Early on during the pandemic I had these recurring dreams where I was out in public and then realized suddenly that neither I nor anyone around me was wearing a face mask. Shock and guilt would wash over me as I remembered that we were in a pandemic and that everyone was being irresponsible. What were we thinking?
Sometimes in these dreams I would be out walking around in a commercial district or in a city center; there would always be crowds. Frequently I would be at a gaming convention, sitting around a table with other gamers, setting up a board game. I was sure I missed the experience, and that’s where these dreams were coming from; we didn’t go to a board game convention after January 2020 for over two years. We went to one in Oaks, PA for one day this summer, and everyone (almost everyone) was wearing face masks.
And then we went to an annual con that I’ve been attending for over ten years, and spent four days in a hotel with a couple hundred people, most of whom were not wearing face masks. I mean, the pandemic is over, right? That’s what the President said.
My dreams turned out to be prophetic, as when we returned from the convention, I tested positive for COVID. I was feeling crappy on the Sunday drive back, but attributed it to burnout from all the marathon board gaming. When I still felt sick on Monday, I took the rapid antigen test and got the positive result.
I suppose it was inevitable, given how contagious the virus is, and given that we pretty much stopped the non-medical interventions. Not such a good idea, I guess. Luckily Aileen did not get sick, possibly because she had already caught COVID in May (when I was the one who dodged the bullet). This is just how it goes in Pandemic Phase II.
I’m not the only one who got sick at the con, either. Turns out it was a superspreader event! After all the tut-tutting I have done over people not following pandemic protocols, I got all casual and went and caught the bug. As the proverb says, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
So it’s not too bad. The worst symptom is tiredness and sleeping a lot. In the pre-corona era I would have just thought I had a bad cold and taken a couple of days off work and slept it off. The worst side effect of having COVID is being isolated from the family. No more dinner together or TV night.
I was able to get a prescription for PAXLOVID. I mean, quickly. I called my doctor’s office, and they set me up with a Zoom consultation that felt like a formality. “You tested positive and you have hypertension which is a risk factor – ok, I’ll send over a script…” Within a few hours I had the pills (a housemate picked them up since I am isolating).
So we’ll see how it goes; hopefully I will be back to “normal” soon. Back to normal but very conscious of what non-medical interventions can achieve. I think I will be spending a lot of time at home, nose to grindstone, for a couple of months. I’ll still be risking exposure since Aileen has to go out for her work. Time for our second boosters?
“Grognard” is a word for an old soldier, but the term also has a special usage in gaming circles, meaning “Someone who enjoys playing older war-games or roleplaying games, or older versions of such games, when newer ones are available. [Example:] James is such a grognard, he only plays the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons.” I’m thinking about this term because I’ve been updating an old web 1.0 site that I still maintain which has some gaming content on it. As I’ve gone through the pages to clean up the content, I’ve discovered dead links which, from the structure of the URLs, clearly belong to the early days of the world wide web, and to an earlier generation of Internet users. That’s expected, since I set up the site twenty years ago. Often there are usernames embedded in the URLs of the dead links, and I have to wonder – what happened to those users? Did they move on to popular platforms, to social media? Did they just give up on updating their web sites and let them die off? Are they even alive any more?
I was updating my old site because I wanted to add some pages dedicated to a fantasy war game called Titan, which I used to play a lot back in the day. Both of the designers of this game, I have learned, are deceased. They would have been from the first generation of grognards, and they died too young. Their legacy lives on in the fan base surrounding their creation, but I have to wonder, how many of us fans are from the older generations, too? How many gamers from the younger generations are even aware of this old game’s existence, given all of the new games available today?
Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful for the board game Renaissance that we live in today, with it’s incessant stream of new titles. I love trying out new games. But each wave of new board games can seem like a tidal flood, pushing the old games away. My little web site update project, revisiting an old game with an old style, has made me acutely aware that time is passing by the old ways. It’s left me with a wistful and nostalgic feeling. Will anyone miss us old grognards when we’ve all faded away?
