Saturday, November 21, 2015

Buddhism and Injury - A Lesson in Not-Knowing

This article was originally posted on my blog, here.

There is a Toaist parable of a Chinese farmer that goes something like this:
A farmer and his son had a beloved stallion who helped the family earn a living. One day, the horse ran away and their neighbors exclaimed, “Your horse ran away, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few days later, the horse returned home, leading a few wild mares back to the farm as well. The neighbors shouted out, “Your horse has returned, and brought several horses home with him. What great luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
Later that week, the farmer’s son was trying to break one of the mares and she threw him to the ground, breaking his leg. The villagers cried, “Your son broke his leg, what terrible luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
A few weeks later, soldiers from the national army marched through town, recruiting all the able-bodied boys for the army. They did not take the farmer’s son, still recovering from his injury. Friends shouted, “Your boy is spared, what tremendous luck!” To which the farmer replied, “Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.”
In short, no one event can be judged to be negative or positive on its own - only time can tell. The farmer was comfortable with the state of "not-knowing."
I thought of this parable in early April of this year as I was recuperating from a bulging disc in my lower back. Who can say what direction my life might take because of this injury? Needless to say, from my perspective, this event was judged as negative. It was the worst pain that I had ever felt in my life - and from someone who has suffered from chronic pain for the past decade, that's saying a lot. I came close to fainting twice, from the pain alone - once at home, and again later in the emergency room.
As a homemaker, I was lucky - I had no job that I was dependent upon, so there was no stress that I might lose a much-needed stream of revenue. Unluckily, I had time to think, and the main question that I have pondered every idle moment of my life again came to the fore: "Is this all there is - is a homemaker what I was meant to be?"
I want the answer to be "no." I have very much wanhomer_thinkingted to be productive outside the home, that much is clear. But then the next question - "Where do I go from here?"- stopped me in my (proverbial) tracks. Really - where do I go from here? I have a spotty work history, a certificate and a degree I can't use, bad knees, and now - a bad back. My choices - whatever they are - are dwindling.
I'm still exploring a few avenues, professions that are not physically taxing - bookkeeping, medical transcription/coding, and computer programming - but I'm reluctant to put all my eggs in one basket. I've done it before (several times), and each time has met with failure.
But with those failures, I did learn wonderful things about myself that it might have taken years for me to learn otherwise.
The Marine Corps taught me many things, mainly:
  1. My joints are terribly prone to injury.
  2. I crave efficiency (a craving that will never be satisfied in the military).
  3. Titles and rank mean little to me - what does matter to me is competency.
  4. I have little patience for social politics.
  5. My most hated phrase is "Because it's always been done that way."
I learned other things as a Library Assistant:
  1. I hate unions with a purple passion.
  2. Public institutions encourage an attitude of complacency in their employees, which I absolutely abhor.
  3. Explaining simple solutions to the same simple problems several times a day to several different people is incredibly frustrating for me, and I tend to show that frustration.
  4. I lose all respect for superiors that don't seem to know their job, or perform their job poorly.
  5. I hate answering the phone, especially working at a public institution. It's amazing how many nutters call the library, and you have to be polite and listen, lest they file a complaint.
So, what did I learn from my various injuries? If I treated them as a job, what kind of life experience and self-knowledge could I say that I have gained from them?
  1. Pain focuses my energy to what I can do, control, and change - it serves no purpose to be angry and frustrated about things I cannot change.
  2. I am determined - no matter how many injuries I endure, I focus on recovery, progression, and improvement. Even though I don't know where I'm going, I'm going somewhere, and I'm determined to get there.
  3. I am resourceful - If there's something I cannot do, I find a way to get it done.
  4. I seek problems to solve (which can make me a nitpicky fussbudget at times)
  5. I throw a lot of passion and energy into creative pursuits - crochet, drawing, writing, home brewing, etc.

