Recent Work By Richard Cox

Imagine you have in your possession a fantastic new game: a programmable, mechanical ant farm. This farm consists of some dirt and water and plants, as well as a few mechanical ants that have tiny programmable brains in them. These ants are also able, by a fun mechanical diversion, to reproduce.

When you first take the ant farm out of the box and assemble it, the ants can’t do anything. You alone are responsible for their behavior by using a set of rules that their programmable brains will follow. You don’t control every decision or motion they make (where would the fun be in that?) but rather you set up the rules and turn them on and watch what happens. Will their little civilization rise to greatness, forcing you to buy expansion modules to give them room to grow? Or will it wither and die before it ever really gets started? Oh, and one other fun attribute possessed by these ants: They know they’re in the game. Their brains are just smart enough to realize that their inconsequential lives are owed to you, the owner of the game. But they’re okay with it because otherwise they would enjoy no other existence.

If you have access to the Internet, and use it for something other than checking for winks on Match.com,  you may have read how the lovely folks at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have discovered a new particle they believe to be the Higgs boson, affectionately known by us laypeople as the “God particle.” The LHC is a 17-mile tube situated a football field or so below ground outside Geneva, near the Swiss-Franco border.  In this tube, ridiculously smart physicists are able to accelerate tiny particles called protons to nearly the speed of light by using 1,600 superconducting magnets, each of which weighs almost 60,000 pounds. And for these magnets to work properly, they must be cooled to a soul-crushing temperature of -456.25 degrees Fahrenheit, which is two degrees colder than outer space.

I love stars, the kind you find in the sky, but I’m not as enamored with those on the ground.

Life is Good

By Richard Cox

Essay

This essay isn’t about anything tragic.

I won’t be writing about the economy, about being single and lonely, about a family member I’ve recently lost. I won’t be complaining about the ridiculous Republican primaries or how President Obama has decided the U.S. government can assassinate its own citizens without due process.

If you’re looking for something depressing and dreary, an essay that explores the deep and meaningless pain of being human, don’t bother reading any further.

Bobby Langdor awoke slowly.

Where the hell am I? he thought in italics.

Dazed, he looked around the room. The walls were paneled in brushed aluminum, and myriad colored buttons blinked randomly.

Ah, he thought, again in italics. But there is no such thing as randomness, Langdor, you handsome devil. They don’t call you “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed” because of your good looks, after all. Chaos theory says, “Where there is randomness, there are patterns.”

The terry cloth robe hanging from the brushed aluminum bedpost nearby bore the insignia: HOTEL RITZ, LUNA.

Slowly, the fog began to lift.

Just then, his solar-operated alarm clock began to play “On the Beautiful Blue Danube.”

My God! he thought emphatically. It’s time to get out of bed!

Langdor jumped out of bed and quickly realized he was already dressed in a perfectly pressed Harris tweed resplendent with patches on the elbows.

I’m one handsome, intelligent bitch, he thought to himself.

Suddenly, his cell phone rang. Langdor answered carefully.

“Bobby Langdor, I presume?” said the caller.

Langdor sighed. His discovery of the Holy Grail some two hundred years ago had changed his life, particularly when it was discovered the grail was not divine at all, but rather a chalice full of Red Bull mixed with midichlorians. Langdor drank this solution and had now been alive for nearly two hundred and fifty years. Since his extraordinarily long life had been made public, his phone had not stopped ringing.

“This is Langdor,” he said, and then put on the Bluetooth earpiece so he could do pushups while talking. “What up?”

“My name is Admiral Qui-ron Da’ackbar Smith. I’m–” A burst of static interrupted the caller’s voice. “…in the name of 55 Cancri. Hello? Can you hear me? Hello?”

“I can hear you now,” Langdor cried.

“Goddamn cell phones,” Smith said. “It’s fucking 2212 and this is the kind of cell phone service we have? But I do love being able to watch high-definition UFL games on my 5-inch TFT.”

“Where is 55 Cancri?” Langdor asked expressively.

“In the constellation Cancer. And man, let me tell you, this is one nice constellation. We have security gates and automatic sprinklers and everything.”

Langdor had done one hundred pushups so far during this conversation, and now he began clapping his hands each time he pushed himself off the floor. “What can I do for you, Mr. Smith?”

“Well, Mr. Lang…burst of static…declaring war…burst of static…in the next twenty-four hours.”

Jumping up from the ground, Langdor pulled on a pair of plaid wool slacks. Walking across the room, he decided to open a window. The low temperature this morning was forecast at -233 degrees Celsius, and he could use a little of that cool, space air in his room right now.

“Sorry, Mr. Smith. You’re breaking up. I can’t hear you.”

“I said, Mr. Langdor, that we here on 55 Cancri E  have declared war on the Moon. More than forty-three years ago our entire arsenal of ICBMs left this planet at the speed of light. Since the constellation Cancer is 43.7 light years away from the Moon, those missiles should reach you sometime in the next twenty-four hours. I thought I would call and give you a chance to surrender, Langdor.”

