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!

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Another Response: On The Uniqueness of Evangelical Grace

Another quote from Daniel, then my response. Again, I think the question helped me clarify a point, even if (as I suspect) it winds up being unprovable.

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I love the bit about “borftaglock” -- very funny definition. But the term grace does remain something that should separate Christianity from other religions.

Actually, I realized after reading your critique that there is something unique about the evangelical concept of grace. But I need to give a little background.

One thing I’ve discovered, in talking to adherents to every religion I’ve encountered, is that all religions seem to work on two levels, which I guess you could call the popular and the sophisticated. (I hate those terms, since even saying suggests that I’m sophisticated and smarter than the popular people, but just see where I’m going and see if you can think of any different way of saying this.) If you read books on Taoism, for example, you’ll see tons of philosophical treatises on the nature of Reality, the importance of Being and Right Action…and if the writer isn’t a believer in magic, they will also say that the actions associated with Taoism—such as meditation or tea ceremonies or what have you—are merely the vessels for the inner work, which is to encounter the Ultimate. The actions of the faithful person are like the gantry around a rocket; it’s only there to point the rocket in the right direction, and it falls away the second the rocket takes off with real contact. But if you were to go to China and watch everyday Taoists (or if you read the specifically New Agey Taoist books), they tend to emphasize the I Ching (Taoist stone-tossing divination) or feng shui (Taoist magical interior decorating). No Taoist scholar or sage would put much spiritual stock in either, but the regular folks in the pew seem to find it fun.

The same holds true pretty much across the board, and you can prove this by talking to almost any academically-inclined person in any faith community (as I did recently with a Muslim at my local mosque’s next-door restaurant): ask them, “So do you really need to pray five times a day, (or wear that garment, or not kill flies, etc.) to impress God?” They will invariably tell you that the rituals are just that—helpful guides that point our hearts and minds (and sometimes our bodies) in the proper direction. But God can reach us anywhere, and can come in any form. That what I'm calling the sophisticated (ugh) version. And then every religion also has a popular version that focuses on lighting candles or venerating this ancestor or that saint on such and such a day. This includes Buddhism, which has a good reputation in the West at least partly because it was popularized by academics among educated people, not in its vulgar form as you see it in the streets of Tokyo, where (as Julia Sweeney points out in her show “Letting Go of God”) you’re allowed to be scornful of poor people because reincarnation proves they had it coming.

This is actually a point on which C. S. Lewis makes his most egregious error in Mere Christianity. He says at one point that the conservatives in every religious tradition are much closer to each other, and have more in common, than the liberals. Because the conservatives, he suggests, have a shared core of beliefs, while the liberals, ungrounded in any text, don’t know what to believe from one moment to the next.

This is so embarrassingly inaccurate it’s rather startling that Lewis would said it. As any look at any ecumenical meeting (or Unitarian church) will show, it is the liberals in every faith tradition who come together to hold hands and talk about the essentials that bind us. It is the conservatives, surely, who hunker down and refuse to fellowship with people who haven’t passed the proper litmus tests. It’s the conservative priests who will forbid you from communion if you’re not an official Catholic; it’s the conservative rabbis who don’t want Jews marrying goyim. But every religious tradition also has a liberal or embracing wing; one that ignores all the exterior dross and accepts people based on their will and their heart, not their clothes or their knowledge of any one tradition; they believe that God will reach people who reach out to him, and that this connection--this salvation, in traditions that require it--is based on faith and not works. They believe in grace, not in magic prayers or seer stones or the other religious activites people distract themselves with.

What makes evangelical Christianity unique, now that I’ve had a chance to reflect, is that it’s the only religious tradition I’m aware of that claims that everyone else—not just other religions, but other Christians—has grace dead wrong. Not just a little wrong, but completely off; evangelicals are correct, and everyone else is tragically, damnably mistaken. No other religious tradition I’m aware of has ever said such a thing. Usually believing in grace also means allowing other people to approach God in their own way, since actions don’t matter and the heart does. The mountain has many roads to the top! Help your sister or brother along their road! By comparison, the evangelical model of grace begins to look significantly cramped and narrow.

I assume this is because evangelicals, since they see themselves as the only ones who treat the true word of God with the proper level of obedience and respect, can only assume that the evangelical message of grace that they derive from it must be something very different indeed (by definition) from anything any other religion has ever said. This is simply not the case, but I’m damned if I know how to prove it. Precisely because they’re territorial about their truth claims, evangelicals rarely go to ecumenical gatherings and would almost certainly be inclined to judge them as theologically wanting if they did. I could offer up quotes about grace from a dozen or so different religions, but surely any evangelical reading these quotes and eager to establish their turf will cut any quote into a million cavils and conditions (“When that Jain scholar refers to Ultimate Mercy, it’s not the same thing as Christian grace because there’s a different concept of ‘sin’…”) until they’re left with borftaglock and triumphantly declare that no one else has said it. I can only invite the evangelical reader to conduct the experiment I just did—ask any thoughtful or philosophical practitioner of another religion what they need to do to earn God’s favor—and trust that when they do this enough, with an open mind, wishing to learn about someone else’s happiness rather than trying to prove the other person wrong— they’ll discover the same thing I did. The idea that God isn’t impressed by mere human works isn’t much of a brain-buster, it turns out. I wish I could do more to prove it (maybe I'll start working on those quotes), but it maybe be a vain task.

LATER: Ooh! Wait! I just thought of a way to do it! What if, in my book, I got a whole bunch of different quotes on grace from all different religions (the forgiveness of God, the vanity of mere works, etc) and then MIXED THEM UP and challenged the reader to tell which ones were Christian and which ones weren't? I think that might work!

Maybe not though. It's late, which is when I'm inclined to giddiness.

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A Response to the Grinch Analogy of Faith

My brother just sent me a very long thoughtful set of comments on my Objection #2 post from a few days ago, and I'm cutting and pasting my first-draft response because my Internet has become suddenly touchy and I want to get this down in a timely manner. I apologize if it's a little sloppy. I'm excerpting a part of Dan's commments, and my own expansion.

By the way, Daniel, I think that I've described what I'm doing very carefully and very helpfully, and I couldn't have done it if you hadn't posted. So please keep doing it! Eventually I'll get to the defending-evangelicals, anti-flaming posts. Trust me!

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About the Grinch: David. Dude. Perhaps as a bitter old atheist you missed this one, too. The story of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas is about the Grinch and the transformation of his life. It hinges on the changed heart of the Grinch, not on the loot he stole, you crazy materialist! Were it not so, it might have been called “The Christmas That Was Ruined By Commercialism.”

“In Who-Mart the Who-Boxes stood in the aisle.
So the Who-Carts would have to pass by single-file...”

...but that would have been a slightly different story.It is funny that you miss the point of the Grinch in exactly the same way you miss the point of grace. It is because of the Grinch’s change of heart that he returns with the presents, not because the Who’s have earned anything by enduring a toy-less Christmas. The Who's enjoyed a toy-less Christmas because of what was already changed about their hearts.

You’re missing my point, and I’m sorry if I didn’t make myself clear. What I was trying to do--as I will make clear in my final paragraph--was show how evangelicals can be decent people who wind up being accidentally moralistic, and do so without being idiots or hypocrites, but just decent people trying to solve a problem. If you're willing to accept that evangelicals are moralistic but don't think of themselves that way, and you're also willing to allow that people who do this aren't immoral fools, then you don't need this discussion. But for the Chris Hitchenses out there, I wanted to show that what evangelicals do is something human beings do all the time and while it may be a weakness from one point of view, it's perfectly sensible from another. Since my earlier post was evidently unclear, let me take a slightly different tack.

The moment we think of a story as “good” or “bad,” it stops being just a story about stuff that happened. Stories are “good” or “bad” because they feel, on some level, morally appropriate; they make us happy through some form of internal consistency (it’s not a happy ending, but it feels true to the story that Hamlet dies at the end) or because—in the case of real crowd-pleasers like The Grinch—it reinforces values we all believe in. To show how this works, let’s look at a few bad stories.

Wholly unsatisfying story: “Once there was an ungrateful son who told his father to go to hell. He demanded his inheritance immediately, then he left and nothing bad happened.”

Slightly more satisfying story: “Once there was an ungrateful son who told his father to go to hell. He demanded his inheritance immediately, then he left and squandered the whole thing foolishly. He suffered for the rest of his life, remaining forever full of irrational resentment.”

Even more satisfying story: “Once there was an ungrateful son who told his father to go to hell. He demanded his inheritance immediately, then he left and squandered the whole thing foolishly. He realized then that he had made a huge mistake. He never went back, though.”

Truly satisfying story: The Prodigal Son, which you presumably saw coming a mile off.

When we rank these stories as more or less satisfying—and I doubt many people would disagree very hotly with my ranking—we are constructing a hierarchy of values: what lessons are so important and so comforting that we like to hear them told to us. (I don’t mean this in a bad way.) In the list above we can see that it is satisfying for hurtful people to be punished, but it is more satisfying that they come to realize that they were wrong, and best of all is the story that tells us that there is forgiveness and love even for very great sinners.

