Friday, December 31, 2004

Nerds vs. Islanders

I made an interesting connection while talking with people after Thanksgiving dinner. We were in an old goat shed that had been remodeled so that the floors were tiled with terra cotta and the ceilings still showed the original beams and roofing. The walls were plastered and it was brightly lit. I was talking about how elements of life out here would never have been dreamed of in the culture that I grew up in. So many people here have built their own houses with their own hands. So many people use outhouses or have no bathrooms at all. So many people use wood stoves to heat their homes. So many people have water catchment units to provide most of their running water. So many people garden and can and dehydrate and that is their main food source. Sp many people use the barter system whenever they can to get what they need. So many people spend so little of their lives working for money.

That is the essence of the difference of life out here compared to the life I knew in the suburbs. In the suburbs, people work and earn money that they spend on providing the essentials of life for themselves. Here, people try to spend as much time as possible providing those essentials of life for themselves, so they do not work as much. In both places, some people work to live and other people live to work. Essentials of life are food, clothing, housing, warmth. When I lived in Westchester, I paid people to clean my house and mow my lawn and shovel my driveway. I picked up dinner on the way home from work. I shopped a lot. I worked sometimes 60 hours a week and that gave me a salary that made me comfortable enough to hand that money over. I’ve been aware of that mentality because I work about 38 hours a week here and that seems like a lot to most people. I work that much right now, because I do not feel comfortable having less than that amount of money in reserve in my bank account and I have rent to pay. I do not have the time to cut my own wood to heat my house, so I will be hiring someone to do that for me this winter. That is also seen as odd to a lot of people here. I see it as a slow transition. I am attracted to the do-it-yourself lifestyle choice of the islanders because I think it may be more satisfying to me. There is less distance between me and the essentials of life. Mrs. Jakalski taught me that when Voltaire ends Candide by saying, “Come, let us cultivate our garden,” he means much the same thing.

This leads me to the connections I made between the known and the unknown. I do not know this island life. I am learning it. I do, however, know nerd sub-culture. I love them. Most of you know this about me. From Ben Merbitz and Eric Dahl to my ex-husband, I have attracted nerds and have been attracted to the weird little lives that they lead. I was telling the group at Thanksgiving dinner about a guy that I was friends with who makes his living off of Ebay by buying role-playing game paraphernalia in bulk and parceling it out for profit. He was so successful that he was able to move out of his parents’ basement and get his own apartment, which seemed to lead directly to getting a girlfriend. It’s the Nerd American Dream. Bill Gates would be proud. The added bonus to this story is that all of this success was possible from money earned – not by selling his soul and giving up all of his free time – but by immersing himself in something that he loves: games like Dungeons and Dragons. And, he really only has to work 15 or 20 hours a week. I think Alan said, “Wow, that sounds just like my American Dream.” There is the connection between the known and unknown.

Alan lives in a house that he helped his friends build while they are in Florida buying and repairing a boat that they will sail back here. The house has an outdoor shower and no bathroom. An outhouse is available for bowel movements and that waste is turned into fertilizer. Since urine added to the mix makes that process difficult, one must use the great outdoors for urinating. The water for the kitchen is supplied from catchment tanks and the heat is from a wood-burning stove. I’m not sure where the electricity comes from, but he’s looking into installing solar power. He also has a trailer with no power or water that he is going to haul up the hill to the top border of the property so that sometimes he can hike up there for the night so that he can sleep within sight of a beautiful view. He’s looking to buy or trade for this trailer that Jeff has so that he can build another little portable house, like a gypsy’s trailer. In the summer, Alan is a sea kayak guide, which he loves, and then in the winter, he works no more than 12 to 15 hours a week building his own business of taking care of people’s property when they are off-island. This lifestyle in uncannily like that of my former friend’s. The only difference is that nerds can’t really leave the power grid. Other than that, there are striking similarities:

- Both sub-cultures are outside of the mainstream. You could not plop the members directly into the suburbs without causing a situation somewhat like Edward Scissorhands.
- Both islanders and nerds will eschew both hygeine and fashion in pursuit of their respective goals.
- Both groups are dominated by men. A saying here is that when women first arrive, they look around and say, "The odds are pretty good here." After awhile, this reverses itself to,"The goods are pretty odd here."
- The men in both groups are often not interested in the few women that are involved since the women tend to be a little more masculine and can eschew both hygeine and fashion as well. This is a little less prevelant on the island.
- Both nerds and islanders tend to have trouble with authority figures. General examples include the hacker phenomenon for nerds and the blatant marijuana culture on the island.
- Members of both groups are usually pretty fanatical. Moderation is not a word generally associated with someone who eats only organic foods, composts everything and uses his own shit in his garden. LARP is a well-known acronym for live action role playing: enough said.
- Time alone is key in both worlds. Writing code takes hours and hours of trial and error to learn. Building all of the essentials of living in the wild is not a quick or easy process. Simply building the fences for the garden or digging the outhouse is lengthy.
- Both sub-cultures have gathering places for the anti-social to occasionally interact with others. Renaissance Faires, conventions, Barterfest, and Phish concerts are popular.
- As aforementioned, both islanders and nerds have an intense desire not to work but are usually fairly industrious.
- Sub-cultures generally have a jargon or shared inside knowledge. While any nerd can laugh at a story that involves a clumsy elf, he won't recognize the humor in a story about a raki master losing his focus.
- Generally, both nerds and islanders are called to their lifestyle from a very early age.

So, what have we learned from all this? Well, I am comforted that some of my old experiences are valid in this new adventure. I also reinforced to myself that I have a lot to learn yet about island life because it was easier to come up with examples for nerds than for islanders, even though I know that the general comparison was true. IT further refines the mission for my time on Orcas.

No comments: