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On Saturday morning, I woke up, saw nothing of major consequence on my news feed and headed out to my rowing class. When I got home, I popped open my news feed and saw the news of yet another famous, inspiring, and influential person dying thanks to cancer. (Thank you and rest in peace, Mr. Cooke. F–k you, cancer.) As I hopped into the shower, I started thinking about how much cancer has impacted my own life and the geek, man, and father I am thanks to my dad.
My 39th birthday is coming up, and though an insignificant age to most people, it’s probably going to be the biggest milestone age for me. When I was 13, my dad, a week before my birthday and at age 39, died from cancer. His cancer was work/environmentally related so there’s never been a logical reason for me to worry about it, but 39 has always seemed like an impassable point in time for me. And so, of course, this close to it, I’m reflecting a lot on the upcoming event and my life.
My dad was definitely a blue-collar kind of guy. He worked as a painter at a shipyard, loved working on projects around the house, being out in nature, and reading Louis L’Amour. But he was also a geek and loved Saturday morning cartoons (and would watch them with me every weekend we were together), Sunday morning comics (and we’d take turns reading them together every weekend as well), and sci-fi, especially Star Trek just as much. He really taught me that anybody can be a geek.
Bear with me as this laundry list doesn’t have any order to it, it’s just a list of the things I consider my top geekdom and where I can trace their roots back to.
Comic books have certainly played a major role in my life. Although I never really read them when I was very young, my dad definitely instilled a love of sequential art in me from as young as I can remember as we read the Sunday comics together every weekend. Once my parents divorced, I’d ask my mom to get a Sunday paper on her weekends just so I could still read the comics. As I got older, especially after my dad died, comic books were my favorite escape vehicle. West Coast Avengers was the first title I started actively collecting thanks to finding an issue at my local 7-11, and while I’ve mostly abandoned superhero comics, I still spend way too much money every month on comics. I even worked at my local comic shop for a couple of years while I was in high school. I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t buy and read comics anymore, even when I was scraping by as a college student in the dorms. Heck, even most of my tattoos are based on comic book characters.
I remember the VHS copies of the original Star Wars trilogy we had when I was growing up. I wore out Return of the Jedi since it was my favorite (I’ll admit it the Ewoks were one of my favorite parts and I had tapes of the Ewok movies too). And although I’ll always be more of a Star Wars than a Star Trek guy, it was not for lack of trying on my dad’s part. He loved all sci-fi, but he was definitely a Trekkie. He tried to get me into The Next Generation, which was in year 3 when he died.
My dad loved to tape shows, so he had every episode, up to that point on tape, and after he died, I devoured them. Wil Wheaton and Wesley Crusher were the big hook for me. Here was a kid, essentially my age, who didn’t have a dad, but who was doing amazing things and having amazing adventures (but let’s be honest: it’s Riker I wanted to be when I grew up). I became a huge Trek fan, begging my mom to take me to conventions she had no interest in going to. I had never even heard of a fan convention before that, but the fifth anniversary ST:TNG convention had me hooked, and I’ve been going to conventions ever since. I even got to meet a large chunk of the cast, including my idol Wheaton, at those early conventions.
Star Trek was also my first ever cosplay, though it wasn’t called that back then. I saw people at those conventions dressed up and knew I had to have my own TNG jumpsuit (of course, now, I wish I would have waited until they had the 2-piece uniforms before deciding to dress up). That led, in some ways, to dressing up for the Renaissance Pleasure Faire (which led to my love of history and even a degree in history) and Vampire: The Masquerade LARPing in college. And any GeekDad readers probably know by now how much I love cosplay.
It seems like almost everyone in my generation was raised on video games, especially with the introduction of the original NES, but long before that, I remember the Atari 2400 and the Intellivision my dad owned and let us all play with. I don’t remember a time when we didn’t have a console in our house, and I’ve owned at least one console or another of my own ever since the NES I got for Christmas shortly after my parents divorced. Super Mario Brothers and Zelda captured my imagination like nothing before it, and, much like comic books, provided me with my second biggest escape from reality.
Despite my love of my consoles, computers hadn’t really hit my radar. Personal computers were still pretty rare, and I didn’t really know anybody who had one. About a year before my dad died, I met a friend whose dad was into computers and cellphones big time (and we’re talking late ’80s, not a common thing at the time). He showed me his “portable” green-screen 8088 that was a hand-me-down from his dad, and I fell in love. He wrote, on a piece of notebook paper of course, some basic DOS commands for me to learn, and let me have a go at it.
