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.

American Nightmare

It was sort of like a nightmare, in the sense that time seemed to both slow to a crawl and flash by in the blink of an eye all at once. I was at first distracted, playing a video game, the president’s upcoming address to the nation up on our television. I didn’t really want to listen to it, as even hearing his voice is enough to drain a good month or two out of my lifespan. So I played my game and resolved to just let him talk in the background.

I don’t remember the exact moment I was wrenched from my pixelated reverie, but I remember almost dropping the controllers and suddenly gaping at the TV. It had taken my brain a few moments to start assigning meaning to the words coming out of the president’s face, and I experienced this odd sensation of understanding piece by piece, like Lego bricks being placed on on top of the other to eventually reveal a form. The last brick clicked into place, and I felt the realization morph into horror.

When he finished speaking, promising to use the force of the U.S. military to murder protestors, time sped up again. Even though I knew what I’d just heard, I needed confirmation. I jumped about the internet for reaction from experts just to be certain that I understood what had actually just happened. Was I inflating it in my mind? Was it actually just nonsense and we had nothing to worry about. But no, it was as bad as it sounded.

And then time slowed down again as Trump performed that bizarre lumbering toward St. John’s Church. I assumed he was going to go inside so the cameras would see him pretending to care about what happened there, and maybe perform some perfunctory pseudo-prayer. Instead, he stood there and held up that fucking Bible, held it like he was showing off a stain on a dinner plate, held it like he’d never actually grasped a book in his life. His flunkies soon followed, standing in a line on either side of him, staring sternly at nothing in particular. It was just a photo-op. And not in the sense of going into a diner to be seen chatting with the locals, but more like a photo shoot. The damaged church was just his backdrop, the Bible his prop—a prop that no one on the set thought to tell him how to use or what to do with it.

This was grotesque enough as it was. Crass and tasteless, it would have been funny under another context. And then we found out what he did to execute this moment of ugly absurdity.

He’d had the peaceful protesters outside the White House tear-gassed and hit with flash grenades. It had been happening while he’d been speaking. The very moment Trump was promising to attack U.S. citizens with the forces meant to protect them, he was demonstrating his willingness to do so a few steps away from where he stood.

It’s been about twenty-four hours since then, and like most people with a functioning conscience, I’m still in shock.

But I also want answers. I’ve read all manner of condemnations of the president’s words and actions in the form of tweets, articles, op-eds, and so on, and that’s fine. But I have not seen one word—not one word—telling me what anyone is going to do about this.

I’ve written about this before, but the urgency is even greater now. Surely, there are mechanisms through which someone in a position of power can thwart the president’s massacre-fantasies before they become real.

I don’t even mean anything as dramatic as removing the monster from power, though that would be my first choice, and I will kiss on the mouth every member of the cabinet who has a hand in invoking the 25th amendment, should they do so. But can Congress curtail Trump from wielding the military this way? Can military leadership consider Trump’s demands illegal and refuse to act on them? Can governors take a stand? Can business titans threaten to pull campaign funding? Can someone do a convincing enough impression of Vladimir Putin so that it would fool Trump into thinking that his idol was telling him to stand down?

Right now, all I hear is my own pulse throbbing. There was apparently a resolution to condemn Trump in Congress, but of course Mitch McConnell wouldn’t allow it. But who cares about resolutions? Our hate only makes Trump stronger. Someone needs to actually stop him.

But no one is. And we’re supposed to rely on the election to save us. I have very little faith that Trump and his allies won’t prevent that from happening in the first place. Either way, we don’t have that much time.

His supporters are ecstatic and ravenous for blood. His enablers are lying down for him and throwing roses in his wake. He’s got the allegiance of law enforcement and the might of the armed forces at his whim, and he’s exalting in his action movie fever dream. And he’s coming for us now.

It’s not a theory. It’s not a dream. Wake up.

The Truth Behind My Face Mask

On the old He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon show, the small, hovering wizard called Orko—the comic-relief sidekick to the muscle-bound warriors—never revealed his face. Floating in a red robe, with no discernible limbs below his torso, his head was covered by a large, floppy, pointed hat, through which his pointed ears protruded. If he had a mouth or nose, it was wrapped in a cloth or scarf of some sort. All one could ever see of Orko’s face was his eyes and total blackness.

