Category: fantasy


shuri1

King T’Challa (played by Chadwick Boseman) and Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright) in Black Panther.

This is a post that my girlfriend Megan suggested I make after I told her about one of my favorite characters from Marvel’s Black Panther film, which I saw a few days ago. Both Megan and I have the Asperger’s trait of having extremely focused, almost obsessive interests in learning about technical things. Even when I was little, I loved to collect and categorize information about geography and astronomy, while Megan would study a specific period of history or the grammar and syntax rules of an unfamiliar language. We both enjoy video games and working with computers.

When I was growing up, I had the niche of being “nerdy” to fit into. I didn’t know anything about Asperger’s, but I knew it wasn’t that unusual to be nerdy and into technical things. But until recently, the “nerd” stereotype seemed to only be applied to boys. There wasn’t much of a “niche” for Megan to fit into aside from being the “shy girl.”

But that seems to be changing! I’ve noticed a number of examples of technically-minded girls in recent popular movies and other media. I think that’s a great trend– hopefully examples like these can inspire more girls to have fun learning about the technical side of things.

 

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In her book Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate, Cynthia Kim talks about the experience of learning about Asperger’s and seeing how many of the signs were present in her life from an early age, leading to a question: How did nobody notice the signs back then? Asperger’s may not have been defined yet, but she definitely was different from other children her age.

She spent a lot of her time by herself– she felt most content when she could spend hours in her room playing games of Risk and Monopoly against herself, or going on long bike rides around her neighborhood alone.

When I was that age, I was likewise able to entertain myself for hours alone with just a book or a road map or atlas to study. It was hard to shift my attention to something else while I was still exploring it!

Kim writes that another reason she thinks her Asperger’s was harder to spot was an issue that I’ve written about before on this blog: for a number of reasons, boys are much more likely to be diagnosed with Asperger’s than girls are.

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A lot of what you read about autistic and Asperger’s personalities tends to focus on their typical weaknesses, like social awkwardness and difficulty connecting with other people.  There’s a lot written about how traits like introversion can be a hurdle for autistics trying to fit in to a workplace or to form relationships.

But it’s a huge mistake to dwell only on the negatives.  Let’s ask a different question:  What are the strengths of an Aspie personality?  Can a person with Asperger’s or autism be a good coworker, a good friend?

I believe that the answer is yes, without a doubt!  People with autism, Aspies, shy people– have a lot to offer, especially if others are willing to listen and be patient with them.

I think that the character of Luna Lovegood in the Harry Potter series is a great example of some of the strengths of an Aspie personality, and the way her friends accept her is a great example of how to treat others who may seem a bit different.

Speaking as an Aspie, it tends to be hard for us to talk about our strengths because we are so constantly aware of our weaknesses, but I think it’s a little easier to point out the strengths of a fictional character like Luna.

With that in mind, here are five positive character traits I see in Luna that I think she shares with a lot of Aspies:

1. The fruit of time spent alone in thought.

Aspies tend to need a lot of time alone to sort out our thoughts.  It’s not that we are smarter or deeper thinkers than anyone else, but we are more easily distracted by all of the sensory data bombarding us from every angle and the conscious effort it takes to participate in the give-and-take of interacting with other people.

In some ways, the magical world of Hogwarts seems like it could be a nightmare for someone who is prone to sensory overload.  It has all of the noise and busyness of a school, with people headed every direction all the time.  But I think the most annoying thing would be the pictures.

All of the paintings on the walls at Hogwarts are enchanted, so the people and things in them can move and talk.  So you can be walking down the hall by yourself, and one of the pictures might try to start a conversation with you.  If have a light on late at night, they’ll all start complaining that they’re trying to sleep.  Sure, sometimes it’s funny, but I think it would get annoying feeling like you’re always being watched.  (And then even if you get away from the pictures, you still have to deal with the ghosts!)

Luna grew up in this sort of magical world, so maybe it doesn’t bother her that much.  On the other hand, it’s not that different from having to contend with blaring advertisements in a crowded mall or airport in the real world.

But she does seem to appreciate time alone.  In Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter finds her in the forest feeding thestrals, the silent winged creatures that are invisible to most people.  When Harry asks why no one else seems to see them, Luna explains that she and Harry can see the thestrals because they have seen death– Luna lost her mother at the age of nine in an accident, and Harry was orphaned when he was just a baby.  Just months ago, Harry also witnessed a friend and classmate being murdered by the killer of his parents, the dark lord Voldemort.