Never!” Langdor said casually. “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the sons of Worvan, we shall fight to the end!”

I should have used italics in that last sentence, Bobby Langdor thought in italics.

“Then it is too late for you,” Smith said. “I will use the Sun as a gravitational slingshot to accelerate the missiles. Long live Einstein!”

Looking outside, Langdor realized belatedly that Smith was correct. The approaching missiles screamed at him through the black lunar atmosphere, and Langdor cringed for the fireball that was sure to come.

Crying, Langdor suddenly, painfully, and catastrophically felt an upwelling of emotion, realizing belatedly he had forgotten to FTP the latest version of his brain to the server on Alpha Centauri. Now, when his replacement body was commissioned, his memories would be missing the last few days of his life.

My God! he thought finally. Also, I can’t believe this Harris tweed sport coat is going to be ruined. And my Burberry turtleneck. What’s a pretentious writer of melodramatic, pseudo-intellectual novels to do?

The other day I attempted to write an essay about the human brain and its extraordinary knack for pattern recognition. Brains are capable of identifying complex and subtle relationships between external stimuli that would confuse even the world’s most powerful computer. Our brains are also capable of accessing ancient memories almost instantly, though not with anything like the precision of a computer and its digitally-stored data.

As a gift for making it all the way through high school, my dad bought me a Sony rack stereo system. Up to that point I had enjoyed my favorite 80s music on a smaller unit, which was essentially a glorified jam box, although occasionally, when my parents were out of town, I sneaked a listen on my dad’s audiophile-quality rig.

This was just before the CD began to really take off, and the players were still pretty expensive, so my stereo didn’t have one. But it did have a decent turntable, and from that point forward I only purchased music on vinyl because the sound quality of prerecorded tapes was vastly inferior.

However, using expensive blank cassettes and Dolby Noise Reduction, you could record your own mix tapes and arrange songs in whatever order you liked, and the sound quality was indistinguishable to the ear. At least to my ear.

To make these tapes sound as pristine as possible, I used a record cleaning kit that included an anti-static gun. That is not a joke. I would clean the record with a special brush and then shoot the record with a gun that emitted a stream of ions. These ions neutralized the static electricity generated by the friction of brush on vinyl. Yes, I know it sounds like science fiction but it really did work. My mix tapes were amazing.

As great as vinyl sounded, however, it was not a convenient format to use. I couldn’t play records in my car, and if I wanted to skip a song I was forced to get up and physically move the tonearm. And I couldn’t ever line it up exactly on the song I wanted to hear. And every time you play a record, you damage it ever so slightly. For this reason I didn’t actually listen to the records themselves very often. I considered them source material that I could use to make my own “perfect” mixes.

The engineers who developed the compact disc format were familiar with the limitations of vinyl and sought to eliminate them. Instead of scraping a diamond stylus against your cherished copy of Abbey Road, you could instead bounce light off it. Instead of having to move a tonearm you could just hit a button, and the next song would be lined up perfectly every single time. You could play a CD in your car. It sounded exactly the same on the first play or the 1000th play. The dynamic range of a digital recording was vastly superior to any previous format and the noise and distortion were almost zero.

I’ve always wanted to believe the reason CDs overtook vinyl as the primary music delivery format was because of the superior sound quality. Objectively, when you look at the numbers, there should be no comparison between the sound quality of vinyl and lossless digital formats. In side-by-side listening tests, except on the very best turntables in the world, CDs sound cleaner, brighter, and more spacious. That’s what they were designed to do.

But the enjoyment of music, like life itself, is not an objective experience. It’s a highly subjective experience. The sales of CDs overtook vinyl not because of the supposedly superior sound quality, but because of their convenience. This is the same reason digital files have become the primary way to listen to music today. You can fit your entire collection of music on a little rectangular box that fits in the palm of your hand. What’s not to like about that?

But the scrappy vinyl format never really died. Instead, it fell into the hands of hobbyists who claimed the sound of digital music was harsh and lacked the human, organic experience that vinyl delivered. Over the years I’ve read countless articles in audiophile magazines about the debate between analog and digital, and I’ve always sided with the digital guys. The very thing the analog enthusiasts enjoy the most, the “warm” sound of vinyl, is in fact distortion. Sure, it’s a type of distortion many people find pleasant, but how could one make the argument that records sounded “better” than CDs when the digital format essentially eliminated distortion?

It’s not surprising that for most of my life I’ve been a digital guy. Almost every modern convenience we take for granted involves the use of computers. Digital technology makes nearly everything easier, more productive, and in many ways more enjoyable. It’s romantic to long for simpler times, before technology, but the reality is life before technology was difficult and grueling and left little time to enjoy much of anything. We modern day, first world folks are pampered like no other humans in history.

