Recent Work By Richard Cox

The first memory I have of my father is my earliest image of anything, a thunderous voice demanding I finish some long-forgotten meal. I was still in a high chair then, and the world was binary, black and white, yes or no. Mostly no. If you were uncertain about whether a particular action was permissible, you didn’t have to wait long to find out. The loud voice made the world exceedingly simple.

But while I often feared the consequences of my questionable behavior, I was never afraid of my father. To be honest I don’t know how he pulled that off. Maybe the secret is I’ve always known where I stood with him. I knew generally what was right and what was wrong, and I knew I would always be treated fairly. I also knew my father loved me.

Like if I was sick to my stomach at three in the morning, crouched over a toilet on the other side of the house, somehow he was there with a cool washcloth on my forehead. Or when I wrecked my bike and cut myself so badly I still have the scars, there he was washing my wounds, so proud of me for not crying. Or the way he constantly reminded me how he never earned the grades in school I brought home with ease. I wasn’t so sure about that, since I believed my father to be the smartest man in the world, but I appreciated him saying it anyway.

He was raised on the red, desolate plains of north Texas. In small towns like his, there was nothing to do and everything to do. He grew up hunting and fishing and working. He spent several summers on a harvest, twelve hours a day of backbreaking labor under a sweltering sun. After high school he made a stab at college but not a very serious one. He knew his own strengths and where he might find success, and it wasn’t between the covers of a textbook.

So he married my mother, took a job for a treating company, and began a nearly forty-year, zig-zag journey through the oilfields of the central United States. He drove a treating truck, sold oilfield chemicals, took jobs in places other sales reps wanted no part of. Together with my mother he saved our family from repeating the modest upbringing of their rural youth.

To my brother, sister, and me, the stories of my parents’ gritty childhoods were mythological, something you might read in a Larry McMurtry novel. In fact McMurtry himself grew up less than fifteen miles from my mother’s house…and yet I had no idea there was a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist nearby until almost ten years after he won the award.

Why? Because though my father instilled core values that will always be part of me, and though he taught me many important things, he reads sparingly. If he read any novels at all during my nineteen years at home, I never saw them. I, on the other hand, was an insatiable reader. In my teens I burned through books like Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451.

Considering the amount of hours my father put in at work, that his wife and three children were waiting to pounce when he walked through the front door every evening, he probably had little time to read. More importantly, literature has never been part of his world. He spent his youth outdoors, on his feet, and can barely sit still long enough to watch a film, let alone read a novel.

But even though literature wasn’t necessarily important to him, he never tried to separate me from it. I suppose he might have been frustrated to see me sprawled across my bed on sunny summer days, engrossed in a book when I could have been outdoors, but that didn’t stop him from purchasing me a typewriter for Christmas when I was 18. I think he first asked if I wanted a shotgun, and I would have been happy with one for sure, but he knew what I really wanted. And though he never asked what sort of projects I was working on, the Christmas gift was an unspoken message of support I’ve never forgotten.

In 1984 my mother was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis. The course of her disease changed the course of my father’s life. He intentionally altered his upward-moving career path to make things easier on her. We lived closer to family, we moved to climates kinder to the disease. Eventually he arranged to work from home so he could he spend more time with her.

Retired now, my father is very nearly a scratch golfer, as well as an accomplished hunter and fisherman, but he’s never left my mother’s side. The two of them have changed their diets (based on a book, no less) as a possible way to slow the progression of her MS. And believe it when I say that watching my conservative, hard-nosed father wander through the aisles of a whole foods store looking for gluten-free products was one of the most surreal and impressive experiences of my life.

Though he never recommended a novel to me, or had any idea how to land a literary agent, my father was as instrumental as anyone in my quest to become a published novelist. Maybe he would have preferred for me to study petroleum engineering or even medicine, but the most important lesson the elder Richard Cox ever taught me is this: Don’t give up. As many times as I was rejected as a young novelist, as inept and uneducated as I felt trying to break into the world of publishing, I never once considered quitting. Fully aware of my modest storytelling and compositional skills, I worked hard to improve them, and though I’ve now published two novels, I still have a long way to go.

But I would never had made it this far without him.

So Dad, I thank you. And on behalf of my brother and sister, we thank you. For making sacrifices on our behalf, for standing beside our mother while she has fought a terrifying disease, for adapting your own strongly-held views to our divergent cultural and political beliefs, we all thank you. If I ever have a child, I will pass along your lessons to him or her with pride.

However…if my son requires assistance on how to knock down a mourning dove with his .410 shotgun, I might have to ask you to lend a hand. I’ve never been as good a shot as you.

But I could use another lesson.



In fiction, one common and generic way to refer to well-drawn, realistic characters is to call them “round.” As in:

…characters as described by the course of their development in a work of literature. Flat characters are two-dimensional in that they are relatively uncomplicated and do not change throughout the course of a work. By contrast, round characters are complex and undergo development, sometimes sufficiently to surprise the reader.

2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

I normally refuel my car at QuikTrip, a regional convenience store chain that differentiates itself from others with clean facilities and prompt, friendly customer service. I mean, I don’t really give a shit about the customer service because I always pay at the pump, but on the occasion that I do have to go inside for something, it’s not an unpleasant experience the way some of those places are. It’s clean and brightly lit and the employees aren’t scary.

