Still Geeky After All These Years

The movies lie. You know the ones where someone spends their adolescence being a dork, only to return to their ten- year high school reunion as an accomplished, pulled-together and poised success, without a trace of their former, nerdy self? Total crap.

I know from whence I speak. I spent my teenage years eyeball-deep in geekdoom. That’s right, I played in the band (several, actually), read Shakespeare for fun, never missed an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and had a wardrobe that consisted mainly of t-shirts from musicals. I liked my teachers and studied without having to be asked. I could recite just about every Monty Python skit. Rolling my eyes at jocks was my cardio. This, my friends, was during the dark ages of geekery, with “”Revenge of the Nerds” still in rotation, before “Hip To Be Square” stopped being just an amusing catch phrase, and long before Bill Gates was cool.

So here’s the bad news, boys and girls: You don’t, generally speaking, outgrow being a geek. I’d like to say geekiness grows out like a bad spiral perm, but it doesn’t. High school is a distant memory for me, but I’ve never been able to shake my geekiness. All these years later, there are still occasions when I’m in a room with people who were and still are popular kids, and I feel like I might as well be sporting Spock ears and a copy of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” When I take off my glasses, I’m still much more Clark Kent than Superman, and although makeover montages on the big screen would have us believe it, geek does not wash off or cover up.

Here’s the good news: Even in my prime, geeky years, I liked who and what I was. I felt awkward and a little too conspicuous at spirit assemblies, maybe a little sheepish doing bonus assignments in the cafeteria at lunch, but at least I was interesting. Interesting carried me through those dorky years, kept me from being picked on too much. As I got older, it endeared me to people. Being sophisticated or cool was never going to happen for me, but I knew about fun stuff, was enthusiastic and chatty. I still feel like it’s part of my charm, and knowing fun stuff still makes me feel brave, brave enough, in fact, that I now actively cultivate new and geekier aspects of myself. Call it a my “Geek Renaissance.”

True, geek doesn’t carry the same stigma it used to (thank you, Mr. Gates). Everyone and their dog is now into tech, and one can find t-shirts with Edgar Allen Poe puns at the mall. However, I like to think that there’s a point in your life at which you settle into yourself, when all the aspects of your personality that used to be embarrassing just become par for the course. At this point, you not only get comfortable with who you are, but you make it work for you, in all parts of your life. My geek self has been integral to the career I’ve built for myself. It’s been the magic ingredient in my relationships. It’s made me a better partner, a better parent, probably a better member of society.

My friends, you don’t grow out of geek. In fact, it gets much, much worse…and much, much, much better.

Of Minds and Numbers

brain

For my next trick, I’m going to do some math. It’s not my favourite thing, but on occasion, you can demonstrate something interesting using it, so here goes.

Presently, there are more than 7 billion of us on the planet. An additional 100 billion (give or take) came and went before us. That’s a grand total of 107 billion humans who’ve walked the planet, which means 107 billion minds, and a veritable terrestrial smorgasbord of new ideas. In some ways, we’ve done pretty well with these 107 billion minds and their ideas. We’ve figured out fire, built cities, created great works of art, and managed to not blow the place up (although the jury’s still out on this one). Not too shabby for furry things who decided to crawl out of the trees, right?

Well, maybe not. In addition to our collective success as a species, we’ve also managed to fall into some pretty big holes. Some of our misadventures have been our fault, some of them have been cruel tricks of nature, and some have just been plain bad luck.  Sometimes the way out of these holes is found by one of many, many minds. In these instances, someone with the know-how, the training, and the gumption to do something about it has stepped forward and pulled us out. Yay, us!

Not so fast. Over time, the holes have gotten deeper, there are a lot more of them, and they’re harder to crawl out of. One would think, with 7 billion of us, there would be more than enough good ideas to go around, but there seems to be a shortage of minds willing and/or able to think us out of these holes.

Statistically speaking, somewhere there should be a mind with an idea that helps us find a cheap, clean source of energy, one that knows how to cure disease, one who can negotiate peace, or write a life-changing novel. Unfortunately, that mind might not ever get the chance to do any of these things, because it hasn’t been educated, trained, encouraged, or even allowed to help. That mind might be mired in a struggle to make ends meet, to feed a family, to survive. That mind might belong to a gender, a race, a class that isn’t allowed to come out of the hole. It seems, despite a minefield of holes and a shortage of ideas, we’re keen to keep a lot of minds from climbing up. This bit scares me- a lot.

Can you think of a period in history in which a particular group of minds was consistently excluded (rhetorical question, please say yes)? In my own country, women weren’t acknowledged as persons until less than a century ago, which meant a lack of education, an inability to participate in politics, no career, no personal property, no personal safety…and this is Canada. We’re supposed to be nice here. So for a large portion of my country’s history, 50% of our minds went largely unacknowledged. I shudder to think of the good ideas left undiscovered, the contributions that couldn’t be made. The lack of personhood faced by Canadian women is just a drop in a sea of oversight. Over the course of our history as a species, there have been scads of willing minds and useful ideas wasted.

True, of the 107 billion minds that have existed, not all could have contributed world-changing ideas. Humans don’t always live very long, and some of them get sick. Some spend time running from big things with teeth. Some simply don’t want to be responsible for changing the world. They’re happy doing their own thing, and I can respect that. However, despite my lack of expertise in math, I can still see huge discrepancies between the number of minds available and the number of holes we should have been able to crawl out of by now.

