“So, how was PAX?”

You talk to someone on their way into the Penny Arcade Expo, and they’re bound to ask what you’re looking forward to, what you’re expecting, what you’re hoping for. It’s speculative. It’s optimistic. And it’s naive.

A day or two into the convention and the questions change. What have you seen? What are you still trying to get into? Which panels did you attend? How did that go? And at some point, depending how kindred in spirit you are, the question becomes So how would you rate this PAX? Have you felt a little…disappointed? Lonely? There’s nothing really t– exactly!

When I tell people I’m going to PAX and they ask me what that is, my response is “the Penny Arcade Expo.” I may explain a little about the webcomic I don’t even usually read, but typically I let it stand at “it’s a video game convention.” The implication being that you go to PAX because you love games, because you want to play and see and maybe even buy or win some games. And that’s true. But I realized this year that if that were the only thing PAX had going for it, I would probably never go to a PAX again.

PAX is freaking lonely.

I’m not going to beat around that bush. It just is. You go to a convention center packed with 80,000+ people by yourself, and spend a lot of time walking past groups of friends and a ton of adorable couples and even a lot of attractive singles, and depending on how distracted you are the subject of how you’re not with anyone else will pass your mind rather frequently. You drive through the city, unpack your trunk in a parking garage and trek two blocks with your suitcase to the hotel where you check into your room alone and lay down in a large bed alone and stare at the ceiling alone and at some point you ask yourself why you paid several hundred dollars to be reminded of that fact.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I had a couple friend groups I had a chance to meet up with, maybe even spend the day with. But these were pre-existing groups. They were people who had already sort of planned to be together. I was welcome to join them, but I hadn’t been part of the agenda setting. Third wheel or fifth, I was still an accessory. Welcome, for sure, but hardly a make-or-break aspect of a group. And it bears noting that what we wanted from the convention differed enough that had I chosen to be with them, I’d have traded the loneliness in exchange for missing out on the majority of the things I actually was interested in seeing.

As I said earlier, it depends on how distracted you are. And PAX can be sensory overload, full of things to divert your attention from real life for a few days. That’s what it is supposed to be, I think: a carnival which is so new and refreshing and exciting that you don’t have time to reflect on it until after the fact. But this year was a little low on the thrill factor, and based on my discussions with people throughout the weekend I don’t seem to be alone in feeling that. My official explanation can be summed up in two characters: E3. More specifically, this E3.

PAX suffers from an odd calendar hazard, as it falls a mere month or two prior to the largest media video game event of the year. Many huge games are announced at E3 and because of that, they do not appear at shows prior. While some announcements have been, and increasingly are made at PAX, the industry as a whole usually leaves the big news for May. Which is fine, it’s nothing new to PAX East, but consider what 2013’s Electronic Entertainment Expo promises: the unveiling of the Playstation 4 and, most likely, of the next Microsoft console. If both of those come out for the holidays, then the games are already well under way. Typically holiday games might have a showing at PAX East (many did last year, for example). But when the games coming out later this year are on a console that has not officially been announced or shown, those games are going to be missing from the show floor. And so the show floor lacked a certain pizazz it usually musters, and will undoubtedly return to mustering in future years. That’s not PAX’s fault. But it’s a reality nonetheless. There were few killer apps in the expo hall this year.

On the one hand, this is great, because it frees you of the typical exasperation of not being able to choose which mammoth three-hour lines you’re willing to forgo a meal for in the name of seeing or playing a must-have unreleased title. Most of this year’s biggest games were already announced or even already released; even potentially thrilling booths like Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs had material similar enough to what was already available via other press events that it was hard to come by a solid “you have got to wait on that line” recommendation (and keep in mind that may be the most exciting title for the next generation that we know about right now).

Added to this famine you have my unique problem of not owning a PC, which disqualified something like half the show floor from my radar — not because the games didn’t look good, but because you can only commit so much time to salivating over games you will need to drop a thousand dollars or so to even consider being able to play them. I also don’t play tabletop games, partly because I’ve never been the biggest fan of non-digital gaming, and partly because I live in the middle of nowhere, my job is remote contract work, and my church has no real ministry for young adults so I pretty much have no in-person social circles I could set up a D&D night with even if I wanted to.

So…yeah, I had a lot of time to wander around and just think, and it got lonely. A little depressing.

