The Boy

Let’s talk about the Boy.

When I was young, my mother cursed me. She said, “I hope you have a child who acts just like you.”

In 2000, I was working at a company called Human Code. I was doing Quality Assurance on edutainment titles like “Barbie Pet Rescue” and “Jesse’s Wild West Rodeo”.

And then my wife told me she was pregnant.

Now, this was a happy thing, of course. But our first child, Megan, had been such an easy child to work with and raise – intelligent, polite, sweet, not prone to temper tantrums – that I couldn’t help but wonder if this baby would be the same way.

And then It Got Worse. We fell on hard times and had to move in with Jamie’s mother. Now this was a mixed blessing – Margaret was a stickler for cleanliness, which my wife and I are not. But Megan was the light of Margaret’s life, and Margaret was delighted to have her around all the time.

And then…well, It Got Worse. After a year of mismanagement, Human Code folded. Now, not only did we have insufficient income, we had no income…and the baby was due in three months.

It was around this point that we found out it was a boy. (We had allowed ourselves to be surprised the first time.) I really wanted to name him Alexander, after Lloyd Alexander, one of my favorite young fantasy authors. But both his mother and his grandmother wanted David. So we compromised.

On June 12, 2001, David Alexander Salter was born.

It didn’t take long for use to realize that David was a very different baby from Megan. He was very fussy – indeed, unless he was asleep or actively being held, he would cry. He ate well and was of average weight so we weren’t that concerned. About him, at least. We were more concerned about our complete lack of income.

But David’s fussiness got worse over time, not better. My wife and I started sleeping in twelve-hour shifts so that one of us could be holding David practically at all times. It was the only way to get him to stop crying.

David is the reason I became a game developer. I’d always wanted to be one, but I’d been hanging around the fringes of it for years, and had several near-misses. The most recent one at the time was when I was told I’d be made a programmer at Human Code after I coded a design tool for a game in my spare time. This was, of course, right before the company folded.

So. QA money is not wife-and-two-kids money. I needed programmer money. And those lonely twelve-hour shifts were how I got it. I bought a book that basically went through the entire C and C++ languages, as well as basic Windows MFC programming. I read every single entry and wrote a little program demonstrating to myself that I understood the keyword or struct or function that entry was talking about. As I finished each entry, I marked it with a yellow highlighter (a trick I use to this day). I used a learning edition version of Visual C++ 6 that had come with a book I bought. And I did all this with my son on my knees as I patted him on the back.

To this day, he loves being patted on the back.

Then we got that situation resolved. A friend got me a job doing QA at a company called Multimedia Games, and I was able to quickly move into a programming position there.

This allowed us to move out, which was a good thing because David’s constant crying was driving Margaret crazy.

And it was about this time that we realized something might be wrong. David was a little late walking, but he was very late talking and getting potty trained. He also had several ticks, including one where he would ball up both fists and put them in front of his mouth.

The weird thing was, we knew that he could hear and we knew that he could vocalize because he loved to sing along with Disney movies. But there were some noises that he couldn’t stand – he’d run from the room with his hands over his ears when the THX logo would come up.

We finally took him to a specialist, who diagnosed him with a mild form of autism.

So the work began. We tried to engage him verbally at every opportunity, but he was very used to just pointing and dragging us over to show us what he wanted. Trying to make him “use his words” usually just resulted in him throwing a temper tantrum.

And he was still in pull-up diapers. When he’d take a poop he’d come find one of us and intimate that he needed a change. This got old fast, so Jamie and I decided it was time to get him potty trained. We waited until about an hour after dinner, then we took off his pull-up and put him on the training potty, and we kept him there. We tried to make it a positive experience, using very positive tones of voice but being firm – he couldn’t get up yet. He got more and more agitated. Then, finally, he said his first real sentence. He pointed at my wife and said, “YOU change the diaper!”

That was a real turning point for him. He had vocalized completely and while he didn’t potty that evening, he was going to the bathroom by himself within a week. David started to really improve after that. He was vocalizing better and it was getting easier to make him understand things.

Unfortunately one of the things he started to understand was that he liked going outside. Jamie and I started waking up to find him missing.

There is no fear like “I’ve lost my child” fear. We would find him at playgrounds, walking up and down stairs in the apartment complex – once he even followed Megan to school (it was close enough to walk). And he knew to always plan his escapes for when we were both asleep.

We locked the door; he figured out how to unlock it. We blocked the door; he would patiently pull until the blockage had moved enough to let him out. We installed a chain lock so high we could barely reach it; he pushed a table over to the door and stood on it to unlock the chain. Finally, I had to install a double-hung deadbolt so that he couldn’t get out without a key. And that was the end of his little excursions, though we did our best to take him outside as often as possible.

