Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Blessings in Disguise

This post spoils the ending to the film Signs. If you've seen it already or don't mind having the story revealed, read on.

I like big, noisy popcorn flicks as much as the next guy, but I really enjoy the kind of film, book or game that causes me to reflect on my own life. Recently, I was thinking about the 2002 film Signs, and I pulled it out and watched it again. I enjoy it not only because it's a well-done thriller and an interesting story, but also because it's one of the few movies that deals intelligently and respectfully with a Christian character. Hollywood's disdain for Christianity is unsubtle: people of Christian faith in film are usually either wicked antagonists (the classic “wolf in the fold” formula), oddball cultists, or bigoted simpletons provided for comic relief. (You know the ones I mean: they politely assert through plastered-on smiles that everyone who does not believe as they do is going to burn for eternity... but have a nice day!)

Anyway, that isn't why I am bringing up the movie; I'm not writing a review nor a criticism of Hollywood in general. If you're not familiar with the plot, here are the relevant bits:

Graham Hess is a former Episcopal priest. With the help of his brother Merrill, he cares for his children, Morgan and Bo. Morgan suffers from asthma, and Bo has an unusual quirk: she is always leaving half-finished glasses of water around the house, claiming that she can't drink them because they taste funny or are contaminated. Merrill is a former minor league baseball player who always swung at every pitch. (He held minor league home run and strikeout records.) Graham himself had lost his faith in God ever since his wife was killed in a traffic accident caused by a neighbor who fell asleep at the wheel. (The man mentions that he had never fallen asleep while driving before and never has since.) He has recently been having repeated flashbacks of the incident. Her last words to him were to tell him to “see” and to “tell Merrill to swing away.”

Graham's feelings about God are brought into even sharper focus when his family is forced to barricade themselves inside their house to defend themselves against an extraterrestrial attack on Earth. Graham struggles with the problem of evil; he feels abandoned and is angry with God for permitting his family's suffering, particularly his wife's death and Morgan's asthma, and now the alien invasion.

At the end of the film, Morgan is taken hostage by one of the aliens, which threatens to kill him with poison gas. The fright causes Morgan to have an attack and fall unconscious, and Graham must act quickly to prevent his death from asphyxiation. He suddenly recalls his wife's last words, notes Merrill's baseball bat mounted on the wall, and tells Merrill to “swing away.”

Merrill moves in with the bat, and the alien gasses Morgan and drops him. In the ensuing fight, the alien is knocked backwards, causing one of Bo's glasses to fall over and dump water on it. The alien reacts with pain, and Merrill looks around and sees half-full glasses of water all over the room. He proceeds to knock them at the alien to defeat it, while Graham takes Morgan outside and administers an epinephrine injection. He realizes that the asthma attack was a blessing in disguise: it closed off Morgan's lungs and prevented him from inhaling the poison. Morgan revives, and the last shot shows Graham dressing in his priestly clothing once more.

While it was marketed as a movie about aliens, crop circles and such, Signs isn't really about any of that. It's not even so much about faith, as Graham doesn't really demonstrate it: he has to “see” to believe. He doesn't receive signs because of belief, but rather by grace, in spite of his unbelief. What it's really about is how we react to adversity. It's about how sometimes suffering has a purpose.

I've thought a lot about dealing with adversity recently, especially when I was preparing a Sunday school lesson about Joseph Smith's captivity in the ironically-named Liberty Jail. His situation was decidedly unpleasant: he was unjustly incarcerated in a cold, dark, unsanitary basement cell, the ceiling of which was not high enough to permit him to stand erect. He was given only a little food, and that which he was given was so unfit for consumption that he and his fellow prisoners ate only when driven to desperation by hunger. Sometimes the food was poisoned, making the prisoners violently ill. He also knew that while he sat in that dungeon, the people he lead were being persecuted and killed. In that kind of situation, it is understandable that one might feel some amount of self-pity. Yet Liberty Jail is often referred to as a “temple-prison,” a place and circumstance which permitted Joseph to receive important revelations.