At this point in the story, Harry is feeling isolated from his friends and ignored by his mentors.  He knows that Voldemort is about to strike openly and try to seize power, but the authorities are in denial.  They refuse to even speak Voldemort’s name and have published stories in the “respectable” papers portraying Harry as a liar.  Some of the people that Harry thought were his friends are avoiding him, and he has started to avoid them.

Luna quietly observes that perhaps Voldemort wants Harry to feel isolated.  “If I were You-Know-Who,” she says, “I’d want you to feel cut off from everyone else. Because if it’s just you alone you’re not as much of a threat.

This isn’t the sort of insight that occurs to someone without the benefit of a lot of time spent sorting out her thoughts.  Who would expect a shy little girl to have spent time considering the strategy of a ruthless enemy?  It’s an insight she has arrived at only after a great deal of thinking quietly by herself.  Luna, too, has felt isolated, because of the teasing of the other students and the fact that she has experienced a loss that most children her age can’t relate to.

It turns out to be the insight that Harry most needed at that point in his life.

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Let’s go back to the scene in the carriage from early in Order of the Phoenix.  After getting off to an awkward start, Hermione tries to recover the conversation by commenting on Luna’s necklace.  “It’s a charm, actually,” Luna responds, then leans forward.  “It keeps away the Nargles.”

There are a few seconds of silence that seem uncomfortable for everyone but Luna.  Finally, she pronounces, “Hungry.  I hope there’s pudding.”

The scene that just unfolded is actually a good example of what a conversation with an Aspie can be like.  (Or at least, I can certainly remember having conversations that went that way with classmates my age.)  It may not seem like it, but I think Luna is trying her best to politely participate in the conversation in this scene.

It can be a challenge to keep a conversation going with an Aspie.  Hermione actually started out really well by commenting on something literal and specific, Luna’s necklace.  The intense focus on details that tends to come along with Asperger’s means that, as long as the topic is something I have “data” about, my mind almost instantly brings up a catalog of information to answer with.

It’s a lot trickier to come up with an answer to a question that’s more open-ended, like “What’s going on?” or “How is your day going?”  (First, I need to remind myself that these questions usually don’t literally mean that the other person wants to know everything that’s going on in my life.  Then, I need to select an answer that matches the level of depth the other person actually wants.)

Assuming I’m not stumped for something to say, there are still a couple of pitfalls that can derail a conversation at this point.  One is to give a response that answers the question but doesn’t suggest anywhere for the conversation to go.

For example, suppose someone messages me on my computer asking “Hey, what are you doing?” and I respond “I’m going to watch a movie.”  I have answered their question directly and fully.  If it were a question on a test, I should expect full credit.

But look at it from the other person’s point of view.  Now they don’t have anything specific to respond to!  They could try again with a different question, but at some point they will start to wonder whether my closed-ended response really means “I don’t want to talk right now.”

A better response might be something like “I’m going to watch Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Have you ever seen that one?”  Providing more information (and especially asking a question) tells the other person that I want the conversation to continue.

The other extreme can happen if the conversation turns to a topic that falls under an Aspie’s specific area of interest.  “Finally, we’re talking about something I love!” I think, and a ten-point lecture begins spilling out in a burst of enthusiasm.  This has a tendency of scaring the other person away.

Getting back to the scene, Luna’s special area of interest is magical creatures, particularly ones that most people don’t know about or don’t believe exist.  She spends a lot of her time thinking about them.  In explaining the purpose of her necklace, she brings up the topic of Nargles, which she could surely spend quite some time talking about.  (She suspects they have been stealing her possessions.)

If I had to guess, Luna has already discovered that most people aren’t interested in hearing about creatures that they think are figments of her imagination or made up by her father’s silly tabloid.  It’s part of why they tease her.  Even though she could surely regale Harry, Ron, and Hermione with all sorts of fascinating facts about Nargles, she holds back from saying more.  I think this is either because she has been made cautious by previous experiences of trying to share about her strange obsession, or because she is trying to be polite by not dominating the conversation.

