06 September 2008

Nerd Fort

llll ) llll The Nerd Fort…

I’m sitting in a second-story smoking room of the Park Town Hotel, beside omahksiitahtaa in Saskatoon, here for a meeting of the Aboriginal Knowledge Learning Centre, ki very much wishing I could just go home. Though I’ve only been here one night, that’s long enough for anyone to have to suffer the sensory deprivation of Saskatchewan. I miss piipiiaakii ki ohkomaakii. I miss nitomopistaan. I miss nitsitaipsstsinaaki at mi’kai’sto iitaissksinima’tstohkio’p. Ki I miss my nerd fort.

What’s a nerd fort? That’s a question I hear on occasion, but it’s always surprising for me to learn it’s not common knowledge. Aren’t there lots of nerds out there? Ki don’t we all keep forts? Certainly I always have. I’ve built underground nerd forts comprised of large room-holes ki narrow, twisting entry-tunnels dug in fields ki forests, topped with boards, ki covered over with thick layers of earth ki foliage. I’ve had nerd forts in attic crawlspaces – carpeted, shielded with firecracker tripwires, ki equipped with libraries full of comic books ki novels by Mark Twain ki Fred Gibson. Now that I’m a bit older (but perhaps no more mature), I keep my nerd fort under the basement stairway of nookoowa. I’ll admit, it’s not fully developed as of yet… ours is a rental house at present (although we may buy it), ki I’m not sure I want to put my full energy into creating the ultimate nerd fort if I’m just going to have to relinquish this space in the future. Time will tell. For the present, at least, it’s like this:

Some folks have offices. Some have workshops, hobby rooms, or dens. I have a nerd fort. The foremost rule in the architectural design of a nerd fort, from my experience, is that it cannot be set in an ordinary room. Otherwise it’s just that… a room. My room, perhaps, but a “room” all the same. No. A nerd fort must take advantage of unlikely habitation spaces. Cramped little nooks that no normal person would consider using for anything other than storage, or specially built hideaways like tree-houses, caves, or underground bunkers. A few examples of idealized nerd forts in the popular media include Fox Moulder’s X-Files office in the storage basement of the FBI building, the greens-keeper shed that Bill Murray inhabited in Caddyshack, Superman’s crystal island where he could communicate with the spirits of his ancestors, ki of course the Bat Cave.

I chose a little hollow under my basement stairway. This was an ideal site because I could route an extension cord in there to power my computer (which is now a key component of most master nerd forts). Another important benefit to this selection was its low ceiling. Your average adult person cannot maneuver safely within this space without bending down. This uncomfortable position functions to assure that the nerd fort will receive few visitors, which is important because the activities that occur in there are often geeky ki embarrassing, best kept relatively private. To this same effect, my nerd fort is equipped with a robotic chimpanzee head at the entryway, which can be set to alarm mode, so that I will be alerted of any approaching visitor by the sound of monkey screams.

Just as a nerd fort cannot be fashioned from a mere “room”, nor should it have anything resembling normal walls. In fact, the best nerd forts are those which are rendered invisible to the outside world, because they merely appear to be a pile of some miscellaneous garbage. Cardboard boxes are a good way to create this effect, ki that is what I’ve chosen to form the one wall that is exposed to my basement (although I’ve not entirely completed the camouflage yet). Another advantage of cardboard boxes is that they can hold lots of stuff. I have boxes of dried medicinal plant materials, boxes of books, boxes of martial arts gear from when I was just like Bruce Lee. I even have boxes full of other more important boxes, if that makes any sense. Never underestimate the power of the cardboard box… it was always, itself, the original nerd fort, after all.

Another important element of the nerd fort that, like the cardboard box, hearkens back to the brilliance of childhood, are toys ki other collectibles. Some perceive such things as being unnecessary or even unhealthy for the fully functioning adult. But this view is mistaken. The practice of collecting is the means by which we learn to understand different taxonomic orders ki make sense of our world. In other words, collecting is an exercise in cognitive training. Everyone collects something… it could be sports statistics, movie trivia, specialized academic vocabulary items, political knowledge, whatever. Given, there are collectors who develop pathologies ki fail to grow. I’m thinking particularly of the ones who keep massive toy collections, attempting to maintain each object they acquire in a pristine, packaged condition for their supposed economic value. Or the museum tradition, whose curators even go so far as to wear linen gloves so as to assure that the oils naturally exuded from their fingertips do not somehow effect the rapid decay of, say, an old piece of furniture. Such extreme but all too common collection practices reflect a mistaken view as well. The true worth of toys or antiques is not economic, nor some kind of intangible heritage value. Rather, it is their ability to compel us toward the use of imagination. Ki the significance of a collection is in the cognitive transformation that results, not the accumulation of material product. The master nerd realizes all of this, has the ability to let go, to advance into more complex exercises, but yet also respects the process he or she has been through, ki will as a result keep a shrine of sorts as a reminder of the importance of that experiential history.