I've mentioned before that I have to deal with adult attention-deficit disorder (inattentive type). It has always been a significant problem in my life, partly because it is an obstacle standing in the way of what I want to accomplish, but mostly because of how it affects others with whom I interact:

Individuals with ADHD essentially have problems with self-regulation and self-motivation, predominantly due to problems with distractibility, procrastination, organization, and prioritization. The learning potential and overall intelligence of an adult with ADHD, however, are no different from the potential and intelligence of adults who do not have the disorder. ADHD is a chronic condition, beginning in early childhood and persisting throughout a person's lifetime. It is estimated that up to 70% of children with ADHD will continue to have significant ADHD-related symptoms persisting into adulthood, resulting in a significant impact on education, employment, and interpersonal relationships....

Adults with ADHD are often perceived by others as chaotic and disorganized, with a tendency to require high stimulation in order to diminish distractibility and function effectively.... Often, the ADHD person will miss things that an adult of similar age and experience should catch onto or know. These lapses can lead others to label the individuals with ADHD as “lazy” or “stupid” or “inconsiderate.”

Adult attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Wikipedia

I have to give Gorgeous Wife a lot of credit for dealing with my scatterbrained self. ADD is one of those things that, if you haven't experienced it yourself, you can't really know what it's like. It would be like someone talking about the view from the top of a mountain without ever having climbed one, or a man speculating on how much it hurts to give birth. From her perspective, it must be difficult to comprehend that a person could have so much trouble with tasks that seem so simple to her, which makes me all the more grateful for her understanding attitude towards the situation. What upsets me most is that she has to be so understanding in the first place.

I try to make things easier on her. Medication helps, though there isn't a “silver bullet” that makes all my symptoms go away. With the medication's recent decrease in effectiveness, I've been taking a closer look at my “coping strategies:” the artificial mechanisms that I employ to compensate for my natural deficiencies. I have to set alarms to remind me to do many things. (Have you ever set an alarm to remind yourself to do something in five minutes? I have.) I have to devise mnemonics or write notes to remember things that most people could confidently keep in their heads. I have to take steps to counter my mind's natural tendency to get distracted by other things or just go off into space. Part of me is annoyed that I have to take these artificial measures in order to function, while others seem to accomplish them so easily. For quite some time, I thought only negatively about my condition. Not to be melodramatic about it, but it was my curse.

Eventually, I discovered that there were some positive aspects to it. I learned that if I worked hard enough at corralling my wandering attention onto one activity, I could sometimes coax it to shift into a sort of hyper-focus, where I would lose awareness of everything but the task at hand and nothing short of a fire alarm could distract me from it. This does have its own set of problems. In this mode, I might have a conversation with someone, but my mind is still entirely on my task, and upon their leaving the room, I would not only have forgotten what they said, but that they were even in the room in the first place. But it is good for “buckling down” and getting something accomplished, even though it is tricky to get into that mode.

But probably the biggest revelation came a while back when I was speaking to my mother. We were talking about my daughter's progress in dealing with autism, and I mentioned how I felt that I could very much relate to her circumstances, to the frustration she must feel that she finds it so difficult to accomplish things that others are able to do with ease. My mother replied that perhaps that was why I have ADD, so she would have someone who understood her in a way that most people couldn't. I had thought of my better understanding of my daughter's condition as a result of my ADD; it had never occurred to me to that it might actually be a reason for it.

In Signs, nearly all of the characters have something happen in their life that ultimately contributes to their survival during the invasion. The neighbor fell asleep at the wheel that one time and accidentally killed Graham's wife, but the flashbacks of that incident showed Graham the way to help his family survive. Merrill got the home run record so that he would have his bat hanging on that one spot on the wall, right where he could get at it when he needed it. Bo left water around the house so that they would have an extremely potent weapon against the alien easily at hand. Morgan had asthma so that he would survive the poison gas. Could it be that my struggle with ADD was to prepare me to have a daughter with autism?

People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance.

I'm sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights [on the alien spacecraft] in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people.

But there's a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever's going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope.

So what you have to ask yourself is: what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?

Graham Hess, Signs

Friday, September 18, 2009

Review: Psychonauts

I've had this game for quite a while now, but after having replayed it recently, I thought I should post a review of it here. No, it's not about people getting high in order to explore their own psyche. The exploration of psyches is definitely at the core of the game, but there are no mind-altering substances involved. Psychonauts, like a number of games I enjoy, falls in the category of “best games you never played;” overlooked games that didn't do well commercially for reasons other than their quality.