QuikTrip probably breaks even on us pay-at-the-pumpers, so in order to make a profit they try to lure us inside to buy goods and services. The way they try to convince us is to advertise these goods and services near the pumps, and usually the ads involve food. Because we’re all in a hurry and usually hungry, right? One recent ad was for some kind of breakfast confectionery concoction,  like a cake or a biscuit or a strudel (I don’t really remember exactly) that I presume is manufactured in a giant plant somewhere. And since QuikTrip marketers realize most Tulsans are overweight, that many of them probably feel a constant, nagging guilt about eating too much of the wrong foods, the tag line they chose was:

“Because you have all day to burn it off.”

They know most of us won’t burn it off, but that doesn’t matter because the profit margin on the breakfast is large in comparison to gasoline. And besides, if no one was overweight, the exercise machine business would dry up.

I realize that in order to sell something you often are forced to market it. But at what point does the sheer gaudiness of advertising gall us enough to ignore it? And what about the quality of the product? When do we finally put our foot down and say “no” to the McRib? Pressed pork in the shape of a rack of ribs? Bones included? Really?

Where I live, when you drive down any of the main city streets, the curbside advertising is often downright ugly. Businesses fight for the attention of your eyes with nothing less than their survival at stake. When you’re looking for a tailor shop, for a Greek restaurant, for a salon, you welcome those many-colored signs hoisted high into the air, but when you’re just driving home from work, caught in traffic, when you actually look at this marketing with a more critical eye, it almost seems sad. Desperate, even.

Over the years, Tulsa has gradually expanded southward, and traveling from north to south is like driving through time. The farther south you go, the worse the problem gets–except in planned, affluent neighborhoods–but even those residents are forced to drive into the commerce to buy the things they want.

Advertisers have become more brazen over the years, I suppose, because there is more competition than ever for services rendered. More companies offering more services means more ads competing for your attention. Everyone speaks a little louder until the conversation on what to do with your money becomes a roar imploring you to spend.

But on what? Unique, durable items that wow you with their innovation and quality? Or cheap, soulless shit stacked twelve feet high at your local Wal Mart Supercenter? It’s your choice, really. After all this is America.

I find it telling, though, that the best restaurants in Tulsa employ modest, even subtle signage. Advertising isn’t a priority because apparently word of mouth does the job more effectively.

The reason I mention all this is because on Saturday I stopped at a convenience store that wasn’t QuikTrip. This one is called (I am not making this up) Kum & Go. And while filling my car with gas, you know what I saw on the nozzle? An ad for NEW BANANAS FOSTER CAPPUCCINO!

On the oily nozzle of the gas pump.

At Kum & Go.

Doesn’t that sound delicious?

Recently I wrote a novel. Well, I didn’t write the whole thing recently, but I did recently finish it, and by finish I mean I’m waiting to hear from my agent if he likes it or not. He’ll suggest changes and so will an eventual editor, so it’s not really “finished.”

When I was 19 I took a job at Sears, Roebuck, and Co. The company was named after Richard Sears, Alvah Roebuck, and Bad Company (the English rock supergroup). If you’ve ever wondered who Roebuck was, I can tell you (according to Wikipedia) that the name came from Alvah Roebuck, who left the company in 1895 because of poor health. He returned as a spokesperson during the Great Depression and maintained that role until his death in 1948. Anyway, nothing against Mr. Roebuck, but I find that information to be exceptionally irrelevant to this blog, and yet I felt compelled to include it because of my fascination with Wikipedia. Who says porn is the best thing on the Internet?

I remember quite clearly, when I was 10 or so, a television commercial for Tylenol. The message went something like this:

“Extra Strength Tylenol has more pain-relieving medicine than Regular Strength Bayer Aspirin.”

I was only 10 years old. I shouldn’t have even been paying attention to the commercials. I should have been playing with my Rubik’s cube while I waited for Magnum, P.I. to come back on. But that commercial pissed me off.

How can they think people would be that stupid? I wondered. Any human being with half a brain isn’t going to be fooled by a statement so clearly misleading.

It turns out people are not only susceptible to misleading marketing, they seem to be drawn to it. Unsubstantiated superlatives appeal to our inner nature. But what nature is that, exactly?

Or consider a study done recently on human adaptive behavior, where groups of people were placed in a room and given a special thermostat to regulate the temperature of the room. The thermostat was set up in such a way that it was not immediately obvious how to regulate the temperature. Most groups did not set up a test to try different methods and use logic to arrive at the correct method. Instead they began to develop almost superstitious beliefs about the thermostat, like if they held it in a certain hand it worked better than another hand. Or if they tapped it three times it would set off a special chip inside that would correctly regulate the temperature.

There are people in this world who want to know how things really work, and they have developed logical ways to arrive at good answers. Many more people, however, just want to feel their way through life. Why is that?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by people that I think too much, analyze too much, that I am too literal. I’ve always been this way. In school I was excellent at math because the methods to arrive at the correct answer were clear. I also took advanced English and composition classes, and I was good at that, too, but when it came to interpreting literature I was not as good, because the answers weren’t discrete. The answer was smeared across a range. The truth could change depending on your position, and this did not come naturally to me.