My own life, in many ways, has paralleled the evolution of the world from analog to digital. When I was younger, I was riddled with self doubt and in the mirror I saw only flaws. I was such an introvert that I didn’t kiss a girl for the first time until I was nineteen. I didn’t have sex until I was 22. I was mortified of women, of social encounters, of almost everything that had to do with other people. But rather than be stuck with these flaws, I instead sought to eliminate them. Over a period of years I taught myself to be comfortable around large groups and with women. I changed my appearance by dressing differently and styling my hair differently and even having major surgery as part of a orthodontic procedure that altered my smile and face forever.

Not many people in my life are familiar with the old me, the analog me, because I maintain a tightly controlled public persona. I manage to write novels and TNB posts about many subjects, even emotional subjects, without revealing many details about myself. I don’t like to reveal weaknesses and insecurities, probably because doing so reminds me of the old me. I like the new guy a lot better, this guy I Photoshopped into existence. This digital guy. And lots of other folks seem to like him, too, so why even acknowledge the analog me? I put him in the attic years ago and he’s been collecting dust there ever since.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this supposed road to digital perfection. When I had everything I wanted, or thought I wanted, I realized I wasn’t really happier than before. I lived in a beautiful house, I achieved my lifelong dream of becoming a published novelist, I married a gorgeous, likeable woman whose face was known to everyone in the community. In most measurable ways, I should have been the happiest guy in the world. But instead I was bored. I felt empty. Instead of heeding the advice of John Lennon, I had always seen life as a destination, or like a video game that if you worked hard enough at, eventually you could “win” the game. Instead, my life had been sailing by while I was making other plans. Striving for something else instead of enjoying what was right in front of me.

Over the past few years, especially when I began making friends in the MySpace blog community, I became increasingly aware of the disparity between what I imagined life to be and what it really was. I picked up a lot of regular readers and fans on MySpace, and many people enjoyed my work. But gradually these readers began asking questions. Why didn’t I write more about myself? Why did I always write about things and subjects instead of people and feelings? At first I found these questions annoying. I didn’t understand why it mattered. With every post, I started an interesting conversation that hundreds of people enjoyed, so who cared what I chose to write about?

What I didn’t understand then is that these readers, my friends, weren’t asking questions to challenge me. They just wanted to get to know me. The human, not the writer.

In my novels, I tried hard to focus on the people, and not just ideas, but the ideas always won in the end. Even though there’s a love story in every novel I’ve written, in the early ones the relationships were mainly window dressing for the high concept plot. This is no surprise since, in my actual life, I’d always been more fascinated with the miracle of the cosmos and scientific exploration than with my fellow man. How could my feelings or anyone’s feelings compare to the grandeur of the universe and its very existence?

During the process of writing my newest novel, however, I discovered that knowing the answers to everything, knowing the truth, doesn’t change the essential nature of life. If someone told me today the whole world was an elaborate video game, or a joke, or whatever, I would still have to get up in the morning and eat and go to work and spend time with friends and loved ones. Having a peek behind the curtain wouldn’t change what was going on in front of it every single day.

My entire life I had been striving for a destination that, in the end, was as pointless as it was impossible to achieve. I began to realize that instead of looking to some faraway place for fulfillment and happiness, I could look at the things right in front of me. Which seems obvious and trite, but sometimes life is obvious and trite.

Unfortunately, it was right around this time that the things closest to me took a turn for the worse. In the span of a few months, my marriage ended and I was laid off from a company where I had worked for seventeen years. My agent kept asking for changes to my new manuscript, telling me the characters didn’t seem real or human or likeable, and I began to wonder if I would ever sell another novel, that maybe the first sale was a fluke. Even when my agent finally did accept the manuscript, interest from publishers was minimal, and my savings continued to dwindle.

You think I would have taken advantage of all the free time to write another novel. After all, I already had a new idea. All I had to do was sit down and write it. Without a job tying up nine hours of my day, I could have written something in a few months if I worked hard. But instead, I frittered away the free time and sank into a very dark place. Honestly, I can barely remember what I did with the time. I was off work for thirteen months, and aside from putting the finishing touches on Thomas World and writing a screenplay adaptation (in three days), I accomplished absolutely nothing. When I was down to the very last of my savings, as I pondered complete financial collapse, the mood in my head grew darker still.

It was about this time that I met someone, a girl, who was also recently divorced. I added her on Facebook but made no real attempt to court her. I was in no mood to date someone and I wasn’t sure I would like her, anyway. But little by little we began to communicate, and the more I learned about her, the more I liked. She was (is) extremely intelligent, hilarious, has great taste in music and films, but most importantly she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She doesn’t take anyone too seriously, because she’s had a lot of drama in her life and now just wants to relax and enjoy each day.

She’s a very analog girl.

I’m incredibly fortunate to have met her. She looks at the world in the exact way I wish I did. She sees beauty in the spaces that most of us miss. Whenever I spend time with her, I learn something new about the world, about her, about myself.

