A Periodic Fable of Elements

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Anyone who has ever been a girl scout knows that new friends are silver and old ones gold. This makes perfect sense. Both metals are highly malleable, strong, flexible, and of significant weight and substance. All friendships should have those qualities. But silver is also lighter, shinier, and a better conductor of heat and electricity; new things are always more exciting than old ones.

Relating friendships to metals is especially apt when you consider the properties of non-metals. Non-metals are not shiny, are generally poor conductors of energy, are brittle (if solid at all), and most tellingly become transparent when stretched thin (whereas metals remain opaque). We all have those people in our lives who seem like friends but suddenly disappear when the pressure is on. Many of them are also giant gas bags – or at the very least full of hot air.

So our friends are precious metals and the rest are not. But surely there are more types of friendship than just “new” and “old”. In my experience, the flavors of friendship are as distinctive and varied as the elements themselves.

Iron, for instance, has the most stable nucleus of all the metals, and that same configuration of electrons makes it highly magnetic. A stable core with a strong attraction? Sounds like a life-long best friend to me! Iron may not be as pretty or shiny as gold and silver, but it makes a hell of a lot better support beam.

Speaking of support, a friend recently commented to me that it is never fair to expect anyone to be supportive all the time, because no one person ever will be. Never mind that her argument was a blatant excuse for her refusal to be inconvenienced by rides to the airport or help with moves, she is wrong because I know personally those bonds do exist. These friends are platinum, which is rare and resists corrosion of any kind – even airport pickups. If you are lucky enough to have one, they are also the only accessory you need.

Long-distance friendships are copper; they can be stretched very thin and yet remain incredibly strong, and are excellent conductors of energy – as they have to be to sustain the necessary work. Still, we have to be careful. Copper can tarnish easily, probably because sarcasm doesn’t translate well over email. Emoji’s can only do so much – call your long-distance friends!

On the other end of the spectrum are titanium friendships, which conduct very little electricity or heat but have a high strength-to-weight ratio. These are our acquaintances or “outer circle” – people we don’t actively seek out, but always enjoy when we find ourselves in their company. The majority of friendships are titanium, which may sound cynical but isn’t. Titanium can be just as attractive as silver or gold, and if everything we had was a heavy metal nothing would have any relative value.

It is the “Facebook friendships” that are cheap aluminum. Aluminum is the most abundant metal on the planet, which is how that jackass from high school can have several thousand Twitter followers, and it resists corrosion – something far easier to do when you can just “hide” a person any time they get a little unpleasant. Much like any online comments section, aluminum is an excellent conductor of heat, and its extreme malleability is why we can crumple it up and toss it as soon as it has served its purpose. The internet: best for baking corn and potato heads.

Beware of lead friends, who do nothing but weigh you down, and of “frenemies”, who are made of whatever Sauron used for the One Ring. But do take up tin friendships; gay-straight bonds are tin not just because the Tin Man was totally effeminate, but because tin is immensely useful and valuable (especially during wartime) while still presenting some potential hazards. For one, tin can be polished to a shine much greater than its natural state, and it is also often used as a protective coating over other metals. There is a reason it took Will and Grace eight years to find other relationships.

Which brings us to friendships that have to deal with extra attraction between the two parties. Harry and Sally demonstrated quite clearly that men and women can be friends, but it is also true that romantic attractions complicate things a bit.

Mercury relationships are when the attraction is one sided and nothing ever progresses beyond friendship. Mercury is not a good conductor of heat (though certainly of electricity), is liquid, and is slippery – and navigating such an imbalance can be quite tricky. Also like mercury, an over-abundance of these friendships in your diet can be toxic.

The flip side is two people who were once romantically involved but are no longer. If the relationship ran its course for both parties, an incredibly strong bond can result. These friendships are tungsten, which is rare and extremely hard. Tungsten has the highest melting point of all the metals, but can also be brittle – especially if someone’s new partner is a jealous crazy person.