So, injury can be both bad and good. What I have lost in physical stamina, I have gained in mental acuity. I've learned much about myself - my personality (which I'll address in a forthcoming article), my tenaciousness, and my creativity. I've become interested in activities - Console Gaming, Russian Literature, and Gardening to name a few - that I wouldn't have become interested in if I weren't trying to entertain an active, inquisitive mind.
I suppose it's only human to want what one cannot have. I cannot have everything - and for that, I am grateful.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Video Games and Morality: What Fallout Taught Me About Myself (part 2)

This article, the second part of a two-parter, was originally posted on my blog, here.

Now to get to the good part: moral dilemmas and consequences!

Choices, Choices...
There's a Karma system in Fallout - if you kill good people, steal, pickpocket, or otherwise make a fallout-3-karmanuisance of yourself, your Karma will head swiftly downward. If you help people, complete quests for good-karma characters, and choose a more diplomatic course in general, your Karma will rise. New Vegas also has a faction system in addition to the Karma system - if you complete quests for one faction, it might anger another faction, and you could very quickly find yourself taking sides without intending to do so.
What intrigued me about this game in particular is that it you have a choice to alter the game world through your actions. You can choose what kind of person to be - Very Evil, Very Good, or in between. You can choose to deal civilly with your opponents if they will allow it - or you can make enemies of them by shooting first and not asking questions at all. In short, you can explore morality - that of yourself and your character. Each game is its own story.
The Factions
In Fallout New Vegas, you have the choice to side with one of three major factions:
Mr. House - a rich pre-War industrialist that put himself in a hibernation chamber in the Lucky 38 casinofallout_new_vegas_mr_house_desktop_1920x1200_hd-wallpaper-1173403 shortly before the war, and who now controls the New Vegas strip. He bankrolled the rebuilding after all, so what he says goes - at least for now. You were delivering a package for him when you were shot in the head - and saved by one of his robots.
NCR - the New California Republic, a government that is attempting to restore order and organize a working government in the West. They control a good portion of California, and like all governments, can't help but fall prey to the temptation to expand their influence - by force, if necessary.
The Legion - Led by a former translator/diplomat who calls himself Caesar, the Legion is modeled after the Roman Empire, armor and everything. All the named Non Player Characters in this faction have Roman names. This faction is aggressive, militaristic, and are slavers to boot. can choose to take advantage of Yes Man (a robot that can help you usurp Mr. House) - an option that allows you to fashion an independent New Vegas with you, of course, at the helm.
In the end, it's you who decides the fate of New Vegas, the Hoover Dam, and the Mojave Wasteland. That kind of power is intoxicating, even just in a game. It didn't take long for me to think, "why let Mr. House control New Vegas, when all that power is well within the grasp of my grubby little paws?"
The Problems
Mr. House's attitude and behavior SCREAM "authoritarian ." The Strip is technically his property, however, and anyone who doesn't like his rules is welcome to leave.
The NCR is, well, the NCR. This government sucks, just like every other government. Taking control of land, then informing the residents that they have to pay taxes in exchange for the "protection" that the soldiers supposedly provide, it's little more than an extortion racket with pretty uniforms. It's better than The Legion, but it's definitely not ideal.
The Legion offers the worst outcome for the Mojave in general (in my opinion). Being slavers, my guess is that the bulk of the wastelanders who live in the Mojave would either be absorbed into the ranks of the military, killed, or enslaved if this faction were to take over. It has the potential to bring a harsh order to the wasteland, but it's not exactly a rosy picture.
What I Learned About Myself
When I first started playing, I played as if it were actually me - I made choices that I thought I would make if I were in the same situation as the Courier (or Lone Wanderer, depending on the game). That's when some funny things happened.
I found that I'm not much of an altruist. If I feel particularly generous, I may accept a quest from someone for no payment - after all, fame and reputation could also be considered forms of payment.
But, I observed cynically, fame doesn't buy me bullets. A good reputation doesn't hand out food or stimpaks (stimpaks are a method of health regeneration - essentially a drug, portrayed in the game as what looks like a fancy schmancy hypodermic syringe). Everything's expensive, scarcity is a significant influence, and though you can loot abandoned buildings and dead people, it's rare for you to get something for free.
So, apparently, living in a post-nuclear wasteland brings out the pragmatic cynic in me. It's always good to know how one would react to a stressful environment.
I also learned that I become easily irritated by negative attitudes - something I've known about myself for quite some time. It comes to the surface a lot quicker in a game setting where the consequences of being surly, a smartass, or difficult just for the Hell of it would be negligible. I mean - it's a post-nuclear wasteland. There are mutated animals, hostile factions, and practically everything you eat or drink is irradiated. With that kind of reality, is it any wonder that a person who treats everyone like crap risks me (or someone else) knocking their block off? When the world is so depressing, why make life harder for everyone?
Joshua Graham
Joshua Graham
I also, paradoxically, become as gentle as a teddy bear with certain characters. If they show gentleness, compassion, and strength despite hardship, I respect that. If they become cynical and practical but still retain a healthy dose of humor about their situation, then I genuinely like them. If they are businesslike, single-mindedly pursuing money, we can use each other to benefit the both of us. If the character is a born leader, competent and sure, then I'll follow (as long as I too believe in the validity of their cause).
Playing a Very Evil Karma character in Fallout 3 also taught me a lot about myself. For example, when I stole, pickpocketed, enslaved or killed someone, I felt remorseful - even if it was just a game. Sadly, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Partly because it can be rationalized - it's just a game. I feel bad for doing vault boy thumbs up1bad things, even if those bad things are not done to real people. I would not do these things if I had the opportunity to do them in real life. That in itself is proof that I'm a good person.
Strangely enough, that was the validation I didn't even know that I was looking for. When I played as if it were me, I wound up with Very Good Karma. When I intentionally played as Very Evil, I felt bad about doing bad things, no matter what I did or how often I did them.
I had no idea that a video game could change my life so much.
Apparently, psychological validation costs $19.99 at Gamestop.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Video Games and Morality: What Fallout Taught Me About Myself (part 1)

