ReelThoughts: March 20, 2008

"My Life as a Geek (Part Three)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


For some people, high school is blur of booze and drugs. For me, it was a blur of Dungeons & Dragons and Star Trek. Yet, while that's certainly enough to cement my geek credentials, there was something that kept me from uber-geek status: I liked being outside. This is not a common statement made by nerds, who often seem almost vampiric in their desire to avoid the sun. But I have always loved taking long walks, playing outdoor games, and doing things that allow me to get a breath of what passes for "fresh" air in this part of the country. I frequently held summer afternoon D&D sessions on the picnic table in my parents' backyard (which could be problem if it was windy). There was even a time when I took up jogging. Okay, that was when I was in junior high and I gave it up after about a year when my body refused to give me the "runner's high" that everyone else seemed to achieve. Talk about feeling cheated...

Speaking of junior high - those were the only two years in my pre-college academic life when I despised school. About half my teachers bordered on incompetent and children are never more cruel than at that age. Geeks may generally be more accepted in society today, but I doubt that includes seventh and eighth grades. When you're 12 and 13, nothing is more important than conforming to some pre-determined norm. Those who deviate become objects of ridicule. So it was with me. I didn't bother to try to fit in. If anything, I started acting weird. I can remember speaking with a British accent for no particular reason and generally making an ass out of myself. (Psychologists tell me this was a means of shielding myself.) The one positive thing I can say about those years is that no teacher forced me to read chapters from my latest book.

I admit to enjoying high school, mainly because people left me alone. Let me clarify: people I wanted to leave me alone left me alone. I was a bizarre contradiction during those four years - flamboyant and outspoken among fellow geeks but shy and withdrawn in more acceptable company. I was a serious student but found homework to be so simplistic that it rarely cost me more than a few hours a week. So I had lots of time to read, write, take those long evening walks, and play sophisticated video games like Breakout and Space Invaders. 25 years later, people from high school still remember me. For the most part, I don't remember them. But that's because they were "normal" and I was not, and it's always the oddballs who leave the strongest impressions.

Summers and weekends were reserved for D&D, the ultimate geek pastime from about 1978 through the mid-1980s. My friends and I would get together every Friday and Saturday evening in my basement (where else...?) to roll the dice and pretend we were in a place long ago and far away. Recently, in the wake of the death of D&D co-creator Gary Gygax, there have been lots of reminiscences about D&D. Gygax has been both eulogized and demonized. I think, and have always thought, that too many people unfamiliar with the game are unnecessarily alarmed by it. For me, it was a massive distraction - a way to pass summer evenings rather than cruising around the neighborhood trying to pick up girls and get my hands on a six pack. (Distinctly un-geek-like actions.) It kept me out of mischief. For any force, regardless of its nature, to be able to make such a claim regarding a teenager is a remarkable thing.

As befit my controlling personality, I was always the Dungeon Master. I loved the illusion of omnipotence and omniscience. So I created all the dungeons, mapped out the scenarios, and huddled behind my DM screen rolling dice to see how the monsters fared against my fellow players. Some have complained that D&D is a bloodthirsty game. I suppose that's true, but you get out of it what you put into it. If you're just interested in hacking-and-slashing, it can provide that experience. But if you want something more immersive, with a well-constructed storyline, it can provide that as well. If you're willing to bend the rules and there are a lot of them it can be infinitely versatile.

As fun as D&D was to play back in the late '70s and early '80s, it's a relic of the recent past. Today, pencil-and-paper role playing games have largely been replaced by their computer descendants. There are still hard-core gamers who gather weekly to roll dice and take on alternate personalities, but I'm no longer among them. I stopped playing Dungeons & Dragons the day before I left for college and haven't picked up a 20-sided die since then. Did I outgrow the game? Not precisely. I had played with the same core group since I started and we all went in different directions in the fall of 1985, never to come back together again. I played the game as much to spend time with them as for any other reason. Geek socializing. The idea of starting again with a new group lacked appeal. So I put D&D behind me - reluctantly but firmly.