So, of course, instead of becoming an engineer I decided to be a writer. What? What sense does that make? Well, I always loved to read and was naturally good at composition, and doing math all day sounded really boring to me. But even though I’ve had a little success, I’ve struggled to create great characters because I seem to be missing some understanding of how to render the “feel” part of life.

It’s not that I don’t have emotions. I do have them. I feel them. I often have to look away from people
during sad movies because they make me get all, you know, teary and whatever. But that looking away doesn’t just happen in the movies. I control my emotions in real life as well. I don’t know why. They just seem to add unnecessary complexity to a situation. You ever had a moody boss? An angry parent? Wouldn’t you rather have had rationality in those situations?

When I was single I used to go to bars with a friend of mine who had moved here from Austria. This guy was really literal…I’m talking Vulcan literal. We would have these long conversations about the inherent absurdity of picking up a girl in a bar. Either one of us could chat up a girl in a normal life situation, where there was some inherent subject to discuss. But in a bar there is no context other than “Hi, I’m going to try to pick you up.” We knew the idea was to make small talk, but that was the problem. Neither one of us cared to make small talk. If you didn’t have a concrete reason to talk to someone, why would you? Eventually, of course, I would have enough drinks that I finally would talk to a girl, about whatever, nothing, anything. And it was fine. But why did I have to wait for alcohol to kick in before I could disregard my need to be literal?

To me, information is the most valuable commodity there is. It’s the currency we use to interact with
each other, with the world at large. Without information you can’t do anything. All the stimuli that are
processed by your senses are comprised of information. Without information you don’t even know if you exist.

But when is it good idea to have less information?

I play my best golf when I stop thinking about the mechanics of the swing and just feel it.

We can probably all agree that you can’t have good sex when you think too much.

You can’t enjoy a slice of pizza if you’re worried about how many calories are in it.

There isn’t a math equation to describe love.

Does that mean there are situations in life where we willfully suspend our disbelief?

Love exists in our brains, after all, and while a lot of people may not believe it, there will come a time when that electrochemical process can be mapped. Unless you think God is yanking the strings of the universe and routinely breaking the laws of physics, everything we know can be described by a physical process. Which means everything could eventually be known.

I can hear you right now: Well, I don’t want everything to be known. I don’t want love to be understood discretely even if it’s possible. I want there to be room for magic.

But you must agree we want some things to be known. Before we had knowledge of pathogens, people routinely died for reasons that today would seem absurd. So that sort of information is good, right?

We used to believe the sun was drawn across the sky by a guy in a chariot. We used to believe the Earth was at the center of the universe. But when scientists suggested we weren’t at the center of the universe, they were tried for heresy. Heresy!

Even today there are people who reject mature fields of science like evolution and geology because it doesn’t jibe with their religious beliefs.

I suppose this need to occasionally blot out rational thought emerges from the way our brains are wired. In some ways we are like computers, passing and parsing bits of information, but we also incorporate emotions, which current computers do not. Those emotions can completely override normal information processing, like when you have an orgasm, or when your favorite team wins the Super Bowl. In the most literal sense it may seem absurd to rub your private parts against someone else’s, it may seem ridiculous to watch a bunch of strangers on television throw a ball to each other, but no one can deny the euphoria that can be produced by these activities.

Which is one of the most interesting conundrums of being human. You can try to reduce the world to a
discrete, measurable system, but your brain will always rebel against you, because it cannot divorce itself from emotion.

And what would life be like if it could?

Yesterday I bought some Nike golf balls, and the girl at the cash register asked, “Why are these golf balls so expensive?”

Normally, I would have answered her literally, something about the attributes of the golf balls, or just
smiled and said I didn’t know. But instead I said, with a gleam in my eye, “Because I’m so good.”

She got a kick out of that.

Which I suppose is a small but fitting example of what it means to be human.

One thing I’m not too fond of is blind adherence. I think it’s a good idea to occasionally take a step back from whatever you’re doing and ask “Does this make sense?”

Curiosity can’t be a bad thing, at least not in most cases.

This is why I detest politics. I often get the feeling that politically passionate people don’t think about their view points. Rather it seems like they take whatever ideology they identify with and blindly defend it.

Growing up in a middle-class Texas household, you can guess what my upbringing was like: somewhat socially conservative, very fiscally conservative. So that’s the kind of person I was until I became old enough to think critically, when I started noticing certain bits of hypocrisy in the social side.

So gradually I migrated away from social conservatism, but still held onto my fiscal conservatism.

In my first election I felt firmly Republican, but in subsequent years I didn’t identify with a party. If anything I seemed a bit like a Libertarian, but really I didn’t understand why I had to pick. Of course I realize there are practical benefits to the two-party system, but personally I hate it. The world does not fit into a system of black or white, so why should we shoehorn something as complex as politics into that model?

When I look around at the various issues we debate about, I wonder how it’s possible that they all seem to line up perfectly with political party platforms. Whether we’re talking about global warming or stem cell research or national health care or immigration or economics or whatever, I just don’t understand how it’s possible that all of these issues can somehow line up perfectly on the right and the left.

The answer is: They don’t. It’s us that forces them to, or rather pundits and activists who do it.

