Tag Archives: nerd

Nerd Nirvana at PAX East 2015

This past weekend was our annual visit to dorky cool nirvana, aka PAX East, the Boston gaming convention. This is my fourth year taking my son who is now 16. When I told friends and coworkers how I would be spending my weekend, I got looks running the gamut from sympathetic, to puzzled, to a blank stare: “What’s PAX East?” Indeed, what it is? It’s short for Penny Arcade Expo, and is an explosion of sight, sound, and happiness all focused on video games and whirling around 80,000 people. “It’s THREE days?” is usually the next question. “What on earth do you do?” Mostly, I just follow my son around and enjoy how happy he is. I don’t play video games myself—my hand-eye coordination was formed before gaming was popular, and I don’t work well under pressure, even when it’s supposed to be fun. However I can do credible damage with Ms. Pac Man.

This year we pulled out all the stops, logging in 13 hours on Friday and 12 on Saturday. Most of that was due to the screening of the Angry Video Game Nerd (AVGN) movie on Friday night and then waiting two and a half hours to have the filmmaker and You Tuber AVGN James Rolph sign the PAX East badge and the movie poster. It was an Olympic-level test for both me and Lucas: I was making a monumental effort not to clock the only annoying person in the line who would NOT stop talking loudly, and Lucas was battling the leg pain from standing for 12 hours (they are called muscles, he should use them more). We both survived.

This year brought more people dressed up as game characters, although I only recognize Mario and Zelda. Other than people watching, there is a main floor of all the gaming companies, big and small, where you can try out new games and buy games and game-related merchandise. The rest of the convention center is filled with all kinds of events and panel discussions—yes, you heard me—panel discussions. About gaming. Some are about the state of the gaming industry. Others focus on specific games. We saw a couple of panels of well-known You Tubers, that is people who actually make a living by making funny and serious videos about video games on You Tube. You Tubers are stopped in the hall and asked for photos and autographs. They are politely swarmed by fans after the panel discussions to chat and sign. And everyone is soooo patient. They will wait an hour for a signature, two hours to play the hottest new game. And no one gets mad, no one makes a scene. They are happy to be there, they are happy to get deeply involved in a conversation about a video game with the person waiting in line next to them. They are just happy.

Which is why I like to be there. Sure, it’s loud, overstimulating, I don’t get the inside gaming jokes, but being a writer, I do get the creativity—serious gamers care deeply about the story of a game, the quality of the characters, and the originality of the game play. And I recognize that while they are a group of people who are gaining acceptance, they are still outside of the mainstream. Ultimately I go to support my son, because that’s what parenting means to me. Some parents spend many hours over a season watching their kid play sports. I efficiently get all my hours logged in over a two-day period. Seems like a nerdy good deal to me.

California Steamin’

I was having lunch with my friend Mike (of the “You Should Be Dancing” post) this past week and he mentioned casually that our mutual friend Chris was flying out to California to interview at Google. I set down my fork and looked him straight in the eye. “No, he can’t go.”

Mike, who is familiar with my grand pronouncements, just smiled. “Oh really?”

“We already lost Stephen to that…that place,” I couldn’t even bring myself name it. “I’m not losing any more friends to it. That’s final.” Considering the case closed, I resumed eating.

Stephen, a born and bred New Englander, was wickedly funny, acerbic, and irreverent. I looked up to him for those reasons and because he came from Massachusetts. I’m from Connecticut, which, truth be told, has little street cred in New England. Don’t get me started—I know we don’t have an accent and we don’t really have a quintessential tourist thing for you to come a thousand miles for, like a peak with the worst weather in the world or the Kennedy Compound. But I fixed that by moving to Boston, and becoming a proud Masshole. And Stephen was the finest example of the Massachusetts flavor of cranky, caustic New England humor. I knew him for years. And then. He moved. To Cali… to that place. I told myself that he was strong, he’d show them, those flaky LA people with their white teeth and vintage cars.

But then I had a flashback of another person I had lost to that vacuous geography. He was a friend from college who was born and bred in New York. Granted he wasn’t a New Englander, but New Yorkers invented snark and he was hard-core. Didn’t trust a soul and was paranoid. I loved him. But I should have known when he showed interest in my Eagles album, Hotel California. I had bought it, but—big surprise—lost interest in it. He was a huge Eagles fan, so I offered it to him. I still remember how wary he was about it. He made me repeat multiple times that I wanted nothing in return, now or later. I loved him for that, too. Finally he accepted the album. God knows how long he waited in silent paranoia for me to call him up and say, “Remember that Eagles album I gave you? Well, I have a favor to ask.” I would never find out because shortly after college, his career path in filmmaking took him you know where. He claimed it would only be for five years, until he got enough experience.  At first he said he felt like an alien—people couldn’t understand him because they said he talked too fast. Guess what LA freaks, you listen too slow. But it didn’t last, and he was assimilated as sure as if a Borg ship had landed. That was 25 years ago. He ain’t coming back.

