioned that there was a bartender at Yogi's who would light her nipples on fire if it was someone's birthday. Today while cleaning files out of my phone, I discovered this picture, which is the only record I've ever made of the event, though I've seen it in person three times. A guy has bent over to blow out the flame, but you can still see one fire over on the right, which gives you a sense of the size of the breasts involved. You know--if you were curious.

I was going to post this as Not Safe For Work, but honestly--who can see anything in this sad little photo? This is why cell phones need to have flash.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Remove Two Letters And The Picture's More Accurate

I Make Publishers Weekly!

Okay.  The deal has been officially announced, so I don't have to be quite so coy.  My book was just announced in Publishers Weekly.  Check it out now here before it goes behind the subscription wall.  I'm basically the entire second paragraph.

Huge thanks to Adam, my agent, and Jake, my publisher.  This is gonna be great.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Brief Scrabulish Plea

I just discovered that a simple Google search on the game I named "Scrabulish" does not actually return any results--even though it's the name of a post on my blog! Clearly I need more links. So I'd like to make a request of the whole blogosphere:

1. Go to this post (the original announcement of Scrabulish).
2. Link to it on whatever blog you have.
3. Wait for the magic to happen, Googlewise.

Let's get this term some legs! And maybe even a Wikipedia entry!

By the way, my friend Tracy and I have just finished what may be the finest game of Scrabulish we've played to date. Expect a full report soon.

My Favorite Bar in New York, For Some Reason

76th and Broadway:

On Monday, while snapping pictures of things I love and miss during my exile, I found myself on the Upper West Side visiting one of my old haunts, and realized that I can finally take a few pictures of it, since I brought my real camera for once. So here is Yogi's, also known as "The Bear Bar," for the obvious reason that there's a large wooden bear out front. But also because there's no name "Yogi's" anywhere to be seen. Here, surrounded by high-end boutiques and fairly pricey rents, and just up the street from the Beacon Theatre, there's this wooden-fronted country bar with the cheapest whiskey in all five boroughs: a shot of well is $2.75, which I couldn't even get in Tallahassee. A pitcher of PBR is, I'm told, six bucks. (I don't drink anymore, but even when I did drink, I never liked beer.) When I first moved here and had no money, I had to find a way to go out and still save money, and this was my solution.

The other attraction are the bartenders: a continual succession of sexy, brassy, trashily-dressed women who on weekends will stomp on the bar ("Devil Went Down To Georgia" is a pretty consistent impetus), and who have to have a very high tolerance for alcohol, because the guys will buy them up to twenty shots a night. They're also fierce, as you'd expect from women in bustiers who have to juggle a bunch of drunk men. The woman in this picture is Jessica. I know nothing about her, because she's new--as you'd expect from the Monday shift before five. But she fits right in with the others. (Hi, Cyndi! Hi, Patience! Hi, Jen!) Tip them well.

I should have taken a picture of the jukebox (country clean through) or the floor (liberally strewn with peanut shells), or the seats in the back (held together with silver duct tape) or the bathroom (unspeakable), but I was afraid of how the flash would eat up my already-low batteries. But I did take a picture of this graffito, which was right behind me while I took Jessica's picture, and which has always amused me. Anyone know what it means? (My guess: "Eating, drinking, sleeping, love: all things in moderation." And I doubt it's original to Hugo.) Met one of my favorite people in New York here (Hi, Traphofner!) because it's a magnet for smart, thrifty people in general (and, I assume, because it's off the 1 line, which makes it an easy ride from Columbia up on 116th).

One of the bartenders here has--or at least had--a stunt she'd pull: on weekend nights, she'd wear a strapless corset dress, and if it was someone's birthday and you slipped her twenty bucks, she'd take her top down, wrap paper matches around her nipples (she licked them first, but there was probably something about the twist too), and light them on fire for the birthday boy or girl to blow out. There's something about even seeing that happen that adds a festive spirit to the entire room.

I haven't been in months between the not-drinking and the housesitting in Brooklyn and Jersey City. But if I manage to find a place on my return that's convenient to the 1 or the A, I'll be back in a shot. And if you ever come to visit, beware: this is a place I'll likely take you. It's not for the faint of heart. Wear disposable shoes.

An Experiment in Money Flushing

I came back from New York City late on Monday (because it's a two hour train ride PLUS another hour by car from the station), and woke up to remember that the house I'm staying in has been rented out for the upcoming weekend.  So this is the one time in my tenure here that I really do have to find alternative lodgings.  In light of this, I packed up everything and moved it to another house my host owns 12 miles away in an actual town. 

Why am I not in THAT house this whole time, you may ask, since it's near a coffee shop with wi-fi and a supermarket and the other usual amenities that I complain about lacking?  Because it's a fixer-upper.  No refrigerator.  No washer or dryer.  No hot water.  And, as I discovered last night, no heat at all.  (Also, no pots or pans or other stuff to cook with.)  So my plan has changed a little.  While free rent is an admirable thing to be able to pull off, the fact is that because of the generous free rent I've been enjoying thus far, I've got more than enough money saved up now to live on until the contract comes (if the free rent continues)--so much so that I might just try to live in a hotel for the next several days, say, Thursday to Monday.   There'd be less shuttling my stuff around, less disruption in my schedule...and, more importantly perhaps, hotel rooms have always been terrifically productive for me.  I wrote the bulk of my book "Travels With Ritalin" in hotel rooms; about 200 pages in 30 days.  After Memorial Day I could come back here and everything would be normal again because there are no more holidays threatening my peace. Just a tentative idea at this point, but I can feel it growing warmly inside me like some lovely hothouse flytrap.  