I remember distinctly an episode in which Orko, a member of the species known as Trollans, fell in love with another member of his own kind, and the audience learns that Trollans had a custom for expressing deep affection: they revealed to each other their uncovered faces. In private, they would take off their hats, unwrap their scarves, and give the greatest gift of intimacy of which they were capable, to allow their true face to be seen by the one they loved.

So Orko would loyally, courageously, and selflessly fight the most perilous evils alongside He-Man and his Eternian compatriots, but they would never be allowed to see their friend’s face. That was for Orko to save for a time, place, and person of his choosing.

I loved that.

My preferred day-to-day uniform, assuming the temperature suits it, consists of a T-shirt, jeans, hooded zip-up sweatshirt, and baseball hat.

I chose this basic getup because of its neutrality. These various garments cover me in solid, muted colors, in forms that suggest close to nothing about who I am, what I do for a living, what my interests are, or where I’m headed. One can’t tell if I’m off of work from some office job or if I dress like this all the time. One can’t tell if I support a local franchise, ascribe to a political ideology, have attained any particular level of education, enjoy any particular forms of entertainment, or earn any particular range of income (I could be broke and unemployed or just relaxing in my down time).

This developed, as so many choices do, from my experience in middle and high school, when standing out for any reason was to experience trauma. And I don’t mean standing out like a class clown or overtly quirky student. I mean being noticed at all, for any reason. If my hair was noticed, I was made fun of. If I was seen standing in some position or other, I was made fun of. If I was seen sitting in some other position, I was made fun of. If I was heard talking, expressing an opinion, or asking a question, I was made fun of. When taunted with questions meant to humiliate me, I was mocked for any answer I gave, and was equally mocked for staying silent.

If the brand of clothes I was wearing was recognized, I was made fun of for it. If the characters or public figures emblazoned on my T-shirts were recognized, I was made fun of for it. If I wore more expensive, “nicer” clothes, I was made fun of for it. If it was known that my clothes came from a store considered to be uncool, I was made fun of for it. If it was known I got my clothes from a store considered to be cool, that disconnect meant that I would be made fun of for it.

Like many other habits and precautions I built over that time, I adopted my neutral uniform to be as unnoticeable as possible. I didn’t like how my hair and my head looked, so I covered it with a hat. I didn’t like the shape of my body, so I curtained it with a hoodie.

Now in my 40s, I still prefer the relative anonymity that this basic uniform affords me. No longer quite as cowed by heartless teens (though, sadly, not immune to their eternal derision), this basic setup gives space for the kind of self-expression I feel comfortable with. Superman’s symbol adorns my hat. I have a veritable library of Avengers and Star Trek T-shirts. The hoodies, they have stayed plain, though I now have one in a rather bold red-rust color. The T-shirt/hoodie/hat combo is neutral enough to allow me to recede into the background while offering a basic canvas for those things that give me some joy. And even with this little extra information that these things broadcast to others, I remain largely physically obscured.

I also wear glasses to correct my vision, but I would probably choose to wear them anyway, as I have foresworn things like contact lenses and laser eye surgery. The frames of my spectacles add one extra half-layer to the overall veil. Take away the hat and hoodie, dress me in a shirt-and-tie, and you still won’t really see my true face, because my glasses will still be there.

And like the hoodie and the hat and the rest of it, the glasses help define the character. They are part of the mask I wear when I play the part of me to the rest of the world.

Speaking of masks, in the pandemic era we now have the growing normalization of the face mask. They’re an inconvenience, to be sure. They must not be touched once applied, and they must vigilantly be kept clean. They can make it slightly more difficult to breathe, and I assume they will be much more uncomfortable as the weather gets warmer. And of course, they fog up my glasses, and I have yet to master whatever arcane spells or incantations that prevent that from happening.

And yet, I still find myself — weirdly? perversely? — looking forward to donning one. I didn’t understand why, at first. But then I figured it out.

The face mask gives me one more layer of blessed obscurity. It prevents any scrutiny of my nose, mouth, or chin. They can’t see my crooked teeth, my overgrown stubble, my cheeks sagging with age. They can’t see me react to anything with a smile, smirk, or frown. All they can see are my eyes, which are already altered by glasses, and my ears.

And yes, when the temperature allows, I try to wear over-ear headphones, even when I have nothing playing in them.

Also, like T-shirts and hats, the mask offers a little space for a small bit of expression, should I choose to use it. My current mask was made lovingly by my auntie out of the same fabric she used to make my son’s first baby blanket. I love it.

