314. The Parable of the Monkey’s Whiskers

When I shared on Monday about my struggles to cope with depression, I promised today’s post would be less gloomy. Not only shall my reflections today be more cheerful, but they’ll also feature pictures of cute monkeys!

(Don’t be surprised. This blog is called Typewriter Monkey Task Force, after all. The pictures belong to my dad, who graciously dug them out of his archive at my request.)

Here’s an old African parable. There were once two monkeys; I’ll name them Apollo and Socrates after two of my typewriter monkeys.

Monkey Parable - Playful monkeyApollo and Socrates frolicked across the savanna one day, tossing around a coconut and being adorable. Neither monkey realized they were playing near a foul swamp. (As I know from long experience, monkeys aren’t very bright.) Apollo and Socrates tossed their coconut back and forth until Socrates missed a catch. The coconut landed in sticky mud far from the bank.

As the monkeys sat on the bank, staring forlornly at the coconut, Apollo nudged Socrates as if to say, “You go first.”

Monkey Parable - Sinking monkey

Socrates stepped into the swamp and trudged toward the coconut, holding up his tail to keep it from trailing through the stinking mud. At last he picked it up, tried plodding back to the safety of the bank, and realized he was stuck. The clinging muck held him fast by the ankles… and slowly pulled him downward.

Socrates let go of his tail, dropped the coconut, and tried pulling a foot out of the mud. It didn’t even budge. He tried the other foot. It was hopeless. The little monkey was trapped, and the mire sucked him steadily down, down, down into the gloom.

Monkey Parable - Desperate monkey

Apollo began running back and forth on the bank, waving his little arms helplessly. There were no branches, no vines, nothing that could be used as a bridge or lifeline. If only there were something to which Socrates could hold—something to keep him from sinking.

Then Apollo had an idea. He chattered at Socrates (now waist-deep) to get his attention, and then tugged on his own whiskers. Of course! Socrates didn’t need a lifeline. He could pull himself out of the swamp by his whiskers! The solution to his problem was literally right under his nose.

Socrates understood and began pulling his whiskers. He pulled and pulled and pulled, trying to raise himself out of the slimy mess drawing him into its reeking depths.

Monkey Parable - Drowned monkey

The last Apollo ever saw of Socrates was a pair of paws, twitching faintly and grasping handfuls of monkey whiskers.

Wait. That wasn’t a happy story, was it? Dash it, this is embarrassing. I promised my readers today’s post would be more hopeful. Well, it’s not too late to make a few changes to this parable. Let’s give it a happier ending!

Monkey Parable - Noticed monkey

As Socrates yanked vainly on his whiskers, a nearby giraffe glanced over and saw the little monkey struggling in the swamp. Art Garfunkel Giraffe was this noble creature’s name. (Art’s parents were huge fans of folk rock.) He galloped away to find his friend Ringo Starr Elephant. (Ringo’s parents were more into classic rock and roll.) Art and Ringo reached the swamp just as Socrates’ head was about to slip beneath the mud.

Monkey Parable - Rescued monkeySocrates was saved! The animals, who never went near a swamp again, all went out for coffee and lived happily ever after.

There. Was that better?

On Monday, I mentioned that I hate my inability to cope with depression. I also pointed out that many of us struggle to win our private battles. Why have I shared a parable about monkey whiskers?

Some problems have no easy fixes.

As much as I want to find the perfect strategy for coping with depression and anxiety, it may not exist. There may be no easy fix for these problems. My best intentions may be no more useful than a monkey trying to lift himself up by his own whiskers.

Oddly enough, this comforts me. I tend to blame myself for every failure to cope with my depression. The parable of the monkey’s whiskers suggests the possibility that I may not always be able to rescue myself. Some battles may be beyond my power to win… and that means I can stop blaming myself for losing. I can feel depressed without feeling guilty.

If depression is a problem my best intentions can’t fix, should I just give up?

Well… no.

We can’t rescue ourselves—but others can help.

Depression is a private battle. All the things I mentioned on Monday—addiction, self-loathing, broken relationships, self-destructive impulses, and so on—are things we hide. They’re private. They’re shameful. They’re embarrassing. They’re also things we don’t have to face alone.