There should be photos from New York City shortly.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Spring in the City,and the Hydrants are in Bloom

38th Street and 6th Avenue. As my last post mentioned, I'm back in New York very briefly, and even though I've only been away for about two and a half weeks, I've turned into a total tourist. I brought my adult camera and have been snapping away like crazy, hoarding up images of everything I love that I'm going to miss when I go back into Nature. Many pictures. You'll see.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to enter a subway. They have subways here.

On the Train

I’m on a train from Poughkeepsie heading to Grand Central Station, and I can barely express my delight. Partly of course, it’s because I’m leaving the country and returning to the city that I miss so much. (Just temporarily, for a business lunch, but it’s worth the hour’s drive and the cost of the ticket.) But a surprising part of me simply thrilled at the prospect of being on a train again, after spending so much time driving and (more often) sitting still. I’m not a traditional boy, and the closest I ever came to being obsessed with trains as a child was at age 7 or 8 when I spent a few dozen dollars over a month or so’s allowances building a mediocre electric train set—not because I liked trains so much, but because I had been reading Boys Life and felt I ought to have a hobby. I don’t have many actual hobbies. As a friend of mine once said, accusingly, “Dave, all you ever want to do is read, write, and fuck.” It's almost true, alas. So what’s up with trains?

I have a theory. When I first moved to New York City, I fell crazily in love with the subway. There was something in me that responded so primally to these vast carriages, moving tirelessly under the city. I suppose part of it was the mythic appeal: you descend into the underworld and bargain with this metal dragon who is mollified by piles and piles of MTA gold, and in return it whips you at unearthly speed and you emerge into the sunlight miles from your starting point, and most of the way to your destination. It’s a feeling of possessing a kind of magic that isn’t available in Tupelo. But even more than that, if I’m really honest, I think I just like the rumbling.

A lot of ADD folks like me get accused of living too much in our heads. People only say this because they don’t know how much fun it is in there. Right now my brain is boiling away with every word at my command, and if not this sentence, then the next or the next, any sentence I commit is theoretically capable of thrusting forth any world I have the wherewithal to describe. Bring on the spangles, the bright flamingoes, the sultans and shamsheers and mahouts! I picture them all parading in a circle as the flageolets tootle and the tympani thrum, and—what the hell—let’s have some gamelans hammering their weird circular drones. If I look out the window right now, what do I get instead? More goddamned trees. There’s really no contest.

In fact, the real world is the enemy of creativity in many ways. I’ve noticed even in this brief sojourn that if I have a single thing to do later—say, a meal I promised to attend at five—it can hobble my entire day, even if it’s ten a.m., because all the swirling words and ideas and images and whatnot have to circle around this giant FIVE, black granite, all caps and yea high, that’s impossible to ignore, even if you shove it in the corner and try to keep the party going. It’s still there in the room, and there’s nothing you can do to get rid of it until five. I’m helpless around it; it throws off my brain’s feng shui.

As a result, most ADD people report feeling their most creative when the world itself has been grayed out somewhat, usually with some kind of droning repetition. Getting ideas in the shower is common to all of us, perhaps, and certainly we’re all familiar with the creative energy we often get just as we drift into sleep—the hypnagogic state, they call it. Many a writer has met inspiration by locking herself in a bare room, and the rest of the world outside. But I’ve found that I often require even more than that. At Hallmark, in addition to locking myself in a conference room, I had to run around in circles, staring fixedly at the carpet, until some combination of repetition and dizziness turned my brain a little fuzzy, gave it no purchase, and I could collapse on my back and start dreaming. On my computer right now I have a recording of a waterfall that I listen to at high volume on earphones whenever I need to get writing done. I owe it thousands and thousands of words by now. Every time I get a new computer, I’m comically helpless to write on it until I get some sort of recording on it too—a mountain stream will also work, and someday I may even try whalesong. It’s not perhaps essential, but it’s close to it. In my muse’s heroin kit, that’s my favorite needle.

Not now. I’m writing without my waterfall. Because I’m on a train. It’s even better than a waterfall, because on a train, the world whizzes by—so it’s pretty well all blurred out—and the deep thrumming rhythm of the tracks gives me exactly the same feeling I was trying for when I was running around in circles back at Hallmark: a sort of feeling of undifferentiated busyness while sitting still. Because it’s not just the world that can throw off your concentration. Your own body is also a culprit. Lock me in a quiet room, with nothing to distract me, and if I don’t get wrapped up in my writing immediately, I’ll find my own body bothersome. Am I hungry? Thirsty? Do I have to go to the bathroom? What’s that pain in my stomach? Oh, god. Is it cancer? No, that’s ridiculous. Diabetes? MS? Probably not. But now my feet hurt. Is that real or am I doing it to myself?...and before you know it, I’m trapped in a vicious cycle of worry and panic that can only be broken by entering the world again to calm down—I’ll go online to confirm that nothing’s wrong, or I’ll pick up an onion and really notice it until I laugh, or I’ll call a friend. It’s amazing how often the mere sound of a friend’s voice, sitting out there in the real world, reminiscent of a particular joyous time and place and personality, removes all my hypochondria before I even have a chance to ask, “Has my skin looked yellow at all lately?” This is why I think creativity actively hates the real world. In my case at least, if even my body intrudes just by being a body, my brain will think of a dozen swift diseases to teach it a lesson.

But not on a train. In the same way that it helps to have the world blurred out, a consistent little sensation of motion all over gives your body a soothing lack of specificity. Right now my left leg is numb from the knee down. My ass hurts too. And is that an odd pain in my left hand? No matter. All of this is obviously because I’ve been sitting awkwardly on a train seat and writing with this computer in my lap. It’s the train’s fault, not mine. I can actually picture my fear of infirmity rushing out my leg onto the floor of the car, through the wires, transferred to the wheels and onto the track, where the train sloughs it off and it’s soon miles away in a rural meadow. Before I know it, I’ve written 1155 words.