The fact that face masks are also now part of a supremely stupid culture war, and for some serve as a kind of signal of political allegiance, is deeply disappointing to me. Beyond the obvious fact that the right-wing opposition to face masks and what they represent is astronomically asinine, selfish, portending of greater suffering, I’m irritated that their symbolism within this culture war means that they are no longer neutral.

I can feel it when I go on one of my rare jaunts to the supermarket. Those not wearing masks are clearly disdainful of those who are, and, at least as far as I’m concerned, the feeling is mutual.

The face mask is there, primarily, to protect others from me, in case I happen to be carrying the virus and don’t know it. Any protection it affords me is, as I understand it, minimal.

But I also valued the fact that while it helped stop me from unwittingly spreading any pathogens, it also stopped me from unwittingly telling anyone anything about who I am. It gave me one more step back from the eyes of the world. Now, the mask is like a flare, telling everyone in view that I am on one particular side of a conflict. And good lord do I hate that.

I very much hope our need for masks goes away as soon as possible. I also kind of wish that when the virus is gone, that the masks could stay. We are already so exposed. I’d prefer that my true face be something to be revealed only for a time, place, and person of my choosing.

Self-Loathing in the Shadow of the Unfinished Work

A couple years ago, I had the chance to be a real writer, and I blew it.

Way back in 2017, I was asked to spend two weeks in October at a writers’ retreat in Northern California. This had nothing to do with any books I had written (for I had written none) or high-profile publications in which I had been published (for I had not). But because this particular retreat offered a very particular fellowship for writers in a very niche subject area, the previous fellowship recipient kindly recommended me to be his successor. I’m guessing there also weren’t many other folks to choose from, or perhaps they were busy.

The point is that I got to spend one whole fortnight in a gorgeous, rustic home, surrounded by natural beauty, doing nothing but working on my craft.

The problem I immediately faced upon accepting this fellowship was that I had nothing to craft. One was expected to come to this retreat to work on a specific project, usually a book or lengthy article in progress. I had no such project, in-progress or otherwise. I had to come up with one.

So I did. The formulation I made was simple. I took the two areas of thought that were of the most interest to me at the time and decided to mush them together, comparing and contrasting, wrestling with their implications, and working out what epiphanies, lessons, or truths I could extract from the whole enterprise.

It would be a big magazine article, intended for publication in the journal published by my employer. In this way, it would help justify my two-week absense from work, which, I must add, my employer happily and generously granted. It would be a big piece. A “longread.” Perhaps it could turn into a book.

At the retreat, I worked dilligently. Not one for sightseeing or communing with nature anyway, I made the most of this precious allotment of uninterrupted time. I dug deeply into the subject matter. I collected research materials, I interviewed experts over email, I took meticulously sourced and cited notes, I jotted stray thoughts, I sketched outlines, I worked in feature-laden applications for Serious Writers working on Major Projects, and I drafted sections and subsections and introductions and transitions and reflections.

I did not expect nor intend to finish the entire project during my residency, but by the time those two weeks were up, I had a piece that had grown to something like 13,000 good words.

But I still blew it. I never finished it. Two and a half years later, it’s still unfinished.

There were some contributing factors.

For one, during my time at the retreat, something went haywire in my ear. My existing tinnitus worsened exponentially, I began to go through spells of vertigo, and I lost some hearing. This was something of a distraction. It never stopped me from applying myself to my work, but obviously there was a good deal of mental energy that was inevitably spent on this emergent crisis on the right side of my head.

For another, a few months after my return, my marriage ended. You can imagine how that might drain one’s will to work on projects that are largely extracurricular.

These are fine excuses for why it became much more difficult to me to finish to project, but really, I never finished it because I never decided to finish it.

There was never going to be a mystical space carved out of my normal life to make room for plowing ahead with this work. My job resumed, my kids needed their dad, and I needed to manage a monumental and traumatic life transition. But even with all that, I failed to make the decision to sit back down at the computer and write.

Months passed. Then more months passed. In my mind, the Major Project became a queasy source of regret and shame. And the further time progressed from that autumn of 2017, the more I perceived that project as an unmanageable and outdated mess. I think I almost felt like it was angry with me.

But of course, it wasn’t. Nor was it unmanageable; I needed simply to decide to manage it. Nor was it outdated; I needed merely to decide to refresh it.

Nor was it a mess. I was.

