Yesterday I became quite enamored of yet another column by author John Scalzi, who was giving a righteous slap-down to a self-appointed Speaker for the Geeks. The offending party had tried to establish a barrier to entry for “geekdom” to which cosplaying females need not apply. Among Scalzi’s scathing rebuttal was this gem:
the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.” When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.”
In that one paragraph Scalzi highlighted what has bugged me about many of the subcultures that I’ve participated in, from medieval music to Japanese performance art. I’m pretty sure you can apply it to your own social circle as well…the difference between the person who says “Oh, you haven’t read this? You’re not worth talking to.” and the person who says “Oh, you haven’t read this? Here, have my copy! And this is the sequel, oh, and here’s the DVD of the movie, it’s not as good, but you might also like this other one – tell you what, let me cook you dinner while you read it aloud, I LOVE this part.”
I’m happy to say that I can unabashedly claim my own geek identity in any number of areas. Hell, this entire blog is one big “HEY ISN’T THIS A NEAT IDEA LET’S TALK ABOUT IT!”
But as I thought about some of the things I’ve become passionate about…I realized that not every one has been like that.
If you saw my haiku yesterday, you read my tribute to Mr. Eugene Olson, who taught in the McFarland School District for over 60 years. In case the “bricks” reference confused you, let me explain. When terrified freshmen started their High School English career, they would enter the English Suite (a large lecture-in-the-round room with individual classrooms on the edges) as one giant class. Sitting at a table, watching them silently, was Big Bad Scary Gruff Teacher, his bulldog next to him, notes on the table next to a mug of coffee and a large red brick. He would not smile at the new students; he would not greet them. He would not do anything to alleviate their fear. Instead, he let his presence encourage it; he wanted us to be off-balance, to be confused. We had come from the gentle hands of our middle-school teachers, and he was having none of it.
Mr. Olson would ask questions, and if you had the temerity to think that you were smart enough to answer, he would eviscerate your answer, pointing out all the silly ignorant assumptions you’d made. Woe unto you if you actually tried to be clever, such as the time I used the word “graceful” to describe a sentence. A quarter-century later and I can still hear his loud baritone: “Graceful, Miller? These are words. This is English. There are rules and conventions and very precise reasons why this sentence is incorrect, Mr. Miller, and the word graceful does not apply, like some idiotic dance step.”
I can still remember how my face burned. I was humiliated in front of my peers (and, I confess, I never was that popular to begin with). But I’ll tell you something: I learned those rules, I learned how to diagram the hell out of sentences, and I learned how to back up that entirely correct evaluation of “It’s not graceful” with the actual rules of grammar that applied.
Side note from a word geek: if you love words, but aren’t terribly fond of Strunk & White or the Chicago Manual of Style, allow me to recommend The Deluxe Transitive Vampire. It’s the grammarie that will make you laugh out loud.
Occasionally he would be so frustrated with a student’s inability to get it that he would pick up the brick from his table and hurl it at the kid’s head, with uncanny accuracy. The first time I saw it, I believe, it was aimed at Fran Jensen. There was, of course, the heart-stopping moment as you saw this brick flying through the air, you saw it impact her skull…and you saw it bounce off, as any styrofoam brick would.
Let me tell you: we paid attention. We learned. His classes were the hardest I’ve ever taken, where I pulled my first all-nighters trying to get an essay right, where I did more research and footnotes and agonized over every sentence. Between him and Ms. Couch (who taught Business English and Creative Writing) they shaped the writer I am today, as far as I am good.
My misnakes, however, are entirely my own.
The Keeper of the Culture
Mister O was more than an English teacher, though. He was also an epicure of quality, as epitomized by his class “World Theater.” He had a quadrophonic reel-to-reel tape player in the suite so that we could listen to things like the Who’s Quadrophenia the way it was intended, not out of some piddly little stereo. We spent a month studying Bizet’s Carmen – not just the music, but the socio-economic environment where it was written, the conventions the composer used, the psychological implications of the characters and story arc, the many adaptations that have been made (Carlos Saura’s Flamenco version is my favorite). Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet, the Marat/Sade, Tommy, Starlight Express, Cats (yes, I still think it’s brilliant), Oedipus at Colonnus, 42nd Street Kabuki, Alexander Technique, Hoplites…this man opened my cultural eyes.
But he did it in a way that would, at first, make you think of him as a hipster. Pop music? Pshaw! Television? Irrelevant! Life was too short to waste on such frivolous things, and if you were concerned with them, you were wasting his time. He was there to introduce us to the good and powerful experience of culture. If you couldn’t appreciate it, then fine, here’s your C, get out of his class.
I think there are still people who might have thought of him as elitist. As cruel and dismissive and harsh. But I beg to differ. This man did what he did for well over half a century. He loved teaching. He loved what he shared, and if he tried so hard to make it difficult for us to meet his standards, it was because it meant that afterwards our appreciation of that thing would be that much deeper.
Not as deep as his, mind you, at least not at that point. But deeper. So that, for example, when I go to my housemate’s daughter’s Summer Music Camp Concert and they play selections from Carmen, I enjoy it so much I want to get up and dance. Because in my head, I’m not hearing the slightly-out-of-tune and somewhat-variably-tempoed instruments. I’m seeing Gades dance in flowing skirts, I’m remembering Bizet’s tragic despair as his work bombed, I’m seeing in my mind the yellowed mimeographed script, French on the left, English on the right, which I studied and sang along with (“Prends gard-es toi!”) for day after day.
The Lonely Geekster
There have been other people who have done similar things. The professor who first read Shakespeare aloud to me. Drill Instructor Sgt. Stinson. Douglas Rosenberg. Jin-Wen Yu. David Furomoto. Tim Glenn. The list goes on. These people were passionate about sharing what they loved…but at the same time, they were also aware that to love it that much, it took work. It couldn’t just be handed to you in a book or a video, it had to be studied. Yes, there were barriers to entry, but if you overcame the barriers, they knew that you could love something on a far more visceral level.
In short, they were so much a geek that, to the naked eye, they appeared to be a hipster. I actually feel a little sorry for them, in fact, because to most geeks – the enthusiasts, the evangelists, the fans – they must have appeared to be hipster. They were reviled for being so into their passion that they couldn’t even explain it to you, they had to show you the path they took. It wasn’t an easy path, though, and so most geeks just figure it’s an artificial obstacle.
It wasn’t, not for Mr. O, or any of the other teachers, past and present, who have helped me love more of life. The view, to use an obvious metaphor, is not the only thing you get from the climb; the you that has made the climb is the real reward. And the ability to remember Mr. O’s smile as he saw my understanding, my appreciation, and my world grow.
Thank you, Mr. Olson. The world needs more geeks like you.