But if the relationship ended before one party was ready, that’s where we move away from metals into metalloids. These relationships can be mistaken for friendships, but are not really. Trying to be friends with an ex who broke your heart may seem essential, may even be prescribed as a bit of healthy medicine, but in truth is a situation that is brittle, toxic, and easily fatal. Like arsenic. Which, not coincidentally, is an element commonly used in pyrotechnics. Sparks fly; people cry.

There is some hope, though. When arsenic is added to copper (distance), the result can turn out to be bronze – a strong, hard metal from which great art can be cast. So the next time you need help not texting that person who recently left you broken, just go to an art museum and admire the bronzes.

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Cogito Ergo Numb (A Brief History of Nerds)

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The concept of Cool Nerds is by definition oxymoronic. Yet here we find ourselves, in the Age of the Geek where – to paraphrase basically every TV executive in the last decade – “nerds are totally in right now”.

As I stand on the outside of the new nerd In Crowd, I have been facing a bit of an existential crisis. Am I not nerd enough? Am I some Uber Nerd who is doubly ostracized? In truth, it is mostly an isolation of my own making, so I did some research to understand my reluctance toward being cool – which was itself a really nerdy thing to do.

As a word, “nerd” hasn’t been around for very long. Dr. Seuss used the term as a nonsense name for an imaginary creature in 1950’s If I Ran the Zoo, but it didn’t get attached to the traditional concept of a machine-like intellectual until the mid-sixties, on East-coast college campuses. It basically took over for the word “tool” (which literally meant one who carried the tools of the nerd trade, like slide rules and pencil protectors), which itself had replaced the word “grind” (as in “nose to the grindstone”). “Nerd” finally became the popular label for the brainy crowd in 1977, thanks to Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, and the SNL sketches featuring their nerds.

[For all of this awesome history and more, I recommend you read Ben Nugent’s book “American Nerd”. I have twice. It is wonderful.]

While the label is relatively new, the concept has been around much longer. The idea of the person who loves science and prefers rules and “ratiocination” (logical thought and argument) to ambiguity and innuendo, who is direct and precise with language to the point of being viewed as blunt, tactless, or rude, is found throughout literature and history. Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is one. Thomas Jefferson was one. I am absolutely one. But why and how did this become uncool?

Like so many other wonderful things in human society, the full-blown idea of the uncool nerd was born from a combination of fear and bigotry. The grandfather of all the nerds – Nerd Prime – is Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, whose obsession with science completely isolates him from love and family and does not end well for anyone. The novel is a cautionary tale about the dangers of focusing on logic over emotion, sprung from the fear of Romantics like Shelley who valued feelings over all.

Then came Victorian traditionalists, who lamented the increasing value of technology and strategy in warfare over brute force. They mourned the passing supremacy of the warrior / knight, and – in a classically American twist – despaired at the influx of immigrants from races and cultures more stereotypically inclined toward intelligence (or at the very least ‘book learnin’).

Put these together and the result is a societal agreement that an affinity for logic, rules, structure, and process (all things machines and role playing games offer in spades) is separate and distinct from emotional awareness, interpersonal skills, or physical prowess. Humans as a group flipped the defining characteristic of humanity from “reason” (which had separated us from the animals) to “emotion” (which separates us from machines), and bought into the idea that a person could not be skilled at dealing with both things and people.

The glasses, bad clothes, and dorky laughs got slapped onto the image shortly after.

Thus, the concept of “nerd” came to be synonymous with “abnormal”, the perpetual clash between nerds and jocks launched into almost every aspect of society (both Tom Wolfe and Paul Feig – the creator of Freaks and Geeks – have described the American political system as a version of this battle, and one look at the styling at MSNBC and Fox proves them right), and – worst of all – generations of self-hating nerds were born. Nerds who secretly fear that we really are heartless Tin Men, or at the very least not entitled to love or romance – a price that is paid for intellectual gifts.