And then boom! someone I know walks around the corner. And my face lights up. And my pity party is disbanded. And the next ten or fifteen minutes are a glorious reminder that the reason you spend several hundred dollars to get lost in a sea of one-way convoluted streets in a city that hates your home state is because you love these people that you’ve only seen once or twice or maybe never in person, and here they are, and you’re hugging them and shaking their hand and they’re also really happy to see you.

Was I getting depressing? Well sorry. That’s just the way it works. You feel a weight that seems like it’s going to carry on the whole weekend but then in an instant it is gone because good grief, PAX is awesome and there’s no other convention like it. And you never know who you’re going to see, or when.

I’m following a friend to check out this one booth he heard was worth looking at (Supergiant, btw, and yes it was definitely worth it, but that’s a different blog) and a girl tries to hand me a promo card and I recognize her and say Tracie? and then there’s a laugh and a hug and a “maybe I’ll catch you later” and then off we go.

I’m wandering around the Ubisoft booth looking for a Fragdoll who actually knows who I am and instead I find Cliff Bleszinski and his lovely wife Lauren just standing there chatting with random fans because hey, they’re gamers, and this is a gaming convention. (Cliff had nice thoughts, btw)

I am looking at the behemoth poster of the new Marvel MMO and someone almost walks directly into me. Oh hey Jimmy, I’d heard you were here somewhere!

I’ve just hung up talking to my future roommate about apartments in Ohio and I look over my tumblr dash at the coat check line and oh hey, did Amelia just walk by? And I send out a tweet and a few minutes later we’re talking about how funny it is that we just happened to have crossed paths on the one day she’s there.

At a booth. At a party. Here’s my friend! Here’s my girlfriend! Wait, I follow you on Twitter! Hey, haven’t we liked each other’s Instagram photos? Do you remember when we played Ghost Recon all those years back? Oh, so that’s what you look like!

Or maybe it’s the people you didn’t know at all. I lost track of which side of the convention center the food was on and accidentally went one floor, two halls, and a bridge in the opposite direction — just in time to cross paths with two lovely Borderlands 2 cosplayers of whom I was lucky enough to snag a couple blurry pictures before they escaped into the madness of the expo hall. While waiting to order food I uploaded the pictures to tumblr and commented on how I wished I’d had a chance to speak to them…less than 24 hours later we’ve exchanged messages on two social media platforms and I know their names and where they’re from and we’re hoping to actually say hi at a future convention.

So people ask what’s PAX, and I say it’s a gaming convention, but it’s not, at least, that’s not what makes it matter, not for an introvert like me whose solidarity with a fanbase isn’t enough to make him strike up a conversation with the stranger behind him in line no matter how lonely he may be feeling. I don’t do PAX because I want to meet people who love the same things I love. I do PAX because there are people I love hanging out with and even though we only get to do it for a little bit of time once or twice a year at most, at least we do get to hang out. And sometimes that list of people expands. Sometimes it contracts. This year I missed a lot of folks who made last year special, but a few people made this year special who played no role in PAX’s prior.

So did you have a good time in Boston?

Half the time, no. Half the time I was extraordinarily lonely and wondering why I’d spent so much money to feel alone.

But the other half of the time I was blissful, grinning and laughing like an idiot.

And the latter outweighs the former. It’s the part I’ll remember, the part that will have me cursing under my breath when my academic schedule inevitably precludes far more PAX’s than it permits, the part that will shout “shut up and take my money” the moment an opportunity arises for me to go again, and see the people who bring a light to this wallflower’s life that he tends to miss for the rest of the year.

People want to know about the games, the swag, the panels. I’ll talk about those later because sure, why not. But first and foremost, PAX is people. And this year, PAX once more was great.

a l o n e . . . ?

I’m kind of an expert on being alone. I’ve been doing it for quite some time; as long, in fact, as I can properly remember. I was alone ever since in second grade someone told my friend Ben that I had flipped him the bird (I hadn’t) and he no longer wanted me to come to his house and play hide-and-seek. Then in seventh grade I made a friend named David, but I was still pretty alone, and we didn’t hang out much. In ninth grade I broke out of my shell a little, but I was still pretty alone, and all through high school, though the shell continued to crack, and though I found myself with people more than ever before, I was still alone.

In college, I wasn’t as alone. I didn’t have the luxury, and it was actually a little scary, because I’d gotten used to being alone. Now I was unalone. That’s not a word, but that’s what I was. Like being undead — not living, but no longer dead. I was a social zombie.

