Virtually Reality

I tossed and turned much of the night, thoughts racing about everything I needed to do in the morning. Would I be able to sleep if I made a To-Do list instead of worrying that I might forget an important task? My nearly sixty-year-old hands were semi-frozen into arthritic claws from yesterday’s hard work and would require a session of finger-yoga before agile enough to grip a pen or make a note in my smartphone. Better to hope my equally old memory could retain every detail on the growing index of tasks. So, I continued to toss and turn.

Upon awakening, I worked at limbering my hands, particularly my thumbs, by opening and closing, clenching and flexing. Mentally running through my chores, I was satisfied that nothing appeared to have fallen off the agenda. It was time to attack my jam-packed schedule.

I needed to design a garden, buy the flowers and shrubs, then get everything planted. There were shells to collect, bugs to catch, and high-value fish to find. I needed to shop for new clothes then change for the day. With the recent addition on my house, I hoped to find furniture to decorate. It was time to recruit someone to move to my island so I could improve my rating. A house needed to be relocated. I had to donate a fossil to the museum. And, it was time to sell all of my acquisitions to Nook’s Cranny for top dollar bell. You see, I’ve been striving to unlock the terra-forming app, which would allow me to reroute waterways and construct/destroy cliffs since I created my avatar on Animal Crossing New Horizons.

Just hangin’ in my virtual diner. How about that jukebox?

What virtual alternate reality am I living in, you might wonder. Animal Crossing is the genius Nintendo video invention that was first released in 2001. When my son turned eight, his efforts to convince his video game wary mother that it was imperative for him to get a Game Cube initially fell on indifferent ears. I poo-pooed his pleas for Super Mario and The Legend of Zelda. Then the boy told me about Animal Crossing, a sweet game of slow-paced tasks and fun interactions between my character and the humanlike animals. He showed me the sales pitch on the computer and insisted that even someone as old as me would love this game. He promised that if I bought him the gaming system, he would split it with me so I could delve into a world where the most stressful thought was whether I could pull a whale shark from the ocean or if I’d scare it away. Smart kid.

I became a devotee of Animal Crossing from the outset. Kicking back with a glass of wine, I I loved doing relaxing chores that allowed me to earn currency to pay the mortgage on my ever-expanding home. I could decorate with a heart-themed bed and dresser or change it up with rustic furniture made from logs. Effortlessly, I could replace the yellow and white striped wall-covering to one with bold blue flowers or transform the concrete floor into pine hardwood. Under the guidance of my thumbs on the joystick controls, I could dig and plant a flourishing garden in under a minute. I installed apple orchards and orange trees. As game systems evolved, my son yearned for upgrades and leveraged his argument with promises of the next edition of Animal Crossing. From Nintendo DS to the Wii to the 3DS, I moved into ever-improving software developments. As with many hobbies and fads, though, real-life demanded I put down my controllers where they were soon forgotten.

Then Covid-19 surged, and as with the rest of the world, I went into quarantine. My husband, daughter, and I were locked down together with the same anxieties felt by all. To manage stress, some took up biking, hiking, or yoga. My husband took solace in landscaping our backyard. None of those felt relaxing to me, though, so what could give me a sense of peace in a chaotic world? I called my son to complain, seeing as my daughter and husband had heard the same rant four, five, or six times. He listened to me whining about the boredom, the stress, the anxiety. As I crossed the line from venting into rambling, he cut me off — “why don’t you get the Nintendo Switch so you can play Animal Crossing?” I took a second, ready to explain why nothing could possibly work, but then I realized…that was perfect. I’m an escapist. When stress overwhelms me, I don’t turn inward; I run away. This is why a fifth viewing of Bridesmaids, or my fiction writing, or Animal Crossing can always lift my spirits.

My beautiful garden. Almost as nice as hubby’s real one.

I set up my new island getaway, and my days became filled with transforming a wild, undeveloped territory into a bustling town. While my husband planted azaleas and hydrangeas in our backyard, I was busy doing the same for my virtual neighbors. As my daughter made us salads for lunch, I sold coconuts and pears at Nook’s Cranny. And, as my husband lay awake at night making a mental list of seeds and bulbs he needed to buy, the dirt he’d have to order for the raised garden, and scrolling through his phone to find a shrub to replace the one we’d lost, I was tossing and turning, too. He wasn’t the only one with a crazy schedule. 

My husband recently turned sixty and, given his newfound passion for horticulture, I invested in a greenhouse for his birthday gift. As I was carrying the boxes to the backyard, my daughter appeared in the doorway.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Your father’s new greenhouse,” I said, then, without a transition, immediately continued with the deluge of ideas cascading through my head. “I need to relocate Biff’s house today, and I’ve got to redo that walkway from yesterday. I’m not happy with it. Those red roses that I planted next to the white haven’t produced the hybrid pink yet. Also, if I don’t move the hydrangea—”

“What are you talking about? Is that real life or Animal Crossing?”

Animal Crossing,” I said.

“Your reality,” my daughter said, “is no longer distinguishable from your imaginary world.”

“That’s how I keep sane!”

After another eight-hour day of landscaping, my husband rested in his recliner and complained about his painful shoulder. His hamstrings were in spasm from bending over the flower beds, and his back hurt from hoisting shovelfuls of dirt. As he struggled to his feet, creaking and groaning, he looked at me for sympathy.

“Don’t even try it, bucko,” I told him, setting down the video controller and doing some thumb exercises. “It’s been a hard day for me, too!”