When society favors the geek

Some say that all narratives ultimately tell only two stories. One: Someone goes on a journey. Two: A stranger comes to town. The summer before my eighth-grade year, when I was 12, I experienced the intersection of both. In other words, I learned how to escape.

This was 1979. My mother had been home from the hospital for a few months, and my sister, brother and I were just coming to understand her. Our "new" Mom.

The new version of my mother was a changeling. At 38 years old, she had suffered, and barely survived, a ruptured brain aneurysm. The head injury caused her to be mostly paralyzed on her left side. Her brain became scrambled. She limped around the house, couldn't tell time and didn't know the day of the week. Often, she'd make inappropriate remarks, swearing at the slightest provocation or making some lewd joke in front of friends. At times, she scared me.

"Ethan!" she'd yell from her lair. "Help me get up!" She might be half-dressed in her bed, or on the toilet, or on the floor, or in the bathtub.

Years before my mother's "accident," as we called it, my dad had moved several hours away. We saw him regularly, but he and my stepmom were largely out of the picture. A family friend had moved in to help take care of my Mom, my siblings and me. The theory was, Sara Gilsdorf might make a miraculous recovery, and the friend would move out. We eventually discovered this would never come to pass.

It didn't take long to figure out I couldn't tame my mother, not this beast. I knew I couldn't save her, either. I fought with her for a while, usually battling over her inability -- what I mistakenly read as her refusal -- to regain her old life, be it making a cup of coffee or making a family decision. After a while, I gave up. And kept my distance. I was stuck with a mother I was afraid to love.

We began calling her the Momster.

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[. . .]

Then, later that same summer of 1979 when my mom came home from the hospital, a stranger came to town -- a new kid moved into the neighborhood. And a new path appeared to me.

[. . .]

I hung out a lot at JP's house that summer. After a few weeks of watching "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century," listening to Electric Light Orchestra's "Discovery," and programming primitive video games in BASIC on his TRS-80 Radio Shack computer, JP told me about Dungeons & Dragons.

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[. . .]

That summer, I kept making Super 8 movies, but D&D soon took over. It quickly became more than a game: It became a vital experience that let a geeky, introverted, non-athletic kid -- a kid who felt about as powerful as a 3-foot hobbit on the basketball team -- take action, be the hero, go on quests, and kill monsters. Not that all guys (and they were mostly guys in those days) who played D&D were geeky, introverted, non-athletic kids, but enough were, and at least this one felt invisible. With everything going on at home, perhaps I was the perfect candidate for escape. But I was also drawn to the idea of this game. I had always sensed that something was missing from the real world. My no-budget movies were one Band-Aid. But shooting my "Star Wars" remakes and clay monster battles took weeks and resulted in three-minute movies. Entering the D&D fantasy was effortless, instantaneous and endless. Epic.

I now see it was no accident that the year I found D&D, or it found me, coincided with my mother's return from the hospital. It took courage for a teenage boy to deal with the Momster -- more courage than I could muster at the time. I couldn't face down the creature that plagued my own house. But playing D&D let me act out imaginary, possibly symbolic battles instead, and distracted me from the prospect of facing the real ones waged within my family's four walls. In the D&D playscape, I learned to be confident and decisive, and feel powerful. Even cocky. Some of the guts and nerve and derring-do I role-played began to leak into my real world. By the time I graduated high school, I had transformed. I had used fantasy to escape but also to gather strength for later, when I could face and embrace my mother again. Which, as an adult years later, I finally did.

But in the summer of '79, I was but a newbie. I needed to gain experience. I had only tasted the power Dungeons & Dragons. I didn't know that game was about to save my life.

Back to those two archetypal narrative plots: someone goes on a journey; a stranger comes to town. That summer, two strangers came to town: JP, and my mother. Three, if you count me. I would become a stranger, myself, again and again. I would play many new roles. I would go on incredible journeys to imaginary lands. And I would defeat many monsters.

When I got home that night after my virgin D&D session, after slipping past my mother, I headed straight for Webster's. "Cleric |ˈklerik|, noun. A member of the clergy; a priest or religious leader in any religion." The next day, back at JP's for another adventure, I would learn that in the D&D game world, clerics weren't just priests. They were characters who had dedicated themselves to a god or perhaps several gods. They could cast spells such as "cure light wounds" and "protection from evil." They could dispel the undead.

Surely those powers would come in handy, at home, or in my head, or in whatever life I would choose to live that summer, or in some realm far away in the future. (Ethan Gilsdorf, “My Summer of Dungeons and Dragons,” 18 July 2011)

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Zero plus zero equals the infinite, apparently

How does hanging out with other geeks end up making you less somehow of a geek (giving you true courage, of the kind that applies to the "real"world, etc.)? How does zero plus zero generate anything?

I'm wondering if the truer story is that somewhere along the line society decided geeks were preferable to healthy self-esteemers, for their preparedness to take shit, bow to bullying power, and in service to it, humiliate others with more true backbone: that is, for having no real self-respect. In preverse times, their disadvantage, their malformation, actually rendered them more fit, and they ended up with subsequent life stories that allowed them to believe their adolescent escapes had been subsequently revealed as healthy, even leaderly, pasttimes. Rather than socially retarded, time has apparently shown them they have as much a claim to being vanguard!

And, oh, the part about his mom becoming “the momster,” principally owing to her illness, is foremost a lie: he'd have been hiding away from a tyrannical mom, battling her bulking likeness in the form of dragons, demons, and whatnot, regardless. That despite everything he has accomplished and come to realize, he still cows to her and has therefore in some profound sense barely moved an inch, is evident in his emphasizing the illness so you don't think momster was due to make her years-long appearance in any case. "It wasn't YOU, mom; it was just the illness: I'm still your good, loyal, appreciative boy – brave knight to your cause, tending cleric to your maladies."

The cruelest fate for fabulous endeavors which would make YOU part of the tale, is that its history is largely about compensating for a bullysome world, or rendering it more appropriate for trauma-satured minds, rather than about boldly encroaching upon an insufficiently magicked one – even when it shines golden, as it did during the ’70s when D & D was born.

Link: My summer of Dungeons and Dragons (Salon)

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