Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Approaching a season of change

PANAMA CITY BEACH — The Monday morning breezes, cooled by rains the evening prior, carried a welcome scent and sensation of autumn. That crisp feeling of low-humidity, of cool air on your face and arms, resurrected a sensory memory of childhood back-to-school mornings at bus stops.

There was an impression of the future opening before you on a path carpeted by fallen leaves.

My friends were quick to remind me that it’s not yet the end of summer: We still aren’t through hurricane season; the last tourist stragglers haven’t left for homes in Alabama or Georgia; the first snowbirds have yet to begin winging south; the heat hasn’t broken; these are still the Dog Days.

But the weather that morning was like a promise — particularly arriving as it did, the morning after we returned from helping our daughter move out of town, to start a new life in a new city.

The air seemed to confirm a season of change in our lives, preceding the changing of the seasons.

The house had felt empty and vast the night before, and not just because some furniture and books (and cats) were somewhere else now, though I tried to pretend that was the cause. It was the sort of emptiness that could lead to melancholy, if you’re susceptible.

But we’re no strangers to this emotional state of change. We went through this once before, when our son moved off to college. (He came back, but he was out of town on a tour with his band as I wrote this, which contributed to the quiet at home.)

In the quiet you wonder, “Is this what it’s going to be like?” And the answer is yes, in the best of all possible worlds. Yes, if all goes well. Yes, if they succeed and prosper, chase dreams and catch them. Yes, if you’re secure in the knowledge that they are where they want to be.

Things change. Children grow up, choose their own clothes, like bad TV shows, move out, and whatever follows that.

My daughter is one of those now. She graduated from FSU-PC this summer, and started boxing up her life a couple of weeks ago. I held her for a long time Sunday before driving away, which was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done.

(An aside: All the U-Haul places in Tallahassee were filled to the gills with returned trailers and trucks by Sunday afternoon, as students arriving for the start of the new school year on Monday (or their parents) dropped off their rentals. A store manager driving a U-Haul truck towing a trailer led us from his location where we were supposed to turn in our trailer (it was jam-packed) to another that had a muddy field filled with orange-and-white vehicles, like a U-Haul graveyard.)

Now the dogs stare down the hall, waiting for someone who isn’t there, and I realize I don’t have to try to walk quietly on the stairs in the early hours of the day. I won’t get up in the morning to find she left a pile of dishes in the sink after cooking in the middle of the night, or have her cat, Leeloo, talk to me over breakfast.

She won’t try to make me watch reality TV shows about brides or house hunters any more, and I won’t try to make her appreciate Syfy channel series.

On the phone with her mother the other day, she said she was headed “home,” but she meant her apartment, not our house. Imagine our confusion.

Seasons change. Addresses change. The definition of “home” changes, too.

But like seasons, everything will come back around one day.



Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Trick question: Are you a ‘geek’ or a ‘nerd’

Creative Con 2011 File Photo
PANAMA CITY — If you visit Creative Con on Saturday, be kind to the geeks (or possibly the nerds). 

These are my people, but sometimes I don’t know what to call us.

I say tomayto, you say tomahto.

In the olden days of the 1970s-80s, at least where I grew up, the term for the outsider kid was “nerd.” We probably picked it up from “Happy Days,” which is where I first heard it used. It referred to someone a bit weird, socially awkward, with an intense interest in something outside the mainstream (most often, sci-fi or comics).

Today, the accepted term for that seems to be “geek.” There’s even a magazine by that name which focuses on imaginative media, including TV and movies, games, books and comics, costuming and more. The words would appear to be almost interchangeable.

Except, they aren’t.

I wondered at first if it’s like the difference between a “Trekkie” and a “Trekker.” The former is a derogatory name mundanes started calling people who were Star Trek fans way back in the 1970s. The latter is how some fans self-identified.

But according to one scientific study widely disseminated on the interwebs, geeks are more social fans and collectors of stuff, while nerds are less social idea people. Geeks would feel the need to defend their interests, while nerds wouldn’t really care what a non-nerd thought.

Jayson Kretzer, organizer of Creative Con, said both terms have taken on a more positive connotation in recent years.

“Geek is now a more broad and socially accepted term for anybody who really gets into something like technology, comics, gaming, cosplay or anything you can get into that a decade ago would’ve set you apart or had you viewed as socially inept,” he said. “Funny thing is that it’s basically become cool and mainstream to be a geek — computer geek, comic geek, geek girl, etc. Too bad this movement wasn’t around 15-20 years ago.”