Board Game Session Reports and Why I Like to Write Them
I’ve mentioned the web site BoardGameGeek on this blog already. It’s a fantastic resource for board gamers, with a vast database of every board game ever created, past, present and future. By “future” I mean announced but not yet published titles, not that the web site has time travel capabilities!
It’s also an online community where board gamers review, discuss, clarify rules, and share their experiences with board games. So as well being as a resource for information about games, it is like a social media site for board gamers, albeit in the older forum-based format from the early web. If you go to my user profile, you can check out content I have uploaded, as well as see our entire board game collection.
One kind of content I really enjoy is the Session Report. This is a post linked to a board game (each board game has its own page and forums) that is about a session playing the game. Typically it would be about one play of the game, though I suppose one could write about playing the game multiple times in one report.
I like to write, and this format gives me a nice outlet. When I play a game, if it seems like a memorable time or if it brings to mind some point about strategy or etiquette, or any connection to anything for that matter, then I will think about how it could be written up as a session report. I usually try to get it written down within the next few days, before the memory has faded, and then I submit it on the BoardGameGeek site. It has to go through a period of moderation before actually appearing on the site, presumably to screen for irrelevant submissions.
Here’s an example of one kind of session report that I like to write, which tells a story. It’s like a little piece of fiction. This is actually the report with the most likes of any report I have written, and it’s based on a solo play of an adventure-style horror game:
Here’s another one that gets into a strategy discussion, with other uses contributing in the comments section. If you are not familiar with the game, it might not make much sense. This one is more useful for people who have played or want to play the specific game:
This is a report on a game played in the distant past! I dredged it up from long-term memory. I was delighted by the amount of engagement it got. I’m sure this is because so many users are from the older generation, like me. I plan a few more reports like this one:
I have written 36 or 37 Session Reports on BGG so far, which has earned me a Copper Session Reporter microbadge. When I get to 50, I will earn the Silver microbadge! The full list of Session Reports I have written is here:
Recently one of our friends put up a GoFundMe for medical expenses, meaning they started a campaign to raise money on a crowdfunding platform. They need help, to the tune of potentially tens of thousands of dollars, because their insurance is denying a claim for arcane reasons.
It was recently reported that one third of GoFundMe campaigns are to cover medical bills. Arguably, GoFundMe has become one of the nation’s major health insurance companies (although crowdfunding doesn’t work quite like insurance).
Granted, the U.S. is much larger and much more diverse than any of the other 10 countries on the chart above. But if we had something closer to universal health care, if we just had better insurance coverage for everyone, then maybe we could move closer in the direction of lower costs and higher performance.
That we don’t have universal health care could be attributed to our particular governmental system, with its gridlocked legislature in the thrall of special interests. I’m tempted to bring in this concept of the “market state,” which I have blogged about in the past. In this context, the gist of it is that government has less power over the economy than in the past, and we are governed more by informational markets.
In that case, substituting a mutual aid network easily enabled via the Internet for a fully functional healthcare system could just be the wave of the future. It’s how the informational market state does healthcare. Whee!
It doesn’t seem adequate. A better way to think about this might be in terms of living through the Crisis Era of the saecular cycle. Institutions have broken down to the point that we can’t rely on them. Instead, we rely on one another.
The Crisis Era is a time of gathering, of rebuilding the social capital that was lost during the previous social eras. That’s why we’re forming social networks, to which we can then turn in time of need. These social networks are a manifestation of the rebuilding of social capital.
Unfortunately, as a “system” this doesn’t work for anyone who doesn’t have a social network. It is dangerous to be isolated in these times. We need better institutions, that serve the people instead of special interests. But for our institutions to be reformed in this way, we first need to restore democratic government.
We recently watched an excellent zombie horror TV series called All of Us Are Dead (one season so far available on Netflix). It’s set in a high school, so it’s also a coming of age show, with accompanying side stories about fitting in and surviving bullying and whether or not to reveal your feelings to your crush. Not to say too much, but you can probably guess from the title that things don’t go very well for most of the students.
One theme that runs through the show is the expectation that the kids have of being aided or rescued by adults as the zombie apocalypse rages through their school, but ultimately being disappointed. There are heroic adult characters in the show, as well as cowardly ones, but for the most part the high school students are left to their own devices and it’s up to them to save themselves. The fantastical circumstances don’t allow for many options.