In either case, Luna’s caution proves justified, as none of the others is interested in hearing about more creatures that quite possibly don’t exist.  They’re uncomfortable saying any more because they don’t want to hurt Luna’s feelings by letting her know how strange she seems to them.  And so the group falls silent.

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I’ve really been enjoying the classes I’ve been taking in Web programming this year.  We’re starting to get into material I’m less familiar with, like more advanced Javascript, SQL, and Unix, but a lot of it seems to make sense to me intuitively.  It’s great not to have to struggle with writing essays or even worry about being assigned one.

Though I’m sure the material seems boring to a lot of people, I’m actually finding the classes exciting– I’m learning the codes and commands that lie behind the scenes and create this place called the Internet that we are using right now.  This is goofy, but I sometimes feel a little bit like I’m in a class from Harry Potter.  I mean, just the other day we were learning about were-claws.

Okay; actually, it was a “WHERE clause.”

There has been one class that has been causing me some stress, though, because it’s been a bit unpredictable.  It’s a class in Javascript, a programming language that allows you to make the content of a Web page change based on what the user does (within certain limits).  The material is very challenging, but I was actually enjoying working on the homework because it was like trying to solve a puzzle.  It took a while, but I was able to figure it out.

A lot of the other people in the class had trouble even getting started on it, though.  Everyone was pretty negative about our textbook.  So our teacher changed the homework assignments to group projects.

In general, I don’t like group projects.  In this case, it’s especially hard because there is no opportunity for my group to meet outside of class, and the class time is entirely taken up by the lecture.  It doesn’t lessen the amount of work I have to do to make the homework a group project, because I have to do the whole assignment if I want to learn the material anyway, and figuring out a way to divide the work up fairly is more work.  The big project for the end of the quarter was already going to be a group assignment, so all this does is introduce uncertainty into something that was originally fun.

I didn’t want to say anything because it would have been rude.  Yet again a scene from a Harry Potter movie comes to mind.  (Sorry– My mind easily gets stuck on things; wait a while and it’ll be something else.)  There is a cute moment at the end of The Chamber of Secrets when headmaster Dumbledore announces to the students that all exams are canceled.  Everyone cheers wildly, except for young Hermione Granger, who looks shocked and then starts to pout.  She lives for the exams.

Of course, it’s very likely that it’s better for me to have to deal with something I am weak in– group projects– rather than getting to do something I enjoy because it comes naturally.  Our teacher said that employers are more interested in your ability to work and communicate with other people than your knowledge and skills.  This is often intended as an encouragement to students who are struggling with a topic, but I’m afraid it’s just the opposite for someone with Asperger’s.

It would be easier if I were better able to help others who are struggling.  In the last class, one of my classmates asked me how I approached the material, because she was finding it difficult to learn what she really wanted to know about Javascript.  The book gave her the lines of code to enter in order to create a specific program, but that wasn’t the same as understanding why the program worked and how to use that knowledge to make your own program.

I tried to explain how I read the book and thought about each part, but I wasn’t able to come up with anything she could do that she wasn’t already doing.  I want to help others understand things they are struggling with, but I felt pretty useless in this case.

It seems like this is a case where I have an unfair advantage because of the way my mind works; I sometimes wish it wasn’t that way.

Back to school

One of my most common dreams is that I’m back in college and rushing around trying to keep up with all of my class responsibilities. The college campus is often very elaborate and interesting, and it’s always familiar to me in my dream even though it isn’t like anywhere I’ve been in real life. Invariably, there’s a class that I realize I’ve forgotten to attend all semester! Sometimes it takes me a little while to realize that it was only a dream and I’m not really behind in my work.

I’ve heard that this is a pretty common dream among anyone who went to college. But a couple of times, the dream has gone even further. I dreamed that I found out I hadn’t officially graduated from high school for some reason, so I was back in my high school for another year! Oddly, I wasn’t upset by this at all– maybe because I felt like I had missed something my first time through, and this would be a chance to get back on track.

Well, in the real world, I have just started taking classes for a two-year Web Programming major, and at times it’s felt a little bit like I’m in one of those dreams! The reason is that I’m coming from the point of view of someone who’s already had seven years of college, and I’m in classes that some people are taking directly out of high school.