But it wasn’t until my dad died, that my mom, in an effort to help me deal with things, bought me my first computer. That was the beginning of the end. I’ve never not had a computer since then, nor have I not been connected to people outside of my own little world. As soon as I fired up that 286 and my 2400-baud modem, I got onto a local BBS and haven’t been offline since. I saw my first non-text-based website in Mosaic (it wasn’t much), built my own first website when GeoCities went live, and have played more computer games than I could ever count. Which is why it’s probably no surprise that my day job is working at a software company.
While we always had board games and family game nights, we never had anything outside of the standard family games – Monopoly, Life, Yahtzee, etc. It actually wasn’t until I had found theDungeons and Dragons gold box games on my computer that I learned there were actual real-life games you could play with other people who were even more awesome than those games I was playing on a machine. My friends and I first passed around our gold box games, but then we started passing around Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Second Edition game books (we later briefly branched out to Battletech and Mechwarrior, but AD&D was always our jam).
Over the years, tabletop gaming came in and out of my life, but was never as big of a deal as it was those years in high school following my father’s death, until a few years ago. I had found Wil Wheaton doing some stuff on-line (blogging mostly), and started following him to see what he was up to after all these years. I still had a profound connection with him (through Wesley of course) and when Tabletop started airing, like it did for many people, it reignited that passion for gaming I had so long ago.
People tell me I’m really handy and good at doing DIY projects. I’ve done pretty much everything to a house that you can do except building one from scratch – concrete, framing, drywall, plumbing, electrical, tile, kitchen cabinets, countertops, sprinklers, light fixtures, etc. While I’ve never had any formal instruction, I remember, as a kid, that my dad always did everything himself around the house, and, quite frequently, he’d let me help him (or give me something tangentially related to do to keep me occupied and out-of-the-way), but it definitely instilled in me a joy of building things with my own hands and not being afraid to do hard physical work.
I love the outdoors. I especially love running on trails. While I took a long hiatus on loving the outdoors during my introverted computer nerd days (who am I kidding, I’m still an introverted computer nerd to a large extent), my dad’s love of being in the outdoors and being physically active definitely planted a seed. My dad’s family is from the mountains of Southern California, so trees and mountains seem to be in my blood, which is one of the reasons I love the Pacific Northwest so much.
When I started this exercise, I thought I’d find a lot of things I’m a geek about that didn’t trace back to my dad. So I’m putting this one in here last because, although robots, and Transformers specifically, are one of my biggest geekdoms, I can’t think of any way it traces back. Sure, it was one of the cartoons I watched religiously, and he most definitely watched it with me, and the same could be said for G.I. Joe or M.A.S.K. And while I love both of those still today, neither ever took root likeTransformers did.
This process wouldn’t be complete without also thinking about the things that didn’t influence me or that I actively rejected. My dad loved the snow and snow sports. Although I love the outdoors, I deplore snow sports. I have a feeling that if I just tried them again, I’d probably love them because I do love a good run in the snow. My dad also loved Disneyland and while I can still remember that his favorite ride was Peter Pan (it’s mine too), I only went to Disneyland a handful of times between when my dad died and I met my wife (almost 6 years ago). For a lot of people that won’t sound like a lot, but for someone who lived in close proximity to Disneyland for most of their life, it’s not a lot at all. I know plenty of friends with annual passes who go multiple times a week! Thankfully my wife broke me of this one and we try to go as often as we can. Our son loves it, and it’s actually helped me deal with some residual grief.
To some extent or another, I’m hopefully planting all of these seeds in my own son. I try my best not to force any of my geekdoms on him, though he already loves Star Wars even more than I do. And I try to give him the freedom to follow his own path (I still don’t get his love of Disney princesses, but that’s just fine) because I know, from my own journey, just how far those paths can take you.
It blows my mind to map all of these things out and see how much overlapping influence there is and how many things can be traced back to just a handful of things from my childhood. The threads weaving in and out to create all of my geekdom. I highly recommend this thought experiment for yourself if you haven’t done it before.
Who would I be, if you hadn’t died? I frequently ask this in my head when I think about my dad. I’m happy with the geek I am. Whether it’s because of the things he sparked in me before he died, the things I delved into because he died, or, most likely, some combination of the 2, I’d like to think that either way, my dad would be proud. And I’m certainly proud of the little geek I’m raising.
Will James is a geek, athlete, husband to a geek mom, and father of a 3-year old geek-in-the-making living in Seattle, Washington.