Most of you know the work I do as a volunteer for Tekkoshocon, Inc. On the surface, it seems like I’m devoting my time to a frivolous pursuit; I spend a lot of time and energy on what could least charitably be called pop culture trash. However, in doing the work– in volunteering my time and energy to that cause– I’m reminded of a very simple truth. It’s a truth I’ve espoused in every post this month, and one that I’ve fought long and hard to realize is exactly what it is I want to promote in other people with my behavior.
It doesn’t matter how much you suffer, or how much you sacrifice, if what you’re doing is the right thing. If what you do makes even one person happier for a little while, then it is worth any price you pay and twice as much as that. It doesn’t matter who you do it for, or if you do it for someone who’ll never give you the time of day or will even spit on your face for doing it. What matters is that you do it, and do it well, and keep doing it until the day you die, because that’s what you’re here for.
Every year we’re bombarded with news of celebrities who die in ways that break our hearts. These people lived their lives in service to all of us, in some way or another. Some were inspirations; others, warnings. But their deaths don’t affect me nearly as much as the thought I had while I was just sitting outside a panel room last week, looking in on the bronies and pegasisters all singing along; or just people-watching in general on an off time at the con; or even just going about my daily life every single day. It would hurt just as much to lose any of those random people as it would to lose a celebrity or a family member. It would devastate me.
Every single one of those people at the convention has a story of their own, and it doesn’t matter what they’re wearing or what they look like or anything. We came together to do a great good for them, and some of them really need it. You can’t tell just by looking at them. You can’t tell even if you were to talk to them, sometimes. For some people, a place like Tekko or the Sangawa Project or Kurokiiro Festival or anything is the only place they have that’s their own. For all the grief that we go through to put the show on, some of our attendees live truly hellish lives the other 361 days of the year.
I put up with a lot of crap during the convention days, but each and every time, I also see something that astounds me and keeps me from becoming too terribly cynical and losing all hope in humanity: I see humanity. As flawed and ass-backwards as it can be sometimes, I see the great good that exists in everyone, and I see it shown time and time again. If it’s a compliment on a costume, a discussion on a show, letting someone on an elevator ahead of you, or people just randomly dancing in the lobbies for no better reasons than they can and it’d make the people around them smile, I see that there’s no truth whatsoever to the claim that there’s nothing redeeming about what I do.
And, once in a great while, I see that one kid who feels lost and alone in the world outside. I see him walking in the mall, eyes down, trying desperately not to be noticed. Maybe he’s had a bad day at school, or maybe his home life isn’t all that hot. Doesn’t matter. He’s having a rotten day, and he’s doing a terrible job of hiding it. All I need to do is walk up to him and say hi, maybe compliment his Kingdom Hearts hoodie or ask him what he’s planning on wearing to the next show, and I see his eyes light up. He’s a little braver now, a little more confident. So the world sucks right now; hold on just for a little while longer, and you’ll be among friends again.
So it doesn’t matter what kind of torment I have to go through. It doesn’t matter how bad the world sucks for me. What matters is how I make it suck less for others.
I talk a lot about how I’m being “prejudiced” against as a geek. It’s strong language, culturally, especially in urban and suburban America, to bandy about words like that. It’s even harder when the social stigma is attached to a label that can be applied to anyone, even people who do face far harsher oppression. Given that I’m in a position of social and cultural privilege, it may seem disingenuous to say that I’ve been the victim of discrimination.
When I was much younger, I’d lie awake at night and think what would have happened to me if I hadn’t been born when I was. I’m not physically strong, and I’m certainly not blessed with an overabundance of endurance. I kept thinking back to what would have become of me in the middle ages, in medieval Europe. Obviously I wouldn’t have been royalty, and certainly my intellect would not have been developed– I wouldn’t have even known how to read, much less learned how at the age of three. My temper problem would prevent me from being in the clergy. Most likely, I would have either been tortured into becoming a berserker, or just simply executed for being too smart for my own good.
It occurs to me that the exact same thing is happening to very intelligent people the world over, regardless of race, creed, culture, or gender. It’s happening in Uganda, as a child who’d be able to solve his village’s water crisis is being gunned down by another child soldier for a warlord who will never even acknowledge his very existence. It’s happening in North Korea, as a teenager who’d be able to rally for democratic reforms is having the creative leadership thinking indoctrinated out of him in a conscription camp. It’s happening in Iran, as a young adult who’d be able to develop a new communications paradigm refuses to do so out of fear of being disappeared by the government.
