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.

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.

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Another year has come and gone, and it’s time once again to present The Nobbies, the official book awards of The Nervous Breakdown.

Below you’ll find this year’s winners, our picks for the best books of 2011.

Congrats to the victors, and their publishers.

And thanks, as always, for reading.

-BL

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.

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?

I live a charmed life.It wouldn’t work for most people I don’t think, but for me it is a skin tight glove, molded and designed to fit perfectly.My schedule is hectic.There are planes, and hotels, and stages, and radio stations, and studios, and rental cars, and so many different skylines that the whole world begins to bleed together like a chalk drawing in the rain.

I

We mad fly; we
Dream dry; we
Scribble drunk; we
Fake the funk; we
Keeps it real; we
Sly conceal; we
Royal hall; we
Southern drawl; we
Bleed tears; we
Clink cheers; we
Fling curves; we
Gnaw nerves; we
Break it down; we
Class clown; we
Write raw; we
Down by law.

In 2006, the year I turned 30, I graduated Magna Cum Laude with my BA in English, my fourteen year old daughter was repeatedly attempting suicide and failing in school, and my four-and-a-half year old ADHD twin boys were rapidly being kicked out of every daycare center in the city – all of which was the death knell for my failing marriage. Around this time, I created a MySpace account to stalk my daughter, who, I discovered, had a clandestine account herself. On my profile I listed writing and reading as two of my hobbies and one day I got an invitation to read a blog written by some “author” named Brad Listi. Everyone was an author on MySpace, it seemed. Most of them were trying to sell me something and the ones who weren’t tended to write boring blogs about finance or essential oils or some other subject I had no interest in.

I was, as a matter of course, rejecting nearly every “author” who invited me to read his or her writing – but for some reason, I went ahead and accepted this Brad Listi fella’s invitation.

 

Look at this earnest face.

Look at this earnest face.

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.

It’s spring, and all of you sexy people out there know just what I mean when I say, mmm-mm. It’s time for the return of the sexy.

The sun is bouncing brightly off that freshly waxed chest in front of you where its owner is parked enjoying a delicious shot of wheatgrass. He’s working on his computer like he’s got a novel brewing. Or maybe he’s a writer for GQ. He’s just made eye contact with you as if to say candidly, “I see you watching me being sexy over here. I, too, acknowledge your sexy.”

Oh, yeah.

That’s right. It’s been a long, cold run up here in the mountains, and I am happy to report that spring is finally in the air. The birds are birding, the chipmunks are chipmunking; and the bees…are beeing sexy. Yesterday, I was at a giant garage sale for my kid’s school. Helping out because volunteering is sexy. I didn’t end up doing much, but I did walk away with a great deal on a purple and black corset, which just goes to show, economy is sexy, too.

A lot has happened this last year. Grandpa got married. He’s 90 and she’s 96, but neither of them are a day over sexy. Together they witnessed the rise and fall of the USSR, the coming of age of Barbie, and the invention of the chocolate chip cookie. Had a preacher man say some words over them without actually signing a marriage license so they could be sexy together without getting their families all riled up over mingling their bank accounts. Last I heard, they had moved back to their single rooms over at the independent living center. A little space is sexy, too—oh yeah.

It’s spring and it’s time to be sexy. Two weeks ago, Slade Ham, Megan DiLullo, Uche Ogbuji, Richard Cox and Sam Demaris came up to our house. It had snowed 8 inches of fresh powder, so it wasn’t very sexy. Even so, we laughed, told stories, ate donuts and drank a lot of very sexy whiskey. At one in the morning, we broke out the kickboxing gear and sparred in the living room. I got the wind just about knocked out of me by a well-placed punch to the side by Slade. Brought me to my knees it was so sexy. Even Scott just shook his head from behind the video camera and didn’t rush to my defense. Megan put on some headgear like she was going to jump in but was eventually pulled back to the sofa by a 90 proof magnet. Uche broke out into some def poetry while Sam called us a bunch of high schoolers. Richard played Tiffany. There is nothing sexy about Tiffany. Donuts are sexy, though. Especially if you’re a dude made out of fried bread. Oh, yeah.

But Spring is in the air now, and all of those kinks have been smoothed over. No excuse to not be sexy. Even Simon Smithson and Zara Potts and the rest of you living down under don’t have to stop being sexy even though it’s well into autumn now for you. Autumn is a sexy word for fall. You’re down there and we’re up here and we’re passing like two sexy ships in the night. Passing the baton of sexy.

Don’t worry, though. We’ll have enough sexy in the northern hemisphere to carry you over. Nathaniel Missildine in France. David S. Wills in China. Steve Sparshott and James Irwin in England. Irene Zion over in Belgium(?) and Judy Prince somewhere in between. We’re creating a mesh network of sexy and beaming it south. Down below the earth’s belt. Now that’s sexy.

That’s right, Spring is in the air and it’s time to be sexy so slip out of those shoes and curl your toes deep into some warm sand somewhere. Wear something that ends in an ‘ini’. Order something cold that comes in a pineapple or coconut shell because drinks that come in their own skin are sexy. You know it. But it’s spring, so don’t worry too much about having to try. In spring, just about everything is sexy. In spring, even Tiffany is sexy.

So, keep on keepin’ on, wheatgrass boy. You’ve got a spot of green in the corner of your mouth there.

There you go.

Oh, yeah.

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.

It was around two years ago that Zoe Brock first suggested I write for The Nervous Breakdown. We were in her San Francisco lounge room and I’d made it to about the space between ‘some’ and ‘how’ in the thought Maybe this will get me laid somehow¹ when I said ‘Zoe, I’ll do it.’

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.

Spurred on by Slade’s piece and Richard’s comment I cry Havoc! and let slip this one. I’d like to claim I knocked it off today but that would be a lie. I wrote it a couple of years ago.