This is common enough in zombie shows; they always end up as survival against all odds stories. But in the case of this show there is an overarching sense of cluelessness and irresponsibility coming out of the adult world, while it’s the kids who end up paying the price. In fact, the zombie virus origin itself is tied to a subplot involving both negligence and recklessness by adults.
It’s a depressing show, and watching it I couldn’t help but compare the fate of these fictional schoolchildren with those who in the real world have been victimized in their classrooms by horrific mass shootings. They too should have been protected, but were abandoned instead. It’s an unmistakable parallel which aligns the young characters in this show with the Homeland Generation in the United States. You might say that this show belongs to a new genre I will call “Homelanders in Hell.”
What do I mean, “the Homeland Generation?” In terms of Strauss-Howe generational theory, this is the generation, born since 2005, currently in childhood and filling the halls of middle schools and high schools. By their age location in history, as children during a Crisis Era, their role is stay out of the way, protected by adults who are doing the hard work of managing multiple unfolding catastrophes.
Except, tragically, when adults fail them, overwhelmed as they are by the magnitude of the disaster. Then their role is to be mourned in death, and in death to be held up as an inspiration for adults to find the courage and strength to do better.
In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic I blogged about how the crisis was proving to be a “tempering test of the market state.” What I mean by “market state” is this concept by legal scholar Philip Bobbitt of a newly evolving constitutional order. It’s an order where government has less power and instead markets provide the decision-making and regulation. It’s also been called the “informational market-state” or the “neoliberal market-state.” More and more I’ve become convinced that while Bobbitt is correct in his broader theory of periodic changes in the constitutional order, with the “market state” he has really just identified the priorities of the market-driven social era of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In the new era, I would expect faith in markets to collapse and a return to government regulation to be in demand.
But let’s grant that the market state premise is correct. We are now in an individualistic, market-regulated constitutional order. In the earlier blog post, I framed the Covid-19 tempering test in these terms:
The Covid dilemma as it relates to this constitutional order is this: if the market state is supposed to protect the citizen while maximizing opportunities, what does it do when these goals are mutually exclusive? Simply put, an endemic disease that is highly infectious and lethal entails restricting economic activity in order to save lives, but that necessarily reduces economic opportunity
It would seem, based on the experience of the past year, that the market state’s resolution to the dilemma is simply to accept the loss of life. A premium in human lives must be paid in order to maintain the open society so vital to sustaining economic opportunity and generating financial wealth. The latest guidance from the CDC puts the onus on individuals to mitigate against the coronavirus as they see fit, certainly in keeping with the logic of the market state.
Some individuals have more leeway to make these choices than others, a fact not lost to many on social media.
I’ve seen a ton of posts like the one above, about how the CDC, and our society as a whole, have abandoned the vulnerable. It’s a brutal truth about our current state, where the government has essentially given up on the pandemic. It was just too big a creative leap to get out of our “normal” mode of an open society. And since we couldn’t get to herd immunity, we’re settling for herd culling.
How sustainable this will be, I do not know. Covid-19 is now the third leading cause of death in the United States, well ahead of vehicular accidents. And it’s even worse for certain age groups, and presumably also for the immunocompromised. It’s just a cold fact that if we keep going the way we’re going, then one fallout of this crisis era will be significant population loss. It wouldn’t be unprecedented in the grand scheme of things.
As part of my general sociological research on the Crisis Era and the recent pandemic, I have been studying the topic of ingroup solidarity and outgroup aggression. Essentially, this is the social theory of group identification and the idea that people are more likely to support those whom they perceive as belonging to their group and to be hostile to those whom they perceive as being outside of their group.
I’ve browsed some academic works, which typically define the ingroup and outgroup in either nationalistic or ethnic terms. The studies find support for the hypothesis (idea) above, with interesting twists. For example, level of support can be affected by perceptions of status difference and whether one’s own group’s status (privilege) is threatened, or whether an outgroup is perceived to be particular hostile to one’s ingroup. Both of these perceptions will lead to increased hostility towards an outgroup. With each of two groups perceiving the other in this way, they can get caught up in a vicious cycle of mutual hostility, certainly a recognizable phenomenon in many of the conflicts in our world.