And don’t kid yourself. It’s happening in Pennsylvania, as incredibly intelligent students are being ignored by the system because they’re too smart for their grade level and the region they live in is too impoverished to support the educators that could challenge them. It’s happening in Colorado, as a teacher who honestly wants to make a difference in the lives of his students and be the mentor they desperately need is forced to flip burgers as the school he works at is closed down. It’s happening in Illinois, as students with special needs are being ignored by the public school systems that their parents pay for.
I mean this with every fiber of my being, and I will say it even as they put the blindfold on me and stand me up against the wall: Fix education, and you fix every social ill, ever, forever.
It’s been a major bugaboo of mine for a long time, this wanting everyone to get along. I cannot fathom the state of mind that sets someone against another just based on hearsay or a bad reputation. Naturally, given the communication medium of the Internet, I find myself butting heads with that mentality all too often: either generalized so broadly that it insults far more people than intended, or generalized so broadly specifically to insult as many people as possible. (While that’s a behavior I can’t understand, either, it’s not a discussion I want to have right now.)
Again, then, what makes my obsession with liberating people from their fanatical devotions any different from someone who always has to have exactly fifty jelly beans over the course of the day? The answer, of course, is nothing. It’s exactly the same and exactly as harmful.
I can’t fix everyone. I can’t fix anyone but myself. It’s not a matter of capability, it’s a matter of even having the right to. I have no right to tell anyone else how they should live their lives, and especially not when I have so many of my own little problems to deal with. But one thing I can do, and one thing I hope to always do, is to lead by example. By living my life the way I think I should, the only thing that can advance my goal ethically that I can even hope to accomplish is to inspire someone else to work to fix their own problems. Maybe I never actually inspire anyone. Doesn’t matter. As long as I never cross the line into ordering people around, I’m doing what I can. My obsession becomes a passion instead.
So I’m going to be “out” as a geek. I’m going to be smart. I’m going to be at anime conventions until I’m old and gray. I’m going to watch turn-your-brain-off action movies and high-art films. I’m going to use what I want, to like what I want, and to dislike what I want. I’m going to treat people who agree with me with care, and the people who disagree with me with respect.
And if you don’t like it, that’s your problem, not mine.
So when people like a thing too much, that’s bad. When people like the “wrong” thing, that’s bad. Is it just a matter of not liking anything? Is it a matter of deriving actual enjoyment out of something being considered childish? What about hobbies that get a lot of respect– woodworking, hunting, sports? What makes the difficulty of a hobby correlate directly to how acceptably it’s seen?
We’re conditioned from a very early age that expertise is important. We see people who are “good at” things and are told that we all have something unique that we’re good at. What’s left unsaid until late in life is that the things some folks are good at aren’t always obviously useful or appreciated. Being adept in, say, literary analysis may require just as much intelligence and instinctive talent as photographing sports, but one of those people isn’t desperately trying to find some work in their field and it ain’t the reader.
So, when you have to work for your living in something other than what interests you or what you’re best at because that thing perhaps isn’t a moneymaker, you seek out a community where you can express that like. This can be good or bad. If you find a community, way to go– they’ll help you develop your passion, and who knows, maybe you can parlay it into being your moneymaker. But if you find an enclave, you might find that they drag you further and further into an unhealthy obsession.
We specialize ourselves, and we define our worth by the difficulty of the thing we specialize in because of a false perception of profitability. Communications advances shatter that delusion. If your talent and joy lies with playing the shamisen (that’s a Japanese harp, Mom), and you live in Detroit, the problem isn’t with your talent, it’s that you haven’t connected with the right people who’ll pay you for your talents.
On the flip side, the difference between passion and obsession is just as subtle, but its separation has stood the test of time. Neil Postman wrote, “The key to all fanatical beliefs is that they are self-confirming. [...They are] fanatical not because they are ‘false’, but because they are expressed in such a way that they can never be shown to be false.” Someone passionate will be receptive to changing their mind, given the right reasons. Someone obsessed sees no reason that opposes their beliefs as “right”.
I freely admit to being obsessed with stamping out obsession. This is something I deeply wish I could cure myself of, because it makes me a giant flaming hypocrite.
Being a geek is okay. I hope I didn’t mislead anyone into thinking that not being a geek was “wrong”, though. I also get the feeling that some folks might have taken the wrong meaning from my tireless advocacy for nerds. I don’t want to turn people into nerds. I don’t want people to “catch teh dork”. That’s not my intent. I just want to hopefully turn folks on to the stuff I like.
