Ithaca and Durotar

The last time I found myself back in Nashville, in the back of my mind, the whole time, I knew what I really wanted was to be somewhere else – anywhere, in fact, but home.

I have an uncertain relationship with the concept of “home.” There are, I think, reasons for that – I lived in the same house, from the earliest period in my life I can remember, until I left for college at the age of eighteen. Nor was it a sudden, clean break, setting off for a country three thousand miles away, never to return except at Christmases: rather, my adult existence has proceeded in fits and starts, sometimes feeling like a kind of half-maturity, inhibited by the occasional realization that there are times and seasons in my life when I lack a certain critical resolve, and have found my course bending homeward again, back to Nashville, for a few months, or a year or so. But, of course, in time I always rediscovered that necessary strength, and left again. And it helped that every time, Nashville felt a little less like home.

It is the curious feature of time spent away – which we forget, lulled as we are by the closing of conceptual distance by the jet engine and the automobile – that places continue to change even after we are gone. They change while we’re there, too, of course, in ways both welcome and unwelcome. I am not a big fan of change, especially of the unnecessary sort, as anybody who was there for my childhood will attest, but at least when we’re present for those changes, they feel gradual, and can be incorporated into our internal histories of the places we inhabit. But the changes which accumulate while we are away will always seem to have happened suddenly, and to possess an alien quality, because we were not there to witness them unfold. The house down the street is torn down, or repainted. A new building goes up downtown. The menu changes at your favorite coffee shop, and now the staff are all different, and they don’t know what your usual order is anymore.

And these things might seem small, and it might seem only the peevishness of the stubborn mind, intent on finding flaws in the universe where none really exist, to harp on them, and to find in them small traces of a deep and illimitable sadness. But I do, and it is not peevishness, nor stubbornness, nor merely a penchant for melancholic moods (though I admit I possess all three at times, and not rarely together). But we write the psychohistory of our lives in the places that we know; and in that way, we map our selves to the spaces we have inhabited for years at a time, so surely, I think, that the paths and places where we played as children become for us a metonomy of our childhood as a whole: the creek behind the house, the backyard, the floppy-eared dog, the cracked sidewalks, and everything else. And human memory is a notoriously unsatisfactory device: memories fade with time, are lost, and shift in emphasis as we remember them. So how wonderful it is to turn a corner, or visit a favorite spot, or see a familiar face in one’s hometown, and by the physical sensation find oneself confronted with memories suddenly fresh, suddenly new again, and pieces of a life we had thought lost forever returned to us, even if only for a little while. It helps, of course, if the memories are good ones. As for me, I had what seemed unremarkable at the time, but was in retrospect a very happy childhood. And for that reason, maybe, I especially hate to go home.

With time, of course, the city where I was born, and where I spent the vast majority of the first eighteen years of my life, feels less and less like home. My parents are divorced; a strange man lives in my mother’s house where I grew up. The last time I returned, the house had been rearranged, and my room no longer felt like the little sanctuary I had spent years carefully building for myself. Nashville is now a rather alien place, the city of a Capgras delusion, very like (but not the same as) my home. And the city where I have lived, on and off since, feels more and more like mine, even though I don’t hold the local citizenship, can’t vote in the elections, and have a funny accent. Any place you stay long enough will become inhabited with new memories, just like the places you grew up, and I have been lucky in my adulthood, as I was in my childhood, in that many of them are very good ones.

Tonight, at about three AM, because I couldn’t sleep, I reinstalled World of Warcraft. I’m not sure what exactly my motivation was. The new expansion, of course, is being talked about, and the occasional post bubbling up into my awareness on Reddit. When I really can’t sleep, when I feel my thoughts going endlessly in circles, what I want more than anything is to be taken out of myself, and into another world. RPGs are good for that. So I found myself back in Azeroth, for the first time in, I think, about two and a half years. My Tauren druid, level 85, was standing right where I had left him, in a hut in Orgrimmar, a staff slung over his shoulder, in a motley of armor picked up from various dungeons and quests. The sensation of returning to an avatar I had spent a couple of years inhabiting, in a world I knew as well as my own, was not a little pleasant. Aha, I thought; yes, I remember how this goes. The muscle memory of the hotkeys came back quickly enough, and no sooner had the desire formed in my mind, but I had transformed into a hawk and was again soaring through the sky.

And yet, what’s true for Nashville is true for Kalimdor. Out of curiosity, I clicked around on the various social windows World of Warcraft offers. Out of what was once an active membership of a couple dozen people, only five characters still had the guild tag. None of them, save Ekhan of course, had been online in years. Half of my friends list was missing entirely, their names replaced by an ominous “UNKNOWN”; even the long list of people I had permanently /ignored over the years was now two-thirds “unknown” entries. Orgrimmar was functionally deserted (of course, the fact that a new expansion had been released, and that it was the small hours of the morning, probably contributed to that). For curiosity’s sake, I later looked up the server’s entry on Wowpedia; of the top-rated Horde and Alliance guilds listed on that page, all of which had been active when the Path was in its heyday, most did not even have their websites up anymore. Ten million people are subscribed to World of Warcraft – just not, apparently, anybody I know.