None of this is true, of course. Thought and feeling are not mutually exclusive, and nerds do have deep emotional lives, even if we can’t always express them in a “normal” way. A lot of progress has been made in the last decade to combat the idea of the awkward, emotionless nerd; as a group, we are learning how to dress and express ourselves, and celebrities like Tina Fey and Chris Hardwick have done wonders for making intelligence sexy. But for every emotionally vibrant nerd like The Big Bang Theory’s Leonard, there is still a caricature like Sheldon for mocking. Have we really gotten to the point where nerds are cool, or is society’s embrace just a new way of laughing at the “weird kids”?

Which brings us to hipsters, who are fake nerds wearing the cloak of uncoolness to avoid becoming actually uncool. Hipsters tend to work in creative professions, which puts a lot of pressure on them to keep their finger on the pulse of what is cool. Since that is basically impossible even for a high-school cheerleader, they defend against it by embracing the trappings of the least trendy character – the nerd – pretending to be so uncool that they can never be actually uncool.

But there is a big difference between quirk and intellectualism – one exemplified by the two title characters played by the Deschanel sisters, Zooey and Emily. The New Girl is beloved by our society; Bones is an awkward genius learning to be “more human” (and the one I love). Quirk is styling your hair and clothes like Einstein; Nerdity is actually reading books about physics and cherishing a 20-year-old teddy bear named Albeart who sports an “E=MC2” T-shirt.

Hipsters are traditionally cool people trying to appear uncool in order to preemptively ward off any challenge to their coolness. Some are actual nerds who have embraced the fake-nerd culture to be a more attractive imitation of their former selves and thus fit in, but both are putting on an act. They are also today’s taste makers, and this is the root my discomfort with the new Geek Chic world order.

The idea of “cool” is rooted in being “normal” (whatever that means); for generations, the one and only source of nerd pride stemmed from the idea that we were at least “special”. Are we really entering an age of enlightenment where different is normal and unique gifts can be celebrated without weaknesses being mocked? That would be nice. My fear, though, is that the cool kids are simply redefining normal one more time; that we are simply on the brink of some new group becoming the epitome of “uncool”.

Will it be science deniers? Meat eaters? I hope it’s liars. That would at least appeal to my hyper-literal, rule-bound brain.

Harold and Mauve

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Page 1One evening, Harold lay on his bedroom floor contemplating the futility of his existence.

 

After some thought, he decided to end it all. But he needed something to do it with.

He pulled out his trusty black marker and started to draw a bath. Before he could finish, the marker ran out of ink.

Page 2

Harold saw this as another example of life’s random cruelty.

So he turned his head away to gaze into the darkness under his bed. There was something under the bed besides darkness.

Harold reached and pulled out the object. It was his old purple crayon, nearly worn down to a stump.

 

Harold shrugged. He finished drawing his bath. Then he drew a hairdryer, a plug, and an ‘on’ switch.Page 3

He reached up to push the hairdryer into the bathtub, but stopped.

The years under Harold’s bed had dried out his old crayon. Now its purple was faded and gray.

Mauve,” said a deep part of Harold’s brain. “Hello, Mauve,” said the rest of it. Harold decided he liked Mauve. He would take his crayon on one last adventure.

 

Page 4Harold mounted the hairdryer on the bathtub edge, and set sail. He drew one mauve star for guidance.

It was lonely out in the middle of the ocean. For the first time in his adolescence, Harold didn’t like the feeling.

He wanted more Mauve.

Page 5

 

 

Harold made land, and drew himself a short pier to dock his tub.

 

With a strange new feeling – curiosity? – he took a long walk off the pier and into the void.

Page 6

 

The void was boring. So Harold drew some gravestones for company.

He lay down on his back in solidarity with the dead. It felt relaxing and familiar. But his crayon wouldn’t let him rest.

Harold drew some birds in the sky, so Mauve could fly. They were vultures, and they started circling.

Harold thought it would be nice to give them a place to land, so he drew them a tree.

The tree looked unfinished, so he added a noose.

Page 7 Page 8

To his surprise, Harold did not want to use the noose. Knowing it was there was enough.

He noticed a break in the trunk of the tree, where his old crayon had crumbled a little.

Harold drew a fancy car to fill in the dent in the tree. It was a very nasty accident.

