ReelThoughts: March 06, 2008

"My Life as a Geek (Part One)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli

This will be the first of a several-part series ruminating about various "geeky" pursuits and culminating in a discussion of how Hollywood typically misrepresents one of the most glorious of occurrences: geek love.

When I was growing up, the preferred term was "nerd," not "geek." "Geek" was used, but not as frequently as "nerd," perhaps because of its connotation of circus performers biting off the heads of chickens. There's also something about the way it sounds. "Nerd" rolls off the tongue easily. "Geek" sounds unpleasant, almost like a hiccup or the sound a woman makes in a comic book when she has been startled. Anyway, sometime between 1980 and 2000, the tables turned and "geek" became the preferred term. For me, it will always be "nerd," though. One doesn't give up a childhood label that easily. It clings like saran wrap all through life.

The interchangeable combo of nerd/geek used to be an insult. Today, it's a classification. In 1975, calling someone a "nerd" was a put-down. When someone screamed "Nerd!" across the lunch-room, they weren't inviting you to sit at their table. Today, nerds wear their geekiness proudly. Best Buy has invented the "Geek Squad" and there's nothing about the label that's meant to be ironic or sarcastic. I am still called a nerd and a geek on a regular basis but the sting has abated.

When I was in high school, geeks didn't have their own clique, at least officially. We were outcasts and banded together because of that bond. The average geek earns the label because he (and occasionally, but more rarely, she) is too smart to find the usual diversions of adolescence amusing. We like intellectual stuff - things to stimulate the mind. To anyone not in the top 10% of the class, that's plain weird. Why read a book when you could watch TV? Why play with funny dice (more on that - much more - later) when you could shoot some hoops? Also, the tendency to stimulate the brain often led to physical deterioration. Most geeks are either scrawny (like me) or fat. Actually, for years, I was a workout freak but there's not much that can be done with a naturally small frame. The average geek also wears glasses, reinforcing the link between high intelligence and bad eyesight. Some geeks who don't need glasses buy them anyway so they can look the part.

When did I first realize what I was? I think it was around second grade. I was a serious child but generally well-liked by my teachers and schoolmates. Or so I'm told. I had a particular appeal to teachers, which caused my sister endless irritation. She was popular and attractive (not even remotely geeky) but had the misfortune to follow in my footsteps three years later. This led to the inevitable refrain: "I remember your brother. I hope you're as good a student as he was." There is probably nothing worse that having a nerd as an older sibling unless you're also one. (My youngest sister probably got tired of hearing, "Not another Berardinelli!")

At any rate, by the time I entered second grade, I had The Look perfected. Unkempt hair with bangs that hung to the bridge of my nose, huge glasses, and a body with about half the mass of some of my future linemen classmates. In a strange twist of the stereotype, I had more girl friends than boy friends. That oddity would eventually correct itself, as all such perversions of the natural order do. But that's when the whispers of "nerd" began. I remember looking up the word in the dictionary and feeling perturbed by what I discovered. But I also recognized that, as unkind as the word might be, it was accurate. So I accepted it. Today, in a sure sign that we have made progress, second-graders embrace their nerdiness. In fact, there are rumors that some even cheat and pretend to be geeks when they really aren't. There's always something that gives them away, like when they can't name Kirk's serial number or the prefix code of the Reliant or recite Obi-Wan's explanation of The Force word-for-word. Don't think about faking it - we in the geek inner circle have ways of ferreting you out...

Being a geek as a child meant a few things. First, it was necessary to go through a "dinosaur" phase and an "astronomy" phase. I never fully grew out of either. I still own a telescope and watch Discovery Channel specials about dinosaurs. It was also mandatory to give up playing baseball (although not watching it - it is acceptable for geeks to watch sports as long as they don't harbor illusions that they can participate). Considering that my career Little League batting average was about .150, it wasn't difficult, although the opposing pitchers wept when they heard I would no longer be giving them an automatic out. Then came my next phase: the monster movie. So, on Saturdays when most boys my age were outside running the bases with abandon, I was sitting on the couch watching "Creature Double Feature."

For anyone who doesn't know what the hell "Creature Double Feature" is, you were deprived of one of the great experiences of pre-VCR/pre-cable television. I grew up in the New York TV market, where it was on Channel 9. But nearly every market had something similar. (In nearby Philadelphia, for example, it was either Channel 17 or 29. I learned this because I played with the rotating roof antenna, turned the UHF dial, and stared through the snow. If I lost you with "UHF," you need to pay a visit to Wikipedia.) "Creature Double Feature" ate up three hours every Saturday afternoon. It had a campy host, usually some guy dressed like a vampire with a really bad Dracula accent. (If you've seen Fright Night, think Roddy McDowell's character.) As the name implies, it showed back-to-back movies. They could be anything from the '30s Universal classics to the '70s Godzilla sequels. Quality was not an issue - CDF was non-discriminatory when it came to whether a movie was good, bad, or ugly. Many of the titles were in black-and-white, so I credit CDF for eliminating the distaste for the monochromatic which has infected many modern movie-goers. In fact, the "Holy Grail" movies were all b&w: King Kong, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, and the original Godzilla. In those days, I desperately wanted to see Nosferatu (because of a picture of Max Schreck in my movie monsters hardcover book) but CDF didn't play silent films.

I watched CDF religiously for about four years - 1974 through 1978. That's somewhere in excess of 400 monster movies. Yikes! And I somehow never saw I Spit on Your Grave. By 1977, however, monster movies were losing their grip on me. Other things were impinging - like Dungeons & Dragons, science fiction, and even girls (because geeks are not immune to puberty).

I'll end Part One by busting three common myths about geeks:
1. All geeks have played D&D at one time or another. This is not true. I once met a geek who didn't know what a lich was. Any geek who doesn't know what a lich is cannot be a D&D player. My intuition tells me there may be another one or two like him in this country, although I'm not sure how I would go about locating them.
2. All geeks speak Klingon. I can't even master French; how am I supposed to figure out a language that sounds like a perpetual clearing of the throat?
3. All geeks live in their parents' basement. My father wouldn't let me live down there; it would interfere with his workshop. So as soon as I graduated college, I had to get my own apartment. But I did my best to make it look like a basement.

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