Two groups caught up in such a vicious cycle may well be the political parties in the United States today. The degree of partisanship and rancor between the two factions has become legendary. I’ve been blogging about it for a long while now, and recently speculated that we have social media bubbles to sustain “group feeling”, in the words of Ibn Khaldun. To put it differently, social media bubbles serve to maintain ingroup solidarity, and sometimes even to encourage outgroup aggression.
I found this one fascinating paper which speculated that Trump’s election victory in 2016 might well have been because of greater group solidarity among Republicans than among Democrats. The resisters like to mock the MAGAs for acting like they are in a cult, but really MAGAs are just exhibiting stronger group feeling. This will only help them in the ongoing conflict. Link to the research paper follows.
Another source I studied as part of this little project is the book Tribe by Sebastian Unger. In this brief work, the author argues that one reason for so much anxiety and depression in modern life is that we are removed from our evolutionary past, in which we lived in small, cohesive groups (tribes). In other words, by nature, we have a deep need to experience group feeling. In times of war and disaster, this atavistic experience returns. And though no one wants to be in a war or disaster per se, those who do, such as veterans with PTSD, often report that they miss the feeling of solidarity they had with their group while they were in the midst of hardship and danger.
An interesting tidbit that I got out of Junger’s book is that personalities who tend towards aggression, while not well adapted for ordinary life in peaceful times, become an invaluable asset when survival is at stake, such as during wars and disasters. This is hardly surprising to learn; I only mention it in the context of the previous discussion of ingroup solidarity and outgroup aggression. To whatever extent people in one group (say, a political faction) feel that their status (privilege) is threatened or that they are targets for another group (faction), then aggression will be seen as a valuable survival trait.
I don’t want to end this post on such an ominous note, so I’ll also mention that in the research papers I looked at there was evidence for factors that mediate against hostility between groups. One, believe it or not, was simply persuasion. So maybe your social media posts aren’t all just shouting into an echo chamber. Another is the perception of a shared common fate with outgroups, or a sense of belonging to the ultimate group, “all of humanity.” If these factors can be encouraged, maybe there is hope for us after all.
For those who are interested, I’ve put links to the research papers below.
The Arts Bubble’s production of Starmites at Pottsgrove High School is an absolute delight. This talented bunch of teens puts on a super fun show, with great production values and a big heart. It tells the story of a troubled teenage girl who escapes into a comic book fantasy world – or is it real? – only to discover her true potential. The production has a wonderful 1980s sci-fi/superhero comic feel and smoothly carries the plot, involving the machinations of a wicked villain and the conflict between two groups who have more in common than they think. It has lots of colorful, well-defined characters, brilliant comic book effects, and lovely singing and dance numbers. You won’t want to miss it!
If you saw the show on opening night you might consider coming to see it again on Friday or Saturday night, since it’s double cast! Different performers will be playing the roles of Eleanor, Bizarbara, and the Diva.
The last show that the Vagabond Acting Troupe put up before Aileen merged the company with another theater company was the musical Starmites. This was also one of the first of her shows that I saw after we got together around 2014. Her company used to put on shows in an old church that was out in the country, but since they left the building was torn down.
I remember how enchanting the show was and how impressed I was with the production values and with the talent of the kids. This show was done with kids and young teens! And it’s a tough one, too, with complicated songs with challenging harmonies.
Challenging kids to take on difficult work and discover their power to get it done is Aileen’s specialty. It’s what makes her such a great educator. There’s even a quote from this show that is apropos: “to a Starmite there is no such word as can’t.”
What is a Starmite, you might ask? Well, they’re kind of like a superhero. They kind of live in an imaginary world in a girl’s mind, called Innerspace, and they help her to find her courage and unleash her full potential. So maybe they’re a real part of her, inside?
Do we all have a superhero dwelling in our inner space? Yes, and that is essentially the message of the show. You have to dig deep inside yourself to find them. That’s what Aileen has been doing with young people for her entire career, which is why this is one of her (our) favorite shows.
