Category: special interests


This post contains spoilers for the plot of the computer game To the Moon.  If you don’t want to be spoiled, play or watch the game!  Otherwise, keep reading.  This post looks a bit more at one of the game’s most interesting characters, River.  (“River” is a popular name in sci-fi, isn’t it?  You also have Firefly‘s River Tam and Doctor Who‘s River Song, both of whom are also very interesting people.)

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I recently watched a playthrough of the computer game To the Moon, which I knew nothing about except that it was independently made and that a lot of people were impressed by the depth of its storytelling.  I found it to be a gripping story that managed to use the genre of a video game to draw the player into a tale that was both tragic and beautiful at the same time, while giving the player a lot to think about.

To the Moon screenshotI really can’t talk about how the game does this without giving the story away, so if you want to experience it the way I did, you can download it for Windows computers at http://freebirdgames.com/to_the_moon/ for $10.  Or, you can look for a playthrough of the game on YouTube, preferably one without anyone talking over the game, such as this one.  I was so impressed by the playthrough that I bought a copy of the game to play myself.

There’s actually enough to talk about in To the Moon for a whole series of posts, and I’m afraid I will need to reveal most of the story in order to talk about it.  So I’ll just start with this post for now, and include the following spoiler warning:

If you are the type of person who wants no spoilers at all, then I’m afraid you have to stop reading here and play the game!  Be prepared for tears, though– it’s an emotional story.

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So, what is it like to have a girlfriend with Asperger’s?  To put it simply, it’s incredibly awesome!  It’s been a lot of fun sharing stories with Megan about growing up feeling a bit different from everyone else and realizing how much common ground we have.

Like me, Megan was the smart, shy kid in her class and tended to spend a lot of time thinking silently to herself.  She has intense areas of interest (languages, Japanese culture, manga, Biblical word and topic studies, and a host of other creative projects that can occur without warning!) that she pursues with a tireless focus and gleeful joy.  She loves her friends, but being in social situations– even ones she enjoys– can be very draining, and it takes quiet time spent by herself to recharge.  (I can’t count how many times I’ve messaged Megan saying “Sorry I wasn’t online for a while; I was taking a nap,” only for her to respond “Me too!”)

The first time Megan came to visit, we went for a walk around the neighborhood together and talked about all sorts of things.  That’s when I began to notice something interesting.  Ordinarily in this situation, I would be devoting a lot of my energy to coordinating my body language, facial expressions, and trying to maintain some rhythm of eye contact in order to give the correct appearance of being attentive.

But in talking with Megan, I started to lapse back into my more natural habit of letting my focus remain on the path ahead of me, or drift off into the distance as I chose my words.  I would still look over at Megan and smile (how could I not?), but I stopped worrying about how my natural expressionless, unfocused face would look and just talked.  I knew that Megan would understand, because I noticed she was doing the same thing!

The feeling of peace that came over me as I settled into this pattern was amazing.  I had never realized how much energy and worry I had been putting into social interaction all these years in order to appear more “normal.”  I suppose I was finally “being myself.”  When I needed to pause to think of how I wanted to complete a sentence, Megan never interrupted me, always patiently waiting for me to find the words.  It was wonderful!

What makes me even happier, though, is that I thought I saw the same transformation in Megan.  When we first picked her up at the airport and immediately went to lunch, I could sense a little tension in Megan’s voice and mannerisms– she spoke quickly and softly, with the same slightly exaggerated nodding motion that I always use when I’m afraid people will think I’m not paying attention.  But during dinner that night, after we had all had a chance to rest, Megan spoke more slowly and confidently, sharing her knowledge on a lot of fascinating topics while displaying a delightful range of emotions.  I was so happy to see that she felt comfortable with me and my family.

I don’t know if that was how I came across when I was talking to Megan, because the fact is that– for once– I wasn’t paying attention to how I looked or sounded; I was fully focusing on what I was saying and whom I was saying it to.  But I felt at peace.

All of this seemed to point toward a happy possibility– that Megan and I are both made better by the mere fact of being together.

 

Happy new year, readers!

It’s been a while since my last post.  There’s actually a lot of new and awesome things to tell you about since then!  But more on that later, hopefully.  This is a post that I’ve had partly written for a while and finally got done.  (Warning:  this is a really nerdy post about video games.  If you’re not a video game nerd like me, it might totally bore you.)  😉

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know I really enjoy video games– especially games from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, the familiar ones I grew up with.  (In general, new video games began to lose me when they shifted to 3D, and lost me almost altogether when the Nintendo Wii made control a matter of physical rather than mental coordination.  My cousins think I’m terrible at video games because I can never beat them, but I’d like to see them try to beat me at the original Super Mario Kart!)