It’s 2016. Human life expectancy isn’t spectacular everywhere in the world, but it’s more than it used to be, meaning we’ve got more time allotted to us, more hours per mind. Moreover, we live in a time when sharing ideas is easier than it’s ever been. The potential to collaborate and improve on minds that went before, is amazing. At any given moment, we could put a dozen phenomenal minds in the same room and give them the tools to do something truly useful. I really, really need to know what the hold up is.

To deny a mind the opportunity to come into its own costs the entire 7 billion of us in ways that can’t be captured in calculations. I dearly wish I were good enough with numbers to come up with an equation that demonstrates the losses in a clear, tangible way. Whenever someone complains about the state of the world, the state of the human race, I wish I could say “The solution to that was/is in mind number x.” I wish numbers were enough to convince the powers that be that it’s worth investing in minds and ideas. I wish numbers were enough to demonstrate to the minds who have been excluded that they’re worth the investment, that they themselves have the numbers necessary to influence change.

So there you have it- my attempt to use numbers to demonstrate something useful. I’m not sure I’ve found a definite answer, but I have shown my work. Perhaps there’s another mind in the 7 billion who can fill in the blanks.

 

On the Passing of Role Models

Star

The latest one lost is David Bowie- a visionary, a rebel, an original, and for many, a touchstone. From Bowie, young minds learned to embrace their weirdness, to strike out into new territory. His followers can be thankful that he died on his own terms, having released one final album, looking like himself, surrounded by family, but it’s still difficult to let go of someone who was a mainstay in their childhood, who saw them gently through their youth.

We all have a list of them, a distant Greek chorus whose works seem to be addressed directly to us. My list included Dr. Seuss, Jim Henson, George Carlin, and Robin Williams. I’ve had all kinds of idols (I still do), but these ones were still around in my lifetime. These were the ones that I had to say goodbye to. It’s somehow different than worshipping someone from a previous era.

What is it about losing someone like this that’s particularly tragic? Why does the world go into shock, when we know somewhere in the back our our minds that even revolutionaries and geniuses are still mortal? Like everyone else, they leave behind friends and family. Like everyone else, their hard work and creativity don’t buy them extra time, or freedom from illness and injury. Rationally, we know this, but it’s still upsetting.

We get misty when we hear or see their past work, sigh at the thought that there won’t be more of it, but I think it’s more than that. When we lose a role model, we realize that the gap they’ve left behind, but it also brings to light the fact that others will have to fill that gap. There will be young minds who need someone to look up to, and that’s a big pair of shoes to fill. What if we’re the ones who will have to step up, to be our most brilliant and most innovative selves in order to fit the role? Could we bear to have people look at us the way we looked at our role models? Could we live up to these expectations?

Cheers to David Bowie, and to all of equal measure. Cheers to the brave soul who endeavors to be the next Bowie (if such a thing is even possible).

The Stories We Tell In Swears

despair

Okay, all you language instructors out there! What’s the first thing students of all ages ask about when they step into a classroom to learn another language? What’s the most satisfying part of one’s own language? Yes, it’s swear words, cursing, cussing, expletives, and dirty words. You want someone to care about how people talk in another part of the world, you entice them with forbidden stuff, the things you’re not supposed to say if you intend to kiss your mother or avoid getting a mouthful of soap. It works every single time.

We all have a need to speak dark things. The right combination of dirty phrases can be ridiculously satisfying, stress-reducing, possibly even peace-making. There’s more to swearing than expressions of anger, though. Learning to swear in any language is an exercise in cultural anthropology. I’m constantly amazed at how specific dirty words don’t translate between languages. What’s absolutely filthy in one barely gets you a shrug in another. The things a society chooses to include in its lexicon of naughty words speaks volumes about what’s important, what’s taboo, and what’s amusing. The same is true for language in general, but swearing seems to be a concentrated, condensed version. It’s immediate, direct, and emotionally-charged in a way that the rest of a language isn’t. Recent studies suggest that it’s indicative of a broad vocabulary (I really want this to be true). It’s also pretty funny.

In teaching others English, and in learning other languages myself, here’s what I’ve found:

  • Some cultures are pretty hung up about their bodies (including English). They swear about stuff that goes into them and things that come out of them, and they get nervous about being reduced to or associated with said bodily functions. Children are pretty good a this type of swearing, although in diluted form. Get my drift, Doodie Head?
  • Other cultures are not fond of animals. If you want to really let someone have it, you call someone an animal, or even a combination of non-human critters.  This one’s a little troubling, as animals are sometimes more civilized than we are. Maybe they call each other things like “big, smelly, noisy human” when they get upset.
  • Others are particularly protective of mothers. Swearing in this regard ranges from moms wearing army boots, to moms who are hamsters (and fathers who smell of elderberries), to moms who keep questionable company…because, you know, moms don’t have enough to deal with already.
  • Swearing can also extend to one’s spiritual persuasions as well. If you want to really pack a wallop with your cursing, you can drag superior beings into the conversation.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and the cool thing about swearing is that it not only varies from culture to culture, but also between regions and generations. There’s a great deal that can be learned about a person, both as an individual and as a member of a bigger group, from what comes out of his or her mouth when he or she is irritated. If animals do swear, I wonder what might be in their canon of questionable language. As robots become increasingly intelligent and human-like, will they evolve their one set of verbal no-no’s? Should we be including a few nasty things in our communications with other intelligent life forms in the universe, so that they’ll really get a full picture of what it’s like to be us?

Something to think about the next time you curse a blue streak.

*Please forgive my lack of actual swear words in this post. Although I’m semi-pro at using foul language (I might even be genetically predisposed to it), I try to keep this blog relatively PG.