When it comes to nerdy stuff, the list of acceptable passion objects is short and easily summarized under at least one of the following banners: genre fiction, fantasy, video games, new technology, comic books, role-playing games, and nostalgia. Anything beyond those specific genres and forms, and you’re pretty much out of nerd culture altogether.
There is a great irony to nerd culture that we, its denizens and practitioners, rarely bother to acknowledge. While nerdy stuff is usually about imagination and openness and accepting outsiders into private cult-like clubs, the volume of nerd stuff – despite how massive it has become – is actually only a small portion of culture at large. Nerdery is an ethos that trumpets equality and inclusion, but is actually incredibly exclusive, and arguably age-specific, when it comes to what should be considered “nerd.”
Indeed, a lot of nerd culture tends to skew specifically toward the white suburban youth, age 8 – 21. Many of us dipped into our own personal nerdy passions as young children, and carry the childhood torch into adulthood. Older people, meanwhile, are pointedly excluded from nerdy stuff. Not that older people are forbidden from reading comics or playing video games, but the more sophisticated, senior citizen menu is most certainly outside of the nerdy purview.
The other day, I was sitting in my favorite deli, watching waiters carry plates of liver-and-onions back and forth to the restaurant’s octogenarian clientele, and I had a strange realization: Old people have it figured out. There are certain things in this world that are clearly designed for the over-75 set, and we could perhaps learn from them. Old people do still have the nerd passion, but they are just much quieter about it, and their circle of interests is typically much different than that of young peoples’. Since this is the Internet, and lists are more fun, here’s a list of stuff that old people nerd out about, that you could – and perhaps should – get into.
When young people (happy 21st birthday!) go to Las Vegas to gamble, they typically fancy themselves old-world jet-setters who can yuk it up with the croupier around the roulette wheel, or star down whatever blackjack dealer that is placed in front of them. There is a romance to the gambling floor that is only slightly betrayed by the t-shirts, shorts, and flip-flops you elected to wear outdoors. But there is a daytime gambling activity in Las Vegas (not to mention church basements everywhere) that is actually far more cutthroat, far more competitive, and requires far more concentration than your average craps table: Bingo.
Bingo, for those of you who have actually bothered to play professionally, is fierce and more fraught with drama than any high-stakes poker tourney. There are several games along the way (make a square! Fill the whole card!), and you can play multiple cards at once. The numbers from the bingo caller come fast and furious, and if you forget to mark a number (with one of those awesome, vandalism-ready ink daubers), you lose. It’s a gambling activity that requires chance, but also a small amount of skill.
You do not smoke. You do not eat. You are consumed by the passion of the game. And, oddly enough, there seem to be bingo champs who know the subtle balance between how many cards to play, the most cost-efficient buy-ins, and how to mark their cards with a minimum of distraction.
Romance? Perhaps not. Aggressive, high-reward gambling? Indeed.
9. Mystery Novels
The murder mystery is a storytelling form almost as old as storytelling, and it doesn’t take a lot of analysis to see why it’s so appealing to the over-75 crowd, or why it should be more appealing to you. Murder mysteries are always closed-box stories. They involve one single mystery that needs to be uncovered, and by the end of the novel/movie/TV episode, that mystery will indeed be revealed. A skilled storyteller can make every small revelation along the way seem like a catharsis. A very skilled storyteller can make those revelations just as exhilarating after multiple readings.
In the modern age of TV shows that follow gigantic season- or sometimes series-long arcs, and movies that seem to be moving more and more toward a serialized format (movies are dead, long live Cinematic Universes, snore), the murder mystery remains the boldest, easiest, most efficient way to tell a story. At the beginning, someone is dead; by the end, the killer is revealed. The personality of the investigator (doting dowager, hard-boiled asshole, good-hearted clergyman) dictates the tone of the story. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s comfort food to be sure, but comfort food that is all about death, murder, and the breakdown of social order.
And there is most certainly a sophistication and an integrity to that simplicity. Sure, murder mysteries all play kind of the same, but when you boil down superhero stories, they’re all kind of the same too.
Whodunnit? You should dooit.
I have long been a fan of Jeopardy!, which remains one of the world’s most enduring and popular game shows. It’s one of my nerdiest weaknesses. But if the ads that run during Jeopardy! are any indicator (cholesterol drugs, arthritis drugs, etc.), then apart from me, only the 75-and-up crowd is watching the show.
Here’s what Jeopardy! has that other game shows do not: Class. Jeopardy! is not about drama or sensationalism. It’s not about dramatic musical stings or attaching stories to the contestants. It’s not even so much about the cash prizes (the top earners on Jeopardy! only make about $20,000 in a day, a piddling amount compared to dunderheaded quiz shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?). It’s about intellect. It’s about speed. It’s about having a great deal of knowledge that one can recall in a split second.
