Bourbon Cowboy

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

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Location: New York, New York, United States

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

Monday, October 20, 2008

Halloween at Hallmark

I always tell people that the thing I miss the most about Hallmark is Halloween.  With all those incredible artists concentrated in one place, the annual Hallmark Halloween party was always a jaw-dropper, with amazingly elaborate costumes.  (One year, I saw a guy come as a credible Mount Rushmore, and another fellow appeared as a green plastic army soldier--complete with a plastic stand, which he'd sliced in two so he could separate his feet and move around.  But he had the pose down, and he was green top to toe.  It was staggering.)

But this post about geeky Jack-O-Lanterns reminds me of the other great thing about Hallmark: their artists can use any medium and still blow you away.  Note that most of the geeky pumpkins in the linked article aren't actually all that hard to make.  But this Jack Nicholson one I've reprinted here will make you blink and look four times.  So believe me when I tell you that there were at least twenty people at Hallmark capable of making this pumpkin--and if pressed, they could also do it in gesso, cookie sprinkles, or hammered tin.  It was moments like this that I would rear back and remind myself, "Oh, right--these are some of the best artists in the world."  When you're around them all the time, sometimes you forget.

(Thanks to Jennifer Lee-Olmstead for the link.)


Thursday, October 16, 2008

Vandalism, Inc.

One of the odd things about New York is that people are actually paid to advertise products in a way that looks like vandalism.  Tonight I saw these two guys painting up a wall on behalf of some new Max Payne release.  They'd drawn a crowd of six onlookers, at two in the morning.  Avenue A near 13th Street.


Great Minds Obsess Alike, Apparently

When it comes to books being used as decoration, Dan Savage is exactly like me.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Demonizing the Opposition

Bumper sticker. President Street near 4th Avenue, Brooklyn.


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Bar Napkin Cartoon 71


Monday, October 06, 2008

Sarah Palin: Evil Sack of Shit

If, God forbid, Senator Obama ever has his life threatened, it may be because of Sarah Palin running rallies like this.  Note that one person yelled "Kill him!"  

Late Night Meme: Stuff I Have That You Probably Don't

Just saw this on my friend Elaine's page, and I can't resist, even though it's supposed to be based on a "Friends List," and since this is a blog, this makes the whole thing basically unconfirmable.

Name a CD you have that you think no one else on your Friends List has. Situational Ethics, by rap duo 3582. I bought it thinking, "I wonder why I've never heard of these guys." Now I know.

Name a book you have that you think no one else on your Friends List has.  Since I often steal oddly-titled books when they're being unfairly used as decoration in restaurants, I have a huge list of these, but I'll go with Six Nuns and a Shotgun by Colin Watson.  (Unless my earlier blogpost about it caused someone to buy it online or something...)

Name a movie/DVD you have that you think no one else on your Friends List has.  I own a fair number of sort-of-obscure old movies (The Narrow Margin, The Man Who Cheated Himself, The Invisible Boy, Midnight), but I'm going to take a gamble and go with Man With the Movie Camera, an experimental Russian film from 1929 that has no plot and no dialogue; just images and music, sort of the ur-Koyaanisqatsi.  I had it loaned to me by someone who moved away before I could return it, and I find the music occasionally soothing.  I don't know what anyone else's excuse might be.

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No Title Seems to Do This Picture Justice

56th and Broadway. This is the rare sign that's funny whether it's intentional or not.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Cliff Notes Get Worse

Appalling DVD product at Virgin Music Store, Union Square. The next time I teach literature, I will only assign books that haven't been made into movies. Oy.


Saturday, October 04, 2008

Bar Napkin Cartoon 70

(Click to enlarge.)


Friday, October 03, 2008


I almost forgot: today's my twin brother's 40th birthday. Happy Birthday, Daniel! I'll think of you tonight when I'm attending the New Yorker Festival Dance, which seemed like a good idea at the time. My dream is to get the band or the DJ (or the jukebox, I guess) to play U2's "40" as a private joke. Such a downtempo choice, though, doesn't seem likely to fly until the after-party.

No party on this end until I can combine it with an apartment-warming (and probably some karaoke across the street). Another week or two, I think.


Wordplay in the Wild redux

Thanks to old high school friend Kentaro (which, come to think of it, also means 'thanks to Facebook'), I now have this example of what may be the loveliest ambigram you're ever likely to see outside of puzzle books and Dan Brown novels. Nicely done!

LATER: I just noticed, though. The cover is a spoiler! Look away, children! Look away!

