You may have noticed that I’ve tweaked my Functional Nerds bio because as of earlier this month, I have been “subsisting on Red Eyes and gallows humor for forty years.” That’s right. I’m a 40-year-old nerd, and I’m proud of it!
You might not be able to immediately glean that from my outward appearance because I’m not who people tend to envision as a 40-year-old nerd. I don’t live in anyone’s basement. I had a date to the high school prom who wasn’t a relative. My apartment doesn’t look like it belongs to a reality-show hoarder, buried in geek memorabilia. I don’t fit the “nerd” stereotype which, even today, is one of those stereotypes that can be more pervasive than the truth.
But–and here’s the kind of thing you can only say at 40–I wish I’d been more of a nerd when I was younger. And I can only say this because at 40, my hindsight is as close as it’s ever been to 20/20. I definitely had the proper start: top five in my class in both grade- and high-school, eyeglasses, Speech and Debate Team, President of the Marching Band, comic book collection, way too shy around girls, far too interested in Norse mythology, favorite music consisting mostly of what any self-respecting high school lead trumpet player needed to listen to: Chicago (mostly the ’70s stuff, but the ’80s stuff had some redeeming qualities, too), Chase, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and later in college, Earth, Wind & Fire.
Comic book references and my love of ’70s Chicago notwithstanding, this isn’t going to be waxing about the good “Old Days.” The point is that as nerdy as I was, I could never lay claim to the heights of nerd-dom achieved by Toby Radloff, the more famous Genuine Nerd from Cleveland.
“Now why in the hell would you have wanted that?” you ask.
To be sure, I grew up into nerdery in a period where there was little, if any distinction between “nerds” and “geeks.” I was one of the first people to discover the bizarro world of Cleveland late-night cable access and things like The Asylum for Shut-Ins: Video Psychotherapy. And while other kids were trading in mix tapes of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, or Duran Duran recorded from the radio, I was recording and trading tapes of a College Radio show called “Chuckles with Chuck,” which I discovered just before the FCC assigned a censor to actually sit in the radio studio with Chuck. The show played tracks from comedy albums, and not always the nice ones, either….
Wow, sorry… I really nerded out there for a moment. Where was I? Oh yeah: I wish I’d been nerdier. Why? Because Toby and every other genuine nerd, from Cleveland or anywhere else, had one thing that I didn’t: the conviction to be themselves and to like what they liked, and to say, “Screw you” if you didn’t get it. If I’d thought like that, I would’ve discovered some more awesome things decades before I actually did.
For example, I wish I’d had the courage to go into the alt.comics section of my favorite comic book store. Then maybe I’d have read and appreciated Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor more fully than I do now seeing as I, like Pekar’s stories, came “From off the streets of Cleveland” at same time he was writing them. Hell, for as much as I hung out on Coventry Road in Cleveland Heights, I probably passed Harvey on the street a hundred times and didn’t even know it. I’ll never know for sure now.
I wish I’d had the courage to attend a fan convention back then. It might have been good for a shy guy like me to actually discover at a younger age what it was like to share interests with other misfits. If I’d have had even half the fun at any con 20 or 25 years ago that I had at at my first Dragon*Con two years ago, maybe I’d have been a happier kid.
If I’d really gotten into the sci-fi/fantasy literature I was surrounded by, it might’ve made my four (and counting!) visits to ReaderCon even more fun. I mean, I already liked reading, but if I had any idea of things like The New Wave or Weird Fiction, I’d have been better prepared to discuss these topics at academic conferences.
What did I do instead? Why, the things that everyone else does: got jobs, made some scratch, got out into the world, tried to get laid, tried to make my mark in this world, etc. And by and large, I’ve succeeded at those things. But not without a price.
To accomplish some of those things, I had to box away my nerdery.
I’m not complaining, at least not about the short-term stifling we all have to do sometimes. Some topics, like my insane love for classic Doctor Who just wouldn’t naturally come up in school, or at football games, or church, or jobs I’ve worked, so I didn’t force it. And no, I wouldn’t have worn a Darth Vader costume all the time, even if I could.
I’m complaining about the times when I actively tried not to be the nerd I was. When I wanted to be a “normal,” and was willing and able to trade my nerd trappings for the things that I thought they prevented me from getting: a socially acceptable white picket-fenced life, wearing khakis and polos from Nordstrom, having gas-grill barbecues, and drinking Corona with my upscale khaki-wearing friends.
Nothing wrong with any of that if that’s who you are. But when I think of all the time I wasted trying have that life at the expense of what made me happy, I could kick myself. Because see, here’s what we and a lot of nerds from my generation didn’t know that nerds these days seem to understand: You can be a nerd and still have all the things everyone else has. It’s hard, and I don’t know if I have the “magic formula” for how to accomplish that. But I’m building the life I want, and so have others.
It took me thirty years, but I finally got it. Yes, I’m a 40 year-old nerd, and I’m proud of it. My goal at this point is simply to make sure my aging nerdery is graceful.
I don’t fear becoming the stereotype: the dirty old man gawking at cosplaying women half his age. Or, the guy who makes someone vomit by telling him why his favorite film trilogy sucks compared to mine. And I’m damn sure not moving into anyone’s basement.
What I will do is live out my days being as nerdy as I want to be, doing things like walking around town carrying an armload of this month’s comics under my arm into a coffee shop where I can pound out articles for websites with names like Functional Nerds, and screw you if you don’t get it.
But if you’re a genuine nerd — however you define it — you do.