I wrote a sonnet about a TV show that’s been on for a while.
I have really been enjoying the “Arrowverse” shows, Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl. They’re so much fun, in large part because they so gleefully embrace their inherent silliness and absurdity.
I‘m hoping to get fully caught up with all of the shows in that universe before I watch the big Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover event, so I was overdue to get started on Legends of Tomorrow, which debuted in 2016. So I watched the two-part pilot.
And it’s pretty dopey. I may or may not trudge through the whole series, but the pilot was definitely rougher than the shows off of which it is spun. Maybe it’ll get better.
I was looking for an excuse to write a sonnet. And I thought it would be fun to pick a subject that wasn’t all that important. And “Legends of Tomorrow” fits so well into a line of iambic pentameter. Although, it turns out I didn’t actually use the title in the actual sonnet, but NO MATTER.
Here you go. A two-part, non-rhyming sonnet. About a TV pilot. About superheroes. You’re welcome.
Let’s put aside the fact that Snart and Mick Are not endowed with any superpowers; But only have the fancy guns they stole From heroes on another show. The team To which they’ve been conscripted has been told By some time-hopping malcontent that none Of them have value on their own, and must Abscond into the past to thwart the plans Of some immortal fascist demigod Before he murders billions decades hence. It’s only then that these fantastically Empower’d also-rans will find a sense Of worth. I think that’s just a bit absurd.
There’s Ray, a supergenius billionaire Who built a suit combing powers of Mans Both Iron and Ant. The odd couple that forms Into a human conflagration? Holy crap! The oft-respawning couple with the wings Would seem to me to be a pretty damn Big deal. And Sarah Lance! She once was dead! And now she’s not! And smashing many heads. It takes a special kind of asshole to convince These Legends that they’re both of no import Yet also indispensable. Come on. I simply can’t believe how easily they’re duped. (And what was up with Martin drugging Jax?) They’d have been fine if they had just stayed put.
I am trying to disconnect without isolating. I am trying to find meaning without validation. I am trying to unburden without irresponsibility. I am trying to be aware without being overwhelmed. I am trying to be at peace without being passive. I am trying to matter without having to ask whether I matter. I am trying to fit in without being too ordinary. I am trying to stand out without jutting. I am trying to have hope without being crushed by it.
Maybe it’s that last one that needs to go.
Derrick Jensen wrote a few years ago in praise of giving up on hope. He’s talking about this in the context of his struggle to defend the natural world from decimation by humanity. To me, it applies universally. It’s not even about rejecting hope, but simply not dealing with it one way or the other. Once hope becomes irrelevant, Jensen says:
…you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problems … and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.
This is not the same as hopelessness. Hopelessness implies defeat, pessimism, resignation to things getting worse. This is something else.
Here’s the part that’s both the most appealing about this idea and the most frightening:
When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that they — those in power — cannot really touch you anymore. … The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.
And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are.
As someone who has wasted so much precious life trying to define himself through others’ perceptions, who could not find any value in himself without the explicit approval of everyone else, this is tantalizing and bewildering.
Later, I began to take a more nuanced view. While I must still learn to accept my unmasked, unfiltered self, there is still power to be had with intentional masking, endowing myself with aspects of an identity in order to achieve the things my unmasked self might seek. One can adapt without self-deception. One can modulate one’s behavior without imprisoning oneself. One can augment, and those augmentations are under the control of the “true” self.
But whether one is masking, passing, augmenting, retrofitting, or what have you, I wonder now if it’s hope that is still an ingredient of falseness. Maybe I can’t get free of the fetters I’ve fitted myself with, nor the ones that the culture has clapped onto me, because I maintain a delusion that meaning, peace, and validation will still be given to me by Someone Else, by some force Out There. Maybe by shedding hope, I empower myself to provide it on my own.
“When you quit relying on hope,” writes Jensen, “and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power.”
In my case, “those in power” are the imaginary blessings from an amorphous other. That’s what I’ve allowed to have power over me, the wish, the hope, that at some point I’d prove myself worthy to be One of You, worthy to belong to this world.
Maybe if I give up on hope, the ache for validation, the yearning to matter, will ease.
A million years ago, when I was attending the Actors Studio Drama School in New York, my class took part in a fascinating three-week workshop on performance in masks. While considered sort of avant-garde today, theatre more or less began with performers masking themselves or disguising their faces to tell stories. The classics of the Greeks and the slapstick buffoonery of commedia dell’arte were all originally performed in masks. The most common icon for theatre today is a pair of masks, one for comedy and one for tragedy. So this was going to be some exciting work in getting back to the roots of our craft, learning some vital fundamentals.
The sessions began even more fundamentally than we expected. To the surprise I think of many of my classmates, the first week’s session was absolutely free of masks. After a rather reverent introduction to mask work, we spent the rest of our time staring at our own faces in the mirror. Up close.