There were bright, dazzling moments of togetherness throughout those four years. True belonging, true meaningful relationships. But these served merely to accentuate the loneliness, because like all good things they came to ends, and I’d stand in rooms that had been filled with people who I liked and watched them all leave, mostly in groups, mostly together, without me, and then it’d just be me, and the light switch, “last one out” and all, and I was alone.

That’s kind of how college ending felt, and I went into a bit of a panic, because after seeing what living felt like I remembered the cold emptiness of pre-college and saw it closing in on me like a hideous trap. I decided to live with people in Pittsburgh primarily because I didn’t want to be alone again. I became obsessed with a pretty friend and ruined that relationship because I didn’t want to be alone again.

Two months later, I was alone again.

I have spent a year living at home, which is loneliness compounded by loneliness. The home, even full, is empty. Two parents work all day, returning mostly too tired (or else not returning, too busy) for whatever company I might have hoped for. Two siblings too caught up in their own lives — the lives, too, of friends reaching out online — and so, most days, even with someone two doors down, I am alone.

David does not live here. Nor does anyone I went to school with that actually liked me or knew me. Nor does Andrew, nor Jonathan, nor Rich. They have lives, they have communities, and they are not alone.

Here, in this town, I am alone whether I am inside or outside, among people or not. At church, I am alone. I have been for a long time. I have not belonged here for at least three years, but I kept coming, because the alternative was to be alone. People have reached out, a few — another David, for whom I am (though I don’t convey it) grateful — but mostly, I have been alone.

Of course, I haven’t been alone.

No, not really. I’ve been ignoring One who was there the whole time, and though at times we spoke (many times I felt like I was merely talking aloud to myself), He was there, and that was a comfort when it needed to be. But I was created for human interaction, and I have been starving, and in that sense I have been alone.

I wrote a poem, the other night, after an evening with my grandmother. I arrived early for dinner, anticipating a wait for a table that did not end up existing, and so I had twenty minutes to look around at all the people sitting with other people, to answer the waiter three times that I was fine, that I had just arrived early (I think he thought I’d been stood up), and to consider how not okay I was, how alone I was, how despite my grandmother’s impending arrival, I had been stood-up, stood-up by the world at large. My mind wandered back to Pittsburgh, all the meals eaten in shameful solitude at some restaurant or another, iPhone in hand to make it look like I had A Life, A Purpose, that I was Okay with being Alone.

As the night unfolded, we walked through the mall, in search of clothing that would fit me and maybe a pair of shoes. We passed so many couples, young lovers, holding hands, asking for advice on this blouse, those jeans, these sneakers, stealing kisses and glances. And I realized that the actual reason I hate going to the mall is because it is one more place where I am alone with other people who are not.

I listened to Billy Joel on the way home because the grand opening of an LL Bean store had hired a tribute band, which had been playing “Only the Good Die Young” as I turned the ignition and slowly backed out of the crowded lot. I was scandalized by the lyrics, to which I paid real attention for the first time, considering both Joel’s hostility towards Virginia’s (of course that’s her name) moral backpedaling from his sexual advances and the fact that I’d almost never tried to get a girl to go out with me for anything at all, certainly not with that sort of enthusiasm. “I might as well be the one” really only works if you consider yourself worthy of her, and I had some esteem issues to be sure.

Eventually my favorite song of his came on, “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” and as I crooned along about reds and whites, I had a bit of an epiphany: how alien the experience I was singing about was to my own life! I didn’t “remember those nights hanging out at the village green” because I’d spent my high school and college years mostly cooped up by myself. I’d never partied, I’d never had alcohol prior to turning 21, and while I did not in any way resent that, I still couldn’t help feeling like I’d missed out on American teenage life, immortalized in song (with all its ups and downs) by the Piano Man himself.

Home, lying on my bed, I tried to fall asleep but the memories of the evening’s pain and emptiness lingered in the forefront of my mind, so I got up and wrote this improvisational piece:

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I felt it, God
Alone
I felt
Today, the mall
the way to it but also there
and back again
I felt alone.
He held her hand, she held back
nothing (save his hand)
And they held each other.
No one held me.

Each pair an echo of two ones
And I, a pair one short,
Looked on and, looking, felt a tug —
The strings of unpaired heart.

Why now, why there, why
why?

I don’t know. And I’m afraid to ask.
It followed me, here it’s home
It’s in my room, in my bed,
Under this blanket,
In my mind.
It hurts.

My sweet romantic teenage nights!

But I am not a teenager.
My nights Romantic like Hawthorne,
never sweet,
never romance.
And I am not a teenager.