I would add that if the parable of the Prodigal Son had him returning without remorse, but simply because he needed a place to live for free for the rest of his life, and if he apologized grudgingly only once, and still expected that his inheritance include half of what was left…well, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular a story. It would, however, tell a story about truly radical acceptance and grace, because in the original story you could argue that the Prodigal Son sort of “earned” his forgiveness by at least admitting he screwed up and returning to live as a servant. His heart grew three sizes that day. But a lesser effort would not have deserved the forgiveness he got. It wouldn’t register as a satisfying story. (This is why, I imagine, there are at least a thousand times more sermons about the Prodigal Son than there are about the Eleventh Hour Workers, even though the theological gist is the same. But even the Eleventh Hour Workers, please note, work for an hour. They don’t just get the day’s wage for free. If grace is ever completely free, you’ve just eliminated the whole story.)

So in the Grinch, the overt anti-materialist message is quite obvious: “Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” What I’m trying to point out is that for all practical purposes, the Whos get to have it both ways, because along with our hierarchy of values that says “Christmas isn’t about toys,” there’s another less noble part of us that says, “I know this, but I also feel that a Christmas without toys would really suck.” Seuss could have had the toys fall off of Mount Crumpet and then had the Grinch go back and see the happiness, come to his realization, etc. But the message is clear: Spiritual Christmas is better than Christmas of Materialism, but Spiritual Christmas + Toys is better than both. If the Grinch lost all the toys, do you really think it would have been as popular or as satisfying a story? That’s what I was saying when I say the Whos “earn” the right to have toys by proving they don’t need them. They don’t earn it overtly in the text, with the Grinch actually saying, “I’ll destroy all their toys unless the Whos prove they don’t want them!” But when we see the Whos singing happily without their toys, we are (hopefully) happy and impressed, and we want to see them rewarded somehow. That’s how they earn, not only the toys, but the right to enjoy the toys. And if I’m correct, by telling ourselves this lesson over and over again (in A Christmas Carol, The House Without a Christmas Tree, Jingle All The Way, and a million others), this is how we earn the right to enjoy our toys as well. We’re not materialist bastards who mistakenly think, like the Grinch, that Christmas is all about toys! Our hearts could grow three sizes, too, if they ever needed to. We might have been potential Grinches, but we agreed with the story and now we’re potential Whos.

Note that I’m not saying that we’re idiots for doing this. (Nor do I think Christians are idiots for telling themselves the story of grace and works.) What I’m saying is that we find the Grinch story’s ending satisfying because deep down, toys make us happy—possibly more happy than we feel they should. But we find the Grinch’s story—the overtly preachy part—satisfying because it tells us we aren’t that bad after all, because we obviously know what’s important, and we got there ahead of that poor Grinch. We are constantly tempted by materialism, and by saying an incantation together like “Christmas doesn’t come from a store!” we feel better about taking notes during the commercial breaks. This isn’t hypocrisy, exactly. It’s a way of coping with a natural conflict. If we stopped telling the Grinch story and just embraced materialism without embarrassment, I’d really start to worry about our culture.

What I’m trying to suggest is that it’s just possible—I didn’t say it was a sure thing—that when evangelicals talk about the distinction between grace and works, and how they’re not legalistic like those darned Pharisees, they may actually be saying, “Thank goodness we’re not like the Grinch!” When in fact, there’s a distinct resemblance between evangelicals and Pharisees; it’s just gone undercover because of a very popular narrative that gets repeated whenever someone worries about being pharisaical, to turn Grinches into Whos. And you can tell it’s there because, just like with the Grinch story, it starts to look less consistent the more you poke at it.

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Solutions to Previous Post

In comments.

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The Puzzlemakers' World Crosses Its Fingers...

...as we await the popular reaction to the debut episode of Eli Stone. Please, America! Make it at least a one-season hit! Not that it's such a great anagram all by itself (how often do the words "noselite" and "solenite" appear anywhere?), but for those of us who love cryptic crosswords, this may be the loveliest hidden-word element to come down the pike in ages. Here are just a few possibilities:

Eli Stone features famous boxer (6)

Mulgrew, in Eli Stone, shows part of a menu (4, 4)

Poetaster and hotdogger Eli Stone exposes (11)

Phrase in an analogy Eli Stone has maintained (2, 2)

...and as part of an anagram, the title is staggeringly useful:

Make haste retooling Eli Stone, Mo! (4, 2, 4)

Certain philosophers mistakenly treated Eli Stone as art (13)

...and of course, if there's critical backlash:

Gag Eli Stone cruelly--he might be tied to a tree (11)

...and while I'm wishing, please let it go into reruns!

Where Eli Stone might be broadcast around six! (10)

Answers later in a separate post, I guess. Not that these are particularly difficult to parse for the cryptic-minded.

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The Ideal McCain Administration

Dan Savage has a dream.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

12

Still sick--not feverish or achy anymore, just feeling the post-pummeling aftermath, and it ain't pretty. I've actually done a ferocious amount of writing--I'm at 16 pages and the sumbitch is still growing--and I kind of want to hack it into some semblance of shape before I post any part of it. (Plus it would be nice to find good places to break it into bite-sized chunks.) Anyway: soon.

Yesterday I was reminded what I hate about being sick: the waste of time. You just sit around feeling awful, too tired to do anything useful, and in too much pain to sleep, and with nothing to do except keep feeling that way until you don't feel it anymore. Yesterday I did something I never do: I went to Blockbuster (a muzzy-headed five-block walk in cold rain) and rented half of Season 4 of 24. It was a money thing: I was trying to get maximum hours of viewing for my rental dollar (which means hour-long TV drama), and I didn't want anything I already have in my Netflix queue. 24 is perfect for this: I don't have it in my queue because it's terrible to see in parts: you really need just a huge block of episodes in a row--something that's true for almost every serial I've seen, from Veronica Mars to Lost to Heroes. My queue has shows that are basically episodic, without the Big Mystery Arc that has come to characterize so many shows: I'm waiting on Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Dexter, and I think Arrested Development.

Anyway, I got Season 4. I would have rented Season 3 (never seen it), but 4 is literally the only season they had every disk of. (I think we're in a post-rental-store world; they don't seem to have been focusing on maintenance or even presentation.) I've been away for awhile, so I was suprised to see how conservative the show had gotten on me. "Oh, look--they're watching Fox News because this show is on Fox. Oh, look--they're torturing people and it produces reliable information in record time. Oh, look--there's the actress playing Chloe, who's dating Rush Limbaugh. Oh look--here's a commentary track where Joel Surnow mocks a hippie for bicycling." It's probably good for me to see stuff I'm not particularly simpatico with, but still--thank goodness they had a lot of explosions. It helped to drown out the shooting war in my mitochondria.

Today I came home from writing (I tend to write in cafes) and discovered I had three Netflix movies waiting. That's the good news. The bad news is that they were Das Boot, Sunday in the Park with George, and Ken Burns' The Civil War: Disk 2. In order, they are 209 minutes, 163 minutes, and 129 minutes long. And me with the tiredness. It's hard to know which one to flail impotently at first.

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Bar Napkin Cartoon 37


(Note: snowmen are easy to draw.)

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Friend a Sickly Dave!

Woke up feeling sick--achy muscles all over is bad, right?--so I'm staying in today. However, this means I'll be online and (possibly) watching movies for at least tonight and possibly tomorrow. How can you help? By friending me on Netflix! (I'm Wordboy Dave; please explain who you are if I can't tell from the name or the picture). It'll help turn the arid experience of knocking off yet another classic into something a trifle more communal and happy. Thanks!

With any luck, I'll also get writing done like I generally plan. But this doesn't feel like a particularly lucky day. (Which reminds me: I need to buy Dran-0. Eesh.)

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Current Events Poem: Writer's Strike Enters Thirteenth Week

The Hollywood Writers' Strike: A Clerihew

The writer's strike is in its billionth week,
And folks who hate reality are firmly up a creek.
There's just one tactic left to use, that I think wives and partners of the TV moguls oughtta:
Lysistrata.

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Creationism Break

I had company over a few days ago, and for some reason while I was organizing my books into some kind of guest-friendly shelving, I lost not one, but two Bibles I was going to use to finish the evolution chapter with. And if you need to replace a Bible, what's the one day that the Christian bookstores aren't open and the regular bookstores close early? That's right. Damn!