In fact, facing them alone may be as stupid as a monkey trying to haul himself out of a swamp by his whiskers.

We all need help from others. Some of us could benefit from professional counseling, antidepressants, or therapy. We all need hugs. Some of us need hugs. We feel better for talking or going for walks or playing Mario Kart with loved ones. It’s amazing to share a private battle with someone and hear them say “I love you” or “I’m praying for you” or even “That really sucks; I hope things get better.”

In my struggles, few things have brought me greater hope or healing than people listening to me, praying for me, encouraging me, or simply acknowledging that they know I’m struggling. Maybe that’s what the Apostle Paul, bless him, meant when he wrote, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

We can look to others for help, and we can always look to God. As it is written, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” He listens when no one else will.

We all have our battles to fight. What we must always know is that we never have to face them alone.

Moon Music

The phrase moon music suggests compositions like Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” or Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” For the geeks out there, however, it may call to mind a miserly cartoon duck and his adventures on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

The DuckTales video game should have been a disaster. More often than not, licensed games (i.e. games based on an existing intellectual property) are poorly-designed attempts to squeeze more money out of a media franchise. Seeing as DuckTales was never more than a decent cartoon in the first place, its game should have been an abject failure.

DuckTales turned out to be a masterpiece of the 8-bit era, and a resounding commercial success. I suppose Scrooge McDuck of all people (or poultry) really knows how to rake in the cash.

One of the game’s most enduring legacies is its moon music. “The Moon Theme” is among the most widely recognized game melodies of its time. Although the original version is a bit shrill, it’s quite complex for a song using the NES’s primitive sound chip. It makes me think of Schroeder from the Peanuts comics plinking out Beethoven’s masterpieces on a toy piano. The song also reminds me of the soundtracks to the old Mega Man games, which were made by the same developer.

When DuckTales was remade recently as DuckTales: Remastered, “The Moon Theme” was all over the game, not just in the Moon stage; I counted two or three arrangements of the song in the game’s end credits alone. One might even say… it eclipses the other songs in the soundtrack. (That was a horrible pun. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.)

313. Coping with Depression

About a week ago, an acquaintance was asked how she planned to spend her evening. She replied, “Oh, I’ll go home,” and added in an undertone, “I’ll probably curl up and cry my eyes out.”

I assumed my acquaintance—I’ll call her Socrates—was being sarcastic, yet her tone was very matter-of-fact. “Will you really?” I inquired.

This was not a polite question. All the same, it led to a frank conversation about depression and the ways we try to deal with it. Socrates apparently cries a lot. I would never have guessed. She’s considerate, friendly, and helpful; she never seems depressed. As she talked about her struggles, I felt a sobering sadness.

I can’t pretend to understand her perfectly after one brief conversation, but I’m certain of at least one thing: Socrates is a very brave person. She fights her private battle with a courage that fooled me into thinking she was quite happy. She smiles, storing up her tears.

Socrates reminded me that depression is a common struggle. Most of us have hidden problems of some kind, whether depression, self-loathing, addiction, self-destructive impulses, broken relationships, or other issues. We all try to cope in different ways. Socrates cries. I write, drink too much coffee, and spend hours or days being antisocial and unproductive.

Trying to cope

Look, I’m really depressed. I can’t deal with people right now. Go away! Begone! Go read some other blog!

I don’t like depression, but what I really hate is not knowing how to deal with it.

My depression comes and goes. When I’m not depressed, it seems like a mere nuisance. In fact, in these brighter times, I feel slightly guilty talking or writing about it. I feel like I’m exaggerating a small problem.

Then depression creeps over me, darkening my life slowly and imperceptibly. (The process is so gradual that I sometimes feel depressed for days before realizing it.) Depression robs me of the ability to enjoy and appreciate good things. It sucks the hope and meaning out of life, leaving the universe a dismal, empty place.

Fortunately, my bouts with depression are neither frequent nor injurious, and seldom last more than a week or two—thank God! In the end, no matter how dark my depression, God carries me through it.

