During the Q&A after the Inventory reading in Milwaukee, A.V. Club fan (and sometimes contributor, and friend of Josh Modell’s) Stephanie McNutt asked us "When did you each first individually realize that you were pop-culture geeks?" Which is to say, the first time we realized we cared about some facet of the entertainment world maybe a little more than our friends, or a little more than was necessarily appropriate as far as those around us were concerned. Her question brought up some great embarrassing stories, and we all learned a little more about each other than we're maybe comfortable with, so we’re following it up by doing an AVQ&A version so that all of you not in Milwaukee can play along.
I don’t remember being a super-fan of Knight Rider when it was on, but I must have been, because the show about a studly dude and his kick-ass talking car provoked unnatural outrage in my young mind. I distinctly remember seeing an article that explained how they did the show—a stunt driver in the back seat, William Daniels providing KITT’s voice, etc.—and being shocked and appalled. Sure, it goes without saying to adults that KITT wasn’t real, but this was akin to telling me there was no Santa Claus. Not only were my friend Colin and I outraged, but we decided the world must know the truth. Like, um, what the article said? Well, yes, but with more outrage! Our strategy: We put up a sign on his bedroom window saying “DON’T WATCH KNIGHT RIDER. KITT IS A FAKE.” (The window faced his neighbor’s house, not the street, which explains why there wasn’t any rioting.) Now, 25 years later, it occurs to me that my career is basically a variation on taping that sign to the window.
I’m not sure if I actually realized I was a geek at the time, but it’s very clear now. As a kid, I listened to the radio pretty obsessively (and watched MTV, when all they showed was videos!). Mostly I was hoping to hear/see Loverboy, which was my absolute favorite band when I was 9. Anyway, the über-geek part comes in here: I would record songs from the radio and basically turn them into my own radio station, recording between-song banter as zany DJ Josh “The Murderer” Modell. I have no idea why I was “the murderer”—presumably because of the alliteration. But if I do say so myself, I was a pretty rockin’ DJ—I did a lot of screaming, and I was very enthusiastic. (That’s what she said?) Unfortunately, I think all of these audition tapes are lost to history, along with the vinyl copies of Metal Health and Pyromania I won by being the 10th caller on Milwaukee’s Z95.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a pop-culture geek—literally. My mom tells me I knew every song in the Top 40—titles and artists—when I was 3 years old. My own memories from that period are sketchier, but I certainly was deeply into Donna Summer, Earth Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, and Prince well before I was in kindergarten. (“Last Dance” was the first record I remember loving, Off The Wall the first album.) It never abated; I went through heavy phases where I learned everything I possibly could about movies, TV, comics, old-time radio, and other pop-cult touchstones before moving on to the next thing. That ended with music at age 12; I was sucked back in by The Beatles and never left. Oh yeah, there was also my attempt, around age 5, to write a list of every single song in history. That probably counts.
I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, and a big fan of The Smurfs—I owned a little paper cut-out Smurf village, and a bunch of plastic Smurfs, and I watched the show religiously every week. But I was weirdly irritated by the fact that the stories kept telling us there were 100 Smurfs, and yet we only ever seemed to see maybe 20 of them. So I started taking notes. I’d watch every week, yellow legal notepad in hand, writing down the name of every Smurf who surfaced. Which is the kind of thing kids do. Whatever. My mistake was in ranting to a friend (who was even younger than me, but clearly less geeky) about such problems as the 80-odd unnamed Smurfs, not to mention the glaring continuity issue of where Papa Smurf came from. She told me flat-out that this was a boring question, and it was just a cartoon, and I thought about it too much. Then she teased me about it until we graduated from high school. I am really glad that Wikipedia didn’t exist back then, because if it did, I absolutely would have been the kind of person who wastes hundreds of hours on assembling meaningless knowledge in order to share it with the world:
If I had to point to one thing, I would say the sestina I wrote when I was 15 that made very specific references to both Seinfeld and Roseanne, for some reason. (The poem is now lost to the ages—i.e. possibly somewhere in a shoebox on my parents’ back porch— which is a devastating blow to humanity at large.) But it wasn’t just the writing of such a thing that made me an pop culture über-geek. No, the full bloom of my pop-culture geekdom was revealed to me the afternoon we discussed the poem during one of the weekly writers’ workshops at my arts high school (NOCCA, Creative Writing), and neither my teachers nor my fellow students had any idea what I was referencing when I wrote, say, “Lunchbox’s loose-meat sandwiches.” This meant that either a) I was a huge dork when it came to sitcoms, or b) the other kids in my class were too scared to admit, in front of our literature-loving teachers, that they watched TV. Really, either way, I was a huge dork. To sum up: Sestina + apparently obscure references to Roseanne and Seinfeld = pop-culture geek.