So I have to buy a Bible tomorrow/today (I'm writing this at 2 am). In the meantime, one of the things I'm hoping to point out is the way in which a literalist, harmonizing pattern of reading the Bible sometimes forces the evangelical in question to assert as "biblical" things that are about a million miles away from anything scripture actually says. This cartoon is a good example, gleaned via Andrew Sullivan's blog. Call it, if you like, your morning headache.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Brief Thought on Christology

I was rereading James Barr's Fundamentalism (1977) and came across these quotes, which I have long been struck by (warning: it's two longish paragraphs, and the stresses are mine):

"Conservative evangelical faith asserts, with traditional orthodoxy, that Christ was both God and Man; but the actual emphasis is heavily on his being God. It is because he is the Son of God that his suffering makes atonement...the story of the virgin birth shows that Jesus was more than merely human; and a Jesus who was merely human, however sublime and noble a man, could not have functioned in atonement as conservative evangelicals understand it...He is never merely teacher or leader or perfect man...Conservatives are nervous about any tendency which would understate the divine character of Christ; they are not equally sensitive about any tendency which would understate his humanity. 'Liberalism' and 'humanism,' as they imagine them, tend towards a human Jesus, and they in opposition tend towards a being who not only comes from God but is God..." (p.28)

and this:

"While traditional orthodoxy holds that Christ is both God and man...the emphasis of fundamentalist religion falls heavily on the deity of Christ. He is indeed man, but the essential thing to affirm is that he is God. This becomes stronger when one turns away from informed conservative apologetics and looks at the ordinary fundamentalist believer. He has probably never heard of Athanasius and knows nothing of the idea that Christ is equally God and man. What he believes about him is that he is God. He is God walking about and teaching in a man's body. Everyone knows that Jesus is a man, no virtue and no value is to be got from recognizing that he is a man; it is the recognition that he is God that counts...to put it negatively...any approach to Jesus that starts out from Jesus as man falls under suspicion and has to be rejected, unless it is immedaitely qualified with an even stronger assertion that he is God." (p. 168)

I was thinking about this and I remembered how shocked I was, in one of my religious studies classes, when Father Burns asked us, "If Jesus was human--'like us in all things except sin' [Philippians]--does that mean he maybe didn't know what he wanted to do with his life? That he could screw up a quote? That he was confused and discouraged at times? That he had wet dreams?" Getting comfortable with that idea made me realize that I had never really grappled with the idea of Jesus being intellectually and emotionally human. Not really.

The evangelical Jesus is about as minimally human as Jesus could be and still have a human body--if I may put it bluntly, he's sort of God with meat on top. (Well-behaved meat, too; I never pictured Jesus with so much as morning wood.) He's a God who (temporarily) gets thirsty and tired and killable and that's pretty much all. And it just now struck me that there's an interesting theory you can get from this: The more difficulty you have picturing Jesus as geniunely human, the more likely it is that your theology thinks of humanity as contemptible. (And while I'm not ready to stand behind this next statement fully, it quite possibly follows from this that the more contemptuous of humanity your theology is, the more likely it is to have a punitive, potentially cruel model of holiness.)

I'm not ready to fold this observation into a chapter yet, but I thought I'd toss it out there in case anyone wants to think about it or discuss it.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

...And Then it Clicked!

The AP Technology section has a story today about a fun real-life mystery: how do you identify a lost camera's owner when all you have is their photos?

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An Evening of Games!

(Above: cartoons I created for "Luck of the Draw" for the words "dead end" and "giant." For some reason, none of the cartoons for "chickens crossing the Delaware" survived.)


Last night, Kid Beyond (aka Murdoch, to Puzzlers League people; it suddenly occurs to me that I actually don't know his real name) came over to my temporary pad for an evening of games. Participants included Francis/Lunch Boy, Lorinne/Ennirol, and Rob (nom pending), a welcome surprise drop-in by John/Chainsaw, and not only Kid Beyond, but Robin, the very Oscar-nominated producer I mentioned yesterday! Gee, I had a great time! And it points out one of the sad facts about New York city life: It's hard to get people together mostly because nobody has room enough and chairs. For the next few months, I've got it covered.

The whole point of the evening was to play a game that Murdoch had invented, called Squizzblick. (Although it really could have been called any two phonemes you like. But what a Scrabble score that baby would give you!) The premise is so simple I can't believe no one's thought of it before. But the execution is so pristine I'm glad Murdoch came first, for reasons I'll shortly go into.


The gameplay is relatively simple:


[NOTE: It was brought to my attention that I probably shouldn't describe the game in any detail until Murdoch--Andrew Chaikin! Thanks, Francis!--has had a chance to pitch it. So if you read an earlier version of this blog post, please forget it. Thanks!]

As in most such games, the thing lives or dies by the cards, and these seemed bulletproof: broad enough to offer many ideas, interesting enough to not hamstring us with strictures. (The production values in the mockup were also quite impressive.) And the game is also clearly designed to appeal to people who aren't strong players: unlike with, say, Scattergories, in any round it's almost impossible to get more than five points, so even a bad player won't feel like they're being completely trounced.

The point is, we all loved it, and I hope he sells it to Hasbro soon. There's no reason he shouldn't make thousands of dollars with it. (He should make millions, but it is, you know, a boardgame.) Congratulations, Kid! You've done the game community proud!

Then, because we were all having such fun, we played a game Francis brought, called Luck of the Draw, which applies the Apples to Apples idea to Pictionary. You're told to draw something, but then, AFTER the drawings are done, you find out (through drawing a card) which aspect of the picture you're actually voting on: "Worst drawing," "Scariest," "Most moving," and so forth. In this particular case, however, I think the gameplay is ever so slightly flawed in that I suspect it tends to reward extreme people who don't follow the rules at all. (You stand a good chance of winning, I think, if in round after round you simply draw a crappy-looking letter X.) But, like Apples to Apples, it's not a game that's intended to be taken seriously, and while I may wish for a different scoring system, the fact is that it's just plain fun to draw silly things and see what everyone else did too. So thanks, Francis, for bringing that along!

(I also attempted to rope people into a game of Modern Art, but by the time we were interrupted by the arrival of Murdoch, the game itself had failed to gain any rabid adherents, though John remembered the game fondly when he saw it, so I didn't feel too completely indie.)

The other nice thing I discovered about a game party: if you have it at, say, 9, everyone has already eaten and there's precious little detritus to clean up afterward. Here are a few more leftver pictures for your delectation. You know it's a fun game when it's also fun to remember as you're cleaning up:





Pictures are of "It sprang a leak", "dead end," "dead end," and "spoiled." "It sprang a leak," by the way, was drawn by the inimitable Francis Heaney, whose "Six Things" cartoons, I learned yesterday, are archived here. Enjoy!

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Advertising 101

Quick! Which of these words found in today's sex spam does not belong with the others?

"Your wife will be delighted by your stamina and endurance soft Cialis"

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Fame! I'm Going to Be Adjacent to People Who Will Live Forever

You know what I love about this town? Here's a lovely example. Early this morning I was doing my usual visits to my regular blogs (Talking Points Memo, Washington Monthly, Andrew Sullivan, Dan Savage) when (thanks to Dan Savage) I saw this terrific clip from a documentary about a gay woman's fight to get a pension for her partner. Watch it here.

This evening, I joined my friends Francis and Lorinne (and her husband, whose name I keep shamefully forgetting) to see Kid Beyond in concert, and when I was hanging out at the t-shirt table afterwards, a producer of this very film came by to say howdy. (Robin Honan, I think.) Apparently, it's been nominated for an Academy Award! Details are here. (Also, I was told there's a showing here in town before the actual Awards night, but I don't see it on the site. Anyway, I have my fingers crossed. Here's hoping they're not up against any short films about the Holocaust.)

By the way, a few days ago I was at a really fun concert by a band named Coney Island Swan Dive (they do country versions of 80s songs; much pleasure was had!), when my friend Tracy (or possibly her friend Halley) pointed out that Mike Myers was sitting right behind us. He was also hanging out in front of the bar when we left; he was so close I could have touched his symmetrically-parted hair. It was odd, though, because apparently the rule in New York is to never notice or even look at celebrities--even reacting marks you as a tourist--so I only got brief blurry glimpses. So every time I was tempted to look, my friends gave me conniption warnings. But it was definitely him, and the sumbitch hasn't a speck of gray on him. Very impressive.

After two years in New York, this is only the second celebrity sighting I've had, ever since a few months back when I sat behind Stephen Root at the terrific Broadway play August: Osage County. And even then my friend Leslie had to point him out. (Thanks, Leslie!) Then, of course, I could stare fiercely, since it was only the back of his head. When I visited Los Angeles a few years ago, I noticed that people move there to live out their dreams, only to be embarrassed by their success when they make it ("I sing, but it's in a commercial," etc.). In New York, apparently you come here to recognize celebrities that you are then embarrassed to actually look at. What an odd place this is.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Mystery Hunt I Myst

This past weekend was the MIT Mystery Hunt, that vast conclave of mass puzzle-obsession that fueled my very first appearance on This American Life, and which (one hopes) will culminate in a career as an actual author and be seen in retrospect as the break that started it all. So since my team WON last year, and (as a result) we created the Hunt this year, and since it’s just a 4-hour, $25 bus trip away and a chance to see a whole bunch of people I dearly love…well, it’s a little weird that I didn’t go. I even announced I was going on the group website, then said I’d come late, and then wound up not going at all.

Here’s why: Ever since I’ve been unemployed, I’ve felt that this is my long-awaited opportunity to really put a stake through the heart of this book proposal, which has been far too long in the making. Anything that distracts from that, I’m discovering, feels almost like a threat. And while I would have loved to hang out with my friends this weekend, it meant essentially giving up five solid days of work on the book—four to do the Hunt (Thursday through Sunday), and one to recover from the sleeplessness. I love the MIT Mystery Hunt, but I’m afraid it’s not quite worth five days of work. It’s too much like vacation, and I only have so much time free before my money starts dwindling and I need an actual job again. This is my chance to write. It would be criminal to squander it.

I didn't know unemployment would affect me like this, but now I know. It's like a form of relentless guilt, only with hope at the end.