Literally face to face with ourselves, we were instructed to look deeply and coldly at our reflections. We were told to examine every line, curve, spot, and flaw with excruciating detail and meditative patience. We were made to drop all attempts at animation or expression, to let our faces find a state of absolute rest, to give up control of our facial muscles to gravity.
It was difficult and emotionally challenging, and yet we were to refrain from showing that emotion. We needed to simultaneously investigate our own faces with impartiality while also retaining mastery over them. This would be hard, I think, for anyone to do, but imagine the struggles of a room full of actors, all building their careers and lives on the imperfect, asymmetrical image before them.
As the workshop sessions went on, the reasoning for subjecting us to this became clear. Before we could ever be allowed to put on a mask, we had to reckon with the ones we were already wearing.
It’s a cliche to say that we all wear a mask to some degree, actors and non-actors alike, but it’s also true. The metaphor of the mask has special resonance with me, not just because of my life as an actor, but for the masks of normalcy that I have shielded myself with for decades. I won’t recount all the ways in which I am an odd duck, but consider the utility of “masking” for someone who has always been small, anxious, and awkward, creative and highly sensitive, bullied mercilessly in childhood and subject to other traumas in adulthood, and, for the kicker, on the autism spectrum.
Particularly since being diagnosed with Asperger’s only a few years ago, I have been working very hard to deconstruct those masks, to peel them away, layer by layer, and discover who the person behind them actually is. To pass as human had been the enterprise of my life, and over time it exhausted and sickened me. I lost myself within those masks, and I was terrified of who I’d find once they were gone.
I didn’t need to be. Here I am in my early 40s, getting on just fine, all things considered. It was enormously difficult, but I have learned to accept a great deal about who I am and who I never will be. I have grown to appreciate things about myself I never allowed myself to before, and I’ve acknowledged ugly truths about myself as well.
But just as I miss my life as a professional actor, taking on roles and living different lives, sometimes I miss the masks. Just as a costume can help bring an actor more fully into the mind of their character, a metaphorical mask allows a person to adopt qualities they might not otherwise possess. A personality enhanced by a mask may not be “genuine,” but is it necessarily false?
As part of coming to terms with my true self, I’ve had to accept and own my introversion and social awkwardness. But in the areas of my life where more confidence and gregariousness are called for, as in many work-related situations, am I better served by resigning to my “true self,” or might it be warranted to augment myself with the traits necessary for success? In other words, if I’m shy, but I decide to pretend to be outgoing, am I betraying myself?
A few years ago, I might have answered yes.
Part of the work of self-acceptance has been to insist on that same acceptance from everyone else — not for my own validation, but to be able to present myself truly, as I am, without the need to excuse or apologize for who I am. It’s been an essential part of this journey.
But that doesn’t mean that my “true self” always serves me best. An easy example of this comes from parenting. While I am very honest with my kids about who I am and what I’m like, there are always going to be moments when I am doing my duty to them as a father by presenting to them a person who is stronger, more assured, and wiser than I know myself to be. This isn’t to fool them, but to give them the care or the example they need in that moment. It’s not false, but it is a kind of mask.
And of course, there’s work, as I mentioned. As a communications professional, I can only achieve so much with creative-but-anxious, and I fail my employers if I shrug and say, well, this is who I truly am! Like an actor putting on a costume and reciting lines written by someone else, I have to put on my mask, the one that represents a character that is more confident and assertive than the real person wearing it.
This is a case of mask-as-augmentation, and I think it’s distinct from mask-as-shield. In a less self-accepting time, my masks were ways to hide who I was, to defend myself from being identified as different, to thwart anyone’s attempts to scrutinize my true self.
A defensive mask is always ill-fitting. It slips off too easily, or else constricts one’s circulation. The eyes don’t line up with the holes, or it makes it hard to breathe. To wear a mask defensively is to be in a constant state of disaster-aversion.
The relationship changes, I think, once we’ve come to accept our true face, when we take ownership of who we really are, for all our flaws. If we can get to a place where we have a handle on the whole of ourselves, strengths and weaknesses together, I think then a mask is not necessarily a shield or a disguise, but a tool.
If we mask with intention, we can thoughtfully and deliberately augment ourselves to better navigate different situations. When our natural state isn’t suited to a meaningful undertaking, we can choose the mask that supports our goals, adopting the specific qualities that help us get where we need to go, or build what we want to see come into being.
This is what we were learning in those first hours of that theatre workshop. Before the instructor would allow us to put on one of the masks she’d brought, and begin to inhabit — and be inhabited by — the character the mask represented, we needed to accept and master our own faces. We needed to take off our defensive masks, stop hiding from ourselves, and see our true faces as they really are.
To have used those masks as disguises would have been to miss the point. The goal must never be to disappear. Rather, the mask allowed us to bring something new into being. The mask was not hiding our true selves. Our true selves were giving life to the mask.
