If I Grow Up

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I’ve figured out what I want to be if I grow up: a writer. In fact, by writing this I’m living the dream, aren’t I? I guess things have been building up to this my whole life; I’ve been reading since I could, and writing even when I didn’t have to.

Whatever my mood has been, as long as it wasn’t too severe, I’ve always written. When I was down, I wrote depressing poetry or prose. When I was up, I wrote whatever popped into my head. Now that I’m stable, I can take the time to write coherent, sensible articles.

What are you going to write? It’s a good question, and I like it quite a bit. I’m going to write articles here, like the ones I’ve written so far. I’m going to write for HandmadeNews.org, with my first article there out just recently. I’ll always be writing emails. Sometimes I’ll write things down in my notebooks. If I feel like my writing is worthy of it, I might write a screenplay Josh Olson would enjoy reading. I wont bring it to him to read, though. If it’s good enough it might make its way to him.

What about your degree? It took me a bit longer to finish my computer science degree than most, partly because of my involvement with the co-operative education program I was in. I like writing software, and I like thinking and reading about it. The time I spent there I consider formative, and it will certainly help me out in my current endeavour.

What about the other things you enjoy doing? I’ll keep doing them, but with renewed purpose. The electronics projects I work on, my small programming projects and bits of art I produce will all be used to service my writing. When I make something, I’ll write about it. I’ll let the people who want to know hear about it. Anyone else can choose not to read it.

How are you going to make money? A good question, everyone needs money these days. I don’t need much, though. Apart from my love of gadgets, I have simple needs. Food, clothing, shelter. I have the love of my life to keep me well loved, I have my family, and more of that simply couldn’t be bought. I’d really rather be famous for my love of the craft than rich because my work sells well. I wouldn’t mind both, but we’ll see how it all turns out.

“If” you grow up? Never assume you are mature; it’s a very immature viewpoint. And to quote the Peter Pan musical, “If growing up means it would be, beneath my dignity to climb a tree, then I wont grow up, never grow up, not me!” Besides, if you stop taking joy in simple things, then what reason do you have to write?

What Kind of Games?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I started programming when I was young, with the hopes of writing video games. I think a lot of kids start that way. When you like something, or someone, you try to emulate what you’re seeing. But how has that early dream turned out?

They tell writers to write what they know. It’s good advice. How can you write about life in the Serengeti without have someone to give you a first hand account or having been there yourself? You can always use your imagination, and that’s all you can really do when writing fantasy or science fiction. It works for writing video games. How can you expect to write a genre you don’t immerse yourself in?

These days I spend most of my gaming time playing casual games. I’m busy doing other things, and don’t want to spend long stretches just sitting at the console or computer. Recently I read an article about the kind of video games the most people tend to flock to. Typically they’re games that are relatively simple and involve sorting things in some way. It bears out in my own tastes.

In late 2008, I entered the uDevGames contest, and submitted a casual game for consideration. It didn’t do too well, but I hadn’t spent enough time on it. The graphics are primitive and my soundtrack stinks. However, I think I’m going to revamp it for an iPhone/iPod touch release. I’ve been working on better graphics, for one. The basic game play appealed to the people who played it, so that wont be changing. I’ll add a few more game elements, and a high score list, of course.

Another favourite genre of mine is the story-driven RPG or adventure game. This is by far one of the most involved type of game you can develop. I’ve started innumerable aborted attempts at designs, filling notebooks with my ideas.

As long as everything works out as I’d like, a new version of GnomeSpy will be in the works. It’ll satisfy my desire to write video games, while giving me a base to improve on. Maybe I’ll put in a bit more story, for a little extra flavour. Who knows, it might become popular.

Terry the Space Bum

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Here's a quicky I wrote trying to mix science fiction and horror a little.

It was always a bit cold in space stations, Terry thought. Sometimes it made it hard to sleep on the metal deck plating, but then again, beggars can't be choosers. He'd been waiting for a transport for weeks, so he could hitch a ride out of Titan Station, but strangely, none had come. In his experience, even remote research stations like this one tended to get weekly supply shipments.

There was no trouble keeping out of sight from the scientists on board, they were too consumed with whatever research they were conducting. Just as well, he thought, it gave him an easier time when dipping into the food stores. Not fantastic fare, certainly not 'an epicure's delight,' as the last transport's in-flight magazine had described his previous home's cooking.

But then again, there was no beating Mars colony's Advanced Flavour Enhancer 3000; it made even stale bread taste delicious. He had tried to sneak some out with him, but there must have been some kind of theft-prevention device that evaporated the stuff when he left orbit. It was a finicky substance even on Mars' surface, but they produced enough that even a space bum like Terry could snatch a bit here and there.