But there is a valid point in the arguments of the abstract antagonist from yesterday’s post. If you like something too much, it can be a very, very bad thing. We tend to call this “addiction”, in the lighthearted meaning of the word, but it’s a smokescreen for people who do have real problems with the things they love. And while I personally love the idea that the advances in communications technology over the last thirty years have made it trivially easy to connect with like-minded people, I despair of the fact that what we’re building with this technology aren’t communities, but enclaves.
There’s a subtle, yet incredibly glaring distinction between the two. Both are groups of people united for a common purpose of advocacy of a particular idea, amusement, or course of action. Both are designed to provide support and comfort to their members. Both, ideally, offer that support unconditionally. But where they differ is in their priorities. A community puts its members first. An enclave puts its idea first.
A community has the freedom within its ideology to help its members grow and develop. The community may seek out new members now and again, and always welcomes anyone who’d join. If a member of a community is found to be acting in an unhealthy manner, the community has the responsibility to help that person overcome their problems by guiding them. More to the point, the community may even be proactive about it. Sure, they may frame it in the dressings of their particular sphere of interest, but a true community will band together when one of its own is in trouble.
An enclave, on the other hand, is insular and restrictive. The members are expected to behave in a certain way, to accomplish certain things, to follow these instructions without deviation. Anyone who doesn’t conform is summarily ejected, as “no true member of the group would ever act that way”. Anyone who isn’t a member is an enemy. The enclave doesn’t change. It doesn’t adapt. It is binding, and it is permanent. All of these mean that eventually, as more and more of its members “betray” the group, the enclave decays and stagnates.
I’m sure some of you can see a few uncomfortable parallels here.
It’s been a while now, but the fact that being a nerd is somehow acceptable is starting to filter into the consciousness of the Anglosphere. Most English-speaking cultures, pop or otherwise, are warming up to those among them for whom a wedgie might once have been a daily occurrance. And with good reason; being smart is sexy again. Person of Interest, while it certainly has some action elements, is a very cerebral show that gets its biggest thrills when the protagonists are unable to just blast their way out of a situation. And while it’s mostly a personal observance, I’ve found that more people gave the show a chance because of Michael Emerson than Jim Caviezel. Emerson’s most famous prior role was the conniving and dangerously smart Ben Linus from Lost.
Simon Pegg summed it up pretty well: “It’s okay to be a geek.” But I’m sure there’s a lot of resistance to the thought, especially from folks who have said in as many words that being a geek is a serious liability. To those people, geeks express uncomfortable enthusiasm for their hobbies in situations and ways that are completely inappropriate. The “correct” thing to express that kind of enjoyment over is something that fosters absolutely no enjoyment in the minds of the individuals who stand accused. It frankly doesn’t matter what. It boils down to the fact that people like different stuff.
Can you tell me what is more acceptable about having a piece of sports memorabilia on your desk at work than having, say, a model of a starship? If someone wants to put up a wallpaper of a forest painting on their computer, why is the fact that the person in the painting dressed as an archer suddenly more offensive than if the same person were dressed in, say, American Revolution-era clothing? What materially is the difference between liking “mainstream” hobbies and liking something different?
There is none. The individual who told me that being a geek was “wrong” would probably have the same problem with anyone taking admiration of a sports team to an excessive degree. That person’s point, near as I can tell, was actually that the threshold for “acceptable public enthusiasm” for something seldom seen is far, far lower than a more common one.
It’s funny to me how, as we get more and more connected, the concept of “something seldom seen” is, itself, becoming seldom seen.
The Rush to Judgment is still ongoing– this just took precedence. Tomorrow. I promise.
Today, Hasbro and Wizards of the Coast announced that, after four full years of 4th Edition and less than two years since the release of the Essentials “4.5″ rulebooks, Dungeons and Dragons would be moving into its 5th Edition this year. The outrage was immediate and unbelievable. “How can they do this?! They’re going to ruin everything that’s great about D&D!” That’s not the interesting part– honestly, that happens with everything that has rules changes. The New York Times article on the RPG announcement made allusions to the 1979 addition of the three-point shot to NBA basketball, and how people got their feathers a-ruffled over that.
Did you catch the bombshell in that last sentence? Go back and read it over again.
