Friday, September 23, 2016

COLUMN: Enter the George

Have you guys been watching "Stranger Things" on Netflix?

The critically acclaimed show about a ragtag team of 8th graders taking on inter-dimensional aliens has been winning the hearts of fans and critics alike. It's a total throwback that conjures "E.T.," "The Goonies," and all those deliciously bad horror flicks from the 80s that remain near and dear to my heart. It's not the best TV show of all time, but it certainly makes you nostalgic for the days when you used to care what the best TV show of all time was.

Any show with nerd heroics is especially satisfying for me since I've been down that path myself. When my parents bought me an Apple IIe in middle school, I'm sure they had the best of intentions. Little did they know, it was the gateway to a world of dungeons, dragons, science fiction, and endless ridicule from the popular kids.

I was nerd before nerd was cool, and I had the requisite pack of nerdy friends that I hung with through middle school and junior high. Chief among them was my friend George. He and I had a long friendship built predominantly on two things: (1) Our shared love of long-winded RPG video games, and (2) George's never-ending attempts to make me a fan of heavy metal. On any given weekend, you could find the two of us gathered in front of a computer screen, busily slaying orcs while Iron Maiden blared in the background.

As time went on, our clique drifted apart. George got accepted into the prestigious Illinois Mathematics & Science Academy, while I discovered dance beats and DJing. We still stayed in touch, but George's post-doctorate work in artificial intelligence and machine learning took him from California to New York, Florida and beyond. I just always assumed that one day, the massive pulsating contents of his brain would either save or enslave all of humanity.

Instead, it brought him to my house last weekend.

George is currently inbetween gigs and holding court at his parents house in Galesburg, in the same bedroom where we once defeated a pirate horde, descended into the Stygian Abyss, fought our way to the Codex of Infinite Wisdom, and heard those words every aspiring nerd dreamed of, "Congratulations, thou hast completed Ultima IV." The other day, George called to see if I wanted a guest for the weekend, and I couldn't have been happier to invite him up.

This was a big deal for me. It's not often that I get to see any of the old nerd clique, let alone have the chance to introduce them to my current friends, who were most eager to meet this King of the Nerds I'd been telling stories of for years on end.

But what exactly does one DO when two worlds collide? I spent four years at college listening to my big-city friends berate the Quad Cities daily. Listening to them, you'd have thought we were all trapped in Hayseed Alley with little to do but watch the river roll by. Truth be told, there's a LOT of stuff to do in the Quad Cities, and this was one of our most option-filled weekends of the year.

We could have gone to the John Deere Classic. We could have gone to Doc's Inn to see the Too White Crew. We could have gone down to the District and had our faces melted off by bass at Patrick Rifley's Digital Circus. We could have driven out to the greatest concert venue in the world, Codfish Hollow, to see legendary indie chanteuse Jenny Lewis. We could have watched the most epic tug-of-war in the USA. We could have gone to any number of theaters, comedy clubs, arcade bars, or dance floors at our disposal.

Instead, we ended up at a hog confinery.

After George arrived, the two of us met up with my friends Jason and Dianna for some outstanding Mongolian barbecue. Dianna surprised us all by showing up in a new car that she'd just bought that day.

"Want to take it around the block?" she asked as we left the restaurant. Aimless drive? Heck yes.

As we hopped in her car, somebody mentioned the meteor shower happening that night. Instantly, Jason had his phone out and was accessing an app that points you towards nearby light-pollution free zones for ideal stargazing.

Driving towards darkness, I mentioned having seen Jupiter hanging out by the Moon a few days prior.

"I'm so out of touch I can't even remember whether Jupiter or Saturn is closer to Earth," Jason said.

"My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas," replied Dianna.

"WHAT?" we all said in unison.

It turns out it's a mnemonic device I'd never heard of. My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.

"Shouldn't it be my-very-educated-mother-just-served-us-nothing?" asked George. "Pluto's been uninvited to the party."

"Technically," I said, "the whole thing's poor grammar. Shouldn't it be 'my WELL-educated mother'?"

Jason looked at me with a smirk. "Only if you want a planet named Wenus."

It started with giggles, then soon the whole car was bouncing with laughter. Within minutes, we were pondering if men are from Mars, would women still be from Wenus? Likely not. At some point, I led the car in a sing-along of "I'm your wenus, I'm your fire, what's your desire?"

Eventually, we found our dark sky, which most certainly did NOT involve pulling off and trespassing at some kindly farmer's hog confinery without said kindly farmer's knowledge. Many laughs were shared. George, never one for the outdoors, saw his first ever meteor. It was nothing shy of perfect.

The Quad Cities has a lot to do if you look hard enough. But I'll trade it all for a night of immature laughs with real friends. George and I were outcasts 20 years ago, and maybe my friends and I are still outcasts today. If that means more nights like this, score one for the outcasts.

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