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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Did The Geeks Win The War?

                                Ya Gotta Earn It (Or Buy It At Sears, $49.99)

The first rush was in 1987. Had any of us been analysts or risk assessors, we'd have been more prepared for what was coming. But we were jocks. And analysis was a geek vocation.

So, when Pejman Farwi decided to run for senior class president, we took it to be just a faceless opponent, like Walpole had been the day we beat them in the now famous "mud bowl." We were going to crush Pejman and move on, beer in one hand, balls in the other.

I understand it must be difficult to have passions that aren't appreciated, but in all fairness: we won states in hockey! "STATE CHAMPS!" Concise. "Best Rebuttal For an Open Reply at Regional Forensics Symposium" is pretty impressive, I guess, but try putting it on a friggin' t-shirt.

The short of it: There were a lot of unhappy geeks. 

No geek had ever made a run for class president and I must say his was a valiant effort against a popular, three-term candidate, my buddy Ryan (3-sport conference All-Star). We were shaken.

Ryan: 411 votes
Pejman: 17

Always being on the losing end in the popularity war must have sucked. But I think we were gracious winners (we'd had a lot of practice at it). Ryan offered Pejman a spot on his advisory committee.

Very gracious.

As campaign manager and chief cabinet member, I delivered the message to Pejman. He declined with a shake of his head and something I couldn't make out in Farsi.

But now, I think it might've been: You ain't seen the last of us.


Let me say, I was down with the geek movement from early on. In '84, when "Revenge of the Nerds" first came out, the entire country was with it: Jocks could be total dicks! The little guy has his day! And yes, there is more to life than sports and much of that life is made up of the contributions of geeks!

And before "Revenge," Stanley Kramer's classic "Bless the Beasts and the Children" about the sufferings of bed-wetters at summer camp made me and every other little leaguer cry when we watched it the last day of each school year.

But man, the '90s saw a different type of geek emerge: unapologetic and bold; hammering home that they were the future.

At the risk of sounding like one of those people who "loved early black cinema" and now reflexively hates everything--

I can't tell you how much I loved "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"...When Tom Robinson is on the stand in "To Kill a Mockingbird," well, I was embarrassed to be white...but Spike Lee...that's gone too far--

I longed for the geek of old.

I wasn't too comfortable with the geek that continually reminded me that mine and every other jock's days were numbered.

"Freaks and Geeks" was a great show, but one most guilty of that conceit. Sam and the boys are as intolerant of otherwise nice people not "getting" Steve Martin as the jocks are of the weak-armed outfielder. The geeks push away pretty girls who act like pretty girls, they chide non-believers of geekdom and remind each other that in the future they'll be kings.

Their nerdy A/V teacher tells them, pointing to an imaginary graph that the jocks hit their apex " high school...we hit it and after," indicating a rocketing line.

Being a geek, as a cultural entity, has become an entirely different thing than the dry-skin picking, comics reader of yore.

The super model boasts of being "such a geek." Sports Illustrated will do a piece on a college All-American who is a 4.0 physics major and is really a geek.

This is a misappropriation of the word. The model making her cameo on a sitcom does not become a geek simply because she snorts when she laughs. Because, when she does it, snorting becomes acceptable, attractive, and will soon be imitated by other model-wannabe-geeks.

The geeks could take a cool endeavor, and with their lip-gnawing passion and analysis, make it less-so. It is their passion as much as their particular interest that makes them geeks.

Comedian Tom Franck, a self-labeled geek, says that being a geek means to have an "obsessive interest in something... well, something that's not cool...I mean, you don't hear people say 'I'm such a coke and threesome geek.'"

There is some behavior that will never be "uncool," but I believe that that behavior will never become widely popular in the geek community. While innately cool, martial arts has an enormous geek following, and much of the karate boom of the '70s was due to geeks and their obsession with its super power appeal. Recreational drugs and sex, on the other hand, are inherently about not caring, dude. This lifts the geek out of geekdom. The geek loses his stripes.

The sudden mainstream popularity of the geek reflects the economic system: The broad-shouldered provider in the business suit returning home on the 5:53 Local is dead; he's traveling to conferences three days a week or working 'til 9 pm.

The days of "work hard, play hard" are no more. The estates have conjoined and geeks whose play -- computers, D&D, comics, science -- has always incorporated work are reaping the benefits.

With their passions and professions colliding, geeks dominate all professional worlds: finance, technology, medicine, entertainment and even sports (X's and O's becomes more and more a part of the game).

The wanna-be is trying to ape that exuberance to maintain viability.


But part of the success could be a manipulation...

In 1973, child development researchers at Stanford conducted an experiment testing a theory of deferred gratification.

A class of six year olds were given marshmallows. They could either eat the marshmallow immediately or wait for the teacher to return. If they waited, they would get two, four, as many as they wanted.

The conclusion was said to be that those children who waited were more likely to achieve success in school and, well, life.

First question: How many marshmallows do you need?