Nerds have long been about trivia, about memorizing every possible detail about our fields of interest. I know people who could perhaps recite the entirety of the Wookieepedia, including obscure details about Prince Xizor or Chewbacca’s son. Imagine, though filling your head not with a specific field of interest, but with obscure facts about EVERYTHING. It takes a certain type to memorize all the secrets in a particular video game. It takes a more evolved type to have memorized the political history of Bolivia, the ins-and-outs of haberdashery, and the entire texts of Ben Jonson’s output.
Jeopardy! Smarter than you.
Nerds are ruled by nostalgia. It’s why all the biggest movies in the modern age tend to be adaptations and remakes. We are, dear friends, unwilling or unable to put down our childhood toys. Keep in mind, young people, that if you cling to your obsessions into your ’70s, you will look exactly like oldsters do now. Only instead of I Love Lucy reruns, it’ll be reruns of the new The Flash. You may think that re-consuming these things keeps you cool and comforted, but the younger generation will have moved on. Mark my words: Millennials will not age well.
But consider the vast tapestry of television history. Consider how many great shows you used to be obsessed with, and are now gone. Consider how many classic TV shows you’ve heard of, but have never consumed. As a young person, you’re concerned with what other people are watching, with what’s new and what’s hip. With what’s making headlines. And this is a very limited way to watch TV. It’s a good way to stay “in the loop,” I suppose, but is it really the way to consume the best TV? Of course not.
Septuagenarians know the best way to consume TV. Wait until it’s vetted, until the show has completed its run, until the hype has totally died down, and then slowly catch up with the shows that have stood the test of time. You can casually watch The Twilight Zone, or Cheers, or M*A*S*H, or Twin Peaks; if you want to skew new, The Shield. And you can watch them casually, enjoying them, judging them with your own taste, rather than the taste of the world. I would rather watch the best shows, all in a row, thirty years after the fact, than have to sift through pop-culture garbage and misplaced enthusiasm.
I’ll catch up with Breaking Bad. Call me in 2040.
I live in Los Angeles, so I am constantly surrounded by scads and scads of ever-more expensive artisanal restaurants and hipster food trucks. No one has mayonnaise on their menu anymore, as aioli has taken its place. Burgers are better than ever, but they cost upwards of $13 to $25 a pop. The notion of the down-and-dirty local diner is, sadly falling by the wayside. What if you’re out late drinking, you want a nicely-cooked meal, but all the hipster joints are closed, and you want to stay away from the inevitable gut-bomb of trash vendors like Taco Bell?
Old people have the solution: Delis! Jewish delicatessens, originally a New York phenomenon, are an almost ideal dining experience for just about anyone. If you have a Jewish deli in your town, go to it immediately, and check out their menu. For one, the menus at delis are HUGE. They have foods for just about every taste, all cooked in an old-world, hefty, traditional style that will most certainly fill whatever hole you need filling. What’s more, they typically have desserts that seem to have been constructed by God Himself. How can a human baker make a chocolate cake that large, that sweet, that amazing?
Get that giant slice of cake and share it with a friend. Or get some kreplach. Or some blintzes. Or a tongue sandwich. Or some well-prepared, savory liver. Or a stuffed baked potato at Canter’s. Strain out the allure of the hipster-exotic, and go for the gusto of the old world. You don’t need fancy-pants “tomato leather” when the French fries are that utilitarian, that good.
I’ll be right back. I need a potato pancake now.
O.k., I’m not actively endorsing a sexual lifestyle that you’re not comfortable with. Follow your heart (and your genitals) wherever they may lead you, dear friends. But I do want to take this opportunity to point out that the over-50 crowd is probably having more – and better, and wilder – sex than you and me combined. If you’re daring enough to trek into the suburbs of Orange County, you’ll find a whole subculture of swingers. It may seem creepy to most people, but a lot of older folks are the ones having orgies.
Think about it. You’ve lived long enough to shed a lot of your youthful neuroses. You’ve been married for years and your relationship is unshakably strong. The kids have grown up and gone away to college. You’re now living in a nice house, surrounded by peers, free to talk about – and do – whatever you like. Why not invite all the neighbors over and have an orgy? Nothing to gossip about. Just sex.
There is a perception that older people tend to be more conservative about sex than youthful people, but in my experience, kids in their 20s tend to have more hang-ups and expectations about sex than older people. Older people have more sexual experience than you think, and are likely going to be more comfortable cruising than you.
I know it’s icky for a lot of you to think of people in their 50s having sex. But when you turn 50, don’t you think you’ll be attracted to other 50-year-olds?
A lot of young people are becoming increasingly political in the era of the Online Social Justice Warrior. There is certainly a twisted pleasure people are taking in deliberately seeking out mild political infractions, that they will then share on social media, trumpet their own righteous indignation, and make a call for change. But you know what those young people may not be doing? Actually voting. Paying attention to all the local elections, causes, propositions, and voting registration. Being outraged is easy. Leaving the house and doing paperwork? Well, old people don’t mind.
