How I Keep Calm: Super Mario Bros

Sometimes being an adult means going back to the very things which brought us joy as kids.

Last week, at the ripe age of 37, I achieved the preteen Holy Grail: I beat the original Super Mario Bros., defeating the maze of fire whips and tube tunnels to scoot past Bowser and save the Princess. My hands flew up in triumph. No one was there to see my victory, but obviously I took a picture for the ‘gram.

I would not have thought that video games would be my salvation during the coronavirus pandemic. I bought my husband an NES Classic for a random birthday some years ago, and the console was unearthed when we moved to a new house and my 5-year-old son started becoming obsessed with video games.

My pandemic life has been blessed in so many ways: My immediate family is healthy; I have a roof over my head; my husband and I remain employed in jobs that we love. But I am also the executive vice president of a non-profit that had to lay off dozens of staff. I think, every day, about the financial security of those we let go, about what we can do to make their landing softer, how my organization  — which is devoted to making the Jewish community understand that to be Jewish is to work for a more environmentally sustainable world — can continue to be impactful when the world’s attention is focused on a more acute global pandemic. And all of that is happening while I try to keep my three beautiful children emotionally and physically healthy (with the help, thank God, of a wonderful babysitter).

My pandemic life is blessed, and I am thankful, but I am also super stressed.

So one night, I picked up an NES controller. My first surprise was the motor memory; without even thinking about what I was doing, I easily beat the first few levels. I remembered every secret tunnel and brick, every hidden warp zone. The bigger surprise was my acuity: I was better at Super Mario now than I ever was as a 10-year-old playing in my parents’ basement. I beat levels that used to make me cry in frustration as a preteen girl.

And that, perhaps, was what I needed now most of all. The pandemic has accelerated and exacerbated how very adult I feel. I pulled the trigger on dozens of layoffs. I am responsible for the health and safety of myself, of my immediate family, and of my dozens of remaining staff. The responsibility can feel crushing. And perhaps the hardest part is that I don’t feel like I have a moment to let it process. I am on Zoom calls 8-10 hours a day, signing off only to do an extravagant bedtime with my kids when I try to shove in all the love and affection I missed while on Zoom into a two-hour balagan. I don’t feel like I have the time or the bandwidth to turn it all off — until I turn on the gaming console.

There is a bit of obsessiveness that goes into beating a video game. There are certain levels that are like banging your head against the wall — that you have to play over and over again until you figure out the precise timing and button pushes that get you flying into the flagpole adjacent to a castle. My husband — who knows how little downtime I have these days — couldn’t really believe I was spending my scant free time the same way I did when I was 8. But there is something about the nostalgia of youth, mixed with the confidence of age, sprinkled with the mild rebellion of ignoring more pressing priorities, that feels incredibly freeing. And when I did figure out how to beat each level, as they got successively harder, I couldn’t help but do a little fist pump. There is a deep sense of gratification that comes from kicking some ass. And the high of beating the whole game felt like a true moment of empowerment — a “fuck you” to every moment of frustration and banging my head against the wall that has been a part of the pandemic.

I am getting disturbingly close, in my life, to the age that women start to become invisible. And as I lean into the responsibility of being an adult, it was an extraordinary relief to find that there are still things I’m still getting better at, that life is not a downward spiral of physical and mental deterioration. And that sometimes being an adult means going back to the very things which brought us joy as kids.

I can’t stop this pandemic on my own, and I can’t change the painful decisions that we were forced to make when faced with such an unforeseen challenge. But video games aren’t just a way to keep calm. Super Mario and the rescued Princess remind me: There’s still time to be a hero yet.

how I keep calm

How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.

Shuli Karkowsky

Shuli Karkowsky (she/her) is the Executive Vice President at Hazon, the largest faith-based environmental organization in the U.S. She lives in Westchester with her husband and three children, who are her favorite people in the world even after spending six months cooped up with them. She is the reigning household champion of any Mario-related game, but is in woeful third place for Double Dragon.

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