This article was originally posted on my blog, here.

Last year, I bought my husband a copy of Fallout: New Vegas knowing nothing about the game - I just did a little research, and thought he'd like it. What I didn't expect would happen was that I would get into the game - so much so that I would learn how to play it myself.
I wasn't much of a gamer. When I did play, I'd play things like Rapala Fishing Frenzy - games without fighting or shooting. I didn't know how my husband coped with the constant action on-screen. He played a lot of Grand Theft Auto - something that I would watch, but not participate in. It looked fun, but chaotic - and it seems like all he did was blow things up and steal cars. The storyline didn't intrigue me at all - just criminals doing criminal things to be a bigger criminal, or exact revenge, etc.  A notable exception was Grand Theft Auto San Andreas where CJ met the crazy-ass hippy dude The Truth and his trippy psychedelic van, named The Mothership. The series of quests with Truth was so entertaining that I asked my husband not to do them when I wasn't around, because I didn't want to miss any of the nutty anti-government conspiracy rants that passed for conversation when it came to this guy.
I had significant frustration with the way my husband played the game - primarily for asking me "What do I do?" and then doing whatever he wanted to do in the first place, completely ignoring my advice. When this situation repeated itself during Fallout, I told him not to ask me what to do if he was going to ignore me anyway. I then said that I should learn how to play the game, so I can do things the way I like.
So I did.
It took me a while to get used to the controls - using two joysticks, a directional pad, two triggers, two bumper buttons, and four colored "face" buttons is a tough skill to learn, especially for someone who didn't play a lot of games before.
NOTE: This will likely be the first of a series of articles about Fallout, so if you have little interest in video games, I suggest you tune out now. I'll make sure to post an update when I return to my regularly scheduled programming.
The Fallout Universe
Fallout New Vegas begins in the year 2281. The Fallout universe diverges from ours in what appears to be a futuristic version of the early 60's nuclear scare (complete with cars, art, and music evocative of the era). In 2077, there was a major worldwide nuclear war,Vault Boy Reserve with the primary aggressors being the U.S. and China. The lucky people rushed to their pre-reserved spots in vaults, large underground fallout shelters built by a company named Vault-Tec - those who weren't so lucky either died, scratched out a meager existence in the ruins of a dead civilization, or were transformed into irradiated zombies (either feral or friendly). The game is littered with Vault-Tec ads, featuring their mascot, Vault Boy. In the Wasteland, you find irradiated EVERYTHING - food, water, and sometimes whole areas are irradiated and dangerous to enter without taking proper precautions. Your animal enemies are usually much larger, irradiated versions of common wildlife - Mole Rats, Radscorpions, Cazadores, Mantises, Bloatflies, Lakelurks, Geckos - and of course, Deathclaws.
Meanwhile, in the Vaults
To put it bluntly, few of the vaults functioned as advertised. The Vaults were bankrolled by government contracts with a secret agenda. The U.S. Government planned to move a selected portion of humanity to other worlds if Earth proved uninhabitable after the nuclear holocaust. Most of these vaults were social experiments designed by the U.S. Government to see how a carefully chosen population would react to certain circumstances that may occur should space travel or the resettlement of a devastated Earth be deemed necessary - prolonged isolation, moral fortitude, lack of genetic diversity, etc. Some of these vaults are in the lore only, others can be explored in-game. To my surprise, I found that I could navigate these vaults fairly easily. It was (and still is) puzzling, because I have a hard time with maps and directions in general, but when it comes to navigation of vaults, I could have been born down there! My husband, a truck driver with a grasp of city streets that I've likened to witchcraft will sometimes get frustrated and hand me the controller with a curt "Get me the hell outta here!"
