It’s like the schizophrenic said to the manic-depressive: “You’re crazy, and I should know.” The fact is that most of us are pathologically unaware of how we’re perceived by others, a curious side effect of having eyeballs that only work in one direction: out. People often feel deficient where we excel, we crow about traits we do not possess, and we cruise through life feeling very self-aware and gratified while wondering why those around us are such a mess all the time. Meanwhile we come off like whirling Tasmanian Devils to everyone else. It’s human nature, as true as it is impossible to overcome, and so whether we boast or self-deprecate, if we tell stark truths about our childhoods or entertain with light-hearted anecdotes, we misrepresent ourselves, we behave as we’d like to be rather than how we are perceived. It’s a rare person that can realistically acknowledge themselves and their potential.
Take people who call themselves nerds, for instance. Being a nerd is something that drifts in and out of fashion and, though its particulars change over time, always seems to apply to a certain subset of people that, essentially, ain’t jocks. Now to my mind, being a nerd is not some club you can join, it’s not a title you assume when deeded some land in Nerdsylvania, it’s defined by an innate set of traits that can include collecting pop culture ephemera, expounding at length on the finer points of action movies, and wearing silly costumes. It’s not merely “being smart,” at least not post-high school. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is smart, and he’s definitely not a nerd. It seems like today, if you’ve got a blog and an obsessive-compulsive disorder, you can call yourself a nerd. That’s not fair to actual nerds who are bullied and derided their entire lives for their nerdly pursuits, just so you can put on an ironic t-shirt and a pair of thick-framed glasses and claim to be a nerd in your twenties. You used to pelt me mercilessly in dodge ball, don’t try to assimilate now that you’ve realized throwing a rubber ball really hard isn’t a terribly useful skill.
Over the summer, I read Bossypants by Tina Fey, most famous for her role as Liz Lemon on NBC’s 30 Rock. Normally, I wouldn’t read a book like this, but the book I had taken with me to read on my vacation was so stupid that I couldn’t get past fifty pages and I was desperate to find some easily digestible piece I could enjoy on the beach. It turned out to be a fairly interesting book, not just for fans of Tina Fey, but for nerds everywhere (and would probably be empowering for budding female nerds out there). Tina Fey is, unabashedly, a nerd. It’s not a badge of honor she wears, but a stink of reality. She’s not a nerd because she likes Star Wars and did an independent study of comedy in junior high school, Tina Fey likes Star Wars and did an independent study because she’s a nerd. It’s not a persona she assumes, she didn’t live with a dumb haircut for years on purpose, but because Tina Fey was born a nerd, lives as a nerd, and will die a nerd. And somehow, she makes it seem quite lovely.
There was one thing in the book that struck me as kind of odd: Fey describes pitching the initial ideas for 30 Rock to NBC, and says that at the core of it was to cast Alec Baldwin as a conservative executive type in some capacity because, as she claims, everyone will think it’s so funny to see this stalwart bastion of liberalism portray a stodgy Republican. Really? Alec Baldwin is a liberal? That’s news to me. It’s not like I thought he was conservative, I was completely unaware that he had any political inclinations at all. I mean, casting Woody Harrelson as a suit-wearing CEO, that’s pretty weird. I’d find it odd if Susan Sarandon played the part of Jack Donaghy, and not just because she’s a woman. But Alec Baldwin? He plays the role very well, and he is quite funny, but none of the comedy comes from some real-life perception of him as a left-leaning Democrat. Yet Tina Fey claims that this contrast between the character and the actor is the prime source of laffs. Whatever. She probably overthought it while developing the show. What a nerd.