The Iceman Stayeth
The snowman was twice my height and leaned a little to the left. It had big brown eyes and an asymmetrical smile. The tilt of the mouth and absence of a nose gave it a scrunched mien which, along with its frail stick arms flung out to the side in a gesture of expansive joy, was adorable. The snowman had even been accessorized with a perfectly molded hair bow perched on top of its head. I loved it instantly.
I was pleased to come across it during a long walk through Cowen Park, a workaday playfield now gloriously transformed by Seattle’s unusually severe weekend snowstorm. While plodding through the park in my sensation-dampening pandemic bathysphere of coat, gloves, hat, scarf, mask, earbuds, and perpetually fogged glasses, I was moved by the snowman’s startling solidity. Its height and bulk brought me out of solitude in the same way the snow day itself had drawn me outside to revel in the novelty of my neighborhood swathed in ice.
Some months are easier to bear than others. February had been an unusually hard slog. The walls of my apartment accreted misery: long dark nights, weak sunlight, loneliness, listlessness, anhedonia, grief, anger, exhaustion. And shame. Shame for feeling insufficient gratitude – because I’ve had it pretty easy, as COVID-19 experiences go, but February had me hitting one wall after another, and I felt that my thoughts were alternately boring and utilitarian or utterly deranged.
The snow quieted these feelings. The spruces, firs, and boulevards of my neighborhood became strange and gorgeous. It was a real snowfall, not the typical disappointment of tepid flurries turning to sleet. This was deep, dense, powdery snow, and the mundane struggle to keep my footing on unshoveled sidewalks and keep my glasses clear supplanted all other anxieties. The day before encountering my beloved snowman, in the middle of the storm, I had spent a long time standing at the icy shore of Green Lake. The snow fell harder and harder, piling up on my outerwear. I found myself thinking about nothing at all.
I had been forced to slow down and pay attention to my senses: cloth mask keeping the lower half of my face warm. Curvilinear sheets of ice emerging at the banks of the lake. Ducks vocalizing. A child carrying a sled the precise color, texture, and luminosity of pink hard candy. And all the small interruptions of color and sound vanishing with the horizon into a dense smudge of white that blurred the distant flank of trees and erased the sky altogether.
Prior to this storm, my winter days had been characterized by two reliably omnipresent tactile experiences. The first and best is my extravagantly soft cat, who deserves an essay all her own for being my dear friend, my weighted blanket, and my reason to get out of bed in the morning. The second is haptic feedback from another constant companion: my phone.
A significant share of that sensory input comes from my newest pandemic vice:a choose-your-own-adventure app aimed at teenagers. As vices go, it’s pretty tame, which makes it one of the more embarrassing habits I’ve acquired in the last year. The app contains dozens of visual novels in different genres—mostly slice-of-life romance, but also horror, science fiction, and mystery.
I’ve enjoyed interactive fiction since childhood, namely the Give Yourself Goosebumps gamebook series, the life simulator Alter Ego, and the text-based game Colossal Cave Adventure that initiated the genre two decades before I was born. After almost a year of isolation, with the walls around my bed closing in, some small part of me has gleefully retreated into the nostalgia and juvenile indulgence of these stories.
The app, which gently anesthetizes my unsettled mind like nothing else these days, errs more on the side of comfort and pleasure than experimentation or risk. Many of the choices the player makes are purely aesthetic. Even in the non-romance genres, the most important choice is that of your love interest: often customizable by race and gender, instantly and immutably enamored of your character, and down for anything as long as you spend enough in-app currency to take them out on dates. Fantasy can’t transcend the lexical entry we learn early and relearn often: that money is power.
That aside, your free choices do have a minor influence on other characters’ reactions to you, but rarely affect the story’s essential structure, conflicts, or ending. The typical gamebook is less a branching network than a point-to-point trail, albeit one with multiple diverting side routes per chapter that your character may choose to explore.
In an uncertain year whose cataclysmic lethality coexists uneasily with the imperative to keep your head down and pretend as though everything is normal, I’m not surprised to have found comfort in endings that foreclose the possibility of irrevocable disturbance to the narrative equilibrium. In fact, you can’t really make the wrong choice even if you try. In some of the horror games, certain decisions appear to bear significant consequences for your survival. Your character might die. A screen will then pop up to compel you to restart from the last checkpoint. In the game, you have no choice but to begin again.
The morning after a heavy snowfall is nothing if not the illusion of a fresh start. On that particular day, February 13, Washington State reached the milestone of administering one million coronavirus vaccines. The Senate acquitted Donald Trump of incitement to insurrection. And the worst of the snowstorm was over. As I walked through Cowen Park under a marble-white sky, I glimpsed the ten-foot-tall snowman and felt wild with joy.
Some women my age were posing with it and taking photos of each other, so I asked if they would do the same for me. No one had taken a picture of me in months, except in the form of a Zoom screenshot. I put my phone into another person’s gloved hand and looked at it from the other direction, and what a strange feeling that was. I approached the snowman reverently. Seized by a sudden desire to experience something approximating a hug for the first time in months, I had a choice to make:
- Pose normally
- Wrap your arms around the snowman’s middle like the feral creature starved for human contact you are
I put my hand on the snowman’s waist, smiled under my mask, said, thank you so much. This thing is just adorable, and retrieved my phone from an outstretched hand.
Lauren Moore is an urban planner, writer, and Seattleite.