The Internet has allowed people to share the things that interest them in all kinds of ways, and classic video games are no exception.  It’s amazing how much diversity and subclassification there can be within a seemingly narrow area of interest.

For instance, you can find a lot of videos on YouTube of recorded video game footage.  Making a recording of a console game like the NES (Nintendo) used to require two VCRs and more cables than most kids could find around the house.  Today, though, a lot of people play a copy of the game, record it, capture commentary or reactions, and upload it to the Internet using just one computer.

The video game recording itself has a lot of subgenres.  Off the top of my head, I can think of the “Let’s play,” the longplay, the glitchfest, and a particular favorite of mine, the speed run.

A speed run is an attempt to complete a video game as quickly as possible.  You can probably find a speed run for just about any game you can think of by searching YouTube for the game title and “speed run.”

The question then is what kind of speed run you are interested in!  There are two very different approaches to what seems on its face to be a simple concept: human and tool-assisted speed runs, and each has its own community of devoted gamers.  And believe it or not, the difference is as big as the difference between sports and art.
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Hello again, readers!  My perfectionism has created a lot of writer’s block recently.  I have about five posts in various stages of incompleteness, but I find myself looking at them and saying “Who wrote that?”  Let’s see if I can get things moving again on the general topic of Asperger’s in adolescence.

A while ago, I posted about how I was worried about becoming a teenager because I thought it meant I would be rebellious and fight with my parents all the time.  Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

But there were changes in my thinking and behavior that I didn’t expect.  One of the most significant was this:

I became more aware of other people, and of the fact that they were aware of me.

Hopefully I’m not overstating things, but I believe I honestly didn’t care what my classmates thought when I started elementary school.  They were just other kids, after all, and I usually followed the rules about sitting quietly and keeping my hands to myself better than they did.  I took my cues for how to behave from my teachers or whoever was in authority.   I was taught to be polite from an early age, so I hopefully wasn’t rude.  But I saw no reason to be bothered by the fact that I kept mostly to myself at recess, for instance.  Comparing myself to those around me didn’t usually occur to me.

That gradually began to change as I got older, though– I began to think about the fact that my classmates had interests, thoughts, and feelings of their own.  I suppose that means I developed my “theory of mind.”

Looking back, I think one reason that I wasn’t caught totally by surprise by this was that I had one good friendship from early on in elementary school– in first grade, I became best friends with a boy named Ryan.  I think it started with something as simple as him choosing me to help him pass out papers to the class for the teacher, but I am very thankful he so easily accepted me as his friend.  We sat together at lunch and talked about our favorite TV shows and video games, and we stayed over at each other’s houses several times.  In addition to being fun, it meant that I actually developed a few social skills.  : )

Social interaction gets much more complex very quickly as you get older, though.  I had learned how to make friendships on a childlike level based on mutual interests, but there began to be a quality to the conversations of my classmates that I found very hard to connect with; they talked about things I understood very little about, like popular music and sports.  They joked about things I didn’t know how to laugh about.  If I tried to participate in the conversation by doing what had worked for me as a child– copying how other people sounded– it felt horribly awkward, as if it wasn’t me speaking.  So I mostly kept quiet and listened.

I eventually realized that I had gone from feeling more mature than most of my classmates (because I was able to handle the rules and schoolwork of elementary school so easily) to feeling like I was much less mature than they were.  I began to think of myself a lot differently.

I’m not sure how much of this discussion is revealing things about Asperger’s syndrome; it very well may be that this is just a part of growing up that everybody goes through– understanding that you have weaknesses as well as strengths.  Whatever the case, I had a lot more to learn about both.

My parents had explained to me from an early age that I was growing every day, too slowly to see, but that after a number of years, I would eventually become a grownup like my Dad.  That was a good thing, I thought!  My Dad was the smartest person I knew.

Like most children, I was asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, and like most children, I had some pretty funny answers to that question based on whatever interested me most at the time I was asked.  When I was fascinated by road maps and traffic signs, I thought that I’d like to be the person who makes all of the stop signs, street name signs, and exit signs.  There must be someone who does that, right?  Well, then, maybe I could be a cartographer.  That was a person who made maps.

