Distillations: Talking Nerdy at Rickshaw Stop

We're watching a lecture about dragonflies. E. leans over to me in the darkened room. “So dragonflies have two penises, their sex lasts for an hour, and they can even fly while they're doing it. Just how inadequate do you feel?”

E.'s taken me to a “Nerd Nite” event at the Rickshaw Stop, a former TV studio turned bar and venue for acts that would likely never have gotten on TV. Having already sat through a presentation on the evolutionary reasons for shooting babies from catapults (a parody, but isn't all evolutionary psychology?), we're also in for an overview of the scrotum. Do I feel inadequate? Hey, I'm not the one who paid for the tickets.

While I've been called a nerd, I've never self-identified as one. It's such a high school term of art, and while I suppose “nerd pride” was an option available to me back then, it was one I deliberately rejected. I may have watched Star Trek and Monty Python, but I refused to be defined by them; I'm a bar columnist now, but I rarely talk about alcohol. If I reject the notion that I can be defined by my interests, what does nerd pride have to offer me?

I'm also baffled by this crowd, which applauds whenever someone mentions the word “science.” Lawyers don't clap whenever someone says “due process” in a movie; when historians get together over drinks they don't clap whenever someone mentions that history is in fact a thing that exists. Cheering like that is much closer to what sports fans do than intellectuals: “Yay science!” has more in common with “Go Giants!” in this context than it does any higher reasoning. Do nerds ultimately just want to cheer for their home team, like everybody else?

I tried mentioning some of this to E. during intermission, but she thought the time was better spent getting us drinks — the house cocktails were good enough to justify a second round. Her other friend Brian, however, asked me to go into more detail.

My real objection, I told him, is that I don't believe that everything real in the world can be measured or quantified, which makes the belief that science holds all the relevant answers inadequate. I love Reason, but it too has its limits: Many questions do not respond to a reductionistic analysis, and every life requires enormous leaps of faith. You don't value Truth or Beauty because of a careful argument. First principles cannot be explained rationally. They can only be lived.

He just sat there, nodding. “Am I boring you?” I finally asked.

Brian grinned. “I have a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience with a focus on neuro-phenomenology,” he said. “So you're talking about my field.”

“Oh. And you just let me talk on and on, instead of mentioning that at the beginning?”

“It was fun!”

“Well played.” I decided I like Brian.

The Rickshaw Stop isn't really a bar; it's a venue with a bar. But it's a great venue. It's spacious, well-decorated, and keeps it simple: a long hall with a stage at one end and a balcony. It lets people put on a show, and it gets out of the way. The place was packed, but it didn't feel crowded. That's a neat trick.

It also keeps the drinks reasonably cheap. I've been noticing that a number of venues have cheaper drinks than bars right now, which seems like an inversion of the natural order of things. Like going to a movie theater because of the reasonably priced popcorn. I have no idea why this is happening. Maybe an economist has a theory. That would make a great topic for Nerd Nite.

E. came back to find Brian and me discussing phenomenology. “I just talked to one of the presenters,” she said. “She's actually an opera singer, has two troupes in town, and is a professor of neuroscience. I was all, 'Wow, you're beautiful and smart and really driven.' And then she asked me, 'What do you do?'”

E. sighed. “Oh my God, I need a better life.”

But E., who is a successful tech marketing executive, will be vested in stock options soon. She just bought a house with a massive lot close to a BART line. She wants to call it “The Unicorn Estate” and build a giant statue of a unicorn on it that shits Skittles.

“You're doing all right,” I told her, wondering if I'm jealous. If I feel at all inadequate.

Nah. I can leave those worries back in high school.


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