A few months ago, I decided to return to it. I even announced it so that I could give myself at least the illusion of public accountability. And over the last several weeks, I have indeed been working on it.

It’s not finished. It begs for merciless refinement, and I don’t mean some tweaks for consicion. It needs some real horror-movie chainsaw violence done to it. I need to detatch myself from feeling precious about certain passages or turns of phrase that simply to not contribute to the larger goal of the piece. I need to rethink the way it’s framed in the opening section so that the reader is better ushered into the subject matter. And I need to find a path out of it, a way to merge its various tributary streams into a single current.

I need to figure out what it really is.

And I will. I haven’t yet, but I will.

I don’t know what this product will be when it’s done. It might yet be that magazine piece I promised my employers back in those innocent days of 2017. But perhaps it’ll be better suited to a series of blog posts. Or maybe it’ll cry out for expansion into a book. I can’t yet say.

Part of what makes this project loom so large in my psyche, and why it still provides a steady drip of regret into my heart, is the weight of validation I placed upon it. By being given this fellowship at this beautiful retreat, even if it had been a strange fluke of circumstance, I had the chance to be a real writer.

Let’s not get technical, now. I know that I am, indeed, already a writer. I constantly churn out written work for my job, I have written for several websites, I been published in a couple of journals, and I write for my own blog.

But you know what I mean. I sought the imprimatur of a real writer, someone whose byline is recognized and sought. Someone who is asked to be on panels at conferences. Someone whose name graces the spine of a book. Someone whose writing actually matters.

I’m not that guy. I might never be.

I definitely won’t be if I don’t decide to write.

And even in the best possible circumstance, in which this piece catches lightning and earns me some amount of approval, it still does not have the power to make me what I already am.

In fact, I may never publish it at all. It may turn out that its entire premise was ill-advised, and that it simply can’t be worked into something that is worth putting out into the wider world.

I don’t know yet. But even if another soul never reads a word of it, I promise myself this.

I will finish it.

Animal Crossing and the Joy of Bucolic Drudgery

Me, in jester’s hat, superhero mask, and business suit, with the quetzalcoatlus skeleton that looms over my property.

Why did I play Animal Crossing for four hours today?

About a month ago I became one of the bajillions of people of all ages enthralled with Nintendo’s bucolic-drudgery simulator, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I never expected to be. When the game was announced, having no frame of reference for the previous iterations, I was utterly uninterested. Then I saw the deluge of fawning coverage and player testimonials about how this game, this experience, was keeping people sane during the COVID-19 lockdown, and I decided to give it a shot.

Now it’s the center of most family activity and interest at my house. My kids can’t stop talking and thinking about the game, and even my partner, who never plays any video games whatsoever, is utterly devoted to it. (She plays more than any of us!) The four of us are constantly dishing about the other island residents and trading gossip about their quirky behaviors (we all just love Zucker), and we cheer each other on for our successes. (“I finally caught an oarfish!”)

My partner Renée with her big catch. I have a heart attack every time I pull one of these monsters out of the water.

But, you know, why?

I do understand the general appeal of the game’s overall shtick. After all, I spent a great deal of time, circa 2000, enriching the lives of my Sims (or making them suffer unthinkably), and more recently I have easily logged around 1500 hours fashioning empires in Civilization VI. And while I’ve never really gotten the hang of Minecraft, I can at least appreciate how its limitless palette for creativity is so engrossing. I’ve even dabbled, rather tepidly, with Second Life. Animal Crossing boasts many of the elements that made Minecraft, Second Life, and the Sims and Civilization franchises appealing. And it’s way cuter.

But viewed from another angle, playing Animal Crossing can seem a lot like the equivalent of doing manual farm labor for a cult leader. Tom Nook is Joe Exotic and we are all his expendable underlings being paid in fake currency and expired meats.

For example, I can spend an hourlong game session just pulling weeds.

Let me slightly rephrase that. I choose to spend an hourlong game session pulling weeds.

And the crazy part is that I love it. With every clump of vegetation I yank from the ground and stuff into my “pockets,” I have made my little island home (which is called Duckbutt Island) just that much more beautiful, and made a larger canvas for me to do with as I like. The methodical, somewhat rhythmic pulling of the weeds is rather meditative, much like real gardening can be (but without the real dirt or real bugs). Even the sound that comes from each weed-pull, a sort of squirty “yoink,” is weirdly satisfying.