When I was fascinated by learning the bones and organs of the human body, I thought I might like to be a doctor just like my father.  He took me to work one time and showed me an actual skeleton they had there for medical students to study (I guess?), and I amused my Dad’s coworkers by pointing out and listing the names of all of the bones I had learned.

When I was fascinated by learning about the stars and planets, I thought I’d like to be an astronomer.  Then I could write the books I enjoyed reading so much.

But as I began to get a little older, I started hearing some things that made me worry.  My aspie brain was constantly taking in information from what I heard people say, from what I read, and from what I saw on television.  I learned that before I became a grownup, I would first become a “teenager.”  And I didn’t think I wanted to be one.

Why?  Well, the first thing most people seemed to say about teenagers was that they didn’t get along with their parents.  I heard it wherever I went.

Adults would warn/tease their friends with young children: “You think being a parent is tough now– just wait until they’re teenagers!”

At a Christian concert, the singer joked about how it’s hard for parents to watch their children grow up and leave home when it seems like the time goes so fast, but that God had provided something to make it easier for parents to let go:  “It’s called the teenage years.”

In stories and TV shows about families, the teenage characters always seemed to be either arguing with their parents or trying to get away with something without their parents knowing.

Teenagers often seemed to be portrayed as a bad influence in morality tales for younger children. (And in the 1980s and 1990s, even some of the most mindless children’s shows tried to present themselves as morality tales!)  If a story was about the evils of alcohol or drugs, or just trashing the house with a party while your parents were away, one of the first signs of trouble was getting the “big kids” involved.

It’s pretty silly, but I began to dread becoming one of these teenagers.

I didn’t want to fight with my parents!  I knew that the Bible said that children were supposed to obey their parents.  Besides, I liked my Mom and Dad!  I decided that I would try my best to make sure that I wouldn’t become rebellious.  (The idea that I thought I was in danger of turning into a rebel is actually pretty funny now, knowing my personality.)

[I just thought of an interesting tangent I could follow here, but I’m going to try to save that for another post, because this one is taking me too long, and I’m ready to be done with it!  🙂 ]

I don’t know why I didn’t talk to my parents about my fears until much later (when I realized I hadn’t turned into a monster after all).  Even then, I spent a lot of time thinking to myself, trying to figure things out.

I wonder if other kids worried about growing up the way I did.  Hopefully, most people are not as literal-minded about it as I was.

There’s a neat story I want to share with you.  I’m remembering it second-hand, so I might not have all of the details right, but I can explain the gist of it:

A while ago, my parents were visiting a church while on vacation.  The guest speaker was a pastor from a sister church in Africa.  One of the things they remembered from his message was that he spoke proudly about his teenage children, who were seeking to honor God and help others in whatever they did.  He said that he was dismayed by how much he had heard the idea expressed in America that teenagers are lazy or a burden or always up to trouble.  God can use anyone at any stage of life, and we should not let ourselves or others be defined by human labels and categories.

That’s such an encouraging message!  I think it’s important to realize that even when an idea seems universal in our culture, that doesn’t mean it’s correct.

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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My family recently finished watching through the Harry Potter movie series, and I thought I’d write a bit about my favorite character in the story, Luna Lovegood.  As far as I’m concerned, Luna steals every scene she’s in.

In case you’re not familiar with the series, Luna Lovegood is a wizarding student attending Hogwarts one year behind Harry Potter’s class.  She isn’t introduced until the fifth story in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  It’s not difficult to believe that we never saw her before year 5, though, because she mostly keeps to herself, and no one wants to talk to her because she seems very strange.

Luna’s mother died when she was nine, and her father, Xenophilius (literally “lover of strangers/strange things”), is the editor of a paper called the Daily Quibbler, which is the magical equivalent of those tabloids they used to have in supermarket checkouts with front-page stories about Bigfoot being kidnapped by flying saucers.

No one takes such things seriously, except apparently Luna, who is always talking about magical creatures that no one (not even wizards!) has ever heard of and making other observations that seem to come from nowhere.  She tends to speak in a soft monotone and stare with a distant, almost expressionless gaze.

Luna (Evanna Lynch) introduces Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) to a thestral.

Does it surprise you when I say that a lot of Harry Potter fans with Asperger’s syndrome or autism can see a bit of themselves in Luna?  She is often mentioned in discussions online about fictional characters who may be “Aspies.”