Meanwhile, Jayson added: “ ‘Nerd’ seems to be directed at people who are acting punchy, goofy or silly, as in ‘You’re such a nerd,’ she said to me when I asked her to dance in Klingon. Both can be directed at intelligent, socially inept folks, but geek is the more positive version, in my opinion.”

I asked my Facebook friends (some of whom I actually know in the “real” world) what they thought the difference was, and whether or not they self-identified as either one. Here are a few responses (you can see more of them in the online version of this column at

Brian: "Nerd=book learning. Geek=passionate about a non-mainstream subject."

Anthony (who tends to be an outlier on the Bell Curve): "Geeks bite the heads off chickens. Nerds are candy. I identify myself as a Starfleet Jedi mugician (musician+magician) driving a Delorian-shaped Tardis. I’m also a writer."

Kathy: "To me, a nerd is a book smart, computer savvy person, and a geek is someone who just does not fit in to what people see as the social mores. I happen to like both nerds and geeks. I may be one, except the computer savvy part!"

James: "There is no real difference. Both are smart, both like games and comics. I think nerd used to refer to someone that studied and got good grades. Today it seems that both terms have merged into the super geeky nerd title and are now all-powerful within the fantasy realm. People are and should be proud of who they are. When I was younger, being called a nerd or geek was pretty degrading, but now I’m proud to be called one."

Renee: "I always think of a nerd as someone who is book smart but a bit too aloof to connect with mainstream. A geek on the other hand is really excited about knowledge, but is able to plug it into context and have fun with it. Or something like that. Nerds are boring; geeks are cool. I think I have a geeky streak."

Mark: "I think the basic difference is that geeks tend to be fans of a subject or a thing while nerds tend to be more practitioners of the thing they’re interested in. … I feel like those terms have, at least in common usage, lost a great deal of their differentiation. But if we were to go with them being different, and in the way that I have described above, I’d say that I’m a geek that’s trying to turn himself into a nerd."

Dustin: "I see nerds as people like me, who are into video games, comic books and action figures, and get excited by their fandom. A nerd’s fandom holds no bounds. Society used to make fun of them, but oddly enough, all those nerdy things suddenly became popular. When I was 13, people made fun of me for still liking Batman. Now at 27, liking Batman usually gets me more friends, so it is now considered cool to be a nerd.
" …Geeks, on the other hand, I associate with them being tech smart. Someone who is really good at using a computer and technology in general. There is a reason why Best Buy calls them ‘Geek Squad’ and not ‘Nerd Squad.’ I also see geeks as more science minded. So to sum up: Nerds typically have strong feelings to the things they like, and a Geek is has an expert intelligence level when it comes to technology and science.
"…And I do prefer to be called a video game nerd, action figure nerd or comic book nerd; if I fix your computer, you can then call me a geek."

Denise: "I see geeks as those who obsessively seek knowledge in narrow or singular fields. I think you can be a guitar geek, etc. My particular brand of nerdiness causes me to assign numbers to everything and quantify the oddest relationships. Red has always been three and purple is eight. I can prove that peaches are better than potato chips and have the numbers to back it up."

Chuck: "I identify as a geek with a hard side as evidenced by my job. (Tony notes: Chuck is a professional fire fighter — and my very first-ever friend.) I relish information of any type, though I have problems dumping it. My P.O. box combination from 35 years ago when I lived in Century? G J A B — see what I mean?"

Another Brian: "Potsie Webber=nerd. Farmer Ted=geek."

Another Chuck: "Geeks are obsessively knowledgeable about particular topics. Nerds are socially-awkward knowledge mavens. They are not mutually exclusive. But I self-identify as both."


Some will never accept a label, of course. Call me what you will. Particularly nerdy geeks might even know what I reference when I say, “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own.”



Thursday, August 15, 2013

Give me the usual

Robbie and Ellen at St. Andrews Coffee House
PANAMA CITY — Recently, I left my hat behind after lunch at the St. Andrews Coffee House. That afternoon, I received an email with the subject line “CAPtive.”

The message stated: “We have your hat. Instructions for its safe return to follow.” A second email said, “Report to 1006 Beck Ave. between the hours of 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. Approach the skinny blonde and say ‘the usual.’ ”

Now, sometimes it’s nice to go somewhere nobody knows you. Just to walk into a shop or cafĂ© and not be met by sentences that start with “Don’t you work for…” or “Aren’t you…” Usually those beginnings result in nice talks or tips for articles, but there’s always that moment of hesitation when you wonder what’s going to happen next.