And when you begin asking questions about your long-held beliefs, you can easily become the political enemy of those who were previously your allies.

Fiscal conservatism stuck with me for many years because I felt like people ought to earn their own way in life, and if they happened to find success, they shouldn’t be unduly penalized for it. I didn’t really understand why I or anyone else should pay money to subsidize people who didn’t work as hard. I mean, no one gave me a free ride. I worked various jobs since I was 11 to help pay my university tuition, and worked full time in college as well.

Of course, my middle-class upbringing offered me opportunities that were harder to come by for someone who grew up in the projects. But I didn’t really see why that was my fault. But also…I didn’t really see why it was THEIR fault, either. If you’re BORN into poverty, how is that your fault?

I don’t know if there are easy answers for such problems.

On global warming, after watching “An Inconvenient Truth,” I was sold on the idea of humans being the major cause behind rising temperatures. Then I spoke to a few people who disagreed (with reasonable proof to back up their claims), and my position softened. I read a little and I decided it was difficult to know just how much humans were causing global warming. But I also figured I should do things within my power to help, however small they might be, like recycling and using energy efficient appliances, lights, etc. Just because we humans might not be the main cause doesn’t mean we are obligated to be intentionally wasteful.

Recently I spent some time discussing economics with someone more knowledgeable about the subject than me. This person is of the opinion that the United States doesn’t collect enough tax revenue. Our infrastructure is crumbling and our social programs are abysmal because we have the lowest tax burden in the world among industrialized nations, he says.

This, of course, flies in the face of my economic conservatism. But instead of outright rejecting his ideas, I’m trying to understand them. He believes Democrats and Republicans are BOTH conservative and none will raise taxes to an appropriate level because we Americans won’t stand for it. When the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans earn a postwar record 21 percent of all income in the U.S., he says, the only way to protect our country from eventual economic collapse is to make the rich pay more taxes…especially people who were born into wealth, who comprise the majority of the super-rich. The middle class cannot and should not be expected to give more. And he tells me how China and Japan and Europe are eventually going to want changes in government spending if they are going to continue to finance our massive national debt.

I don’t know if this guy is right, but his positions seem well-reasoned enough for me to consider them. The infrastructure here in Oklahoma is downright embarrassing, but in my home state of Texas it’s pretty good. What’s the difference? Also, I’ve never had much of an opinion about health insurance because I have an extremely good plan where I work. But a self-employed friend of mine recently started looking for health insurance, and she was quoted $1250 a month for a pretty basic plan. I mean, come on. That’s a mortgage payment. It’s absurd. But is government-sponsored health care the answer? Or is health care simply too expensive? Will effective health care eventually be feasible only for the rich?

What are the answers? I don’t know. But what I do know is they don’t lie on just one side of the political landscape. Republicans aren’t right about everything, and neither are Democrats. Anyone who believes differently should be given a set of Crayons and sent back to first grade.

Notice how there aren’t just two colors in the box?

The morning is soupy, humid and warm, and we all know the mercury will climb quickly. A ride on a bus and an uphill walk, rubbing elbows with an army of spectators, and then I see the sun breaking over the roof of the club house. Shadows stretch across the golf course, a man-made jewel. The sky is infinite shades of pink and blue. I never get up this early. As far as I’m concerned, the day doesn’t begin until two hours after sunrise. Minimum. But I might as well capture this rare moment for digital review at some later time, so I reach into my pocket and retrieve my camera. Push the power button. Nothing happens. I push it again, but knowledge surges into me like guilt, and I see clearly the camera battery mounted in the charger. Which is plugged into the wall. At home. Today is the day I chose to take pictures–the Tuesday practice round–because tomorrow I’m working, and during the actual tournament, cameras are prohibited. Because of the bus system and the long walk, the round trip time between this spot and my house is probably an hour and a half. Maybe even longer. I stuff the camera back into my pocket. Through the trees I notice a group of golfers on the fourth green. One of them is Tiger Woods. I happen to be standing near the fifth tee, so I walk over and find a spot on the ropes, directly behind the tee. Two minutes later, here comes Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods, two of the biggest hitters on the PGA TOUR, about to tee off on one of the longest holes in major championship golf. A 653-yard par 5. And I have no camera. But wait! I smuggled my cell phone into the tournament! It has a 2 megapixel camera! Phones are definitely not allowed here at the PGA Championship, but I get it out anyway and snap a couple of shots. Even though I know they won’t turn out well.

You know what, though? It’s okay. It’s no secret that I’m into golf. I like to think that if I could quit my job and practice full-time, I could probably make a living at it. Either playing or instructing. But I don’t, because I already chose “writing novels” as my pipe dream career. It would probably be greedy to have two.

The PGA Championship two weeks ago was one of the most rewarding weeks I’ve had in a while. I volunteered as a marshal on one of the more famous holes in golf, I was able to watch the sport being played at its highest level, and I was there when Tiger Woods won his 13th major. That all this happened a couple of miles from my house made the experience that much more sublime. A lot of people asked me afterwards: Did you see Tiger? Did you see Tiger? Yeah, I did. Being inside the ropes, I was pretty close. Did you get his autograph? people asked. Get a picture with him? I am a big fan of Tiger Woods because he set his sights on one of the most hallowed records in sports and has steadily marched toward it for the past twelve years. I am a fan because he is about the same height and body type as me, and I can look at his swing as a model. Surprisingly, I hit the ball about as far as Tiger (though nowhere near as precisely). It’s fun to compare your skill level with the best in the world, to imagine what it would be like to play a round with Tiger or any of the best golfers. But what would I do with an autograph? His name hastily scribbled on a ball cap? A photograph might be interesting, but only if it were taken after I had a conversation with the guy.

