Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Nerd life

I just finished Brian Nugent's very enjoyable book American Nerd.
There are sections on the history of nerds, nerds and Japan, nerds and Jewishness, old nerds, nerds and jocks, fake nerds, nerds and autism, nerds and polyamory, nerds and escapism, nerds and science fiction, nerds and debate clubs, nerds and ham radio, nerds and the SCA, nerds and roleplaying games.

Except almost nothing on gender. What?

So, to fill that gap, a few vignettes from my life as a girl nerd:

It's lunchtime in fourth grade. I am explaining to Leslie, who has no friends but me, why we should stick together. “We're both rejects,” I tell her. She draws back, affronted. “We're not rejects!” she says. I'm puzzled. It hadn't occurred to me that she wanted to be normal.


It's the first week of eighth grade. In a lesson on prehistory, the teacher is trying and failing to pronounce “Australopithecus.” I blurt out the correct pronunciation (which my father taught me in early childhood because he thought it was fun to say). The boy next to me gives me a glare and begins looking for alliterative insults. “Fruity female” is the best he can manage. “Geek girl” seems more apt, but I don't suggest it.


It's lunchtime in seventh grade. I'm sitting next to my two best friends, Bridget and Christine, on one side of a cafeteria table. We have been obsessed with Star Wars for a year now, and the school's two male Star Wars fans are seated opposite us. Under Greyson's leadership, we are making up roleplaying characters. I begin describing my character, a space-traveling musician named Anya. “Why are your characters always girls?” Grayson complains. “Just because you're girls doesn't mean your characters have to be.”

“Your characters are always boys,” we retort. He's right, though – female characters are an anomaly in the Star Wars universe. George Lucas (a boy) populated his trilogy with 97% male characters.


It's Bridget's thirteenth birthday, and four of us are spending the night at her house. While her parents sleep, we are roleplaying that we have been captured by Imperials and are escaping a detention cell. This is not papers-and-dice roleplaying, but advanced make-believe with lots of pretend blaster battles and dodging behind furniture.

Christine and Cass, aspiring writers, use roleplaying as a way to test out plots in which they make daring raids and die nobly. Bridget, a future lawyer, and I, a future social worker, use it as a way to test out moral principles. Bridget has been trying to persuade us that the Empire is a legitimate government and we shouldn't be trying to overthrow it at all. I've been trying to persuade Amy that shooting stormtroopers is wrong. They are having none of it.

We all like daring escapes, though, so we do plenty of that.


It's two weeks after the Columbine shootings, and the local paper has run an editorial denouncing parents who raise "geeks and goths." I write my first-ever letter to the editor, defending geeks as kids parents should be proud of. A girl sidles up to me at the lunch table. "I really liked your letter in the paper," she mutters, and skitters away.


It's tenth grade, and I can't bring myself to tell the president of the chess club how desperately I love him. One day I go to chess club just to be near him. There is only one other girl there, and she's really good at chess. I'm not, and I spend the meeting leaning silently on a wall because I can't stand to lose to a boy. Anyway, I despise the girls who join robotics club to be near boys they like, and I don't want to be one of them.


It's eleventh grade, and we are gathered after school to play Dungeons and Dragons. (My father, who originally forbid me to play D&D because he had heard it would lead us to hack each other to pieces with axes, has relented.) Christine is Dungeonmaster, and she has recruited two feckless boys to play with us. One of them is in love with her.

(Nugent points out that D&D is essentially combat reworked for physically awkward people, a way of reducing battle to dice rolls and calculations. Christine has been trained by her uncle in the typical swords-and-sorcery style of play, but when she and I play the culture is different. All our adventures feature pauses for our characters to make tea and omelets.)

On this afternoon, our characters are venturing into the countryside and come across two emaciated farmers who tell us their fields are unplowed because dark elves from the forest keep attacking them. “They're going to starve if they don't get a crop in the ground,” I declare. “We've got to plow at least one field.” The boys go along with this plan.

“The farmers tell you their plow has rusted and doesn't work,” the Dungeonmaster informs us from behind her screen.

I persist. “There's got to be something we can use. I look around to see if there's anything else pointy I can use as a plow.”

The Dungeonmaster considers. “There's a metal gate,” she decides.

“Okay, I rig up some kind of harness and hitch it to the pony.”

“It's rusty too,” intones the Dungeonmaster, “and pieces of it keep breaking off. Look, you're not supposed to be farming. You're supposed to go into the forest and find the dark elves. I don't have anything else about the farmers. The elves are the adventure.” Reluctantly, I give up my agricultural rescue plan and we go into the forest to hack at elves.


I'm 25 and Jeff's sister's boyfriend is complaining that he never gets to play Magic: the Gathering because he doesn't know anyone who plays. “You could play with Julia,” Jeff suggests.
“Very funny,” says Danner, rolling his eyes.
Jeff and I look at each other. I realize geeks no longer read me as a geek. I still love ideas, love alternate imaginings of how life could be, love being right, but now I care about seeming normal.
“...I wasn't joking,” Jeff says.
“It's okay,” I reassure Danner. “I used to play every day, but I've pretty much forgotten how.”


Phil Lohnes said...

Let me offer an explanation of the offer to play Magic. a number of years ago my spouse (Mary) and I went to Toronto and spent a day at the CNE, where there was someone who would play chess against all comers. I hadn't played in a while, but thought it would be fund. It was the first time my spouse had ever watched me play a serious game, and it was five minute chess so that turned up the intensity. It was actually a close game where I had the edge several times, though in the end I lost. Mary, however, observed that there was a personality change when I played in both my verbal banter and my body language, she had never seen me nearly so aggressive. There is this social component to games, particularly war simulations, that have a certain feel when males play with other males. Even though we will (for the most part) play against females just as hard, emotionally there isn't the same joy in "scoring a hit" There is this small part of most male minds that says this kind of aggression is wrong toward a female. All of that said, to of the three females that were in my high school chess club were accepted since they really loved the game. One had the problem that her very non-nerd boyfriend didn't want her there, and the other had to return to Iran, since her father was a visiting scholar (this was when the Shah of Iran was still in charge).

Julia Wise said...

Hmm. I don't think the problem was so much that Danner didn't think a Magic game against me would be fun. It was that he thought the suggestion I knew how to play Magic was a joke (which, knowing Jeff, is a fair assumption).