At the risk of losing my nonexistent coolness points, as a kid I worshiped friend of The A.V. Club ”Weird Al” Yankovic, and I desperately wanted to become the “Weird Al” of my generation. In third grade, I started a parody group called Nathan & The Rockers at Milwaukee Jewish Day School, penning such immortal ditties as “Like A Sturgeon” (a parody of “Like A Virgin”). We were the hit of the school, with a fan base of several. One day I got a call from a man claiming to be a talent scout for MTV. He professed to be very interested in making Nathan & The Rockers stars. For a solid week, he’d call me up after school every day and map out my glorious future as a 9-year-old song-parody superstar. Then one day one of my “bandmates” in Nathan & The Rockers, a girl I had a huge, painful crush on, confessed that the man from MTV was actually her older brother, and that the whole fandango was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. I was, predictably, devastated. I learned in that moment that pop culture is a harsh mistress: it builds you up, and then it tears you down. I also realized I was a huge fucking geek, and always would be.
When I was in first grade in 1977 or ’78, I began writing a sequel to Star Wars to resolve what I felt at the time were gaping plot holes. It was never finished and has long since been lost, and I don’t remember very much about it anymore except that the Empire would replace the exploded Death Star with something called “the Life Moon.” Which just goes to show that my cheap sense of linguistic irony developed early also.
For me, it was when I really got into The Beatles, around 8th grade or so. They had always been pleasant to listen to when they came on the oldies station in the car (the only station my mother and I could agree on), but I had never paid particular attention. One night, though, I saw Paul McCartney perform “Hey Jude” on Saturday Night Live, and for some reason it became essential that I rewatch the tape (we taped the show for some reason) as many times as possible. I learned the lyrics. I taught myself some guitar chords that very week so I could play along. I dug out my Dad’s old Beatles records (Revolver, Rubber Soul, Help, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and only the first record of The White Album), claimed ownership of the record player, and played them nonstop. Fortunately for my parents, I became an ideal Christmas-present buyer-for-er, since I just needed CDs of all the albums—easy enough for them to acquire.
But eventually the music wasn’t enough—I got to high school and found George Harrison’s I, Me, Mine at the library, along with John Lennon’s In His Own Write. A co-worker of my Dad’s had several stored boxes of Beatles memorabilia, including fan-club publications and the issue of People that came out the week Lennon was murdered, and she kindly loaned me her own mini library, which I pored over. I could never get enough of learning about the band as individuals, as a team, about their music, about their history. That’s when I realized I wasn’t just being an obsessive girl—I was teaching myself the history of something, and it was satisfying. The Beatles thing waxes and wanes for me at times, but right now, I’m finding myself back in a little pocket of nerd-dom: I just finished the latest Lennon bio and Cynthia Lennon’s second memoir, and I’ve put the Anthology in my Netflix queue, since this seems like a good time to revisit it. In some ways, I think I don’t fit the stereotype of a pop-culture geek, but in this particular case, I learned early on that you can really study a pop-culture phenomenon. I felt vindicated in my obsession some years ago when Northwestern University offered a course on The Beatles, which I wasn’t able to take, but probably could have TAed for anyway.
It all probably started when I was 11, which would have been around 1983. My family shared a house with a young couple that worked with my mom, and I still vividly remember a small stack of LPs that these roommates left in the living room: Freeze Frame by The J. Geils Band, Beauty And The Beat by The Go-Go’s, and, of course, Thriller by Michael Jackson. I became obsessed with every word and image packed onto those sleeves—not to mention the sounds within the grooves—especially since my mom was devoted at the time to country and Southern-rock radio. This new music sounded so, I dunno, smart compared to Charlie Daniels and Alabama. From there, I became fanatical about two artists who, strangely, feel like my aesthetic godfathers: David Bowie and “Weird Al” Yankovic. (Bowie would one day be my first concert. And sharing contributor credits with “Weird Al” in The A.V. Club’s Inventory book is honestly one of the most exciting, validating things that’s ever happened to me.)
