Today, Newport feels frozen over. The island weather patterns that shrug off unpleasantness afflicting the mainland cannot fully shield my home from the continuing blizzard conditions that have pummeled southern New England for weeks. For the first time in nearly six months my passively maintained illusion that all my Boston friends remain merely a quick hop away feels strained. I look out my office window towards the Pell bridge, over houses half-abandoned during deepest winter, and I feel truly, achingly isolated.
The internet makes it far more bearable, of course, but the difference in degrees (if you will) startles. During healthful weather, all the Boston friends in my chatroom or my Twitter timeline feel like they’re just a twenty-minute walk away, as they always had been for many years prior to my southerly move. But today, when I walk around town at my own peril, with a February population so sparse that half the sidewalks stay unshoveled (and half the businesses these sidewalks lead to closed through April anyway), the true, heavy distance reasserts itself.
And I think: I need to get out.
I wish to describe here an encounter I had in late 2013 with a person whom I haven’t seen in quite some time, but who I have had reason to think about recently. It happens that this story also illustrates the benefits of getting out, once in a while, and I relate it here in part to remind myself of the fact. For various reasons I’ll call this person “Becky”; to the best of my knowledge she has never used that name herself. (Further, pseudonominizing technically apt women as “Becky” amuses me.)
Then as now, I knew Becky as a casual but positive acquaintance, a friend of friends who for a time moved in similar Boston-based game-development circles as I. We had first met about a year prior to the time of this story, at one of the city’s many small indie-game conferences, and we’d get to say hello to each other now and again thereafter at one thing or another. I would remember enough details about her work to introduce her to other folks, and I would get most of my facts right, and feel pretty good about myself. While we had never become close friends, we did keep one another mutually passively appraised via Twitter. All rather like my relationships with a great number of other folks I feel just as lucky to know, really.
The week in 2013 that joined September and October became one of the true load-bearing weeks of my life so far. I had spent most of it in Bangor, Maine, there to manage myriad affairs involving my mother and her property. I had to winterize the crummy house she’d left behind when she moved out after my dad died, just months before that. Furthermore, I was continuing to help her navigate her Alzheimer’s; she had only recently gotten a formal diagnosis while living in an assisted-living retirement home wholly incapable of providing the level of care she needed. Unexpectedly, a bolt of astounding good luck struck us that week: an Alzheimer’s care facility in neighboring Brewer, one of the few that accepted Medicaid, had a room available. I visited, and found it beautiful — much more so than various other dilapidated, soul-draining homes I’d seen earlier that week. We moved mom in the day before I returned to Boston, and she has lived there happily and safely since.
The evening of my return happened to contain that month’s regular meetup of Boston-area game-industry folks. While it usually required travel to distant Waltham, it that evening had temporarily relocated itself to a bar in nearby Cambridge. This double-coincidence struck me as reason enough to attend, even though I had only just arrived home. I hoped it would present just the right mix of familiar and novel to put a coda on an eventful week — a successful one, but still very spiritually taxing.
Upon arrival, I felt immediately regretful. While the downstairs bar seemed pleasant enough, the presentation upstairs had a standing-room-only crowd that spilled into the stairwell, with folks craning their necks to see the slideshow. I had no desire to shoulder my way through that mess, but I didn’t want to just go right back out the front door, either. Retreating to the bar, I ordered a beer, figuring I’d stay for the length of one glass and seek kibitzing opportunities — my usual strategy when I feel a little out of my depth, but I know that friendly folks are near and I don’t wish to throw in the towel just yet.
Presently I noticed Becky hovering by the host station near the door. Terrible with faces of folks I don’t see every day, I thought she seemed familiar, and entered into an internal struggle to decide whether I knew her, or whether she was actually the restaurant’s host. Generously, she chose to interpret my uncertain stare as friendly recognition, and she came over to greet me by name. Here I learned that she found herself in similar straits as I regarding the crowd upstairs, so we commandeered a booth with our beers to wait it out. We proceeded to talk about this and that, updating one another on our work, as one does. Soon enough the presentation dissolved, and others joined us and our conversation, and then a server came by to freshen our drinks. Already I felt quite happy with my decision to come.
At one point, the topic turned to elective surgery Becky recently had performed on one of her fingers, part of a larger creative project. Without waiting for any request from me, she offered the finger for me to grasp. I did! And the image I want to paint for you now is: imagine that same finger dipping into a glass of water with a thin layer of murky film on top, and watching that same film rushing away radially as the fingertip breaks the surface, leaving the surface clean. (Or, anyway, clearer.) That’s how I felt.
I hope I don’t sound too manic-pixie here; Becky has her own life and work and agendas, and our paths just happened to skip across one another benignly a few times, as they do with beneficially mutual acquaintances. From her perspective that evening, she felt pleased with the progress of this project, and she felt like sharing it with this guy she kinda knew whom she had happened to bump into at an otherwise boring tech-talk. But, from my own point of view, the act of squeezing someone’s finger to feel an alien implant (on invitation!) immediately made a continuum out of that week’s events. Her fingertip held down on one end, and the act of permanently checking my mother into an Alzheimer’s home weighted the other. And, dizzyingly, they balanced.
I’m sure any number of completely different surprising social interactions may have played the same role, but that’s the one that happened into play that night. I bet I began laughing spontaneously, as much from relief as from the intentional absurdity of Becky’s self-modification project. Three drinks in, and my balance restored completely, I walked home brimming with rare joy and slept well into the next day.
The moral I try to express here, to my myself on this frozen island as much as anyone else wherever they are: please get out of the house, when you can. Go find some people you like and mix it up a bit with them. Especially when life starts to feel heavy. You could use a counterweight, and there exists no better emotional medicine ball than that thrust into your hands by people who like you and who are not you at all.