Thinking of the time since the last transport dropped him off here, he realized that this station didn't have forced day and night. He had been relying on the chronometers in the station to keep track of time, and they could be running on some standard the scientists had picked. The last few research posts and stations he'd visited seemed to keep different time standards, probably picked by the scientists there for some reason known only to themselves. But Terry still had his watch on those visits, and it was set to Earth standard. He had been able to tell how fast or slow the local time ran.

But it didn't much matter, the station was well stocked, enough for a year, given the number of scientists manning the station, and himself. He hoped that wasn't a sign that he'd be there quite that long, but the more remote stations kept larger stocks, 'just in case.'

It was into the second month that he started hearing the noises. Every station had its own set of creaks and groans, but these were different. Whispers around the corner in a corridor, rustling in drawers, the scrape of nails on metal, just out of sight. At first he thought it was the scientists, but the station computer kept track of them, and none of them were anywhere near his location. He had welcomed this feature when he first arrived, it allowed him to keep out of their way. But now, with these sounds, it was becoming a recrimination, as if saying 'you have to be crazy if you think you're going to survive here.'

The sounds continued into the next month, and he was becoming progressively more and more on edge. When he started seeing things, shadows flickering near the sounds, he started to question whether or not all those old science fiction stories dealing with space insanity had some kind of prophetic quality. Sure, the Sol Health Organization said there was no evidence that any could actually go space-crazy, but he had always wondered about that.

The shadows were mostly formless, but occasionally he'd catch a shadow of something pointed, like a knife. With all the new ways of killing people that had been invented recently, the knife was still a good old stand-by. Never runs out of power, doesn't get jammed, can be concealed just about anywhere. He was beginning to wonder why he didn't carry one.

By the fourth month, the sounds started getting more and more menacing. The whispers took on an angry tone, the scraping sounds became a little more violent. He couldn't reveal his presence to the station's crew, but at the same time he was getting very scared, and thought that perhaps the crew would be able to protect him.

In the fifth month, when he started catching glimpses of something making the shadows, he was almost about to pop into the main science lab and for protection. He was drawing near, keeping an eye on the computer monitor throughout to see where everyone was. Then the screaming started, horrible, pained screams, little splashes against the walls and dull thuds afterwards. The monitors showed the dots representing the scientists slowly fade, one by one, as they were apparently being slaughtered. One dot remained, and he heard pleading screams, "No, no, please god, no!" When he heard the scraping noise start again, and head towards him, out of the lab, he ran.

In his excited state, it took him a while to figure out what to do. There was, in case of emergency, a special craft designed specifically for returning the crew to Earth. He had to get to it and get back, so he could tell someone what had happened. Luckily it was attached to the station near the docking bay, where he had first arrived. It was in the opposite direction from the lab, and so that's where he went.

It took him a little longer to get everything set up, being this excited, but he did finally disengage the holding clamps and get the launch thrusters going. It wasn't until the station appeared as a distance dot in his rear viewport that he let himself start breathing normally again.

"Did you see his face?" one of the scientists laughed to the others, back, safe, and in the lab.

"Man, that was the most fun I've had all year!" another replied.

"But he just took our escape pod," said a third.

"And the resupply ship's already left Earth," added the fourth, "so we can't get it to pick a replacement up for us."

"Oh crap," said the first, "it looks like when the pod took off, it tore a crack in the station's hull. We're leaking atmosphere."

Losing a loved one, as an atheist

Saturday, September 12, 2009

When I was around 11 or 12, I started to question the received wisdom that there was a deity. I came to the conclusion that all signs pointed to no. Do I outright, unequivocally and without reservation deny the existence of such an entity? No. However, I don’t see it as a likely scenario, and until I’m presented with hard evidence, I have enough reason to say that there isn’t.

Some people take comfort in their religious beliefs, especially their belief in an afterlife. I have no interest in an afterlife, either for myself of my loved ones. In the past five years I’ve lost both my grandmother and mother, both of whom I loved dearly.

No amount of belief in an afterlife would soothe my pain. I mourn at the fact that they are lost from my life, right here, right now. I imagine it’s the same even for those who believe that the dead pass on to somewhere else. You can’t escape the fact that their tangible presence is forever gone from your life. Unless you believe in ghosts, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

I have my memories of them, and if I filter those memories, I can choose to only remember the good things. I can remember my mother’s kind words, my grandmother’s stolid support, and their love for each other. Aside from senility, nothing can take those memories from me, and I wont ever let anything try to. They’re mine to keep, and I’ll treasure them until I die.