It’s also a chance for me to “fill in the gaps,” because I studied a lot of the theory of things like document and Web design when I was at Texas Tech, but because my undergraduate majors were in totally different areas, I didn’t have any of the hands-on, practical skills that students usually get before they try to get a master’s degree. When I started, I didn’t really even know what technical communication was!

Well, now I can finally get the training in computer languages that I never got, and I can’t wait to start learning about them! It’s been strange going through the process of orientation and the first classes along with college freshmen. The professors are explaining things about success in college (like that they actually want you to go to them with questions) that I was only able to learn through hard experience. I’m actually able to relax a little bit because I feel like I’ve been here before and I think I know what to expect this time.

One of the strange effects of relaxing a bit more, though, has been that I’ve felt, well– stupid. When I was starting at Cedarville, I was too nervous to reveal when I didn’t understand something or had made a mistake, so maybe I made fewer mistakes, but I was also more stressed.

When I was going through orientation a week ago for these courses, I was so scatter-brained that I felt like an airhead at times. I couldn’t remember the time of the orientation, so I came early and ended up taking care of most of the orientation tasks like getting an ID and a parking permit on my own (essentially doing things backwards). At least the campus security officer who took my ID picture thought I was smart to avoid the rush by coming in separately from the group.

When orientation actually began, I was preoccupied with installing software on my computer for class, and the group got ahead of me, and I actually lost them! After a lot of wandering around, I finally found them. They were relieved that I had already taken care of most of the stuff they needed to help me with on my own.

To cap it off, I somehow left for home without my orientation material and my schedule planner. The next day, I was back in the campus security office looking through the lost and found. I joked that I was really doing well, losing my schedule planner on the very first day! (I actually didn’t realize until yesterday that I had left my orientation material behind too; thankfully, I’m pretty sure I don’t need it anymore.)

It’s strange feeling this out of it. It brought to mind one of those silly Facebook “Which character are you?” quizzes I took about Harry Potter. My result was Luna Lovegood, which is unsurprising as she’s my favorite character, but I have to think I seem a bit “loony” to others, wandering around trying to find my disappearing possessions. Overall, though, it’s probably better for me to be stupid and relaxed rather than smart and uptight.

Harry Potter shows his "new" textbook to his friends Ron and Hermione.

Harry Potter shows his "new" textbook to his friends Ron and Hermione.

The movie adaptation of J. K. Rowling‘s sixth Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, is the most serious and intense of the series so far.  The forces of evil are beginning to attack openly, and the film ends quite somberly with the death of a beloved character and the sense that things are about to get worse.

Director David Yates does a good job for the second movie in a row of bringing Rowling’s magical world to life in a way that fits the mood of the story.  The greatest strength of the movie is in the interaction between the characters– the students and teachers of Hogwarts that we have come to know over the course of the series.  Yates wisely includes a good amount of humor in the scenes between Harry, Ron, and Hermione, which helps to keep the grim tone from totally overwhelming the movie.

Overall, I still count the fifth film, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as my favorite of the movies so far.  It had a coherent focus and message, and a real sense of accomplishment by the heroes.  It may not be fair to judge the movies the same way, as they play different roles in the overall scheme of the series.  Half-Blood Prince is less suited to stand alone, as it is mostly a buildup for the conflict about to take place in the last two films, and as a result, it leaves a lot of things unresolved.

Still, I think some things about Half-Blood Prince could have been handled better.  My main criticism of the film is that it feels rushed.  This is likely a result of each Harry Potter novel being longer than the last, and therefore harder to condense into a single movie.  (That’s one reason why the seventh and final novel is being made into two movies.)  At times, the plot seems to press forward as if it is ticking through a list of the major events that need to take place, and there isn’t enough time to explain their significance or to give the audience a good sense of how much time has passed.

At this point, I should probably come clean and admit that I haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books– my familiarity with the series comes entirely from the movies (and from a family who are all huge fans of the books!)  So I’m looking just at what I know from the movies in this review.  You are invited to discount any huge mistakes I make in Harry Potter knowledge, and to disregard any complaints that are based on my ignorance of the books– I certainly remember being on the other side of this when people who hadn’t read The Lord of the Rings complained about misunderstanding things in Peter Jackson’s films that were much more clear in the books!

Warning:  there are spoilers ahead!

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