by Andrew Garda
In the social-distancing climate Montclair finds itself in due to Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent executive order, residents have had to embrace technology.
They use it to work and learn remotely, they use it to read and keep up with the news and, perhaps most critically, they use it to connect to those they cannot physically be in the same room with.
“I believe strongly that social connectedness is a necessary part of healthy development and a necessary part of coping under stress,” said Colleen Daly-Martinez, a professor at Ramapo College, a clinical social worker and a Montclair resident. “And there are many ways that we’re suffering from the lack of social connectedness because we can’t physically be with each other. It’s not just about coping with the crisis, which is one really important thing. But in order to just be well, even if we weren’t in crisis, we need social connection.”
Daly-Martinez, who hosted an online bingo game for friends on the evening of Saturday, March 28, thinks figuring out ways to use technology to stay socially connected is even more critical now.
“I think that technology is literally saving our lives and our sanity at this point,” she said, “but I think that we should do a better job of using the technology creatively.”
Daly-Martinez’s husband, Paul, and their daughter had been playing the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons at local comics shop East Side Mags. With the store now closed, that game has shifted online, something Daly-Martinez said she feels fortunate for.
“The highlight of the week, that’s what she looks forward to all week,” Daly-Martinez said of her daughter.
The games, which take place on Sunday, are run by Erik Cheski, who borrowed space in the store to start them in September 2018. His company, Dungeons on the Go, also runs individual games outside of the shop.
All of it has moved online, with Cheski running all of the East Side Mags games and his individual business via the website and app Zoom.
He said he can see his players are hungry for the experience of seeing their friends, even if just on a webcam.
“It’s definitely allowing people a sense of normality,” Cheski said. “Even though we’re all aware on a very basic level that yeah, this is completely different from what we’re used to.”
Cheski said that this comfort and escape is important to people right now.
“I mean, what is Dungeons & Dragons but a little bit of escape from the world? Here you have a character that [has] agency, that [has] control over the world. Even if you are fighting against the god or a dragon, there are game mechanics that at least give you a chance mathematically.”
In a world where the current enemy is an invisible virus we have no control over, Cheski said that control is critical.
“Being able to escape into Dungeons & Dragons for a while with people that we’ve been playing with for months or years is something that’s a great treasure for people,” he said. “And I think that’s part of why people are willing to give online stuff as much of a shot as they have, because this is letting them have that time.”
Enough people have reached out to Cheski to prompt him to expand what he offers, and the online component may remain even when COVID-19 has faded.
Dan and Meghan Roberts dropped in on Daly-Martinez’s bingo game Saturday night, and while they didn’t come away with any prizes, that wasn’t the point. The connection with friends was.
Both are currently working from home, with their two daughters continuing their education online along with the rest of Montclair.
It’s important, both agree, for the four to make contact with people outside of their immediate family.
Dan joined a Facebook group called 8 O’Clock Shot, a group where members touch base each day to talk about what they are drinking and share anything from pet pictures to scotch suggestions. He and some friends had planned to have a virtual cocktail hour Sunday night, something Meghan had done with friends when the quarantine first began.
As Dan is a coach with the Montclair High School football team, he and the coaching staff have been meeting virtually both as a group and with the team, trying to get a head start on next fall as well as keep in touch with the kids and make sure they are doing OK.
As for their daughters, in some ways the Robertses said things haven’t changed much.
“The girls are into their video games and stuff already. Anyhow, so we bought them a new game and stuff like that,” Meghan said.
Still, as birthdays and other important events continue to appear on the horizon, the challenge is connecting with friends and family remotely to celebrate those milestones.
While families like the Robertses have each other to rely on, Daly-Martinez thinks the use of technology like Skype or Zoom calls could be most useful for single parents.
Parenthood is often stressful, she said, and when you’re trapped in the same house with the same people, tension can be high even with two parents.
“But single moms that are home with kids, single dads who are home with kids, that are overwhelmed, they never get a break. So figuring out if there are ways that we can provide some virtual love and support to those parents? Because I’m not concerned about my own kid as much as I’m concerned about the kids who are in stressful situations and parents who are in stressful situations.”
In that case, technology could be used with traditional support, such as with Telehealth, a company that uses technology to assist medical professionals in serving their clients, or non-traditional support, such as a simple Facetime chat with a child to give a parent a break.
Regardless of how it’s done, Daly-Martinez said the most important thing is to reach out.
We may be separated physically, but we can still connect, she said.