Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Why Geeks Are Great

In my last post, I got to ranting about some of the ways that SF fandom can go terribly wrong – misaligned priorities and unwillingness to deal with life’s realities to name couple. But after getting all of that off my chest, I thought it was just as important to argue, just as passionately, about the greatness of geeks – and not in a “we’re smarter than mainstreamers” petulant, little sort of way either. No, I’m talking about our humanity; our ability to care for and reach out to one another and our communities. For contrary to popular belief, we geeks do rise beyond our SF passions and eccentricities quite frequently and focus our considerable energies on making connections and being there for others. In so doing, we show, if only to ourselves, that geeks are great.

It’s always impressive when the geek community comes out in force to support a cause. Take the San Diego Comicon, for example. For about 30-odd years now, they’re held a big blood drive at the event. 30 years of geeks volunteering to get freshly squeezed like oranges adds up to a helluva lot of lives saved.

And this isn’t an isolated example either. Geeks all over the world do their part to help local and regional charities. One of the first examples I personally encountered was back in the mid 90’s when I was attending the University of Manitoba and working and volunteering with the United Way of Winnipeg. One of the UWW’s big annual fundraisers was an event called “the World’s Biggest Garage Sale” (no, I can’t verify whether it was, in fact, the biggest craphound fest the planet has ever seen, but it was pretty damn big), where, for weeks, people from around the city donated their cast-offs of all types. The UWW secured the city’s convention centre as a venue and filled its cavernous rooms with row upon row of tables covered in, well, pretty much everything you can possibly imagine. On the special Saturday when the event was held, people would come from all over the place to root through this immense trove of white elephants in hopes of finding their personal notion of treasure. The problem is, for a garage sale of this magnitude, you need a hell of a lot of volunteers to man the tables, haggle with the public and manage the sales. All kinds of service clubs, social groups and businesses sent groups to help out, but there was one corps that stood out above all the others, and that was the geeks. A very special group of geeks. Squeezed in between the Shriners and the Kinsmen and the contingent from the local Airforce base and a gaggle of car dealers and a host of who knows how many others, was a brigade of Star Trek fans – specifically, Klingons. Yep, the Klingons were there in full forehead makeup and battle garb, armed with boisterous good nature instead of bat’leths. What a sight to see! The hearty squad of warrior wannabes driving bargains a Ferengi would be proud of and sealing the deal with lusty cries of “Kaplah”, all in the name of charity. Chances are, Joe and Sally Sixpack straggling up and down the aisles with their 3 squalling kids would probably forget most of the faces they saw that day, but no-one forgets a black-maned Klingon warrior nickel-and-diming you over a chipped antique lamp shade. Now that’s geek pride for a good cause!

Then there’s VCon, the Vancouver Science Fiction, Fantasy and Gaming Convention I’ve been attending for the past couple of years. Something that caught my eye last year (which was probably there the year before, just something I failed to notice then) was the art room raffle. A genre artist had donated a painting (of a dragon, I seem to recall), and for a twonie you could enter the draw. The proceeds (if I remember correctly) went to the SHARE Society, out of Coquitlam, which among many worthy programs, operates a food bank and a crisis line. And you know, whether they actually wanted the painting or not, I saw a fair number of fanboys and fangirls dropping in a polar bear coin or two to help out.

And speaking of cons, many of these events collect money dedicated to bringing in fans from other parts of their respective countries, or even from around the world to come and join in the fun. These fan funds are a hugely important part of community-building, not just among geeks, but across regions.

Beyond the charity drives or big causes, geeks are exemplary on a personal level too.

We’ve probably all heard those stories from distant corners of the internet about a bunch of online buddies coming to the rescue of a fellow forum-dweller who suddenly goes offline due to a medical or emotional crisis – how they compare notes from personal conversations and backtrack through IP addresses, etc to figure out where the person lives and then call local emergency services.

And speaking of emergencies (of a different kind, mind you), it wasn’t too long ago that Hurricane Ike beat-up on the Texas coast. When the guys over at SF Signal announced that their site could experience infrequent content updates because all three of them were battening down for the storm, many of the regulars wasted no time in wishing the boys good luck. Watching coverage of the storm on the nightly news took on a whole new meaning when you thought about how a fellow geek might have to deal with that kind of situation.

And then there are the small, personal moments that you catch a hint of every now and again. Another VCon example for ya: A couple of years ago I was standing in line waiting to register at the con, when I overheard a conversation off to the side. A guy who looked like the stereotypical refugee from his mom’s basement (late 20’s/early 30’s, overweight, coke-bottle-lense glasses, unkempt hair and beard, ill-fitting and unwashed clothes, disputable hygiene and voice at a decided mumble) was shooting the breeze with a heavyset transvestite goth. Impressive that members from two seemingly different camps of geekdom would mix, but what was more impressive was what happened when their conversation concluded and the refugee-from-his-mom’s-basement ambled away. At that point, an average-looking woman came up to the transvestite goth and they began to talk about the fellow who’d just left. They enthused about how much he’d come out of his shell in the past couple of years, how he was now looking people in the eye and carrying on conversations. You see, a lot of people would look at this scene and wouldn’t be able to get past the stereotypes. But none of this was funny at all. I personally don’t give a shit about what any of these people look like or what their sub-culture leanings are. This was an important moment illustrating what geeks are really all about beyond the books and comics and TV shows and movies and games and collectables and costumes. It showed how geeks reach out to each other. It was inspiring and touching because it showed how much these people from seemingly diverse backgrounds cared for each other.

This is what makes geeks great.

And I bet you can think of a million other examples too. I’d love to hear about them. We need to be sharing our stories more often.

So after reading this piece from the soapbox today, you may ask, “Bloginhood, isn’t all of this rambling just belabouring the obvious?” Maybe. That’s certainly a fair comment. But I think it’s worth while, and in fact, necessary for geeks every now and again to stand up and remind ourselves what makes us great.

Too often mainstream culture mocks geeks for pursuits that it doesn’t care to give the time to try to understand. It’s too easy dismiss people who like science fiction or fantasy or whatever else you want to cram under the SF banner because they don’t get our shows, have never bothered to read our literature, don’t have the patience for a game, can’t simply enjoy a movie or, horror of horrors, don’t want to be made-fun-of by their mainstream buddies for admitting maybe they do like geeky stuff. It’s too easy for snide observers to point to the fringe elements that maybe do take their passions too far and display a warped sense of reality or distorted priorities (and granted, sometimes things do go horribly wrong, which makes us all the more human). It’s too simple to get distracted by the obvious and corny divides in our community like high fantasy vs. hard science fiction, Golden Age vs New Wave, or Enterprise vs Star Destroyer.

What’s important is that we, as geeks, come together to form communities that, for all our eccentricities, are generally supportive and caring. We must continue to support worthy charities and, most of all, support each other. We need to take pride in who we are. We need to remember why geeks are great.
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