So it’s not that I’m not creative at other times, but I think that on a train, the leg braces come off and I can suddenly surge into flight. Goodbye world, goodbye body, hello brain-fun! I don’t even have to write anything or have particularly good ideas. I’ve had them before, and what I get at the very least, even when I’m just taking the L subway from 8th avenue to 6th , is something like a contact high. I can look around the car at the same old streaky posters and the dully gleaming handles and think, We had one helluva party here once.

Of course, you have to come down some time, and this train is going to pull into Grand Central in under an hour, and I’ll have to pick up my actual computer and walk to my real-world destination. And that place will have its own appeals: its tastes, its smells, its shiny objects. But if I’m lucky, I’ll also be able to sit for a moment with my eyes closed and feel the train inside me the way I felt as a child after my first trip to the ocean. I found then, lying pleasantly achy on the guestroom bed, that after a day of swimming with the waves I could still feel as if I was on the ocean: my body tossed up, pulled to the side, swirled and prodded as if the very air in the room were like some affectionate, nuzzling pet, desperate to express a profound and gracious love that even words would laughably fail to capture. If I’m lucky, today at lunch while I’m nodding and talking and moving objects around, deep inside me I’ll see feel the touch of the train. I swear, if I could feel that way all the time, I could write a novel a month. I really could.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Bar Napkin Cartoon 56

(click to enlarge)


A Jihad For Love

A gay Muslim filmmaker has put together a documentary called A Jihad For Love (using the original meaning of jihad, "struggle," with a view toward wresting it from the murderous lunatic wing). Filmed over 5 1/2 years and in 12 countries, it documents the lives of gay and lesbian Muslims, many of whom live in countries where homosexuality is a criminal offense, if not a capital crime.

I mention this now because it's getting its U.S. debut starting on May 21st at the IFC Theater in New York City, and since I'm still stuck in the country and may not be able to see it, I'm hoping other people can. It'll be running for two weeks--and then will presumably go to other big cities, with (I'm just guessing here) San Francisco pretty close to the top of the list. (At least I hope so, since a friend of mine who would TOTALLY be here at the IFC just moved to SF and will miss it. Heads up, Ryan!)

Here's the website. As I understand it, the producers also did a film about the lives of gay Hasidic Jews called Trembling Before G_d. (Can't comment on it yet, but it's in my Netflix queue.) Their next project will be about gay Unitarians who suffer condemnation because...oh, wait. Unitarians don't condemn anybody! What kind of crazy religion is that?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Amen, Joe Biden!

What he said.


Bar Napkin Cartoon 55

(Still using the damn camera instead of the scanner. Click to enlarge.)


Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Dave Fun Quiz: Guess the Book From the Meme

I can't get that page-123 meme out of my head, and I'm in a house filled with books, so I hereby offer the following challenge: can anyone identify this classic nonfiction book from the sixth, seventh, and eighth sentences on page 123?

"This usually causes the cervix to pop into view.
8. To remove the speculum, keep it open and slowly pull it straight out.
When I first saw another woman's cervix, I thought that it was pretty gruesome, and why were all these women in the clinic getting so excited about it?"

[Note: that last sentence should be in italics, but--again--Safari and Blogger are butting heads. I'll fix it when I can.]

UPDATE: Answer in comments! Congratulations to Trip "Qaqaq" Payne, whose polymath credentials are still secure.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My Favorite Line That I Wrote Today

It was actually a tie. Choose your favorite:

a. If they ever make a film about a greeting card writer's workday, they're going to have to decide at some point whether to be wildly inaccurate or visually tedious.

b. One secret to seeming like the smartest person in the room I learned long ago: if you use low-frequency words and phrases ("inasmuch as", "wherewithal," etc.), people tend to assume you've actually read any book you mention.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Price's The Da Vinci Fraud

While I'm up, I'd like to recommend a book that will probably be unfairly overlooked: it's Robert M. Price's The Da Vinci Fraud ("Why the Truth is Stranger Than Fiction") . I blame the cover, because there is a host of anti-Da Vinci Code books out there, and most of them are simply preaching-to-the-choir rebuttals of Dan Brown's book, saying, in essence, "Jesus wasn't married because the BIBLE SAYS SO AND THAT'S WHAT ALL GOOD CHRISTIANS BELIEVE!" Which may be true, but is hardly worth saying, since that's the whole point of Brown's book: to tweak exactly what all good Christians believe. You react this way, and Dan Brown wins.

What Price does is different. He goes back and looks at the actual history involved. As a result, this book turns out to be using The Da Vinci Code as a springboard for a whole host of other really interesting questions: Who were the Knights Templar? What do they have to do with the Masons? Where did the Grail legend come from? Who established the canon of Scripture? And who the devil is Mary Magdalene anyway?

(This, by the way, is why the book is going to go unnoticed. Instead of pointing this out on the cover--say, with a subtitle that says, "What Biblical Research Actually Says, and Why Dan Brown is Partly Right"--so you'd be able to tell this book from the dozens of others written by generic partisan Christians with axes to grind and Dan Brown to totally refute, the publisher has seemingly taken pains to make it look EXACTLY like every other book on the market. It's a terrible shame.)

What's extra cool about this is that Price himself, a biblical scholar and a former member of the Jesus Seminar, is actually more interested in the questions than he is in preserving anyone's turf. Without seemingly having decided any of the answers beforehand, Price first disembowels Brown's sources--just because a bunch of Masons in funny hats claim their brotherhood is descended from the Knights Templar doesn't mean they're not lying to sound important--and then calmly shows how and where Brown simply misunderstands a lot of the basics of biblical scholarship. (Brown at one point claims that there were 80 gospels, and Constantine personally cut them down to four. Against this blunt caricature, Price describes thirty of the gospels we actually know about, and explains why certain of them never had a chance (The Gospel of Mary is absurd fiction from beginning to end), and why a few others might have made the cut if they'd had different backers (The Gospel of Peter is a little too Docetist, and the Gospel of Thomas probably would have made it in if Irinaeus hadn't decided to base the canon on numerological perfection--and P.S., it's only because he wanted seven epistles of Paul that Hebrews was declared Pauline and brought into the fold)).