Page 9

Feeling restless, Harold climbed inside the banged-up car. He drew a long road in front of him and drove off.

Harold didn’t like that the road had no end, so he drew a horizon line and drove off of it.Page 10

As the car fell, Harold looked at his faded purple crayon. It was almost used up. But Harold didn’t want to let go yet.

So he drew the long side of a building. He added a window edge and grabbed on.

Hanging by one hand, Harold drew the rest of the window and a building ledge to stand on.

Harold looked at the nub of his faded crayon. He looked down past his toes. It was a long way down from up here.

Harold drew the tiny wreckage of the car far below.Page 11

Behind him, Harold looked in the window. He made his bed, and the familiar trappings of his gloom.

Harold raised the sash and climbed inside. He lay down on the bed and drew the covers up around him.

With the last speck of his crayon, he drew the moon outside his window. And colored it in, Mauve.

Page 12

 

Harold smiled as he fell asleep, gazing at the moon of Mauve.

 

He could always end things tomorrow if he had to.

Twitterpated (Ode to a Sight of Mail)

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Remember chain letters? Not email spam, or those “make a wish and send this to nine people within sixteen hours or you will die a nightmarish death” forwards you get from your Aunt Spinster every other day; I mean actual, physical, in-the-mailbox chain letters.

They used to show up every now and then when I was a kid, usually sent by some member of my Girl Scout troop or a camp friend, usually involving an idea exchange of some kind. The hardest part was copying the letter out a half-dozen times, by hand, because the typewriter was too loud and I was too slow on it. (Yeah, I said “typewriter” – remember those?)

Having teachers for parents came in handy, as sometimes I could convince my mom to add the letter to her pile of worksheets slated for the mimeograph machine at school. (Remember mimeograph – technically ‘Ditto’ – machines? Oh, that purple ink and the cool, soggy feel of fresh copies…) After making copies, the job usually entailed choosing a handful of new victims, adding my own address to the bottom of the chain, and then sending something – a recipe or reading suggestion – to whatever name was at the top of the address list.

Sure, chain letters have always been annoying, but at least back then you could respect that the person subjecting you to one had put a little effort into it. Plus, you had a real chance of getting some actual, physical something in return for passing it on. With chain emails, all the sender has to do is type your name and click a button – and with auto-fill features, they probably don’t even have to type your full name! It shouldn’t be that easy to inflict mass exasperation.

Remember sending messages by balloon? Not for accuracy, but for fun. We did a class project in elementary school where we tied note cards with little wishes or greetings on them to the strings of individual helium balloons. En masse, we released our balloons, then waited to see if any of the note cards would get a response. They bore instructions for those who stumbled upon them to write back saying who they were, whose message they had found, and where the attached balloon had come down. It was exciting to have your message found at all; if it had cleared the city limits you were a freakin’ rock star.

Nowadays, kids post a status on Facebook and ask people to share it, to see how many likes and posts and trips around the world it can complete in a week or something. Forget one person finding it, success is judged by the thousands. Sure, this method causes fewer avian deaths from choking on latex, but it just doesn’t feel as exciting to me.

Remember phone trees? That intricate system of parental communication to spread the word about school closures and game cancellations, and the political intrigue of which parents got placed how high on the list, and whether this was based on popularity or reliability or both… Screw Game of Thrones, phone trees were the real epic drama in our lives.

Remember pen pals? Remember note passing? Spending hours of your life drafting and re-drafting, deliberating and analyzing with friends, and consulting the Magic 8 Ball, all to find the exact, perfect way to say, “Do you like me? Check one: Yes ; No”… Taking great pains to fold your note with origami-master-level intricacy, and using every color of pen at your disposal to make it beautiful… Then playing your own version of “Six Degrees of That Cute Guy Kevin” to devise the most efficient but least risky network of girlfriends to get that note from your third period art class to Kevin in sixth period Algebra in secret… Remember that?