So I can take breaks to do posts like this—it turns out a whole book, or even a book proposal, is something you really need a breather from now and then—but five days was asking too much, and in the end it was simply easier not to go. I’m sorry to everyone on the team. I really should have called Toonhead! or Sue++ or Trip or someone. My apologies. I’m fine. I’m just being selfish.

This is, however, the time to own up. I wrote five puzzles for this Hunt, aided immensely by the indefatigable Trip Payne. (As well as a few other people I’m bad at keeping track of. So sorry! My memory has always kind of sucked.) The puzzles were, if I’m getting the names correct:

God of Cartoons (a bunch of cartoons about famous historical figures)
The Deadly Hobby of Murder (a sample final chapter from an Encyclopedia Brown-type mystery novel)
Department Store (a fairly standard find-the-organizing-theme grid puzzle with a few twists)
Chinese Menu (a Chinese menu)
Notes on a Century of English, According to Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary (a list of ten words)

Trip was particularly helpful on “Notes on a Century…” and “Department Store,” and he seems to have a staggering memory for Hunt puzzles. Thanks, Trip! I was happiest with God of Cartoons, and in general I’m hopeful that in a Hunt that turned out to be harder than anticipated, my own puzzles were all on the easy side. It would be sad to make a puzzle if no one solved it. So far, all I know is that one team found the Chinese Menu sort of broken (it did okay in the test-solving!), and one blogger found God of Cartoons at least memorable enough to mention. I’d be interested in more feedback, though with any luck I’ll never be on a winning Mystery Hunt team again where I’ll have to apply my learning.

I’d just like to thank all the other members of Palindrome, especially our computer people (man, you all are geniuses!) and the Trip/Halprin/Purdy puzzle-vetting triumvirate. And we would have been literally nowhere without the amazing work of Eric Berlin, who deserves to not have to move a muscle for the next two years.

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Friends and Colleagues

I just want to give two shout-outs to people I know who are doing extraordinary things.

First, Kid Beyond is performing in New York on Thursday and Sunday. If you read my review of his last concert, you’ll see why I’m urging everyone to see him. Live is the only way to do it.

Second, please congratulate my friend and storytelling colleague Elna Baker who has just appeared on This American Life in an episode about matchmaking. She’s 20 minutes from the end, telling a story about F.A.O Schwarz and a deformed doll called Baby Nubbins. It’s hilarious. I’m so proud! The podcast is available now. Get it before it costs you a dollar! (You can also find her on YouTube, which I also highly recommend.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How To Love God Excerpt: Objection #2--You Don't Understand Grace

View Objection #3 here. The last update--part one of Evangelicals and Evolution--is here.

I'm still working on the analysis of how evangelicals tend to read troublesome Bible passages. But it turns out it's a complicated process, and I'm still double-checking everything to make sure I'm being accurate. In the meantime, here's a piece I wrote some time ago but haven't yet posted. It's from this earlier section titled Answers to Objections. (I've kept this as #2, but it's occurred to me that I actually need a fifth obejction, and it needs to be #1: "What gives you, an atheist, any right to tell religious people what to believe?" It's such an obvious question I almost missed it. But that'll have to wait for another day. Today, here's Objection #2.)

Bear in mind that, at this point in the book, I have just proposed a model of good religion (which amounts to decency, a breakdown of tribalism, and an increased capacity to love others wisely), and then propose to critique religions as more or less useless based on what their actions look like. (And I apologize that this section has some redundancy in it. It's late, and I couldn't yet figure out how to streamline it.) Now to the chapter:

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OBJECTIONS ANSWERED #2: Your model of good religion misunderstands grace.

Another reaction I get from evangelical Christians specifically is that I don’t understand Christianity, since by focusing on the effects of religion, I’m judging (evangelical) Christians by their actions, and in doing this I’m ignoring the one real innovation of Christianity which makes it actually different from every other religion in the world: grace!

See, as conservative (and even liberal) Christians see it, most human beings, like the Pharisees as presented in the Bible, try to achieve salvation through “works”—doing good deeds, leading a clean life, helping the poor, et cetera. But this is pointless; God is perfect and can’t be impressed by one deed more or less. What Christianity teaches (they say) is that Jesus’ sacrifice paid the price for our sin, and a person enters into salvation not by “doing” anything, but by accepting Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior—and then you don’t really have to do anything at all. (Though of course you will if you love Jesus; we get to this shortly.) Therefore Christianity is the only religion that emphasizes grace instead of works! (And also therefore, since I’m looking at Christians’ behavior in my critique, I’m not looking directly at their actual religion, but its mere shadow on the ground.)

This tale isn’t exactly true, but Christians believe it because they hear it from each other all the time, and they rarely look into other religions just to make sure. The uniqueness of Christian grace is relatively easy to disprove: just off the top of my head, Mahayana Buddhism and Sufi Islam both stress mankind’s inability to influence the spiritual world, and our own utter dependence on, and love for, the saving deity (Allah for the Sufis; any of a number of bodhisattvas for the Buddhist). This isn’t even counting all the religions (such as Taoism or Jehovah’s Witnesses) that don’t even posit a hell that anyone needs to be saved from in the first place. And in a way it stands to reason: given that most spiritual experiences are feelings of being overwhelmed by the numinous, any schema that relies entirely and helplessly on the goodness of the Other is a short conceptual leap away.

I hasten to add that depending on how you define “Christian grace,” it may indeed be unique. But this isn’t necessarily saying anything interesting. If you say, for example, “Christian grace is unique because only in Christian grace is God’s love made manifest by God actually killing a part of himself out of love for humanity,” you certainly have a point. But Sufism is unique because its adherents spin around. This sentence is unique in all of human history because it’s the only one that ends with the word “borftaglock.” Uniqueness is nice to have, but it’ll only get you so far, and it might be utterly useless in terms of pursuing meaning, as you can easily demonstrate by looking up “borftaglock” in a dictionary. [FOOTOTE: If there are any enterprising lexicographers out there who want to slip a definition in, may I suggest the following? “Borftaglock n. A word that has no definition. See also Catch-22.”]

If you mean something more specifically focused on actual value, you still run into problems. If, as I can easily picture, many Christians are going to read this and think, “But the Christian concept of grace is the best solution to the problems of mankind,” I’m going to want an actual definition of “Christian grace,” since the definition itself has varied over Christian history and geography—even the geography of the next pew over. But even if you’re claiming something really popular—say, “Christian grace is unique and the best because it posits Christ’s atoning death to pay the penalty for our sin nature and thereby save people from hell,” I’d want to explore each of those questions individually—is it better to believe in hell or not? To accept an atonement model of salavation? To believe in a sin nature? The mere assertion of uniqueness is nothing more than a staking out of turf; surely it would be wisest to first figure out if the turf is worth defending.

There’s yet a third form of uniqueness that might be asserted: you could in effect argue that Christianity is unique because “it’s the only religion I’m comfortable with.” The weakness of this as a compelling argument is so obvious I won’t belabor it. I only bring it up because many Christians essentially argue this without realizing that’s what they’re doing. There may be a log in your eye; I’m just saying.

So forget about whether or not Christianity’s version of grace is in any sense unique. Let’s talk instead about grace as I learned it, and as Christians actually use it. Because again, remember that what I’m asserting here is that religion can be judged based on the effects it has on its truest adherents, and I’m defending myself against the charge that in saying this, I’m misunderstanding the true nature of Christian grace, since we are saved by faith, and works are utterly secondary.

My response: Although this looks consistent on paper, surely it’s safe to suggest that just because Christians say that actions don’t matter, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they actually believe that actions don’t matter. In fact, what if Christians say that actions don’t matter so often precisely because they’re obsessed with actions and are trying to convince themselves they’re not?

This wouldn’t make Christians who do this silly or stupid; it would make them human, with ample precedent. In fact, something like this has a tendency to infect American thinking at every turn. My favorite example is the Dr. Seuss classic How The Grinch Stole Christmas. As you’ll doubtless recall, the Grinch hates the Whos because they’re noisy (and, presumably, publicly happy) on Christmas. So he steals all the presents. And then, just as he’s about to dump everything off Mt. Crumpet, he listens…and discovers that The Who’s Christmas has proceeded without the presents at all. “What if Christmas, he thought, didn’t come from a store? What if Christmas, he thought, meant a little bit more?…” Impressed by the Whos utterly spiritual sense of giftless celebration, The Grinch’s heart grows three sizes, and he brings all the present back. Hooray!

I don’t remember how old I was when I first thought, Wait a minute! If the lesson is supposed to be that we don’t need presents to celebrate Christmas, why does he bring the presents back at the end? Wouldn’t it be best if the whole sled just fell off Mount Crumpet and the gifts were lost forever? And yet, the only reason the story registers as a happy ending is that the Whos get all their gifts back. The answer, it seems to me, is that we’re witnessing an exorcism: we want presents, but we’re afraid we like them too much, so we tell each other a story where a group of Whos earn the right to enjoy their presents by first proving that they don’t actually need them at all. (We could do the same thing, if given the same choice!, we tell ourselves. Thank God we’ll never actually be offered the choice.) Watch the movies and you’ll see the same pattern over and over again. American Pie tells the tale of four high-school seniors who are obsessed with losing their virginity by prom night. So all year they try and try and try, with comic misadventures, up until the actual night of the prom, when they say, in essence, “to hell with this; it was a stupid idea anyway.” And then, having proven that they don’t actually want to get laid, they all get laid, just like they wanted. You’re not allowed to get what you want until you presumably want something better or more important. Just look around; you’ll see the message on TV or in the movies this very week. I can practically guarantee it.