And then…school started. When we registered him, we tried to make them understand – he’s autistic, he can be unresponsive, you’re going to have to keep a close eye on him. “Yeah, yeah”, said the administrator. Then Jamie picked him up from his first day of school and was met by an absolutely exhausted young teacher. Fortunately, the school quickly put together a class just for him. They also, through observation, learned things about him that I didn’t know. For instance, I was so concerned about his fists-to-the-mouth tic that I never realized that it was his way of saying, “I’m happy. I’m enjoying this.”

The teachers were wonderful, and all the contact with the other children was so good for him. He was vocalizing by leaps and bounds, though there were still some social conventions (such as “David, that’s not yours”) that he had trouble with.

And when he discovered computers…well, that was about it. There is nothing he likes more than using a computer. I’ll come home and find Audacity open and a recording of him singing, or Paint.NET open and a nice drawing. And of course, being in the Salter house, he’s had massive exposure to video games. When our copy of Kingdom Hearts stopped working, he started going on YouTube and watching Let’s Plays of it. Same thing with Star Ocean: Till the End of Time – for some reason he just loves that game. In fact, one day I came home from work and found my browser open to this video.

Did he watch that entire 366-part playthrough? I wouldn’t put it past him.

He’s ten now. He’s in the fifth grade. He’s never had to be held back. And he gets better every day.

There was one concept that I’ve always felt he was unclear on, and that was “why”. He does who, what, when and where just fine. And then just a few days ago I had this exchange with him:

(David closes the window.)

Me: “David, why did you close the window?”

David: “Um…I don’t know.” (This is his standard line when he doesn’t know what to say.)

Me: “Yes, you do, David. Why did you close the window?”

David (after a moment’s thought): “Because I’m FREEZING.”

There we go. Good boy.

At this point I’m not that worried about David. He’s sweet, polite and endearing. He learns quickly and I’m almost positive he’ll continue to grow out of his social problems until there’s no real difference between him and anyone else.

And the more I think about it, the more I believe that I, too, was autistic when I was young. Of course, autism wasn’t as widely understood or diagnosed as it is now.

I used to hum and sing constantly, driving everyone in my school classes crazy. David does the same thing. Indeed, he sang before he could talk.

I had a crazy temper when I was young. As I got older it just went away. David would also throw temper tantrums when nothing would go his way, but he’s mostly grown out of it.

When I discovered computers, they completely took over my forebrain and have not let go. I once burst out crying when I was denied my computer time back when I was ten or so; David is the same way.

My mother’s curse worked; I have a son who is just like me.

And I love him more than anything.

Beastgirl

Okay, this is going to be kind of an odd post for me, but sometimes you just have to get stuff out there, you know?

I’ve got this really, really weird ability. I will occasionally dream movies.

I’m serious. I will occasionally have a dream that has characters, a plot and even dialogue. The only thing missing is popcorn.

And the funny thing is, when I wake up I always know exactly what I experienced recently to create that dream.

“A DREAM LOG?!” I hear you say. “Anthony, how you have fallen.”

Yeah, yeah. But like I said, sometimes you just have to get stuff out there.

Please note that in the following dream/short story/outline-thingy, I make mention of characters that I do not own. This is in no way an attempt to infringe on copyright.

Here we go!

BEASTGIRL

The setting: an academy for young superheroes, ages 15-18. It’s a beautiful set of buildings in the mountains surrounded by forests. It’s headed by a big, bald, laconic, foul-mouthed headmaster. The kids start by hating him but also desperately want to impress him. Young adult supers who can’t control their powers, can’t work as a team and don’t focus on the mission objectives end up getting kicked out. Only those who make it through his sixteen-week training session are allowed to graduate and get posted to a superhero team. Most of the kids have traditional powers like flight, invulnerability, eye-lasers, super-speed, super-strength, etc.

So there’s this girl. She’s 17. She’s about five feet tall and 90 pounds soaking wet. She’s kind of an outcast because her powers are a bit niche. Her first power is that she’s incredibly agile and can do back flip kicks and wall-jump attacks, but she’s so light and has no claws or anything so she’s not a front-line fighter. Imagine someone with Spider-Man’s agility but without his strength.

Her other power is what gets her picked on. She can make animals like her and influence their behavior…but she has to be pretty close to them to do it; she can’t call animals out of a forest a mile away. And it only seems to work on small animals like chipmunks and squirrels and stuff. This basically makes her the land-based version of Aquaman.

(Another interesting thing – she won’t take an oath to not kill. She sees that in nature, most conflicts end with one side dying and she doesn’t see anything necessarily wrong with that. This also makes her an outcast.)

But she works really hard, can work in a team, can distract enemies with unpredictable attacks, and surprise, surprise, she makes it to graduation. There’s a bit of resentment from the other students, most of whom had friends more powerful than her that didn’t make it.

So we get to the graduation ceremony, which is being held in the hangar bay. It’s attended by several really powerful and famous heroes (basically the Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman of this world). The kids all get their diplomas, get to shake hands with their personal heroes, and they’re now eating the cake.

Then the villains show up.

