Magma

Here’s a way for me to talk about my response to last night’s debate.

In the parking lot at the grocery store today, I saw a man, who appeared to be in his 60s, returning to his car with his groceries. He was wearing a shirt emblazoned with the Trump campaign logo on the front and “No Basement Joe” on the back.

Adjusting my face mask before walking into the store and catching sight of this fellow, my mind immediately recalled the depravity displayed by Donald Trump the night before at that horror-show of a debate. For a brief moment, my brain struggled to comprehend how anyone—including a presumably sane, sentient human being like the man in the parking lot—could witness the trauma Trump had inflicted on us all and still support him. Worse yet, this man was proudly advertising his continued devotion to the president the fascism-for-idiots he personified on that stage.

And in that moment, I felt hate for that man. To be clear: this was not okay. I know nothing about this person. Merely presuming that this man understands what Trump is and what he represents, I could come to no other conclusion that this man must be evil.

Of course, I have no idea if that’s so. I have no idea what this man is like. I have no idea what he knows and does not know. I know nothing of his life story beyond what could be gleaned by a few seconds passing in a parking lot.

It scares me, that I felt that way. But in noticing that sudden shock of hate in myself, I then considered how deeply and fiercely Trump and his cult have driven their followers to hate, and I became doubly frightened. I experienced a moment of hate, of indignant rage at the moral vacuum I assumed to reside in this stranger’s heart. Just imagine, then, the cauldrons of hate, like geological quantities of magma, seething within those who feel represented by Donald Trump.

For the few seconds that I burned, I struggled to come up with some imaginary scenario in which I might confront this fellow and set him straight. Absurd, of course.

But what about the millions of people, bubbling with hate, and being told to expect their enemies to deny their leader his power—and therefore, in their minds, their power.

I’m very worried about what scenarios they are imagining. I’ve very worried about that.

What I’m also thinking about:

How not to think about everything going on. M.G. Ziegler says, “I think in many ways we can only live through times like these by not stopping to think about them.” I don’t feel like I have that luxury.

John Gorman says:

So go easy on yourself. Try not to think about the future. Instead, think about the present. How can you win the next hour, the next day? How can you be of most value — to yourself, to your family, to your community, and to the earth itself? You still have the incorruptible capacity to create joy, and catalyze change. No one can take that away from you, no matter how dark they dim the lights.

That’s true. But while one’s capacity might be incorruptible, it is not inexhaustible. And I’m pretty exhausted.

Alan Jacobs writes, in Breaking Bread with the Dead, which I mentioned in the previous issue:

I would ask you, dear reader, to remember the next-to-last thing that social media taught you to be outraged about. I bet you can remember only the last one. …

You can readily see, I suspect, how information overload and social acceleration work together to create a paralyzing feedback loop, pressing us to practice continually [informational] triage … forcing our judgments about what to pay attention to, what to think about, to become ever more peremptory and irreversible. … And all this has the further effect of locking us into the present moment. There’s no time to think about anything else than the Now, and the not-Now increasingly takes on the character of an unwelcome and, in its otherness, even befouling imposition.

No argument here, but this particular Now seems unavoidably pressing. It puts us in a state of what I once called “permanent fret.”

Oh, how I long to be bored again.

Introducing the Near-Earth Object newsletter

Never weep, never weep. With clear eyes explore the pit.

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Sometime at the last gasp comes peace 
To every soul. 
Never to mine until I find out and speak 
The things that I know.

Welcome to Near-Earth Object, a websitenewsletter, and podcast (coming soon!) by me, Paul Fidalgo. These are the falling years.

First, an introduction.

This is a project through which I, an odd duck, work through the problem of how to be a person in the world. That’s it. Through written and spoken words, my own and those of others, I try to figure out what to think, what to believe, and how to feel. And then I publish it for the public, which is frankly the most dubious part of this whole enterprise.

As I hope you’ve guessed, the name Near-Earth Object is not about things that float in space. It’s about the experience of being part of something — be it a family, a society, or a species — while also being slightly outside of it. It’s about being part of a cosmic system, but in an erratic orbit.