All the same, I wish I were better at coping. I want to be more self-aware in recognizing the symptoms of depression. I remind myself that what I do matters more than what I feel. I try not to blame myself, but to recognize depression as a sickness. Like Socrates, I smile and keep my struggles to myself.

As I look back on the battles I never won, I can’t shake a sense of regret. I feel guilty for being unproductive and unsociable. I rue time wasted, opportunities lost, and blessings unappreciated.

Depression really sucks.

Why am I writing all this? I have two reasons.

First, I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t win these battles. There are many people like me and Socrates. I want the readers fighting their own private battles to know they’re not alone.

Second, I have more to say. This is the darker half of a two-part discussion. I’ll end these reflections on a brighter note next time. Come back on Friday for the conclusion!

312. Gritty or Glittery?

In the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of gritty media: books, films, and video games characterized by darkness, angst, violence, and square-jawed men brooding over inner conflicts. From Wolverine to Walter White, we’ve seen plenty of angsty characters on the large and small screens. Books—even young adult literature—feature people killing (and dying!) in all sorts of creative ways. The video game industry continues making games with guns, gore, and roughly one in every five words of dialogue being the f-bomb.

Angst! Darkness! Square jaws!

Angst! Darkness! Square jaws!

Why is gritty media popular? That’s a tough question to answer. I suppose there’s some truth to the darkness and violence in these media, and it resonates with people. We all feel sadness, discouragement, and anger. Some face depression, abuse, self-destructive impulses, or equally “gritty” problems.

Finally, gritty media often seems mature, sophisticated, or “grown-up.” All of this begs the question: Is it?

While gritty media has become more popular in past years, there are still plenty of lighthearted books, films, and video games: “glittery” media, so to speak.

Light! Smiles! Goofy braces!

Light! Smiles! Goofy braces!

Throughout history, comedy has nearly always taken a backseat to tragedy. Shakespeare’s most famous plays are his tragedies; Mark Twain’s cynical Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is celebrated over his cheerfuller books; P.G. Wodehouse’s clever comedies are largely eclipsed by the gloomy writings of his contemporaries. It seems humor and optimism can’t be taken seriously.

While there are certainly good things to say for gritty narratives, I don’t believe grittier is necessarily better. A purpose of art is to reflect or represent truth; the truth is that life isn’t always gloomy. A Farewell to Arms or The Things They Carried may be brilliant depictions of the horrors of war, but peace is no less real than violence. I think it’s absurd to suppose, say, Anne of Green Gables is necessarily an inferior book because it reflects joy and sentiment instead of pain and despair.

In the end, it’s a mistake to judge the quality of a thing by whether it’s gritty or glittery, tragic or comic, cynical or optimistic. That said, I would love to see people take glittery media more seriously. Can we study humorists like P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber more widely in schools? I’m sure students wouldn’t mind putting down The Lord of the Flies. Can we have fewer gritty superhero movies and have more like Marvel’s quirky Guardians of the Galaxy? We could use a break from gloom and doom.

The world is an awfully dark place, but there’s a little light left. Some stories remember that, and I think they’re worth taking seriously.

Three Thinkers and a Chimpanzee

Three Thinkers and a Chimpanzee

A few days ago, I recalled a work titled Chris Chrisman Goes to College and thought, “It was a decent book, but it had a great cover.” It boasted a superb caricature of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin. Man, those guys had sweet beards.

When I was in high school, my favorite teacher had me read a bunch of books exploring various worldviews from a Christian perspective. I tackled thoughtful books by guys like Peter Kreeft, Philip Yancey, and James W. Sire.

It was Sire whose book featured the outstanding picture above of three famous nineteenth-century thinkers (and a chimpanzee). Chris Chrisman Goes to College was, if I remember correctly, a fictionalized account of a sheltered Christian going to college and facing new ideologies. It wasn’t a bad book, but it didn’t make nearly as much of an impression on me as its delightful cover.

Marx, Freud, and Darwin are an interesting triumvirate. Each of these bearded gentleman crafted an ideology that rocked the world. Marx revolutionized politics by laying foundations for socialism and communism. Freud revolutionized psychology with his daring and controversial ideas. Darwin revolutionized scientific study with his naturalistic theories.

