Getting Personal: Theodore Gray

Getting Personal: Theodore Gray

Getting Personal is an email Q&A with a local personality. Here, a chat with Theodore Gray, who writes books and publishes posters of the Periodic Table and is the creative director of Touch Press, an interactive eBook publishing company based in London. He collects chemical elements and runs and offers occasional help to Wolfram Research, which he co-founded many years ago with Stephen Wolfram.

What time do you typically get up? What do you do the first hour of the morning?

I have worked out a system for this. Because I go to London for about a week every six weeks and it's six hours later there, I used to have a lot of trouble with jet lag. Now I stay on a schedule that is about halfway between. I get up really early here and really late over there, so I only have to shift by a couple of hours each way. I refuse to have any meetings scheduled in London before 10 a.m. They think I am slothful, but in exchange, people here think I'm virtuous for getting up so early, and all the while, I'm getting up at about the same time in both places. First hour here: Try to argue with the kids that they should know how to fix their own breakfast. First hour in London: Try to figure out how anyone survives with their house, and indeed their entire country, so cold.

What did you have for lunch today? Where? With whom?

Hoping to have lunch with my girlfriend, Nina Paley — possibly some of her mom's outstanding cooking or something at the Xinh Xinh Cafe.

Best high school memory?

Making gunpowder from scratch.

Tell me about your favorite pair of shoes.

My friend, Koatie, got me a pair of brown suede Merrell shoes for my birthday. They are the most comfortable I've ever had, and they remind me that growth and change is possible.

What does a perfect Sunday afternoon include?


Was there one book you read as a child that you still cherish? Own? Read?

"Jungle Book" and "Joy of Sex." The latter because we might publish an interactive edition of it. Animated hairy guy! For the people under 40 reading this, don't worry, it wasn't a very good joke that you just didn't get.

Where on Earth are you dying to go? Why?

I travel way too much. Maybe Antarctica if it wasn't so cold.

Tell me about your favorite pet.

I won't tell you which one is my favorite child, either. But I will tell you about Nut. I have this cat, Nut, who has an unhealthy infatuation with my girlfriend Nina. Any time Nina is here, Nut will curl up on her face, reach a paw around her neck and just "make out" with her like a linebacker in an old Chevy (if the linebacker were lesbian). It's embarrassing. In fact, it's so bad that when Nina posted a picture of the two of them going at it, she was banned from Facebook for posting inappropriate content. (Seriously, she had to blog about it before they reversed the ban.)

Have you discovered that you are becoming like one of your parents? Which one and how?

I think I'm actually most like my grandfather on my mother's side. He was a cool dude and did interesting things in his life, so maybe it's just wishful thinking.

What would you order for your last meal?

A life-size chocolate turkey. I saw one at Whole Foods, but I couldn't fit it in my suitcase — and have regretted this ever since.

What can you not live without?

Now that you mention it, a life-size chocolate turkey.

Who do you have on your iPod?

ABBA and Taylor Swift, mainly to annoy my children. Except OMG Taylor Swift is the greatest living singer/songwriter ever. You have to print that so my kids won't be able to show their faces at school again.

What's the happiest memory of your life?

A brand new baby's smile is hard to match.

If you could host a dinner party with any three living people in the world, whom would you invite?

My three kids, same as always. I can meet interesting people any time I like, but my kids are only here for a few more years, and I'm going to miss their laughter at dinner more than anything I can imagine.

What's the best advice you've ever been given?

Lawyers exist to tell you everything that could possibly go wrong with anything you want to do. The correct way to interact with them is to say thank you very much, and then do it anyway. Actually no one told me that; I had to figure it out myself.

What's your best piece of advice?

Adults only look like they know what they're doing. In fact, they're all making it up as they go along, especially when giving advice.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

I think it was when I spent every Friday and Saturday night for a semester in high school running chemical analyses on sewage samples. I guess they hired me because I just had the look of someone who didn't have anything better to do on any Friday or Saturday night ever in high school, which of course I didn't because that would have required having, you know, self-confidence and a date. I probably got about $5 an hour?

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

There have been four moments in my life when I did something not because there was any reason for it, but simply because I felt a pull, a deep and complete knowledge that it was right. The first was when I dropped out of graduate school to start working on Mathematica. The second was many years later when I saw a life in trouble and did not look the other way. The third was when I left Wolfram Research to become a writer and publisher full time. And the fourth was last year, when the girl I'd admired and respected from afar since high school, the girl I couldn't imagine would ever give me the time of day, the girl whose computer I am not worthy to upgrade, glanced at me from across the room and did not look away when I caught her eye.

Do you have a bad habit? What is it?

Not giving a straight answer to a simple question.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

A life-size chocolate turkey would be nice.

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