I’m sitting in my workroom on a snowy day in the country, looking out the window at the woods, the creek, the dark-colored bank on the other side of the creek, where once I saw a weasel moving along dangerously.

Closer to me is the birdfeeder, which doesn’t have a tray underneath it. I bought one when I bought the feeder but when I went to assemble it I couldn’t find any machine screws and little hex nuts to attach it to the feeder and it seemed too much trouble to look through the jars of rusty hardware I’d brought to the country. So the seeds fell on the deck, where the cardinals and the dark-eyed juncos ate them. And the chipmunks did, too.

One year the chipmunks got to be a real problem. I didn’t care if they ate the dropped seeds. But then they started eating the cherry tomatoes, digging up pots of flowers and generally having their way with my deck. And of course with a good food supply they multiplied. Seemed as though every time I looked at the deck there were chipmunks scurrying around. Some of them jumped or fell off one side, into a large vat of water, and drowned. I didn’t find their bodies for a few days and then I threw them in the bushes. Too rotten for anybody to eat.

A hawk moved in and solved the chipmunk problem. Then she moved on and the chipmunks returned, but this time living in the crawl space and messing with my insulation. So, Havahart. Then what? Havahart plus pellet gun plus shovel.

I have no compunction about killing animals, even cute ones. You have to understand I grew up in a family where we killed things. We always ate them but I’m not going to eat chipmunk, so there’s a bit of a disjunction there.

No Disney hangups here. I shot a little red squirrel last year with my pellet gun, which is the only functional weaponry around here, except for my machete. Fucker was busting into the plastic tub of birdfood, the food I stored outside so I could fill the feeder more easily. Chewed right into the plastic. When I capped him he (well, maybe she) did a nice somersault.

I waved the body around to catch a crow’s attention. Pitched it out into the open, crow lunch. Effective recycling. The next one I offed because he attacked my wren house, climbed up in the cherry tree and into the wren house, mother and father wren doing their best to keep their eggs, or maybe there were little wrens by then. How could I not help them? Bang, see you later red motherfucker.

Red squirrels, according to Wikipedia, are aggressive, omnivorous, the scourge of nesting birds. I became the scourge of red squirrels, or at least those who came over to my place and caused trouble. Pretty soon word got around the red squirrel community and now they stay out in the woods or in the neighbor’s tree where I can see them from my bedroom window. Stay in your tree, Nutsy Squirrel, or die.

Then we have the raccoon, who dined at the bird feeder and the hummingbird feeder too. Rocky was a larger target but more stealthy. I threw my machete at one of them (there were a bunch of Rockies) but mostly what I did was move the feeders so they couldn’t climb on the railing and reach them.

There must be some size-personality calculus in operation. I was prepared to think of my Rockies as individuals with personalities in ways that I wasn’t prepared to for quick-moving jerky little creatures like the chipmunks and mean red squirrels.

The woodchucks, yes, mostly OK, happy to have them eat the clover and dandelions but then they zeroed in on my phlox. I was OK with their having the phlox that grew wild even though I could see it from the house, and it was very pretty in June before the woodchuck population grew, but then they started in on the ones I busted my ass planting.

I was OK with their digging dens out in the woods, not even any of my business, but when they dug one under the barn I was not OK with that especially since that put them in easy striking distance of my flowerbeds. Then they dug one under into my cellar, very uncool. Internet, UPS, Havahart (large size), fewer woodchucks.

So anyway, I think about this a lot. Am I one of those guys I don’t like? Kill everything, humans rule? I don’t think so.

What I think, and I’ve laid out my place accordingly, is that close to where I live is my territory and I share it with terrestrial creatures as I please, not as they please. In the house, we won’t even talk about the mice. They die. Just outside, or underneath, well, that’s mine too. No trespassers.

Farther out – and we’re talking 200 feet or a hundred yards – I don’t feel that way, and once we get out into my woods and down to the creek, hey, it’s all theirs. If I cut a path, it’s no problem for them. If I fell the occasional tree, OK, the same.

Sounds pretty good, no? Graded series, graduated responses. You might not agree but it’s a logical and defensible position.

The thing is, what about those birds? Can we come back to the birds? I invited the birds. The chipmunks died because of the birds, didn’t they? No seeds dropped, not many chipmunks, and not any on the deck eating tomatoes and messing with the pots. Or if the chickadees, nuthatches, and dark-eyed juncos were neater eaters, the chipmunk population wouldn’t have boomed. And the wrens were in a wren house I hung in the tree. Maybe Nutsy Squirrel would have gotten them somewhere else, but he went after them in the house I made for them.

Maybe I’m responsible for disrupting the predator-prey balance, not only inserting myself into the equation as top predator, but trying to control the others. When my hawk flew down from the barn to take a look at who was feeding at the birdfeeder I yelled at her – “No! Take the chipmunks, not the chickadees.” I believe I actually yelled “my little chickadees.”

So, Dear Reader, if you’re sensing some ambivalence on my part you’re onto something. Human interference with natural systems throw them out of whack and the human interferes even more. Or maybe it’s just bipeds versus quadrupeds. Back in the days before bird intelligence was well understood I was told something like “birds are stupid because they can fly.” But now we know that’s a gross overstatement. Birds are smart, although my pair of doves have always seemed like dimwits to me.

Back about that long ago there was no good evidence that birds were what’s left of the dinosaurs. Sure, it was an interesting idea, but didn’t have a lot to support it. Now it does, so OK, as a kid I liked dinosaurs and now I like birds.

Also I like Leda and the Swan (wait, how did that get in here?). My hawk’s beak is indifferent.

It’s a thin and spotty trail from bird-lover to Havaharts and pellet guns, but I guess it’s there. And I’ve been walking it.