Around the time I met her, almost to the day, I was contacted by a placement firm about a good job opportunity. Also around the same time is when I signed the contract to have my third novel published. In mere days, my fortunes reversed in almost every measurable way. This near-miraculous good fortune should have instantly cured my dark moods.

But old habits die hard. I couldn’t quite let go of the digital destination I’d always envisioned. For example, when my new book sold, instead of being thrilled, I was disappointed that I wasn’t paid as much as the first two. As the book neared publication, I began to feel an intense amount of pressure on how it would be received, on how it would sell. I tried to convince myself how fortunate I was to have sold a book at all, considering the economic climate and the state of the publishing world, but I continued to focus on what I hadn’t achieved, instead of enjoying what I had.

Recently, all this confusion surfaced as a series of irrational arguments I started with my new friend. For those who know me well, this sort of behavior stands in direct contrast to my normal personality. Even as I was creating this artificial turmoil, and especially afterward, I could not answer why I had behaved so bizarrely. Especially not when everything in my life was now moving forward. How could one feel like the world was his oyster, and yet somehow reject it?

In the digital world, information is encoded in such a way that makes alterations easy to perform. You can retouch a photograph or add special effects to a film or create amazing music so easily that you begin to expect the real world should behave that way. On more than one occasion, I’ve made my own remixes of songs I enjoy, using a multitrack recorder to shorten or lengthen songs at will. I retouch photos and I create funny golf videos from footage that often isn’t funny at all. In the digital realm, with enough patience, you can exert complete and precise control over every facet of existence, you can send it wherever you like, play it in your car, play it on the other side of the world with almost no effort.

Things are different in the analog world. Complete control is not achievable. In the analog world, emails become handwritten letters, Facebook avatars become the real faces of your friends, and CDs become record albums.

Last week, after spending time with my new friend, listening to her record collection, I asked my dad to dig out his Bang & Olufsen turntable, circa 1983, from the attic. I found a stylus cartridge on eBay, and retrieved my record collection from my own attic. I hadn’t taken care to store the LPs very well and some of them were too warped to play properly. But most of them were salvageable, and I spent the better part of my weekend listening to those old albums. More than once I had to correct myself when I picked up the remote, intending to skip to the next song. And since I no longer own the cleaning brush or anti-static gun, the listening experience was not a fidelity level to which I am accustomed.

And of course it was beautiful.

I also spent an evening reading about Buddhism. I’m not a religious person and probably never will be, but I’ve always been curious about Zen and what that worldview is like. What I read was not groundbreaking stuff, not at its most basic level, but it did have a profound effect on me. There’s no controlling the world, the behaviors of others; in fact the disorder and warts and the many and differing personalities that comprise the world are in fact the beauty of the world, that to achieve peace you must be okay with your place in it, with your beautiful and flawed self.

Do I think records sound better than CDs? I don’t think it’s a question that needs to be asked. They simply sound different. Records sound warm and pleasant, and listening to these particular records had an unintended effect as well: I was flooded with images and sounds and smells from that directionless summer after I graduated high school, the countless hours I spent erasing any trace of static from my recordings, when I rearranged record albums into mix tapes the way I wanted them, when I spent far more time with my stereo than I did with other people; I remembered pounding out terrible short stories on my Royal electric typewriter, sending them away to this magical and foreign place known as New York City, where they were immediately rejected by faceless gatekeepers; I remembered standing in front of the mirror every morning, staring at my face, at the angry, volcanic ranges of acne, not understanding how I was ever going to ask a girl on a date looking like that; I remembered the doctor who fixed my acne problem, and my first kiss, the first time I ever told anyone I loved them; I remembered the palpable discomfort I felt in bars and in giant college classrooms; I remembered sitting down to begin my first novel, a story I wrote in serial format, sending each new chapter to my friend who was suffering though Army Ranger training…with every crackle and pop and skip in those records I remembered my analog self, and a sort of calm came over me, and the darkness that had built inside me like cancer over many months seemed to bleed out of me, replaced with a sense of peace I had not experienced in a long time. On the blemished surfaces of those platters of vinyl I saw my own imperfections very clearly, how they will always be part of me, and even if I were to achieve every goal I could possibly dream, there would still be a lifetime of days to enjoy, one at a time, and understanding this means there’s no more pressure of a destination, of forcing things to be just so.

The other day you said, I can’t stand things that are perfect.

In that case, you must really like me.

I’m very late to the TNB fifth birthday party, but I didn’t want to let it recede too far into the distance without writing a few words of appreciation.

It was late 2006 when I first heard of the TheNervousBreakdown.com. This was the first iteration, back when there were maybe twenty-five or thirty contributors writing mostly to amuse each other. Zoe Brock suggested I contact Brad, and she kept after me about it when my first reaction was lukewarm. After all, I was authoring a popular blog on MySpace, generating a large amount of conversation with every post, so the unimaginative guy in me saw no reason to branch out. Like I was really going to take the time to write a post that maybe only twenty people would read?