This newsletter is intended to serve as a regular conduit between me and whoever else out there who might find value in watching this process unfold. I’ll certainly highlight my own work and happily direct you to it, but it will also be an opportunity for me to share thoughts and ideas I’ve collected from other sources, old and new. The format is known as a “newsletter,” but it will not be “newsy.” While commentary and reflection on current events is unavoidable, my hope is that any edition of this publication could be read by someone in the far future and found as worthy of their time and attention as it would be the day it was published.

Speaking of these times…

The tagline of this project, “These are the falling years,” and the lines — that appear at this newsletter’s opening — I read at the show’s opening, all come from a poem by Robinson Jeffers written around 1940 titled “For Una.” In it, Jeffers writes about a stone tower he had built for his wife, a place of solitude and sanctuary for the two of them and an expression of his love for her. But he is writing while processing the apocalyptic horrors of the Second World War, which at the time must truly have felt like the end of all things.

I’m beginning this project in the autumn of 2020, the Lost Year. This is my personal creative endeavor, and it’s happening against the backdrop of the anxiety, fear, disappointment, disillusionment, and despair of our current age, and there’s no getting away from that. These truly are falling years.

And though I am an odd duck, I am not a young one. According to actuarial tables, I’ve just kicked off the second half of my life, meaning I have fewer days ahead of me than I do before. I am a near-Earth object in a descending orbit. These are *my* falling years, too.

“Never weep, never weep,” wrote Robinson Jeffers. Well, I certainly won’t tell you not to weep. But there is much to see and much to say in between the tears.

Thanks for taking the time. If you’re still interested, read on.

Oh, and, of course, subscribe. Please. And then tell everybody to do the same.

The True Self Gives Life to the Mask

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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.

The Opposite of Courage

I have this idea about the relationship between courage and laziness.

Courage, as I define it, is when a person acts out of principle, knowing that the act will cause them suffering. John Lewis knew he faced beatings, imprisonment, and possibly death when he marched. Susan B. Anthony knew she faced scorn, jail, and infamy if she cast a vote. Steve Rogers knew he’d be blown to bits when he leapt on that grenade that turned out to be a dud. (Fictional examples are helpful and illustrative so back off.)

I have lamented on countless occasions my inability to choose a Major Project of some kind and see it through to fruition. (One Major Project I actually did, finally, complete, and I will eagerly share it with you when it comes into full being sometime next year.) I’d like to write a novel. I’d like to start a theatre troupe. I’d like to write nonfiction books on a number of subjects and in a number of styles. I’d like to host a podcast, write and record an album of new songs, play my music live for audiences, get into voice acting, write a newsletter, make a satire news site, and so on.

Rarely do I even begin on these fantasy projects, let alone stick with them long enough for them take flight. Why?

Sometimes, a project just isn’t the right fit. It doesn’t interest me as much as I’d hoped, or it involves commitments I am simply incapable of making. That’s no reason for anyone to beat themselves up. I mean, I will still beat myself up about it, but I shouldn’t.

But more often than not, I think what holds me back is what I’ll call laziness. That might not be an entirely fair word to use, but I want to make a point. When evaluating a Major Project, any number of factors can weigh on my mind and convince me it’s not worth beginning, or not feasible. It could be that I don’t think I have the time, or that I don’t really know how to get started. It could be that I don’t see a market for what I’d offer, or that said market is already flooded. It could be that it would require that I ask for help or collaboration with others, possibly even strangers, and my intense wincing at the thought of being socially entwined with anyone drains my resolve. It could be that I perceive that it would require a financial commitment that I can’t make, or am unwilling to try to fulfill.

All of these are justifications for inaction. Reasons not to start. Reasons not to try. Some of them might be really good reasons! Some of them might be sober and realistic assessments that lead to the reasonable conclusion that something is just not worth taking on.

Some. But not most.