I loved them both, and it’s hit me hard, especially my mother’s recent death. As a non-believer, I don’t have to question why a god would choose to take my mother away at 59. I don’t have to ask why they would let such a thing happen, if they hadn’t directed it specifically. Even if there is a god, I don’t care why. Our universe operates under certain natural laws, and I’m okay with that. Those natural laws brought me to life, and gave me a happy life with my mother’s constant support. Would I trade that in for false hope of an afterlife? Never. I wouldn’t dream of it.

To me the beauty of the natural world is that it is there in its own right. It doesn’t require any omnipotent fiat, it operates within a consistent set of rules, and it has brought itself to this complex state from incredibly simple components. Belief in some sort of deity would actually take away from the universe’s beauty; it would steal from it its grandeur and splendor. To stand on its own legs it demonstrates a quality of greatness.

Would my grief be at all assuaged by thoughts of an afterlife? No, I am certain it would not. I loved them, and they’re gone from my life forever. I’m not angry at anything for their loss. I’m left with memories to cherish, love in my heart for them still, and the knowledge that what they left behind came from themselves.

Living with Bipolar Disorder

Friday, September 4, 2009

Feeling down when something bad happens is normal. Feeling elated when something good happens is great. Bipolar disorder is neither. Previously referred to as manic depressive disorder, bipolar disorder consists of mood episodes ranging from deep, dark depression to the sense of invincibility and superiority that is characteristic of a manic phase. It disrupts the lives of those who suffer from it and all those around them. Luckily, however, with the right course of treatment it can be kept under control.

Bipolar disorder has been found to be linked genetically and physiologically to schizophrenia. A person suffering from bipolar disorder can experience the same sort of hallucinations and delusions as someone with schizophrenia. Both have a genetic component, with a number of genes interacting to create a pre-disposition to these disorders. The families of those afflicted often include others with one of these disorders, mood disorders or alcoholism.

Depression is a common symptom of many health problems. It can stem from difficult situations or simply an inability to cope with the stresses of everyday life. In the case of bipolar disorder, depression is a component of a mood cycle that can send the individual on a roller coaster of trouble. My own experiences with depression have affected me greatly. For 6 months in 2004, I had to leave work in order to recover from a severe episode. There were days I never left bed, others where I couldn’t even face leaving home to walk my dogs. It’s debilitating, but only one aspect of bipolar disorder.

The phase most associated with bipolar disorder, by the public, is mania. Mania can consist of impulsive behaviour, a sense of elation without reason, inappropriate behaviour, delusions and hallucinations. This phase is incredibly disruptive to the social community around the individual. It can lead to lost jobs, lost friendships, massive debt from impulsive spending or gifting, serious jail time and the contraction of STDs from high-risk sex. Luckily, in my case mania has not been a big component. It has surfaced, however, and has ruined at least one of my most treasured friendships. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

Hypomania, as its name implies, is a milder form of mania. It is often characterized by increased creativity, increased self-confidence and an increase in productivity. Persons in this state are often more social, displaying an unusual amount of charm. This phase is one of the reasons some people with bipolar disorder stop taking their medication. When the effects of hypomania are dampened by medication, many individuals stop their treatment in an effort to regain some of the benefits of this mood. It is, however, a symptom of the disorder, and should be regarded as such and treated accordingly.

An individual suffering from the disorder can also find themselves in a mixed state, where depressive and manic symptoms mingle to create a special kind of hell. Irritability, delusions, lack of energy and a short temper are a few of the traits that can be found in a person in this state.

There are a number of diagnoses within bipolar disorder that are characterized by the individual’s specific history of these different phases. However, I am not a psychiatrist, and if you think you are experiencing these symptoms see a qualified psychiatrist as soon as possible.

Treatment requires a number of approaches. From the pharmacological end, sometimes anti-psychotics are required. Mood stabilizers are a common prescription, since in most cases the extreme peaks and valleys need to be brought in check. Some individuals also require an anti-depressant to lift them up out of recurring depressive episodes. Medication is usually the front line of the battle, as it can be impossible to work with an individual who is hallucinating, delusional or otherwise unable to fully cooperate.

Cognitive behavioural therapy can help the person suffering learn how to rein in their mood. It’s been shown to be one of the few talk therapies that can actually help in the treatment of depression. There have been clinical trials demonstrating its effectiveness, and I can attest that it worked for me.