My friends in high school were exclusively male and mostly nerds. That didn't mean I had no interest in girls, but it was certainly true that they had no interest in me. I can remember a series of minor crushes, all kept carefully to myself. None of these girls were those who might be considered "popular" except in geek circles, but that didn't encourage me to shorten the arm's length distance I kept from them. Girls were, of course, life's great mystery, but that's a universal truth that applies to all boys, regardless of their relative level of geekiness. Boys, especially hormonally-driven boys, are much easier to figure out.

Today, sexually curious geeks don't have problems with access to material to satisfy that... ahem... curiosity. The Internet has been a great boon in that area. In my youth, things were a little different. First came National Geographic then came sex education then came Playboy. In retrospect, it's almost funny to consider some of the contortions necessary for someone underage to get his hands on an adult magazine. It could be something as simple as picking a sympathetic college-age 7-11 clerk to recruiting someone who looked 18 to buy a copy. One time, I was able to use my youthful appearance to good advantage (at 13, I looked like I was about 10). I told the clerk I was buying the magazine for my father. I can't say whether that was believed, but I went home with the Playboy hidden in a brown paper bag.

Today, with sexually explicit material so readily available, it's hard to describe the illicit thrill of opening a Playboy magazine. And no, I don't pretend that I read it for the articles. (Curiously, I picked up a Playboy a couple of years ago and largely ignored the airbrushed pictorials. The articles did interest me. In my capacity as a film critic, I have written for Playboy.) At age 13, I doubt I even looked at anything other than the pictures. It's true that some of the buzz associated with the experience was seeing the Teenage Holy Grail. But there was also the excitement associated with doing something forbidden. I was basically a "good boy." No drugs, no alcohol, no smoking, straight A's (except gym), etc. This was as close as I got to doing something prohibited. By today's standards, looking at a Playboy magazine is considered mild, but it was a bigger thing 30 years ago. I might also mention the time I saw my first copy of Hustler. That was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.

Then there were naked women in movies. The first R-rated film I saw was Conan the Barbarian. That was the summer of 1982. I was 14 (almost 15) at the time so I couldn't go unaccompanied. My father agreed to take me. He probably enjoyed Conan about as much as he enjoyed King Kong. By the time I went to the theater that day, I was a veteran Playboy reader, so I knew what a naked woman looked like. Still, this was the first time I saw one moving around. Of course, watching nudity while sitting next to one's father isn't the perfect recipe for enjoyment. It wouldn't bother me today but it did when I was 14. Shortly after Conan, my neighbor across the street got a cable pay TV package. I was a regular visitor over there, taking care of his dogs, cutting his lawn, raking his leaves, and watching his house when he went to North Carolina to visit his son. I was a baseball fan, so he invited me to use my key and go into his house whenever he wasn't home to watch the Phillies on PRISM (an HBO clone). I did this often and channel surfing between innings led me to numerous R-rated movies on HBO and Cinemax. This gave me access to movies like Raging Bull and Alien as well as classics like Bo Derek's Tarzan. It was purely by accident, of course, but this quest for pay TV nudity resulted in my seeing some good movies.

Then came the Prom and graduation, and everything changed with college.

The Geek's Quote Quiz... Here are four quotes to test your Geek I.Q. All are from the '70s and '80s, so it's skewed to readers around my age.

1. "Last night, Darth Vader came down from planet Vulcan and told me that if I didn't take Lorraine out that he'd melt my brain." [Geek heaven - a quote that manages to mix both Star Wars and Star Trek.]
2. "You're the classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain." [I used this a couple times in high school and got blank stares.]
3. "May fortune favor the foolish." [They were hoping this would become a new catchphrase like "May the Force be with you." Not quite.]
4. "Hey, maybe you haven't been keeping up on current events, but we just got our asses kicked, pal!" [One of many memorable quotes from this character in this movie.]

Please do not e-mail me with results. I'm behind on answering e-mails as it is and I do not want to be inundated. I'll provide answers (who said it and in what movie/TV show) next week. If you don't get at least one right, you should re-consider calling yourself a geek. If you get all four, take Bill Shatner's advice from Saturday Night Live. Granted, I made up the quiz, but we've already established what I am.


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