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Post-Debate Reaction

I guess the second scenario I envisioned came to pass: Palin's "attacks" were pretty weak, Biden was a class act, and Palin didn't completely embarrass herself except for the constant lying, which America is used to by now.

And yet, although Veep debates don't generally amount to much in the grand scheme of elections, I suspect this one actually helps Obama. Because it was one of the most widely watched debates ever (or was at least projected to be; I haven't seen the ratings reports yet), which means that lots of low-information voters stopped by just to gawk at the potential train wreck. And if the snap polls even come close to reality (we're not supposed to trust snap polls, but they were remarkably accurate in the wake of Obama-McCain #1), then 87-95% of the viewers thought Biden was qualified to be Vice President. Surely the numbers weren't that high going in, given his history of gaffes. Throw in the fact that he consistently leveled the most withering attacks at the top of the ticket, and I bet this results in even better poll numbers for Obama. It's possible we've even reached a tipping point, if McCain's abandonment of Michigan is any indication.

The most interesting element to me was how quickly the CNN audience of independents turned on Palin every time she said something calculated to be folksy. "Darn right we need tax relief," "There you go, Joe!"...every time she said something like that, the viewer response plunged, and one of Tina Fey's sketch writers sprouted wings. Wow, I thought. The independents actually don't trust her. (At least not in Ohio on CNN in real time.) If she has to prove herself--instead of waltzing onstage and being trusted on sheer mom-and-apple-pie spunk--she's going to be useless to McCain, because the best she's able to do when pressed on issues is say a few quick bromides and run away before they have follow-up questions. (As Josh Marshall has noted, all of the embarrassing Katie Couric moments came when Palin was asked to clarify something--she is literally a surface-level candidate, one determined scrape away from appalling the nation.)

A roundup on Andrew Sullivan's site shows that a few commentators (like Erick Erickson and Jay Redding) actually think Sarah Palin completely dominated the debate and mopped the floor with Biden. If you really think this happened, get yourself checked: it means you're not paying attention to what mainstream independents are listening to, and it's a sign that you're very much out of touch with politics in America--and possibly reality itself--and the electoral map this season will only cause you shock and heartbreak. The sane conservative commentators are mostly shrugging and saying, "Well, at least she stanched the bleeding from the wound she caused." That I can agree with.

The other thing that struck me is that Palin's message of alleged "change" falls flat with independents precisely because what she calls "change" is what any sensible political observer might call "the same Republican talking points we've heard since Reagan was a pup"--lower taxes, rein in spending, strong America, tax-and-spend liberals, blah blah blah. And it made me think that those of us who are actually looking around at the modern Republican party have been seeing how empty those promises and ideas actually are: Clinton gave us a surplus and actually reduced the size of government. Bush squandered it while making government larger than ever; Bush's policies have overtaxed us militarily, helped create our current economic disaster, and have brought our national reputation lower than any time in modern history. (And where the fuck does she get off talking about how "bipartisan" their ticket is? Was she even watching her own convention? Did she not remember her own ugly-ass speech? Jesus.)

Perhaps this is the biggest tragedy of the campaign: McCain might have had a chance to represent change, if (in some ideal world) he actually were a vanguard cutting-edge Republican of principle and not (as we've seen now) a soulless opportunist who will lie about anything if he thinks he can apologize for it later in his next book. But the diehard right wing of the party is so in love with itself, so blinkered by its own rhetoric, that it isn't even aware that its policies have failed and that maybe it's time to change something somewhere. For the most part I say good fucking riddance; let the Rush Limbaughs and Dick Cheneys wind up scraped off the bus tires of history. But for an actual Republican of principle, the religious right wingnuts, with their dog-in-the-manger approach to outreach have left the tent too small to support life.

(Picture: the amusing poster for where I watched the debate last night. A fun time, except that the promise of free beer caused an overflow and they actually shut off the TV when the fire marshal made people evacuate. So I actually missed the entire section on Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Was it as good as I hear?)


How Did The Gay Jewish Conspiracy Let This Happen?

Larouchies are apparently still around. 14th street, just east of Union Square.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Updated Debate Prediction

Oy vey. According to this article, Palin actually plans to go on the attack against Biden--particularly by picking on statements he made against Obama during the campaign when they were running against each other.

On the one hand, I can see how that might work--if she attacks, and he defends, the debate stops being about her. Particularly if he's been coached to be nice to her for fear of seeming "sexist" by the GOP's bizarre "don't ask our women any unfriendly questions" definition of the term. Because the more the debate is about Palin proving herself, the worse she'll do.

