Book Excerpt: Benjamin Nugent’s American Nerd

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Below is an excerpt from a truly excellent book called American Nerd, by Benjamin Nugent. I know Ben — he used to work here at Time years ago. But that’s not why I’m posting this excerpt. I’m posting it because it’s truly excellent.

coronation, or why group nerd events are necessary

From AMERICAN NERD by Benjamin Nugent. Copyright © 2008 by Benjamin Nugent. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

During the five years of my life when I played Dungeons & Dragons on and off—age eight to age thirteen—there was drama. Somebody’s single mother would take a new boyfriend into her condo on the edge of town, and that kid would have to go stay at another kid’s house; somebody else’s mother would be in the process of leaving his father, who had done something unspecified and evil, and so on. But our sessions began like this:

FRIEND: Long time no see, Benmeister.
ME: Hey, how are you?
FRIEND: All right. I’m really tired these days. I’m living with my mom again instead of at Marty’s house.
ME: Yeah, moms are tiring.
FRIEND: Nice—you’ve got a green twelve-sided now.
ME: Yeah, green like the lizard that’s going to gnaw your bones this adventure.
FRIEND: Hoh.
ME: Ah, you laugh now.

What brought us together was a game, not a promise of mutual understanding. So far as we were aware.

What was it about assuming the role of pretend characters that was so attractive? Was it an escape hatch from our deficient real lives? Was the monstrous reality of D&D (and Middle Earth Role Playing, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness role-playing game) a metaphor for the unarticulated terror we felt when we considered the conflicts among adults that shaped our lives?

Thinking about the nature of the role-playing-game impulse, I drive to the official coronation of a monarch of the southern California chapter of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), otherwise known as the Kingdom of Caid. This is the e-mail I have received from Karin Burgess, a Realtor helping to plan the ceremony:

Greetings Benjamin,

My name is Lady Muiriath mac Labhruinn, Reevess of Dun Or and the Feast Stewart. We would be delighted to have you attend our event. It would be greatly appreciated that you do dress within the perimeters of our Society. This is a Kingdom level event, and as such, there will be many high ranking members in attendance . . .

Yours in Service,

Lady Muiriath mac Labhruinn Reevess, Barony of Dun Or
Order of the Harp Agent
Order of the Dolphin
Order of the Duelist
Recipient of the Crossed Swords
KKA: Karin Burgess

The twin towns of the Antelope Valley, Lancaster and Palmdale, offer vast, flat desert views dominated by a Lowe’s and a Costco, which each cover football fields upon football fields of square footage. their parking lots approaching the size of Times Square. It looks like a parody of Midwestern spaciousness. When we reach Lancaster, we stop at a gas station for water and in the gas station mini-mart two women in Renaissance gowns are buying snacks.

A guy in robes knocks over a Slippery When Wet sign with his cloak on the way out, and I pick it up for him, so he bows in gratitude.

Today, the SCA claims thirty thousand members across the globe, assigning every corner of the earth an identity as a kingdom or principality (Australia and New Zealand, for example, comprise the Kingdom of Lochac). While the SCA does have a fighting component, it’s dedicated to replicating any aspect of life from AD 600–1600 that interests its members. SCA members don’t, generally speaking, play illiterate peasants who die of infection at age five.

But they do sew clothing, forge armor, practice medicine, and establish elaborate hierarchies of nobles, barons, and kings. The Massachusetts-based queen of one SCA kingdom explained to the Christian Science Monitor that she spent about twelve hours a week on the phone resolving problems among her subjects.

The coronation takes place two minutes away, in a Knights of Columbus Hall. Across Avenue M from the hall is a patch of flat desert dotted with brush and Joshua trees. It runs uninterrupted to a spine of blue mountains.

The future king and queen of Caid take the stage. The king is large and lithe and red-maned and heavily muscled. “He is built for fighting with sticks,” a fighter will tell me later, in slightly awed tones. There are freckles on his bare shoulders.

The queen is slim, with long black hair and kind dark eyes. Her tiara looks natural on her head. She’s a belly-dancing teacher in the area who often works in a shop owned by other SCA members.

“You know I’m a cheerleader,” she says, “so let’s hear it for the Kingdom of Caid!”

“Huzzah!” cry the assembled.

“Hip hip,” she says.

“Huzzah!”

They do this a few more times.

“As you know,” says the queen, “here in Dun Or [the Antelope Valley] we have a lot of active members of the military. I personally have friends in both Iraq and Afghanistan . . . So may our military members spread word of our kingdom in foreign lands.” The queen gives the military subjects American flag ribbons to wear on their doublets.

That night I go to a party at a house in Beachwood Canyon in Los Angeles inhabited by several TV writers who are about to get kicked out by the landlord. A single rocket-powered grenade directed at this structure would have an appreciable effect on the funniness of next year’s prime-time lineup, and this knowledge endows the party with a feeling of national importance. You can go a good ten minutes here without hearing a sentence that does not employ irony in a way that would confuse my grandparents.

“Fun? No, this is all boring Harvard people.”

“The next people who get this house are going to get haunted, like in The Shining. They’ll open a door and see two comedy writers butt-f***ing.”

