Monday, July 30, 2007


Notes on Nerds

According to this article in the New York Times, the question of nerd-dom is finally starting to receive a tiny fraction of the attention it deserves.

A linguist at UCSB has identified the essence of nerdiness as “hyperwhiteness,” or a refusal to engage in the cherry-picking of African-American culture that cooler white kids do to bond. Of course, Weird Al Yankovic figured this out already and set it to music; his “White and Nerdy” became an instant classic by encapsulating white nerddom in a series of painfully accurate vignettes. (“My rims don't spin/to the contrary/I think you'll find that they're quite stationary”)

As shorthand, it's recognizable, but there's so much more to it than that. (For that matter, the paradigmatic nerd is the Asian math whiz, not the white kid. Do your research, people!)

Back in the early 80's, when my nerdiness could actually be seen from space, the cool white kids didn't know from rap. The whole 'acting black' thing didn't catch on until the late 80's at the very earliest. Depending on income, the cool white kids listened to either Future Lite Rock (Hall and Oates, Huey Lewis, Phil Collins) or Burnout Metal (Rush, Pink Floyd, Ozzy). When trying to attract girls, they'd fuse the two into the unholy musical synthesis of the Power Ballad. (“Every rose has its thorn/Just as every night has its dawrn/Just as every cowboy sings the same sad sorng...”) As Butthead explained to Beavis ten years later, “sometimes cool bands have to do wuss songs to get chicks.”

Meanwhile, my nerd friends and I quoted Tom Lehrer tunes (a kid singing “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” would probably trigger a lockdown now) and entire Monty Python sketches. The girls were, mysteriously, unimpressed, and therefore mostly absent.

Looking back, my nerd posse was a gumbo of late bloomers (hi!), closeted gays, and conservative Christians. (Those categories weren't mutually exclusive.) What we all shared was a discomfort with the dominant social scene, if for different reasons. So we cobbled together what we could, often in idiosyncratic ways. And if there's one thing that the teenage shock troops of gender conformity can't abide, it's genuine idiosyncracy. (This is not to be confused with Approved Idiosyncracy, like getting a mohawk, or dressing Goth, or tattoos. Those are accepted as flourishes within approved categories.)

As they mature, nerds can go in different directions. Dumb nerds have a tough row to hoe; in my observation, they usually wind up as druggies or Trekkers or captives of some strange and random enthusiasm they take much too far.. (The “Worst. Episode. Ever.” guy on The Simpsons pretty much captures it.)

The closeted gay nerds often weren't really nerds at all, so once they come out, that's that. The closeted gay conservative Christians deserve a study of their own.

Some of the smarter nerds become relatively high-functioning over time (hi!). We tend to age with relative equanimity, since we don't experience aging as the loss of coolness, never having been cool in the first place. With kids and a mortgage, certain topics that would have been unforgivably nerdly at earlier ages become, if not cool, at least relevant. With a little effort, we can pass ourselves off as “on the quiet end of normal,” rather than as the repulsive pariahs we once were and never quite forget being. With age and experience, some of the sharper edges get sanded down, and some of us manage to fill in some of the personality gaps with life wisdom that we once filled in with brittle bluster.

The Wife has advised her single friends to seek out the high-functioning nerds, since we tend to treat our wives better. Besides, there are times in life when a guy who hasn't been anybody's babydaddy can hold a certain appeal. I once posted an essay on the “nice guy syndrome,” or the rejection of high-functioning nerds in favor of blustery assholes, only to be soundly flamed by women readers who suggested that self-proclaimed 'nice guys' are creepy narcissists with overdeveloped senses of entitlement. I considered the objection off-point, since true nerds lack much sense of entitlement at all. But it may well be the case that creepy manipulators like to try to pass themselves off as high-functioning nerds. I consider this an affront to the honor of both nerds and women.

(Female nerds have very different experiences. I'll have to ask my battle-scarred readers to shed light on that.)

My Grand Theory of Nerdiness – every true nerd has at least one – is that it reflects having different parts of the personality mature at different rates. If you combine an introverted streak, a slow-growing social sense, and a fast-growing sense of risk aversion, you get a nerd. If the nerd is lucky, over time, the underdeveloped parts of the personality mostly catch up, and you wind up with a fairly functional, if chastened, adult. 'Acting black' is relevant only insofar as it's the trend at that moment for the cool kids. The UCSB study has mistaken a transitory symptom for the essence of the thing.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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