I guess it's not for everyone, but the research at work--most of which he actually shows you, so you can see why he's drawing the conclusions he is--should be fascinating to anyone who's curious and is willing to have more than a few bombs dropped along the way. Plus, he's often funny. (The biggest thing I'll take away, I think, is his assertion that the Grail legend is to England what Mormonism is to America--a way of saying, "Our country is part of the Christian story, too!" One sentence, and the whole Arthurian cycle changed for me.) It's too expensive for me to buy everyone a copy, but with this recommendation, I hereby do what I can.

And since I'm using the dumb computer that won't let me use links again, here's the address:


As of a few minutes ago, I just passed 50,000 words on my book. That includes the 25,000 words that were in my original proposal, and it means I've written 20,000 words since I started writing in earnest (April 23rd or so). So the good news is, I'm writing really really fast. The odd thing is, I'm nowhere near finished--I feel like I've told maybe a third of the story--and most books are in the 80,000-100,000 range.

The good part of this is that I'm clearly writing too much, which is helpful because that means that the editing process will be mostly trimming, which is way easier than generating missing material. The bad part is that I seem to have slightly less control over the process than I anticipated, and I think I need to lash myself a bit more strongly to my outline if I'm going to avoid writing WAY too much, since I'm trying to operate in a timely fashion, and I only have time for a LITTLE too much--say, 150,000 words or so.

Anyway, the house is free of people for the next three solid days, and this was a 4,000-word day all by itself. At this rate, I can probably hit another 20,000 by the weekend. Won't that be cool?


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Two Religious Essays For an Inspiring Lurker

I just got contacted by a longtime lurker and currently doubting Pentecostal (hope I got that right!) who asked me what I thought about miracles. Since it's been a while since I had a religious post here, I thought I'd reprint what I said. The Lurker (whose name I withhold in case she wants to continue lurking) said that the main thing she can't quite figure out is how people like me can discount miracles, since there are so many reports of them. Here's what I said:

There are two ways to look at this, I suppose. The first is to assert that all stories of miracles are just that: we see what we want to see, there's confirmation bias (only the answered prayers get noticed, which is sort of a heads-I-win-tails-don't-count phenomenon), and a lot of times the things we pray for weren't that implausible in the first place. (This is why people often find their prayers answered when they get a job they want, but never get their prayers answered when they ask for limbs to regrow. There's an entire website called God Hates Amputees dedicated to this rather silly question.) This would be the more dedicated materialist view: it's all hearsay, it's all in our heads, and there never were any miracles ever.

The other way to look at it--and the one I'm more cautiously in favor of, though I couldn't prove it in a lab--is that the world in general is suffused with miraculous energy. That God--if you will--is at work everywhere, and you don't need to be a member of any particular club to partake in his workings. The proof of this is ridiculously easy to find: any reasonably proselytizing religion (Islam, certain forms of Hinduism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, etc.) will have websites dedicated to the miracles God is performing in the name of Joseph Smith or Mohammed or whatever guru you happen to flip to. These all tend to be about as plausible and well-attested as Christian miracles (which is to say, not strongly, but they're good stories), and there's no particular reason, outside of special pleading, to discount "other" miracle stories and still believe the Christian ones.

I actually believe something of a mix of these two. I'm staunchly materialist these days, but I'm also convinced that our own brains, with their hunger for narrative and constant searching for patterns and meaning, are capable of affecting the world in some subtle ways: optimists have good luck; pessimists look for a shitty world and find it. Whether God is at work behind the reasons why the hopeful tend to prosper and the untrusting don't is, I guess, a matter of what you're comfortable believing. But if you take a really hard look at the Christian reports of miracles, you'll find that they tend to vanish under scrutiny, just like reports of ESP and UFOs, and a brutally honest person will either believe it all or develop a general skepticism.

By the way, I went to my share of evangelical services, and I actually saw the usual miracle that they tend to trot out at such times: "Someone here has one leg shorter than the other." In retrospect, there's no miracle to "healings" that subtle: the people were walking fine before, they notice a difference in length when they're sitting down (i.e., when their hips are free to swivel and tile things unconsciously), and the heat and energy created by people laying on hands is exactly what you'd expect when ten people all lay hands on someone and really WILL something to happen. One person wiggles, another picks it up, and soon there's an amazing rocking motion that no one person is in control of. It's exactly the same phenomenon that powers the planchette on your average ouija board.

Another bubble: Although Pentecostals in particular are proud of speaking in tongues as a miraculous sign of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the fact is that speaking in tongues has existed throughout the world in a number of different religions--just look up "ecstatic utterance" or "glossolalia." No one has ever been proven to actually speak another language while engaging in glossolalia. Either they're all speaking the language of angels, or they're all making it up, whether intentionally or not.

The Lurker responded, in part, with the following comment:

I also wonder why it seems that the majority of really 'big" miracles you hear about seem to happen in developing countries, and I don't think it's necessarily because people are less educated or more susceptible to be conned. Perhaps some cultures tend to be more spiritually inclined or in-tune with 'miraculous energy'? Hm. Also thanks for the tip on glossololia. I used to spend large amounts of time worrying about why I could never speak in tongues, but also resented feeling like a second-class Christian :)

To which I replied as follows:

I'm just hardheaded enough to think that the reason miracles get reported in more "primitive" countries has less to do with their spirituality and more their lack of access to movie cameras and other testing technology. It's the same reason that UFOs only appear in the backwoods and not over New York City. If they appeared over New York City, either everyone would see them, or everyone would know the guy talking about them was lying. In the backwoods, you literally have one or two guys telling the story and that's all the proof anyone can reasonably expect. Even overseas, the big miracle stories (like pentecostal healing revivals) rarely occur in even so-called "second-world" metropolises like Mexico City or New Delhi, but (again) in some outlying area or in a controlled environment where no one skeptical even bothered to show up. In paranormal studies, this is sometimes called a "jealous phenomenon" ("I can't do my ESP if there are doubters in the room"), and it's always cause for suspicion.