Never half a double date,
Never knew the feel.
Only ever been third-rate,
Un-sought-after third wheel.

God send a mend, a caring friend
A shoulder for my head to lend.
I’ll break, not bend — pray don’t offend,
But wounds like this I can’t not tend.
My life, my faults, I shall amend.
And daily will this prayer ascend:
“Dear God, my loneliness please rend;
A comforter or lover send,
Tell brokenness at last to end.
(Just one last thing do I addend:
My restless heart please apprehend,
And may it sole on you depend).”
And now to sleep my soul descend.
And all of heaven then Amen’d.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was cathartic, through-and-through. I didn’t so much care whether it was good or not. I uploaded it to a less-read blog of mine with tags like “mediocre poetry” and figured “what the heck, maybe someone will be touched by it, maybe not. I just needed to write it.”

I found it strange, even as I lay back down to have a go at sleep once more, how comforting and yet unfulfilling the knowledge of God was in that particular nothingness. I’ve been raised to believe that He fills all the emptiness in us that nothing else can, the old “God-shaped void” routine. But this hole felt different, not really God-shaped, maybe girl-shaped, definitely people-shaped. And I knew that filling either void required pursuing Christ with relentlessness, but the knowledge only confirmed the reality of the current emptiness, the dire need which has been rising up in me cyclically for years, the one I’ve tried to fill with other, baser things and am always left craving something more, something pure, something tangible and permanent.

A day went by, uneventfully. My brother and I drove out through the rain to Applebee’s to get a late-night, half-priced meal of appetizers, and all I could think of was how lovely the rain-streaked roads looked reflecting the taillights of the car in front of me and how quiet it was in our car, how the raindrops were the only soundtrack, how Joshua and I have nothing to say to each other. A night ostensibly meant to be spent “bro-ing out” (for that’s what I jokingly called it) looked like it was going to be pretty mediocre.

And so it was. I tried a half-dozen threads of conversation but it’s hard to talk with someone who doesn’t want to. He gave me courtesy smiles and one- and two-word answers, but whenever I stopped talking, only the radio filled the air between us. Left to my own thoughts — voiced or otherwise — I began to survey the room, to see once more couples, happily chatting away, enjoying one another’s company, and again I felt the ache. Not for romance, but for companionship. Being with people wasn’t the answer. Being with people who wanted to be with people? Much closer.

Our ride back was even quieter than the ride there. I turned on some music to compensate for the absence of rain, but didn’t listen to it. Joshua stared at his phone like a drowning man stares at a life preserver just out of reach, and I knew he was just as alone as I was, only he didn’t realize it yet, so when we got home he would go back to his room and his closed door and his silent apathy, and I would go back to my room and my open door and my silent agony, and that was that.

This morning, stumbling into some coffee, I decided to return to my several-days-suspended reading of a copy of Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz which I borrowed from Ryan, and almost laughed when I saw that the next chapter was about romance. It was compelling, insightful, the usual words I use to describe Miller’s writing. Mostly I saw myself, I saw the insecurity, and the selfishness (veiled and glaring), and though I had never dated and he had, we seemed pretty much on the same page when it came to not knowing what to do. As he says, “what little I know about dating is ridiculous and wouldn’t help rabbits reproduce” (140).

I stopped laughing, though, when I reached the end of that chapter — a haunting soliloquy from a husband to a sleeping wife — and saw the next chapter was entitled “Alone.”

“The soul needs to interact with other people to be healthy” (154).

If you wanted me to point out all the things Miller said about loneliness that spoke directly to me and the place I’m in, I could quote the whole chapter. But that right there, about the health of the soul, nailed my infirmity and prescribed the cure in fewer characters than half a tweet.

A week from today I will be starting my second day of work at a small web development firm on the Worcester side of the outskirts of Boston. I don’t really know what the future holds, but if it holds the plans of men like my boss and I, I will be living and working there for years. I’m looking forward to that, to having something to do, to being able to afford leaving my house and seeing movies again.

But mostly, I am looking forward to being around other people again, to a chance to not feel alone. I’m looking forward to living and working with Ryan, to knowing there’s another person at my fingertips who has been where I’ve been, who has been insecure like I have, who has read Donald Miller’s books and has left notes and underlined passages like the one I just quoted.

And I know that Ryan just got engaged, that sooner or later he will not be living with me anymore but will be living with his wonderful wife, but it’s a start, and a really great start, and God’s in it, His fingerprints all over it, and for the first time in many years I know I’m not alone at all.

Amen? Amen.