Accepting who we really are is just the start, not the end. Self-acceptance isn’t about stasis. It’s about taking responsibility for who we really are, and with intention and new understanding, finding the strength to see what else is possible. One way to find out is to try on a few masks. Who knows who might show up.
There is the moment, at the point of a major crisis when it can no longer be denied, and must now be accepted as a new part of our everyday reality, that we tell the kids that everything has changed.
I didn’t have children at the time of the 9/11 attacks, but I can imagine that parents of young kids at the time had to find that right moment to explain what had happened with those planes, and why everyone was sad, scared, and angry. All of a sudden, everything was different. So much so that the kids needed to be sat down and told so in serious yet reassuring terms. I don’t know, of course, but I can guess.
I am a parent of young kids now, when the COVID-19 pandemic has really, truly changed everything. 9/11 probably didn’t fundamentally alter anything about kids’ lives back in the early 2000s, but the pandemic has utterly upended the lives of today’s kids, and it shows no signs of stopping any time soon. When schools shut down last spring as the virus broke loose, in a United States too stupid and delusional to even acknowledge it, the everything-has-changed conversation was inevitable.
My own kids had known that something called the coronavirus existed, and it sounded scary, but they had been reassured countless times that, while it was a serious problem for many people, it was not something that was likely to affect their lives or put them at any risk. I strongly suspected I might be wrong about this when I said it to them, but I didn’t know. Americans had largely avoided any upheavals due to the first SARS, West Nile Virus, H1N1, and Ebola, so it seemed like a safe bet that we’d be alright this time too. Ha.
Those several conversations with my kids over a period of weeks and months, about how they wouldn’t be going back to school for the rest of the year, about how there would be no summer camps or activities, how they couldn’t go and be with their friends, how we couldn’t bring them into the grocery store with us, how money was suddenly tighter and we wouldn’t be ordering pizza as often, and how they would be entering into a weird new quasi-school situation in the fall, they all bore the weight of that central premise: everything was different now.
Here’s the part where I admit to something uncomfortable. I genuinely regret all that my kids are losing and missing during this pandemic, and I grieve for the millions of souls lost or made to suffer from this disease. But I also felt (and, I suppose still feel) a certain twinge of satisfaction as I delivered the news of a New Normal to my kids. I think it’s because I know that the world desperately needs a new normal, a realignment of what we value and prioritize, a sober and clear-eyed look at the absurd fragility of our society. Maybe this pandemic would give our shallow, boorish culture the chance to reevaluate what really matters.
That’s not all. On a much more selfish level, I actually like some of the changes to interpersonal interaction that the virus has necessitated. I’m a severely introverted autistic with Asperger’s, I already work from home, I have little desire for travel, and I don’t have any meaningful non-familial connections that live anywhere near me. My pastimes of choice do not involve me leaving my home. The situation to which everyone else was suddenly struggling to adapt was already my comfort zone.
It’s more than that, though, because I have to hope that after such a major disruption of everyday life for an entire society, some reconsideration and recalibration will have to occur. There must be a new way of being that emerges from a disaster that is largely and plainly of our own making. If nothing else, perhaps we would experience something akin to the classic tech support cliché: we turn the whole thing off and then turn it back on again. The reboot clears away the cruft and bugs, giving us a clean slate and a fresh start.
But like me, he is skeptical. “What this virus has taught me is the supreme durability of normal, the dogged survival of the mundane world, the near-impossibility of some new era in which all old expectations of civility and social norms will just extinguish or burn away…”
This is indeed what I see. While the pandemic has certainly brought out the best, most charitable, and most empathetic selves in many of us, I think for most Americans, it has simply been a pain in the ass that we need to be done with as soon as possible. Not, I should say, as soon as is best, or as soon as it’s safe, but just, like, now. This is obviously the mode of the utterly corrupt Trump administration, and we see it all the time in the outrage-inducing stories of churches flaunting social distancing rules or stupid teenagers mass-infecting each other at parties. But it’s more insidious than that, more subtle.
It’s in the insistence that we shove our kids back into classrooms rather than decide as a society that we should just pay people to stay home. It’s the delusions about how death statistics are being exaggerated (they’re not), how kids are magically resistant (they’re not), and the absurd tribalization of mask wearing.
It’s in the excuses we all keep making about who we imagine it’s safe to congregate with, because they’re family, close friends, or just people that we somehow simply know have been safe and surely aren’t carrying the virus (and, of course, neither are we!). I’m sure I’ve done it, and I bet you have too.
And yeah, it’s in the polls that show that despite the mass death, suffering, and economic calamity, we’re still a coin flip from reelecting (or reinstalling) the guy who’s primarily responsible for running us through this meat grinder.
We are simply determined not to give a shit.
Many of us have given many shits. Many of us have no more shits to give. Too many of us never did to begin with.
In a recent piece for OneZero, Douglas Rushkoff recalls the tech billionaires who have been constructing self-sustaining fortresses in remote locations to shield them against coming disasters such as climate change, global unrest, or pandemics.