Around the same time, I became obsessed with David Eddings’ fantasy series The Belgariad, to the point that I made a list of my dream cast, just in case the books were ever made into a movie. (I’d learn many years later that the late Eddings had always been vehemently against any film adaptations of his work.) Then, when was I was 13, I got a copy of The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree; back when people couldn’t instantly access every episode of or factoid about a TV show, it was mind-blowing to be able to absorb and study so much info about my favorite program, especially since its syndication was so erratic. I’d actually pore over the book and rank my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone—even the ones I hadn’t seen yet. The nerdiness really cranked into high gear when I got into high school, though. Before dropping out entirely, I used to cut class at least three times a week—but instead of having illicit teenage fun, I would go to the public library five blocks from school. I’d read old issues of Rolling Stone and Creem, as well as then-new books like Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus and Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs, taking notes about all my favorite old punk bands, (and discovering the likes of The Velvet Underground and The Stooges in the process). That’s when I started writing embarrassingly horrible reviews of every punk album I bought; I recall spending an entire period of typing class revising a review I’d written of The Jam’s In The City, an album that was already 12 years old that point. If I had any doubt back then that I was a pop-culture geek, it was dispelled when I was 18: An aspiring comic-book artist, I made a bunch of Official Handbook Of The Marvel Universe-style entries about a league of superheroes I’d created, each of whom embodied one of the bands I was really into at the time: The Smiths, The Clash, The Who, Minor Threat, The MC5. Uh, needless to say, I didn’t get laid much as a teenager.
I’m not sure I ever had the staring-in-the-mirror epiphany—“Oh my God, I’m a pop-culture geek!”—because I’ve never been anything other than a geek of one kind or another. But the pop-culture part probably became undeniable at one of two moments. Moment #1 might not count, because maybe everybody was doing something similar. But when John Lennon was shot, as a huge Beatles fan (their albums were some of the only records I owned, since my folks weren’t exactly rock ’n’ roll friends) I recorded off the radio every four-hour special tribute with interviews and songs and snippets of old audio for weeks on end, and listened to them obsessively. Moment #2 is probably more telling. With my other geeky high-school friends, I gave myself a fantasy identity half inspired by Elfquest, half by a Marvel comics cover I vaguely saw and liked one time, and we composed elaborate open-ended role-playing narratives on the mainframe terminals we could sneak in and access at the local university, outputting our messages on teletype machines and hauling home endless stacks of double-wide greenbar printouts. Over the years, we added in touches of Peter Beagle, Piers Anthony, and whatever other dog-eared paperbacks we were passing around the tight-knit circle. At that point, even though I grew up in a pop-culture-deprived environment with limited access to TV, movies, or music, it was impossible to deny that I was fated to build my personal mythology and derive all my most deeply held values from popular culture. But maybe that doesn’t make me a pop-culture geek as much as a person who’s likely to write in “Jedi” on the census form under “religious preference.”
The answer to this one lies in two childhood obsessions that have, for better or for worse, stayed with me into adulthood: comic books and baseball. Reading Marvel and DC superhero stories as a kid was more than just watching a couple of knuckle-fucks in skintight outfits pound on each other; it taught me the lesson that stories could grow and develop, that entire alternate realities could be constructed from the imagination and placed in the trust of anyone who read them—and that talking about them with your friends, discussing whether they were good or bad, imagining what you might do if you were in charge, was in itself a creative act. It taught me, years before I heard John Fowles say it, that all artists have in common a desire to remake the world, and it suggested, decades before I ever heard the words “reader response theory,” that a person consuming a work of art might be as much a creator as the person producing it. As for baseball, it wasn’t so much the athletic aspect as it was the way it taught me, in how my friends and I worshipped the feats of faraway heroes like Willie Stargell, Dan Quisenberry, Tommy John, and Reggie Jackson, that the actions of people we’d never meet might actual have an emotional impact on our lives. I also loved the way every player had his own set of facts and figures—not that I grew up to be one of those obsessive-compulsive statheads, just that this was the first time I remember experiencing the joy of knowing something just for the sake of knowing it. I’m not sure if these twin manias really served me well in life, and I’m certain that someday I’ll be living in a horrible state-run nursing home and I won’t remember my name, address, or how to crap with my pants off, but I’ll remember the Living Laser’s secret identity, and who was the winning pitcher in game five of the 1980 World Series. But I can say for sure they set me on the long, littered road to geekery.
