Thursday, November 10, 2011

An Evening Among Nerds

Last night, I skipped my biweekly Young Professionals discussion group (the topic was on the European economic crisis, which doesn't really interest me) in order to attend a lecture and book signing at Powell's City of Books. I generally make a point to attend the lectures / book signings of Hollywood celebrities because I think its cool that they come to Portland to promote their books. The last ones I recall seeing were Alicia Silverstone in 2009 and director Paul Verhoeven in 2010. Last night the celebrity with a book was Chris Hardwick, whom I remember fondly from MTV's dating game show, Singled Out. I had forgotten all about the show and vaguely remember it. What I remember most was what a pair Chris Hardwick and Jenny McCarthy made.

The book Chris wrote and is promoting is called The Nerdist Way, which is a comedic handbook for people who fall under the "nerd category" of high school stereotypes. The book actually got a good review in the snarky Portland Mercury alternative weekly newspaper. I wasn't sure I was going to buy a copy, but it did look interesting.

The lecture was one of the more popular ones I've been to. I figured it would be, as it always tends to be crowded whenever a Hollywood type comes up here. I've probably been to at least 50 book signings / lectures since I moved to Portland in 2006. So I can say without exaggeration that Chris Hardwick's presentation is the absolute BEST ONE EVER! The guy is seriously witty and had us laughing like crazy. He started by taking a picture of the audience (actually, his camera phone has a panorama feature, so he took quite a few shots to cover the entire area). He said that he wanted evidence to show people that he was able to bring out a huge crowd for his book lecture tour. After that, he started reading someone else's children's book, using a strange accent for the girl (claiming that he pictured the girl in the book actually talking that way, which he did in an annoying style). He then allowed the audience to pick what part of the book to read and then read a few sections, though with commentary thrown in.

Before he threw out some profanities, he actually asked the Powell's employee if it was okay to use swear words. When he was told that he could, the actual word he used was "jerked off." As in, he said that when you're telling someone something and you sense that they aren't really paying attention, to end it with: "and then I jerked off." He swears that it will get their attention. Funny!

After he read his selections, he opened the floor for questions and surprisingly, he went well beyond the usual hour that most of these events run. I learned a lot and laughed a lot. I had no idea that he has podcasts or a website or a TV show. He does stand-up comedy, too. His background is interesting, as his father was a professional bowler who ended up owning a bowling alley and Chris pretty much grew up in one. Chris claims to be a nerd and even defined the term for everyone. I never pictured him as a nerd, though. Never would have guessed it. I didn't even think the crowd was all that "nerdy." The people who attended the lecture looked like the typical Portland hipster. I guess we all have our interests. There were a few Dr. Who references thrown around and I didn't get any of those, as I've never been interested in that show (my brother loved the classic show shown on TV back in the 1980s). One much older guy (a Baby Boomer) asked Chris a question about Mozart and Chris played it well. They bantered back and forth, but the guy was strange. He seemed to want to know who Chris thought was the best composer and if Mozart would qualify as a genius. It was great to see how quick on his feet Chris was, able to entertain even the oddest question for the audience to laugh.

Even when Chris shared some personal stories, he mentioned that he was a private person and prefers to keep some things for himself (which is understandable). Here's what he said about his stint on the show Singled Out (I found it online, but it was basically the same as what he shared with us at Powell's):

The whole time I was hosting that show, it was kind of nerd vengeance. It was very "Revenge of the Nerds" in my mind. I feel like I was horrible to people on that show. There were so many screaming people on that set, I realized pretty quickly that if I made horrible comments under my breath into the microphone, people at home watching would hear but no one on the set would hear. My nerd rage forced me to be kind of douchey to people because I finally got to say the things that I never got to say to people's faces. That part of it was really satisfying.

I still find it kind of difficult to think of him as a nerd, though. However, the way he describes "nerd" is a socially awkward person who tends to live in one's head a lot and obsessively focuses on a singular pursuit to be an expert on something. Nerds are good at details on whatever it is they grasp hold of. His motive for writing this "self-help" type of book (a manual for nerds, in other words) is to help those who fall under this category to have more success in life. He claims that "the war is over and nerds won!" As we can see with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the Facebook founder, and other high tech companies founders, where would the jock types be without the nerds?