I was furious after the Convention because up through Obama's acceptance speech, everything had been fairly reasonable: this is my policy position, my opponent has that one, here's why mine will work. Then Palin came along and drove the entire campaign into the gutter by stoking cultural resentment with cheap shots, snarky attitude, and basically dividing the nation while speaking with no authority whatever. And for a few weeks it worked. Then McCain started playing completely idiotic lies in his ads, and no one seemed to be calling him on it, and between the two events I was so furious I refused to even talk about the campaign to anyone.

Then, in the past few weeks, we've had what you might call a karmic rebalancing, as the evil that McCain has spouted--as well as his reckless tendencies to gamble and grandstand--have really toppled him, and his campaign looks like it's heading into loser territory. ( has the statistical projections, and they're pretty staggering.) McCain just pulled out of Michigan to focus on Florida--Florida!--which is tipping toward Obama. And it's hard to imagine this loss wouldn't have happened without the millstone of Palin costing him credibility with adults who care about their leaders actually knowing things.

It's entirely possible that Palin's "attacks" will be lame antics that Biden can simply shrug off. This would be in keeping with much of the McCain campaign, who has only been able to attack Obama by lying about him; the truth tends to favor Obama's wisdom, caution, and careful policies, and any true thing they say about Biden is likely to be in non-substantive "gotcha" areas. Generally speaking, if they stick to the truth, they've got nothing. But if Palin LIES about Biden--and particularly if it's an ugly lie--then I can't see Biden NOT attacking. That's what he's best at. And moreover, he's also very likeable, even when he's on the attack.

So what this really comes down to is how disciplined Biden is, and how much control the Obama campaign has over him. But this leaves us with two options, not the most obvious scenario I was predicting earlier: either she attacks, Biden shrugs it off, and it's more or less a tie, or she attacks, Biden snaps back, and the whole thing melts down into a partisan bloodbath. Which, whatever else you might say, will make for pretty good TV.

In any event, if the worst thing happens and the veep debate turns ugly, two other things are guaranteed: first, that no one will actually care that much (this was the vice debate, and Palin's the only reason anyone's watching), so it will have little impact on the overall polls, and second, that no matter what else happens, Palin will almost certainly have to appear on network shows the day after (my birthday!), and this will again take her off message and out of her comfort zone. Expect more Palin gaffe clips on YouTube.

Don't forget how fragile she is when she's out of her element. A single offhand remark about Pakistan made to a passerby with a question made McCain sit beside Palin across from Katie Couric to explain what she "really" meant. It looked like Palin had been taken to the principal's office. (And predictably, McCain lied.) Even half a dozen unscripted questions from people who are actually skilled at asking them is likely to produce even worse results. So in a way, I don't even care about the debate: I want to see her press conference afterward. And if there aren't any press conferences, and the media doesn't raise holy hell, I'll be very surprised indeed. On press-conference-avoidance alone, Palin is now one month more cowardly than Dan Quayle.


Why Palin Probably Can't Win

I wasn't going to blog today (I've got an apartment to clean, after all), but I've seen so much hand-wringing about the upcoming debate that I feel obliged to say something.

Mind you, I'm not expecting a blowout. As I've said before, I expect Biden and Palin to both play it safe--Biden because he's been coached to shut the hell up, Palin because this isn't a safe environment for her like Fox News would be. But on about half a dozen blogs, I've gotten references to Palin's performance in the debates in Alaska and how powerfully she dominated. "Watch out!" I hear my Democratic friends saying. "We don't want to misunderestimate again!" (And by the way, the more you watch Sarah Palin, the more the George W. Bush parallels pop up.)

But if I'm seeing things correctly, Sarah Palin "won" those debates not on substance, but on charm. According to a BBC interview with Mr. Halcro, who lost to her in the debates...
""I don't think anyone could have beat her," Mr Halcro said. "It wasn't about how much she knew about the issues. People didn't care about her experience, they just thought, 'This is the drink of water we need'."And she beat the incumbent by presenting change and difference and newness. She's just really really likeable.

Here's why I think it won't work. We've seen her likeability already. She's the only reason people are coming to McCain rallies, she's the reason McCain spiked for a while there, et cetera.

