BasedCon Cruft Purge

If you’ve never read one of these (I’m talking to you, my new BasedCon friends) be aware that this a Cruft Purge is a “blowing out of the lines.” A word about the phrase:

I love to write, always have. But most of my writing (a percentage statistically indistinct from ‘all’) has been journaling, mostly in the stream-of-consciousness style. IF I don’t write “intentionally” for more than a few days I find the accretion of cruft on my head tends to get heavy. When I finally DO sit down to write it has always been true that I have to blow through all of that first before I get to “the good stuff.” Hitting ‘publish’ on WordPress (for now) is what keeps me honest about writing continually at all. So here we are, some time since I’ve written intentionally, with a SciFi author’s con in the middle. So you get what you get.

I went to BasedCon this weekend and I’ve got my thoughts on that growing steadily in another file that will end up as something I post, I’m sure. But I’ve got to let myself run through all the things I shouldn’t say, then mine that for the post.

“Cast many lots” and all.

It’s funny, I’m inclined to talk about it as if I’d been away for a month, and it really does feel that way, owing to the completely alien geographic and social contexts bounded by a pair of 9 hour drives. Fact of the matter is I was only gone from home for about 60 hours, driving included.

But it really was a world away.

I don’t really have many friends who would self-identify as nerds, geeks, and such. Oh sure, there are guys I used to work with. But that’s kind of a different thing really. They’re technologists and that’s about as far as it goes.

A Science Fiction Author’s convention? Hold on to your lug nuts.

It was one of the strangest bits of culture shock I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve moved from New York to Nashville.

I don’t even really know where the hell to start.

The juxtaposition of membership in multiple social groups does strange things to your head, whether you’re used to it or not. I’ve talked about this a little in the posts about Smokey Cigar vs. Johnathan’s (which I’ll cross-link at some point.) They’ve all got their own social protocols, standard in-references and predilections, partially as a function of the background that brings them together in the first place, and partially as grown out of the shared experience. But seeing how starkly different they all are is really interesting.

You get to watch how the same internal dispositions of personality manifest through the filters of their associated subcultures. People dealing with insecurities of one sort or another either retreating into the shadows or leaning hard on another aspect of their personality. How those things appear when someone finds themself in their IN group or as an alien to it.

For my part I’ve always identified as being pretty damned nerdy/geeky. It’s been decades since I’ve seen any such term as disparaging. After all, the geeks have inherited the earth, for the most part. (cue the wavy screen vignette of being a kid, getting bullied into eating a lot of dirt while singing to myself “that’s alright, that’s okay, you’re gonna work for ME some day.” which actually DID happen at one point. Story for another time.)

But something fucky happened when I went to BasedCon: While I “Identify as a nerd” I found myself treating a collection of SciFi fans and authors as an out-group, which just kinda hurt my head while I parsed out what was going on inside it.

I just don’t (didn’t) HAVE nerdy friends. Yeah yeah, there are the technologists that make up the groups of guys I used to work with. But that’s…not really the same thing. I never really just geek out with them past our shared war stories or literal technophilia. They’re not marvel fans or RPG fans or gamers.

As such, that part of my self identification has always been something internally bound quite tightly to my sense of being an Outsider, which has always been true, even back in the days of D&D in high school and such.

So suddenly I was in a group of people who have a distressingly similar outlook on a lot of things. As several people observed at the event, these are people who almost, to a soul, are the smartest people in the room in their day to day lives. They just about ALL have esoteric hobbies of one or several kinds. Shit, the number of people who brought their own home-made mead was on its own pretty distressing. (Yes I was one.)

I found it tremendously unsettling and just couldn’t figure out, that first night, what the hell was bothering me about it all. It’s not like everybody was the same, certainly. But if you clustered people on a 2 dimensional plane based on similar interests and attitudes this whole group would, while certainly individually distinct, be clustered pretty far away from everyone else.

I think it was a bit before lunch on Saturday that my brain had indexed what was going on well enough that I could put words to it: I was an outsider among outsiders. So…what the hell does that mean? To oversimplify, was it the Ugly Duckling story (by which I mean the actual Hans Christian Andersen story?)

To some extent it’s exactly that.

To be a fish out of water for so long and suddenly find myself in a lake was pretty jarring. Because if my ego is satiated by the indulgence of thinking of myself as an outsider, then this was just the ultimate slap in the face. Sure, it’s easy to be an outsider when you’re an autodidactic software developer who makes his own alcohol, hot sauces, breads, and candies; who builds things out of steel and leather and wood (however poorly) when you’re among people who don’t generally get involved with that kind of thing. It becomes your socially defining characteristic.

“That’s very clever. How’s that working out for you?”

“What?”

“Being clever.”

“Good”

“Keep it up then.”

But the ‘unique snowflake’ness of it all came crashing the fuck down in the most hilarious, entertaining, and unsettling way. (Funny how well all of that goes together as an adult.)