Because who is Tiger Woods? I don’t know. Who is Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen or any well-known person I admire for their skills? I don’t know them. They don’t know me. Would I like to play golf with Tiger? Discuss fiction with Franzen? Of course I would. But I would do it as a peer, not a fan. To do so is to acknowledge some gap between us, some difference in what we bring to the world, and I’m not prepared to do that. I can understand children pining for an autograph. But I don’t really get it with adults…and yet I’ve happily signed many books. For readers I meet in bookstores, for friends. It seems very hypocritical, I know. Maybe the difference is that at a book signing, I have the chance to speak with readers. Or maybe I’m conceited. All I know is that I prefer to take pictures with the people I care about. The people I talk to every day. The people who I share my life with. But hey, Tiger: Let me know the next time you have an open spot in your foursome. I’m free. And this time I’ll have a battery in my camera.

This morning, when I climbed into my car and tried to start the engine, nothing happened. Why? Because I didn’t have the keyfob in my pocket.

With this car it’s possible to make odd mistakes with the keyfob because there is no key attached to it…the little egg-shaped fob uses RF signals to talk to the car, and if the keyfob isn’t physically inside the car, the ignition won’t work. Conceivably one could start the car, go back into the house and change pants, and come back outside to the already-running car and drive away. But guess what? After you turn off the ignition, it won’t start again, because you left the keyfob in the other pair of pants.

The keyfob is also smart enough to know when it’s inside the trunk…and if you accidentally leave the thing in your golf bag, the car is smart enough to pop the trunk lid open to notify you of your absent-minded mistake.

The reason I mention this is because I was thinking on the way to work how it would be nice if I could implant the keyfob technology into my body. I could implant a tiny RF transmitter/receiver in my hand, say, and then I would never need the keyfob at all. And as soon as this occurred to me, I imagined the resistance that people might have to the idea.

Because people are quite romantically attached to their bodies and the idea of being human.

We love using the Internet and DVD players and playing XBox, we love all sorts of technology, but not many of us like the idea of being a cyborg. Darth Vader was the ultimate bad guy during my youth, and only when he was unmasked and uttered the line “Let me look on you with my own eyes,” was he finally forgiven for his evil ways. At the end of Terminator 2, Schwarzenegger’s character says “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do.” Only by melting himself, and the chip that is his brain, can humanity be saved (at least for the time being).

It seems we get nervous about the ramifications of blending man with machine. “Will I still be myself?” “Will someone be able to track my every move?” “Will I still have my soul?”

What gets lost in questions of this kind is that nature itself is, at its most basic level, a machine. Everything you see, everything you eat and touch, everything you think you destroy or create, it’s all just component materials organized a certain way. Carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are the three elements that comprise glucose, fat, and ethanol. Three very different substances, same component materials. The only difference is the way the original elements are put together.

In fact, when you get down to the basic building blocks of matter and energy, at the quantum level, there are only a few types of components. And yet, combining these simple particles with a few patterns creates all the phenomena in the universe…including us.

“Wait,” you say. “I may someday return to dust, but at the moment these cells are all mine! Right?” Actually, no. The cells that comprise your body turn themselves over at different rates, but over the course of several years your body becomes completely new cells. (The exception here are neurons in the brain, though even those are altered when atoms within the neurons are recycled.)

How can YOU be YOU if all the material in your body was, a few years ago, contained in plants and animals and air scattered across the Earth?

The answer is: information. Instructions in your DNA tell your body what to do with the fuel you take in. Think about it: You eat a steak (or peanut butter, or some kind of protein) and a little later it becomes muscle fibers in your bicep. Or, you eat a steak, and another steak, and you never exercise, and instead the calories turn into fat. Your body is simply an organic machine, albeit a very, very complex one

So…if someone devised a chip that you could implant in your brain, and it would increase your mind’s processing speed and memory accuracy, would you want one?

What if, using nanotechnology, we could repair cellular damage and clean out arteries, would you want that?

Nanobots are very small machines…which sounds scary until you realize that they are not much different than regular molecules. They just have a few instructions that tell them what to do. Whereas a typical molecule is sort of “dumb,” a nanobot would be a molecule with a purpose. We already genetically engineer bacteria to do things for us (like help us make cheese).

I know it doesn’t seem very romantic to use technology to enhance or alter our bodies. But think about all the ways you intentionally alter your chemical makeup. How many of us use wine to enhance a romantic evening? How many people smoke to calm their nerves? How many of us use pharmaceutical drugs to get over an illness? Or even “natural” medicine? All those things alter your body’s chemistry.

Why would a chip be any different?

Finally, there is the issue of immortality. Would you guess that, in a way, all of us are immortal? Sure, your body eventually dies, but the DNA instructions used to create your body…those will live on if you have children. Bodies age and die primarily because replication errors cause DNA information to be lost. There may be ways in the near future to slow or halt the process that results in these errors.