Within a few minutes of the announcement, Twitter was awash in comments linking to the CNN and Times articles on the story. Let me spell that out: CNN and the New York Times, hard news sources, were writing about the announcement of a tabletop role-playing game. The NYT got a few of the details wrong here and there, but they wrote about geek news. This, if anything, blows my mind more than the announcement of the new edition.
I think it was in 1988 or so– certainly only a year or two after video games made it really big again in the US– when Gary Larson drew a particular Far Side comic strip. It showed a kid happily playing games while his parents looked on; in their thought bubble were the classified ads for September 5, 2005, all of which were looking for “Nintendo Experts”. Larson was trying to make a satirical point with this strip. Thing is, though, the 1990s happened after that was published, and with it came the tech boom and all its glories. A “Nintendo Expert” may not be able to command the $95K salary “+ Ferrari” that the cartoon predicted, but can easily pay the bills working as a game tester in the right areas.
The specifics of getting a job that involves mostly playing video games, including the fact that it’s mind-numbingly tedious work that I’d honestly rather shoot myself than do, is largely beside the point. What is the point is that the once-feared, once-clandestine hobby of tabletop role-playing games is now getting page space in one of the most well-known newspapers in America. Another emblem of nerdery has been brought to light, and as expected, it’s no big deal. Except it is.
I hate to admit this, as it tends to give people the wrong impression about me, but I’m perpetually off of the curve when it comes to popularity of certain things. In college, I was spouting the “All
Your Base” meme about three months before it caught fire among my peers. In high school I was discovering the 80′s as the pinnacle of rock and roll at a time when my classmates were gushing over the Spice Girls or N’Sync. I’m never following something just as it hits its stride: either I’m late to the party or I’m bored with it already. I think this is just an exaggeration of the nerd quality at large. All this stuff that the general public is suddenly finding to be cool– The Lord of the Rings, D&D, video games, anything mentioned on The Big Bang Theory– nerds have been doing that for decades.
And yet, we don’t have the disdain for those things that the ill-defined “hipster” does. When something we love hits the mainstream– a word we don’t always use as a euphemism for “point of repugnance”– it gives those who already love it a sense of hope that more people will see in that thing the qualities that attracted us to it in the first place. More eyeballs means more people to share with, to talk with, to enjoy the things we like. Sure, some people might not care for it, but some folks might love it.
But getting back to D&D, I really shouldn’t be all that surprised that rollin’ the ol’ d20 has become a more common occurrance across the board. Early-childhood education these days tends more towards exercising the child’s imagination and gently teaching new concepts through familiar rules and building on frameworks. This extends on through high school– even as “teaching to the test” and rote memorization and regurgitation of facts becomes common, there’s still that give-and-take between it and letting the student discover his or her own natural talents, wherever they may lie. Role-playing games– either highly-structured ones like D&D or just an ad-hoc “roll this
die” system– can be fairly helpful in this regard, no matter the age group.
To wit: over the holidays, I spoke with a few of my cousins about the family, and it came out that one of our other cousins was actively engaged in a Dungeons and Dragons game. He’s still in elementary school. I was mildly surprised, but what made it even better was that his father (our uncle) was running the game for him and his friends. This is an incredible thing to hear about, especially for us– who, at the age of our young wizarding cousin, wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a D&D manual. In point of fact, when my sister and I did manage to discover an ancient, dilapidated copy of the original Red Box in my grandmother’s house one trip, it was quickly secreted away from us (and, I suspect, destroyed– a shame, because I believe it would fetch a pretty decent price nowadays even in its poor condition). (Related: I’m offering to paint character figures for any of my family who ask for it.)
It’s really hard to continually argue that tabletop games are solely for nerds when they get far less of a bad rap than they did fifteen years ago. When a sitcom can show a role-playing game session and not have the world explode into a hellstorm of controversy normally reserved for if they had just sacrificed small children on-screen, you’ve hit the mid-time. Not the big-time: the mid-time. That’s all gaming really needs; like the old REM song, it’s enough to be a moderate success. A big, flashy blast of interest will undoubtedly cause a backlash, a flame-out, and eventually an extinction. I don’t want people hawking d12s on the street; I don’t need to see role-playing “performance apparel”; I don’t think televising gaming sessions in the World Poker Tour style will ever catch on. I’m happy with people just being able to pick up the game and not be ostracized for it.
Of course, today’s events aren’t nearly as interesting as what I saw last year: the new edition of the Red Box (the D&D starter set) on the shelf at Target, just next to the baseball cards. I only saw it once. When I went back the next day, they were sold out.
All the way to Reno, baby.