Mostly, they’re about unwillingness. A lack of will, all because of an imaginary cost-benefit calculation that I have made based on a slew of unknowable factors. It’s bad math. And because the result of actually making the effort to see something to its fruition is more likely to be a valuable end in itself, regardless of anything else, it really is, for lack of a better word, laziness.

To take the first step in a new enterprise, and then to take as many additional steps as possible, is an uncomfortable thought. And each step brings with it the possibility of stubbing one’s toe, tripping, or stepping on a rake. One could take a few steps very awkwardly and wind up looking ridiculous for several paces. One could walk for a very, very long time and get very, very tired, or run out of energy entirely and collapse to the ground. One could even reach the ultimate, dreamed-of destination and find that it actually kind of sucks there. All those things could be true, and most of them almost certainly will be true.

Then what is required to do it anyway? Courage. To undertake an action of importance even though we know that a lot of the experience will be negative, even though we might not even finish it, even though what we make in the end might be kind of crappy. To work in spite of those possibilities takes courage. To put aside precious free time and resources that we may never get back takes courage. To allow oneself to be vulnerable and entreat others for help and collaboration is risky and, to me, terrifying, and it takes courage.

I’ve berated myself for being lazy for most of my life. I’ve been ashamed at my lack of courage in other instances as well. I’ve learned a great deal about myself in recent years, and I better understand the roots of my fears and aversions. But only now am I beginning to understand that what I see as my own laziness and my dearth of courage might be the same thing.

Because, in the end, laziness is about being unwilling to endure discomfort. Courage is being willing to heap it on.

I know I can endure discomfort. I believe I can take on even more. And I suspect that it might be worth it.

The Old Normal Rises

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.

As I’ve written previously, I even have a soft spot for face masks, as they further anonymize me to a species that has consistently shown me that I am, at best, merely tolerated.

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 now, I don’t know.

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Freddie de Boer recently wrote about “romanticizing the post-apocalypse,”similarly hoping for something valuable to emerge from the chaos and death. “What I do want is some sign that we have reached a break, that events have forced us to face up to an old then and a new now, and that the tyranny of normal has been defeated at last.”

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.

What’s it Like on the Other Side of the Paywall?

Courage without Recompense

Don’t Remind Me

I have trouble going to see theatre productions, because it reminds me of the work I want to be doing. What I ought to be doing. I want to be on that stage or directing the action, not just watching. Watching is what other people do, what the normals do.

I often feel the same way about music, though to a somewhat lesser extent. Listening to great music too often reminds me of the music I’m not making, the songs I’m not writing or recording or performing. Experiences with the arts that ought to, by all other accounts, be sublime, are all too frequently for me of alienation and regret.

Shit, even listening to podcasts makes me feel like a slug.

The same can also be said for my experience of great writing, particularly novels, though I suppose a part of me. that I’m not cut out to be a fiction writer (I deeply hope this is not so), and am therefore not really failing any kind of personal expectation. Movies and TV rarely bring this kind of anxiety on, as they feel so out of reach as to be akin to wishing to be a professional basketball player as a 5-foot-5 sedentary dude in his 40s. A couple decades ago I harbored illusions of future movie stardom, but now I can watch Avengers: Endgame without that kind of psychological baggage.

And I think this might be why I’ve glommed onto video games at this rather unlikely period of my life. I’m by no means a “gamer,” but lately I’ve found my greatest moments of escape and enthrallment within games such as Breath of the WildAnimal CrossingCivilization, and Skyrim. And I suspect that this is in large part because of the fact that I know nothing about video game design, nothing about programming or software development, nor even anything about how computers work at all. As far as I’m concerned, they all run on magic.

That utter separation makes video games safe. While slashing with a sword, casting spells, or cultivating my ridiculous fake garden in gamespace, I feel no pangs of remorse for the code I’m not writing. Video games are a place, an experience, I can enter and totally surrender myself to without placing any guilt trip on myself for the video games I never made.

But of course, they do have a lot of voice actors in these games. Why haven’t I gotten a voice acting role in a video game? I’m a total failure.

Video Games and My Ceaseless Guilt

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 WildAnimal 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.