But now the news is out: she's a national joke. A nice joke, a likeable joke, but a joke. And since the Convention high, her approval ratings have fallen to a net negative 3 from a high of positive 17. This is not because she's suddenly become unlikeable; it's because she can't even answer the simplest fucking questions from Katie Couric without making even her supporters cringe. I suspect if you canvassed America, you'd see over and over again people saying, "I like her personally, but there's no way she's qualified to be Vice President." She's not the drink of water we need.

So in the debate tonight, everyone will be obsessively focused on what the hell she knows. And frankly, after her last awful set of gaffes (on Russia, on Roe v. Wade, on "the newspapers" and the list goes on), she literally can't win. Even if she suddenly pulls out an appearance of competence, surely people will say, "Wow! She must have been really cramming for this debate! She didn't know half this stuff last, do we want someone in the White House who's been desperately cramming for the job?" Those clips aren't going away, the meme has already done its damage--and particularly in the case of the CBS News clip that shows Biden and Palin being asked the same questions, and Palin fumbling awkwardly, you can't really blame "the liberal media" for being unfair. She's a complete embarrassment to everyone outside her base--and since her base of diehards is smaller than it's ever been (Bush's approval ratings hit several historic lows this week), she's going to have to win over new people who already know her reputation as an ignoramus. So again: the focus will be on what she knows, not what kind of beer buddy she'd be, and a pleasantly surprising performance still has that unfortunate word "surprising" in there.

If the economy weren't in crisis, I imagine the electorate would be a trifle more forgiving. But a crisis demands weighty people with serious answers, and Palin's really not up to it. What I predict will happen: She'll survive the debate just fine, and her supporters will breathe a sigh of relief...and then they'll pause and think, "Is it really wise to hire someone that makes us this tense?"


Wordplay in the Wild

Nicely ambigrammatic logo. 3rd street and 1st avenue.


Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Alas and Barack

Well, damn. I've been talking all week about wanting to go to Philly to help out the Obama campaign. But I had a friend in town yesterday and today, tomorrow's the debate[CORRECTION: today now; I started writing this at 11:45], and--oops!--I have several tickets to the New Yorker festival this weekend, including seeing Stephen Colbert, a humor master class with Ian Frazier, and possibly even a ticket to the big dance on Saturday night. (I'll have to check with my social secretary.)

And now, thanks to the constant emails I'm getting from the Obama campaign, I have just discovered that THIS WEEKEND IS THE LAST CHANCE TO REGISTER VOTERS IN PHILADELPHIA, which is the nearest swing state for New Yorkers like me to be able to influence. So while I may be able to help out NEXT week instead, by that time the most important part may have already been done. Sigh.

So since I can't really justify going myself, I'm assuaging my conscience by at least suggesting that YOU--all you New Yorkers and other borderers-of-Philadelphia--ought to consider going down there for a day or two. There are bus trips and the like happening all over the Obama campaign's site, and this really is the last chance to do some good.

Meantime, I'm crossing my fingers and hoping I can make it NEXT weekend, which is still free of special events. I guess I'll know by Monday if I have to work on the book some more or not. Wish me luck!

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Bar Napkin Cartoon 69


The Guiltiest Workout Plan Ever

The good news is that I have an exercise plan for the first time in many years, and it's working better than any such plan ever has. Since January, I've lost three inches around my waist and something like forty pounds. There have been a number of factors that have combined to enable this:

1.) I was fired in January and living on unemployment for the next six months, so I suddenly started learning to cook lots of very inexpensive vegetables--which turns out to be easy to do (saute everything in extra-virgin olive oil) and remarkably healthy.

2.) I discovered I was allergic to alcohol (stomach rumblings often lead to bad breath), so I cut out alcohol and went from two shots of whiskey a day to zero. (I still write in bars, and I'll have a hard drink on occasion when there's something to celebrate, but mostly I have seltzer and cranberry juice.) With whiskey as hard as I was drinking, that's a drop of about 250 calories a day right there. More on the weekends.

3.) I also developed a weird reaction to vinegar, and that meant cutting out a host of foods like mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard, relish, barbecue sauce, and all the other things that make hamburgers so great--and this further pushed me toward a steady diet of brown rice and veggies.

Most of all, however, I started riding my stationary exercise bike. And since I had all the time in the world, I was riding roughly 88 minutes a day. I say 88 because that's the length of two average hour-long TV shows once they go to DVD. I needed to watch a DVD while riding because that's the only way I can not die of boredom. (And I can't go outside and ride a real bike: too much real-world preparation, and I always get distracted by something outdoors in the unpredictable world. To be consistent, I need to have a completely controlled environment, and it has to be as easy as waking up, putting on slippers and riding away.) When I did this in grad school I discovered that one episode quickly wasn't enough time, so I started watching two. When I resumed it this time, I started at two already, since I knew I could do it.