By the way, your comment about "second-class" Christians is another thing that sort of drew me out of conservatism. If grace is available to all, and salvation is basically equal for everyone, every idea I was ever taught about some people having more joy in heaven than others (or more peace down here because of the gift of tongues or as a reward for saving souls) never made any sense to me. Either works matter or they don't, and it seems absolutely obvious to me that any model of salvation that actually saves people generously could possibly have any such thing as "levels" of salvation that might pit one believer as superior to another. The moment you posit that--that I'm sort of saved "better" than you--you're really exposing the ugly side of your faith: that perhaps its appeal is not that you get to save people, but that you get to be more holy than the unsaved. Which is why the real humble Christian churches--the ones that have gray borders and who let just anyone show up, no matter how foul or unreformed--have never been as popular as churches that have stricter standards. (Even though the former churches--which is what the house-church movement, at its best, is trying to be--is obviously closer to the spirit of Christ. I guess another way of putting it is that there's no way I can think of that a TRULY Christlike church--one that actually embraces the lepers regularly--will ever be popular enough to survive to a second generation. Instead, the idea of the returning-to-Christ church, the invite-everyone model, is one that has to constantly be reinvented as a sort of occasional subculture outside the existing church.)

I kind of want to add that, to my mind, the mainstream or evangelical Christian church is to mainstream representative fiction as the determinedly sacrificial and rather difficult church is to metafiction: weird storytelling tricks like you see in Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy and Vonnegut and Pynchon keep reappearing, but it never actually revolutionizes fiction; it's just a consistent crowd-pleaser for the subculture that cares more about thinking about fiction than normal people could be expected to. Your smart money will always be on representative fiction that doesn't pull any unusual stunts. In the same way, you'll always fill more pews by having a church that feels like what people think of as a church--not by challenging peoples' ideas of what a church should be. But there I think I'll stop. I've got a big writing day tomorrow.

Housing Update

Just so everyone knows: I've moved out of Sherry's house proper and am now staying in the just-cleaned, newly-guest-ready outbuilding. Up until now, though I dearly love my benefactress, the constant stream of guests (and the fact that I can't move around in the morning without waking someone up) has been a terrible distraction, and although I've been getting writing done, I've felt like I've been doing it in a hobbled fashion, at less than full capacity. This new place, because it's completely separate, bids fair to let me do all the work I've needed at exactly the level I want to. So I predict a redoubling of productivity starting tomorrow!

That's the good news. The bad news is that it might make blogging like this a little spotty if I get really wrapped up in the writing. I guess we'll see.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

A Meme Observed

My friend Josh forwarded me a meme that is a variant of one that I've blogged about before. But I'm picking it up this time precisely because his own post is such a hard act to follow. The meme itself is simple:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Turn to page 123.
3. Skip the first five complete sentences.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

The meme itself, precisely because it's so goddamned random, is unlikely to produce good results unless you tweak it. But as an occasion for writing about whatever it is you're reading, it's quite handy, and Josh's meme entry is simply amazing, and I want everyone to read it: it will change forever how you think about Anthony Trollope.

So, with this example raising the bar, I proceed. Since I have a history of tweaking memes, let me start by changing the rules a bit:

1. Pick up the nearest book that seems likely to produce an interesting result. And feel free to go through as many books as you need to until you do. No one wants dull sentences.
1.5 Tell us what book it is (title and author) and why you have it. (Duh.)
5. Tag no more than five people, and acknowledge who tagged you. And choose, as taggees, people who either read interesting books or have interesting things to say about dull ones. Again--why pollute the blogosphere with duds?

I suppose we could add the further caveat that it ought to be a book that you have read at least 123 pages of, so that you can add helpful context in case it's not clear to the virgin reader. (Josh's post does this wonderfully.) But I can imagine good results from not doing this, so I won't press that subclause too hard.

To be honest, the closest book I at hand led to this selection:

On a good day, we might make clumsy havdalah candles or faded sukkah garlands, but these never managed to sustain my interest. They were dusty and colorless, lacking the spangly appeal of the things I made at home. I was, however, quite taken with the sixth-grade sugar cube Masada.

--Jennifer Traig, Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood, p. 123 (New York: Little, Brown 2004)

This is a book I picked up when I was making the rounds of publishers. Turns out the editors just hand books to you, and I'm laden with all sorts of promising goodies. I picked up this one first because it was the shortest. And, to maintain my coyness, I cannot tell you whether this is the publisher I went with or not. I will tell you, however, that the book is really really fun, and I hope she writes a lot more. As this excerpt shows, although it's technically a memoir of her struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder, she's just as entertaining when she's writing about Jewish summer camp, dinner conversation, and pretty much anything else.

But since that doesn't lead me to any actual commentary, I thought I'd cheat and pull a threefer, using a trio of books I've blogged about before: In His Steps (1896), What Would Jesus Do?: In Which A New Generation Attempts to Walk In His Steps (1950), and In His Steps Today (1987). (My earlier blogs on the topic are here and here.) As I've mentioned before, the three books, written at a large temporal remove from each other, each deal with the same basic Christian concept--what would happen if people really did try to live like Jesus demands?--and each comes to intriguingly different conclusions. But it struck me in looking over my previous posts that I've never actually quoted at length from the later two books. (It also struck me that I never actually wrote the article. Books get in the way like that.) Obviously, each one should give a sense of the writing style and the concerns of the author, and I thought some of you all might be interested. So here are the books, in chronological order, three sentences each from the middle of their 123rd pages:

“And then the evangelist asked them all to bow their heads while he prayed. I was obliged in order to catch my train to leave during the prayer, and the last view I caught of the service as the train went by the shops was a sight of the great crowd pouring out of the tent and forming in open ranks while the coffin was borne out by six of the women. It is a long time since I have seen such a picture in this unpoetic Republic.”