So what if Christianity is something like this—a way for intensely judgmental people to indulge in their desire for moralism, but to conceive of it in such a way that they first clear their throats and claim that moralism isn’t really the point? I’m not saying this is the case—though surely even Christians will recognize the subgenus homo christianus phariseeus—but for the sake of thoroughness I have to at least float the possibility.

What I can say with some authority is that the evangelical Christian lives inconsistently in response to the doctrine of grace. And this may be why it gets repeated so often and so loudly: like the Trinity, it might be a way to temporarily unify, through repetition and sleight of mind, a system that’s basically incoherent and in constant danger of unraveling. There’s only one way to find out: let’s see what it looks like in practical terms.

I repeat: To hear Christians say it, regular religion is man’s quixotic attempt to reach God through human action—feeding the poor, loving one’s enemies, etc. Christians, by contrast, simply accept Christ’s sacrifice and God’s forgiveness, and then, out of gratitude, the Christian feeds the poor, loves her enemies, and so forth. That’s the story on paper.

Don’t you believe it. I was a Christian, and I know how it works, and I would like to poke at the premise a little, since I never looked at it closely when I was espousing it the first time around. I’m doing this, not to attack Christians, per se, but to examine the exact dimensions of a belief, instead of simply accepting what it says in the brochure. Because, as we have seen and continue to see, orthodox religious theory does not always match the orthodox practice.

As evangelicals tell it, when they accept Jesus Christ, they stop trying to impress God with mere human “works”—being good—and instead obtain salvation and forgiveness by, in the common phrase, accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior.”

In practice, of course, Jesus’ gift of salvation has to be protected from abuse. Because if the brochure-version theory is correct, a cartoonish reading of it would have someone accept (freely!) God’s gift of salvation, and then murder thousands of people and then still go to heaven ahead of his neighbor who never accepted Jesus at all, even if he also never murdered even a single soul. The theory—faith alone saves—has to have a subclause added, because we all feel we know the difference between genuine faith and someone trying to pull a fast one. For starters, the person who genuinely believes shouldn’t, we feel, be focused on looking for silly loopholes.

Some people do believe the cartoon version of this faith-alone-saves argument, but it’s usually reserved for diehard Reformed types. Mainstream evangelicalism, on the other hand, generally goes in another direction: faith saves, but it has to be the right type of faith: authentic, sincere, motivated from love rather than self-interest, etc. As a popular presentation has it, “faith alone saves, but saving faith is never alone.”

In other words, to really be a Christian, you ought to be at least aware of the problem (your own sinfulness) and care enough to want to do something about it. And then, of course, actually do something, even if it’s something as minor as improving your quiet times or cutting back on swearing. Anything else would look understandably suspicious. By their fruits ye shall know them.

The question, then, is: how is this actually different from the way any other major religion gets practiced? For a Muslim, the act of saying “inshallah” is enough to mark one as a Muslim—but it requires the actual familiar trappings of full-on Islam (praying, ritual washing, tithing, etc.) to make someone “count” as a Muslim in good standing to the community at large. Baha’is are easygoing, but even a Baha’i is expected to at least come to the meetings. However much religious traditions try not to focus on mere behavior, nevertheless devout people are still expected to behave. It’s hard to imagine how any other arrangement could work.

What I’m saying, in essence, is that first, I do in fact understand the theory and practice behind grace. I just don’t think it’s particularly unique, and I think shouting “grace!” loud enough is a way that many Christians cover up the works that they really are more comfortable doing, but don’t dare believe is important. Even if we posit that there’s an ideal form of grace to be practiced somewhere that would be wholly different from anything any religion has come up with (I don’t believe it, but let’s pretend), it remains irrelevant to my discussion because I’m talking about how to observe and fix problems with things religious people actually do. Most devout people from most religions act roughly the same and have the same do-unto-others idea of morality. When this breaks down in the name of religion—when tribalism, intolerance, and willful ignorance rears its head—then I believe something’s wrong, no matter what label you attach it to.

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Bar Napkin Cartoon 36


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Sunday, January 20, 2008

How to Love God Excerpt: Evangelicals and Evolution, Part 1 of 2 (or maybe 3)

I've had a busy couple of days, and here is part of the fruit: another excerpt from How to Love God--part one of however long this chapter winds up being. Please read and comment! Thanks!

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CHAPTER 8: EVANGELICALS AND EVOLUTION

This chapter is the most frustrating one I’ve written, and I have to admit that here I open by admitting defeat. In the area of evolution, evangelical Christians are at their most stubborn, their most misinformed, their most perversely resistant to anything like sensible behavior. And what makes this most irritating is that they take the stance they do even though it doesn’t actually solve the problem they claim it solves, and even though a much more intellectually acceptable answer is only a short step away. In every other chapter, I think I have some hope of convincing the unconvinced or the wavering. This chapter is mainly concerned with triage. On the bright side, however, this is where the whys of evangelical religion become interestingly apparent, and it starts by looking at the difference between what evangelicals do believe, and what evangelicals could believe without much trouble.

What evangelicals do believe is this: Evolution is a flawed science, merely a theory, full of holes, and is only popular because of a conspiracy between godless scientists and sinful men who are determined to promulgate a creation story that denies the existence of God. Evangelicals believe that Creation story in Genesis is partially symbolic (the “days” of creation could be millions of years, and the serpent is actually Satan, not just the forefather of all snakes, and God probably wasn’t literally “walking” around in the Garden like it says), but partially real. (They usually don’t think about it much, but if pressed, most evangelicals will believe in a real Adam and Eve, an actual Garden of Eden in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, and a real Fall caused by an argument over fruit from an actual tree.)

What evangelicals could believe is this: Evolution is as true as scientists claim, and all of Genesis 1, not just parts of it, is essentially symbolic. But the Bible’s main message—that God created us in love, and it is best to obey him and take care of creation—remains as valid as ever, and would scarcely change a single evangelical sermon on Genesis in the last 100 years. And what’s more, scientists don’t know everything, because not only can they not answer the big moral questions of life, but there’s even proof that God exists: roughly 100,000 years ago, human beings simultaneously developed speech, art, and religion, and the world has never been the same since. Surely this is no mere coincidence, but the work of a guiding God who has steered evolution in such a way as to create us to have fellowship with him. I will be calling this the “big bang theory of human origins,” for reasons I will explain later. It’s also worth pointing out that this is, in fact, the way most mainstream and liberal religious people think about evolution: it’s true, but it’s not the whole truth, and evolved human beings need divine moral shepherding. It’s an eminently religious way of viewing this particular science.

But first, some clarification. Some evangelicals—in my experience, usually the more intellectual college types—do believe in evolution. (They quickly learn, however, not to mention this casually at evangelical gatherings; arguments are inevitable.) So my characterization above is broadly true, but won’t work for everyone. Moreover, most evangelicals will accept much of evolution: the adaptation of viruses, the fact that fossils are old and show certain kinds of development, etc. What most evangelicals are keen to cast doubt on is macroevolution, and most specifically the evolution of man. Dogs may have come from wolves—that’s microevolution, because dogs and wolves can still mate—but no way did we humans come from monkeys or fish or microbes! The point, obviously, is to preserve mankind’s dignity as a special creation of the Almighty, and (to a lesser extent) God as the maker of individual distinct species. Take care of that, and you scientist types can have all the different-colored moths and three-toed horses you want.

Second, it should also be made clear that my “big bang theory of human origins” has a few holes. Although you can argue that language, art, and religion appear simultaneously and uniquely in human history, this is not universally held. There are some signs that primitive forms of language and art, at least, appear among non-humans, and the time between language and religion gets staggered depending on who you read. But on the whole, the development of all three really did peak with us at practically the same time, and in any event the principle still holds that God might have stepped in to make us humans unique on the planet, and given us the gift of religion in order to commune with him. So the main point still stands no matter what we eventually learn later.

The reason this matters is because if you look at evangelical websites or books (or even Conservapedia, which is allegedly merely conservative but in practice is essentially evangelical), you find that the number one sin that evolution causes—the main thing evangelicals are determined to prevent—is moral decay. Specifically, evangelicals state over and over again that if human beings are mere animals, then we can have no morality, and the next step is communism, racism, drugs, sexual depravity…take your pick of possible dark futures. By knocking away God, evolution ushers in Babylon. Any evil is possible, and therefore evolution, which ushers in this evil like a gateway drug, must be fought at all costs.

This is precisely where evangelical reasoning becomes incoherent. If evangelicals are right that evolution leads to moral chaos, then the liberal “big bang” reading already solves the problem perfectly! But evangelicals fight instead for their own interpretation — fight like hell, tooth and nail, with tirelessness zealotry. And they do it for a reading which on paper doesn’t add any new moral assistance (since liberals and evangelicals are agreed that human beings are special in the eyes of God, and have special moral responsibility) — but which adds a host of terrible implausibilities, from “Where did the Garden of Eden go?” to “Where did Cain’s wife come from?” to “How come whales have hips?” to “How do you explain endogenous retroviruses?” (We’ll get to those later.) The liberal Christian can answer all of those questions calmly and save human beings from the potential moral damage of evolutionary thinking. The evangelical, by contrast, seems weirdly determined to make his job a million times harder than it needs to be — if protecting morality is the main point. What gives?