If you could, would you want to live for two or three hundred years?

Of course, the longer you live the more likely it is that you will be involved in a fatal accident. What if you could use a chip to periodically upload the information in your brain to a computer? A sort of backup process?

When you think about it, the core of who we are is the information stored in our brain. All of our hopes and fears and loves and successes and failures are basically just information encoded in neurons. If you could back that up somewhere for download later, would you do it?

Would you want to “live” in a computer that was connected to the Internet?

How different would your MySpace (or Facebook, etc.) relationships be? All the friends you have online that you never see in person…would that be different? Hopefully no one prefers MySpace to real life, but would a computer existence be preferable to death?

I used to be frightened of death. The idea of “me” ceasing to exist, that the world would go on without me, that I would miss out on great discoveries (such as life on other planets), really bothered me. But in the past few years I’ve wondered if maybe eternal life would be boring.

Obviously we’re romantically attached to our bodies and the idea of being human because that’s how our DNA has programmed us to feel. We reject too much progress because it seems artificial…but what does “artificial” really mean? How do you define such a concept?

There will come a time in the not-so-distant future when we will be able to outsmart DNA. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

Do you welcome that idea? Or do you find it revolting?

Viewed from an altitude of 37,000 feet, the Earth looks a lot different than our everyday experience.

The majestic Rockies are a bumpy patch of acne. Mighty rivers look like static, crooked lines. Teeming cities become their smoggy, Google Earth counterparts.

We build our lives in these places, we take vacations to them, we photograph them in order to precisely relive their beauty at a later time. We make clear distinctions between desolate, flat farmland and the beauty of California, where mountains meet the sea.

But from high above, the differences between these places are blurred.


The place where I work is made up of several buildings that surround a courtyard. There is a pond in the courtyard and a small, man-made waterfall. There are trees and grass. And there is a also network of sidewalks in this courtyard that shuffles us workers between buildings.

On one particular sidewalk, there is a place where ants cross from one plot of grass to another. I often stop to watch the ants speed down their narrow highway, wondering where they are going with such single-minded conviction. Sometimes traffic increases, and their roads widen. Sometimes I find them in the process of dismantling a dead wasp, breaking it into pieces and carrying it back to their hidden home.

Occasionally misfortune befalls the highway, and the ants are forced to clean up a group of their suddenly-dead brothers.

Imagine what an ant-produced television news segment might be like:

“Yet another giant footstep kills hundreds on I-280! Field reporter Buggy Buggerson interviews surviving worker ants tonight at 10!”

To ants, an average rainstorm is like Hurricane Katrina. Thousands wash away. Hundreds drown.

Every time a kid knocks down one of their carefully constructed hills, the ants lose their homes and are forced to rebuild.

Your average drainage ditch is the Grand Canyon.

But size isn’t the only difference between humans and ants. We’re also a bit smarter than them. Right?

I mean, we can calculate the orbits of planets and the relationship between speed and time, but we still go around killing each other for money. Or turf. We strap on diapers and shit ourselves during cross-country drives to murder rival astronaut girlfriends.

Is it a blessing or a curse that our minds, powerful as they may be, are so influenced by emotion?

To a biologist, emotions are governed by mappable, electrochemical processes. They can be altered chemically or physically. I can trigger a release of dopamine by drinking alcohol. Doctors prescribe all sorts of drugs that influence (for better or worse) the brain’s delicate chemical balance.

If emotions are so easily influenced by mechanical processes, how should we define them? Are they really as special as we like to believe?

Admittedly, thinking of the world this way–from a purely mechanical point of view–is not very romantic. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t accurate. Romance itself is an emotion, in fact, a filter through which we interpret the world.

And yet these are the brains we have. How would we interpret the world except through these emotionally-charged minds?

Just because we humans imagine the universe in a certain way, just because we like to impart meaning on inanimate objects and places, just because we look for patterns in events that might ultimately be random, it doesn’t mean it is necessarily the only way or even the best way.

How do we know someone or something isn’t watching us like we watch ants, observing our human struggles with a sort of amused detachment and maybe a little pity…pity that our understanding of the world is so limited?

I wonder if we would better off knowing more or knowing less? If it turns out the universe is meaningless, if it really is nothing more than a soup of matter and energy brewing in spacetime, would you like to know exactly how it works? Or would you rather be oblivious, a worker trudging back and forth on the ant highway, day after day, blindly working toward a goal that will never become clear to you?

When you die, does it matter at all?

Does it matter even now?

For the moment I leave these questions to you. I’ll be chasing a little white ball around a plot of grass for the next few days.


Let’s talk about relativity.

For every observer, things seem slightly different. From a physics point of view, you do not occupy the same location in space as anyone else, and you might be moving at different velocities, and so on.

This is why using astrology for anything other than entertainment seems silly to me. Constellations don’t physically exist. A group of stars that from the Earth seem to form the shape of a bull could in reality be millions of light years apart and share no relationship with each other whatsoever. They only form the shape of a bull from where we’re looking.

If I were the citizen of a third world nation, it probably wouldn’t piss me off when someone insisted on driving slow in the left lane of the freeway. There might not be a freeway. And in any case I wouldn’t be in a hurry to get to the golf course.