You play as Razputin, a youngster who, rather than running away from home to join the circus, runs away from the circus to join a summer camp for psychically-gifted children. The camp also serves as training and recruitment facility for the Psychonauts, a government agency that employs individuals with psionic abilities to perform missions such as rescuing kidnapped dignitaries or spying on bad guys. While at the camp, Raz hones his powers into specific abilities, such as generating energy blasts and force shields, clouding others' minds, telekinesis, levitation, invisibility, clairvoyance and the ever-popular pyrokinesis. While at the camp, he becomes aware of a plot to... well, I wouldn't want to spoil that...

As you might expect from a game that equips you with an arsenal of psychic powers, gameplay is ridiculously fun. As soon as you get a new power, you'll be running around to see what (or who) you can try it out on. The fun is only enhanced by the thorough realization of the game world: almost every object and character with which you can interact responds in an expected (and sometimes hilariously unexpected) way when you use your powers on them. Most of these reactions do nothing to advance the plot, but really help to maintain your suspension of disbelief. Only occasionally do you get a curt “that doesn't work” notification from the game in the form of a raspberry sound effect.

Some of the ways in which characters react to your use of powers are side-achingly funny. For example, there is a child at the camp who believes that she is an extraterrestrial. If you use telekinesis to pick her up off the ground, she reacts with near-euphoria, momentarily believing that her “people” have come to take her home. Another kid has a crush on same girl as Raz; using clairvoyance on him allows you to see Raz the way that boy sees him: as a black-clad villain, carrying the tied-up girl and twirling a long, black mustache.

The real fun, though, is when you begin to explore the psyches of other people. At first, the minds you enter are those of the camp counselors as part of your training, but where it really gets interesting is when you later explore the brains of the inhabitants of a nearby asylum. There's Boyd Cooper, a paranoid delusional whose mind looks like a white-picket fenced neighborhood, except that it twists in all directions, heedless of gravity. It's also full of spy cameras popping out of trees and lawn ornaments, eyes peeking through blinds and mailboxes, and spy helicopters flying overhead. Its streets are populated with “G-men” who are pretending (badly) to be normal citizens.

There's Gloria von Gouton, a former starlet who suffers from bipolar disorder. She usually stands in a beam of moonlight in the courtyard, happily waving to the group of flower pots with faces painted on them that now constitute her audience. If she steps out of the light, her mood quickly turns angry. This mirrors her pining for the days when she stood in the limelight, and her mind is a haphazard stage, where plays about her tormented life are forever lambasted by a venomous critic in the balcony.

Fred Bonaparte is plagued by dissociative identity disorder. In his mind he is constantly playing a military board game against his ancestor, Napoleon Bonaparte, but his self-confidence is shattered and he has given up ever winning the game. Raz has to climb into the board game itself to help him defeat Napoleon and reclaim his own personality. My favorite part of this level is when Raz speaks to one of Napoleon's wooden soldiers. After the game piece mocks him for his assertion that Fred will win the game, Raz tells him, “I can burn wood with my mind.”

You can even visit the mind of a giant mutated lungfish. Yes, you read that right. It makes sense in context. Anyway, just before going in, you are informed that “it's probably more afraid of you than you are of it.” This turns out to be true; in its mind, you take on Godzilla-like proportions. Of course, you would expect to be able to wreak all sorts of mayhem at that size, and the game doesn't disappoint: you can rampage around in the lungfish's mental city, knock down buildings, pick up tanks and throw them, and even climb skyscrapers and knock planes out of the sky.

But the psyche that I found the most fun to explore was that of Edgar Teglee, a black velvet painter. He calls himself “a prisoner of art,” and whenever he tries to paint anything, he always ends up painting bullfights. His mind takes the form of a stylized Spanish town, painted in black velvet style. The colors seem to pop as if illuminated by a blacklight. In the central plaza, Edgar tries to build a tower out of giant playing cards, hoping to reach a Spanish beauty in the sky who cries rose petal tears, but his tower is always destroyed by the bull who charges through the town, known as El Odio (Spanish for “hatred”).

Raz comes to learn that the bull symbolizes the rage that overpowers Edgar's mind. In several alleys, Raz finds dogs painting pictures, each of which shares a little piece of Edgar's story. One tells him that Edgar was once a great painter. One day, Dingo Inflagrante, the famous bullfighter, asked Edgar to paint his picture, but then Dingo ran off with Edgar's wife, Lampita Pasionado, a beautiful flamenco dancer. Ever since, his hatred has consumed him and he has painted nothing but bullfights.