WHAT GIVES

The nice thing about irrationality is that it exposes what you’re really obsessed about. For example, in skeptical quarters, any time someone in Skeptic magazine or The Internet Infidels talks about astrology, they inevitably say at some point, “And what’s so terrible about astrology is all the money people waste on it!” As if astrology’s chief sin were how much money goes down its particular drain. This is an awfully weird thing to assert, because astrology is a pretty small corner of any major bookstore you look into, and most people who are into it either get them for free from the newspaper, or buy them—for what? $1.99?—at the local grocery store sales counter. As wastes of money go, this is pretty small potatoes, and if I had to put my own personal list of “terrible wastes of money,” astrology wouldn’t even crack the top 100, and it would be down far below even things like Beetle Bailey. (All that newspaper space, and all that reading time, devoted to a daily comic strip that hasn’t made a non-idiotic joke in decades! We should weep for the lost ad revenue.)

The mere fact that this untenable assertion is even made is a very handy red flag to point us to the fact that something else is being deliberately unsaid—something unseemly and unsayable. I think I know what it is. What skeptics really want to say is something like, “Astrology is idiotic, inconsistent, completely irrational, and…and it’s wrong to be irrational! Can’t you see that? Look at how awful irrationality is! Grr, wake up!” Unfortunately, that’s the best they have to offer, while astrology offers an illusion of insight into yourself and others, usually in mild and flattering terms. So the rationalist knows, on some level, that they can’t really compete with astrology, since a world with astrology is more fun for most people than a world without it. But for the rationalists to simply scream, “What’s wrong with you idiots, who by the way are mostly women?” would be unseemly. So they are forced to complain about money because expressing the real problem (people are happy being ignorant and uninformed!) would cut themselves off from civil debate.

It’s the same way with evangelicals and evolution. What they’re trying to preserve is not primarily public morality—at least, not the way they claim. What they’re trying to preserve is the trustworthiness of the Bible, because that, as we have seen, is the only reliable guide for all morality. But if they simply said, “Evolution is wrong because the Bible is more or less scientifically accurate!” no one outside the camp would listen for a second, for the obvious reason that this assertion is both unscientific and provably wrong.

I should pause here and note that many evangelicals, when asked what they think about evolution, will say, “I don’t care about it one way or the other.” On one hand, this is sort of true, since evangelicals don’t believe in evolution, and therefore it never figures in most of their day-to-day conversations. They can go for months without being forced to think about it at all. But in another very real sense, this statement is a lie. If you hear an evangelical claim this, don’t believe it. There are two ways, after all, to “not care” about something. The first is to say “I don’t really care what we should order on the pizza.” A person in this situation, since they don’t care and are surrounded by people who do, will simply shrug and defer to the people who actually give a damn. This is genuine not-caring, and if evangelicals did this we’d never have had a Monkey Trial in the first place.

The other kind of not-caring is the kind that happens after a breakup or a divorce, where someone at a party says, “Hey, Vashti! I saw your ex at the movies yesterday, and he was on a date.” And the woman responds, “I don’t care what that man does.” This is defensive not-caring, the kind that results from a severe excision, where the broken couple has had to divide up who gets which friends and which social circles, where someone avoids certain stores or takes a different route to work to avoid running into the other person. Because a chance meeting will result in an unwinnable conflict that’s bad for everyone. That’s the kind of not-caring that evangelicals practice in respect to evolution: it’s the choice any sane human being would make if the alternative was being in a constant state of siege and warfare. It is, if you like, a voluntary secession from the workings of a scientific community that never had a chance in hell of being sympathetic to them anyway.

“But wait!” you might say. “I know a lot of evangelicals, and they take a lot of things as symbolic. Why not Genesis?” This is perhaps as good a time as any to point out why the evangelical’s parsing of evolution mostly works for them, and in the process explain the process by which evangelicals “believe” the Bible, and what makes them believe some things literally and not others…

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bar Napkin Cartoon 35


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Friday, January 18, 2008

Okay, Now They're Just Showing Off...

Personally, I'm just thrilled to read a headline that contains both "monkey" and "robot."

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Unusually Satirical Graffiti

I'd better post this now, while Rudy Giuliani is still in the race. A few days ago at the subway station I saw this ad for Cloverfield--the new film where, judging from the poster, an interstellar menace destroys the Statue of Liberty and a large section of New York skyline. And I noticed that someone had drawn a comment in the upper right corner...


Here's a close-up, since it's hard to see:


I hope this means that fear is finally backfiring as a political strategy. But it does raise one question: who the hell are New York Republicans going to back? (My guess: Hard-liner types to Romney, centrists to McCain, independents to Obama.)

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Cryptic Crossword Answers

A few days ago I posted a diagramless cryptic crossword. Here, in the comments section, are the answers to that puzzle.

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Bar Napkin Cartoon 34


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BABY!!!



As of 8:15 yesterday, I'm an uncle again! Welcome Andrew William Dickerson to the world!




Another picture for anyone who's wondered what my twin brother looks like. What you can't tell is that he's three inches taller than me and about twenty pounds heavier (he's a programmer; it's an occupational tendency). What you might notice is that, eerily, we currently wear the same style of glasses. And he has more hair. Damn his handsome face!

Congratulations, Dan and Emily! Have you decided on a college yet?

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Bar Napkin Cartoon 33


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Media Diet Update and a Christian Lit Reference Question

Just a quick check-in.

First, I know I should have written more in How to Love God by now, but I just found out there's a new book out called The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality which would seem to be essential to my own. So I need to go into the city and read that someplace comfy. Also, I need an Epi-pen. (Note to self: always buy expensive drugs BEFORE you lose your health insurance!) Yesterday was spent mostly cleaning up around the house--I even cooked chicken! It was even moist when I was done!--and looking into various magazines to see where I might be able to send articles.

I was actually hoping to just take a week off and do nothing but laze around. My plan was to rent an Xbox 360 or something, get Mass Effect (I hear it's good without being impossibly difficult), and waste several days in a row in a fantasy world where I'm gainfully employed and can carry infinite possessions. I haven't taken a vacation in two years and I felt I was due. But remember how my identity got hacked and I had to cancel my debit card? Well, until the replacement comes in a week or so, I ain't renting bupkes. Instead, I spent an appalling amount of time yesterday writing puzzles--two for TimeOut New York, one for the Enigma (expect a new cryptic, you NPLers!), and one just for myself, so I could figure out how to write a grid in a Word program that tries so fucking hard to help you not do it, and how to save it as a PDF. The good news is, I think it worked! (Thanks for the helpful comment that led me to this realization.)

Thanks to everyone who's sent me job listings. I think I'm actually going to be off the market for a week or so, so I can take advantage of my leisure and write with the intensity I want. There WILL be something to show for it, soon, I promise.

In the meantime, I will say that I've learned another really nice thing about my friends. One of them is a member of some Hollywood guild or other, and as a result, she gets all the "For Your Consideration" movies mailed to her. [Name withheld so she doesn't get in trouble in case this is rogue behavior.] So thanks to her, I've been catching up with the Oscar race...for free! So far I've seen The Savages and No Country For Old Men. Nickel summary: The Savages, with its brilliant cast but quiet story, will get nominations but probably won't win anything, and because of the oddly meandering ending, No Country For Old Men, brilliant though it is, has no chance in hell of winning Editing. (By the way, I don't know why no one talks about the ending for No Country For Old Men as if it contains any spoilers at all. I was afraid it would be some sort of "And then it was all a dream, the narrator's been dead the whole time, and his girlfriend is really a man!" But it's the simplest of bad endings: it just keeps going long after the action of the story feels complete, and then it stops like an amputation. If you prepare for it, I think you'll like the film better.)

Up next: Away From Her (yay, Sarah Polley!) and There Will Be Blood. Also, I'm happy to report that next up in my Netflix queue is the 1936 film version of In His Steps, which is, as far as I know, the final version of Charles M. Sheldon's Christian classic In His Steps that has entered the culture. So now I think I really can write an article about the history of the fictional attempts to figure out "What would Jesus do?" For those keeping score, the resources I have are as follows:

In His Steps by Charles M. Sheldon (1895)
In His Steps (film) (1936)
What Would Jesus Do? by Glenn Clark (1950)
In His Steps Today by Marti Hefley (1987)

Is there anything I'm missing? I'm looking specifically for books that see themselves as offshoots of Sheldon's original. (In Clark, the grandkids of the original people are involved; in Hefley, the characters are all inspired by reading the book.) So Thomas Girzone's Joshua and other Jesus-today novels of that nature aren't relevant to my study. But if I'm missing anything I really need to know. Help!

By the way, if I had the guts and the wherewithal, I'd love to write a book of my own in this same tradition (only with a satirical bent, showing how impossible it is to live like a 1st-century person), but I know I suck at novels and would probably never finish it. Such a shame, too, because I have the perfect title: WTFWJD?