I’ve written blogs in the past about people who refuse to leave a one-stall buffer when they join you in the bathroom. If I were homeless, I probably wouldn’t worry about something so insignificant.

But something that seems insignificant to me could be important to you. Something that hurts you might not faze me.

Experience is relative.

My grandparents endured the Great Depression and for most of their lives didn’t have a lot of money. I remember my grandmother would rush me off the phone when we were talking long distance…even after rates had dropped to seven cents a minute. She couldn’t get her mind around the idea that a long distance phone call could be cheap.

I don’t even think in terms of distance when I make a phone call. If it’s overseas I have to buy a calling card, sure, but the cost to me seems negligible. Six cents a minute to the UK? Whatevs.

Recently I’ve had some bigger things in my life to think about, and the minutiae that I sometimes obsess over sort of disappeared from my radar.

Comfort affords you the luxury to worry about things which in reality are pretty insignificant. And yet who can judge the significance of anything when it concerns someone else?

You look at a famous actress, an NFL star quarterback, a person born into money. You might wonder, What do these people have to worry about? They seem to have everything they could ever want.

But whatever they perceive their problems to be, to them they are difficult. The most intense emotional pain you’ve ever felt in your life is all you know. How can you compare it to someone else’s?

You can’t. Not really.

But we often think we can. We make judgments about each other, we assume we know how someone else feels, what they are thinking.

Right now I’m 37,000 feet above the earth, cruising along at a ground speed of 550 mph or so.

Did you know that time for me is passing at a different rate than it is for you? Really, it is. This is an outcome of the relationship between space and time.

Imagine you’re on a road trip. There are two primary directional types you can travel: north-south or east-west. If you’re traveling northeast, it means you are going a little bit north and a little bit east. The more north you go, the less east you can go.

Time and space are like that. When you move through space, you take away from your movement through time. So the faster you travel, the slower time passes for you.

Cool, huh?

It’s useful to remember that observations are relative.

We all see things just a little bit differently.

And would we have it any other way?

Trust is an elusive thing.

It’s hard to know when to let down your guard with someone, to let them see who you really are. And when you’re hurt or betrayed by someone you love, it becomes that much harder to open up to someone else.

But what, exactly, defines betrayal?

In this particular case I’m talking about romantic relationships. What constitutes a breach of trust? Is it when your partner tells someone else one of your deep, dark secrets? When he or she makes a big decision without you? When they sleep with someone else? When they break up with you?

For me, sharing sensitive information with others is probably the biggest violation. If I tell you something that is understood to be sensitive, and you tell someone else, I will probably never again share anything important with you. And yet, there must be situations in life where sharing a piece of information like that would ultimately be the right thing. So how to know what is right?

What if someone leaves you? Breaks your heart? Does that constitute betrayal? Marriage isn’t the institution it once was. No-fault divorce makes it easier to end a legal union. Conservatives might cite the decline of marriage as damaging to society, but what is better–ending a corrosive relationship or suffering in it for years?

Why do some people claim they will never trust anyone again after being dumped? Is the person who fell out of love somehow guilty of betrayal? Is there blame to be placed when love simply dies?

And what about infidelity?

Many relationships end because a partner strays. Imagining the love of your life in the arms of another is enough to make anyone squirm.

If you found out your partner was cheating on you, would you leave them?

Based on the blogs I read, most people seem to answer “yes.” But when actually put in that situation, not every scorned lover ends their relationship.

Recently I saw a news story about spyware designed to help determine if your spouse is cheating on you. You can record every keystroke your lover makes on the computer, see every page they visit on the Internet. Read their emails.

Even before the Internet, suspicious spouses could review phone records, credit card statements, even follow their lover around in the car.

I did this sort of thing once. Read someone’s email. Listened to their voice mail.

Never have I felt so sneaky, so oily as a human being. It served no purpose except to enrage me.

If your relationship reduces you to espionage, is it worth it?

I’m not going to pass judgment on infidelity, either for or against it. Every situation is unique, and I’m uncomfortable with absolutes.

Personally, I’d rather be cheated on than play detective.

If you were in a happy, fifty-year marriage that fulfilled you in every way, and after your partner died you learned he had slept with someone else in the ninth year of your marriage, would it damage the love you’d felt for your whole life?

I mean, you’re not going to be happy about it.

But to characterize all cheaters as worthless humans misrepresents our animal ancestry. Our natural impulses. If infidelity is so wrong, why does it happen so much? Why are their web sites available to help you cheat?

Hey, you might say. If you can’t control yourself, don’t get married. I pretty much agree with this.

But if you look at the divorce rate, if you consider how many people cheat, it seems that marriage isn’t the right choice for many of us. In the U.S., 2005 marked the first year more adults were single than married.

Is marriage an institution that can’t keep up with modern society? And if so, what does that mean for children? Many of you grew up in fractured households. My parents are still together. Am I any better off than someone whose parents divorced when they were a kid?

What if you have ten five-year relationships instead of one fifty-year marriage? Are more relationships inherently worse?

I don’t know because I haven’t been in that situation. You can’t ever really know, can you?

What if medical breakthroughs allow people to live for hundreds of years? Does “‘Till death do us part” mean 150 years of marriage?

