Nintendo Therapy

When Zach was eleven or twelve I
bought a Nintendo console for the family. I assumed Zach would have no interest
in playing, nor did I think he would be particularly good at it because of the
variety of mental processes and hand-eye coordination the game required. I
bought it largely for Gerry [Zach’s twin brother], and of course I wanted in on
the action as well. At first, Zach watched us playing Super Mario Brothers with
his familiar detached look, far away in his own orbit. And then suddenly he
started playing on his own. I was just gratified he was doing something besides
looking at maps or old photo albums, but one day I asked him if he wanted to play
me. I was eager to find an activity we could share, and I quietly promised
myself that I would be gentle with him.

He kicked the living shit out of

He had
memorized every move and every possible eventuality because the game, like
calendaring, was predicated on precise, unchanging rules. As he played with
robotic skill and focus, his tongue hung slightly out of the side of his mouth,
the only indication he gave of being human. The look on his face wasn’t glazed
exactly, but he wasn’t all there, as if he could play Super Mario Brothers
without even looking at it, would know by the sounds the game made and his own
internal timing exactly what to do in what sequence. He was lightning fast and
machinelike, saying nothing except for a little "yea!" when he moved on to the
next level. For someone who’d had terrible difficulty holding a pencil when he
was younger and needed untold hours of physical and occupational therapy, his
dexterity was remarkable. He knew the minute handling of all the controls, when
to speed up and when to slow down to protect the rather stupid Mario, what
buttons to push so Mario could jump or squash. His coordination, which he
rarely showed anywhere else, was another testament to the power of his memory;
it enhanced him

I played
with him a couple more times, always with the same result. I barely made it
past level one, and he made it to what seemed like level four thousand. My
Marios died quickly, with that hideous deflating sound and subsequent poof of
disappearance. His Marios were always being feted with stars and fireworks and
offers of work at Goldman Sachs. I quit. Fathers never deserve to be humiliated
by their sons like this. Instead I just watched. I extolled and congratulated
and told him I was proud of him. He never said a word in return or altered his
expression. Until he simply got bored one day and quit altogether. But I’m
convinced that if he played the game today after a ten-year absence, he would
be every bit as masterful, another chunk of information stored away forever on
his hard drive.

I always
felt that there must be a way to use my son’s savantism to further enhance his
day-to-day life. Because he could read maps so well and knew every street in
downtown Philadelphia, the law firm thought he would make the perfect
messenger. He did it once and never wanted to do it again. He was scared of
making a mistake, but the job, however well suited he was for it, was simply
too far removed from the routines that had guided his life. I thought at one
point that he could be a tour guide for schoolchildren to the
and Daily News because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the
building’s every nook and cranny and all of the people who worked there. But he
wasn’t interested; again, he felt nervous about making a mistake in a job with
too much flexibility and margin for error.

His memory
is a wondrous parlor trick. That is worth something. A great something because
he clearly draws pride from it. But that is all. His brain truly did give him
something wondrous at birth, communicating to the operators in the boiler room
that the right hemisphere was interested in any unused parts that the left
hemisphere was planning to dump. But his brain also took away interpretation
and abstract thought and comprehension. If you don’t have those skills in life,
what do you have? Super Mario Brothers?

Excerpted from Father’s Day by Buzz Bissinger. Copyright
(c) 2012 by H. G. Bissinger. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin
Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.