And then Stephen went out there for a job. Oh, sure he comes East about once a year, but that first year, I knew right away he was a goner. He had the gall to show up smiling. Happy. Soft. No snarky jokes, no cutting observations. He was nice. WTF? I had to goad him for a full five minutes before old Stephen showed up. Then he made a rude observation and said, “I missed you, Sandy!” No shit, Sherlock. You miss yourself! He’d clearly lost his way with all those vapid, soulless people in the freakin’ sunshine.

Which brings me to another problem I have with that place. Sunshine, my ass. You may be thinking I’ve never been there, and I’m making crabby, cranky unfounded statements. That would be an appropriate New England thing to do, but oh, no, I’ve been there. My friend Gloria (of the Prius and furniture post) and I drove cross-country a few years after college, a southerly route, east to west. Before driving to LA, we hiked into and camped in the Grand Canyon for a few days, where it rained a river in our small tent, and washed out one of the main water houses along the nearly 8 miles of desert trail. That meant we had to hike out, all uphill, hauling a gallon of water each (plus our full packs). I’ve never fantasized so much about breaking a leg so I could get helicoptered out. Why am I digressing? Well, after the Grand Canyon we drove west to LA to its youth hostel. When we got up the next morning, we saw it was cloudy. We’d grown up on “CHiPs” and “Starsky and Hutch,” all long commercials for this famous California sunshine. So a couple of crabby New Englanders assume we’re going to see some effin’ sunshine, and we were looking forward to it since we’d nearly bought the farm in the Grand Canyon. But it was definitely cloudy, like dark gray cloudy. Rain cloudy. We’re cloud experts, and we’d just been torrentially rained on in an alleged desert. We had earned the right to ask the question.

“Is it going to rain today?” To our credit, we said it in a puzzled tone.

The youth hostel worker replied in a haughty voice, “It never rains in California.”  I could have respected him if he’d said, “Sure, just after monkeys fly out of your ass.” That’s straight shooting; that’s New England. But he didn’t have a personality, just a fake superiority springing from his lame brain.

Gloria, also born in Connecticut and honing her skills in Maine, retorted in her best crusty voice, “Yeah? It’s not supposed to rain in the Grand Canyon either, and we’re still wringing out our tent.” She didn’t add “pretty boy,” but it was clearly implied.

LA boy merely sniffed at us. “It’s smog, and burns off at noon.” Noon? NOON? Are you serious? That’s not full on sun, you LA people who can’t count. That’s HALF a day of sunshine. Not ALL day, HALF. So not only do we have to put up with the attitude and the cardboard cutout people, but we’re also supposed to sit here and swallow this bunk about the sunshine? I think not, you half-assed tools.

Understandably pissed off, but trying to be as generous as possible for two New Englanders, we decided not to Judge. Yet. We’d spent close to a month driving across country and had encountered many interesting and entertaining people, including a waiter in Texas named Laredo and a Grand Canyon blacksmith who had a handle bar mustache and kept us rapt with tales of skittish tourists and kicking mules. I can tell you, and Gloria will confirm, we did not meet anyone like that in LA. We met a number of assorted people and all were vacant and uninteresting. No accents, no tall tales, no weird little social rituals left over from the Civil War. Nothin’.  And that gave us the right to judge. We did and still do. We did not meet another interesting person until we drove to San Francisco, where the people in the bar listened carefully to our LA tale and confirmed our suspicions. And no, they were not cranky people, they were strangely nice, but we didn’t hold it against them because they had personalities.

So maybe it’s LA I don’t like, but California is a big place and who knows how much of the blankness seeps out on yearly basis? Better safe than sorry, I say. That’s how we roll in New England. We hold grudges, we say what we mean, we tell you when we don’t like you, and we don’t fake our sunshine.

We are also loyal to our friends, so my final offer to you, Chris, is this: You can go to the interview. If you get the job, I prefer that you work in Cambridge, MA. But if you must, you may work in one of the offices closer to San Francisco. This thing called Silicon Valley didn’t exist when I visited, and for all I know it’s another LA sinkhole, but I hear they are nerdy, so that’s something.