I am friends with both men and women who have cheated on their spouses. Men may be more prone to stray, but not by that much. It’s not just a disease of the man with roving eyes.

In the end, whichever side of the fence you fall on, no matter how much or little the possibility of cheating bothers you, isn’t spying on your partner kind of absurd? If you’re reduced to playing covert operative, why not just leave?

On September 11, 2001, there was a small American flag mounted on the wall above my desk at work. By that time it had been there for several years.

Wall decorations are not my forte, but anything that breaks the monotony of gray is a welcome thing. And I’ve also felt quite patriotic about the U.S.A. ever since I was a kid.

For a large part of my life, this patriotism was mainly a result of me being born here. Later I realized that our country wasn’t perfect and that in fact there were many reasons to be ashamed of it.

But still, I reason that many people emigrate to the U.S.A. for the opportunity it affords the common person, and while other countries do some things better than us, I think our system of government and our culture are overall pretty great.

These days, though, I don’t feel pride when I see an American flag bumper sticker. I am often embarrassed when I run into Americans abroad. Ignorance and a lack of decorum have for me ruined many genuine displays of patriotism.

There was a short time after September 11th, as the country bonded in a time of domestic and emotional crisis, when I was happy to see flags popping up on cars and in offices and in shopping centers.

Great, I thought. Too bad it takes an attack on our soil to stop the national sleepwalking epidemic, but so be it. Glad to have you folks on board. The more people we have thinking about government and politics and our country’s position in the world, the better off we’ll be.

Man, I was so wrong. Turns out that many of these patriotic bumper stickers are simply a way to identify people who, rather than think in depth about our country and its challenges, want to marginalize our democracy into a “you’re with us, or you’re against us” mentality.

Of course I’m not speaking for every single driver out there whose vehicle is labeled with an American flag bumper sticker. It’s wrong to paint with too wide a brush.

But I do get the feeling that many conservative people believe they have a monopoly on patriotism. They don’t.

They do have a pretty good handle on bad style, though. On a transatlantic plane ride, it’s not hard to spot travelers from the heartland. Men, you aren’t required to wear a plaid shirt with pleated, tan Dockers. Women, why not try something other than light blue elasto-band jeans and the red-white-and-blue T-shirt?

Anyway, just because a person is interested in the political opinions of other countries, just because you don’t believe it’s just to paint the word “freedom” on naked aggression, that doesn’t mean you hate American freedom.

Most political ideologies have at least some merit, and a blend of them would probably work best.

But I’ve been worried for a while that the country is so polarized that we’ll never reach another consensus on anything.

The recent Congressional elections, however, may have proven me wrong. On top of that, an amazing thing happened over the holiday break.

My conservative dad, who I love to death, expressed discontent with the conflict in Iraq for the first time. My mom said, and I quote, “I sure do like that Barack Obama.”

I’m not expressing a political statement or an endorsement here. I have no idea how my parents will vote in the future, and it’s none of my business.

But I know how they’ve leaned in the past. And if they would even consider something different…well, then maybe we all can.

*Dress code joke courtesy of Nelson DeMille.

The following calculations were sourced from this page in the Student Information section of Stanford’s Computer Science site. This is not my work, and is only presented as a companion to my piece on magic.

1) No known species of reindeer can fly. BUT there are 300,000 species of living organisms yet to be classified, and while most of these are insects and germs, this does not COMPLETELY rule out flying reindeer which only Santa has ever seen.

2) There are 2 billion children (persons under 18) in the world. BUT since Santa doesn’t (appear) to handle the Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and Buddhist children, that reduces the workload to 15% of the total – 378 million according to Population Reference Bureau. At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per household, that’s 91.8 million homes. One presumes there’s at least one good child in each.

3) Santa has 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 822.6 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with good children, Santa has 1/1000th of a second to park, hop out of the sleigh, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left, get back up the chimney, get back into the sleigh and move on to the next house. Assuming that each of these 91.8 million stops are evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false but for the purposes of our calculations we will accept), we are now talking about .78 miles per household, a total trip of 75-1/2 million miles, not counting stops to do what most of us must do at least once every 31 hours, plus feeding and etc.

This means that Santa’s sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second, 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man- made vehicle on earth, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second – a conventional reindeer can run, tops, 15 miles per hour.

4) The payload on the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium-sized lego set (2 pounds), the sleigh is carrying 321,300 tons, not counting Santa, who is invariably described as overweight. On land, conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that “flying reindeer” (see point #1) could pull TEN TIMES the normal amount, we cannot do the job with eight, or even nine. We need 214,200 reindeer. This increases the payload – not even counting the weight of the sleigh – to 353,430 tons. Again, for comparison – this is four times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth.

5) 353,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance – this will heat the reindeer up in the same fashion as spacecraft re-entering the earth’s atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer will absorb 14.3 QUINTILLION joules of energy. Per second. Each. In short, they will burst into flame almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them, and create deafening sonic booms in their wake. The entire reindeer team will be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second. Santa, meanwhile, will be subjected to centrifugal forces 17,500.06 times greater than gravity. A 250-pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of his sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force.

In conclusion – If Santa ever DID deliver presents on Christmas Eve, he’s dead now.