Symptoms can manifest themselves at a relatively young age. Occasionally children who later turn out to have bipolar disorder are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The stimulants used to treat ADHD can often aggravate the child’s condition and make treatment down the road more difficult. It is always important to make sure you tell your child’s doctor, as well as your own, of any and all family history of psychiatric illness or symptoms similar to those of bipolar disorder.

My own history of bipolar disorder has sensitized me to the issues facing individuals with psychiatric disorders. Unfortunately, much of the population is unaware of the nature of these illnesses, and often attribute the symptoms to personal failings on the part of those suffering. A terrible stigma is attached to bipolar disorder and it can be difficult to shake.

An Open Letter to David Hewlett

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dear Mr. Hewlett,

I’m writing to you in the hopes that you’ll read this and learn a bit about the great woman who was my mother and a big fan of yours. Helen died recently at the much-too-young age of 59. In April she found out she had pancreatic cancer; less than 5 months later, she passed away.

If you don’t read this, that’s okay, I guess, because it’s also a part of my grieving process. I think you’ll be touched by it, but at the same time, it’s helping me deal with the loss.

My mother as your fan

Every movie you were in, she wanted to see. She didn’t get a chance to before she went. I had wanted to buy her A Dog’s Breakfast for Christmas; I think she would have really liked it. I think Cube would have given her a bit of claustrophobia, but didn’t it do that for everyone?

She loved Atlantis. I think your performance was a big part of that. Joe Flanigan and Paul McGillion may also have had something to do with that. The episodes she watched of SG-1 were mostly the ones with McKay in them, because of you. Maybe she saw a bit of me in McKay, as I’m definitely a geek, and I’ve been known to have arrogant moments.

She was so excited to get the season 5 DVDs recently, but she never got to watch any of it. I think my dad is the one most saddened by that fact. They watched all of Atlantis together, sharing in the joy of watching an entertaining show. There were lots of shows they enjoyed together, and wont have the chance to anymore.

McKay, I felt, made Atlantis. I’m a big fan too, and have probably seen many more of the movies you’ve been in than she did. I’m sad she didn’t get to see more, since I’ve always enjoyed your performances.

There are other aspects of her involvement with fandom, and if you’re interested I can tell you about them directly. This letter is mostly about the other parts of her life.

My mother as a great woman

There are no monuments erected in her honour. There never are for the everyday heroes. But I think she would have felt a little uncomfortable if there had been. Her biggest failing was that she often under-sold herself. She was a great woman, and with more self-esteem she would have seen it, I think.

From a young age she instilled in me a love of reading. She’d read to me every night from any number of books. The Hobbit, the Chronicles of Narnia, E. B. White’s books, anything she thought I would enjoy. I started going through her collection of sci-fi and fantasy books before I left elementary school; big, thick volumes of Anne McCaffrey and Stephen King. While I liked watching shows like Reading Rainbow, I didn’t need them to boost my love of reading.

Literacy was an important skill to her. She volunteered at local schools, helping kids who had trouble reading. I’m sure her love of reading helped those kids along more than anything else. Her patience no doubt also played a role, but I think if an educator shows great enthusiasm for the subject, the student will pick it up at least a bit.

She was part of a women’s group in her area. I believe she was the youngest there, and many of the women didn’t drive because of their age. Along with another woman, she would drive those who couldn’t to and from their meetings or outings.

Her support kept me going through some of the hardest times of my life. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here writing this. It might be that others wouldn’t have managed to pull through if she hadn’t been here either.

She was generous and caring, and helped those she could. She always looked out for the underdog, knowing that it was a hard place to be. The popular and successful deserve support as well, but it’s always the downtrodden who are elevated more by a helping hand.

I owe my creativity, intelligence and curiosity to her. She bought our first computer when I was quite young, and without it and her support, I never would have taken a degree in computer science. Without her I would have never had a minor in linguistics to go with it. I wouldn’t have the breadth of knowledge I do, or the desire to expand it. I know she was proud of me, and I hope that she knew how big a role she had in helping me to where I am now.

She’s had one funeral service already, shortly after she passed. There are another two scheduled in the next two months. Three services might be unusual, but I think she deserved the extra recognition and the opportunity for as many as possible to celebrate her life. She was a wonderful woman, full of life and compassion. I’ll never forget her, and while there’s no monument out there in her honour, there’ll always be the one in my heart.

Thanks for taking the time to read this, I appreciate it.


James Dessart

Change in tone

My next few posts will be very personal. My mother passed away last week, and I need to write in order to properly grieve. I want to share my thoughts, and I hope they might inspire or touch some of you.

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