Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Geek out: the last pockets of geek

Liz Danforth pointed me to the Speak Out with Your Geek Out project. I very much like the idea of people being open and proud of their geekery. It's a great idea and I encourage all my very geeky friends to add their voices to the mix.

I will say, though, that geekery isn't what it used to be. When I was growing up, it was hard to be a geek, nerd, etc. Harder than today, I think. And this isn't just a, "When I was a boy, gravity was heavier," kind of thing. Patton Oswald said it better than I could in his Wired article about ETEWAF (Everything There Ever Was, Available Forever). I'm also not sure that it's just an adult's pining for the past, or the fact that it is generally much easier to be an adult than a child or teen.

I was a geeky child... but as Patton says in his article, many of the things that set me apart as a geek are now much more mainstream. I liked Dungeons and Dragons. I was one of about nine kids in my HS class of 400 who did. Now something like 10 million people play WoW and another gazillion (including my son and I) play Magic the Gathering. I read Tolkien and Narnia by the 6th grade. I knew one other kid who had done so. Now every kid (and their parents) have read Harry Potter, the Twilight books, the Percy Jackson novels, Lemony Snicket, etc. I played computer/video games when all we had was the TRS-80. Everyone plays the Wii now, including my mom. I programmed computers when that was entirely weird, new, odd. I sang in chorus at school and choir at church and was routinely called a "music fag" by other kids because of it; now "Glee" is incredibly popular, as are all those various talent shows on TV.

As Patton says, I'm not sure if I should be glad because we, the geeks, won... or sad because the geeky kids of today don't have to try as hard at it, and therefore can't feel as much joyful, ironic separation from mainstream culture.

About the only two geeky things I did that still seem somewhat out-there to me are Latin and poetry. And I stopped studying Latin in college when it became clear that I was really very bad at it. Poetry, though I stuck with.

I'm not saying that kids don't take crap for off-kilter pursuits anymore. I'm sure many still do. And I'm not saying that something has to be socially shunned for a hobby or interest to qualify as geekery. You can geek out on something as "cool" as motorcycles, art films or cajun cooking. Being a geek is more, I think, about intense, inward-focused interest than giving a rat's ass either way what others think.

I'm just saying that it's very odd for me that when I tell my friends' teenage kids that I build and play mountain dulcimers, they routinely reply, "That's so cool! Can you show me how? Where can I get one?"

Hunh? First of all, you should be shunning your parents' friends. They are not cool; we are not cool. How did it happen that parents and teens now hang out? It started happening awhile ago. I played GURPS with some friends, and quite a few of their teen kids played with us. We all got along very well. The kids seemed pleased to be allowed into the mix, and the adults were glad to have a new generation to share and play with.

To repeat: hunh? When I was a kid, I had a great relationship with my parents. We did things together, sure. My dad and I loved bad movies and canoeing. That was OK. But having them hang out with my friends while we played Avalon Hill board games? Nope. No thanks. And I think my dad would have felt the same way.

Don't get me wrong; I'm pleased. My son and I play MTG with his friends. I think one of their dads plays, too. We should have a "generation wars" event [They already, Dan and his friends, arrange "Magic the Gathering Gatherings," which cracks me up]. I hope we can continue in this way all through middle and high school. It's nice to be friends with your kid and his friends. It's friendly.

But it, too, takes some of the shine off the geek thing, I think. It just seems too... normal? Happy? Well-adjusted? Functional?

So... I'm left with poetry. For years I didn't mention to people that I wrote poetry, because the face they usually made translated roughly to, "Oh. Sure. Well... you're not going to make me read it, are you?" Then, about fifteen years ago, I would bring it up once in awhile: still got a reaction as if I said that I liked to shave Disney characters into the fur on the back of my dog. Which, frankly, pleased me. As my other geeky pursuits became mainstream, having one, special, lonely thing that set me apart kind of felt... right.

I remember when, around 1995, I started talking about computer games around someone I'd just met and he said, "Oh, I'm a huge fan of 'Sid Meier's Civilization!" And I thought, "Wow. That was unexpected." Since then, I know all kinds of people who game. It's the new normal. Same for fantasy books, music and being computer geeks.

Poetry? Not so much. Once in awhile a student of mine will ask to share some poems they've worked on. Or I'll mention that I write to a friend and they'll confess that they, too, have sometimes dabbled. The people I actively talk about poetry with are ones I've met online in dedicated poetry forums.

Which, I need not remind you, didn't exist when we were kids. Unless, by "we," it turns out someone reading this is actually still a kid. Then... never mind.

Part of what has made me internally (to my mind) strong, morally consistent and emotionally hardy was that I'd spent so many years trying to reconcile the enjoyment I felt in my pursuits with the general disregard in which they were held by the world in general. In the main, I'm "glad we won." I'm glad that my kid can do geeky things without being picked on. That people can pursue a wide range of interests in very odd (seeming) corners, and find like-minded friends pretty easily on the Web. I know that bullying still happens, but it seems that it's more isolated and less tolerated.

But some strange, quiet, secret part of me still enjoys the fact that I get the, "Oh. You're a weirdo," look when I say, "I'm a poet." Not all the time. And less frequently these days. But it's still a joy, some days, to be a weirdo.

My hat's off to those kids (of any age) whose pursuits give them great pleasure, but make them targets of ridicule, abuse or just loneliness. You aren't alone. We were never alone. And we aren't now.

Take some comfort in the fact that your hardship will, one day, be the foundation of your joy.

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