I’m with Leonard on baseball. I wish I could say I obsessively curated my card collection to find hidden meaning, but mostly I liked looking at Bake McBride’s afro and the cartoons on the back of the ’81 Topps series. Though even more important was a chronic illness my sister suffered that left me spending years alone in hospital waiting rooms. I was always jealous when my friends talked about Happy Days and The Dukes Of Hazzard, but man, did I ever read the fuck out of some books. Fear is a hard thing to quantify as a child. I didn’t truly understand why my mom was often crying, though I did learn very quickly that the worlds I found in books were a whole lot more fun than my reality. (I also learned that Highlights sucks.) So when Tim O’Brien writes “I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story,” it doesn’t sound the slightest bit melodramatic. And not too surprisingly, I still hate hospitals as much as I love words and images—no matter what form they’re strung together to tell a story.
My first favorite song was “I Love A Rainy Night” by Eddie Rabbit (pour a little out), and around the time I was into it—I would’ve been around 6—I remember telling my mom, in a very solemn and serious fashion, that I was pretty sure I could figure out the way melodies of songs would go after hearing just a few notes. Any song. Any few notes. It’s not unusual to commune with music as a kid, of course, or to make ridiculous proclamations about basically everything in the world. But I think back on that now as the first time I started to think about music in formalist terms. I was responding to it as a system. And it was the first time I can remember my mind starting to become aware of itself, as a working enterprise that could think about things and figure parts of them out and venture into hypothetical futures with certain assumptions as a guide. It would be a long time before I got into music in any remotely serious way, but that governs how I think about it still, even now. So much of what I listen for are those little moments when music swerves, when it doesn’t follow the pattern that would seem most likely—when the system swipes back and makes it clear that, however much you think you know, you don’t know everything.
Two things immediately spring to mind: While today I’m really into TV, film, and music, my first pop-culture love was videogames, particularly those of the Nintendo variety. (Blowing on cartridges is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood.) When I was young, I became obsessed with the Super Nintendo, and swore I would do whatever it took to obtain one ASAP. Problem was, the system was $179.95, and given my limited allowance, I concluded it would take roughly a bajillion years to save up enough. Normal kids get paper routes or sell lemonade; I, being the desperate type, wrote letters to Nintendo asking—nay, demanding—that they give me a system for free, because gosh darnit, it just wasn’t fair! Sadly, I don’t have those original letters anymore, but I do have the two letters they wrote back to me—and given how they’re broken up, it’s really obvious what I wrote to them. The first one is the most patronizing; the poor customer-service rep told me that most people get jobs to pay for their systems, and “in fact, many of [the players] tell us that they appreciate things more when they’ve earned the money for themselves.” Uh, nice try, buddy. Undeterred, I wrote another letter, this time taking a much more direct approach. The second letter is way more embarrassing, and addresses each of the tactics I clearly took. “We’ve forwarded your Bart Simpson drawing to our publications department,” so I must have tried art. (By the way, that would be the publications department for Nintendo Power magazine, to which I used to be a proud subscriber.) “Congratulations on your great game play!” because I submitted some high scores, to show I wasn’t all talk. “Thanks for your suggestions for Nintendo Power!” because what butters people up like some unsolicited bad advice? If you are out there, David Reddig or Tom Stephenson of Nintendo Of America circa 1990-91, thank you for at least writing back.
The second thing happened when I was in college. I had just spent the better part of my Personality Psychology class experience reading The Stand quietly from the back of the room, had loved it, and had gathered some friends to watch the terrible TV miniseries in my dorm room. I was so excited, in fact, that during the entire film, I couldn’t help but pepper the nonexistent conversation with what I thought about this miniseries: “I totally didn’t think he’d look like that,” and “Wait, they left out this one part!” and “Oh my God, did you see the way that guy looked at that beaker?” This went on for a while before one of my friends turned to me and snapped, “Are you going to do this for the entire six hours?” The rest of my friends nodded in agreement. It was then that I realized, “Hey, maybe I should find people who like to talk about this stuff, too.”