And it goes deeper than that. I think in a lot of ways, despite its phenomenal success, World of Warcraft is an object lesson in how not to build a good MMORPG. There are a couple reasons for that. Not the absurdity of the stories it tells, or its penchant for scenery-chewing melodrama – I love that about World of Warcraft. But its theme-park nature, its grindy gameplay, the inability of the players to meaningfully create their own stories in the world, all stand against the strong lessons games like Minecraft – or even EVE Online – have taught us since. World of Warcraft isn’t a tool for players to create with, like good virtual worlds are, and it certainly doesn’t have that alive-sense that the best have. It is, at best, a carefully curated set of dioramas and theme parks, and thus has to be driven by continuous content-heavy expansions, which, when they fail to appear regularly, tend to result in precipitous drops in the subscription rate. What this means, in real terms, I think, is that if you log in for the first time in six months, you feel out of the loop; if you log in for the first time in two years, you feel you have landed on another planet. Old features, like reputation factions from previous expansions, or endgame content rendered meaningless by a raised level cap, sits there, orphaned and abandoned. That’s not all bad: you might have very fond memories associated with those dungeons. But it’s strange – like coming home and seeing the house next door has been abandoned.

Cataclysm in many ways was a serious error on Blizzard’s part. There were things about that expansion that I loved, but it is not a coincidence that it was in the middle of Cataclysm that we wound down the guild. The stories Cataclysm told were fantastic – Chris Metzen has refined melodrama into, well, not a high art exactly, but certainly something I consume with relish, especially where the dynamics of the Horde and the Alliance, and Lovecraftian gods and mad dragons are concerned. But in changing the world so thoroughly, for those of us who inhabited Azeroth for years beforehand, a great deal was lost. I have no strong memories associated with Orgrimmar now, or the Barrens, or Azshara. Those are all zones which, in their previous incarnations (red cliff canyons, endless sere grasslands, high autumnal hills and ancient ruins), I spent an embarassing quantity of time, mostly just running around, and which I knew like the back of my hand. Tonight, though, when I returned to them – well, it’s like coming home, and finding the house next door is now a parking lot.

Parking lots are good. You need somewhere to park your car. But no parking lot in the world is a special place.

None of this is meant as specific criticims of World of Warcraft with my video-game-critic hat on; that’s not what I’m interested in at the moment. I really just want to talk about familiar places, and the passage of time.

I have a problem with time – a beef, a fundamental personal disagreement. It has a bigger, more existential component, but only when I spend too much time reading about astronomy on Wikipedia (don’t ask), but the core of this disagreement is simple, and personal. I don’t like it when things change. I don’t like it when things change, because I don’t like to lose people. I don’t mean death (although yes, I have a problem with that too, obviously). I mean in the most mundane, unremarkable sense of loss; I don’t like to lose people. It is partly, but not only pragmatic – I don’t make friends easily, and it’s a pain to make new ones. But more than that, it’s just sad, a little stab of grief, to look up one day and remember that you have not spoken to someone who used to be a good friend in weeks, months, years – that you have no idea what they’re doing or what they’re like now. Or worse, in the age of Facebook, you know exactly what they’re doing: but it’s like looking into their life through glass, because you have no connection to it anymore. You could send them an email, or write them a letter – but what would you say?

I have this problem with time, because it seems unbearably cruel to me that we should live in a world where even the happiest thing it is possible to have in this world, the bright bond of friendship, is subject to the same slow death as every other entropic process in the universe; and crueler still, that the physical matrix in which the memories of such things are embedded should likewise be subject ot the same decay. Time, that old son of a bitch, can keep his mitts off neither Nashville nor Azeroth; and one day, when I have moved away to some other city, with less soul-destroying winters and less rain, and I return to Dublin to visit, I do not think he will have had the courtesy to refrain from meddling in my adopted hometown as well.

And just as it is true that all things are subject to decay, it is true that such decay is never permanent. You do make new friends. You do fill a new place with new memories. There are always more adventures to be had, a little down the road, even if everything that has gone before is in some sense lost. But ain’t it a bitch all the same? For even if unending future joys should wait for us, a little ways further down the line, there is always sorrow behind. It does not crush; it does not overwhelm. But it accumulates in a slow drift beneath us, like the subduction of a tectonic plate, and carries us along.

I do not know if there is a place in this world which will ever feel like home, in the way the place you are born does, when you are a child. For me, it is not Nashville, nor can it ever be again. It isn’t Dublin, not really. In my mind’s eye, it might be a place a little like my brother’s neighborhood in Berlin, with wide, tree-lined streets, flanked by handsome old buildings. And if it were really home, my heart of hearts whispers, it would always be early autumn in a place like that, with a fragrant breeze and the midday sun; and you would know, that maybe not next door, but not far away – just down this street, or that, maybe a couple blocks over – was every friend you had ever had, and every companion you had ever missed. You might see them often, or rarely; but if suddenly one evening the urge struck you, to while away a few hours with someone you had not spoken to in years, you would know just what door to knock on, and there they would be, beloved, and familiar, and glad. It would be a place without partings, sweet or sorrowful, and there, time would have no power to wound or mar our hearts, because however far we went away, we would return safe in the knowledge this was where we were meant to be all along.