The World's First Nerds?

Photo by mrtwism.
One of the stories I was forced to read in middle school has stuck with me: "Bargain" by A. B. Guthrie. A recent train of thought motivated me to track the story down and buy a used edition of the Guthrie anthology containing it. (Warning: spoilers ahead--my search started with just the clues "wood alcohol" and "story" on Google.) The story takes place in a small town in the old West. The two main characters are a somewhat bookish shopkeeper and a big, drunken, illiterate (both important plot points) town bully who, among other obnoxious behaviors, refuses to pay his bills. Over such a dispute the bully crushes the shopkeeper's hand beneath his boot. Thereafter, the shopkeeper gives up on collecting his bill and even gives the bully a job as a deliveryman. At the end of the story the bully is found out in the winter wilderness, dead, along with some barrels of wood alcohol (clearly labeled "POISON", but... aha! you see?) which he had been transporting for the shopkeeper.
Perhaps no masterpiece, but it is a nicely plotted little story, and I think it relates to an underappreciated theme, which is the unending struggle between two elements of humanity which we currently call the jocks and the nerds. Although both these terms are of relatively recent coinage, I suspect the distinction is psychologically innate--at least for men--I'm not sure about women. The jock-versus-nerd struggle provides a subtext for a lot of other things going on, like certain disagreements I witness at the office, or Republicans versus Democrats (surely you can see which is which), or the relationship (if one may call it that) between the Sam and Norman characters in Psycho.
And then there is this... consider the relationship between the Greeks and Romans during the Roman empire. The Romans kept Greeks as slaves. Greek slaves made excellent tutors for one's children. Greek academic achievements were highly respected, to the point where they were practically regarded as the source of all higher knowledge. Nonetheless they were slaves; they can't have been completely respected.
(By the way, there is a remarkable contrast, which I don't fully understand, between the Roman and American attitudes toward slavery. Romans were happy to educate some slaves and arm others [the gladiators]. American slaveowners considered that their survival depended on keeping their slaves ignorant and unarmed.)
My layman's reading of the situation: the Romans respected the Greeks for their knowledge and at the same time looked down on them for having been conquered by force of arms (although the Greeks had been empire builders in their own day). I therefore view Greeks as the original nerds, Romans as the original jocks.

Depression-Era Hobbies

Here's a short list of hobbies--activities that are fun, interesting, and potentially challenging with the potential for personal development--which require little or nothing in the way of resources and money. DISCLAIMER: Some of the activities described herein carry risk of harm, ranging from a cut finger to paralysis and death. All are reasonably safe if practiced with prudent caution. Become informed, and take responsibility for your actions. If your head gets cut off don't come crying to me!

1. Budget backpacking. The secret appeal of backpacking is that once you've mastered it, theoretically you can go anywhere on Planet Earth--roads no longer necessary. As a hobby, it can eat up as much money as you want to pour into it, but it doesn't have to. Every Appalachian trail hiker knows the story of Grandma Gatewood, who hiked all 2,168 miles of the trail three times, at ages ranging from 67 to 75, equipped with little more than sneakers, an old Army blanket, and an old shower curtain.

You can spend hundreds of dollars on a backpacking tent, or you can sleep under a sheet of plastic costing at most a few dollars (that's mine pictured above). The latter will give you more space, and--if you know what you're doing--may well keep you drier. You can make your own backpack out of a mesh laundry bag and a old book bag for another handful of dollars (check out the "Sgt. Rock Rucksack". You can make your own alcohol stove out of three empty soda cans, eat cup noodles, carry (and refill) a store-bought liter of water rather than a canteen, and so on. At online forums, others are more than happy to help you get started.

2. Paper modeling. Also known as card modeling, or papercraft. Cut paper, glue it together, you get a ship, an airplane, a funny animal, or whatever your passion is. See some examples at the Gallery. Basic resources needed: a computer and printer, some heavyweight paper, a hobby knife, some white glue. Difficulty ranges from slightly glorified paper airplanes to complicated patterns with hundreds of parts. Thousands of patterns are available on-line for free, others for sale. You can buy books with preprinted patterns.

Or go hard-core: just you, armed with a knife and glue, versus a blank stack of paper. If you want to go a little deeper you can design your own patterns (and perhaps share them on-line).

Here's some places to start looking, just a few out of a large universe:, Lower Hudson Valley Gift Shop (despite the name, everything is free, although they do accept donations), Papercraft Paradise.

3. Parkour. Also known as free-running. If you've never seen this, it is difficult to explain. It's a sport with no rules, a game with no winners or losers. The objective is to get from point A to point B as gracefully and athletically as possible. You can find some in the movies--the big chase seen at the beginning of Casino Royale features parkour practitioner S├ębastien Foucan as the bomb-maker. Or check out the following video:

Obviously parkour can be extremely athletic (I've never tried it--as yet), but even these guys had to start small.

4. Chess. Sixty-four squares, sixteen pieces, and after several hundred years the possibilities are still endless. You can score a set for a few dollars (I've picked up some at the dollar store), and there are plenty of resources on-line to teach you how to play and how to play better. If you have no friends, you can download free software to play against (and you may not need a board). You can find an adversary on-line at any time.

5. Dancing. In my misspent youth, I did the standard backpacking trip to Europe, during which a friend and I made a side trip to Morocco. During this time we stayed for three days with a family in Casablanca. This says something about variations in standards of hospitality around the world. We had never met them before but they insisted, notwithstanding there were seven of them living in a (clean and dignified) three-room apartment (and even though, as we later discovered, they had other house guests arriving in the middle of the night).

I mention the size of the apartment to emphasize that these were not people who had extra money to waste on frivolities. One of the neighborhood kids did have a hand-held cassette player, along with two cassettes--I recall one was Simon and Garfunkel and the other was the soundtrack to Grease. Dancing was an everyday activity, taken up at the spur of the moment. They danced with a natural grace that comes with a lot of practice. And they had fun.

Practical Joke #3

1. Go to the card shop and buy one of those newfangled cards that plays music--something cheery or energetic might work best.

2. Buy a second, condolence card.

3. Cut the music thingie out of the first card and paste it into the second.

4. Replace the card on the store shelf.