I’m not kidding here. When I go on a jaunt to a “mystery island” or visit my kids’ domain and I see a lot of weeds, I think, and perhaps shout out loud, “Oh boy! Weeds!

Later, I can store all those weed clumps away and wait for Leif to come back to Duckbutt town square and purchase them at a modest markup.

Planting flowers, shaking trees, whacking away at rocks, collecting seashells — all of it is tedious, and yet it’s the tediousness that’s often the most appealing part for me. I do also enjoy the creative customization, designing one’s avatar and dwelling, and I have fun checking the boxes that qualify Animal Crossing as a “game” by hitting certain milestones, fulfilling necessary tasks, and upgrading life on Duckbutt. Those things all help Animal Crossing feel like it has a “point.”

But even without those things, it’s remarkably soothing to simply wander one’s island and gently tend to it.

Me in my red outback hat, dress made of cherries, and recycled boots, livin’ life like it’s golden with the boys — my two giant snapping turtles.

In this way, Animal Crossing is less a game, and more of a place to go — which is especially valuable at this moment in history. Countless other games offer this kind of escape, of course, from Fortnite to World of Warcraft to, well, name your MMORPG of choice. None of them, however, have appealed to me the way Animal Crossinghas…with perhaps the exception of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which, while not a “sim” by any means, provides so rich and wide of an experience that one can simply wander and putter about delightedly for hours. And believe me, I have.

Zelda aside, perhaps it’s those other games’ sprawling complexity that suggests to me that the effort to master them wouldn’t be worth the time and energy.

Animal Crossing has many layers of complexity, but they all feel very optional. One can advance and upgrade at one’s own pace, and in the meantime there is always something to do, harvest, beautify, design, or craft. And, importantly, as you meander and dawdle, no one will be out to get you.

However, one aspect of Animal Crossing that has really solidified it as a breakout phenomenon at this moment is its social component. Players can visit the islands of friends or anyone on the internet who opens their island to visitors. I’ve played online with my kids while they’re at their mom’s house, but otherwise I have interacted very little with anyone else. What am I missing here?

I suspect it has more to do with me than the game. My reticence and anxieties over social encounters in meatspace seems to carry over to Animal Crossingin strikingly similar ways. Just like in the real world, I worry over what to say or how to behave around another player, and feel exhausted in advance by whatever expectations they might have of me. I feel pretty confident of my ability to cultivate lasting friendships with Zucker the octopus and Truffles the pig. And Blathers, well, he is my true soulmate. But actual humans are another story.

At least on a computer generated island, no one expects our avatars to make eye contact.

Neurotypicals Keep Feeling Things At Me

Here’s how Stephen Colbert helps explain how I, as someone with Asperger’s syndrome, am in a constant state of anxious bewilderment at this current moment.

The introduction of truthiness to the American lexicon by Stephen Colbert in 2005 was something of a cultural watershed, the moment when we all finally had a way to describe the semi-facts and quasi-reality we experienced consuming political punditry. Overwhelmed as we are today with outright lies and misinformation, the George W. Bush era of truthiness seems almost idyllic.

But remember that the driving force behind the phenomenon of truthiness was not the relative veracity of a claim, or even the convenient massaging of facts. Truth was not really the point at all. Emotion was. In coining this neologism, I think Colbert may have inadvertently prophesied our current dystopia.

“Face it, folks,” said Colbert as his “Stephen Colbert” character on The Colbert Report. “We are a divided nation. Not between Democrats and Republicans, or Conservatives and liberals, or tops and bottoms. No. We are divided between those who think with their head, and those who know with their heart.”

And here’s a kicker.

“Anyone can read the news to you,” he said. “I promise to feel the news atyou.”

Remember that.

I recently happened upon a piece from Psych Central by Ivy Blonwyn about her experience counseling a married couple wherein the wife was neurotypical and the husband was very likely an Aspie. Blonwyn writes:

We neurotypicals cannot begin to fathom how hard it is for Aspies to exist in a culture we dominate. We set the rules. We design society. We define social norms. Even something as fundamental as the rules for manners and polite conversation are foreign to an Aspie. They may behave ‘normally’ (as NTs [neurotypicals] define it) but that’s because they’ve memorised how to follow our seemingly nonsensical rules by rote. It’s a script for them and a senseless one at that.

For example, when Dan was breaking eye contact, waving his hands and gasping, I had been talking about a movie that quite interested me. A neurotypical who had not seen that movie as Dan had not would automatically realise the important part of the conversation is not the movie. It is how the speaker felt about it.