“These solar-powered hilltop resorts, chains of defensible floating islands, and robotically tilled eco-farms were less last resorts than escape fantasies for billionaires who aren’t quite rich enough to build space programs like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk,” he writes. “No, they weren’t scared for the Event; on some level, they were hoping for it.”
Well, if I had their resources, I don’t think I’d hope for disaster, but I can imagine having a silent wish in the back of my head that I’d get some excuse to go ahead and take refuge in my own personal — and perfectly furnished — Helm’s Deep.
Indeed, Rushkoff says those of us who enjoy the privileges of being able to work from home and not be gripped by the terror of imminent eviction or starvation are making a calculation: “How much are we allowed to use our wealth and our technologies to insulate ourselves and our families from the rest of the world?” he writes. “And, like a devil on our shoulder, our technology is telling us to go it alone.”
I have always found it easiest to go it alone, and I have long been grateful to the technologies of the Information Era that have given me the means to do so, ever reducing the frequency with which I am required to involuntarily interact with humans on any meaningfully personal basis. I have been trying to insulate myself for decades.
I suppose the difference is that I have not by any means lost my sense of moral responsibility to the world I share with these inconvenient humans. The fact that the current crisis resides in the form of a highly infectious pathogen, and that I live with and care for children and a severely immunocomprised partner, limits what I can do outside the home. But I try to play my part from here, with donations to those who need it and can best use it, advocacy for the right causes, and, minimal as it may be, sharing thoughts like this with you right now. It’s not enough, I know.
I do prefer the safety and distance of the domestic-digital life. I do wish, fervently, that this crisis will shake us out of our collective stupor and make us appreciate each other at a basic level. But I do not wish for the end of all things. I do not want to hide while the world burns. I want a new world to grow from this one, a better one inhabited by a people with better hearts. A new world where I don’t need to hide, but in which I retain the option to do so when the time comes.
Everything has changed, and yet it feels like nothing has. Let’s not have gone through this for nothing.
During the pandemic era, here in the Lost Year, we have been given a reprieve from the stigma attached to excessive video game playing. The experts have told us, as conveyed to us through the most elite media outlets, that being forced under the fat thumb of the socially-distant lockdown-quarantine absolves us of any anxieties we might have about wasted time, lost productivity, or rotted brains. For the age of COVID–19, video games are now good for us. Hooray!
So now I can spend hours exploring, battling, spell-casting, smithing, concocting, and acquiring inside the metauniverse of Skyrim, free of any worry that I ought to be doing something more worthy of my time. We’re all stuck at home, after all! These are extreme, extenuating circumstances! There’s a goddamn killer virus out there, for god’s sake!
Oh, but here’s the thing. Just like everyone else on Planet Earth, the pandemic has upended many aspects of my life, but one thing that has remained unchanged is my location in space. As a socially-averse autistic already working from home for the past decade, I was already not going anywhere. Not even the coronavirus could disrupt a life outside the home if it didn’t exist to begin with.
Nonetheless, when the Great Lockdown began in March, it still felt to me like a doctor’s note authorizing me to indulge in video games again.
(An aside for some context: I say “again” because I have had spurts of game obsession at different times in my adult life, starting with games like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy VII near the end of college. Later, as time for games became scarcer, I would go through periods of serious Civilization addiction for installments III, IV, V, and especially VI, which Steam tells me I have played for almost 1400 hours, which doesn’t even count the additional hours spent playing it on my iPad. More recently, I became enamored with The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, and, my current alternate-universe-of-choice, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, all on the Nintendo Switch.)
Since the vast majority of my time playing video games is solitary (save for when my semi-interested partner happens to be in the room), I have always perceived playing them as a way of sinking into my own little world. But I think being exposed to so much positive social reinforcement regarding quarantine video games made me feel like I was doing something with a speck of social value. It wasn’t just me being a weird 40-something dude manipulating cartoon characters in fantasy worlds all by my lonesome. Now I was in with the in-crowd. Everyone was doing it. We were being alone together.
But despite this absolution, I knew that I couldn’t claim to be leaning on video games to get me through the pandemic. I wasn’t being kept away from my job or unexpectedly burdened with truckloads of free time I didn’t know what to do with. If anything, my job got busier, my kids were home with me more often, and I actually find I have less free time now than I did in back the Long, Long Ago. I’m not killing excess time by playing video games. I’m frittering away the precious little time I have.
So really, I shouldn’t overstate how much time I actually spend on these damn things. The fortnightly Saturday evenings and Sundays I don’t have my kids at home are really my only opportunities to truly binge on pretending to be a Destruction-magic-specializing Wood Elf. (One who just became Arch-Mage of the College in Winterhold, what-what!) All week, I’ll look forward to long, uninterrupted play sessions that will allow me to fully commit to some major quest within the game, rather than settling for less time-consuming side tasks or level-grinding. But when I finally get to dive in, it isn’t long before the Guilt sets in.
