Absence sharpens love, (tele)presence strengthens it.

Since I moved away, I’ve gotten quite good at being a robot.

I was a lonely kid. My parents’ place was quite isolated, even considering the very small town I grew up in, and we were seldom allowed to go farther than the forest next to it. The few kids who lived nearby were mostly older and any way my parents pretty quickly came up with reasons that we couldn’t hang out with them anymore, preferring that we keep to ourselves. I went to a Catholic grade school when my family was indifferently agnostic, and I was a weird kid who read novels at recess and knew way too many facts about human anatomy; it generally didn’t go well socially for me. I had one friend who I could really count on until I was twelve; by the time I graduated high school, I maybe had three.

My adult life (or at least, my life after I was sixteen or so and no longer primarily living in my parents’ house) has been a sharp contrast to that. I consider myself one of the luckiest people currently walking the planet, primarily because of my friendships, and all the collaborators, allies and comrades-in-arms who grace my life. I’m not used to being lonely any more.

I knew many wonderful people in Montreal long before I moved here, and since I’ve come to live in the city I have met a small army more. There are dinners and brunches are RPG playtests and department parties and plots and shenanigans. I’m lucky enough to be able to travel back to Toronto much more often than I would have guessed, usually every few weeks. Whenever I am in town it’s a whirlwind to try and see everyone (which is always bittersweetly impossible). My friends also come us to visit me, and we explore the city or stay in and make crafts, cook elaborate meals or consume tequila and pixy stix.

So I shouldn’t be, but I’m lonely. I feel it  in a way I haven’t since I was maybe ten or eleven, old enough to know there was a big world with a lot of love out there but no capacity or ability to go and find it.  It’s a thin, mean, gnawed-at feeling. But this time it has nothing to do with an absence of companionship or solidarity, or with any kind of lack in what is frankly the embarrassment of love in my life.

There is just nothing I can do right now about the fact that the great loves of my life, my chosen family, live in a different city than I do. When we are all together there is a peace that settles over me that I don’t exactly know how to describe. It’s a quiet feeling that makes something in me relax, go soft. When I am away, there something like loneliness and something like homesickness that takes it’s place, a tension I am usually not aware I am carrying until can set it down again.

So one of the ways I’m dealing with having all kinds of inconvenient new feelings all over the place is by becoming a robot.

Like many great things in my life, it began with D&D. The group I game with wanted to keep me as part of the campaign after I absconded to a different city, and so one weekend they decided to Skype me in. I wore a headset mic so I could hear ambient noise in the room better, but basically figured it would be an annoying exercise. Instead, I felt entirely a part of things. On the other end, my friends had set up a laptop in my usual chair, on top of a stack of books so I was approximately at the height I usually sat. When I needed to see something drawn on the map, someone would lift the laptop and angle the screen so I had a better view. Everyone made sure to stick their heads into my field of vision when addressing me directly.

It wasn’t long before I found myself hanging out in the living room with my loved ones, a happy robot. Jairus set me up in a chair with a flexible webcam twined up the back the first time; later, he got me an official laptop stand, which he refers to casually as my “legs.” High quality webcams and better mics have made the feeds better, communication more seamless.  There’s usually a few moments of friendly awkwardness at the beginning of the interaction when the sound is being calibrated, but very quickly everyone seems to entirely forget that I’m a robot at all, and starts just casually chatting with me and acting like I am really in the room. And aside from being unable to physically touch anyone, I feel like I am a part of things, able to talk and heckle and crack wise, through my laptop and with my headset over five hours away. We’ve been able to watch movies and MMA fight cards together. I’ve been able to be a part of Chris Dart opening birthday presents, and of so many more real-time conversations and hangouts.

One of the most touching things is how nice everyone is to the robot version of me. They put in an effort to make sure my set up is as good as it can be, with the best sound and video quality. The height and angle of my stand is carefully adjusted so I can see everyone, and if the conversation moves to another part of the room, I am moved with it. If someone is out of my field of vision, they move back into it when talking to me. If someone accidentally brushes against the laptop stand, they apologize as though they’d bumped into me.

There are innumerable other little ways we keep in touch. There is the chat window that never closes, where we wish each other a good morning and good night and talk almost all day every day, and all the private channels and sub-branches of that ongoing and ever-evolving massive love letter. There are emails and selfies, songs and articles. Jairus and I will play Destiny together, chatting over headsets as we gleefully kill aliens in matching outfits; sometimes, he’ll stream a game on Twitch, chatting idly to himself and to me while I work, and I’ll pop the occasional comment into chat; the sound of him killing things in Rogue Legacy while I put a draft of a conference paper together lets me feel, for a little while, like we’re almost in the same room.

A lot of the space we share right now is digital, but it doesn’t feel any less real for the screens and wires and distance in the way. I thought love was going to be learning how not to be a robot; instead I’m learning how to be a robot in love.

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