An Aspie on the other hand, cogitates on the movie (they haven’t seen) and having nothing to contribute to the subject of the movie, wants to advance the conversation to something they enjoy talking about. Hence the appearance of impatience and disinterest.

It never occurred to Dan that I was telling him about my feelings. He thought we were discussing the movie. ‘No, I was telling you about me’, I told Dan.

‘Then why didn’t you say that?’ he retorted.

As a neurotypical, I thought I had. It was implied. So obvious, that it never occurred to me to verbally express it.

But Aspies don’t make assumptions so hard-wired in NT minds that what we really mean is usually left unspoken.

I experience this kind of interaction all the time. Someone is telling me something about their day, something they’re going through, or something they experienced, full of details and observations, and I can barely maintain my attention. If what I’m being told has no direct relevance to me, is about something of which I have no experience myself, or is out of my control to do anything about, my brain desperately seeks to abandon it.

Particularly if the speaker is someone I care about, I make my best effort to be attentive and engaged, and I think I usually succeed. By now I know that to appear to lose interest is hurtful and offensive. I want to be supportive and useful to the people I love, so I do my best.

But I also don’t quite get it. Why would I want to know about the plot of a TV show you watched? Why would I want to know about a casual conversation you had with your coworker? How can I possibly be a part of a conversation in which I have no frame of reference? What’s the point?

It’s because the speaker is really telling me about themselves. They are not reading the news to me, they’re feeling the news at me.

And that’s just what neurotypical people do and it’s perfectly normal. For them, it’s necessary.

The propagandists of our current informational hellscape, such as Fox News, the president, and the great heaving mass of conspiracy theorists, all of them are feeling at us, and people are responding.

But even the “good guys” in the reality-based community, such as progressives and the otherwise-sane folks I follow on Twitter, are doing the same thing. They may be working with actual facts that are actually true, but the outrage-tweeting they engage in operates under the same priciple. They, too, are feeling the news at us.

And that’s why I can’t deal. When opponents of the president shame-tweet his latest outrage, I keep appending the question, “So what do we do?” No one ever answers. Not necessarily because they don’t know what to do (though I suspect they usually don’t), but because that’s not the point. They came to emote, not to cogitate.

My neurology is ill-suited for this moment. I do not find satisfaction or connection from this mode of communication.

If someone I love tells me how bad their day at work was, I will likely try and brainstorm solutions to each problem they faced, when that’s not at all what they wanted from me. They were feeling their news at me, not looking for answers.

I’m looking for answers.

For those I love, I will try to be better at accepting what they share with me, what they feel at me. I will try to better understand that they are trying to share themselves, their souls, not their raw data.

For everyone else, I will try to ignore the firehose of feelings, and seek answers elsewhere.

Nothing to be done

The part of all of this that most fills me with despair is the fact that those with the power to do something simply won’t.

My experience of Twitter right now is one of being told over and over to be outraged about every offense committed by the president, Republicans, right-wing media, or their followers. And I am! Good lord, I am. Trump constantly lies, promotes self-serving misinformation, and foments civil war. His allies and defenders fall in line. The parade of fanatical ignoramuses react, predictably, with garish displays of jingoist hate. Their cells become food for viruses.

And so the Important People on social media do their duty and Point it Out.

Fine. What I’m not seeing, and what I desperately need, is for someone to do more than Point it Out, but to offer a solution. The dead horse I continue to beat comes in the form of quote-retweets in which I ask, “So what do we do?”

Trump encourages insurrection: “So what do we do?”

Trump refuses to give aid to states who don’t kiss his ass: “So what do we do?”

Trump ignored warnings about the pandemic, and now pretends he was always on top of it: “So what do we do?”

Maybe, in a previous era, reporting on the wrongdoings of a president or other public official would at least get the ball rolling on getting that leader to change course or be held accountable. But, surely, now it must be obvious that this is no longer the case! Everything we all got used to, the idea of “scandals,” exposés of corruption, and various career-ending “-gates,” none of it matters anymore. We can Point Out and Be Outraged over every appalling example of nogoodniks nogoodnicking until we run out of tears and our fingers can no longer tap out our replies and retweets, and none of it will change a thing.

Those who believe what the president says will believe him until their dying breath, even if it’s a breath gasped without the help of the ventilator they needed but couldn’t get because of the president they loved. If reporting, explaining, and shaming had any impact whatsoever, Trump would already be out of office, Pence would be under investigation, and far, far fewer people would be sick or dead.