There are three major villains. The first is a fairly standard supervillain who just loves his supervillainy. He makes hammy speeches, laughs maniacally, and plots to take over the world. Imagine Megamind, but genuinely evil. His name was never mentioned in my dream, so let’s call him Dr. Nasty.

The second is the Tactician. He loves to plan and loves watching his plans succeed. His specialty is creating plans where no matter what the enemy does, his side gains in some way. Not really evil, more amoral, but definitely not a nice guy.

The third is Mesmer. His powers allows him to dominate the minds of others, and he recently got a huge power upgrade. This is what gave Dr. Nasty the idea to attack the heroes. Imagine Doyle from Heroes, only way more powerful.

So, these three, along with a bunch of lesser villains, attack the ceremony. The cadets wisely stay out of the biggest fighting and focus on minor villains. Beastgirl follows a villain into a nearby hallway and basically bounces off the walls and onto his head until he gets knocked out.

The she runs back into the hangar…to discover the fight is over. Mesmer has mind-controlled all the heroes, including the cadets. The bad guys won.

She’s grabbed by another villain and brought before Dr. Nasty. Instead of having Mesmer mind-control her, he gloats about how he put his plan together and how the heroes will now be blackmailing governments and robbing banks for him. (He knows he gets extra evil points for this.) When she says the heroes will never do that, Dr. Nasty tells her that Mesmer can suppress the higher-order functions of the brain, making humans easy to control. (I swear, he actually said that in my dream.)

This gives her an idea.

She breaks away from her captor and manages to run out the hangar door. Dr. Nasty sighs and sends a few minor villains to get her back.

She goes into the nearby forest and turns her power up all the way, WAY higher than she’s ever used it before. Squirrels and chipmunks and rabbits come running. She’s not sure what she’s going to do with them all but it’s all she’s got.

Then she notices that she’s starting to get animals like foxes and stoats and badgers and she slowly starts to realize that the more animals she has around her, the stronger her power gets and the larger animals she can start to call and influence.

This is the point at which the minor villains find her.

Scene change.

We’re back in the hangar. The Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman of this world are helping Dr. Nasty and the Tactician tweak their take-over-the-world plan.

The hangar doors open.

Everybody looks in that direction.

There stands a seriously pissed-off seventeen-year-old girl with about a hundred vermin around her feet, flanked by two packs of wolves and being escorted by two grizzly bears.

The animals stream in. Minor villains get coated with vermin, who have instructions to try to get inside clothing and bite as hard as they can. The wolves charge the major villains and Beastgirl and the bears charge Dr. Nasty, the Tactician and Mesmer.

Dr. Nasty turns to Mesmer, who is realizing, to his horror, that these animals don’t have any higher-order brain functions to control, and thus he’s useless.

Dr. Nasty turns to the Tactician. “What do we do?” The Tactician shrugs. “This may come as a surprise, but I’ve never planned for this particular contingency. I recommend retreat.” They pull the cords on their personal escape jetpacks and start to rise above the floor.

But Mesmer is too stunned by what’s going on (BEARS! Motherfuckin’ GRIZZLY BEARS! Coming RIGHT AT ME!) and doesn’t notice he’s being abandoned. As much as she’d like to kill Dr. Nasty or the Tactician, Beastgirl knows Mesmer is the primary target.

He quickly recovers and pulls the jetpack cord, but Beastgirl hits him right in the stomach knocking him to the ground. Then the bears are on him, mauling him.

Once he loses consciousness, all the heroes regain their minds. To them, one second they were fighting for their lives against villains and now those villains are being eaten by animals.

Mesmer is dead. Dr. Nasty and the Tactician have escaped and the heroes have been freed. Beastgirl calls off the animals. The heroes spend a very odd couple of hours treating tons of animal bites, administering tons of rabies shots, and escorting terrified, still-screaming, near-naked villains to detention cells. And then taking long, long showers.

Once it’s all sorted Beastgirl gets seriously commended by the instructor and the big heroes, and is given her choice of posting.

The end.

So, where did this dream come from?

1. The superhero academy idea came straight from an episode of Teen Titans my daughter was watching and I was overhearing. Cyborg goes to help out the Titans East and is attacked by Brother Blood, who wants to take over the Titan Tower and turn it into a school for supervillains.

2. The instructor is a superhero version of Gordon Ramsay. Indeed, the entire setup of the academy is basically Hell’s Kitchen, but with aspiring superheroes instead of aspiring chefs.

3. I recently watched a playthrough of the Marvel Super Heroes video game on YouTube; Beastgirl’s attack patterns were directly inspired by Spider-Man’s from that game, particularly the Maximum Spider move.

4. I recently watched the trailer for the new Syndicate game. This got me thinking about the original Syndicate. The idea of Beastgirl’s powers ramping up the more animals she has around her was directly inspired by the Persuadertron from Syndicate, which worked exactly the same way.

The really annoying thing about having dreams like this is that it seems that I can be far more creative in my sleep than I can ever be awake.