So now being a nerd is cool. Obsessions that were once considered unpardonable are now the subject of multi-million dollar film franchises and think pieces in smart publications. The other day I saw a t-shirt that said “Skateboarding Nerd” on it, a sure sign that nerds are everywhere and also that words no longer mean anything. There are ridiculous fights about who is a real nerd, and who isn’t, and what popularity does to a culture that has defined itself as being unpopular. But I am not qualified to police the boundaries of who is and isn’t a nerd, because I am no better at being a nerd than I am at being popular. Here’s one thing I can promise you: whatever it means to be cool, I won’t be that thing.
I was really into the Lord of the Rings when I was in junior high. Really into it. And remember, this is before Peter Jackson, before Liv Tyler and Orlando Bloom. The Lord of the Rings was not cool in junior high in the 90s. I discovered the trilogy through my mother, who loved it. I’m not sure I even knew that other people had read the Lord of the Rings. In any case, I certainly didn’t know that they were nerdy. Some of my friends may have been less than popular, but I had no contact with nerd culture and knew nothing about it beyond the broadest stereotypes from movies and television.
I never owned a video game system. I never LARPed. I didn’t even use a computer until I was in college. But like a nerd, I was too permeable to enthusiasm. I loved too much and too blindly. This ill-fated enthusiasm is why I bought a cassette called “Songs of the Indian Flute,” adopted a syncretic and unintentionally racist version of Native American spiritualism, and spent all my allowance money at a store in the mall called Natural Wonders; why I went through a brief but besotted country western line dancing phase; why the only time I’ve ever come close to crying in public was when trying to explain to a boy I liked why Beowulf is just as good as the Iliad. (I know, it really isn’t, but please, let’s not get into that now.)
I was a grab bag of bad ideas. I was into whale song, Laura Ashley clothing, meteorology, and Fran Lebowitz. I was into stuff so uncool it defied labels. You think you were a nerd in high school because you collected action figures or played in the marching band? I spent the summer of my freshman year cross-stitching a sampler for my mom. You think you were geeky because you liked to watch Monty Python? When I was in junior high I wrote a country western murder ballad about blackjack called “The Dead Man’s Hand.” In fact, I had never even heard of Monty Python, because I was as out of touch with nerd culture as I was with mainstream culture. I was a little army of one, out there on my own, just two-stepping away.
No one I knew had read LOTR or wanted to talk about it if they had, and so I considered it a private enthusiasm, almost a family story beloved by my mother and me. And that’s why I was so excited when I saw the Lord of the Rings role-playing game. I was with my parents at Walden Books at the Glendale Galleria, and there with the small coterie of non-book items that would soon take over this and every book store, was a small cardboard box with those familiar Michael Herring illustrations on the lid. I had to have it.
I had never played a role-playing game; I didn’t even know what one was. The only games with which I was familiar were family board games like Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit. I suppose I thought – if I thought about it at all – that this was a sort of Lord of the Rings-themed version of Risk. What I knew was, I wanted it. Desperately. I also knew it was expensive. I went to work on my parents, and somehow convinced those two patient people to buy it for me. (And here I’ll digress to say that my parents, two people who showered me with unconditional love, support, and encouragement, were largely to blame for my awkward youth because they were too kind—or too blinded by parental love—to tell me when I was doing a truly idiotic thing. My mother, in particular, had been pretty and popular in her own youth, and parental love or no, I can’t believe some part of her didn’t know that a role-playing game was the wrong hobby for an adolescent daughter who was already not overly burdened with beauty or charm.)
I remember bringing the handsome game home, tearing open the box, and finding—what? Nothing. Nothing but a bunch of dense pages of impenetrable directions. There weren’t any little figurines, as I’d come to expect from a board game. There wasn’t even a board. It was immediately evident that I was in over my head.
But one thing was becoming ever clearer, taking shape like a palantir’s vision in my mind. This was shameful. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew. This would have to remain a secret forever.
I poured over the cards and booklets, trying to make out how to play the game. Instinctively I knew I could never ask one of my school friends to play it with it me, so I enlisted my parents, who gamely tried to follow along. But they had no more knowledge of role-playing than I did, and after a half an hour or so they were clearly bored and tired of pretending otherwise. For my own part, I was far too self-conscious to do whatever playacting the game seemed to require, especially in front of my parents. So I packed it up and put it away under my bed, where I would occasionally catch a glimpse of it and feel a stab of guilt that I had persuaded my parents to spend so much money on such a sorry game.
I don’t remember whatever became of that game—I have the vague recollection that I gave it away before going off to college—but I was wrong to think my parents had wasted their money on it. In fact, I did get some value out of the Lord of the Rings role-playing game, even if I never completed a single round. I learned that as bad as I was at being cool, I was bad at being a nerd, too. I learned that whatever subculture is the new big thing, whether role-playing or ham radio or model trains, it won’t be mine. And I learned that if my kids ever want me to buy them a role-playing game—well, I will, but first I’ll sit them down and we’ll have a little talk.
Summer Block has published essays, short fiction, and poetry in McSweeneys, The Rumpus, Identity Theory, DIAGRAM, PANK, The Nervous Breakdown, and many other publications.