Tuesday, August 30, 2011

On colliding worlds and multiple identities

My colleague Jessica Olin has been musing lately about her multiple identities and how she has attempted to integrate or at the very least reconcile them in both her personal and professional lives:

I've been thinking a lot lately about what a big nerd I am. Admittedly, I've never played a Zelda game from beginning to end, and I've only seen a few episodes of "Doctor Who," but other than that I score pretty high in all the major nerd categories. Renaissance faires, comic books, video games, Star Wars AND Star Trek, MST3K... I'm sure you get the picture. The reason I've been thinking about it so much is because of the way embracing my nerd, both personally and professionally, has made life more interesting and a lot more fun.

I, too, am a big nerd. Steeped in science fiction and fantasy since I learned how to read, I owned my first set of polyhedral dice while I was still in elementary school (and back when you still had to color in the numbers yourself). My prized possession as a kid was my Empire Strikes Back soundtrack on vinyl, a gift from my 2nd-grade teacher, so clearly I had no problem broadcasting my very geeky likes and dislikes to the world at a young age.

Somewhere along the line, however, the sense of shame kicked in. I'd like to say it happened in high school as some kind of Darwinian survival mechanism, but in fact I only became more of nerd during my teeenage years. Doctor Who not geeky enough? How about some Blake's 7, which i videotaped so religiously during its only run on my local public television station that I almost had a nervous breakdown when the VCR forgot its programming one night and I missed the five five minutes of one of the episodes.

No- I couldn't find a tribe of geekdom that didn't appeal to me at that time. I played saxophone in the marching band, performed in the annual Spring musical and Fall drama, sang concert choir, madrigals, barbershop and doo-wop, presided over both my high school Latin Club and the New Jersey Junior Classical League (totally pwning my opponents at certamen, a quiz bowl exclusively about Ancient Greece and Rome), and traveled long distances by school bus for no other reason than to take chemistry and physics tests for fun.

Perversely enough, my high school teachers by and large aided and abetted this behavior. As each of them discovered in me a fellow traveler for their own personal cult and genre obsessions, they were more than happy to supply my with all the breadcrumbs I needed to follow in their footsteps. My choir director introduced me to Sweeney Todd, while my AP English teacher turned me on to The Singing Detective and This is Spinal Tap. And did I mention that one of the sixth grade teachers actually ran a Dungeons & Dragons club?

Needless to say, I didn't seem to have any trouble juggling multiple identities during this time period. I was who I was. The profound sense of isolation that seems to characterize the stereotypical high school nerd's existence didn't really manifest itself for me, ironically enough, until I went to college. By all objective standards MIT should have been Nerd Heaven to someone like myself, but instead of feeling like I'd come home I was suddenly made aware of how normal I had actually been all of my life. It was here at Ground Zero of Geekdom that I started to compartmentalize my worlds, perhaps as a way of reasserting myself. Only a genuine freak would feel more alone among his true peers than anywhere else, but for some reason that's exactly how I felt.

Let's talk for a moment about Gamer Shame. Before World or Warcraft went mainstream and Vin Diesel proudly declared himself to be a D&D player, before LARPing even appeared on Hollywood's radar and Wil Wheaton became the standard-bearer for what I call the "d20 Generation," there was an overwhelming cultural pressure for kids to shed and repudiate their gamer identities when they made it to adulthood. Strange as it seems, a lot of this pressure did not come from exterior sources but was entirely self-induced. I know because I was the poster boy for Gamer Shame for most of my twenties. Never mind that my experience with roleplaying games, aside from simply being entertaining, was a boon to my creativity and actually helped me build a social skill set which would serve me well in later life, it was something that I dare not admit to having partaken of in mixed company, and even among former gamers I did so only reluctantly and in hushed tones.

I was by no means the only person to behave in this manner- Hell, Ethan Gilsdorf wrote an entire book about this phenonmenon: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks (a great read, btw!). Sadly, this became the template for negotiating my identities in adulthood: never cross the streams. Or, as Seinfeld's George Costanza put it, keep the worlds from colliding.

Whereas George was more interested in preserving his "independent" self, however, I was keen on keeping my public facing untarnished by the company one inevitably keeps when you have an unusual interest or hobby. This sounds perfectly awful, and it is. Yet breaking out of this shame mindset proved more difficult than I could have ever imagined.

There was Library Professional Tom, Gamer Tom, Academic Tom, Writer Tom, Acapella Tom, H.P. Lovecraft Fan Tom, and myriad other me's, each of them proceeding radially outward at right angles from Public Tom, and never would any of these identities meet. It was all very nice and neat, and I suppose my acquaintances from one circle to the next were none the wiser that there were any other aspects of me, but the net result of this subdivision wasn't pretty. Chop a planaria worm into bits and eventually each piece will grow into its own worm, but do the same to a person and every component part will languish.

I probably would have persisted with this fractured sense of self, had I not met my wife. Sharing my multiple identities with any one person had always proved problematic, but it was even more difficult with a would-be significant other. "Which facet would be the one that drove the other person away?" I'd always wonder. When Maria came into my life, however, the thought that I should withhold any of my selves from her seemed as alien a notion as sharing them had wit the rest of the world. Within a fortnight of our first date she knew all about my gaming and writing projects, and lo and behold she did not run away from me screaming.

I'd like to say that this was The Great Breakthrough and that from that moment on I was fully content to let my freak flag fly, but alas, it would still be some time before this would be the case. Old habits die hard, and there are still times when I reflexively try to keep my worlds from colliding. But increasingly more often these days I will allow these identities to overflow, commingle, and overlap, as I've learned that when I do so the benefits are disproportionately larger than the component parts. Sharing an identity doesn't just work in two directions, enabling the cross-pollination of enthusiasm and ideas, but it also emboldens those who may have been reluctant to reveal their own passions to find their own voices.

Whereas before I avoided the intersection of identity like the plague, now I actively seek it out, as I realize that this is the source of limitless reserves of energy. I wouldn't have met half the people currently in my life-- either in person or virtually-- had I not stopped worrying about crossing the streams and embraced my multiple identities as essential parts of who I am. Indeed, I've found that places like Twitter are perfect for this, as negotiating one's parallel worlds is as easy as managing a host of different hashtags in Tweetdeck. Why should the real world be any different? My ignoring the walls I'd constructed keeping the separate parts of me separate, I've grown both as a person and as a professional, finding fellow librarians who are closet gamers, aspiring writers, or diehard Doctor Who fans. These overlapping interests offer new perspectives and inspire me on a regular basis, and validate my belief that the more one shares with the world, the more one gets back in return.

And so I've come more or less full-circle, only this time I'm bringing everyone I know along for the ride, sharing my love for Warren Ellis with my wife and raising our daughter on a steady diet of Iron Chef, Miyazaki films, European-style board games, and Doctor Who (not to mention fostering a love for some good old-fashioned acapella). I'm sure in time our little girl will find her own geeky likes and dislikes, but I hope that no matter what sort of freak flag she decides to fly she'll always know that she should take pride in what makes her who she is.

Because life is too short for anything else!

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