At this party, any duel or a coronation takes place in a mist, hard to detect and impossible to be sure of. Officially, nobody is in charge. Nobody reports to anybody. There’s room for anxiety about status because nobody’s status is settled. The questions that arise, never voiced, are unanswerable. Who is most successful and most esteemed? Nobody can visibly best somebody else and shake their hand and be done with it. Favorable opinion sidles up against one person, then falls away to sidle up against another, and these defeats and victories are invisible. Some part of you longs to see them, to be able to point at somebody and say, there is the king.

This feeling isn’t distinct to gatherings of writers or to Los Angeles; a coronation is a temporary relief from the paranoia of a deceptive everyday life.

Which brings me back to me and the other boys skipping over the major news items of our family lives to get straight to the new twelve-sided die. What we needed was a flight into order and transparency, and in Dungeons & Dragons, boffing and computers, we found it. It was no coincidence, I think, that we generally came to D&D from home lives that tended toward the unpredictable and confounding. We wanted a place where you knew where you stood, where everything was laid out so you could see it. In the fantasies we made together, you weren’t always king, but you could always point to the king.

The February after my first SCA excursion, I drive to Estrella War, which takes place every year in a desert park outside of Phoenix. About a thousand men on each side march at one another with rattan spears and swords covered with tape, protected by helmets, shields, and chain mail that are essentially real, made of metal. Your eyes sting from the dust, and when you hear the sound of a roving army of “heavies,” you understand why they are called heavies. It’s the sound of a giant metal porcupine uncurling itself from a nap.

The pep talk:

“It’s ankle-biting time, so don’t f*** up!”

“There’s a bounty placed on Cedric, okay? So watch out for him.”

“Remember: intensity.”

After the armies muster under the flags of their respective kingdoms they start to pound rhythmically on the desert floor with their weapons, like the orcs at the beginning of the Battle for Helm’s Deep in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Two Towers. They charge and roar. For ten seconds, you hear only the din of their concerted movements forward. Then, as the beasts collide in the midpoint, there’s a new sound: rival cop armies in riot gear fracturing against each other. The cries are semiecstatic—the bloodlust collected over a million beatings in junior high corridors, I imagine, rushing into the desert daylight, screaming its head off.

There are men who run herd between the battle and reality, holding poles to keep the armed limbs inside a defined battlefield. They are the only ones who never seem in danger of falling—anyone else could go tumbling over his lance and shield, caught upside the helmet by a berserker, uprooted by a column charge. A column charge is what happens when a group of fighters packs together, puts its six-to-twenty shields forward and its six-to-twenty heads down, and runs, as a flying fist, into the ranks of the enemy, aiming to penetrate as deeply as possible. The effect of a column charge is confusion—it disorients the opponents’ front ranks and forces them to turn backward to subdue the human projectiles in their midst. Then the rest of the chargers’ own army exploits the distraction to go in for the kill.

“It’s pretty much a suicide mission,” a winded column charger from the Phoenix area tells me. “You have to totally commit to it. You have to push in as far as you can and kill as many people as you can so that the people behind you can do the same.”

Smoking and nursing beers and waters, three stick jocks talk to me about the battle that evening before everyone hits the showers. They give me a beer, a chair, and lunch. More precisely, they give me a beer and a chair, and one of their girlfriends, actually dressed like you’d think a medieval wench would dress, prepares and serves us each a sandwich on a stiff high-quality paper plate with another plate placed over it to keep the ants from the desert at bay.

One of them shows me a wound. It’s a wide-ranging tumescence the color of apple-raspberry juice, raised half a centimeter above the healthy flesh. “Somebody hit me with something like a tree—pow!—and that felt all kinds of wonderful,” he says. He describes what it takes to stop a column charge: “Plant your front foot
down and keep your shield up and just say: ‘Bam! I don’t think so! Not coming through this way.’”

The types usually considered to embody the essence of America are cowboys, baseball players, and gangsters. What is distinctly American about them is the way they create an alternate world
where they can construct their own land with its own rules and its own status pyramid. The original American dream, for the pilgrims, for the immigrant hordes, was to construct a new country that gave them the respect and possibility the old one couldn’t. Isn’t that what the SCA is doing?

You can almost convince yourself that a patch of desert is its own green-breasted continent; it’s easy to ignore the signs of the real world when you’re nestled in an army of fellow believers. Thus ensconced, you can almost convince yourself that you are the man you’ve constructed in your imagination. The SCA spans the globe, and is said to have an enthusiastic Ukrainian chapter, but it started in America, after all.

I follow the column-charge guys to the mobile shower trailers, where the stick jocks drink Irish whiskey and sing a jig: “Behind the door / Her father keeps a cannon / He keeps it in the springtime /And in the month of May.”

Then a call and response: “Far away! Far away! Far away! Far away!”

Are these really nerds? Yes, but they’re nerds who have banded together and found a way to make themselves non-nerds within a separate universe. They’ve put the game of pretend in a logical grid of titles, allegiances, and hierarchies, but they’ve also made it outdoorsy and valorous.

“We were dorks in high school,” one of the stick jocks tells me. “But we’re dorks who can kick your ass.”

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