To wit, for better or worse, these guys really made a splash.

I can’t pretend to be very knowledgeable about these thinkers, their philosophies, or their legacies, but there’s at least one thing of which I’m absolutely certain.

Those are seriously some awesome beards.

311. Strange American Pumpkin Rituals

I’ve spent a few years in Indiana, one of the United States of America. Indiana is extremely different from my homeland of Ecuador. The season of autumn brings all sorts of strange cultural customs. In fact, as we approach the holiday known as “Halloween,” I’ve seen disconcerting rituals take place in my very neighborhood.

Today TMTF delves into anthropology and investigates strange American pumpkin rituals. For science.

I’m baffled by the bizarre, violent, and highly dubious custom of carving pumpkins into facsimiles of severed heads. These gruesome gourds are known as “jackal lanterns,” or some such.

Nothing brightens up a porch like grotesque facsimiles of severed heads!

Nothing brightens up a home like grotesque facsimiles of severed heads!

I recently witnessed the creation of jackal lanterns firsthand. First, the pumpkins were eviscerated and their innards piled in slimy heaps. Seeds were extracted from these heaps, seasoned, and cooked in an oven. I gathered that roasted pumpkin seeds are a seasonal delicacy, and tried a small handful—for science. The seeds tasted like buttered wood chips and were more or less completely indigestible. Americans must lack taste buds and have ironclad stomachs—but that’s research for another time.

After they were emptied of seeds and pulp, the hapless pumpkins had faces carved in them. These were grotesque. Further researches on my part yielded some interesting information: although jackal lanterns are generally patterned after severed heads, they can feature words, portraits, logos, cartoon ponies, interstellar weapons of mass destruction, and other forms of visual art.

Once completed, jackal lanterns are usually placed upon porches or in front yards. Lights or candles are placed inside them, shining through apertures and places where the sides of the pumpkins have been pared to a translucent thinness. This explains the lantern part of jackal lantern, but my researches have yet to explain the jackal part. Is the purpose of displaying these lanterns to frighten away jackals?

My other hypothesis is that jackal lanterns are deployed outside homes as protective charms to ward off gnomes, trolls, or evil spirits.

Halloween brings many more peculiar rituals, such as the custom of donning disguises, accosting strangers on their doorsteps, and demanding sweets. This ritual is apparently call “triquertreting.” (I haven’t actually seen the word written, so I’ve transcribed it phonetically here.) I can only presume the word is derived from the French triquer (cudgel) and the German treten (trample). Thus triquertreting can be loosely translated to cudgeling and trampling, which confirms my worst fears about Halloween and its customs.

All this makes me long for Ecuador’s peaceful and sensible customs for the Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead) on November 2, a couple of days after Halloween. Ecuadorians eat guaguas de pan, children made of bread; slurp colada morada, a soupy hot drink made with spiced fruit; and dine atop the graves of dead ancestors. What’s weird about that?

310. Obsessing over English

I love the English language. It’s a weird one, to be sure, but I love it anyway.

English began as a Germanic language called Anglo-Saxon. The Norman invasion of England in 1066 stirred in some French, eventually resulting in the sing-song language known as Middle English. Over the centuries, shifts in grammar, spelling, syntax, and pronunciation, along with words and phrases from other languages, have added up to the glorious mess we call English.

I’ve heard of two approaches to English and language in general. The first is a prescriptivist approach, which says, “This is how English must work, and everyone who disagrees is wrong.” I think this approach is hopeless, not to mention silly. Language changes constantly. A person may as well try to impose immutable order on the clouds above as on the English language.

(Of course, some formal standards are necessary for certain kinds of writing. It improves communication for professionals in the same profession to follow the same rules. What I frown upon is a universally prescriptivist approach to the English language.)

I prefer a descriptivist view, which says, “This is how English actually works right now. Let’s roll with it.” I disapprove of sloppy writing, but I don’t mind other people following different rules of grammar, spelling, and syntax. If other writers want to split infinitives, use sentence fragments, or end sentences in prepositions—and they’re consistent about it—who am I to argue?