A couple out of a great many ‘for instance’s:

  • There was one guy there who was just utterly bombastic. Loud, bright faced and expressive. He just didn’t have an inside voice and was pretty much the star of his own show whenever he was a part of the conversation. For the first 24 hours I stayed well away from him because I just found it grating. By Saturday night I had a truly crushing realization, which anyone who’s ever met me would hopefully chuckle at. Yeah, okay. Point taken. Fortunately it turns out he’s actually really cool. So while the self reflection of it all ended up being pretty humbling, I did recover somewhat. Though it’s a lesson I’ll not soon forget.
  • The amount of competitive grade smartassery was just hilarious. That was an easy one because its nature is so patently obvious. It was kind of a mass benevolent cluster of “Well, ackshually…”ness that I found absolutely endearing.

Those are representative. But there’ve been a dozen or more of those kinds of things. Hell I’m still processing them as I reparse the events of the weekend.

By Saturday night I was in full-bore existential crisis mode: How much of my ACTUAL identity (as opposed to what I’ll call my social mask) is encapsulated in the “I’m a nerd who hangs out with people who aren’t nerds because being a nerd among them makes me seem unique” trope?

But the truth of the matter sank in over a couple cigars, sitting around a citronella candle here and a campfire later on.

No, that’s not the case. I’d swung the other way reflexively; by which I mean that I was cherry picking individual traits from everyone, comparing them with similar traits of mine, and looking for something unique. But that’s just the path straight to complete fucking madness. After all, “no one is competition for everyone.”

You can’t compare yourself (or someone else) to a bunch of attributes picked from a large group of people, because you’re always doing two things:

  • Creating an ‘ideal’ person that doesn’t actually exist to contrast against.
  • Ignoring the web of internal attributes that are associated with the quality or qualities you’re selecting from any one person, the very essence of cherry-picking.

Someone may be an admirably and deeply earnest person who speaks with conviction from the deepest parts of their being. BUT they may do that because they’re deeply wounded psychologically and are trying to front-run criticism of a particular sort. Taking their honesty in isolation really does everyone involved a massive disservice. You can’t really DO that effectively. Doesn’t make them bad or make that quality less laudable. But it DOES ignore the underlying.

Now again I can feel the pendulum of my motivation swinging back and forth in a vacuum with this. On one hand perhaps it is true, that I’m at least in part an amalgam of traits that I’ve quite lazily put together knowing that in a tightly curated social context really can’t be challenged.

The forced out words of my father come to mind: “Mikey remember…you’re YOU.” I never really knew what the fuck he meant by that, ten or so years ago. I’ve gone back and forth fantasizing about what I hope he meant and what I fear he meant and whether or not he even KNEW what the crap he meant.

And, in fairness, my predilection to people watching led me to watch a lot of the guys (because the gender split was something like 6.5:1) going through the same negotiation process with themselves. All these alpha nerds jockeying for position in the same kind of way. It was absolutely great.

So where do I go from there? What’s the take away?

The take away is actually pretty simple: I’ve got to pay a lot more attention to that kind of thing and focus on myself in an attempt to discern the truth of it all. To what extent am I just playing a part I’ve carved out for myself?

Truth be told I’ll go to as many of these kinds of events as I can. But they’ll be events that I go to. Frankly I don’t think I could spend most of my time in such company. There’s a reason I don’t have many friends who are programmers. A week ago I’d have told you, with a completely straight face, that it’s because I find nerds categorically insufferable. But I have to be honest about the new realization:

That I may find them insufferable because I just see myself when I interact with them and that’s a bit too much honesty for me to bear.

But there’s another side to it that may really be the same side: Insofar as the pessimistic appraisal IS the accurate (and that’s true to a nontrivial degree) then I have to examine those specific things that I indulge in “in order to be interesting” even if I do enjoy them.

Take programming for instance. Now I’m not confused about the fact that I absolutely love writing software, solving problems that are to some degree real and to some degree the contrivances of a technophiliac.

It’s REALLY easy to impress ‘civilians’ by saying I write software as a hobby. Some of them have the presence of mind to ask what I’m working on and it’s easy enough to spout off on one of a couple/few of my projects that are kicking around in various stages of disrepair. But…I rest on that a little hard. If I decided I was going to really lean on it, I could use this whole experiential landscape as a tool to motivate myself to get my chops back as well. (e.g. I want to impress THEM. A tremendously useful contrivance.)

It really feels as though I’ve been granted a tremendous opportunity, an excuse to be more intentional and focused about what it is that I do.

After all I really DO find it frustrating that (and hold on, this is some ipecac) that a lot of my friends are so easily impressed by things I do and create. My midori traveler notebook clones are just rectangular pieces of leather with 5 holes in them. Or cough the limoncello: Zest 14 lemons and put that in a bottle of grain alcohol for 2 months. Then mix with simple syrup and water to taste. Done. There are no other steps. It’s not rocket surgery. But yes, if you’re not the kind of person who makes things I can see where that looks like something close to witchcraft.

It’s all fun. But I don’t find it particularly laudable. Not really. It’s just a thing people do that I looked up online, figured out, and started doing.

So maybe it really is true that I need to cultivate more friendships with people who are more serious about doing/making these kinds of things as a way of keeping myself honest. But…that seems a bit Machiavellian, even for me. I don’t do shit under false pretenses if I can possibly avoid it.

To abuse the quote attributed to Lorne Michaels: If you’re the most interesting person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

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