A Urinal in the Middle of an Otherwise Empty Room

(For me, the past year was blissfully uneventful. Everyone close to me remains healthy, in most cases vaccinated, and ready to get back to a normal life thanks to the oddly efficient New Jersey vaccination system. There are hundreds of thousands of families that can’t say the same, and if you’re one of them, I’m sorry. I use my writing to work through my many anxieties, and the pandemic was obviously a huge, very real one, for everyone. I just want to acknowledge upfront how lucky my family was, and thank everyone that continues working to get us through this.)

The last time I took a train into Manhattan to go to work was Friday, March 6th, 2020. I know this because I left a cute little note in my calendar on Monday, March 9th, 2020 that said “PANDEMIC, first day of working from home.” At the time I thought “pandemic” was a strong, ironically edgy word choice, that I would look back on in a few weeks and chuckle under my breath. Pandemic. P’shaw. No different from the other notes that I leave in my calendar for catastrophic events, like an appointment for wisdom teeth extraction that I punched up with the description “Getting face ripped open.” Just another fun little nugget of in-my-face comedy that I sprinkled throughout my calendar, jabbing my finger in the eye of… dates? I guess?

In hindsight, “pandemic” was the perfect word to describe the actual pandemic that was happening. Everything changed in the course of a few weeks. The simple act of getting groceries now felt like a cinematic drug deal. Supermarkets were too dangerous, so I found myself knocking on the back door of a local restaurant and handing a guy some cash for a paper bag full of eggs and olive oil. My wife would leave the car running, and I’d very carefully throw the stuff into the trunk (because there’s eggs), climb into the passenger seat and tell her to punch it before I could close the door, and in 15 minutes we’d be back. Back in the safe confines of our home, where we could sanitize every individual egg with a wet wipe, then afterwards take 45 minute showers to get the outside off of us.  

During the first few months every day was a nightmare, interrupted only by daily walks after work. It was spring. Flowers were blooming, the smell of barbecued burgers filled the air, and during the 30 minutes of walking, things felt okay. Until someone on the same side of the sidewalk barreled towards you. Then you had to do the pandemic shuffle. Relocating to the middle of the street, unless the offending party also relocated to the middle of the street, then moving back to the sidewalk as they also moved back to the sidewalk, and so on. The “taking a walk after a day of thinking about your loved ones dying alone” thing was a strange new custom, but it broke up the monotony. And afterwards I would treat myself to seven beers, because today was hard. Whatever day it was. 

But, amidst all of the chaos and uncertainty and dread, a devilish voice in the back of my mind whispered a selfish fact: “All social contracts are now on hiatus. The mortal plane is too dangerous, and video games would never hurt you. The digital realm overflows with an abundance of hedonistic pleasures. We have such sights to show you.” I obeyed.

I played hours and hours of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. With all due respect to the thriving, racist, homophobic, dumber than dogshit Call of Duty community, I wouldn’t call myself a Call of Duty person. My video game preferences lean more towards indie side-scrolling games that look like they were made 30 years ago, and when I beat them I cry because my little pixelated character conquered depression by jumping over bottomless pits. Call of Duty is more immediate. More lizard brain. Kill people on the other team and get points that you can cash in to make your weapons stronger and look more stupid. A cheesy metal riff plays when you level up, and you’re constantly leveling up, because performing any action in the game is tied to the points system. Kill five 12-year-olds in a row, here’s a new neon pink tiger stripe skin for your assault rifle. Sneak up on an unsuspecting sniper and murder them with your knife, great job! Do that five more times in the next 24 hours to unlock a weed leaf sticker than you can affix to your assault rifle. 

Everyone in the game can give themselves clan tags, which are short call signs that appear before your username in brackets. The character limit is set to five letters, and I don’t have to explain to you the significance of that in the political climate of 2020 America. So many shitty people with Trump tags, serving their country, answering the call of duty. When someone with a Trump tag was on the opposing team, they instantly became my primary target. I understand that’s why they do it, to trigger my cuck sensibilities, and repeatedly murder me with a digital gun that they probably own in real life. It is not a coincidence that the people with Trump tags are very good at Call of Duty. However, this created a moral conundrum when someone with a Trump tag was on my team, and guaranteed a win for me. “Can you shoot that guy?” my wife asked, as she looked up from her knitting and saw one of my teammates, [TRUMP] BluntWrapz45, was in first place on the leaderboard. This kicked off a dialog about the long, storied history of friendly fire in first person shooters that she immediately regretted instigating. You cannot shoot someone on your own team in Call of Duty. But I did try again just to make sure. 