I should be doing something more productive, the Guilt says. I should be doing something more creative. I am wasting my precious waking hours and living days on an experience from which I will derive no benefit beyond the temporary sensations of escapist hedonism. That’s fine for a little break from the workaday world, says the Guilt, but it’s no way to spend an entire day.
And maybe the Guilt is right. I’m a writer, a performer, and a composer, and I have the extraordinary privilege of being safe, employed, fed, sheltered, and loved during a major crisis, and I could be using it to make the world a better place, even in the smallest of ways. Even though very few people will ever read this piece, for example, and only some fraction of them will have found it valuable, creating this piece of writing at least adds something to the world that wasn’t there before. Hours and hours spent in Skyrim, Hyrule, or Duckbutt Island (my Animal Crossing domain) have no impact on the real world outside my video game console, except in what they prevent from coming into being.
It’s probably futile to attempt to quantify, even vaguely, what is lost or gained by spending time on video games. Because I could just as well speculate that the games might be a way for me to build up the reserves I need to create things to begin with. Perhaps they are addressing something in me psychologically, such that they become a net-benefit. Before writing this, I read a number of pieces asserting just that.
“I suspect that the total intensity of the passion with which gamers throughout society surrender themselves to their pastime is an implicit register of how awful, grim, and forbidding the world outside them has become,” writes Frank Guan in the conclusion to his wonderful 2017 (pre-pandemic) piece on video game obsessives in Vulture. Earlier in the piece, he says, “We turn to games when real life fails us — not merely in touristic fashion but closer to the case of emigrants, fleeing a home that has no place for them.” Well, for me, the world was definitely grim and forbidding before COVID–19 came around, and Placelessness, USA has always been my hometown. So maybe it’s a wonder I haven’t gone whole-hog on video games sooner.
The point is, though, that I don’t know, and I do know that time spent in a game is time not spent on literally anything else. And I’m not smart enough to know whether or not that’s okay.
Dora was a resident of the digital island on which Animal Crossing takes place, a member of the computer-generated community that the boy is responsible for maintaining as part of the game. The situation he was describing — the loss he was grieving — was the news that Dora had decided to move out, and that he had inadvertently convinced her to do so.
“She asked me whether she should follow her dreams, and I said yes, she should follow her dreams, and she said that meant she should leave, and I didn’t know she would do that and now she’s going away forever!” He declared that Dora, who is indeed a-Dora-ble, was his favorite island resident, and that he never wanted her to leave. The boy sobbed as I comforted him.
And as I comforted him, I also thought to myself, I can’t believe this shit.
For one thing, this feels a little like a trap. Someone with as big a heart as my son’s is always going to tell someone to follow their dreams, and having that be the trigger for a beloved digital companion to bugger off seems like something of a gotcha for the empathetic.
But the real problem was, of course, that the imminent departure of a fake mouse-person who existed only within the confines of a 7-inch LCD display was enough to make my son go the full Kübler-Ross.
I consoled him as best I could. I assured him that the character is not real and has no feelings to be assuaged or validated, and no means of bearing regrets or grudges. I reminded him that it means that the island now had room for a brand new villager who would put their own unique stamp on the island’s life. But nothing I said mattered. He was experiencing what was, for him, genuine loss.
Later in the day, he calmed down and felt embarrassed. I assured him he never needed to be ashamed of, or apologize for, having feelings, and that this was a good opportunity to remind himself that these are, in fact, fake characters on a fake island who do not actually know him or have any thoughts of any kind. He understood, of course, but I could tell he was still hurting.
But there was other fun to be had. My partner’s son was visiting, and he had set up his own little home on my son’s island, which is hosted on the same Nintendo Switch console. We were making preparations for my partner’s son, who is a little older than mine, to “friend” everyone in the house so that we could visit each other’s islands and send each other gifts. Fake gifts, of course.
But somewhere in the process of setting up a Nintendo online account, which would enable the older boy to interact with us, the older boy’s profile on the console was obliterated. All the work he had done to get his own game going was now lost.
The tension in the house increased to the point of near-suffocation.
My partner and I scrambled to see what we could salvage, retracing steps and retrying the account set-up process, promising the older boy that we’d do all we could to reestablish his standing on the island, where he would now have to start anew, back in a meager tent rather than a house, and sadly bereft of bells, the currency of the Animal Crossing society. We all promised to essentially execute a stimulus package, crafting expensive items and harvesting resources for him so that he could, at the very least, have the means to get back up and running as quickly as possible.
Not one to broadcast his emotions, the older boy did his best to remain stoic, but we could all see he was crushed inside, though also moved by our collective promise to put our own islands on a wartime footing, directing all manufactory capability toward the reconstruction of his place in society. Like an Animal Crossing Marshall Plan.