When it comes to my own writing, however, I think I have linguistic OCD. Is that a thing? Let’s assume linguistic OCD is a thing. Obsessive-compulsive disorder can afflict anyone, even linguists.

As relaxed as I am about writing in general, I’m obsessive about my own. I seldom begin sentences with And or But. I never split infinitives, even though the rule about not splitting them is (according to an old college professor) an obsolete leftover from Latin. Heck, I even hate ending sentences with a parenthesis or the letter because I think these symbols look untidy next to a period.

I… I think I need help.

All right, not really. But I sure could loosen up a bit.

That last sentence was a little hard to write. I’ll keep working on it.

Criminal Penguins

When a globetrotting family friend recently shared tales of thieving penguins, it reminded me of something I had long forgotten. A few years ago, a college friend showed me this footage of penguin crimes. I hadn’t known penguins were so nefarious. They seemed so cute, fluffy, and innocent.

It’s worth noting that one of Batman’s greatest foes is known as the Penguin. Coincidence? Clearly not!

Be wary of penguins, dear reader. Watch your wallet and hold your children close! There’s no trusting the white-collar criminals known as penguins.

309. TMTF Reviews: Mario & Luigi – Dream Team

Since deciding to review video games on this blog, I’ve covered a lot of violent ones. I’ve played titles in the Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil series: games featuring guns, explosions, zombies, guns, death, nuclear weapons, and guns. Heck, I’ve played more violent video games in the past year alone than in all the years that came before.

It’s high time for something quirky and colorful. After so many gritty games, it’s time for a title that’s a little more… dreamy.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team for the Nintendo 3DS the latest in a series of offbeat RPGs (role-playing games) starring a pair of portly plumbers. Mario’s RPGs are generally something special, and I hoped Dream Team would be no exception.

Does it play like a dream? Is is a nightmarish mess?

Mario & Luigi - Dream Team

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (Nintendo 3DS, 2013)

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team may not be the greatest Mario RPG ever made, but it’s superb… and strange. It’s very, very strange.

Fever Dreams

When Mario and Luigi fly to Pi’illo Island for a restful visit, their vacation is disturbed by Antasma, a creature who haunts the world of dreams. Led by the prince of the ancient Pi’illo people, the Mario bros must rescue Pi’illo Island. They have one advantage: Luigi’s ability to nap anywhere allows him to open portals to the dream world, where things get weird.

Mario games are always a bit strange, but Dream Team is absolutely ridiculous. This is a game in which pillows talk, bizarre monsters roam freely, and Russian-accented bodybuilders obsess over beef—and all this in the “real” world. When the Mario bros dive into the dream world, it gets positively trippy. It’s a place in which timeless spirits talk on cell phones and geek out over superheroes.

The Mario RPGs have an unfair share of charm, and Dream Team is absolutely no exception. The setting is colorful, the characters are whimsical, and the dialogue is endearingly goofy. Dream Team is bright, absurd, and occasionally heartwarming.

Sadly, for all its strengths, the game doesn’t have much of a story. RPGs are often defined by strong narratives, and Dream Team doesn’t really have one. It’s a game whose story consists mostly of a series of objectives to be completed. I also lamented the lack of Fawful from previous Mario & Luigi games. His overenthusiastic villainy and mangled English were delightful, and his absence makes Dream Team a tiny bit less special.

Two’s a Crowd

Like the games before it, Dream Team gives the player separate, simultaneous control of both Mario bros. It takes a little practice, but controlling two characters allows for some engaging puzzles and battles.

The battle system is probably the game’s greatest strength. RPGs are built around strategy-based fights. Dream Team continues the Mario tradition of adding rhythm and timing to strategy. Instead of merely punching in commands and watching the battle unfold, the player must use timely button presses to attack and dodge. Battles, which so often become a chore in RPGs, are consistently fun.

I say consistently, not constantly, fun; a few of the tougher fights are frustrating. Casual players may appreciate the option for an “Easy” mode for boss battles. Without it, a couple of fights (especially the very last one) are unfairly tough.