When I was eleven years old, my parents presented me with an awesome music rig for Christmas. Within minutes of opening the box, after installing the batteries and internal storage, I was listening to popular tunes. With the press of a button I could download songs and play them back at my leisure. And download I did.

But there were drawbacks to this particular rig. It possessed only one speaker. Its wireless connection was actually an AM/FM radio, and the internal storage was a finite supply of Certron Normal Bias 90 minute cassettes. Also, whenever I recorded songs to tape, the first ten or fifteen seconds were invariably marred by some jackass DJ talking over the top of the music. And the batteries ran out too quickly.

I have this sudden desire to make French toast. It’s 3:18 AM Central Standard Time on February 9, 2011, and I ate dinner hours ago, and more recently I prepared myself a late-night snack. But enjoying a full stomach very early on a Wednesday morning doesn’t make me crave the French toast any less. What matters is it’s 10 degrees outside, and the wind is howling at 35 miles per hour, and it’s snowing heavily.

Since it’s snowing, that means I need French toast. And I need it now.

But there’s a problem. When I go to the store, there’s no bread on the shelves. There are no eggs. I do find a few cartons of milk, but they aren’t really milk but almond milk, Silk-brand Pure Almond Dark Chocolate Milk with ExtraAntioxidants.

Actually, I’m lying about the bread. There’s one lonely loaf left, dressed up in a shiny blue bag, with the alliterative name Blueberry Breakfast Bread. I doubt it would taste very good as part of a ham sandwich, but I suppose it would make decent French toast. But I don’t really want to make French toast. I was lying about that, too, because I’m in the minority. Apparently, when it snows, the only thing people in Oklahoma can think about is their precious French toast. Although when I wander over to the baking aisle, I see no one has bothered to snatch up all the vanilla extract. Maybe people around here don’t make French toast with vanilla extract. They probably chicken fry it. (Actually my mom used to make French toast this way, by breading it. The first time I ever saw the more accepted recipe I had no idea what the hell it was.)

Anyway I do pick up plenty of other grocery items, like a ribeye steak and a package of chicken breasts and some ground turkey. In fact the entire meat section is fully stocked. Apparently no one feels like consuming protein when it’s cold outside. Just comforting, insulating carbs to help them stay warm inside their climate-controlled homes. I also grab some Yukon Gold potatoes, which are all that’s left of the potatoes, even though Yukon Golds taste better than the others. I always wondered why the store shelves the better-tasting potatoes over here in the corner and places the bland, bestselling Russets out front where everyone can find them. I suppose Russet pays a premium for those high traffic areas.

While I’m in line to pay for my precious groceries, some guy with an earnest voice gets on the PA system and announces that a batch of fresh French bread is now available in the bakery. No less than ten people sacrifice their places in line upon hearing the news. I can’t help but picture them at some later time, standing in their kitchens, slicing these loaves into little pieces, struggling with full-size lunch meats, frustrated at their incongruous sandwiches, at the injustice of it all.

What’s really funny is next door to the grocery store is a bakery. I pass this bakery on the way to the liquor store. When I go inside, the bakery is so full of bread you would think the loaves were self-replicating. They have every kind of bread you can imagine in there. I don’t understand why they don’t put some guy outside with a megaphone yelling, “FORGET ABOUT THE BLUEBERRY BREAKFAST BREAD. WE’RE SELLING REAL BREAD WE BAKED JUST NOW, YOU MYOPIC FOOLS.” On the other hand, the bakery doesn’t have very good signage. I didn’t know it was here until six months ago, and I’ve lived nearby for almost eleven years.

Some of you are already aware that I made this trip to the grocery store on foot. The reason for this is because unlike a lot of these idiots, I live in a neighborhood with curvy streets and steep hills. When it snows a lot, or when there’s ice, I literally cannot drive up my street. Which is fine by me. When storms approach, I buy plenty of groceries in advance and plan to be stranded. I pretend like I’m camping. It’s fun. In fact the only reason I walked to the store at all is because I was bored, and because I wanted to eat a steak and enjoy a few cocktails while I watched the Super Bowl. But that doesn’t stop people, when they realize I’m walking to the store, from making brilliant comments like “I bet you wish you had a four-wheel drive truck right now!”

I get cabin fever like anyone does. Of course I do. But just because I’m cooped up in my house for a week doesn’t mean I wish I had leased a different vehicle for 36 months. 36 months equals 1,095 days, unless one of them is a leap month, in which case it equals 1096 days. I’m stranded at my house because of the weather for maybe ten of those days. That’s less than one percent of the time. I have nothing against SUVs and pickup trucks (that’s not true, I hate them), and I don’t mind if someone else wants to own one, but why on earth would I? I see these guys proudly driving around in their boxes on wheels, and for a moment I believe I’m telepathic, because I can actually hear their thoughts. You know what they’re thinking? They’re thinking, “Look at me! Today I put the truck in four-wheel drive! I’m a badass!”