Another reason Aileen likes this show is because it has a lot of great parts for actors to play. It provides opportunities for many individuals to stand out with a special character, and has multiple strong supporting roles. That’s important for Aileen, because the point of her shows is to be inclusive and give everyone who auditions a chance to participate.
Why have you never heard of this show? Well, it’s not often done. Possibly because it’s so challenging, or because it’s so nerdy. Aileen thinks it needs better marketing. It’s hard to tell from the title that it has a comic book superhero theme. Since those are big these days, maybe it would get more press if it were subtitled “A Superhero Musical.”
Why do I bring this up? Because Aileen is doing the show again! The same group of teens that she did Chicago with last summer asked her to come back for another summer production, and they picked this show. I’m really proud of her for continuing to shine as a theater educator, in spite of the troubles these past couple of years have brought.
The show is going up this weekend at Pottsgrove High School, which is in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, to the northwest of Philadelphia. Below is an article about it in the local paper.
This blog is probably not the best promotional platform in the world, but on the off-chance that one of my two readers other than my Mom is in the area, you should think about getting a ticket! You can do it at this link:
In my last post I presented my “Board Game Biography” – a summary of my life of playing board games. There was one paragraph in there where I mentioned a period in my life when I was in a deep depression. A “dark night of the soul,” so to speak. I think many of us have been there. In my case, board games played a role in pulling me out of that darkness. In this post I will tell that story.
How exactly I got into this dark state isn’t important at this juncture. Let’s just say I had been going through some tough times, and had recently lost my job. I was living alone, in a big house which I was house-sitting for some friends who were living abroad. This was when I lived in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. I had all my possessions Tetris’d into a Fonzi-space; ie. a finished room over a garage. Some of my stuff was still in boxes in the garage itself.
I was seeing a psychiatrist, and was taking medication. Prozac, to be exact. I was in my early 40s, and I suppose I was having a severe midlife crisis. There’s something almost cliché about the whole affair. But I shouldn’t downplay it: I was very deeply depressed.
I would sleep until noon or later. When I awoke, it felt like a huge, oppressive weight held me down. Like the whole firmament was pressing down on me. I didn’t want to be awake, but inevitably I would be forced out of bed by the pestering cats. In addition to house-sitting, I was cat-sitting, and the creatures needed to be fed. Despite existing in a dark fog, I was able to muster the energy to briefly emerge from the darkness to take care of necessary tasks, such as feeding the cats, or feeding myself.
I suppose you could say that the cats saved my life, with their incessant daily pestering – with their very existence, which created an obligation on my part. They kept me on life support while I robotically went through my meager routine. After feeding them, I would go and lie down on the couch in the living room, and I would sleep the day away.
If you’ve never experienced a feeling of having no interest in life or any desire to do anything, I’m not sure that I can explain it to you. It’s just where I was in that time. All that I cared to do was the barest necessities to keep myself alive, and then I just wanted to shut down. Like I was a robot with no function to perform, in a state of suspension.
In the evening I would stir, and feed myself. Then would come my busy hours – I would watch the late night news on TV, and then the late late night talk shows, until the wee hours. And then I would go to bed. Rinse and repeat. I would do nothing but sleep and watch TV, day after day.
I should have been looking for work, and I suppose I must have had some savings to burn through, because I didn’t bother. I must have gone out for groceries from time to time, or I would have starved. And I know I was going to my appointments with my psychiatrist, because he eventually gave me the advice which was to be the springboard out of my deep, dark place.
I was neglecting other responsibilities. One day I noticed a flyer taped to the front door. I’m not sure why I opened the door at all, or if I saw the flyer from outside. It was a citation from the town, warning me that the grass in the lawn was too high, and that I would be fined if it was not cut down by some date in the near future. I had not been mowing the lawn, as I was supposed to do in my role as house-sitter. It looked like a wheat field. I took care of it, and learned how hard grass is to mow when it gets that high.
