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A Very Superficial Geek

I recently wrote an essay called “Geek Love” for the “Coupling” column of the Boston Globe Magazine.

The essay discussed the fate of geek/non-geek couples and how these relationships might have any hope of survival.

The essay begins this way:

In a famous scene in the 1982 movie Diner, Eddie (played by Steve Guttenberg) makes his wife-to-be pass a football trivia quiz before he’ll agree to marry her. Me, I’m a fantasy and gaming geek, not a sports freak. I may not know how many yards Tom Brady has passed for this season, or the Red Sox bullpen’s average ERA last season, but I can name all nine members of the Fellowship in The Lord of the Rings, and I can tell you that the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

Then, within a few hours of my essay’s magical appearance on the Internet, I received this letter from a reader:

Ethan Gilsdorf seems to be a very superficial geek. “the Millennium Falcon made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” Any real geek would know that a parsec is a unit of distance, not time.

A number of red alert horns went off in my head.

One, this email lacked, how shall I say, the most fundamental attention to social graces. Whatever happened to a polite and civilized introduction, such as, perchance, “Dear Editor: I enjoyed Ethan Gilsdorf’s recent essay but found one aspect of it troubling…”? It’s a fact: The Internet has turned us into knee-jerk, churlish boors. Bring back the quill pen and Pony Express.

Two, our fair reader also displayed a quality I’ve never been terribly impressed with: a kind of arrogance blended with a holier-than-thou stink of self-importance, a combination that borders on vanity. Not very attractive.

And third, the dude was dead wrong.

I hate to admit that I reveled in the opportunity to set this guy straight (and yes, it was a guy who wrote in). Based on the email address, I did about seven seconds of Google research, and learned my arch-nemesis was a professor (emeritus) of physics at one of the 11 million universities in the Boston area. Surprise, surprise.

I dashed off my reply:

Dear [name withheld]

I’m writing in regards to your email in which you suggest, after reading my Coupling column, that I seem to be “a very superficial geek.” Your email merits reply because, regarding the Kessel run line, your criticism is misdirected.

Please understand: In my column, I’m just quoting the line from the Star Wars script and movie. Referring to the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo’s exact words are: “It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.” Of course, technically, you are right — a parsec IS a unit of distance, not time. Being a physics professor, you must find that error particularly annoying. Indeed, many a geek over the years has pointed that Lucas had made this goof. When Han Solo said this in the movie, way back in 1977, I remember catching the same error.

But Lucas (or one of his minions at Lucasfilm’s massive merchandising and film empire) fixed the blunder this way:

“On the A New Hope DVD audio commentary, Lucas comments that, in the Star Wars universe, traveling through hyperspace requires careful navigation to avoid stars, planets, asteroids, and other obstacles, and that since no long-distance journey can be made in a straight line, the “fastest” ship is the one that can plot the “most direct course”, thereby traveling the least distance.”

—from wikipedia: Millennium Falcon

I know it seems like a lame revisionist “fix,” but that’s how Lucas wiggled out of this one. Curiously, in the revamped version of Star Wars, Lucas made all sorts of changes, many of which pissed off fans. He added new special effects and scenes, and he altered that crucial scene in the cantina so that it’s Greedo, not Han, who shoots first under the table. But for whatever reason, Lucas let that parsec line stand.

So, to be clear: Ethan the writer knows what a parsec it. It’s Han (or rather, Lucas) who gets it wrong.

In the future, I suggest you might be more careful when you accuse people and what you accuse them of being. I’m not “superficial.” In fact, in this instance, geek vs. geek, I win.

And I never took physics in high school.

All Best,
Ethan Gilsdorf

To the guy’s credit, he replied with grace and I hope felt some embarrassment:

My apologies. Anyone who can spout all that trivia about Star Wars is certainly a real geek.

Yes, a real geek! Ha. I felt smug and satisfied. I’d set this guy straight. Geek pitted against geek, I was victorious. Woot!

But part of me felt bad for humiliating Professor Parsec.

At least our exchange didn’t take place in a public forum. (Uh, well, not until now.) Beyond that, I’m not sure how I felt about one-upping him.

Was it really that important to get the facts right?

OK, probably yes.

To retaliate and set him straight?

Maybe.

And was my motive in any way hidden from my own gaze? Compensating for a hidden Achilles heel?

Possibly.

The exchange raised other questions.

I contemplated the concept of not being a “real geek” or being a “superficial geek” and if that even mattered. I thought of myself, and my own journey from being a D&D-playing, Tolkien-quoting teen who had shed that skin in order to emerge, butterfly-like, as who I hoped was a cooler young man, and who only re-embraced my geekery 25 years later.

I wondered, am I a poser? Perhaps I am not geek enough?

It’s certainly an issue I grappled with in my book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks.

People I interviewed across the geek spectrum — WoW players to LARPers, D&Ders to Harry Potter fans — were understandably suspicious of my intentions.

 Who was I, friend or foe?

They often presented their own exam, their own measure of “geek cred” against which I was judged before they’d agree to speak with me, or take my investigation into fantasy and gaming subcultures seriously. I had to pass muster.

Then the gates to geekery opened.

Clearly, Professor Parsec had self-identified as a geek. (Physics professor? Duh.) Perhaps he had suffered persecution as a geek coming of age, I’m guessing, in the Marty McFly, slide rule age of the 1950s and Kennedy-era 60s. I’m sure he felt some satisfaction in thinking he was setting me straight. Perhaps he basked in that cool wave of revenge that flowed through his veins as he corrected me. Perhaps he felt self-righteous, and perhaps for good reason. “Ha! Who is this doofus who claims to be geek enough? I’m the one who suffered, long before he was even born.”

Now, as jock and nerd cultures merge; as SF and fantasy and other genre media experiences rake in megabucks at the box office and bookstores; as sports stars play Xbox and PlayStation — the traditional idea of “geek” has been turned on its head.

Does it even matter who is a real geek and who is an imposter anymore?

Yes, we geeks were shunned from the football team.

Yes, we were made to feel bad for cherishing our Monster Manuals and finding solace in BASIC and C.  Does that mean we’re justified in being the gatekeeper today, in a more enlightened age?

Thumbing our noses at the throngs of Farmville gamers and Lost watchers and others who don’t seem geek enough?

Denying entrance to our realm?

Denying them the label we once hated, and now embrace, a label that carries its own cachet?

This state of affairs has a counterpart in the history of immigration: It’s always the last immigrant group, the most “different” or “alien,” that gets the shaft.

Today’s Arabs and Haitians are yesterday’s Italians and Irish.

Perhaps today’s perceived “faux geeks” and “poser dorks” are yesterday’s dice-rollers and Trekkers.

In a perfect world, as long as we all get along and play games and have fun together, why not open the gates and lower our egos?

But it’s largely because our world is battered and flawed that we’re drawn to Middle-Earth and Azeroth in the first place.

As for Prof. Parsec, my heart goes out to him. Too bad he picked the wrong micro-fact to niggle over.

The wrong geek to mess with.

Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the award-winning, travel memoir/pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms (now in paperback). Follow his adventures at https://www.fantasyfreaksbook.com.
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