Looking back on my childhood, I gotta admit clues to an important truth about myself lay all around to pick up, had I noticed.
Things that could be found especially in those stories families everywhere accumulate and mine to tease one another.
Like the tale of that afternoon in 1977. My father had just arrived home, where he found me in the kitchen baking, well, some weird, inedible experiment in the oven.
“Whatya got in there?” dad asked.
I didn’t want to admit to the stupid thing I was actually doing, so, without thinking, I tossed out, “I’m cooking a homunculus, dad.”
A moment of silence followed. And then: “Oh, good, very good. Um, carry on.”
And apparently satisfied with my reply, he turned and disappeared into the next room. And that was that.
Or so I thought.
Because a month later, my old man brought up our brief conversation. Something about it had been eating away at my engineer father ever since. Seems he had been pestering his cronies about it.
“I’ve been asking around Boeing for the last month to see if anyone knew what a homunculus is,” he said. “It’s a little person! In a flask! I gotta have the only kid on the block who knows what the hell a homunculus is!”
The incident became a running joke between us, which he’d trot out whenever I said other weird things that baffled him.
Another clue: the day I called home seeking the wording of a quote from The American Heritage History of the Civil War. My mother answered the phone.
So I directed her to the quote. I hadn’t thought about the page number or the location of the paragraph on the page, but somehow they were in my head. She read the words back to me. We said our goodbyes, and I forgot about it.
But months later, my father brought it up: “You know that time you called your mother? She was flabbergasted! How did you know it was in the third paragraph on the right column on page 234? She couldn’t get over it!”
It didn’t seem odd at the time. I had to have that quote. But when dad mentioned the incident, I drew the conclusion I usually did in those days: something about me was off-kilter.
Finally, there was the story of the Proktophantasmist – rough English translation, “Ghost Rumpler” – from Goethe’s Faust. Goethe had written this character into his masterpiece based on the theory of a silly, 18th Century pamphleteer named Friedrich Nicolai. Herr Nicolai’s thesis was that the way to rid oneself of vexsome ghosts was to plaster leeches all over one’s, well, behind. So Goethe made him the butt of jokes forever after.
Friends called me “weird” for knowing that and rattling on about it.
Their judgment seemed to square with similar critiques of my love for poetry and old anguages, unhappily associated with my over-eagerness to talk about both subjects and 1,000 things out of the mainstream with people who didn’t know and didn’t care. A trait, I confess, that never earned me a single invitation to a party.
I didn’t get what was up until much later. In fact, I was 22 years old, and in my second year at the University of Washington the fateful day that one of my Classics professors, without knowing it, helped put a name to my nameless affliction.
“I know what you’re all going to do with your free time,” my professor announced to the class at the bell as we stood to leave. “On Saturday night, you’re going to pour yourself a glass of port, cut yourself a fat slice of Stilton cheese, sit down in your overstuffed leather chair next to the roaring fire place, and crack open your Smyth’s Greek Grammar!”
Ridiculous. I mean, who’d do such a thing, right? Only a geek of galaxy-spanning geekiness. So, of course, everyone in the class laughed. OK, not exactly everyone. I kept mum. I must have known the social death lying in wait for me if I’d said aloud what I was thinking.
And that was: “Hey, I like that sort of thing! Sounds like fun!”
That was the point in space and time that the flinty truth I’d long ignored hit me full force: I was a nerd. Or to refine that a bit, a word nerd. Had been all along.
In the days to come, I went through various stages of denial. Full acceptance would come later.
I can still hear what The Rumpled Man, my college roommate and closest confidant in those days had to say to close the loop.
“Of course you’re a nerd,” Rumpled responded. “I’m a nerd, too.” He smiled. Obviously, he was comfortable with the title. From that moment, revelation followed revelation; my childhood explained; why most of my tight friends had been, were, and are nerds.
Well, that bolt of lighting hit me in 1985, and I’ve long since accepted the reality. I now understand the desperation in the many eyes that rolled about like marbles in their sockets, or scouted for windows to leap from, height of building be damned, when I geeked out on the niceties of Homeric Greek or went on about Carl Jung’s concept of the autonomous self, or space and time as our organs of intuition in Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
I’ve since learned that it’s actually rude to go on about things to people who don’t know or care about, them so I stopped blathering about that stuff.
But, you know, I’ve also learned it’s not so bad to be a nerd.
What I am trying to say is this: it’s a good thing for a person to become comfortable in his or her own skin.
So, do your thing. And if you’re like me, go ahead — embrace your inner nerd.
Robert Whale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.