I spent the last weekend celebrating the wedding of my cousin Albert. (All names have been changed.) It was great to see my family, and I’m quite happy for bride and groom, but this is not his story. This is the story of his brothers, Nathan and Donald.
Nathan ran into trouble as a teenager. I’ve never been told the details, but in one version of the story, the judge told him, essentially, “stay out of my courtroom for a year and I’ll clean up your record.” His mother, my aunt, made sure Nathan took the deal – she sent him to gemology school in Thailand. Forced to survive in a foreign country, he cleaned up his act and did well in school. After graduating, he founded a jewelry manufacturing company in Bangkok. He’s learned to manage local workers and run a business, despite the 2010 protests blocks from his office. Nathan married a Thai woman, and they have an adorable one-year-old son. He came back stateside for the wedding, and wants to move back permanently in a few years when the factory is stabilized. When my brother-in-law met him, he “expected a wierdo” but found him to be “the most normal person” in the family.
His younger brother Donald is quite different. Donald grew up playing video games, got a degree in political science from a no-name college, and now works for a well-known video game developer. It is perhaps the only job he’s capable of doing, although he does it quite well: he designs new character classes and attacks for an online fantasy RPG. He uses an advanced (and proprietary) set of 3D-modeling tools to create new magic spells, tweak what items can be found in treasure chests, and other game mechanics tasks he can’t talk about. (I know this because he showed me his workplace last weekend.) His desk is adorned with old Dungeons and Dragons books, a nerf gun he painted in college, and My Little Pony figurines. Yup, he’s a Brony – a member of that demographic of 18-35 year old men who have a neotenous interest in products marketed to little girls. The justification is that the TV show has a deeper meaning. Of course; all children’s television shows have a deeper meaning because the creators put it there for the children to find. What they don’t have is the nuance and ambiguity required of an adult intellectual diet, but that children can’t digest. Instead, in the car Donald played a song from the band Ponyphonic, which bases their lyrics on the series. (The other band he played writes rock operas based on the MegaMan video game series.)
The contrast was all the more striking because another cousin of ours, Ike, also came along to see Donald’s office. Ike is applying to college this year and I want to make sure he gets a lot out of it. Donald speaks in self-aggrandizing remarks dripping with sarcasm, and I was upset to see Ike adopt this misanthropic tone. He’s always been like that, but I’ve tried to get him to open up and be more warm. Part of this effort was introducing him to the robotics club I participated in during high school; his mom has told me that it’s helped him mature a lot, which gives me the warm and fuzzies. I also hope that it will get him involved in engineering, as it did for me, so he can go out and learn how the real world works. So it’s distressing to see him revert back to unflattering one-liners and fictional games.
Why do some people throw away the world we have, and run back into childhood’s fantasies? Why do they alienate other people and become obsessed with machines? And why do some not, and overcome tremendous adversity to turn their lives around?