This turns out to be a romanticized version of the truth. Another dog gives Raz the real story: Edgar was captain of the high school wrestling team, and his girlfriend was Lana Panzoni, a cheerleader. All was well in his life, but then Lana broke up with Edgar to be with Dean LaGrant, the captain of the cheerleading squad. Edgar's heart was broken, and his distracted state cost his team the wrestling championship. He hid from his angry teammates in the art teacher's classroom at lunch. He has not moved on with his life since, stuck in his obsession with Lana and Dean. To help Edgar get over his past, Raz has to dodge the bull's constant charging through the streets of his mind and take on four lucha libre wrestlers (representing Edgar's teammates), then defeat El Odio and Dingo.

In each mind you enter, you find clues about their past. Their minds are usually full of objects or symbols about things that have happened to them, and you can find “memory vaults” which allow you to view events from their past. Some of these memories are happy, while others, stashed in vaults that have been carefully hidden away, are traumatic. One camp counselor's psyche takes the form of a brightly-lit dance party, but this turns out to be a façade she has created to help her cope with a secret pain. If he looks carefully, Raz can find a small, dark, bare room, containing a few abandoned toys strewn on the floor, a toy chest, and a memory vault. That vault reveals that she had once run an orphanage, only to come back from the store one day to find it engulfed in flames. She carefully hid the grief and guilt of that experience in that lonely room in her mind. In the toy chest, she locked away her nightmares, the voices of the children who perished in the fire.

Psychonauts was originally designed as a console title, and was subsequently ported to the PC. As tends to happen with ports, there were a couple of interface issues that could have been better handled. The worst was definitely the inventory screen. To select a psi power or an object in your inventory, you press a button to call up the inventory screen, which has up to three pages. Each page can contain a maximum of eight items, arranged in a circle. To select one, you have to move an indicator towards the item you want, then press a button. This makes perfect sense when you are using a gamepad, but on the keyboard it's not so great. For example, in order to select the item in the upper-left corner, you have to press both up and left. If you accidentally release one before the other, it changes which item you're pointing at. The PC port should have instead just given you a single screen with all the items displayed on it, and allowed you to simply click on the item you want with the mouse. This control issue also poses something of a problem during a mini-game, where you need to be able to quickly change which direction you're facing, and sometimes the eight cardinal and intermediate directions aren't quite adequate.

The other quibble is with the psi powers themselves. The game provides three “slots” in which you can equip your psi powers, and a corresponding button activates each one. So even though you can acquire up to eight psi powers, only three of them are available at any one time. If you wish to use one of the ones that you don't currently have equipped, you must “unequip” one to make room for the one you want to use. This makes sense for the console because the number of buttons available is limited, but there should be no need to switch powers in and out of slots when you have a full keyboard available.

The graphics are delightful. The character and world design has often been described as what might result if Tim Burton directed a Pixar movie. The voice acting is spot-on, and the music and sound effects compliment the gameplay perfectly. On top of all that, you can get the game for $10 on Steam. If you'd like to try a single-player game with an intriguing story, innovative gameplay and razor wit, you can't go wrong with Psychonauts.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Reeling Them In

This is a picture of my daughter and a “friend” from preschool. He has no idea what he's dealing with.

Friday, September 4, 2009

We Can Rebuild Him — We Have the Technology

In a previous post, I griped about how my doctor was debating whether it was more profitable to continue treating me or to kill me, harvest my organs and sell them on the black market. Okay, maybe not, but it was pretty clear to me that I was not his main concern when it came treating me. He seemed to prefer giving me samples of medications I can't afford, making blanket judgments about side effects without asking me how I might feel about it, and ordering unnecessary tests. (Did I mention that he ordered an oximetry test to check for sleep apnea, despite the fact that I manifested no symptoms of the condition? Unsurprisingly, the test came back negative.)

I've fired that guy and found a new doctor. Not only is this one much closer to my house, but he seems to be a lot more concerned about my condition and how it affects my life. After listening to me give the history of my search for better control of my ADD, he reviewed the records sent over from the other clinic and said that the phenytoin levels noted by the previous blood work weren't just okay, they were low. He told me that unless I was experiencing side effects already (I'm not), he saw no reason why the amount couldn't be bumped up. He seemed to be rather puzzled at the way the other doctor was handling my case.

So with updated prescription in hand, here's hoping that I'll be a brand new man. Oh, and my blood pressure was 104/82! I can't remember a time when it was actually a bit low!