The in-game chat gave me my first glimpse into the world of Covid deniers. Keep in mind that this was a text-based conversation, and not voice chat, which I instantly mute before every Call of Duty match because my desire to hear tweens screaming racial slurs is low. This was a post-match conversation, in which a player with a Trump tag was dropping cold hard truths on the sheeple that they had just decimated. “Covid is a HOAX” they (he, I’m assuming it was a he, of course it was a he) typed. Oh right, I remembered. People are psychotic. A few seconds later someone else replied, “I hope your grandmother dies of Covid,” then the next match began, and we all continued shooting each other in the head. Look, I don’t want that guy’s grandmother to die. Direct insults and threats are the order of the day in Call of Duty chat, and in the heat of battle, bloodlust runs high. What’s important is that we’re all having fun, and everyone’s grandmother is okay. But, y’know. Fuck that guy.

The virus never reached Kateville, my wife’s island in Animal Crossing. My last experience with the series was in 2001, when I played the original Animal Crossing for a few weeks, got both bored and overwhelmed at the same time, and then forgot about Animal Crossing. The latest version, New Horizons, was released in March of 2020, and could not have come at a more perfect time. You’re the mayor of an island full of cute animal weirdos, and their only goal in life is to be your best friend. I bought the game on a whim, thinking this might be a fun distraction for the two to three weeks that I’d be spending at home until this whole thing blew over. 

My wife doesn’t play video games, except for Mario Kart. I’ve seen her destroy people that claimed they were good at Mario Kart, including myself. But whatever Animal Crossing was putting down, she was picking up. She would spend hours rearranging flowers and catching bugs and doing all of the Animal Crossing things. The villagers in the town threw a party for her birthday, and god help me, when they presented her a cake and danced around to upbeat party music, we almost forgot that we had planned a trip to Paris for the event in the before times. The strange panda guy that’s obsessed with fitness taught us how to smirk, that’s just as good right? Who needs the Louvre when you could visit the Kateville museum and give bugs to the curator, an owl that hates bugs?

My time with the game consisted of menial labor that Kate didn’t want to do. Plucking weeds, gathering stones, etc. I made a character that looked like me and built my own home on the island, way off in a corner, away from the hustle and bustle of civilization. The inside of my hovel looked like the Black Lodge from Twin Peaks, but there were no leather chairs or statues of Venus. No murdered prom queens snapping their fingers or speaking backwards. There was just a urinal in the middle of an otherwise empty room, because that’s all I could afford.  

Gaming during the pandemic amplified all of my obsessive habits. So you’re saying there are 5,000 collectable doo-dads hidden in your open world game? And I’m going to need both video and text-based tutorials to find them all? And finding them all does absolutely nothing besides make a little notification appear on my screen that says “Great job! You found all of the doo-dads!”? Well I’ve got nothing but time, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, try me. I sunk 90 hours of my life into this game, and at my lowest point, I paid extra money to unlock the ability to find hidden items on the map more efficiently. What happens when you beat the last boss in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla? I can’t remember, that was at the 50 hour mark. The rest of my time was spent wandering around, going from one shiny location on the map to the next shiny location on the map. Did I find all of the hidden doo-dads? No. But did I have fun doing it? Of course not. It was a complete waste of time and effort, but what else was I doing?       

Now, a year later in the spring of 2021, all of my weekend gaming time has been replaced with writing weirdly personal stories. Then I cram myself into a corner of the only carpeted (and therefore background noise dampening) room in the house to record myself reading weirdly personal stories. Austin Walker is a writer, a podcaster, and just a generally good person to follow on various platforms. I was listening to one of his podcasts during the winter months of the pandemic, a very low point, and he said something that stuck with me. “Make a podcast for your friends.” I don’t remember which episode of which podcast he said this, since he has a few, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. This thing that you’re listening to (or in this case, reading) became the only pandemic project that turned into something that I could be proud of, unless you count playing the first few bars of Nirvana’s Polly on an old, dusty acoustic guitar, building a Y-Wing model, or collecting 80% of the hidden doo-dads in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. For 90 FUCKING HOURS. 

During a time in which I felt so far away from my friends, I made a podcast for my friends. If you’re listening to (or in this case, again, reading) this, I hope you’re doing okay friend. And if someone in the Call of Duty chat is talking shit about a pandemic that they think is a hoax, send me their username. I’ll charge at them and immediately die, but if their grandmother is online, I will protect her with my life.

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