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Dancin' Dave


While hunting down pictures for a friend of mine, I ran across this old thing that I don't think I've ever posted before. It was taken by a friend of my friend Ryan's on my very first weekend in Manhattan. This is at around 23rd Street and 7th Avenue, right near Ryan's old apartment. I don't dress like this anymore, but I still feel the same excitement.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Bar Napkin Cartoon 32


Let's just call this Office Humor Cartoon Monday, as I head off to deposit my severance check, apply for unemployment, and do all things fiscally responsible. By the way, every time I wonder why the New Yorker never calls back, I look at that lady's left hand. (Click to enlarge.)
(Yes, I know these aren't bar napkin cartoons. But I have to keep the titling consistent or how will anyone search? When I get a working scanner I'll do bar napkin versions.)

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Bar Napkin Cartoon 31


Today, in honor of the beginning of my new job search, I post a cartoon I first conceived of back at Hallmark. This is definitely what work felt like to me. (Click to enlarge so you can read it.)

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My Insanity, Your Cryptic Crossword Benefit

NOTE: If you don't know what cryptic crosswords are, feel free to ignore this whole post. It's pretty inside to the puzzler community. Better yet, find out what they are, get hooked, and come back here ready to play!

It's happened again. As some of you know, I have found--going back (gasp!) fourteen years to when I first found myself unemployed--that when I'm left with a lot of free time, some part of me instantly starts making cryptic crossword puzzles. It's like lexical quilting or mental scrimshaw. For some reason, nothing soothes me more than constructing something that I personally would find challenging. When I was out of work in 1994, just graduated, and waiting for Hallmark to call, I assembled a dozen unusually hard variety cryptics and put them into a one-page newsletter I called The Vexing Yank. (Normally I would have submitted them to the National Puzzlers League's Enigma magazine, but that was more than even it could absorb.) That was the worst and weirdest example, but when I went back to school I found myself doing it again during Spring Break here and there. But for the past few years things have been pretty quiet, what with the nine-to-fiving and the struggle to make rent.

The past few weeks, starting with Christmas break, raised this temptation again, and I've succumbed at least twice, putting together unusually difficult cryptics, employing rather obscure words and deliberately abstruse themes. Again, these would normally be bound for The Enigma, but I've started also thinking that it might be nice to create an online version of The Vexing Yank, called perhaps The Electronic Yank. I could post all my old Yank puzzles, and it would be a place where people who want a higher-end puzzle, but who don't quite need the balls-to-the-wall obscurity of The Listener, can find a home.

The problem: I don't know how to upload puzzles. I know tons of people who say, "There's a new puzle on my website! Come take a look!" And there's a link, and you click it, and a PDF magically dowloads. I don't know how to do that. (And I don't have Abode to PDF files into, and I doubt it would be a wise use of my money just now.)

So until this problem is solved, I deliberately came up with the following puzzle, a Yank-style variety cryptic crossword that requires no visual because there's no grid. Enjoy, if you can.

DIAGRAMLESS CRYPTIC by QUIZ

Fill a standard 12 x 12 grid using the following cryptic clues. The grid uses 180-degree symmetry, and it also contains two unclued longer entries--synonyms--that solvers will find appropriate. Enumeration has been withheld for obvious reasons.

All words are to be found in 11C [Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate Dictionary], except for 15 Across, which is NI2+ [that is, it's in Merriam-Webster's New International Second Edition as a foreign, obsolete, or variantly-spelled word] and a few that are not MW [meaning non-dictionary words and phrases, like "iTunes," "Britney," or "ran for," or common foreign phrases like "chez nous"]. The wordplay of two clues involve technically non-11C words that are extremely common in crossword puzzles. In general, it would be crazy to try to solve this without an 11C right next to you. But maybe that's just me.

Answers will follow in a separate post. I apologize in advance for any typos. And note that I suspect that comments on this post will tend to be spoiler-y (I'm predicting a few clue-tweaking suggestions), so don't look at any comments until you've solved the puzzle; that's my suggestion.

ACROSS
1. Rat east of California doing pre-heist research
5. Where Derek has badly-directed role!
9. Fleece wrappers' lock was so twisted
11. Horrified by Turkish officer's psych exam [two words]
12. Room to throw food overboard
13. Reptile smut is reported
15. Harmon White, star of Pegasus
17. Pack of dogs in gutter
18. John obtains copper and sulfur from a lake
19. Vehicle to turn upside-down, not from Texas city
23. Collection includes the goddess
24. A rock tour I make fresh [two words]
27. Reportedly, a male raccoon stood
28. Istanbul native exposing part of the arm
29. Wander around a river in Asia long ago
30. Scary gale disturbs mint
31. Russian Mountain Teen Magazine picked up by tree nut
32. Solicitude is followed by short kiss

DOWN
1. Baboon is flipping over Mad Men's network after tea
2. Unfinished burial place in marble creates anger
3. Group of fish replacing orange with red tourmaline
4. I don't know Spanish for "proboscis"
6. Beat set without leadership
7. Urchins' selection from speech in Italy
8. Bit of pressure circles burrowing mammal
10. Titters uncontrollably in musical passages
14. Creditors have to make certain they use strong language
16. Saving fork, a Stooge goes back to take in study
19. Canadian is able to avoid losing face
20. Rocky Harlin's on the nose?
21. Gander--crazy old one
22. Isaac and Howard's ends?
25. Support outspoken novelist Joyce
26. Write jokes for Ace and Dotty

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

And Here I'm Not Even In The Union


This is a particular boon for puzzlers like myself, since the word on the sign is an actual exact anagram of the word I hope they intended. Fulton and Washington, right across the street from the other picture I just posted. It's a fun neighborhood.

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Don't Oversell Yourself Now...


Very modest business claim. Fulton and Washington, in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.

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HTLG: In Case You Missed It...

Inshallah and the crick don't rise, I should have another How to Love God excerpt posted by the end of the day. However, as I was planning the topic (atheism), I kept remembering that I had, in fact, posted something on the topic before. But it's not linked in to the current network I've set up where you start at chapter one, click to chapter two, et cetera. So some of you coming late might have missed it. Therefore, here's another link to "Defense of the Angry Atheist." May it tide some of you over until the new section arrives.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

All About My Firing

I got fired today. As anyone who has talked to me over the past month or so knows, I could sort of feel it coming. I sucked at my job and kept not not-sucking. My job skills plateaued at what I knew was an unacceptable level of vacuum. And as it happens, I was already putting out feelers to do something else. But I was actually going to hold off for a month first. I guess the decision has been made for me.

So let this blogpost function as a sort of FAQ about my firing.

Q: Oh, my god, Dave! Are you all right?
A: Oddly, yes. Under any other circumstances I'd be in an utter panic, but fortunately I'm living rent-free, and that means that the worst possible pressure is off, and I actually have a teeny bit of leisure. I'll apparently be coming into some severance pay (good thing I never used my vacation!), and I'm expecting some money from Time Out New York pretty soon.

After the initial horror, I realized I wasn't going to die (and thank you, J.B., for letting me stay for free! You just saved my life and made all the difference!), I was surprised to discover that I was really happy. I'm happy even as I type this. My job was okay, but it sucks to be mediocre at work that you're horribly underpaid for anyway. I needed a break, and this comes at the perfect time.

Q: Did any other sucky things happen?
A: Oddly, yes. At the same time that I was trying to put out the bonfire my incompetence had started (and which led to the that's-the-last-straw canning decision), I also got a call from my bank about some fraudulent activity on my account. I panicked, told them to cancel my card, and ran to the bank. I have $160 to my name.

Q: Holy shit! How will you survive?
A: I'm honestly not worried. I'm good at eating rice and beans, and I do have actual money waiting to come in. And I'll be cancelling the fake charges, so that'll probably give me another two hundred or so. It'll be a thrifty weekend, and a very careful month or two thereafter, but I'll certainly get by. Good thing I'm single, though! Whew!

Oh--and I qualify for unemployment insurance, so that'll help a bit. The only problem is that because I was fired today and not yesterday, I can't apply for unemployment benefits until Monday. So for now it's just me and my $160.

Q: What are you going to look for?
A: Obviously, I'm good at teaching, and that would be a good fit for me, but the school years have already started, so I don't expect any openings there anytime soon. But I'll be getting my resumes out to the various schools for later, so I can be in their files when they need someone.

I've also thought of looking into places that generally require internships. Specifically, I'm thinking of advertising. It's pretty much the only job I can think of where my Hallmark card-writing skills are almost directly transferable. ("You've got an emotional artistic pitch to make to a very specific demographic. Go!") And it's pretty much impossible to break into without a period of internship.

And despite my recent firing, I could also be an editor again. The problems I had at Dell were almost all related to the problems associated with keeping track of reprints ("Didn't we use this untitled number puzzle in issue #32? Better check the records and look up all the relevant citations, which I hope you've been logging assiduously..."), and with puzzles in general, which are multipart productions (puzzle AND answer, and sometimes hints, all on different pages that have to refer to one another accurately, a hundred at a time, in a standard magazine) that have nothing to do with my best strengths, which are mostly grammatical and story-based. So I just need to work someplace where they actually use words and/or use all original work. So really, I could probably work just fine editing for anything BESIDES a puzzle reprint magazine.

