Cogito Ergo Numb (A Brief History of Nerds)


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.

Citius, Altius, Fortius (Midius-Termius-Reportius)


Today is July 1st, the first day of the second half of the year in which I began to blog.

Fun Fact: On the 1st of the month I say “rabbit rabbit” before anything else. My best friend tells me it is good luck, and her word is good enough for me.

Okay, technically I started this blog on January 10th (four days earlier and in a wholly different way than planned thanks to experiencing Facebook trauma the night before), but let’s round up and say today marks the end of my first six months. What self-respecting nerdist could let such a milestone pass without some sort of midterm?

Fun Fact: The worst midterm grade I ever got was an F, when I took Ancient Greek in college for (at least this was the plan) fun.

I promise to return to my more traditional a-musings next week, but please bear with me today as I indulge in some reflection and evaluation.

Fun Fact: In lieu of resolutions, I set “themes” for myself each January, to guide my year.

This started five years ago, in part because I find the evolving process of working toward a goal far more helpful than the “all or nothing” nature of a resolution. One day without hitting the gym or not biting my nails and I’m a vow-breaker? Who does that help?

Fun Fact: I am a fanatic for the Olympics.

Summer, winter, it doesn’t matter; if it is an even-numbered year, I am glued to my screen for two weeks, don’t talk to me. When I was eight, I cut my hair to look like Mary Lou Retton (and then was mistaken for a boy on the first day of school, so didn’t cut it again until age 18.) This being an Olympic year, I set my theme accordingly…

Fun Fact: 2014’s theme is “Citius, Altius, Fortius”.

“Swifter, Higher, Stronger” (the Olympic motto). This blog was started as a direct result of my 2014 goals, so I figure it is the best metric upon which to grade my progress thus far.

Citius: With the exception of my first post (which was an emotional purge written over one long night and morning), I devoted a lot of time to each piece when I first started. Tuesday is “publish” day, but I would start thinking and planning around Thursday, do an outline or draft on the weekend, write or revise on Monday, and then proof, edit, and proof again before posting.

Fun Fact: I write everything by hand first, so when I say “revise” that also means “type.”

This was comfortable, but didn’t leave much time for other writing – the stuff that actually pays. So I pushed myself to get faster (and far less precious about my work). Now, I do a little thinking on Monday night before bed, then get up and write, revise, proof and post by Tuesday afternoon. Turns out regular practice really works – and I wish I could go back to force my childhood self to practice the piano more.

Fun Fact: I also play the French horn; I asked for one for my 16th birthday instead of a car.

Altius: I could have just started smoking pot this year, but I am the one person in California whose medical condition serves as a prescription against marijuana. Instead, I will have to reach new heights other ways. In the last six months, I have pushed way out of my technological comfort zone with a new smart phone, tablet, Roku, and blog. By the end of the year, I will either have my own website or a robot.

With this blog, I have gone much farther than I imagined I could. As of today, I have just over 950 followers, and while I realize that Kim Kardashian has over 20 million for no reason other than being well endowed with both famous partners and hindquarters, I am still proud and amazed. Thank you, all who read me! (And if you could help bump me to an even thousand my compulsive side would really appreciate it.)

Fun Fact: I have also been nominated for a Liebster Award.Liebster

This is a blogger award designed to help new writers honor and promote each other. In short, it involves answering some questions, asking a few more, and (most importantly) nominating other bloggers in turn. I was nominated by Jonas Lee who, among other things, offers awesome Life Facts in his Imaginarium. In thanks, I offer him one: You are almost always within 3ft. of a spider.

Here are the eleven questions Jonas challenged me to answer:

1. You are able to scratch one thing off your bucket list, no matter what it entails. What is it? A: Attend an Olympics. Duh

2. You can listen to any band/artist (live) in their time period. Who would you want to see? A: Mozart would be cool. Plus, I think I could rock a corset.

3. If you could collaborate with any artist/author on a project, who would you choose? A: My idol is Tina Fey, but I think my other idol, Aaron Sorkin, could use my editorial eye more. Tina doesn’t need any help.

4. Would you rather live in a zombie apocalypse (Walking Dead) or an electronic apocalypse (Revolution)? A: Hands down electronic apocalypse. I already write by hand, and I know how to build a fire. It’d be like camp – with no zombies.

5. Why to number 4?A: Oops. See above.

6. Pop Tarts or Toaster Strudel? A: I have never had the latter, so I guess Pop Tarts. But with frosting (if you’re going to eat something terrible for you, it might as well have frosting).

7. Favorite smell? Fun fact: I have almost no sense of smell.

8. You can have one super power. What would you choose? A: The ability to blink any leaf blower out of existence just by wishing it. While flying.

9. What is your worst habit? A: My nun’s habit.

10. What do you find to be your best quality (physically or mentally)? A: My heart (both physically AND mentally).

11. What keeps you from having your dreams come true? A: Nothing! This is Hollywood!

In addition to answering those, I am also supposed to offer 11 facts about myself. I will let this midterm evaluation serve that purpose, though for those scoring at home, there are exactly eleven fun facts peppered throughout.

Fun Fact: I believe that everyone I meet has something to teach me, if I am paying attention.

The last piece of the Liebster Award is to nominate my OWN favorites and ask them questions. Here are my picks:

Julie Gordon – I like to travel, but this girl has adventures. Plus, she is thoughtful, and I want her to write more. See why at Wish I May, Wish I Might.

Sarah Rodriguez Pratt – Her blogging was one of my inspirations. Also, her comic strip, Totes McGoat, has one of my favorite titles ever. Check her out at That’s A Girl’s Car.

Christine Gengaro – I frakking love smart women, and this woman is frakking smart. She writes about music such that I wish I listened to it more. Read her blog for kmozart, because you can’t listen to it.

Eric Toms – I have only met him a few times, but I already know he is just the right level of irreverent. His soon-to-launch blog is described as “the best waste of your time.” I think he should launch now. Your move, Eric Toms.

Brantley Newton – Brantley is the only person on my list I haven’t met personally. He was one of the first strangers to follow me, and his whimsical storytelling at the Brantley Blog makes me smile. Keep it up, Brantley!

To you five, if you choose to accept the nomination, I ask only three questions:

1) What would be your motto for the next year if you had one? 2) Why? 3) What are your favorite Summer and Winter Olympic sports?

Fun Fact: My favorites are Gymnastics and Curling. But I love them all.

Fortias: In closing, the last six months have made me far stronger than I was at the start of 2014. My writing is stronger, and with it my mental health and professional career. As for my personal life, it has definitely been a good season for Eggplant.

Thank you, all, for indulging my self-assessment and for reading all this way. By which I mean both this post AND the last six months of my storytelling. I promise to get back to full-on nerdity next week – I am currently reading a book about the theory of relativity. You have been warned.