By Harold Goldberg
The sun shined brightly, the moon was visible nightly, and thousands of people died. This was a difficult week to be sure, a distressing, sad one where I woke up and that refreshing moment of new strength was replaced by, “Oh. It’s this again. The thing is still here.” If you’re looking for lists about pop culture entertainment to get you through social distancing, it won’t be from me. If you’re looking for attitude because I think my Final Fantasy VII Remake theories are better than yours, you won’t get it here. From now on, I’m not looking at the angry critics on Twitter explaining or bemoaning this or that beyond their limited wheelhouse, or the pandering of list writers or of easy hot takes who are more marketers than reporters. It doesn’t feel worthwhile to me. It doesn’t feel real to me. It doesn’t even feel necessary in a court jester kind of way.
I am supposed to be the leader here, the president of a unique journalism nonprofit organization that brings help, education, the arts and positivity through social, emotional learning to the underserved in New York City. It was hard to lead with a smile this week. So many are sending out email messages indicating how strong they still are and how they’re helping the underserved so well. We are helping, too, but we’re not crowing about it. While I know that everyone has their own way of dealing with this pandemic, I don’t puff my chest and swagger. That’s never been the way of our group.
Normally, and this is not a normal time, I am up to the challenge of leading. As a writer, it’s not a quality I was born with, but I embrace it now. It has to be done. It has to be done: writing, editing, educating, accounting, fundraising, emergency loan applications, and especially now, soothing those who need it.
This week, two friends in my building, and numbers I can’t count beyond it, came down with the virus. One friend, a longtime World of Warcraft player, is a few floors away. I read his daily diary. It hurt to read about the pain and fear with which he dealt – hour by hour. Another, a mile away, performed at our New York Game Awards a few years ago. He still wants to play songs for us online; it’s in his being. Weakened, he said, “Though the mind says ‘go,’ the body says ‘no.'”
As the week continued, things got worse. The best friend of another friend was brutally stabbed – just after they had conversed on the phone. She was murdered after ending her engagement with a man who then snapped. He ran from the crime scene and threatened to jump off a roof. The police talked him away from the edge. Domestic abuse is on the rise here in New York City and beyond because of the quarantine, and it’s not a joke. My friend is a psychologist, but she is likely going to take a long time to recover.
I couldn’t play Final Fantasy VII Remake this week. I watched the opening movie a few times, a beautiful sequence to witness for someone who went to Hawaii and saw the original presented by Hironobu Sakaguchi for the first time over 20 years ago. But as the camera pulls back to reveal a metropolis in which the indication is that everyone a cog in the wheel, the idea of individuals stuck in a giant, uncaring city was too much. It hit too close to home even before it began.
So it’s been a difficult week. I received a letter from my doctor. Due to preexisting conditions, she wrote in capital letters, “STAY HOME.” That includes getting groceries, going the drug store and the bank. She’s not one to be emotional. She is empathetic, but by the book. So I cleared my head and realized that if I do get the virus, I might not recover from it.
I did things that frightened me, but they had to be done. I worked on a will. And then I created a transition process for the New York Videogame Critics Circle. I told our Board CEO that, if the worst occurs, he will receive a letter with all pertinent information in it. Starting and stopping, starting and stopping, that’s the way it went. It was petrifying to work on these documents. I would walk to the window and look at the park and the river beyond. I would push myself into momentary optimism. Then, I’d continue.
I began playing Animal Crossing New Horizons, but I’ve played all of the Animal Crossings. So I wasn’t as enthusiastic as some of my colleagues who are indulging for the first time. And yet, there was optimism in the repetition of tasks like picking up twigs and shaking fruit from trees, despite the too familiar quirky nature of the characters. And just as I was getting into making my own glorious room, a room of one’s own where, as Virginia Wolff wrote, “the spirit of peace descended like a cloud from the heaven,” the software updated. In doing so, it became corrupted. Nothing I could do, including reinstalling the game, would work. The idea that even the game, even the bits and bytes that created these large eyed, anthropomorphisms, had become a victim of a virus was not lost on me. Hours later, a similar thing happened with Elder Scrolls Blades on my phone. I had been grinding through to get to Level 51 and expected to get the gifts one usually receives which power magic and strength. I was informed I leveled up … and then the game crashed. I received nothing.
So each day became heavier with big things and small, in this bubble of a life in which depression can live on the inside and infection thrives on the outside. Through the portals of apps, the Web and network TV, I’ve tried to amuse myself by looking at the rooms of those well known people who are self-isolating as they report, or perform music, or read edicts for their governments. The more individualized the background of their homes, the more temporarily uplifted I become. I don’t want to see a blank wall or hat from their employer placed strategically for the camera. I want the personality of, say, Jenny Lewis’ strand of Christmas lights over her fireplace – in April.
The most compelling signs of optimism have been on my windowsill. Sunning themselves are over a dozen seedlings for flowers, herbs and vegetables for what will soon be a lush garden on the balcony. Right now on the balcony, mini roses that were ravaged to death by insects last year are sprouting small, protective thorns and proud new leaves. The idea of life beginning and continuing with soil, water and sun is so compellingly honest and true. It’s the stuff of so many myths from every country in our world. When things got bad, my mother used to caution grimly, “Man will destroy himself.” (She never said, “Woman will destroy herself.” She knew it would be men.) But look at the new growth. It’s stirring, striking, satisfying, to know that life will continue even if humans are not around to see it flourish.
So I collect these slivers of hope as if I could save them in my pocket; even writing something minor gives me a sliver of hope. Maybe I’ll play Final Fantasy VII soon and write about it. Or finish a book. Or do something we haven’t done before for the Circle. A well-regarded novelist once said to me “We have to keep going – because what else it the alternative?” Maybe next week will be a better week. Late on Friday, I found a post which quoted from The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in which Thornton Wilder wrote, “We ourselves shall be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.” It’s optimism, but it’s tempered by having lived and understood life. I believe that is the kind of optimism I require right now. Perhaps you do, too.
Journalist/author Harold Goldberg is the founder and president of the nonprofit New York Videogame Critics Circle and founder of the New York Game Awards.