ReelThoughts: March 27, 2008

"My Life as a Geek (Part Four)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli

First, a word from our sponsors... Several readers have e-mailed me to suggest I remind visitors on a regular basis of the importance of the ads. Due to ad blindness, there's a tendency to forget and/or ignore the ads unless prompted. I know there are a about a hundred dedicated readers who take the extra few seconds to peruse the ads regularly, but the goal is to encourage those who do this occasionally to do so more often (but not to overdo it - please, click where there's interest, not randomly). So I'll throw these reminders out there once in a while. Now on to the penultimate chapter in this ongoing immersion in geekdom...

It has been my experience over the years that geeks in general see more movies that their non-geek counterparts. I was an exception to the rule, at least early in life. From the time I was baptized by King Kong until my Freshman year in college, I was not a frequent visitor to multiplexes. I went if there was something I wanted to see, but I did not make regular pilgrimages. Most geeks I was friendly with were more cinematically literate than I was. The VCR was one of the things that changed this for me, but my parents didn't get one until after I had left for college. And, in my dorm room, I didn't even have a television the first semester. It was an interesting experience subsisting without a device I had grown up with. I spent a lot of time writing, reading, and listening to the radio. By the second semester, I had managed to procure a small black and white set with rabbit ears. This allowed me to at least pick up the basic channels: NBC, CBS, ABC, and PBS.

Being a geek in college is a lot different from being one in high school. The geek to non-geek ratio is much higher. And universities are the breeding ground for some hard-core geeks - the kinds of guys I had heard about but didn't really believe existed. Hard-core geeks are interesting individuals. They are invariably male. Sightings of females have been reported but, like glimpses of Bigfoot, those reports are notoriously unreliable. Some people believe them but I'm skeptical. It is unclear whether hard-core geeks can reproduce; I'm not sure any experimentation has been done in that area. At any rate, they tend to have bad hygiene, unkempt hair (the "Chewbacca look"), an unhealthy pallor, and glasses with lenses so thick that the term "coke bottle" no longer applies. They speak in an acronym-laced language all their own. A translator may be required. Their conversational skills tend to be limited to their field of choice. A hard-core computer geek, for example, would be at a loss to talk about anything not related to computers. They also tend to be averse to physical contact. Touching one might freak him out.

That degree of geekdom was something entirely new to me. It informed me that, although I may have been a big geek in my small high school pond, things had changed. I became friendly with one of these uber-geeks (at least to a degree that one can be friends with one). Interesting fellow. He inhaled and exhaled engineering. The cliché is true: he had forgotten more about the subject than I would ever learn. He had a dorm room or apartment somewhere (I never visited it) but slept in the engineering building many nights and subsisted on a diet of Coke, coffee, Chinese take-out (from street vendors) and fast food. When I was a freshman, he had already been there several years and he was still there after I left with my Master's degree. For all I know, he's still there, 18 years later, continuing to solve PDE's. (Note: Math/Science/Engineering Geek Acronym. Don't worry if you don't know what it means. Movie geeks would have no reason or need to know.)

College also introduced me to something I was relatively unfamiliar with: the female geek. Oh, I suppose there were a few in high school, but I didn't have much contact with them. In college, however, it was a different matter. While men greatly outnumbered women in the engineering, higher math, and science courses, 20% of the population was a lot better than 0%. So, being a geek with limited (but not nonexistent) social skills, did I diligently pursue one of these women? No. Too much competition. In a university environment, no one type of individual was more highly prized by members of the opposite sex than the geek girl. Those women who wanted relationships (a concept that did not appeal to all of them) had no trouble becoming involved in them. I ended up looking in another direction.

My first serious relationship was with a Valley Girl, who came complete with that annoying Valley-speak. To quote Carrie Fisher from When Harry Met Sally (I have to insert a movie reference in here somewhere), "Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare." Anyone who observed us together couldn't figure it out - what I saw in her (not all that hard when you think about it – but more about that next week), what she saw in me (a lot more difficult to decipher). 20 years removed from the relationship, I'm not sure I get it either, but it didn't matter at the time. She was most definitely not a geek girl. Far from it. She didn't know what a Dungeon Master was, thought Doctor Who was an Asian M.D., and had never read anything by Tolkien, Asimov, or Douglas Adams. She did, however, know who Mr. Spock was and understood the "May the Force Be with You" reference, so there was hope. That's because she was into movies. Big time. She saw more movies than anyone I had ever known. So many of our dates started at the run-down local two-plex which rotated in at least one new movie every week. In the nearly two years I was with her, I saw more movies than I had in my pre-college life. She would see just about anything. After each movie, we would go next door to the Roy Rogers fast food joint and I would have to listen to her critique the film for about fifteen minutes. Thus were the seeds planted.

In the college setting, geeks were accepted like any other group. The word was a classification not an indication of inadequacy. In fact, geeks were a valuable resource if used properly. They could help with certain kinds of homework and were invaluable in getting access to computer labs. (The concept of a P.C. in every dorm room had not yet come into vogue.) Something strange also began to happen - we geeks started to integrate into the fabric of society. We didn't lose our identity or uniqueness and we didn't give up Star Trek and Tolkien, but we assimilated. We moderated our geekiness to socially acceptable levels.

This may sound like the end of the story, but there's one chapter yet to be written.

Answers to last week's geek quote quiz:
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." - Crispin Glover, Back to the Future [Difficulty: 5 out of 10]
2. "You're the classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain." - Tom Baker, Doctor Who ("The Robots of Death") [Difficulty: 8 out of 10]
3. "May fortune favor the foolish." - William Shatner, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home [Difficulty: 2 out of 10]
4. "Hey, maybe you haven't been keeping up on current events, but we just got our asses kicked, pal!" - Bill Paxton, Aliens [Difficulty: 2 out of 10]

Six incredibly geeky things I have done:
1. Attended a Star Trek convention (thankfully not in costume)
2. Sat through four consecutive showings of Star Trek II in a movie theater
3. Spent an entire school snow day inside writing a computer program
4. Blew off the junior prom in favor of a D&D game (didn't go to the senior prom either; I stayed at home and watched TV)
5. Read War and Peace for pleasure, not because I had to (I'm not sure this qualifies as "geeky" in the traditional sense, but it is certainly bizarre.)
6. Had audio cassette copies of all the Star Trek episodes (pre-VCR era)

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