American Culture

I am a geek in a jock culture

I am a geek.

I read science fiction and I watch anime. While I’m not remotely fluent, I can speak a few words of Klingon and Elvish, and I think it’s totally cool that some people take the time to make their own chain mail. I read Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, a number of Xanth novels, and both the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit.

I play Dungeons & Dragons and am a Dungeon Master. I’ve designed my own role-playing game using a ShadowRun-based system and have been role-playing since spring 1992. I would have played in junior high and high school, but everyone else was too cool for role-playing games.

I’m 35 and still love playing with LEGO, ie LEGO scale modeling. I buy my children Brio and Thomas the Tank Engine train track and bridge accessories so I can build bigger and taller interlocking bridges just to have them Godzilla-ed by my toddler son 30 seconds after he discovers them the next morning.

I’m an electrical engineer working in the aerospace industry, and I’ve worked in both tape storage and telecommunications. I have a Master’s degree in optics and communications and yet I do low-noise analog circuit design for a living. I chose electrical engineering as an undergrad because it’s close to one of my hobbies – quantum mechanics – but I can actually make a living as an electrical engineer.

In my better moments, I also try to be both a journalist and a speculative fiction author on the side. I have, at last count, four science fiction novels percolating around in my head and presently no opportunity to write them. Three of them are a trilogy, and I’ve already mapped out the basic plot of all three novels. And I have more short stories in my head, and on my hard drive, than I can count easily.

I’m a blogger and I run one of the better, if presently a bit dated and poorly maintained, Bubblegum Crisis anime fansites on the web. I also play sysadmin for both of my sites, my wife’s Tupperware site, and Scholars & Rogues.

And in my primary school days, I was routinely ignored, mocked, verbally and physically abused by my peers, and despised. I was smart, and I had the unmitigated gall to exercise my intellect. I set the curve on 6 of 8 college prep biology exams my sophomore year of high school – and the teacher, who himself despised smart kids, had the audacity to post my name – and score – each time. I attended a high school where, if you were smart, you were nothing. Popularity came from sports and/or student government. All else was crap, and not only did the students make you feel like shit if you weren’t an athlete, so did the teachers, the administrators, and the parents.

I only earned respect after six years of running track – and sucking at it bad enough that I only ever came in better than last twice, although one of those times resulted in a hairline fracture in my elbow. Having the guts to stick it out with the good athletes for six years when many of the “cool” kids dropped out because it was too hard earned me the respect of people whose respect I actually craved.

But it took six years of sports to get it. High grades wouldn’t have done it. Playing my trumpet in the orchestra, band, or marching band wouldn’t have done it. Only sports. And my school was not the only one like this.

The world needs more people just like me. But our schools, and our culture at large, can’t handle that fact. Even now, when being a geek is supposedly cool, it’s not. Because geeks are different. Geeks don’t mind not conforming. And our culture wants homogeneity, not non-conformists. Just look at all the Wal*Marts. The Home Depots. The McDonalds. The Toys-R-Us-es.

The Japanese have a saying – the nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

I have a saying too – the squeaky wheel gets the grease gun.

I am proud of who I am, even though my own culture despises me. Even as my own culture cannot exist without me.

I am a geek.

Hear me squeak.

15 replies »

  1. You know what else is fun? Try being both smart AND athletic. I was like everybody else growing up – very into baseball, hoops and football. Played ’em all, and was actually pretty good at hoops and baseball. To this day I wonder how far I could have gone had I focused on baseball instead of dumping it all in high school in favor of debate and academics. See, I knew the odds were long on the sports but that the brain thing represented a real shot at a better life.

    But this double life meant I was neither quite a geek or a jock (oh yeah, I was in the marching band, too). I’ll always remember one of my baseball teams, where I was openly mocked for being a brainiac. By a punk whose batting average was as least .200 points lower than mine and who may by now have worked his way up shift leader at McDonald’s. And then imagine being in a PhD program and having people find out that I had always seen myself as an athlete to a significant degree.

    Not quite fitting anywhere has made me a better person, I think. To this day I have a lot of different things going on and I have friends – GOOD friends – across a range of subcultures. Writers, jocks, geeks, gamers, musicians, academics, you name it. Professionally I’m a marketing guy with a lot more engineer friends than marketing friends. Don’t see that every day.

    Great post. Confession is good for the soul… 🙂

  2. You think you have it bad. Try being mediocre at sports, music, and school. The only thing I’m good at is being a smart ass.

  3. Being blessed with the hand-eye coordination of Horatio Nelson, the dramatic society offered a great outlet both for smart ass-ery and generally acting the fool, not to mention the fact that there were girls involved.