After successfully assigning him a new profile and legitimate online account to go with it, we fired up the Animal Crossinggame, and lo and behold, there was a Nooksmas miracle. His save data had not been deleted with his profile, and the game simply asked if we wanted to assign this new profile to the existing resident. Hell yes, we did. He was saved, and we all stopped being snippy with each other.
Look, I get it. Especially at this point in history, when kids can’t be around other kids and families are stuck within the same four walls most of the time, the love and toil one puts into a game like Animal Crossing becomes very meaningful. Animal Crossing’s world is the opposite of what we’re living through, where one can be outside, interact with anyone, and be totally free from worries about money, jobs, or disease. The characters we meet have delightful quirks, engage us in conversation and activities, and make each island its own special mini-society. Having discovered this wonderful escape, losing any of it feels like a real loss.
Later, the older boy encountered Dora the mouse on my son’s island. Dora mentioned that she was planning on leaving the island, and he urged her to rethink her position.
She was persuaded. We told my son the good news: Dora was staying.
The day was saved. Both boys, having faced what was to them unthinkable loss, were given a second chance. Everything was going to be okay.
Except for the fact that this game has utterly devoured my family, making us crazier than we already were, and that I will likely need many weeks of intensive therapy as soon as this quarantine is over.
Inspired by The Incomparable podcast’s series of “album draft” episodes, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to write about some of the albums that have been the most meaningful to me. So whether or not I decide to do several of these kinds of posts, here’s my first stab at it.
I was very close to never having heard of Marshall Crenshaw. It just so happened that my dad had used a cassette copy of Crenshaw’s eponymous first album to mix down one of his own original songs (Billy Joel’s Nylon Curtain was on the other side, which I’ll probably get into in another post). One day while in my teens, I went searching through my dad’s tape collection to find his song, and gave it a listen. The tape kept playing after dad’s song, and suddenly this simple and engrossing little guitar riff grabbed my attention, and I was pretty much hooked from then on.
That riff was, of course, the opening notes of Crenshaw’s “There She Goes Again,” which remains one of my absolute favorite songs. It pretends to evince optimism and liberation in the face of separation and loss, but it’s all obviously a mask for the sickening weight of regret and the sting of rejection.
His album, Marshall Crenshaw (1982), largely remains in this vein, with nostalgically styled pop-rock tunes that sound like they could have been recorded in a basement, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s certainly polished, but it also has an immediacy and organic feeling, as though Crenshaw and his band are friends of yours who are working on their record right in front of you.
Once I discovered Crenshaw, I immediately related to him. He’s a smaller guy with glasses who likes hats, and he writes extraordinarily satisfying, hook-infused melodies and arrangements, almost all of which serve as wrappers for some sort of pain, self-doubt, or regret. This element is rarely overt, instead it comes out in comic self-deprecation, little jabs at his blunders, and a kind of hapless, “well what can you do?” persona. I really get that.
Anyway, the album. “Someday, Someway” is the album’s hit, which you’ll still hear once in a while on the radio or pop up in TV shows. It’s a very good song, but it’s not even one of the better ones on the record. Apart from the opening track, highlights include “Rockin’ Around in NYC,” which is both bouncy and tense at the same, in which he sings, “I get the feeling that it really was worth coming after we tasted disaster”; and “Mary Anne” with its gorgeous counterpoint backing vocals and its resignation to someone’s else’s despair.
“The Usual Thing” and “Cynical Girl” are rather different in tone, but both are defiant love songs that embrace uniqueness and alienation. On “The Usual Thing,” he worries that giving himself over to someone else will cause him to “lose his energy,” which sounds to me like the lamentation of an introvert. “But,” he tells her, “if I didn’t think you were a little bit out-there too, I just wouldn’t bother with you.”
And on “Cynical Girl,” he longs for a partner who, like him, has “got no use for the real world.” He sings, “I hate TV. There’s gotta be somebody other than me who’s ready to write it off immediately.” Damn right.
I really like a lot of Crenshaw’s other albums, most particularly #447 and Miracle of Science, but Marshall Crenshaw is something truly special, a rare distillation of the delights of classic pop-rock and the pain of being “a little bit out-there.”
Time flies when you’re having fun, and it flies at Mach 5 when you’re not. When I hear my kids complain, “I’m bored,” I tell them how much I envy them. Oh, to be bored! To have no immediate demands on my time, energy, and attention! Boredom may appear to be an unpleasant state, but it’s also a harbinger and a breeding ground of things worth doing. It’s the preamble for activities of choice, not obligation.
By mere coincidence I read in succession two pieces on how terrible we humans are at perceiving time and its passage, and how we might alter those perceptions in a more meaningful and satisfying way. They are both entirely convincing, and yet they each offer conflicting ideal states of mind. Or they might not.
First, Alan Jacobs in The Guardian. (I have never met this man, but I swear I count him among the most valuable teachers of my life.) Jacobs refers to our culture, as driven by our various media, as “presentist.” He writes, “The social media ecosystem is designed to generate constant, instantaneous responses to the provocations of Now.” There’s no way to think deeply or consider alternate or broader perspectives because the fire hose of stimuli never ceases.