Dream Team also features “giant battles” in which Luigi grows to colossal size in his dreams to take on huge foes. These battles look cool and use the Nintendo 3DS in innovative ways… but also take way too long, demand perfect timing, and allow practically no margin for error. It was hard to appreciate the giant battles when they made me want to smash my younger brother’s Nintendo 3DS against the wall.

The “real” world in Dream Team is built as an isometrically-viewed RPG. The dream world, however, is viewed horizontally like a traditional Mario side scroller. Switching perspectives is refreshing. Even battles function differently in the dream world. As Mario dives into Luigi’s dreams, the slumbering Luigi is replaced by dream versions of himself. “Dreamy Luigi” can multiply himself to do all sorts of trippy things, from stacking up to rolling around in a ball. It’s surreal, and kinda awesome.

Dreamy!

That’s just how Luigi rolls.

Dreamy!

Although it can be frustrating at times, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is upbeat, engaging, and fun—and bizarre in the most wonderful ways.

TMTF Reviews - Dream TeamAfter so many grim games with guns, it was nice to enjoy something lighter, brighter, and altogether more cheerful. I expected charm and whimsy. I wasn’t disappointed. What I didn’t expect was talking pillows and beef-obsessed bodybuilders, but that’s just icing on a very sweet cake.

308. On the Shoulders of Giants

I recently spent a few days traveling with my parents and younger brother. It was quite a trip: exciting, exhausting, sentimental, and rife with unexpected ups and downs. Tolkien was right: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. There’s no telling what will happen.

At one point, we had dinner with relatives and a family friend. Our conversations during and after the meal were of a kind common in my family: full of nostalgia, peppered with Spanish, ringing with laughter, and rich in stories of distant times and faraway places.

I heard anecdotes of adventures (and misadventures) in Ecuador, Portugal, Morocco, Fiji, and Antarctica, among other countries. I lounged on a sofa, looking round a cozy room lit by soft lamps, and listened contentedly to wild tales of grass skirts, bus breakdowns, shifty carpet merchants, and thieving penguins.

Penguin!

He may look innocent, but this bird is a stone-cold criminal. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.)

For that one evening, I forgot the quiet, comfortable, soundly American life I’ve lived for the past two years. I remembered places long forgotten: gray beaches strewn with shells and driftwood; low hills studded with weathered trees; water cascading down cliffs covered in moss and ferns; mountains towering green and silent against the sky. As places were mentioned that I hadn’t visited, my imagination filled in the gaps.

Some of the stories that night told took me back decades to a time when the coast of Ecuador, my homeland, was a wilderness. There were hardly any cars or paved roads in those days. People traveled on foot, in canoes, and on rickety buses. My grandfather, a missionary to Ecuador’s coast many decades ago, was a pioneer in his time.

Those conversations opened windows in my imagination and memory, giving glimpses of things dimly seen or half-forgotten.

All of this reminded me of three things.

I am such a softy.

As I enjoy a life of incredible luxury, I often take for granted blessings like clean water, hot showers, fast Internet, video games, a comfortable home, a steady income, a safe neighborhood, and a steady supply of coffee. While I gripe about chilly weather and minor car troubles, a staggering number of people survive in harsh conditions with very few luxuries.

It’s my responsibility to be grateful and generous… and also to toughen up a bit!

I panic over little things.

I feel extremely stressed by small things, from the everyday pressures of my job to minor problems like my Internet connection failing. It helps to recall those tales of risks, perils, and painful misadventures. Things could always be much worse.

I need to keep a proper sense of perspective.

I mustn’t get too comfortable.

I get so comfortable in my quiet Indiana life that I often forgot my all-important purpose of loving people. Love is hard. It leaves behind cozy armchairs, warm lamps, and cups of tea. It braves darkness, cold, and awkward pauses to reach out. Love makes me uncomfortable, but that shouldn’t ever stop me from trying to love people. It didn’t stop my grandfather. It doesn’t stop my parents. I mustn’t let it stop me.

All said, it was quite a trip.

All said, it was quite a trip.

I stand, as the saying goes, upon the shoulders of giants. I’m related to some remarkable people, and they’ve done some remarkable things. As I live out this unremarkable chapter of my life, I mustn’t ever lose sight of the things that matter most—the things I can’t see.