I wish this weren’t true, but it is: Back when I was a wee lad having all-night HBO marathons at the house of my blessedly lax grandmother, I used to entertain myself by drawing cartoons on whatever scraps of stationery I could find. Which isn’t so unusual. But where normal boys were probably creating vast orgies of death and destruction involving robots and superheroes, or perhaps diddling themselves to their own crude stick-figure pornography, I was merrily recreating my favorite scenes from all those shitty comedies I was watching over and over again. They’re lost to the landfills now (thank God), but if you could flip through my pre-adolescent portfolio, you’d find the following primitive cartoons: A vaguely hydrocephalic Goldie Hawn holding a boom box and Frisbee and exclaiming, “I thought you said this was a barbecue!” (Protocol); a wizened, California Raisin-looking Nedra Volz sitting in a urinal and exclaiming, “Why is my back all wet?” (Moving Violations); a muscular guy looking down his shorts and yelling, “My best friend since the eighth grade is gone!” (Hunk); a meticulous, fussed-over recreation of Dan Aykroyd in a fright wig screaming, “I will rip off your head and shit down your neck!” (Doctor Detroit), etc. You get the idea. Anyway, even though I didn’t know enough to realize that what I was doing was symptomatic of “geekiness,” I did know I was really, really alone in my peculiarly obsessive love of these (admittedly mediocre) movies. So I kept those drawings to myself and never talked about them. (Until now. Whoops.) Because honestly, I was weird enough already.
My geekiness was further hammered home when I was forced to socialize with “the norms” in the Great Church Youth Group Experiment Of Seventh Grade, by which time I had already become fascinated with the sociological aspects of pop culture, as well as the nuts and bolts of its creation. So for example, when the well-rounded kids started talking about why they “stopped making horror movies with Dracula and the Wolfman and stuff,” Poindexter over here would jump in with his oddly confrontational, spittle-flecked monologue on how the atomic bomb changed what people were afraid of, forever, and everyone knows modern slasher movies are a backlash to the sexual revolution, duh!, to a deafening chorus of uncomfortable silence. Or, when we were asked to separate into teams and come up with the names of “five happy people”—this was a Methodist church, in case that isn’t obvious—while everyone else cheerily nominated era-appropriate candidates like Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, all the poor souls saddled with me were pawing the floor and gritting their teeth with embarrassment over my nerdy choices: Matt Groening and (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creators) Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman. Because they had all recently turned their creations into profitable yet still artistically sound franchises, you see, and gee guys, what could be a better definition of “happiness”? Like I said: I was a total weirdo. But hey, now I get paid for being weird, so what-the-fuck-ever.
My dad had this great stereo system in our den, set up in a tall case with a glass door that opened gently if you pushed it in just the right spot. I wasn’t allowed to touch it, with good reason, but he’d put on albums for me and I’d sit in front of the case and sing along, a geeky activity that didn’t really jibe with my fellow 5- and 6-year-old friends. So I’d make up games set to music as an excuse to listen to it, like throwing all the couch cushions on the floor and jumping between them to the steady beat of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.,” or bouncing a basketball to the chorus of “One More Night” by Phil Collins. (I remember that one because I got seriously made fun of by my friend’s older brother.) When I was alone, I’d just sit on the floor and do nothing but listen, sad about James Taylor’s “Fire And Rain” or manic over Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey.” By the time I turned 13, I was on Prodigy bulletin boards trading bootleg cassette tapes, had my boom box outfitted at all times with a blank tape for when my favorite songs came on the radio, and logged into AOL chat rooms to chat with the bands I obsessed over. I prepped for these sessions, researching the band extensively and joining the chat ahead of time with prepared questions that I knew would somehow speak to the very soul of these musicians and impress them with my extensive knowledge of the inner workings of their brains. I had to stop eventually because my teenage heart was too filled with rage and sadness; the AOL moderators didn’t ever pick my question, not even once, even though I typed them several times to make sure they got through. They obviously didn’t know the music well enough to recognize a brilliant question when they saw one.
The signs were there early. I wrote an unprompted—and unpublished—movie review in third grade of the Neil Simon comedy Max Dugan Returns for some reason. Later, I became the film critic for my junior high-school newspaper, and the geekdom became irreversible. After buying a copy of one of Leonard Maltin’s movie guides in 7th grade, I started taping every movie with three and a half or four stars whenever it came on television. Because I recorded on the glorious SLP setting—roughly the equivalent of watching a movie projected through toilet paper—I could fit three movies on one VHS tape. These, I labeled installments in the “Masters Of Cinema” series. That was great for my first exposure to some films—The Third Man made a deep impression on me even with the commercial interruptions—and not so great for others. I remember finding Nashville borderline incomprehensible when taped off a late-night cable station, shown full-frame with all the swears and other adult business cut out, and interpolated with ads for used-car dealerships every three minutes. Still, it was a start, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that absolutely no one else around me had that level of geeky commitment. And now those of us who do get to share this space together.