The only solution is to cultivate “temporal bandwidth,” which Jacobs defines as “an awareness of our experience as extending into the past and the future.” Less “now” and more “back then, now, and later.” And the way we do that is to read books. Old books, preferably. “To read old books is to get an education in possibility for next to nothing.”
That education sets the stage for one’s mind to not only absorb the wisdom and the mistakes of the past, but to contemplate how they “reverberate into the future”:
You see that some decisions that seemed trivial when they were made proved immensely important, while others which seemed world-transforming quickly sank into insignificance. The “tenuous” self, sensitive only to the needs of This Instant, always believes — often incorrectly — that the present is infinitely consequential.
But cultivating temporal bandwidth is happening less and less, it seems. And as Jacobs says in a separate post, “Those who once might have been readers are all shouting at one another on Twitter.”
But while Jacobs recommends steering us away from believing the present to be of prime significance, David Cain at Raptitude urges us to grasp the present more tightly, and let concerns about the past and future fade to periphery.
And it is all to address the same basic problem: we feel washed away by the force and flow of time. Comparing an adult’s perceptions of time to a child’s, Cain writes:
As we become adults, we tend to take on more time commitments. We need to work, maintain a household, and fulfill obligations to others. […] Because these commitments are so important to manage, adult life is characterized by thoughts and worries about time. For us, time always feels limited and scarce, whereas for children, who are busy experiencing life, it’s mostly an abstract thing grownups are always fretting about. There’s nothing we grownups think about more than time — how things are going to go, could go, or did go.
Cain doesn’t point to social media or cultural illiteracy as culprits, but rather our disproportionate fixation on the past and the future. It may be that Cain is largely discussing a different scale of time than is Jacobs. Cain seems to be referring to our fixation on what has happened in the relatively recent past (10 minutes ago or 10 years ago, for example) and what the immediate future bodes (say, the next couple of hours or the next couple of months). Jacobs, by emphasizing the reading of “old books” (and by quoting lines from Horace) is certainly thinking of a much deeper past and a more distant future, spans that transcend our own lifetimes.
But as I said, Cain recommends regarding the past and future less, and home in on the present. “The more life is weighted towards attending to present moment experience, the more abundant time seems,” he says. And the way to attend to that present moment, as clichéd as it might sound these days, is through mindfulness, which can mean meditation or any activities “that you can’t do absent-mindedly: arts and crafts, sports, gardening, dancing.” Here’s why:
It’s only when we’re fretting about the future or reminiscing over the past that life seems too short, too fast, too out of control. When your attention is invested in present-moment experience, there is always exactly enough time. Every experience fits perfectly into its moment.
Note that Cain never mentions reading as one of those activities that one can’t do absent-mindedly. I don’t know about you, but if I read absent-mindedly I’m probably not actually reading at all, or at least not in such a way that I’ll retain anything. So whether or not he intended it or agrees with it, I’m throwing “reading books” into that list.
This is the bridge that connects these seemingly-conflicting viewpoints, making them complementary. Much of this rests on the difference in time scale I referred to, which, if taken into account, begins to form a complete picture. Few would argue with the idea that fretting about the immediate past and future is detrimental to one’s experience of time, or that contemplation and consideration of history and the long-term repercussions of our actions is a waste of time.
They key word here might indeed be “fretting.” In this sense, the definition of “fretting” isn’t limited to “worrying,” but describes a broader practice of wasting energy and attention on things within a narrow temporal scope without taking any meaningful action to address whatever concerns might be contained within. We fret about choices we’ve made and what such-and-such a person is thinking about us or how we’ll ever manage to get through the day, week, or year with our sanity intact. We rarely fret about how the Khwarazmian Empire was woefully unprepared for the Mongol army under Genghis Khan in 1219, or how the human inhabitants of TRAPPIST-1d will successfully harvest the planet’s resources to support a growing populace.
And of course, nothing engenders fretting like social media. Already primed for fretting by the demands of work, family, and self-doubt, now we can fret in real time (and repeatedly) over anything relatives, acquaintances, total strangers, politicians, celebrities, and algorithms flash before our awareness. It is possible to exist in a state of permanent fret.
Let me tell you, time really freaking zooms when you’re fretting.
So let’s combine the recommendations of Jacobs and Cain to address our temporal-perception crisis. Let’s get off of Facebook and Twitter, let’s turn off the television, and let’s get to that stack of books (or list of ebooks if you prefer) and read. Let’s allow our brains to expand our awareness, considerations, and moral circle beyond this moment, this year, this era. Let’s not burden ourselves with the exhausting worries about what we’re reading or how long it will take to read it or what else we should be reading but aren’t. Let’s make time to chat with our kids and our parents, and write, tinker, draw, arrange, organize, build, repair, or tend as best suits us. Let’s stop and breathe and think of nothing for a few minutes as we focus on the present instant in time and space, even to the atomic level. And then let’s think big, daring, universe-spanning thoughts beyond all measure.