It took days of planning and weeks of working up the nerve, not to mention hours of tortuous waiting for the response. Each letter, each note, each thought was an EVENT. Now you can just text, “DTF?” and it’s all over in four characters. Where’s the beauty in that?

There used to be a romanticism to the way we communicated in the world. The difference between the past and today’s technological convenience is the difference between Shakespeare and two emoji’s depicting a milkshake and a throwing spear.

Which brings me to my point: I joined Twitter this week. I have shuffled off this Luddite coil and now will bear the whips and scorns of time… or whatever. My handle is @FFrontalNerd if you care to find me. Let’s see if we can make poetry in 140 characters or less (ahem, fewer). See you on the Dark Side!

Tucker: A Girl and Her Dream

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Despite a recent increase in well-meaning suggestions that I try online dating, I am still not interested. But I am also never above rethinking my approach. My friends DO have a point: the internet is a powerful tool. So here you go, world. This is my version of dating online:

Dear Alan Tudyk,

I am done waiting; let’s do this.

After more than a decade writing comedy in Los Angeles, I have a practical PhD in enduring bullshit with patience and grace. But finding a man in this circus is its own special circle of hell, and this dainty Dante has had enough.

Sometimes, it is better to light a flamethrower than to curse the darkness. Here is my torch song.

You came blazing into my life just as I took my first adult steps. True, I have a long-standing passion for red heads, but it was your comedic brilliance that shined so bright as to win my heart. It was a time of many firsts for me – first job, first apartment, first car – but a girl never forgets her first drug-addicted gay German stripper.

A love that catches so intensely is destined to burn quickly out unless it is fed a steady diet of fuel. You kept my flame more than sated as a stoner waxing floors in Pittsburgh and a medieval squire waxing poetic about food. Some would have been turned off by your apparent identity issues, but this Scorpio loves a good puzzle. Were you German? British? American? I had no idea. It is so rare to find a man mysterious enough to keep a clever girl figuratively on her toes. (At 5’3” it is not at all uncommon for a man to keep me literally on my toes.)

Inevitably, every fiery romance must face the harsh cool winds of reality. I will admit, our flame flickered in those next few years. You married another woman – though I could hardly expect anyone to resist the allure of Gina Torres – and devoted your time to the one sport that was the bane of my public-school-dictated physical education. You went psycho, murdering children, humans, robots, and innocent Dolls, and even worse – you went blonde.

It was a difficult time for me, this search for your identity, and when I watched you get killed off not once (projectile through the chest), not twice (shot while on horseback), but three AND four times (as an alien lizard) I began to seriously question the viability of our spark. But I came to love and accept you for your many realities – even naked (and still blonde) shouting drug-fueled exultations from a rooftop. My naked heart climbed out that window and declared its love right back!

By then, this inferno had burned for a decade, and I was committed for life. A well-meaning lover surprised me with tickets to see An Evening Without Monty Python, and I delayed ending our dying relationship for two weeks so I wouldn’t miss my chance to see you live. (It is the worst thing I have ever done to a man, and I did it to the nicest guy I have ever dated. That is how hot this fire burns.) I applauded your accidental slaughter of a gaggle of annoying college kids who disturbed your woods. I watched a Michael Bay movie for you. My loyalty cannot be in doubt.

This conflagration I carry has grown from a spark to a blaze, through sputters, and into a bona fide bonfire; it is no mere torch – it is an eternal flame. Really, the only thing left is for us to meet. Of course, I expected that this would have happened by now. I planned to meet you when I asked you to play yourself in my indie film (cool and successful, she enters his life) or cast you in one of the other roles I have written specifically for you over the years. But the film industry moves at its own pace, and I am tired of waiting.

Sometimes, the universe needs a boot to the head, so the time has come to give Fate a swift kick in the rear. (This is not a mixed metaphor, as the world clearly has its head up its ass these days.) Thus, I send up this flare; it is yours to smother or let illuminate.

Let’s do this, Alan Tudyk. I will leave the light on for you.

Seriously, people send me stuff like this. Something's gotta give...

Seriously, people send me stuff like this. Something’s gotta give.