But you know what? I can’t really make fun of that. The reason I can’t is because my car gets about the same gas mileage as a pickup or an SUV. Honestly I should be ashamed of myself. Whether or not the typical owner makes use of it, a pickup at least possesses the potential for utility. My car can make no such claim. In order to build a V6 engine with more than 300 horsepower, some concessions must be made, including fuel economy. But fuck it. I need that power. My car can hit nearly 160 mph, and that’s something I do on a daily basis: drive 100 mph over the speed limit. Why on earth would I go anywhere if I couldn’t do it at 160 miles per hour?

I could summarize this by declaring that people behave strangely. But that really isn’t true. What’s true is people behave differently than you expect them to or want them to. You think it’s silly that some people stock up on bread and milk and eggs before a big snowstorm, but they think you’re stupid for living in a hilly neighborhood when you don’t own a four-wheel drive vehicle. You think they’re wrong for living in an old, drafty house cursed with exposed pipes that freeze every time it gets cold, and they think you’re soulless because you live in a new house that possesses no character. You think they should dress with more style. They think you’re a hipster doofus.

Personally, I think everyone but me and maybe six other people in the world are idiots. But don’t be too angry with me. As I write this, it’s 4:12 in the morning, the wind chill is 15 below zero, and I’m about to go for a walk. My sister and I did this one time as kids, wandered around our snowy neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, and now it’s like programming code I can’t erase. I do it every time there’s a big snowstorm. It doesn’t make any sense.

But honestly, what does?

Addendum: 5:53 AM. Just returned from walk. More than two inches of new snow since I left. Chanda, you should’ve been there. <3

A lot has been written about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, both in the mainstream media and even here on TNB. It was an important feature of Matt Baldwin’s “When Stupid People Go To Smart Movies,” and was also mentioned in “Legacy, Lightcycles, and Lady Gaga,” a discussion between Cynthia Hawkins and Gloria Harrison. As it happens, I’ve also tapped Ms. Hawkins, who has become TNB’s resident film expert, for a post about Black Swan. Below you’ll find a conversation she and I recently had about how audiences perceive independent films compared to those built using the more traditional Hollywood model, as well as some questions for you, the TNB reader. Thanks in advance for sharing your time and thoughts with us.

My dishwasher and I have been at war for some time. This war is being waged on two fronts. On one side is my ongoing search for a bowl or plate or pot so dirty the dishwasher cannot clean it, but so far I’ve found nothing, including a recent plate coated with the super glue residue of leftover fried eggs. The other battle is a certain steak knife I’ve run through the wash at least five straight times. There is a bit of unrecognizable debris stuck to the tip of the blade that no amount of hot water and dish detergent will dislodge. I could easily scrape the debris off with a fingernail but that would be like conceding defeat. This is a ridiculous war because the dishwasher obviously possesses the horsepower to clean any dish it wants but refuses to acknowledge the steak knife. I think it’s mocking me.

* * *

I don’t watch a lot of television, and I don’t have cable, so the only way I get national news is to read it on the Internet. But I don’t even do that as often as I probably should. I’m too busy looking for that little red alert on Facebook that tells you when someone leaves a comment or sends you a message. Other sites I read with regularity are this one and DamnYouAutocorrect.com. But that’s not what this is about. This is about everyone sitting around watching cable news all day and then complaining how everything is wrong with America. The thing about America is there is so little wrong with it that we have the luxury of watching theater disguised as news and then complaining about how put upon we are. Of course what’s wrong depends on which network you watch. None of them can agree what’s wrong, only that something definitely is. The cable news networks also seem to agree they should compose theme songs for important news stories. Can you imagine being a musician who makes a living this way? Hey, Mutt! We need a quick ten second theme to introduce the war in Afghanistan. Can you whip up something by nine? But Mutt is expensive, and so are satellite trucks, so the way networks pay for their broadcasts is with prescription drug commercials. These advertisements are invariably more interesting than the news itself because they, a) suggest you diagnose yourself with an illness, and b) consume most of their precious air time warning you about side effects. Like this pill will stop you from peeing so often, but you also might shit out of your ears or die or see the future. Whose bright idea was it to put the lay public in charge of prescribing drugs to themselves? Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t understand this logic?

* * *

In downtown Memphis, moments after I emerge from the hotel, a man approaches me and begins to chat. It’s nine-thirty at night. I’m starving. The friendly fellows quickly ascertains I’m looking for a restaurant, away from the tourists, and helps me locate one. I know this game but pretend like I don’t. We talk all the way to the restaurant. He learns I’m a writer and promises to visit my web site and send me an email. I learn he has a “fifteen-mile walk home in the rain.” When I inquire about a potential bus fare, the amount he quotes is about the same as one of the vodka-laced Red Bulls I will consume with dinner. This sounds like a fair investment to me, so I give him the bus fare and go inside.

