"Josh, why are you so afraid of nerds?"
A friend of mine in the geek community asked me this a few months ago, in the very un-nerdy setting of the St. Felix bar in Hollywood.
While we were knocking back their dangerously inexpensive and potent happy hour cocktails, I was nervously chattering about how one of these days, geekdom would realize I don't watch the right shows, read the right books, play the right (or any) games, and that at some point, they'll just get sick of my goddamn face.
I've been plagued by these feelings since a series of circumstances so unlikely, they only could have happened online, introduced me to the existence of Modern Geek Culture in 2009.
With their cons and comics, their cosplays and Catans, their 10,000 page books filled with swords, sorceries, and weddings that were anything but white, I found, and find, the geek community wholly fascinating. And not a little intimidating.
Because my brain was already 65% Manhattan at that point in our tippling, I didn't have an answer for my friend's question sharper than, "I don't know, what if SHUT UP?"
I've been pondering it ever since. Certainly, I came to know the community through a friend who sort of foisted me on them, and certainly, that is not the best way to get to know a new group of very tightly-knit people. "Hey, everyone, here's this guy. He has nothing in common with any of you, but now he's around FOREVER."
But that was years ago. And geeks are no shrinking violets. If they don't like something or someone, you will know toot-sweet. For further elucidation on this topic, please refer to the entire goddamn internet.
99% of the people I've met in the geek community have been lovely to me. I have created things with them, I have drank and shouted with them, and I consider many of them to be dear friends.
So what's my problem?
It all began with two words: Project Challenge.
Seeing those words written out, I'm struck by how uninspiring they are. Project Challenge sounds like a weekend of corporate team-building exercises. "A company is like a human pyramid. You build it from the BASE UP. Now, let's open up our motivation journals, and something something something action items."
But in 4th grade, those words represented nothing less than salvation.
Project Challenge was where the gifted students got to go after school. It was a giant room, the size of two or three classrooms, filled with books, Apple IIe computers, beanbag chairs, games, and probably a bunch of protractors and slide rules and whatnot.
It was the perfect hiding place for a little weirdo like me. There, I could be among my own kind, and we could talk about how great it was to be so much smarter than everyone else. We would play Oregon Trail, program the LOGO turtle, and something something something graph paper. Gifted kids always did things that involved graph paper.
Or so I suspected. I was not, you see, one of the gifted students.
I wanted to be. Oh, how I wanted to be. I would walk with my friends to the Project Challenge classroom, and I would hang in the doorway for as long as I could. Then the teacher would gather everyone together to do whatever amazing things they did with their afternoons, and I would go home, watch cartoons, and not do homework.
When I say that I was not a gifted student, that's not me being hard on myself. That was just a cold point of fact. I was a pretty lousy student from pretty early on in my educational career. Math and science meant absolutely nothing to me. I was enthusiastic about the idea of computers, but I never really got past "20 goto 10." And given the choice between anything and homework, I'd be first in line for a heaping bowl of anything.
But I was endlessly curious, loved to read, loved to write weird little sketches and stories, and I hated gym class. I was fat, and endlessly picked on by my classmates. I looked like the kids in Project Challenge. I sounded like the kids in Project Challenge. And I dressed, or rather, was dressed by my mom like the kids in Project Challenge.
I was a dork. A nerd. A geek. Most of the kids in my school agreed with this assessment. And if that's what I was, then damn it all, I belonged with my brethren.
The powers that be at my elementary school did not back me up in this assumption. I don't remember if any teacher actually said to me, "Hey, kid. You can't be part of Project Challenge," but at the same time, nobody ever said, "Hey, kid. Don't go home and watch cartoons. Pull up a beanbag chair and a ream of graph paper."
The problem was, I wasn't normal enough to hang out with the kids who played "Kill The Guy With The Football" at recess. But my school tacitly insisted I belonged with them. The greatest, sharpest minds at Whiting Lane Elementary School had been chosen, and I wasn't on the list. I wasn't smart enough to be a geek.
No matter how many Douglas Adams books I read, no matter how much Monty Python I watched, or Dr. Demento and Tom Lehrer I listened to, it was not going to change this immutable fact.
I was average.
And if there's one thing I knew in my heart to be true, geeks weren't average. They were exceptional. They were gifted. And I was not. I longed to be with them, even though I was told I had to settle down with boring reality. A bizarre love triangle, indeed.
Eventually, I ended up in my high school's theater department, the holding pen for all of the kids not smart enough to be "smart," and eventually, those became my people. And as I traveled through seven years of theater college, I, ironically enough, got a reputation for being, for lack of a better word, kind of a geek.
I had piles of MST3K on VHS. I went to all of the midnight movies. I skipped class to watch Tiny Toon Adventures. And god forbid anyone ask me a question about music, and didn't have 5 hours to hear my answer.
And so it went. The more I continued on through life, the more Project Challenge felt like a punchline. An afterthought. A Dumb Thing That Happens In Grade School.
And then in 2009, through a series of series of circumstances so unlikely, they only could have happened online, I was invited to perform at a thing called w00tstock.
I knew precious little about the event, and precious littler about the performers. Paul and Storm? Did they do meteorology-based comedy? Wil Wheaton? From 90s Space Show? Wait, what? "Singled Out" bro was on the bill? What the hell was going on here?
By the end of that night, I had a very clear idea of what the hell was going on here. Hell, all it took was the THUNDEROUS PACKED-HOUSE response Wheaton got from just stepping out onstage.
I realized that all of the gifted kids in America found each other online, and, working off of blueprints drafted by their geeky forebears, created a new mutant culture just for them. With their own rock stars, their own comedians, their own celebrities, their own everything.
And at that moment, I felt like I was back hanging in the doorway of the gifted classroom, looking in.
"Josh, why are you so afraid of nerds?"
Because for the first time in my life, I feel like I have access to a beanbag chair, a IIe, and some graph paper. And before I have to go home, watch cartoons and not do homework, I want to try and figure out what to do with it.