October 14, 2005
I was a geek in high school. It’s taken me a long time to be able to say that proudly. For a long time I was in denial. I even did some un-geek-like things as a teenager, like being a Boy Scout and trying out for the golf team. Still I was the only Boy Scout in my troop who could find fifteen edible plants within twenty feet of the campsite, and I’d even eat them for a dollar. As for the golf team, I tried out for it. And didn’t make it. I was too humiliated to even think about trying out for the croquet team.
But I digress. At least I wasn’t a nerd. Most people don’t realize that "geek" and "nerd" aren’t really synonymous. They may be subtle, but there are differences. In spite of what movies try to tell us high school, like the rest of life, is not really a place where everyone can be easily pigeonholed as sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wasteoids, and dweebies. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by John Hughes films, since none of us ever came out of a day of detention, a long-distance trip, or a prom invaded by vampires with our lives significantly improved. If high school had a plot it was "Lord of the Flies" one day and "Gilligan’s Island" the next, and there was a time and place where jocks, metalheads, and even nerds and geeks could be equals. I think it was behind the greenhouse, before gym.
But I digress. The major difference between nerds and geeks is one of degree. Geeks dress up as their favorite Star Trek character for Halloween. Nerds dress up as their favorite Star Trek character for casual Fridays. Geeks played Dungeons & Dragons. Nerds insisted on being called "Viklas The Orc Smiter" even when they weren’t playing Dungeons & Dragons. Geeks play video games. Nerds write video games. And while nerds tend to be socially inept, geeks are generally a little more, well, ept. Not that I’m knocking nerds. Several decades ago nerds started playing around with these things called "computers" which would eventually enable them to take over the world. Nerds, in spite of having been social outcasts, are responsible all those cool technological devices that everyone not only wants but in fact needs to avoid being a social outcast. Nerds belonged to the math club, and went on to become highly paid engineers or scientists – professions where they’re labeled "eccentric". Geeks flunked math, but usually compensated by acing English, and often went on to professions where they’re labeled "weird" or "about to be fired".
Geeks aren’t necessarily shut out from success, though. Successful geeks write bestselling books and direct movies. Geeks design special effects and creatures for science fiction movies, and geeks play the roles of creatures. Or at least they did before nerds and their computers muscled in and figured out how to replace actors with pixels. But I digress. Looking at history I realize geeks and nerds have always been with us. Thomas Edison was a nerd. Edgar Allan Poe was a geek. Benjamin Franklin was both, because only a nerd would fly a kite in a thunderstorm, and only a geek would write an essay called "Fart Proudly". DaVinci was a geek because he painted the Mona Lisa. I know he also designed an airplane and a submarine, but if he’d been a nerd those designs would actually work. In fact the geek-nerd dichotomy is everywhere. Whole-wheat bread is geeky. Vitamin-fortified white bread is nerdy. Lime Jell-o is nerdy. Black cherry soda’s geeky. All Chinese food is nerdy – except moo shu. All sushi is geeky – except California rolls. Pudding is nerdy. Ice cream is geeky. DVDs are geeky. Video on demand is nerdy – although it wasn’t that long ago that DVDs were nerdy and videotapes were geeky. Latte is nerdy. Capuccino is geeky. Making a gourmet meal from scratch is geeky. Getting expensive take-out is nerdy.Shakespeare in the park is geeky. Shakespeare on film is nerdy. Liquid soap is geeky. Body gel for men is nerdy – in spite of what the commercials tell you. Geeks know I’m parodying Lenny Bruce right now. Nerds know exactly which items I stole directly from Lenny Bruce’s bit. Pretzels are nerdy. Chips are geeky. Great Britain is nerdy, and so are all their prime ministers – except Churchill. Canada is geeky, and so are all their prime ministers – except R.B. Bennett. And we all, no matter how cool we were in high school, have a geek or nerd inside of us. So be proud and embrace your inner geek or nerd. Just don’t embrace them too much – they’re uncomfortable with physical contact.