The restaurant isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough. There’s a bar, a few tables, and a stage where a live jazz band is preparing to play. The crowd is mainly young professionals, dressed a lot like me, having drinks and watching the local pro basketball team on flat screen televisions. I sit down and order a drink and a burger, and while I wait for my order to arrive I send flirty text messages on my iPhone. The band is decent and I snap a few pictures and text those, too. Eventually a girl walks up to the bar and stands next to me. I realize she’s the same blonde I noticed earlier at an adjacent table. She just stands there, drinking water, and I realize she expects me to say something to her. So I do, and when the girl turns to me I can see she is very pretty, like model pretty. She tells me about her job, about how she doesn’t like it, and asks where I’m from. I keep looking back at the table behind us because I’m pretty sure that guy over there in the pink shirt is her boyfriend. It could also be the guy in the suit, but my bet’s on Pink. I’ve got a nice buzz, and I should be feeling happy, but instead I’m confused. Why is this petite supermodel chick talking to me where Pink can clearly see her? And why am I pretending to care about her boring job? I’m texting someone who isn’t here and occasionally being chatted by someone who is, who apparently doesn’t want to talk to her boyfriend, and everything seems absurd to me. I’m listening to jazz music in a Memphis bar, and though it’s pretty good music I start to think how odd it is to be sitting in bar full of locals, listening to a band play jazz because they sort of have to, being in Memphis, like I’m watching all these actors play their parts. When the blonde and I run out of things to talk about, she wanders back over to her boyfriend and the rest of their group, and I turn my attention to the television. Occasionally my phone buzzes, and the conversation moves forward, albeit glacially, and I wonder if my text buddy were here in person, would we be on our phones talking to other people who were not here?

The guy who directed me to the restaurant never sends an email.

* * *

On the interstate, on the way home, I listen to stand up comedians to distract myself from the reality of a six-hour drive. I listen to music. I wonder what draws us to listen to music, to these same melodic rhythms again and again. Sometimes music evokes emotion in us, sometimes it inspires us, but very often we listen simply because we cannot bear the silence. On a normal day you might be working in a cubicle or in your living room, your hours might be filled with the concerns of other human beings, and time flies by with little knowledge of its passing. But when you’re on the road you’ve got nothing but six hours of asphalt and tractor trailers and drivers who won’t get out of the left lane, and suddenly the hours assert themselves. They become worlds, planet-sized, immensity so great you can barely detect their curvature. Which is why you distract yourself with pleasing melodies and rhythms, drumbeats that count off the many moments so you might forget about them.

And you wonder if maybe that’s what you’re really doing every day. Distracting yourself.

* * *

If our bodies are electrochemical machines, the core programming code instructs us to survive long enough to engineer successful offspring. But human minds, perhaps uniquely, possess the ability to override genetic commands. We use latex or hormones to defy industrious little swimmers. But to what end? For some, bearing children is the next, obvious step in their forward-marching journey. Others give no thought to the gravity of bringing life into the world. And maybe a few of us, consciously or not, look at parenthood as a concession of defeat, just one more reminder of the meaningless void. Maybe we see those smiling baby faces as the army that will eventually defeat us.

* * *

In the end, though music may often be a distraction, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes you hear a melody so beautiful you are compelled to stop the forward march and give yourself fully to the moment directly in front of you. Sometimes you make perfect contact with the golf ball and launch it four-and-one-half football fields into the distance. One day your first novel sells and the only response you can think of is to cry. Another day your eight-year old niece calls you on video chat and you read her a bedtime story over the Internet tubes.

If that smiling face is the beginning of military occupation, it’s certainly difficult to resist.

* * *

Today I ran the dishwasher. This time the blade of the steak knife emerged clean, pristine, like it was brand new all over again. I don’t know if it matters or not, but I won that battle.

The only real point to life is for it not to turn out the way you expect. Think about it. If, at an early age, you mapped out a life for yourself, and it played out exactly the way you wanted, you would be fantastically bored. In fact, if nothing or no one placed obstacles along the preordained path of your life, you would probably introduce those obstacles just to experience a little variety. I think you can make an argument that those of us prone to self sabotage are not necessarily fighting some deep interior hatred of ourselves but simply bored.

We humans also feel a deep-seated need for order in the world that stands in contrast with our desire for conflict. This is probably why we create gods who are all powerful and ostensibly running the show, but presume those gods afford us free will. There is a plan, but we are permitted to fuck it up. Or we look to distant and irrelevant celestial bodies to help us understand who we are, but the interpretation of these stars and planets are left to infallible humans.

This is why I believe most good stories follow a certain template. A character’s life is pushed out of balance and he spends the rest of the story attempting to restore order. Each time he succeeds, new and greater complications arise, creating a back and forth effect, an increasing push and pull effort until no greater threat can be imagined, at which point the character either overcomes his obstacles or is overcome by them. Or some ironic blend of the two.

