I go for a walk with my child almost every day. She is little more than two. There is a strange serenity in the isolation of entire city blocks when so few people are around. In the first few months of the pandemic, we felt like we were walking through an abandoned city. I lived in my neighborhood for over five years but never really explored it. There are many buildings that I have passed by for years without even looking at them. We got to know her a lot better. Parking lots, company offices, a hollow building that was supposed to be a market, and favorite restaurants that had fallen victim to the prolonged closure. While meeting people used to be part of the fun and joy of going outside, now we had to be careful. Whenever we met people, they mostly wore masks and all I could see was their eyes. I was amazed at how expressive people can be with squinting, crunching cheeks against their masks and raised eyebrows. I also became very aware of the coughing sound. More than once I heard strong coughs from people without a mask and turned off.
I felt familiar with what was happening, not anything I had experienced in real life. But strangely games like the first one The last of us, Nier: automatons, and Breath of the wild. I know there is a danger in comparing reality to any kind of fiction. I never want to trivialize the tragedy that happened last year. But the parallels in the vicarious hikes through digitally barren countries gave me the feeling of living through the post-apocalyptic nightmare that these games had envisi oned.
I wish everything was a video game that I could hit the reset button on. But with the pandemic and on-site protection taking longer than any of us expected, it’s clear this is not a game to be beaten. The goal that seems to be getting closer with the arrival of the vaccines is survival, which runs through daily life. All of this takes on a whole new edge with a child.
As a toddler, these are crucial years for their growth. Social interactivity is crucial. I asked friends and colleagues how this social isolation will work out. We miss their grandparents. We miss all of her relatives and her many cousins whom we only saw last winter. FaceTime is a valued but insufficient substitute for real connections. We’re trying to do it the way we can.
One of our favorite places is the UC Berkeley campus. I went to school there, but most of the time I was rushing to class or busy studying for a test. This was the first time I really saw the campus. My child is very curious and notices things that I have never seen before. If there is a staircase, she will want to climb it. If there is a door, it will try to open it. Honestly, I’ve seen more of Berkeley in the past year than I’ve ever been there. She points out strange symbols and wonders what they mean. She will find markings on the floor that I have run over a hundred times without realizing it. For them, the world is not a place to rush through to reach the next destination, but something to enjoy, enjoy and discover. The feeling of tactile amazement she has when she feels the grooves, oddly shaped walls and protruding branches on the floor is the whole point of being outside. She wants to understand how it all works. For my part, it’s scary to be on campus and see so few students. When I was there, there were always students rushing around. I lived on the south side of campus (towards Sather Gate) so I rarely visited the Northside. It was fascinating for me to see parts of Berkeley that I never knew existed.
Most of the doors are locked so that we cannot enter any of the buildings. Two years ago I reinvented Berkeley for my book. Mecha Samurai Empireand had spent a few days taking photos and traveling around campus. But even then I didn’t see as much as I did with my child. There is a story behind every building, many anecdotal like Worcester, the art building supposedly built to be shaped like a dragon with scales coming off the windows. I spent a lot of time in the huge building called Tolman, which many of the psycho majors thought was a psychiatric ward. I was shocked when we searched for Tolman and couldn’t find it. I wondered if my memory had failed. When I learned that it was demolished a few years ago due to structural problems, I felt this wistful sorrow that a place I had spent so much time in had disappeared and I hadn’t even known of its demise.
On a personal level, the trips were an archaeological examination of my stay in Berkeley. For my daughter, it’s a huge, busy world of oaks, pines, and architectural wonders. Time goes by quickly when we hike. There is something ghostly about seeing all these magnificent buildings and realizing that there is no one around. In most of the post-apocalyptic games that I play, I like to get to know the world and wonder about unknown structures. I loved speculating on the past in the empty buildings that are scattered all over the place Nier: automata, wander through a beautifully destitute America Death stranding, and learn about the traditions of Breath of the wild in the random mazes. To this end, I note that my daughter often views these buildings as giant mazes. They are a mystery to her as she navigates the dungeon entrance, finding new routes, and uncovering trails that have not been used in a long time (at least for the past year). Sometimes we see cryptic messages on the walls, snapshots of life before the pandemic advertising events of early 2020 that seem like forever.
Shigeru Miyamoto was inspired to make The legend of Zelda based on his adventures through Kyoto. My daughter is so young I doubt she will remember any of our walks. But I was wondering if she’s going back to Berkeley when she’s older, creating a sense of déjà vu. Will your subconscious remember our wanderings during the pandemic?
Just when it looked like we’d found a routine that worked, the fires hit California. Suddenly we couldn’t go out anymore because the air quality was so bad. I’m grateful to have an apartment, but it was hard to be stuck in an apartment with a kid who wants to run and jump all over the place. She has a lot of energy and sprinting from the living room to the bedroom just didn’t make it. I apologized a few times to our neighbor downstairs, knowing she was very noisy. I can hear our neighbors fighting upstairs (they suck at odd hours too). Stress affects everyone. The market for single family homes with backyards is hotter than ever and I understand why. When Hell’s Day came (September 9th) and the sky turned red with ashes, it felt like the end of the world. I actually thought my clocks broke as it was 10am but it was dark outside. Had Lavos landed? Did Ganon enter the world of light to conquer? Time lost importance. It felt like we were trapped in a burning quagmire. Political leadership was something out of a bad video game (I’ve thought about it a lot Majora Mask’s
Do you know how to endlessly grind in role play to get stronger? It’s repetitive and numbing. So everyday life became, except much more difficult. I don’t know how we got through these weeks. Takeout and ice cream helped. JRPGs were wrong that sometimes sanding doesn’t make you stronger. Sometimes the daily struggles wear a person down until they can barely get through. More combat does not increase the attributes. It makes them more fragile and bursts at their already tired core.
The constant bombardment of bad news is relentless, especially as much of our connection to the world has to be online. News of the death of good friends feels unreal when I hear about it on social media. In my neighborhood, crime has increased with multiple carjackings at the local destination where we collect milk. When we go out on the spot, I usually take my child on the stroller so I can put things in and I sometimes leave them behind while we walk nearby. We have never had any problems but it was only a week ago when we got back the stroller was gone when someone stole it. Who steals a stroller?
No matter how bad a day was, no matter how depressed I feel, every morning my child is bright and early, smiling and excited about what’s waiting for me. Their exuberance gives me strength when I feel like I don’t have the energy to get up. There are nights when I’m so depressed about everything that I really don’t know how to move on. Then I see my daughter and I feel hope.
I hate 2020. Fortunately 2021 is almost here and with it vaccinations and an end to the pandemic. I am careful when I am overly optimistic in case further problems arise. There will be a new definition of normal if there ever was such a thing as “normal”. I don’t know what that will mean or what long-term implications this year will have. But if there’s one thing I value about 2020 it’s all of the extra time I have to spend with my child. I hope we have many more walks in the years to come, both in real life and hopefully video games (though she still has a few years before she can play them).