Photo credit: Edison Avenue. The 80s band Missing Persons had it right with its song “Nobody Walks in LA.”

A Nerd by Any Other Name

“You’re not a geek, mom,” said my teen son in the same tone a snooty maître d’ would use to dismiss a commoner. I had made the cardinal mistake of using “geek” and “nerd” interchangeably. “Well, then I’m a nerd,” I countered, ready to flash my Vulcan sign and attest that I had attended a Start Trek convention featuring Gene Roddenberry in the mid-70s. And don’t make me break out my version of the “I walked 20 miles in the snow to school” story:  I belonged to the Math League and my friend and I were the only two kids who ever carried books on our high school bus. We often feared for our lives among the pot and cigarette smokers, which included the bus driver.

My son gazed back at me, unimpressed. It’s bad enough that I struggle to keep up with technology, have to eat better and exercise more just to keep my middle age body the same, but now I couldn’t even keep up with being a nerd? What the hell was happening to the world? And more importantly, how could I lose my nerd status now that it was cool? Back in my day, you just had to dress up like a Star Trek character for Halloween and be smart, and bam, you were a nerd. Granted most people tried to avoid that label, but for those of us who couldn’t, we tried our best to embrace it. Now, according to my son, there are different rules and distinctions to being a nerd vs. a geek. He went on to patiently explain them, but it was my turn to glaze over. At some point there was a whole subsection about his group, being a hard core gamer. Since he was eight or nine he has loved video games—playing them, reading about them, watching videos about them, and following the industry news about the companies that make them. But by then I just nodded my head and smiled: a nerd by any other name is still a dorky cool person outside of the mainstream.

Which brings us to dorky cool nirvana, aka PAX East, the annual gaming convention that was in Boston this past weekend. We started going when he was 13 and it’s his third year. When I told friends and coworkers how I would be spending my weekend, I got looks running the gamut from sympathetic, to puzzled, to a blank stare: “What’s PAX East?” Indeed, what it is? It’s short for Penny Arcade Expo, and is an explosion of sight, sound, and happiness all focused on video games and whirling around 80,000 people. “It’s THREE days?” is usually the next question. “What on earth do you do?” Mostly, I just follow my son around and enjoy how happy he is. I don’t play video games myself—when I was a teen, only the rich kids could afford gaming consoles, and I was not one of those, nor did I especially want one. Occasionally I would mess around with Ms. Pac Man, but I was more into reading books and watching Star Trek. Yeah, that’s how old school nerd is done.

Sadly there were no Star Trek characters at PAX this year, but some people dressed up elaborately as video game characters. Other than people watching, there is a main floor of all the gaming companies, big and small, where you can try out new games and buy games and game-related merchandise. The rest of the convention center is filled with all kinds of events and panel discussions—yes, you heard me—panel discussions. About gaming. Some are about the state of the gaming industry. Others focus on specific games. One cool one we saw was on how to curb hatred in the gaming community—the anonymity of online gaming allows people to say some pretty nasty things. The panel talked about how positive gamers need to step up and set a better example. That panel and others feature well-known You Tubers, that is people who actually make a living by making funny and serious videos about video games on You Tube. I’ll wait a moment while you digest that. Ok, ready to go on? You Tubers are stopped in the hall and asked for photos and autographs. They are politely swarmed by fans after the panel discussions to chat and sign. And everyone is soooo patient. They will wait an hour for a signature, two hours to play the hottest new game. And no one gets mad, no one makes a scene. They are happy to be there, they are happy to get deeply involved in a conversation about a video game with the person waiting in line next to them. They are just happy.

Which is why I like to be there. Sure, it’s loud, overstimulating, I don’t get the inside gaming jokes, and lord knows I can’t play anything, but being a writer, I do get the creativity—serious gamers care deeply about the story of a game, the quality of the characters, and the originality of the game play. And I recognize that while they are a group of people who are gaining acceptance, they are still outside of the mainstream. As one You Tuber commented, “My family still doesn’t understand what I do for a living.” Many artists and writers and other creatives can relate to that. Ultimately I go to support my son, because that’s what parenting means to me. For a few years when he was younger, I hung out on soccer fields and little league bleachers to cheer him on. In the cold spring weekday evenings. The chilly fall Saturday mornings. In the rain. In the wind. During playoffs that always seemed to happen during a scheduled vacation. I definitely prefer supporting the out-of-the-mainstream activities, especially if they are indoors. If that isn’t proof of my nerdiness, then I’ll meet you at the Boston Star Trek convention in June. I know my Spock ears are around here somewhere.