A week into classes

The new school year has just started–I’ve now taught three classes over zoom, which is proving less annoying than expected. Actually, it isn’t annoying at all, which is largely due to the fact that I’ve lucked into a great cohort of students who all seem interested and engaged and more than willing to contribute to our discussions.

I’m teaching just the one class this term: a fourth-year seminar on Pandemic Fiction … because, you know, I like to be topical. The class’ first assignment is a personal essay: given that we’re studying pandemic fiction in the midst of an actual pandemic, I thought it might be fruitful to have my students share their own experiences. It’s a far more informal assignment than I would usually give, but then, these aren’t usual times.

But because a personal essay is a somewhat more open-ended proposition than a typical formal essay, I wanted to give my students some examples of the kind of thing they could do. So I’ve written two of my own: the first is a variation on a post I wrote in early May, “Of Bread and Patience”; this one is more personal, and details my experience of depression for the better part of that month. And when I finished writing, I figured what the hell–might as well post it to the blog.

Oh, and because the required word count for this assignment is 1200, this essay is precisely 1200 words. Because that’s how we do it downtown, baby. (It also means this is the shortest thing I’ve posted to this blog in a long time).

My May Doldrums, in Hindsight

My long dark night of the soul during the pandemic took place over the better part of May. I don’t know what it is like for other people, but I seem only to experience depression in hindsight. Even when in the midst of it, I tend to be blind to the indicators: bouts of anxiety, lassitude, lack of focus, avoidance. While the anxiety is the more acute and unpleasant experience, avoidance is more insidious—avoidance of work, of communication with friends and family, of simple tasks I’d promised myself I would do. All of which was, this past spring, exacerbated by the fact that there was nothing immediate that demanded my attention, like teaching classes or other such professional obligations. I’d been on a half-sabbatical in the winter term, going into my usual non-teaching summer research term, and so almost everything I was working on could be postponed for a day or two.

One of the reasons I only seem to recognize depression in hindsight—besides the fact that avoidance also applied to self-awareness—was that it ebbs and flows. I would have a few days in which I woke up with acute anxiety, followed by a few days that felt, by comparison, much better. But those “better” days weren’t actually good, they were just days in which I didn’t feel the tightness of anxiety in my gut. I was still unfocused, still avoiding those things I should be doing. In the early days of isolation, I wrote incessantly in my journal, and posted to my blog with a frequency it had not seen in years. I tried my hand at baking bread. I cooked elaborate meals. And I went for increasingly long walks; my peripatetic ruminations filled pages in my journal and informed blog posts.

That all crashed to a halt early in May. It did not feel like a crash at the time, but all of the documentary evidence—the sudden paucity of blog posts, the lack of entries in my journal, the sudden lack of pictures posted in my social media feed—spoke to an obvious and sudden gap in my mental activity. I can see now that in hindsight my fever of writing in the early days was itself a coping mechanism, but also that its lack signaled a descent into depression. What I did instead was play games on my computer while watching movies and TV on my iPad.

I should point out that playing computer games while watching something on my iPad is not unusual for me. I find it soothing to play Age of Empires II, Civilization V, or other such games that do not consume your attention in the way more kinetic games do, while having on my small screen something that I can half-watch. Indeed, this has been my preferred method of watching horror films: I am a wimp when it comes to scary movies, and will only go see them in the theatre under duress. I prefer the controlled circumstance of watching them on my own television, when I can get up and go to the kitchen to make tea or get a snack when the scary parts start going down. “Do you want me to pause it?” my girlfriend will call after me—goadingly, because she knows perfectly well the answer: “No, I’m good.” Even better is watching such films out of the corner of my eye as I direct my villagers to chop wood or mine stone while I send my infantry and cavalry to attack my foes.

These games where you build a society or civilization have always been favourites of mine. I played Sid Miers’ Civilization in its original iterations, and all that have followed; Warcraft, Warcraft II, Starcraft and Starcraft II followed, but I think the most perfectly distilled version of these games is Age of Empires II. The point of such games is, starting with just a handful of workers, build a hamlet up into a city, and, ultimately, develop an army with which to vanquish rival peoples. In years past, the endgame was always the most enjoyable part for me: sending phalanxes of pikemen, missile troops, cavalry and artillery into the enemy settlements and razing them to the ground. As a military history buff, I used historical tactics as much as the game allowed: spearmen out front, protecting the second rank of archers who sent withering volleys at the enemy; always with a column or two of cavalry to send swooping in if I was getting outflanked; and finally, the catapults and trebuchets bringing up the rear, to rain fire on the enemy’s buildings once their armies were defeated.

Yes, there was a great satisfaction in such victories, but a core pleasure of the game preceded it: the accrual of resources and the construction of new buildings. I am always very fastidious in my urban planning: building out farms from the town hall, with houses along one side and military buildings on another, and one end of town given over to such crucial civilian buildings as the blacksmith, church, university, and market.

During the better part of May, I found myself playing hours of Age of Empires II, while incessantly binging and rewatching Archer, Community, and Parks and Recreation—sitcoms whose beats I knew instinctively by that point. Novelty was not desired. Nor, apparently, was ultimate victory in the game: I wanted only to build, to spawn my villagers and send them to chop wood, mine gold or stone, harvest food, or build up my village. I built defenses on the approaches from my enemies’ territory to frustrate their attempts at invasion, but was not myself inclined to invade. Leave me be, let me build my village and see to my people. On occasion, sometimes just out of boredom, I sent my armies to attack; but more often I ended the game when my resources were exhausted, and started a new one. All while episodes of television I could almost recite verbatim played alongside the computer.

It was all, I can recognize now, a soporific, something to distract my mind, and something to occupy me as I avoided all those other tasks I should have been doing. Perhaps that is why I was preoccupied with building and not with battle: the satisfaction of seeing those tiny, industrious villagers erect buildings and chop trees and mine ore served to offset my own glaring lack of industry. Perhaps, too, it was the illusion of a thriving community of people doing their thing, together, while my own reality was atomized, distanced, reduced to faces in small boxes on my laptop screen. And those sitcoms? Sitcoms are always about family, even when the characters aren’t technically related. Hindsight is annoying, because it shows you what you feel you should have recognized in the moment. I missed my family, both my actual family and the family of friends I have made here in St. John’s; I missed my own industry and sense of purpose; I missed community.

I still do. But coming out the other side of what I now think of as my May doldrums, that benefit of hindsight granted perspective I didn’t have in the moment.

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