  4. My identity was more in line with Sam’s. I was born into a “jock” family where my dad played college basketball and my mom was a cheerleader for him. Both my siblings and I broke high school records and I was captain of a couple of varsity teams. When all else failed sports helped me fit right in.

    On the other hand I was always emotionally and socially insecure, my smarts were above the curve and I enjoyed the company of nerds. Knowing your family Brian, take some comfort in their support of your intellectual muscle. My mom still has video tapes of every single sports game I played, but by family collectively knocked me down for using “scientific” words. (You know, the ones with more than a couple of syllables.) So, I enjoyed being a “social chameleon” as I called myself, someone who could blend in and hide in many different settings.

    But I disagree that we are living in a monolithic jock culture. On the contrary, I believe that we are living in the Golden Age of the Geek. Think about popular culture: With Lord of the Rings winning the Oscar, a constant rotation of at least one comic book figure in every megaplex in the country, from Buffy to Harry Potter exercising our collective imagination, geek is the new black. And it’s dawning on the world that it is going to be the geeks that will save the world’s ass. Back during WWII it was the jocks who the nation turned to defeat tyranny. Now we all look to the geeks’ imagination, ingenuity and intelligence to wean the world off of the slow-acting poison of long-chained carbon. To paraphrase Paul Simon, “Al Gore, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

  5. Djerred – I understand what you’re saying about today being a “Golden Age of the Geek.” But I don’t agree. Yes, the world is learning that it needs smart people, but intelligence is still largely resented, not celebrated. At least, it is here in the U.S.

    We celebrate physical excellence with the Olympics, professional sports, the World Cup. We celebrate artistic ability with concerts that cost $150 per ticket, public sculpture, and arts fairs. We celebrate intellectual excellence with Chuck on NBC and Stargate Atlantis on SciFi.

    And even on Stargate Atlantis, the two coolest members of the team are uber-soldier Ronin and Colonel Sheppard, the jockish soldier who would rather play golf than chess or attend the Atlantis Mensa meetings. Rodney McKay, the main character with the most overt intelligence, is arrogant, overweaning, emotionally screwed up, and generally a bad stereotype of smart people everywhere.

    There’s a big difference between understanding the need for someone smart to figure things out that you don’t get yourself and appreciating them for simply being smart.

    There’s also a difference, in this case, between being a “geek” and a “nerd.” Nerds are smart, geeks are both smart and have personal interests that are outside the norm for our culture – like my LEGO scale modeling and role-playing game interests.

  6. That reminds me of a bad joke:
    What is the difference between a jock and a geek.
    When geeks see an RPG coming their way they think it’s time to roll up their stats.
    When jocks see an RPG coming their way they think “DUCK!”

    I was thinking of a Golden Age as acceptance of and access to a great amount of quality of a culture’s byproducts. Has there been any time within the last 100 years where Geekdom has such a great influence upon society? Before that, during the late Victorian age lots of people obsessed with obscure orchards, the taxonomy of unknown species found in foreign lands and rare books (I’d brand those as geek activities). That is the last time that I can think of that “geekiness” had such wide acceptance.

    By it’s very nature, geeks will not be the cultural norm for entire populations and we’ll have a lot further to go before intellectual horsepower is given the respect it deserves. But, by gosh by golly, it’s pretty good to be a geek nowadays and the future looks even brighter.

    Oh, and for those of you who are interested in the semantic differences, here’s a Nerd vs. Geek vs. Dork quiz for ya:

  7. “Rodney McKay, the main character with the most overt intelligence, is arrogant, overweaning, emotionally screwed up, and generally a bad stereotype of smart people everywhere.”

    Yes, but he’s also the guy who saves the day–and who the team relies on to save the day–more often than not. Don’t forget that Stargate also brought us Daniel Jackson, a geeky, stuttering Egyptologist who has saved the universe AND gotten the girl on numerous occasions.

    Awesome post, regardless, and very well said.

  8. I disagree but don’t stop being proud of who you are. Your just a person. Tell me that Klingon and anime, are really that different from Sports Jargon and Family Guy. It’s the same things in the same niche, just done a different way.

    Geek culture can be as stereotypical as they make jock culture out to be, but in the end are they really like they say they are. Subcultures are populated with people that are interested in certain things and others who are looking for interests.

    My whole life I’ve seen that there is no such thing as jocks or geeks or sluts, only people that want to or are forced into that role.

    We all just people stereotypes don’t exist. We just wish they did.

  9. Maddie – the difference is that the U.S. has a sports, jock culture. It’s not a subculture, it’s the dominant culture. Everything else is a subculture.

    Of course, when you start realizing that there’s precious little difference between role playing games and fantasy football leagues, well….