It was a great lecture and definitely the funniest one I've been to. Before this, David Sirota's lecture at Powell's earlier this year was the best one I had been to (because he had a PowerPoint presentation). But its hard to beat a witty guy who is making it cool to be a nerd. I waited in line (a long, slow moving one). He was cool about it all. I saw a few people ahead of me request getting pictures taken with him (he did the one eyebrow lift for one pose). I thanked him for writing a book like this, even though I don't think of myself as a nerd. I told him that I had been to about 50 book signings / lectures at Powell's and that he was by far the funniest and best one yet. He made me a fan. One thing that he did during his lecture that the audience enjoyed was sing "The Pi song" which is simply all the numbers to the nth decimal. It was an impressive memory, though I can't vouch for any of it being correct. All in all, a great night.

So, what is a "nerd"? To be completely honest, people have categorized me as a "nerd" in high school, but I never felt that way. I did not like science at all and I did not like hanging out with those who were definitely known as "nerds". As Chris pointed out in his lecture, nerds can actually be quite vicious to other nerds. He said that he didn't mind getting insulted by a jock because the insults tended to be lame and ridiculous, but an insult from a nerd tended to get under his skin and just lodge itself in the brain for him to obsess over. He made a plea for nerds to not be mean to other nerds. But he also said that he didn't like being mean (or "douchey").

My social circle in junior high school and high school did tend to be other military "brats" and most of my friends did seem to prefer science and math classes (I was more into history and English). I played Dungeons and Dragons once but never really got into it (one year for Christmas, I got a James Bond role playing game, which was more my style). I was more into art and writing. I didn't fit in with the jocks and the popular kids. But I wasn't like those I considered the "nerds" who seemed to have no friends. I didn't get along with any of the nerd types I knew in school. I always thought of myself as outside the high school social structure. People did have trouble putting me into a convenient box. If anything, though, I think there is a consistent view of me as the writer / artist type. That has never changed. Does that make me a "nerd", though?

Wikipedia describes a "nerd" in part as:

Some nerds show a pronounced interest in subjects which others tend to find dull or boring, too complex and difficult to comprehend, or overly mature for their age, especially topics related to science, mathematics and technology. Conversely, nerds may show an interest in activities that are viewed by their peers as stupid and immature for their age, such as trading cards, comic books, television programs, films, role-playing games, video games, and other things relating to fantasy and science fiction. Nerds are often portrayed as physically unfit, and either obese or very thin. Nerds are also sometimes portrayed as having symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder such as showing extreme interest in rules. Comparisons to Asperger syndrome are common, due to the tendency to engage in intense, specific interests and to experience difficulty in social situations.

Particularly in the case of males, nerds may be perceived as being uninterested in traditionally masculine activities such as sports (either participating in or following) or "locker room talk".

Ah hell. I guess I am a "nerd." I hate that word, though. Geek sounds better to me. Yeah, I'll confess to being a geek. But it is interesting that nerds seem to be into science fiction and fantasy when it comes to movies and books, while I've always been more grounded and prefer reality (especially with regards to history). I don't own any video games, either, because I find them to be a colossal waste of time. I know how addicting they are and I much prefer to use my time learning. If any character from a movie resembles me, I'd say it would be the robot Number 5 from Short Circuit (when he reads books like crazy and demands "more input!"). Yeah, I realize the irony. I just compared myself to a character in a science fiction movie!

Though the Wikipedia article does define me in part (I don't watch or follow sports either, but I do enjoy watching the Winter and Summer Olympics, and the World Cup), I long for the day when we don't need these labels that are the relic of the superficial adolescent world. In fact, as much as I love the concept of reincarnation and plan to keep on reincarnating, the worst part of the life experience is enduring the superficial world of high school. I wish there was a way to end the shallow categories of people. I knew smart kids who were part of the cool and popular crowd. I knew jocks who were intelligent and nice to the outcasts. There is no fine line.

If there is a term that I embrace, though, it would be "Bohemian." I love the vibe of that word and all it implies. Yes, I am a Bohemian (not a nerd). And I don't give a shit what the popular kids think of me. A shallowness of mind is punishment.

Below is a video clip of Chris Hardwick during his Singled Out days in the mid-1990s. Enjoy! And check out his book, The Nerdist Way.

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