A few examples of vault experiments:
Vault 12 - this vault's door didn't close properly by design, the better to study the effect of radiation on a pre-selected populace. This resulted in a large population of ghouls, both the intelligent and feral varieties.
Vault 22 - this vault studied advanced agricultural techniques. An experiment in Pest Control went awry, resulting in death or mutation of many of the residents into hostile plant/human abominations.
Vault 34 - this vault was overstocked with weapons and ammunition, and not provided with a lock. This, of course, resulted in chaos. A group of dissenting vault dwellers grabbed large weapons and abandoned the vault, finally settling at Nellis Air Force Base. They are known in the game as "The Boomers" because these fiercely xenophobic tribals use heavy artillery to dissuade other Wastelanders from approaching the base.
Vault 77 - in lore only, this vault contained only one man and a crate of puppets, to test the psychological consequences of forced isolation. This vault was featured in a comic by Penny Arcade, and there is a reference to it in Fallout 3 - a Vault 77 vault suit with a recording telling whoever had the suit to burn it.
Vault 101 - Featured in Fallout 3, this vault was never intended to be opened. It was intended to test the results of a dictatorial Overseer (vault leader) on a population with limited genetic diversity. How's that joke go? "If your family tree doesn't fork, you might be...from Vault 101!"
Vault_11_doorThe most horrifying vault, in my opinion, is Vault 11 - it was an experiment intended to test human nature - notably, the ability to sacrifice oneself for others, and to place ideals over one's life. Democratic elections were held every year to elect a vault Overseer who was then sacrificed because the residents believed that their lives depended on it - that if they didn't follow the founding guidelines, the vault's systems were wired to fail, killing them all. This resulted in the creation of voting blocs and the proliferation of election propaganda. Corruption inevitably ensued (Yay, democracy!), and resulted in an armed conflict. The five survivors of this conflict finally informed the vault computer that they refused to sacrifice any more members - which initiated a cruel, gut-wrenching recording:
Congratulations, citizens of Vault 11! You have made the decision not to sacrifice one of your own. You can walk with your head held high knowing that your commitment to human life is a shining example to us all. And to make that feeling of pride even sweeter, I have some exciting news. Despite what you were led to believe, the population of Vault 11 is not going to be exterminated for its disobedience. Instead, the mechanism to open the main vault door has now been enabled, and you can come and go at your leisure. But not so fast! Be sure to check with your overseer to find out if it's safe to leave. Here at Vault-Tec, your safety is our number one priority.
Four of the five survivors, unable to live with what their community had done, committed suicide. One left the vault. His fate is unknown.
Deep moral and ethical dilemmas are pretty common in Fallout, which is what led me to learn how to play the game for myself. I'll discuss some of those next week, in Part 2. To tide you over, enjoy this Fallout New Vegas Music Playlist on Youtube.
See you next week!