Bring on the nerds

After five weeks of grad school, I’m beginning to adapt to a world in which most of the inhabitants care more about Shakespeare (and Marlowe, and Jonson, and Middleton) than they do about, say, the Election of 2012.

The eighteen people in my class at Mary Baldwin are mostly in their mid- to late twenties – and most happily identify themselves as “Shakespeare nerds.”   But the truth is, most are nerds in many respects.  

Last Thursday night, at the informal musical gathering which is becoming my class’ end-of-week tradition, one of the guys got up and offered an a cappella rendition of “The Pirate King”, from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.  Turns out David has a lovely voice, and he knows the song perfectly.

Turns out, too, that several of my classmates are serious G&S nerds.  As soon as David sat down, Nicola started singing “Poor, Wandering One.”  Then there was a chorus of “With Cat-Like Tread” by most of the group.

And there you are.  I’m not only part of a collection of Shakespeare nerds, but part of a sub-set of Shakespeare nerds who are also Gilbert and Sullivan nerds.

It’s comforting to realize  that such people exist, outside, say, the fictional world of The West Wing.

When I set up my grad school semester, I arranged to teach my usual Shakespeare course at the Shepherd’s Center – for academic credit.  I had intended it to serve as my link to goings-on in Chester, and I suppose does the job.  

But it does so imperfectly, because the class is also, in its way, a collection of nerds.

Seriously.  Here are a dozen intelligent, seemingly-normal people – entering their “golden years” – who make a special trip to Chester Baptist on Friday mornings to discuss the  plays of William Shakespeare.

And not Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer Night’s Dream either.  This term, we’re starting with King John – a history play, but also a darkly cynical look at the eternal sleaziness of politics.

As you might well expect from a play about one of England’s most detested kings, in which the most sympathetic character is named “the Bastard.”

So  here we are:  Twelve pillars of the Chester community, getting all nerdy about Shakespeare on a beautiful Friday morning.  Welcoming a guest speaker – David Janosik, the Bastard in Richmond Shakespeare’s current production of King  John.  Making plans to travel to St. Catherine’s to see that production – a radical adaptation with “steam-punk” sets, props and costumes and an added character representing our modern concern with individual responsibility and choice.

Because, regardless of age, that’s what nerds do.  We celebrate our nerdiness by going to events and venues where other nerds gather.

And the simple fact is, a classroom full of sixty-somethings taking their third, fourth or fifth class in Shakespeare are well along the road to nerdity.

In the small-town South – as in big cities elsewhere – there have always been individual eccentrics.  But in our high-tech world, odd tastes, curious hobbies and specialized interests have become a powerful movement.

It turns out everyone is a nerd about something, and some people are nerds about many things.  

And nerdity can be powerful.  When you combine the passion of the individual nerd with the numerical strength of a substantial group, almost anything can happen.  

This thought has been much with me in the aftermath of the recent presidential  debate.   As it happened, I had to listen to the debate on NPR while I did  other things with my eyes.  Listening, rather than watching, I got a stronger impression of the content of the  candidates’ remarks than I did of their personalities.

I came away with the overall impression that both candidates were carefully scripted, and that neither has a clue about moving our country toward a positive, possible future.   They had command of all the relevant facts, but didn’t know what to do with them.

As a result, I found myself wondering why we –- living in a society  which embraces all sorts of highly-specialized nerdiness – have only these two choices.  Why don’t we have about a thousand tiny political parties reflecting truly unique ideas and solutions?

Or even better, why we don’t have ­nano-parties which come together to support a single, independent candidate in one particular election – for the state legislature, say, or for Congress.  Fluidly-organized, temporary nano-parties which coalesce for a single election, to offer a well-funded, entrepreneurial candidate with genuine vision.

What if Congress, or the General Assembly, contained 10 percent independents and third-party candidates – effective political nerds – more interested in fixing things than in perpetuating their tenure of office?  

In America, there are nerds of a million varieties.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if the political varieties were as eager to put up campaigns as we Shakespearean nerds are to put on 400-year-old plays?

Things could get very interesting...

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