I am, however, taking suggestions. Quiz show writer? Tour guide? Consultant about some topic I'm not aware I'm good at? I'm sure I have skills that I'm too close to to think of as marketable. Any exterior eyeballs would be much appreciated.

Q: I want to kill those assholes who fired you!
A: That's not a question. But I actually left on really good terms. They're wonderful people, and on my very first day, my future boss said, "I just worry that you're so creative that you'll find this job too boring." I said, "Don't be silly! I'm excellent at concentrating!" Now we know: no more non-creative jobs for Dave. I really want to thank everyone at Dell, though: when I got the job, I was jobless, had run through all my student load money, and was borrowing hundreds from my friends and was maybe a month away from sleeping on the street. Dell (and my friend Leslie) saved me, and now I'm in a place where I have more friends, more options, and a real shot at a future. So thanks!

Q: Any regrets?
A: A guy at work yesterday said, and I quote, "I have literally never seen anyone get fired for incompetence. The only guy who's ever been fired was incompetent AND he was sexually harrassing people. So I think you'll be okay." So I came into work today pretty sure I still had my job and anxious to do well in order to start the rehab program on a strong note. So I took work home the night before, worked on the subway, skipped lunch, all to get a major project done before my 2:45 meeting...where they fired me. Hell, if I'd known that was going to happen I could have come in a little later and wasted time talking to all the nice people I won't see anymore. But you can't have everything, and I'm glad I minimized the headache for my bosses, who really have given me every benefit of the doubt. Still, either I'm so incompetent that it's metaphorically similar to sexual harrassment, or their standards have gone up since their last firing. Gee, I hope it's the second.

Q: Is there anyone else you'd like to thank right now?
A: Absolutely. I called a bunch of my friends yesterday in a state of panic (which then calmed down in what was clearly an illusion-fed fugue state), and everyone had kind words for which I thank them. (But Faye, you guessed wrong!) Most notable, however, is my friend Tracy, who said, "Every time we talk, the only thing you ever talk about that's wrong in your life is your job. You've needed to change for a long time, and I hope you do get fired. In fact, if they don't fire you, I hope you quit. It could be the best thing that ever happened to you." That particular conversation has been staying in my head for days, and at this point I think I could put it to music. How lovely it is, when exactly what you need to hear is also the truth, and also full of hope! Thanks, thanks, thanks!

So can someone buy me a drink?

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I Give it a D-Plus

One of the biggest changes of moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn has been switching to the C train. Now, I've been using the C train for years when I have to, because I've always lived in the Washington Heights area of Manhattan, usually between the 1 and the A/C trains. But to understand the change, I have to explain a bit about New York.

If you're not from here, hold your left hand edgewise in front of of you, with your thumb next to, rather than on top of, your index finger. That's sort of the shape of Manhattan Island proper: really skinny at the top, sort of tapering at the bottom, and bulbous in the lower middle. (Put scotch tape over the top half of the line formed by your thumb and your finger and you've basically covered Central Park.) Now take your right hand, hold it full in front of you, then turn it clockwise ninety degrees (fingers pointing out to the right) and you've got a VERY small representation of the two biggest outer boroughs next to Manhattan: the top half is Queens, the bottom half is Brooklyn. (Brooklyn goes down farther than this, so I guess if you imagine someone taping a small vaguely Texas-shaped protrusion that dangles down from the pinky side of your right hand, you'll be fine.) I work in the thumb-pit of Manhattan. I used to live at the top of your left hand. Now I live at the junction of the ring and middle fingers of your right.

The C train is, in its clunky way, pretty amazing, because it actually covers both areas, getting almost to the tippy-top of Manhattan (it bottoms out at 168th, which sucked when I lived at 181st and had to walk the rest of the way on late nights), and swings all the way down to midtown (the bottom bulbous part), and then goes sideways across the middle-lower part of Brooklyn. When I was taking the 1 or the A (both of which go up to the 200s and off into the Bronx), I was always near the beginning of the route, so I always got a seat in the morning. My first worry about switching to the C is that, because there's so much Brooklyn left over after my stop, I'd be standing all the way into town.

That turned out to be surprisingly inaccurate. For some reason the C train seems oddly depopulated in the morning, and there's about a 50-50 chance I'll find a seat immediately, and (so far) a 100% chance I'll find one only a few stops down at Jay Street, when everyone gets off to switch to some other train someplace. So I've been able to sit for most of the ride most of the time. That's really nice. And when I had to swing up to 157th Street the other day to pick up some old mail, I didn't have to change trains at all. Hooray! That part has been good.

But the C train, at least at my stop, has several sins to answer for, and I dislike it more every day.

Normally trains seem able to grow on me, so back when I moved from the A--which has some really beautiful stops, especially the 14th Street station, with the Otterness sculptures I've posted here before--over to the 1, I was prepared to get depressed. But although the 1 isn't quite as pretty or as clean (except at the Alice-in-Wonderland-decorated 50th Street station), it has another advantage: it runs all the time, so frequently that you don't even need to bother with the express 2 or 3 across the way. And if you live above 125th street, there's an additional benefit: the 125th-street station is above ground. So if you get on the train in either direction, you wind up rumbling underground, and then suddenly--sunlight and air! (And everyone immediately checks their cell phones.) It was like the arrival of spring, like we were all Persephone returning from the underworld, and it became my favorite part of the commute.

The C, by contrast, simply disappoints further the more I deal with it. For starters, it's the only train I've been on that's actually significantly shorter than the station. Normally you can wait anywhere on a platform and some part of the train will stop in front of you. At my C station, you have to remember to get several car-lengths forward or you'll find yourself, as I did my first few days, running breathlessly like a pedestrian chasing a bus, in order to squeeze into the overcrowded final car. You won't get a seat until 4th Street, so don't even try.

The C train also contains more crazy people than any train I've ever been on. Maybe it's just my stop (I'm in the Clinton Hill/Crown Heights area), but again, about half the time when I leave the train, there's some guy talking to himself in a loud voice and without a hands-free cell phone, belligerently daring anyone to make eye contact so he can tell you about the problems with women, this country and/or the voices. I would have thought the craziest people were in the city, but I've never seen a regular creepfest like the C offers.

But two things make my particular stop sucky. The first is that my entry is unmanned, which means that there's no one to help if there's a problem, and you can't get a map if you need one: it's just a metal turnstile (like those ones you see at the zoo) that takes cards one swipe at a time. So there's no character to it. Second, and more importantly, there's only ONE working gate; the other one's been broken this whole time. As a result, this is the first time I've ever seen a LINE to get into a subway, as people patiently queue up, one at a time, to swipe their card, get a beep, swipe it again, get another beep, and then are finally let in. The line literally goes up the stairs, and if I'm lucky I'll get a picture of it for this post. So far what's happened is that someone eventually breaks down and opens up the fire door, and everyone streams in illegally. That's the only way the system actually works without driving people crazy. That should get fixed.

Even that, however, didn't prepare me for the second suckiness: for the next few weeks, apparently, the C is not running on weekends. The only option is to take the A train, which is express, and it misses my stop by two entire stations in either direction. So I have to take a shuttle bus, or walk, and in either case, it's a helluva lot easier to get lost, because Brooklyn doesn't have a grid like Manhattan does, and the sign on the subway said, literally, "take the bus to Jay St."--without saying which bus--and since it's an unmanned stop, there was no one to ask. (Also, the stops are much farther apart than they are in the city, so it's a helluva lot of walking.) So last weekend, when all I was trying to do was get home at night, I wound up aboveground, standing in the rain, waiting for a bus outside the Jay Street station, only to discover myself completely lost (and further sodden) at midnight when I was let off at what I was told was Fulton. Call me spoiled, but on weekends after a tipsy night at the bars, I'm used to just zinging home on a single climate-controlled train, delivered to my doorstep like a safely swaddled foundling. I don't want to get out my compass and GPS device, and this rain thing is bullshit. I didn't move here because I wanted to go camping.

One more weird thing. When I went to HopStop.com, I checked and discovered that getting to work was a fairly simple matter, with one speed bump: I could simply get on the C, let it loop around to 34th street, and get off...and then walk for ten minutes to my office. More weather; who thought THAT was a great idea? On the way home, however, HopStop told me I could take the 6 down to Bleecker, take the F to Jay, and then take the C the rest of the way. It takes the same amount of time (although with no walking, albeit more switching around). But here's the kicker: it only works in ONE direction! I literally have to commute on two different plans, constantly buffeted by circumstance, where the Going to Work Me is focused, seated, content, and prepared for a cold-weather slog, and the Coming From Work Me is a nervous little whippet, constantly watching for the transfer stations, restlessly hopping from car to car, and unable to sit the whole time. Not only are these the opposite of what they should be (I need nervousness before work, relaxation after), but these two warring personalities are structured by the city itself, so they're concretely impossible to integrate. Maybe that's where the crazy people come from.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Go Figure...

I have to share this really odd post, in which Kevin Drum--the blogger who somehow turns "wonky" into "readable"--looks closer at the poll results and notices a few weird data points about the voters in New Hampshire: When it comes to Iraq, the New Hampshire voters tended to favor the candidate who would be most likely to provide the opposite of what they said they wanted. What's up with that?

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