Let’s be bored, and let that boredom nudge, inspire, or shock us into activity, be it infinitesimal or polycosmic.
It will take practice. It will not be easy. Let’s accept that this, too, is a journey of time and effort and moments.
SPOCK: Remarkably analytical and dispassionate, for a human. I understand why my father chose to mind-meld with him. There’s almost a Vulcan quality to the man.
DATA: Interesting. I have not considered that. And Captain Picard has been a role model in my quest to be more human.
SPOCK: More human?
DATA: Yes, Ambassador.
SPOCK: Fascinating. You have an efficient intellect, superior physical skills and no emotional impediments. There are Vulcans who aspire all their lives to achieve what you’ve been given by design.
DATA: You are half human.
DATA: Yet you have chosen a Vulcan way of life.
SPOCK: I have.
DATA: In effect, you have abandoned what I have sought all my life.
– Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Unification Part 2” (1991)
For the socially alienated, such as autistics like myself, the characters of Spock and Data from Star Trek are immediately relatable. Not because of their lack of emotion, but because of their estrangement from their peers. Extraordinarily intelligent, yet unable to understand the motivations or the social and emotional needs of the humans around them. Though full members of their respective crews and fully equal members (eventually, for Data) of their adopted societies, they are nonetheless alone.
But apart from being non-human, the sources of Spock’s and Data’s alienation are quite different. Spock, genetically half-human and half-Vulcan, aspires to overcome the psychological weaknesses he believes his human side burdens him with. Data, the creation of humans, has put himself on a quest to exhibit the qualities of humanity as faithfully as possible. While he may be confused by human weaknesses, he nonetheless wishes to replicate them.
Framed this way, Data may be the more relatable to the socially alienated. Those with Asperger’s like me, for example, are obviously the product of humans, and live and work among other humans, but struggle to make meaningful social and emotional connections with the neurotypical majority. This is painful, and there seems to be no remedy. No matter how hard they try to ape the behavior of neurotypicals, it is just that, an aping. And yet they, we, pine for that connection. For belonging.
Spock represents something that I would guess is less common, the socially alienated person who wishes to remain alienated, because to assimilate would be to corrupt oneself, to debase oneself. Surely there are those intellectuals and savants who identify with Spock in this, and surely they too experience the discomfort of alienation. But I suspect that is the Datas among us that are truly suffering from their estrangement.
To the normals and the neurotypicals, I have to assume that these two dispositions, the Spock and the Data, are more or less indistinguishable. Both exhibit as emotionally distant. Both are prone to say things that, to the normals, are considered inappropriate, offensive, or bizarre, despite innocent or benign intentions. Both invite varying degrees of pity or condescension from normals for what they perceive as naivete or “disability.”
For a Data, there is a constant pull toward the group, a tug toward the tribe. The Data will practice the mannerisms and idioms of the normals, and often fail laughably. For a Spock, the social distance is actively maintained. Rather than gravitate toward inclusion, they prefer to observe from a safe and less distracting distance. There is no attempt to do as the Romans do. To the Spock, the Romans are silly.
From my own point of view, to adopt the Spock approach would be a luxury. While I do not believe that a Spock-type never suffers in her alienation, she certainly suffers less. A Spock has already decided that there is little to be gained from full social inclusion, and little to envy from the normals’ mindset. What a relief that would be.
The Data, however, is all too aware of the myriad ways she does not match up to her normal peers. She suffers from the humiliation of failed attempts to assimilate, and she suffers from her solitude. And unlike the character of Data the android, Data-types definitely experience emotions, often severely. It is a sisyphean way to live, except that everyone is watching and audibly commenting on how weirdly one is pushing the rock up the hill.
In a previous piece, I chose another Star Trek character as an Aspie-analogue, and reflecting on it now, it seems to fill a kind of middle-ground between the Spock and the Data. I’m talking about Odo. I wrote:
Though he takes a humanoid form as best he can, no one thinks Odo, the changeling, really looks like them. He doesn’t understand humanoid behavior, but he does try to map it out in order to follow others’ motivations and how they lead to actions. He is impatient with the things that humanoids seem to find fulfilling and important, which to him seem pointless and wasteful. He comes off as mean when he doesn’t intend to. He craves companionship, but knows he can’t have it. And when it all comes down to it, when he’s tired of pretending to be one of the “solids,” he must — absolutely must — return to his bucket. He must resume his true liquid form, stop pretending, find total solitude, and rest.
If Spock and Data show us two poles of how the socially alienated cope with their weirdness, Odo shows us the consequences of all that work. What does the outcast do after all the failed attempts to commune, or after a day of navigating the incomprehensible absurdities of the normals’ behavior? What toll does it take?
Odo shows us. We must return to our bucket, or we dissolve.