--Charles M. Sheldon, In His Steps, p. 123 [1896] (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour, 1993)

This is the end of an article written by an unbelieving reporter in Chicago who is covering the death of Loreen, a woman from the church who has taken The Pledge (as they call it), and has started to work and live among the alcoholics of skid row. Devil Liquor (or possibly Dumb Old John Barleycorn) led some crazy person to kill her, and suddenly the secular world at large begins to take notice. You can see that even journalism itself has really changed since 1896. (Sheldon was a newspaper editor for a time, so he knew what he was talking about here.)

Then aloud: “Peter stands for Faith; James for Hope, John for Love. Faith calls the signals, Hope is the right halfback who clears the way, Love is the left halfback who carries the ball, and Christ behind them all is the fullback or tailback or whatever you call the key man who usually makes the touchdowns.”

--Glenn Clark, What Would Jesus Do?, p. 123. (St. Paul, MN: Macalester Park, 1950)

The pastor/hero of Glenn Clark's postwar take on this theme is doing the main thing that makes this book the hardest to get through: he's preaching yet again. The phrase "Then aloud" is there because he's just noticed that three influential members of the high school football team are sitting in the front row, and he hopes he can make his point in a way that's truly relevant. I feel obliged to point out that, as hilarious as that third sentence is, Mr. Clark is in on the joke, making fun of a pastor who's trying a little too hard to make his sermon relevant and getting in over his head. I am sad to report, however, that Mr. Clark seems to think the first two sentences are just fine: the problem is getting lost in the cheesy metaphor, not trying a cheesy metaphor in the first place. So on a certain level, for Mr. Clark--who ran a lot of prayer camps and did a lot of youth ministry--Jesus really is "the key man who usually makes the touchdowns." Of course, Jesus-as-sports figure has a long absurd history in religious attempts to relate to kids, as this link painfully demonstrates.

Which brings us to our last sample:

“What would you like to know?”
“Well, mostly about your, uh, people. Just how retarded are they?”

--Marti Hefley, In His Steps Today, p. 123 (Hannibal, MO: Hannibal Books, 1987)

In this scene, Heather--the starring usually-viewpoint-character in the six-person Bible study in question--has become convicted about her somewhat empty suburban life, and is stepping out of her comfort zone and is on her first day as a volunteer for the local Home. (I tried to find the full name, but it was well hidden; it obviously tends to the needs of the mentally handicapped.) In Ms. Hefley's defense, the next line of dialogue is the staff worker telling Heather, "We don't use the word 'retarded' anymore." Which actually shows one of the nice things about the book: although the stakes are a helluva lot lower in her go-round (Sheldon envisioned changing all of Chicago; Hefley just wants six people to get a little more committed to their neighbors), she is also pleasantly willing to have her characters say and do stupid or unpleasant things. They snap at each other, they get tired and angry, and sometimes (as in this example) they actually risk offending the reader. Of course, every human weakness is quickly prayed away (a tradition that continues ad nauseam in the bazillion pages of the Left Behind series), but at least the characters feel real emotions. In Sheldon's original, everyone seems a bit like they're characters on a stage, and he's afraid to have any of them accidentally brush the set too hard.

Okay. I've officially spent way too much time on this. Back to my real writing!

BONUS: I can't resist. As an additional joke, I was carrying around this meme in my head yesterday when I went to the Red Hook Public Library, and I realized I had perfect fodder that might get some crushingly wordy or otherwise noisome writer to self-eviscerate. Alas, I couldn't find Finnegans Wake or Hegel or Kant, and Judith Krantz and Sophie Kinsella were both hit and miss. (I was hoping to find myself in the middle of a hilariously overwritten sex scene, but kept running across lines like, "All the way home, she thought about what Ben had said. Maybe it was true that Ken had lied, but surely he had his reasons. ZZZZZZZZ.") I was also hoping to find a favorite book and use that, but they didn't have Donald Antrim or Donald Barthelme either. (And I'm living out of a suitcase at the moment, so my favorite novels are back in Tucson in my brother's able care.) But then, just as I was despairing for this small-town library's meager holdings, I remembered Henry James! Here he is represented on page 123 of The Ambassadors, though any page would do:

With his genius in his eyes, his manners on his lips, his long career behind him and his honours and rewards all round, the great artist, in the course of a single sustained look and a few words of delight at receiving him, affected our friend as a dazzling prodigy of type. Strether had seen in museums—in Luxembourg, as well as, more reverently, in other days, in the New York of the billionaires—the work of his hand; knowing also that, after an earlier time in his native Rome, he had migrated, in mid-career, to Paris, where with a personal lustre almost violent, he shone in a constellation; all of which was more than enough to crown him, for his guest, with the light, with the romance of glory. Strether, in contact with that element as he had never yet so intimately been, had the consciousness of opening to it, for the happy instant, all the windows of his mind, of letting this rather gray interior drink if for once the sun of a clime not marked in his old geography.

Ah, Henry James. One day I hope to translate his works into English, but it's hard to stay awake.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

This American Life Parody

Stop everything and follow this link to a damn near pitch-perfect "This American Life" parody called "Going Postal." The comedian in question (Kasper Hauser) must have listened to fifty episodes, because he even gets Ira Glass's cadence and pauses basically correct. Impressive and hilarious.