Another thing I learned was a bit about how the post office works. I would usually only check the mail once in a blue moon. I didn’t leave the house for days at a time. When I checked the mail, the mailbox would be stuffed. It would be a struggle to extract the contents. One time, surprisingly, the mailbox was empty when I checked it. It should have had some mail, considering how long the intervals were between the times when I looked inside it. But no mail came any more, not even days later. I called the post office to find out what was going on, and they told me that they had stopped delivery because it looked like no one was picking up the mail. Apparently that was their protocol. I assured them that I lived at the address, and they confirmed that they would resume delivery.
As you can tell, I had some inkling of an ability to function when needed, though for the most part I was wasting my days away doing absolutely nothing. I was constantly in a very depressed mood. I was talking things through with my psychiatrist, and he suggested that what I needed was a social life. I really wasn’t seeing anyone at all, since I lived alone and was unemployed. He thought that the best thing was to use a hobby or interest as a way to meet people.
A logical choice for me was board gaming, which I had done a lot of in my life before, just not recently at this time. There was a game store I knew about not too far from the house where I lived, and I figured they must have some kind of regular open gaming, which is normal for board game stores. The hard part was going to be getting me to change my habits and actually go there, given my state of mind.
The first thing I did was drive to the store and just check it out from the outside. I figured out that they had board games nights weekly on Wednesdays (I think this was posted on the outside window). I resolved that I would attend. On a following Wednesday I drove to the store, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in. Or even get out of the car. I turned around and drove back home.
Every Wednesday thereafter I got a little closer to participating in the social event of board game night at this store. The next Wednesday I actually got out of the car and walked up to the store before I turned around to go back home. The Wednesday after that I went into the store, walked through it to the back, then turned around and left. The store was full of people sitting at tables, playing board games (maybe about half a dozen tables with a few people at each one).
Why was this so hard for me? If you’ve never experienced agoraphobia, let me tell you it is no fun. For me, it was this intense anxiety and self-consciousness when approaching or potentially mingling with a crowd of people. I just wanted to run and hide, which is exactly what I had been doing for months now, living in my shell of despair, alone in someone else’s house, with no company except cats. But that little inkling of a voice inside me was telling me that I had to overcome this fear, or I would be trapped in my shell forever.
On my next visit I entered the store, and this time I walked more slowly through it. I found a table where a guy was sitting alone, setting up a game. I asked him about the game. I must have said something like “that looks cool.” It was a wargame called “Commands and Colors: Ancients,” and he was supposed to play with someone who hadn’t shown up yet.
And then he invited me to play. He said his friend wouldn’t mind if I took his place, that his friend would understand since he was running late. So I sat across the table from this guy and he taught me how to play. His name was Henry, and I am eternally grateful to him for inviting me to be his opponent in Commands and Colors, and thus to begin my journey of recovery from depression and isolation.
His friend did show up, and just as predicted was cool with sitting with us and watching as we played. I don’t remember who won the game; it was probably Henry, since this was my first time playing. But I had plenty of opportunity to play more games with him in the future, and even joined his role playing group.
Eventually, I started going to a different game store, and met even more gamers. From there I got hooked up with other fun game nights at people’s houses, and a really cool board game convention in the area. There is no doubt that this increased socialization did wonders for my mental health. My psychiatrist had the right idea, and I thanked him in the best way I could – by stopping my medication and never seeing him again.
I got a new job in 2007, and when my friends for whom I was house-sitting returned stateside, I started looking for a house of my own. In the summer of 2009 I bought one and moved out of my friends’ house. I said good-bye to them and their cats. All the stuff I had crammed into the space above their garage exploded into a three bedroom townhome. Suddenly I had lots of space to work with.
I had moved on to a new and better phase of my life. In some ways, my dark time was a bit of an aberration. I usually have been a socially active, fun loving person. But I also have had bouts of depression going way back into my past. I hope that this story might help anyone reading it who has experienced or is experiencing mental health problems. Know that there is a way out, that the dark night won’t last forever.
I believe that at the root of mental health is having meaning in life, that it is better to address the need for meaning and purpose than to rely on medication, which is at best a stopgap measure. For me, board gaming as a hobby and being part of the very large community of friendly gamers has been an important source of meaning. For you, it might be something different.
In this one case I describe in this story, the kind invitation of a friendly board gamer willing to play with a total stranger helped to pull me out of a very dark place. And that is how board games saved my life.