Of course a novel or a film or any medium may incorporate one of these stories or scores of them, depending on its scope. The threats might be real or imagined. They might be contained within a family or cover the entire planet (or galaxy). But this template functions because it appeals to our inner struggle between order and conflict. Play all you want with a certain medium, introduce new variations on form and structure and language, but do not argue with me about the underlying way a basic story functions. That template is what joins the story with our biology.

Our lives are stories. We are rarely in balance, and even when we are, we seek ways to temporarily push ourselves out of balance. Perhaps the wise among us, as they grow older, realize this and try to reverse field. But I would wager that even our most comfortable and intelligent seniors still look for daily reasons to complain about something.

If life is a story, perhaps its most impressive climax is romantic love. In my opinion, there is nothing in the world more miraculous. Billions of parents around the world might disagree, but intellectually I find romantic love more interesting because of the relative rarity compared to its familial counterpart. Perhaps the love a mother feels for her child is more powerful, but the truth is there is a functional purpose for that version of love, a very real biological source.

You might argue how lust and temporary romantic partnerships are also driven by our genes, that all life is a machine, but my definition of romantic love stands outside that model. Finding a suitable biological partner might amount to nothing more than hip-to-waist ratios in females, or height and breadth combinations among men, and the general health and beauty of both. But coupling those physical attributes with our complex, brilliant, chemical brains is something I’m not sure evolution has grasped yet. Or something we humans can really understand. In the first blush of a crush, it’s hard to separate the physical urges from the intellectual. You can’t really know if the attraction you feel is a biological imperative or the far more complex joining of two individual minds. Most often, the attraction is weighted on one side more than the other, and this is why the most fulfilling relationships are so scarce.

Complicating matters even further is how often it happens that one person experiences the complete picture of romantic love and the other does not. Due to social norms and biological pressures, relationships like this might last a lifetime, but this happens far less often than it once did, at least in Western culture. Today there are too many options available to us, and countless love stories have taught us to accept nothing less than a magical union. Functional relationships burdened with these fanciful expectations often experience structural failure, and millions of people wander aimlessly wondering why they can’t find someone perfect with whom to share their lives.

It’s no secret why love stories are usually written about the chase but rarely about what comes after. The excitement of courting or being courted is the engine that drives the story. The obstacles one experiences while driving toward the climax of admitted and recognized love is the story. The sense of balance one experiences by beginning the relationship is not a story. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s the end of the story other people might find interesting. You don’t write that part in a book or film because the chemistry between those two people is so unique that it likely wouldn’t be entertaining to a wide audience. Who wants to listen to their friend prattle on about how awesome their partner is? Wouldn’t you rather hear her admit how she believed she was important to him, only to find out he’d been using her as a toy all this time?

Maybe it’s depressing to recognize these things about ourselves, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, understanding humanity is a way to make sense of our lives and set expectations. Extended happiness and true romantic love does exist in the world. There are many examples of it. But recognizing the scarcity of these things may prevent you from being disappointed when you don’t find them, or at the very least help you accept something less in your life. After all, the earth will continue to rotate no matter how you feel about it, and your acceptance that every day won’t bring roses will help you make the most of those many sunrises and sunsets.

In any case, since it’s true life rarely turns out the way you expect, it’s also possible the most amazing event of your life will happen tomorrow.

That you can’t ever know for sure is what makes life so beautiful in the first place.

It’s not easy to characterize Amy Walker. At first glance you might consider her a gifted performer, but a closer look reveals talent across numerous artistic disciplines. She’s a writer. An actress. A singer. A film director. A choreographer. A skilled instructor. Her ability to assume the mannerisms and vocal patterns of regions around the globe will astonish you.

I found Amy’s work on YouTube, quite by accident, and was amazed at the breadth of unique content she’s published there. In one video she pokes playful fun at certain English words. In another she films herself preparing for a date while timing her movements and singing along to a piece of instrumental music. Her sense of humor ranges from subtle to off-the-charts wacky. But one piece in particular, a tender short story about a long-married couple titled “Toast with Butter,” impressed me enough to look further into her work. I learned that one of Amy’s videos earned her a segment on NBC’s “Today,” and that she’s working on a feature film about relationships and the amazing ways humans are connected to each other.

Imagine you’re an 18 year-old bloke born and raised in Sheffield, England. You’ve just finished high school, have no plans for university, and are trying to figure out what to do with your life. There aren’t many apparent options. Sheffield is a gray, aging steel town, and if you don’t think of something else you’re going to end up working in a factory. Or maybe not, because the local economy is shit and a lot of the steel mills are closing.

The one thing you have going for you is you’re an aspiring musician. One day you miss a bus and find yourself talking to another chap who’s in a band. He invites you to audition. You’re thrilled at the prospect of joining an actual band, and you want to play guitar, but it’s clear your skills aren’t quite up to the task. Or at least not playing an instrument. To your surprise the band asks you to become their lead singer, which at that point is the greatest moment of your life.