Okay, so a question like this should be answered by some early memory, right? I have cute stories about trying to memorize Shakespeare when I was 7 or 8 (which sounds smart, but was more like pretending to be smart, which indicates a queasy, already maybe a little desperate-to-be-impressive intelligence that says way too many uncomfortable things about me at that age), and there was this summer when my sister and I tried to choreograph a dance to “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life.” Funny anecdotes, but neither of those events strike me as being memorable for anything beyond satisfaction of a certain level of curiosity, more of interest for being interesting than for actually hoping to answer the question. The truth is, I was always a freak. Noticing it took a long time, because the things about ourselves that are the most true are always the hardest to realize. It wasn’t ’til high school, I think, that the understanding finally hit home for me. I had a crush on a girl—pretty, athletic, smart, so sort of an out-of-my-league triple threat—and then Valentine’s Day happened, and I needed a way to impress her. I had this big thing back then about communication; I was convinced that if I could just get everyone to listen to me, if I could just be completely open and honest and explain myself, then everyone would love me. (This is hopelessly naïve and self-serving, but I can’t fault myself for wanting it to be true, even today.) I decided I would write this girl a letter explaining my deep, devoted, painful, agonizing, enraptured, erotic, queasy, single-minded devotion. And then, to make that letter even more appealing, I would attach it to a short story I’d written. I was deep in my Stephen King period back then (a period which lasted from age 11 until Insomnia was published), and the short story reflected the influence. It was sort of a “Sometimes They Come Back” pastiche: guy’s girlfriend dies in tragic accident in high school (on V-Day), he gets married and comes back to teach at the school, dead girlfriend returns from the grave and murders wife, wackiness ensues. So… not exactly a romance-inducer. Even worse, I named the dead girl in the story after the girl I had a crush on. This seemed perfectly reasonable at the time.
That’s the punchline. I gave the girl the story and the letter, and neither of us ever talked about it ever again, and while I didn’t manage to win her over with my conviction, there were no restraining orders or long, uncomfortable conversations with school authorities, so I’d say it’s a draw. That isn’t the point, though. The point is, I was completely into this girl, and giving her a horror story full of violence and gore, plus so top-heavy with adjectives that you could shake the pages and make a thesaurus out of the unnecessary modifiers that fell out—this was the best and only play I could manage. And in the paralyzed-with-shame-and-terror weekend that followed dropping off my letter and story, that’s when I knew I was doomed. Because this shit? This is the only way I have to communicate with the world. I have no language that isn’t stories. I have no culture that isn’t sloppy with blood, buried in artifice, and aching for acceptance.
This is more of a realization in retrospect, but while reading Todd’s excellent blog entry about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, I was reminded of a dinner party my parents held when I was in elementary school. The action was split between the three levels of our house: kids doing kid stuff in the basement, adults being adults on the first floor, and me in an upstairs bedroom, watching a VHS of the 67th Academy Awards. You may recall this as the year Forrest Gump ran, Forrest, ran (14-year-old memes are still funny!) away with most of the big awards, nabbing best picture, best adapted screenplay, best actor for Tom Hanks, and a best director Oscar for at-the-time-still-interested-in-filming-actual-humans Robert Zemeckis. But the only Gump win I cared about was in the Best Visual Effects category, because I was pulling for a movie only a 10-year-old with an inordinate appreciation for Tex Avery cartoons could love: The Mask. Looking back, it totally makes sense that Tom Hanks discussing urination with JFK would win over a bunch of CGI nods to “Red Hot Riding Hood,” but at the time, I was incensed. In the days that followed the dinner party, I’m sure I made a bunch of complaints about Gump’s robberies to my parents, and they probably politely nodded along. As a 10-year-old, I didn’t possess the self-awareness to know why no one else cared as much as I did, or why nobody got the jokes about Waterworld that I repeated verbatim from my prized stack of Entertainment Weeklys. But now I do, and I’m glad to have a whole community of like-minded geeks with which to share those feelings and jokes. Let’s find Dry Land together, guys!