This is, to my mind, much better than The Onion's "This American Life" parody, which only felt about half-successful to me: it nailed Sarah Vowell and certain types of repeated stories, but had the overall tone wrong--I don't think you could call the show "smug" or even "upper-middle class" with any claim to accuracy. Maybe I'm sensitive because they've been so good to me, but I found their satire rankled in a way that Hauser's doesn't. So congratulations, Mr. Hauser. You've just raised the bar admirably.

(Thanks to Carolyn Castiglia for tipping me off.)

UPDATE: As Carolyn points out in comments, Kasper Hauser is a sketch comedy troupe in California. I thought the name sounded familiar. I should have looked the guy up: he's a famous feral child of an earlier century. (Though it turns out the name's "Kaspar" with an a.) Here's the address of the wikipedia article since I'm back on the computer that won't let me post links:


Thursday, May 08, 2008

Varmint I Have Demonstrably Outwitted

Since I described it last night, here is the "Mice Cube" so that all can see the elegant simplicity of a light door that falls at a slight angle. (This is Mouse #4, nabbed last night.) What is possibly less clear is how disgustingly filthy the cube is now, which the makers should get to work on fixing somehow. (The flap actually makes it quite hard to clean.)

Say goodbye. We're going on a little trip to the country.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

I Am Become Death, Destroyer of Tiny Little Worlds

Yesterday after my daily writing quota out here in the country, I hopped on the exercise bike I keep out on the patio, and then noticed that there was a large wasp on the screen. A quick scan of the area showed two more wasps. And something in me snapped.

The woman who is loaning me her house is, as you might expect, a deeply sweet person. But this is a fault when it comes to wild animals. There was a wasp in the kitchen my first night here, and she said, "Oh, they never bother anyone." Which is not true: it bothered ME by suddenly thudding to the counter five inches from me while I was assembling a sandwich. Then it flew away and I couldn't find it anywhere. Made me nervous every time I used the damn kitchen.

The next day I noticed that the silverware was kept in a sealed wooden container, and that this container had mouse droppings on it. "You have mice?" I said. "Yes," she replied. "But I can't kill them. I promised my grandkids." These kids apparently even adopted a rat as a pet, feeding it under the patio. Then my friend paused significantly. "Of course, you didn't promise anything..."

I nodded and thought, What the hell. I'll just live with these creatures like everyone else does. The wasp in the kitchen landed in the sink the next day, and I was able to splash it with water (immobilizing it), and then--with nothing else near to hand--I sliced it in half with a butcher knife. (Which is overkill, because wasps are really tiny in the middle.) Then I flushed it down the drain. ("Oh, you shouldn't flush things down the drain," said my friend. "We don't have a septic tank, so everything gets clogged.")

I don't mind living far from civilization as long as I have a car (which I do) and a reasonably nearby town (check). But I object to being in an honest-to-god modern-ass house and living like I'm camping. So between the mouse turds and the wasps in my exercise room, I finally decided I'd had it. I drove to Hudson and bought a can of wasp spray along with some mousetraps. Spray in hand, I went back out to the patio...and there were FIVE wasps milling about. I sprayed and sprayed and sprayed--it's a bit like trying to hit a knocked-out person with a seltzer-bottle stream in an old comedy--and after all that, I only managed to take out three of the bastards. Apparently, wasp spray gets used up rather quickly.

So I drove BACK into town and got two more cans of wasp spray. (Interesting fact: driving 8 miles and back, under current gas prices, costs $5.30, which is about 30% more than the cost of a subway ride.) Back to the patio--MORE wasps, because it was now approaching sundown and I guess they gather then--and this time, with a more practiced hand, I got them all. Final death toll: 8 wasps. And I've still got about half of that second can left, plus the third one--which I've nicknamed "Whoop-Ass"--still unused.

I actually got two types of mousetraps: there's the traditional type everyone knows (four to a package), and a little thing called the Mice Cube, which is ingenious: it's a mouse-sized plastic rectangle, like a short squarish Habitrail, with a simple flaplike door on one end. The doorflap is light, and moves easily, but it falls at an angle. So the mouse can easily poke its way in, but once it's past a certain point, the door falls and can only be opened by pulling (which a mouse can't do) or by tilting the trap on end (which is how you're supposed to let the mouse out). I bought both because I've never mouse-hunted before, and didn't know which would work. (I could have gotten a glue trap, but those seem needlessly cruel. Better to die swiftly than to starve to death while struggling.)

So at about nine o'clock I set one of each mousetrap. Then I took a shower. At 9:30 I came back and discovered that both traps had sprung. One dead mouse in the mousetrap, one live one in the Mice Cube. And I'd just turned around for a second! I call that an infestation.

I realized at this point that I hadn't actually considered the gross part: how to carry a dead mouse and free it from a trap without actually touching its mite-ridden corpse. With no gloves I could see, I put two socks over my hands and carried the trap and mouse (Eww! Eww!) out to the nearby field. (I now believe that every mousetrap should come with a long pair of tongs and a hungry neighborhood cat.) I expected the mouse to be limp and floppy, but it was stiff, which probably lets you establish an exact time of death on Rodent CSI. I let the other guy just sit there, banging away at that clicky little plastic door. I didn't want to touch a live mouse, and it was so dark out that I wasn't sure I'd be able to see where it was flying to if I flung it.

I reset the traditional mousetrap before I went to bed, just in case there was a third mouse. There was; I found it this morning, stiff as the other one. So I just now took it and its living kinsman out to the road. I dumped the one body (and there goes another pair of socks, straight into the laundry) and let the other go free.

I admit I feel a little bad. It must be baffling for mice to have a steady source of food and comfort suddenly turn lethal overnight. But of course you can't give mice warning signs and tell them they've got ten days to pack up. If I had my choice next time, I think I'd prefer to buy a whole slew of Mice Cubes and just let them all go free a few miles down the road where an owl could see them. In the meantime, though, I'm keeping both traps primed. And today I made a sandwich very calmly, secure in the knowledge that I wasn't going to get stung in the back, nor would I contract the bubonic plague. It's a pretty low bar to set for happiness, but these days I can't be picky.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Twin Forks It (Possibly) Is!