Maybe I want a marshmallow now and I don't want to be bogged down with it anymore; I can get more at home or wherever.

What does it say about a kid who wants to horde marshmallows that he may not ever want to eat? Where does deferred gratification become an early stage of simple greed?

Do you get a marshmallow Peep craving? Or is it when you see that pink, purple or yellow row of confectionary chicks, you gotta have it?

The experiment could also be gauging impulse control; how well the child assesses his own desires and how much he defers his own desires for others? I mean, marshmallows are bite size, made for popping, might it be a little strange to alter them into a futures commodity?

The researchers (note: with titles like Cognitive Development Fellow, there may be something of a bias  about intellect) define success mainly as "academic achievement."

Problem: They get to define and sway the perception of academic achievement. School curriculum is designed to stretch (or mold) students into what higher academic research, such as the Stanford Project,  promises to be the way to go.

To illustrate such influence:

"American Idol" was first billed as a talent showcase that could judge who "might have the stuff to make it." As the show snagged popularity, record labels agreed to give contracts to the winners and popular contestants. As a result, the American Idol judges can never be wrong, as who they pick automatically, by contract, are given success; they are no longer predictors but now creators of the "stuff."

Similarly, as any esteemed study dictates academic approach, the Stanford study guaranteed, in a way, that it couldn't be wrong by influencing the type of exercises schools employ.

Simply: School exercises (assignments) are based on what research finds important. The Stanford experiment says deferred gratification is important. School curriculum will be modified accordingly. Students who possess that quality will find school from the get-go a more welcoming, rewarding place.

How could you not be more successful?

Even "business success" can be influenced by such thinking. As most American business is theoretical --a product that may not even exist is bought on its thesis -- people who sound smart, who speak the lingua franca, who have gone the "reasoned" route, make investors more comfortable than the impulsive no matter how brilliant they may be.

Those who quickly gobble their marshmallows are more likely to attain success in fields where impulse is rewarded -- the arts and sports, for example.

All else being equal, I'd rather have a marshmallow gobbler playing defensive back on my football team; I think he would naturally grasp the idea of "when the ball's in the air, it's anybody's" than the deferential.

And trust me, you wouldn't want to have to sit through a talent show watching a bunch of performers with marshmallows still in their pockets.

                                             I know your pain, sister


The marvelous thing about geeks has always been their complete devotion to their passion above themselves. Comic book heroes, no matter the superpowers with which they're endowed, are not bigger than the larger goal (even if that goal were an evil one).

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a departure from that formula, as the protagonist's main obsession and pursuit is self-promotion.

Greg says early on in the series that he will one day be "super famous" and everyone will love him, but until then he has to make-do with a bunch of "neanderthals" around him.

What makes them "neanderthals?" Arm-pit hair? They're big? They play sports?

In "Revenge," Gilbert and Lewis enter college with the innocent belief that it will be different from high school and they will win over the jocks  and will make loads of friends.

On the contrary, Greg  seems to dislike his classmates on appearance and with no regard that they are on their own learning and social curve.

And like the coxsackie virus, narcissism is catchy.

The book's popularity stretches beyond the wimpy and has entered the masses as an accepted approach to the world and peers -- today doesn't matter, it's the future!

Not very Zen.


The class reunion is an ugly place. Aside from the looping slide show and display of baby photos,  making your former classmates feel like shit about how they look and what they do for work is a top-order of business.

And this show of snobbery has been given a wheels-of-justice justification in sentimental yarns on TV and in film. And the jocks, if not for them being presented as sad-sacks who have wasted life, are reminded of their adolescent nastiness.

"You were mean as a snake..." The nerd tells the former Beauty Queen. Yes, and you nerd, have cost people jobs with your corporate collusion; your contact list is full, but full of people who mainly served a professional purpose; And while you hated the snubs of classmates walking past you, you don't return phone calls and say "that's business."

Ponzi schemes, pharmaceutical mishaps, governmental improprieties, blockbuster movie trash business, excessive litigation, nuclear meltdowns.

All bad.

All of them have nothing to do with jocks. In fact, most have a lot to do with nerds.

Okay, I picked on you during dodge ball in gym class. You destroyed the world economy. Which is worse?

Most of the geeks I have known are really good folk. Smart. Funny. Great taste and not so interested in wide-spread popularity; if you're a struggling writer, geeks make the best friends.

Similarly, the jocks weren't as bad as screenwriters would have you believe. The challenge of Saturday's competition usually gave you pretty good perspective. The bully was usually the sycophant; the third-stringer or the guy who never played.

Perhaps, the current backlash against the jocks is being carried out by the same group of wannabes. Those who really never had the passion for comics, but now want in on the action.

We all benefit from the work of geeks. Many of my friends are geeks. And as time goes on and technology becomes more and more important in our lives, each of us becomes geekier by day.

Somebody oughta tell them, though, they might want to finally eat that marshmallow before it gets too stale.

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