The nerd shrine does not have to be gaudy. Just a few items will do. My shrine, for instance, includes a sizeable chunk of dinosaur bone, an ammonite fossil, a few interlinked segments of coyote backbone, a hacky-sack, two jars of dried berries, ki four action figures – Obi Wan Kenobi ki a robotic spider from Star Wars, Data from The Goonies, ki Indiana Jones. Why these particular choices? Well… the fossils ki bones speak to one of our earliest childhood cognitive exercises, our first attempt at collection. As we develop, we progress from learning the names or titles of our kin (mom, dad, sister, neighbor, stranger), to the animals (dog, cat, fish, leather-backed sea turtle), to the dinosaurs. By that point, we understand – in an intuitive way - a little bit about what taxonomies do, giving us vocabulary attached to values (i.e. brontosaurs are nice, tyrannosaurs are mean), ki we are ready to blaze our own trail down other collections ki cognitive exercises of our choosing in a learning process that lasts the remainder of our days. Plus, you’ve got to admit, having a big chunk of dinosaur bone is cool. The berries ki hacky-sack, positioned at alternate sides of my shrine, comprise a polemic. For me, the hacky-sack is a symbol of life wasted. Anyone who has so few creative projects underway that he can bother to train his body to adeptly handle the bouncing of this sack is most surely living without purpose. Berries, on the other hand, represent a commitment to engage one’s ecological community. Like many natural foods, they are in season only briefly, ki it takes a sustained effort to gather as many as would be needed to include them in one’s diet year-round. The ecological community member must therefore be willing to relinquish attachment to unnecessary frivolities like hacky-sack play, in favor of a thorough engagement with life. Then there are the action figures… Obi Wan, a serious Jedi incapable of being swayed by the dark side of the force. The robotic spider, a character completely unknown, alien, a reminder that there is far more out there than we have encountered through our limited introductions or perspectives. Data, the inventor, the gadget man, the one who thinks creatively ahead ki is always, somehow, prepared. Ki Indiana Jones, a brilliant academic who knows many historical ki cultural worlds, yet refuses to stay bound to his desk ki chalkboard. When combined, for me, these few members of the nerd shrine concentrate a wide spectrum of values ki meanings. Plus, you’ve got to admit, its fun to have toys.

Outside of its architectural structure, its camouflage ki shrine, the nerd fort has only two further requisites. First, it must be a hub of intelligence analysis. A command center, in essence. Ki to this ends, there should be some form of archives at hand, as well as a means for communications. Depending on the particular projects ki intellectual slants of the resident nerd, these archives ki communications tools may take various forms. In my nerd fort, they include a small library of authors who cast widely among an array of topics, ki a computer with high-speed internet access. A second ki equally important requisite to the complete nerd fort is a defense system. Now, it’s true, many master nerds are significant weapons in themselves, bearing expertise in various styles of kung fu. Yet, it’s always good to have a back-up system. In my particular nerd fort, there is a crossbow ki a boyga. Most are familiar with the former, so it is the boyga that is truly my last line of defense, the one weapon that will always catch the enemy off-guard. In fact, the boyga has been kept so secreted that I hesitate to share its details here. But, since to my knowledge there are few other boygas in captivity, I suppose it’s safe.

To understand what a boyga is, one must appreciate that it can only be defined by itself. It is not subsumed under any wider ki more familiar classification. In fact, it’s far easier to describe what a boyga DOES than what a boyga IS. A boyga consumes ki destroys. It does so without discrimination. If a boyga is loose in your environment, you will know it, because things will be found broken. Not just material objects, like clocks, or video cassette recorders, or bathroom sinks, but other more intangible things as well. Relationships, memories, all of that which brings us psychological comfort ki joy will begin to fall unexplainably apart. If you suspect there is a boyga in your home, school or workspace, the sure sign of its presence will be random piles of discarded peanut shells. Boygas subsist on a diet of other peoples’ happiness, ki also their peanuts. It is with this knowledge alone that a boyga can be caught. No matter how hard you look, you will not find a boyga unless you set out a pile of peanuts as a lure. Then, when the boyga inevitably approaches to eat them, you must pounce upon it at once, seize its arms, ki as quickly as possible secure it in a manner that would make escape very difficult, if not impossible. I have my boyga blindfolded ki bound tightly with ropes around both its neck ki abdomen to one of the posts of my nerd fort, with knots positioned smartly out of its reach. In this manner, a boyga can be secured in captivity for years at a time, to be released only in the event that the nerd fort itself is on the brink of destruction at the hands of an enemy force.

So there you have it. The science of nerd forts. Architecture, camouflage, shrine, central intelligence, ki defense. There is one feature of the nerd fort I have not yet described, an aspect that isn’t really of necessity, but which is a commonplace element you will no doubt come to experience if you happen to build a nerd fort for yourself. One finds that, while nerd forts aren’t for everyone, many are fascinated by them ki will take it upon themselves to contribute to their décor. These contributions should be understood as offerings to the nerd fort, signs of respect for the highly misunderstood master nerd. In my case, for example, there have been offerings made of Futurama fan art. While I don’t watch the show myself, I’m happy to accept these contributions… especially the painting of a scantily-clad cyclops woman. Also, the lighting in my nerd fort is provided by two donated lamps: one a black, fishnet-stocking leg in high heels, reminiscent of The Christmas Story; the other a classic plasma ball. Without these offerings, the only light in my nerd fort would be that which radiates from my computer monitor. Ki this brings me to a final observation. Nerd forts do not exist in a vacuum. While they may be geniusly constructed ki inhabited by the nerd, without the social support of a nerd-loving community, they would not exist. So if you are a nerd, ki you happen to have a nerd fort, don’t forget to acknowledge those around you whose reciprocal respect for your vision makes nerd-dom possible.