So, I’m asking, what do we do?

The Senate could have done something. We know how that worked out.

Pence could do something. He and other members of the cabinet could agree among themselves that the president is a danger to the country, invoke the 25th Amendment, and remove him from power, even if only temporarily. But of course, they won’t.

Is there something more the news media could do? I honestly don’t know. Again, merely reporting the many crimes of the moment isn’t enough. Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper can fume into the camera over the president’s lies and the exponentially rising body count, but everyone who is watching already agrees that this is all an outrage.

Can voters do something? If they can, they have to wait until November, and then you have to assume that they will be able or allowed to vote. And because of how the Electoral College rigs the system in favor of the Candidate of the Fanatical Ignoramuses, it may not matter anyway.

Could well-intentioned billionaires and business titans do something? I don’t know! Governors? Celebrities? Anyone?

It’s hard for me to psychologically accept the idea that there’s nothing to be done, that we’re just hostage to the madness of an idiot cult leader, and that’s that.

I suppose what it comes down to, short of something even more destabilizing or dangerous, is that enough people will have to demand change in any way they can. But by “enough,” I don’t mean an motivated plurality or even 50 percent-plus-one. Overwhelming numbers of Americans will have tell those in power to fix this shit, but do it through some means that doesn’t require them to “take the the streets” like the Fanatical Ignoramuses protesting stay-at-home rules.

But there isn’t enough of us. This won’t happen.

So what do we do?

An Actor, an Introvert, and a Universe of Possibilities

The author in 2006.

People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.

To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.

When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”

I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.

People tend not to believe me when I tell them I’m severely introverted. It’s understandable, as the persona I put forward is usually that of a quirky, agreeable smart-aleck. I am animated and expressive in conversation, I engage in overtly silly play with my kids, and of course, I’m an actor and musician.

To many people, my personality simply seems too big to be that of someone who is shy, anxious, or reserved, let alone autistic. Some have even told me they find me intimidating. To me, that’s beyond ridiculous, but there it is.

When folks have trouble grasping how it is I could have had found any joy in being an actor while finding social interaction to be utterly draining and even painful, I explain that when I’m performing, I’m protected by several layers of metaphorical masks. On stage in a play, I am explicitly not myself. It says so right in the program! Next to my name will be the name of whatever character or characters I’m playing. I’m definitely not playing “Paul Fidalgo.”

I don’t have to be clever or come up with interesting things to say, because the words have been written for me, hopefully by someone who is well established as being really, really good at writing interesting things for people say, like, for example, William Shakespeare.

I don’t even have to decode any social signals or read between the lines of what others are saying in order to know when to speak, because it’s all been planned out in advance. I am forbidden from speaking until my own lines are cued. That limitation is indescribably liberating.

I don’t have to know what to wear. I don’t have to know where to stand or how to behave, because all of that will have been worked out in rehearsal. If the play doesn’t call for my presence in a scene, I don’t even have to exist.

But there’s another way to explain the apparent incongruity of my personality that flips all of this on its head, and I didn’t even realize it myself until I had it explained to me in an article by a true master of the theatre from several years ago.

I recently came across an essay published in The Nation in 2011 by the great actor and playwright Wallace Shawn, who most folks will know as Vizzini in The Princess Bride, Grand Nagus Zek on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, or the voice of the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Toy Story movies. Maybe you know him from the 1981 film My Dinner with Andre. Oh, and he was just in Marriage Story, so that might help.

In his essay for The Nation, which is a truly beautiful piece of prose in which he explains how his art leads him to consider himself a socialist, Shawn writes:

We are not what we seem. We are more than what we seem. The actor knows that. And because the actor knows that hidden inside himself there’s a wizard and a king, he also knows that when he’s playing himself in his daily life, he’s playing a part, he’s performing, just as he’s performing when he plays a part on stage. He knows that when he’s on stage performing, he’s in a sense deceiving his friends in the audience less than he does in daily life, not more, because on stage he’s disclosing the parts of himself that in daily life he struggles to hide. He knows, in fact, that the role of himself is actually a rather small part, and that when he plays that part he must make an enormous effort to conceal the whole universe of possibilities that exists inside him.