So far I've gone through three seasons of The West Wing, Season 3 of 24 (never again), Season one of Veronica Mars and Mad Men, every episode of Friday Night Lights, Lost and House that's currently available, 2 seasons of Arrested Development (for comedies, I do four episodes a day), and the first season of Heroes. I'm sure I'm missing a lot of other stuff I've seen, and I did a few movies in there too (It turns out most 1950's-era noir films are exactly 90 minutes long). But mostly it's just been TV, TV, TV.

This is, of course, ridiculously expensive. I've justified it up till now by telling myself that $75 every month (which is what buying new shows averages to) is about what I'd be paying for a gym membership anyway, only this I'm actually using and getting results from. And yes, I've thought of doing Netflix, but the problem with that is that you can't guarantee you'll get your season in the proper order, and it also makes it VERY difficult to watch the best dramas--HBO's hour-long shows tend to come two to a DVD--so I'd get a DVD and need it to be replaced immediately. Not even Netflix is that fast. And soon I'd have no room for movies.

So I've been looking for alternatives, and just this week I hit on idea that I'm afraid works beautifully. I'm almost ashamed to say it, but since it might help someone else, I'm swallowing my pride and fessing up.

The only real splurgey thing I did when I moved into my new apartment was to buy an XBox. (XBox, despite the "ring of death" problem, because they have Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan and I'm just that big of a boardgame geek). Then I bought "Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion," which is basically a dumbass adventure game of mind-boggling scope. You can wander almost anywhere, do whatever you like in whatever order you choose, and have it all happen in a pretty beautifully rendered world with constant new challenges, side quests, and the requisite overall epic feel. For just the right breed of geeky magpie, this is like an endless field trip to Shiny Objects 'N Things.

Until recently, I actually hadn't played all that much, because--well, it's really silly and pointless. But last Friday, when Deadwood breathed its last and I was looking around for something new, I did an experiment and discovered that the controls on Oblivion are just simple enough that you can, in fact, operate them while on the exercise bike. And so all week I've been playing Oblivion while pedaling away.

Oblivion has, they say, 100 hours of gameplay. That's the equivalent of 136 episodes of a TV show, or 73 days worth of biking. (Actually more, since after distractions I really only bike two days out of three, depending on the breaks). And it cost me $50. For sheer bang for the buck, that knocks Season Four of The Wire into next Thursday.

But it gets better. Because although it may CLAIM to have 100 hours of gameplay, like any role-playing game, it actually has at least twice that much, because they probably don't want to count all the times you have trudge back into town to go sell your loot at the local merchant (for reasons I won't go into, it profits you to sell 100 arrows one at a time), or wander in utter confusion (it's often better to take a slow winding route to a location), or summon a skeleton a hundred times in a row to get your skill levels higher. For that matter, you can simply futz around with your character's completely customizable face if you like. (And you can change everything: eyebrow height, eyebrow width, eyebrow protrusion, eyebrow angle, eyebrow color...and that's just the eyebrows.) It's all utterly meaningless but so compelling in the actual moment. The minutes fly like webisodes.

Today I hit a new personal record: because I only permit myself to play the game if I'm on the bike, today I rode for two hours because I was trying to close the Oblivion Gate in Leyawiin and I couldn't find the damn Sigil Tower. (Don't you hate when that happens?) "Just let me get the hell out of this dimension," I told myself...and before I knew it, two hours had passed--and I emerged, exhausted but happy and about four hundred calories lighter. Tomorrow we'll see if I collected enough allies to prevent the daedra hordes from overrunning Bruma. I am electric with hope.

This has resulted in an odd disconnect. I find myself passing the mirror in my new 31-inch bluejeans and thinking, "Damn--I look better than I've ever looked in my entire adult life." Then immediately another part of my brain says, "And yet, I am also, this very moment, a seventh level high-elf wizard." If fuckability worked like matter/antimatter, I'd have imploded days ago.

Anyway, I submit this for everyone's consideration. If you can profit from it, do so with my blessing. But if not, may I add one other thing I've learned? The West Wing has eight episodes per disc. Eight! If you're renting them one at a time from your local Blockbuster, that's the exercise regimen to start with. And you know what else? riding an exercise bike is a great way to watch any film that has subtitles. You weren't going to hear all the nuances of the voices anyway, were you?