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Volume 71, Issue 48, Thursday, November 3, 2005

Life & Arts

Ostrich a day keeps anxiety away

My 8 Bits

Jason Poland

"Don't touch the white tiles! They're hot lava." 

Hopping from black tile to black tile until we're on solid ground again, much to the chagrin of our eye-rolling parents, is an unusual but universal scenario we've all acted out as children in shopping malls and orthodontists' waiting rooms. The floor may not turn into molten lava for you anymore, but no doubt you have some adult anxieties that plague you like red-hot linoleum.

To date, 19 million American adults balance the perilous tightrope between self-confidence and self-destruction. General Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder and specific phobias are some of the chronic worries that can assail grownup lava walkers. 

Of course, they could just exchange their real-world worries for those in Joust, a game packed with eight bits of pure lava anxiety.

Instead of worrying about being on time for work, maintaining social norms or washing their hands 64 times a day, the brave warriors of Joust trade all that in for a flying ostrich and a pointy lance. Mounted atop their feathered steeds, their job as jousters is to lance their vulture-riding opponents in midair, collect eggs for bonus points and hop along platforms no larger than breakfast tables to avoid the sea of hot liquid magma below.

Balancing all of these precarious factors at once is as nerve-racking as a trip to Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve, but would you rather drown in an angry sea of strung-out Christmas stress-wads or die the heroic death of a jouster?

Many of the jousters featured in Joust had high-stress jobs before they came to the arena and now find the survival experience of avoiding flying lancers and hot lava a welcome change of pace. Postal workers, air traffic controllers and newspaper editors bolster the ranks of this unusual profession, but it's an appropriate focus for their stress that was being needlessly spent on menial tasks like directing jumbo jets and meeting deadlines. The only deadline in Joust is the river of lava that boils below.

When children are developing their imaginations, they have no deadlines either, so they create their own "dead-lines." White tiles are now hot lava. Children conjure the invisible anxieties we feel into reality by giving them the form of lava floors and closet-dwelling monsters. They become tangible forces that can be combated in logical ways. Don't step on the hot lava and keep the nightlight on.

Now, our imaginations are replaced with our adult life surroundings so they become the new lava floor. Don't be late. Don''t get dirt on your hands. Don't get in an airplane. In a sense, the Joust ostrich-riders are facing their anxieties and fears head-on. The ostrich is an animal that has a reputation of hiding its head in the sand when danger looms, but now it is soaring over a river of magma. After a day of skittering above flaming lava on top of a giant bird, claustrophobia in elevators or social anxiety at a birthday party seem pretty silly. 

Don't be afraid to hop across lava every now and again, because one morning you just might sleep through a trans-dimensional hiccup and wake up on an ostrich flying over hot lava and totally spaz out and die. That would be a weird obituary for your family to read, so face your fears before they knock you off the flying ostrich of life.

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