In one version of my explanation for why such a loud, animated performer like me could be such a severe introvert is that I alone am too small and too vulnerable to be comfortable in my own skin in the midst of other humans. But what Shawn helped me to see is that this disconnect also stems from the fact that my singular, real-life self is also near to bursting with thoughts, ideas, fears, ambitions, impulses, and possibilities.

The potential energy bottled up and pressed down into this small, delicate body is overwhelming. Letting any of its pressure out brings with it the risk of humiliation, regret, misunderstanding, or bewilderment. So a single, inoffensive persona must be adopted, a safe and broadly acceptable packaging must be applied.

The stage does not solve or sort all of these parts, but it does allow them to manifest in meaningful, productive, and satisfying ways. In this way, an actor’s role is sort of like Mjölnir to Thor.

In Thor: Ragnarok, the Asgardian Avenger has lost his legendary hammer, Mjölnir, and at the edge of utter defeat, he hears the voice of his late father Odin, who asks him, “Are you the god of hammers?” Odin explains that Mjölnir was not the source of Thor’s power, but merely a means of focusing and controlling it. The real power, the “thunder,” is already inside him, coursing through him.

That’s what a role in a play is for an actor. It harnesses the lightning and thunder inside us and allows us to wield it. Shakespeare himself even wrote of “youths that thunder at a playhouse.”

It is true that for me, and I suspect for many actors, taking on a role is a way of protecting ourselves, providing armor for our fragility. But it is also a means to show our strength, to unleash a power within us that in most other circumstances would be too dangerous or destructive.

As Wallace Shawn says, we have within us a universe of possibilities. The stage allows us to live some of them out.

A New World Without Loss

Arthur C. Brooks writes about how Ludwig van Beethoven dealt with his gradual hearing loss, which, while crushing to a genius composer, ultimately lead him to new heights of greatness.

It seems a mystery that Beethoven became more original and brilliant as a composer in inverse proportion to his ability to hear his own — and others’ — music. But maybe it isn’t so surprising. As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head. His early work is pleasantly reminiscent of his early instructor, the hugely popular Josef Haydn. Beethoven’s later work became so original that he was, and is, regarded as the father of music’s romantic period. “He opened up a new world in music,” said French romantic master Hector Berlioz. “Beethoven is not human.”

Brooks takes this as a lesson in loss. He says that here Beethoven shows us how losing something precious can open up new possibilities and ideas, and all of that is true. But that’s not the lesson I take.

When Beethoven lost his hearing, he could no longer be aware of what others in his field were doing. Whatever music was being lauded or pilloried at the time, Beethoven had no way to know what it sounded like. He had no way to compare his work to anyone else’s. All he had were his memories of what had come before.

To me, the lesson isn’t how Beethoven turned the tables on fortune and made something beautiful out of loss. (And I do have my own, albeit far less severe, experience of hearing loss to draw from here.) The lesson is that his loss meant that he was no longer burdened with his own perception of what great music is supposed to be. Beyond what he could still hear in his own mind from his musical memory banks, there was nothing for Beethoven to compare himself to. The energy spent and wasted on anxiety and self-doubt brought on by the desire to suit the tastes of the time, his genius was liberated, freeing him to make the best music he was capable of at that moment.

Before I sat down to write this, I caught myself wondering whether the traditional early-2000s-era blog format was still viable, whether anyone would want to read a post by a relative nobody responding to an article by a relative somebody about an indisputably significant somebody. I worried whether the format would make me seem unhip. I worried that whatever I wrote might better suit a magazine essay, which would never be written (nor published if it were), or if it might be best to simply tweet a condensed version of my thoughts, and leave it at that. In other words, I wasted time and energy on anxiety about what my writing is “supposed” to look like.

Imagine that I came to this piece with no preconceived notions of the form my thoughts should take. Imagine I had no respectable essays, eye-catching blog posts, or pithy tweets to compare myself to. Imagine that all I had were my thoughts and my skills as a writer, whatever they happened to be at this moment.

Beethoven’s loss forced him into a position of ignorance. His deafness gave him no choice, but that ignorance freed him. His earlier work sounded like somebody else’s, the work of people he thought were “doing it right.” When he could hear no one else, “doing it right” meant only what was right to him in his own mind.

I, and we, do not have to wait for loss. We do not have to be forced into a kind of ignorance. We can choose to learn from what others have done, build on what we have already accomplished ourselves, and then let everything go. Then we can be free, and we can know it, too. We can open up a new world without loss.

Beethoven is not human, and neither am I. Thank god.