Thanks to my friend Ellen's comments, I used the USGS website (not actually that easy) and found what I think is a good candidate: The Twin Forks MDWCA. It's outside Alamogordo (which is why I would have thought Albuquerque), it's directly east of Tucson, and I remember we passed through Roswell the next day, marveling at all the alien iconography. The only problem is, this isn't a city; it seems to be a reservoir, in Mayhill New Mexico, which is part of New Mexico's Mutual Domestic Water Consumer's Association, which (in turn) is apparently responsible for providing safe water to New Mexico's rural areas. So if I had to guess, maybe Mayhill grew in the last 15-18 years and swallowed up Twin Forks. At least now I have an idea of which Chamber of Commerce to call.

LATER: Damn. It turns out that on this computer I'm borrowing, I can't seem to add links in Blogger. I dont know why, but I have writing to do and don't have time to futz around with stuff like this. So if you're curious, just go to Mapquest or some such and enter "Twin Forks MDWCA, NM." You may have to pull back a few steps until you can see it, Alamogordo, Roswell, and Tucson all in one screen, but it's worth it just for the closure.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Where In The World Is (Or Was) Two Forks, New Mexico?

I was writing today about a horrible evening that I spent with my then-fiancee in a town called Two Forks, New Mexico. We were stranded there in a snowstorm, and when we arrived the only hotel in town was full up. It was too dangerous to drive on to Albuquerque, so we simply slept in my station wagon--with the back seat down, so we were sleeping on a hard metal cargo area--buffeted by wind, windows fogged to opacity, and we had to wake up every ninety minutes or so to turn the engine on and get the heat going again. It was absolutely miserable; number one on my worst road trip moments ever.

Today, however, as I realized that I needed to flesh out the details, I went online and discovered that Two Forks doesn't seem to exist. I know it existed at one time, and that it was actually called Two Forks--because I made a joke at the time about how much less interesting it sounded than 29 Palms, and that they were probably trying to distinguish themselves from those arrogant bastards in TWIN Forks, Idaho. Since I know I was there--the name was scarred into my memory--the only thing I can think is that this tiny town, which existed in 1995, stopped existing some time between 1995 and the advent of Wikipedia.

I know that it would have been along I-10, somewhere just east or just west of Albuquerque. But my usual sources have failed me. Any of you research-minded readers know what to do next? For that matter, does anyone have a good--and possibly decade-old--map of New Mexico? It's not essential for what I'm writing, but now I'm awfully curious what happened.


Just a quick note to say that I'm not dead. Although, as this post's title implies, I'm closer to feeling like a desperately stranded person who's one step away from cannibalism than I like. It's nine miles to the nearest town, and twelve to the nearest really healthy supermarket. I get almost no phone reception (and what I do seems to come with roaming charges), and I can't really afford to be distracted by the internet, so I keep the connection upstairs and only check it twice a day. There are more insects out here than I've ever been comfortable hanging around with. And the place is really cold--which makes sense, of course, since it would be insane to burn a lot of oil for one guy in a whole house, especially at today's prices.

You might think this would make for a serene writing experience, but I've been a little surprised there, too. I'm staying at a house that is frequently visited (next drop-in is on Wednesday) and occasionally actually rented out (on Saturday I have to make myself scarce), and I'm learning that having people around unpredictably (as opposed to, say, when I write in a bar or cafe) really throws off my concentration. I also have to keep the place much tidier than I would normally, which sort of limits the extent to which I can enter into the fugue state I usually require. (Just today I was pacing and pacing in tight little circles in the living room--a habit from years back--and I realized, "Oh, damn; I have to take my shoes off in the house!" Stop; remove; start over again from scratch.)

In short, it turns out my muse is kind of a diva. Who knew? And what a pain.

But today is the first full day I've managed it; 1,000 words last night, 2,500 already today and I haven't even cracked a sweat. I hope to finish the day around 6,000. I predict the same for tomorrow, and for any day I can manage to spend alone. And I think I've got enough socked away that I can retreat to a nearby hotel if need be for a day here and there and keep the cycle going. (There's a hotel right at the nearby town, and I have--thank god--access to a car.) Also, after the seventh they'll have cleaned out and spruced up a whole outbuilding that might turn out to be the only room I actually need to write in. So this is just a preliminary review. Things could become perfect very easily.

The transition, however, has been surprisingly difficult, albeit quite educational. Hence the recent blog silence. The fact that I'm writing now is a good sign: it means I've started to figure out how to get lots of writing done and STILL have energy left over to write completely non-book-related things. What's next? More cartoons and poems, maybe? We can hope.


Friday, May 02, 2008

Bar Napkin Cartoon 54

Until I can upgrade my computer so it can read scans, I'm afraid we're back to photos again. Click to enlarge.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

Housekeeping Note

Tomorrow I go to the Berkshires area to finish my book(Thanks a million, Sherry!). But friends and family should be aware that my cell coverage is even spottier than usual while I'm there. And I'm not currently sure what the internet situation is, though it looks like I'll have access to transportation to be able to get somewhere where there IS internet if I need it. (I know they don't have wi-fi signals at the house.) So if you're attempting to contact me, cross your fingers.

Also, I'll be busy all day (starting now, basically) and I leave tomorrow very early. So I'm expecting a day or so of silence to ensue. But if you're in the area and want to say goodbye before I leave, I'll be taking tickets tonight at 7 pm at The Eldridge Street Project at 12 Eldridge Street (that's in eastern Tribeca between Chinatown and East Broadway). Details are here. And yes, tickets are $30, but Annie Proulx and Ana Castilio will be performing...and more to the point, if you just want to say hi, that'll cost nothing at all. Plus, I bet we'll be going out after.