Even so, the opposite situation has even more appeal.

For instance, as a family, we’ve visited Charlie Coram’s Place on 23rd Street enough times that the waitresses ask us if we even need a menu; they know how we want our burgers, what condiments we use, and if one of the kids orders Heavenly Hash, they know what extras to put on the side. They also take for granted that a certain number of people will be in our group, so they’re surprised when one is missing or an extra face joins us.

If you’re of a certain age, then you recall the theme to the TV series “Cheers” — after all, it was a top-40 radio hit at one point — and you probably understand the feeling that sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

That’s what “the usual” means to me.

You don’t get a “usual” unless you’re a creature of habit. You have to go to the same place at about the same time every week and order the same item. (A voice in my head goes, “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.”)

Some people like to change things up all the time. My experimentation ends when I find something I like, though I might be dangerous some weeks and have white bread instead of wheat.

Also, I don’t think you can ask to have a “usual.” It’s something that has to be bestowed. I just came in the coffee house door one morning and was asked, “You want the usual?”

And yes, I did. In fact, it was more important to me, in that moment, to know that I had “a” usual than it was to actually eat the thing.

In the past year, I had taken to eating lunch there weekly, often in the company of friends who join me to talk about books, movies, TV shows, writing projects, film making, zombies, or whatever else might come up. Our conversations must confuse and occasionally terrify people at other tables, but we’ve not yet had a complaint.

One such week, my friend Nick, hearing Ellen and Robbie ask if I wanted “the usual,” said he wanted to have a “usual” of his own. I told him it was possible, but more likely that his would be an “unusual.”

I had to say it before somebody else said it about me.

And one morning, I noticed that the ladies had set a missing place at the counter. One of the stools had been removed, and a plate was set there with specific condiments for a regular customer — who had died unexpectedly.

It was a simple gesture, and beautiful. I didn’t ask many questions, because the statement was clear: He was part of their lives, and he would be missed.

It’s comforting to know that such a connection is part of the usual around here.


(This was my column for and The News Herald this week.)

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Finding your flock, and letting it go

TALLAHASSEE — I was standing in a milling crowd last Saturday outside the Leon County Civic Center, using a hand to shade my eyes from the high, white-hot sun and scanning the sea of faces and forms for a glimpse of my daughter.

And I began to think about flocks.

The rest of our group waited by a student busker blowing some blues and gathering bills in his saxophone case, and I wandered out to set up a second position to keep lookout for her. The crowd was so thick, the noise of voices so loud and the space so wide that I feared she would pass us by without finding us.

Minutes earlier, the civic center had been filled. Few stadium seats were left empty by family and friends that had come to observe the summer commencement exercises, and black-robed graduates had crammed the floor. Now all of those people were exiting into the noonday sun.

For a minute, I put my other hand over the back of my head and felt the burn.

Delayed on the lower level, the grads finally spread into the waiting crowd like a black stain, and I was reminded of watching flocks of birds moving in giant swirls against an autumn sky. Someone studying flocking patterns should set up outside one of these events, I thought.

Maybe it was the heat.

Black robes flapping like the wings on a murder of crows, grads found their families. The larger mass of people began breaking into tighter groups, offering hugs and flowers, trying to grab snapshots with their phones. I moved to avoid photo-bombing one group and got in the way of another.

For no apparent reason, everyone started moving toward the stairs and flowing down to the parking lot enmasse, like birds instinctively following a fellow from the flock that had only slipped off the wire.

I spotted my son, standing a head taller than the crowd between us, and he gestured for me to return to the fold. “We found her,” he said when I zigzagged to his side. “She’s coming this way.”

Reunited, we went for lunch, then returned to take photos in a courtyard and outside Doak Campbell Stadium. The flame on the Seminole statue’s lance couldn’t have burned much hotter than the pavement (and the feathers on the staff looked suspiciously like birds on a wire). We stopped for fountain drinks to refresh us, and we began the long drive back home.

She won’t remain here for long; she already has plans for relocating, and expectations that I will help her go, that I will support her absence as she takes wing on her own for the first time.

That evening, standing in the street of our quiet neighborhood, I watched the shadows of birds flying in formation, circling and diving and returning to the line heading past the trees to somewhere new. Somewhere unseen and far away.

I wondered where they were going, and if they would always return.

(This was my column for and The News Herald this week.)