The fact remains that senior citizens are still the nation’s largest group of voters. They are genuinely interested in city council members, who sits on local judiciary benches, and what politicians make it to the primaries. In a way, people over 70 dictate all the politics in this country, much more than protest groups of young people. Local politics is a vast and complicated world that requires close attention. Old people have the time and the energy to make sure that change is being affected. You, meanwhile, are too busy grousing about Fox News or “the MSM” to bother.
Political nerds are an ever-rising tide, but no matter what the tide, older people still seem to be calling the shots. It’s only a matter of time before that Simpsons-like curfew imposed on anyone under 65 will actually go into effect.
3. Classical Music and Classic Literature
I know. I know. Our time is limited, and we can only keep up with a few comic book titles, a few YA sci-fi series, and a few TV shows in a given week. But, expanding from the “reruns” entry, you might want to forgo some of the hotter, newer stuff in deference to, y’know, some of the best art that humanity has produced. I think it’s safe to let go of Batman for a month if it means finally getting around to The Odyssey or Moby-Dick.
Roger Ebert was once asked by a reader why someone should read the great novels in the Western Canon. His reply was succinct: “Some ask why, some ask why not. The best of us ask: Why the Hell not?” Indeed, dear Topless Robot readers, why the Hell not? Is there any sufficient reason why we shouldn’t be reading Moby-Dick, or Crime and Punishment, or The Divine Comedy, or Lolita, or 1984, or ? la recherche du temps perdu?
And why delve through all the garbage on the radio, when Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner have already composed some of the best music ever? Or even if you want to say to heck with the old-world composers, just check out any Classic Radio station. The Rolling Stones wrote some pretty good songs. The punk movement is still as bracing as it ever was. Heck, even rap from the 1980s is considered classic these days; buy a copy of Straight Outta Compton ASAP. We have the greats at our fingertips, and we ignore it merely because it wasn’t released in our lifetimes? That, sirs and ladies, is foolhardy.
And, yes, I’m currently on volume 3 of Proust. I’m allowed to be smug about that.
2. Ballroom Dancing
When young people dance, it’s spastic, drug-induced gyrations at a night club. It is free, unorganized dancing. It’s not even really dancing, so much as rhythmic flailing, combined often with sexual grinding on another human being. It’s sexy, it’s fun, a lot of people go to dance clubs in expensive outfits, get drunk, take X and have just a dandy old time. It’s so cool, we nerds aren’t invited to those parites. Let’s face it: we typically aren’t deeply into fashion, dance clubs, or heavy drugs. Nerds tend to be more bookish, utilitarian in our dress, and often declare loudly that we are not athletic or coordinated.
But something we can get behind is the form of dance that your grandparents engage in: Ballroom. Any small town will likely have a ballroom dancing collective comprised of people over 65 who are learning, y’know, actual dance steps, ancient dance moves, and staying in shape with their regular lessons. Sure, you may not be getting those sexy, rock-hard abs like the kids in the Step Up movies, but you are learning a skill, and getting a valuable insight into the history of dance.
Plus, you may find that ballroom dance is far more difficult than it looks. Like most things that older people get into, they may look safe, clean, and easy, but they are as complicated and nuanced as any sport, game, or dance you indulge in at age 19.
Any drugged-up schmuck can grind at a club. It takes real skill to waltz.
1. Lawn Bowling, League Bowling, and Shuffleboard
Sports seem to be antithetical to nerd culture, and scads of us nerds seem perhaps unduly proud of our ignorance of organized sport. One of my friends has a T-shirt that proudly declares “Not into sports at all.” Indeed, I have several peers who refer to all sporting events as “sportsball.” I suppose this outright rejection of sporting events is intended as an inversion of traditional nerd mockery. Jocks mock us for being into Star Trek, so we Trekkies can fairly mock the jocks for being into football.
Sports are also antithetical to senior citizens, as said citizens tend to have ailing bodies and are not as capable as they once were to throw spirals, hit homeruns, and run great distances. As such, I think we’ve found an awesome overlap in the Venn diagram of senior citizens and nerds: Gentle sports. You may find that, if you were to actually hunker down and try out lawn bowling, league bowling, or shuffleboard, that they are much more difficult than you might think. They aren’t as physically grueling as, say, basketball, but they require skill, complex rules, and total concentration.
So join a bowling league, play shuffleboard, develop skill at a more obscure sport. We can cling to the usual rejection of organized sporting events by playing something more esoteric, while still actually playing a game, going outside, and staying in shape.
Just don’t think you can easily beat the 75-year-olds. They’re likely better at these sports than you.
Previously by Witney Seibold:
12 Reasons Why I Should Direct the Next Star Trek Film
8 Reasons Video Games Will Never Make Good Movies
10 Reasons Why VCRs Are Better Than What We Have Now
Eleven Awesome-Sounding Upcoming Scandinavian Genre Flicks