Such discussions almost always become quite tricky.  Even moreso than with a real person, a fictional character is shaped by the reader’s own perspective– he or she originally exists in the author’s imagination, but then each reader’s imagination “fills in the blanks” in its own way when picturing a character.

J.K. Rowling did not explicitly write the character of Luna Lovegood as a person with Asperger’s.  But because she is a good writer, she created a character with a distinct personality that is also familiar in many ways.  It’s an interesting balance– Luna seems like someone you might meet in real life, in large part because she is entirely different from any specific person– just as every individual is unique.  (I told you it was tricky.)

The nature of Asperger’s syndrome itself makes the prospect of “diagnosing” a fictional character even more nebulous.  Asperger’s itself is just a label for a set of traits that are often observed together– actually, not unlike a story.  It defines a rather blurry category, but the traits themselves do not describe any person exactly.  Nor does every person with Asperger’s look, think, or behave the same.

All of this is meant to explain that I’m not trying to argue that Luna Lovegood has Asperger’s syndrome.  I think that people in a lot of different situations can identify with her.  What I’m more interested in is describing the aspects of Luna’s personality and behavior in the movies that I identify with as a person with Asperger’s (and perhaps also a fairly quiet/shy person).

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On Friday evening, we returned to the train station and set off on an overnight trip to Berlin.  This was the first time I had ever been on a train that had sleeping cars.  Our path took us through Belgium, so I guess you could add that to the list of countries I have been to, but I don’t think it really counts, since I was on the train and probably asleep at the time.

As with the other cities, we started our time in Berlin with a guided tour.  We stopped at the Reichstag Parliament Building, which was famously damaged in a fire in 1933 that the Nazis used as an excuse to suspend civil liberties in order to go after their opponents.  We saw the Brandnburg Gate, and we saw the site of U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963. (“I am a Berliner!”)  In honor of the speech, a few of my classmates then bought jelly doughnuts, also called “Berliners,” from a street vendor, and we shared them.

(A commonly told story is that JFK’s speechwriters used the German article improperly, and as a result, the President ended up stating that he was a jelly doughnut rather than a citizen of Berlin.  I have since read that is not true and they in fact got the statement correct.  Still, the jelly doughnuts were good!)

We could also see a small remaining part of the Berlin wall, every square inch of it covered with colorful graffiti.  I remembered the world atlas from my childhood, with the separate countries of West and East Germany, mirrored on a smaller scale by the city of Berlin.  I had seen the tearing down of the wall on the news, and I was impressed at the importance– this meant the maps would all have to be changed!  (Yes, I admit that I was a bit obsessed with maps.)

Berlin was full of history as the other cities had been, but there was a difference.  Whereas London and Paris were dominated by centuries-old buildings, the center of Berlin had more modern skyscrapers, a little more like an American city in some ways.  Our tour guide told us that this was because so much was destroyed during World War II.

We saw a very moving memorial in the public square where the Nazis had burned thousands of books written by Jewish authors, or that were deemed contrary to Nazi ideology.  The memorial is a plate of clear plastic set in the cobblestone ground, easy to miss unless you stop and look down.  Through the window in the ground, you can see rows of white bookshelves, all empty.  Our guide pointed out that, in the early part of the 20th century, Germany produced many Nobel Prize winners, great scholars, and scientists.  Many of them were suppressed, killed, or driven away because of the Nazis (some to America)– it is impossible to calculate how much was lost.  Then there is the memorial’s engraving, a quote by poet Heinrich Heine (loose translation): “Where they burn books, they will one day also burn people.”

The overall sense I got from the tour was of a city and country determined not to forget the lessons of its history, but also not to dwell on them.  Other countries, like my own, can very easily fool themselves into thinking “Well, something that bad could never happen here,” ignoring the many bad things that greed or the desire for power brings about in every country in the world.  The memorials in Germany are a reminder that it can, and did happen.  But at the same time, Berlin did not strike me as a depressing place.  On the contrary, there were lots of new building projects going on and a healthy sense of city and national pride.

Germany is a beautiful country, and there is even some country inside the city!  At one point we were riding the bus through Berlin, when suddenly we entered a dense forest.  I figured that we must have left the city, but our tour guide told us that we were still within it.  There is a huge forest inside the city limits of Berlin– pretty neat!  We would get to see more of the German countryside later on, as we were set to visit a couple of other cities.