Back into the virtual

Once upon a time my basement musical studio was always nice and clean. Not any more. Books are now stacked in piles around the room, some neatly but most not. A box of my kids’ outgrown clothing had somehow made it from the storage room into my office and was sitting on my desk chair, claiming the space that I had once inhabited on a regular basis. The top of the desk had become an accumulation of audio cables, old computer hardware and miscellaneous odds and ends that either no one could either figure out there they went or simply didn’t care so they got tossed upon my desk.

I removed the box from my chair and swept away enough of the clutter on my desk to locate my wireless mouse. Everything on the computer still seemed to work, despite months of non-use. After downloading the current Second Life viewer I logged in, fingers crossed that my dated graphics card would be able to run the graphic- intense program. Luck was with me and I watched as my computer logged into Second Life for the first time in over a year.

I used to spend a lot of time in the virtual world known as Second Life. If you are reading this, you probably already know what Second Life is and have an account, so I won’t go into a detailed explanation. On average I spent at least three or four hours per night in Second Life. Sometimes less if something came up; often more on the weekends. I even pulled a few “allnighters” from time-to-time when my wife and kids were out of town.  Assuming that I spent just an average of two hours per day in Second Life, during the prime years of my residency there (from 2006 through 2009), I would have spent more than three months, around the clock, living and interacting with others in a virtual world. And that number doesn’t even account for the time I spent there in Second Life in 2010 and 2011.

No doubt those of you reading this must picture me as someone without much of a social life, much less a successful productive member of society. You’d be wrong on both counts. In addition to my day job–which for me was an active trial practice as an attorney here in the United States and overseas as an English barrister–I taught courses on corporate crime at Drake University here in town, was active in church activities and spoke at continuing legal education seminars on a monthly basis. Add on top of that my kids’ activities, various school events and the social outings arranged by my wife and one would be hard-pressed to figure out how I managed to accomplish everything and was still able to be in a virtual world at least a few hours each day. However, the answer is quite simple: I didn’t watch TV. Few movies, no HBO or Showtime and no sports. I’ve never seen an episode of Madmen, The Sopranos, Spartacus or any other show which so captured the attention of many others.

In the middle of 2011, however, my employment situation changed as I was asked to serve as a prosecutor for my State’s Attorney Disciplinary Board. That required me to take a sabbatical from my private law practice and to rearrange my daily schedule. My youngest child started full-day kindergarten at the same time which resulted in my wife going back to full-time employment after a decade of being home with the kids. We began waking up at 5:30am to deal with the getting-ready-for-work-and-school chaos. Such early mornings necessitated a reasonable bed time. So, no more staying up until 2 am. Ten o’clock became the new bedtime goal which effectively put a limit on any virtual world activities I might have taken part in.

I wasn’t too disturbed, however, about my minimal virtual life. After spending half a decade in Second Life, I had gotten burned out. It just wasn’t fun anymore. What used to be an escape from my job, my schedule and various obligations had itself become a job, complete with a new schedule and a host of new obligations to which I had to attend. I could no longer just log into Second Life and spend a few hours peacefully hanging out with some friends or playing some music. If I tried, I’d be bombarded by group messages from various music related virtual organizations touting their evening’s musical line-up or IMs from venues or fans interested in when my next show would be. I had become just famous enough to realize that I wasn’t a person who enjoyed being famous, be it virtual or not. My music, which had once been an escape, had become both a bore and an obligation. While I wanted to move on and play different songs, people still wanted to hear the old ones. A great problem to have until you realize that my shows only lasted an hour and I had an hour’s worth of songs about Second Life. I was bored of the old songs and bored of playing them. In short, I was bored of my second life.

So I quit. I stopped logging in, quit reading Second Life-related websites that I once eagerly digested. I even stopped checking my NikoDonburi email account, thus ensuring that for all intents and purposes I would become one of those countless millions of people who had “once been a resident of Second Life.” And I kept it that way for all of 2012.

Then, in 2013, things began to change. My new year’s resolution was to start writing a song each week. I signed up for an online course on songwriting at Berkelee College of Music. And one afternoon I happened to run across the notebook of my old Second Life songs. Looking through them I remembered how much fun I had had writing and performing them, and I started wondering what was going on in Second Life. Were any of my friends still around? Was there still a live music scene? Would anyone even remember me?

While getting ready for dinner that evening I mentioned to my wife, Gretchen, that I was thinking about getting back into doing some performances in Second Life.

“You need to,” she remarked. “It would be good for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” she said, handing me a handful of cutlery for me to set on the table, “no one is ever going to hear your songs if you never perform them for anyone. And since I can never get you to play them for our friends when they come over, you might as well at least play them for your virtual friends.”

She was referring to the fact that I rarely–no, let’s be honest and say rarely if ever–perform my songs in the “real world.” The odd gig I do is at a local art gallery, where I supply the background music for the gallery opening event. No words, only music. It’s not that I was ashamed at any of the songs or think they weren’t that good, it was more that it seemed a lot of effort to go out and play them for a handful of people at an open mic. From my perch before my computer I could reach an audience of dozens, and I didn’t have to leave my basement. I suppose you could say that I was driving to succeed, but not that driven.

So that’s what prompted me to come down stairs and dig out the computer from under the piles of accumulated life debris and log back into a virtual world that had once been an integral part of my life but had now become a distant and likely unknown place. I was expecting things to have changed a bit but basically be pretty much the same.

When I saw when my avatar rezzed back to life, however, was the last thing that I had ever expected.

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