For boys trying to learn to be men, the rapper and businessmans autobiography can provide a guide
Can growing up without a father be a gift? That’s how Jay-Z counterintuitively described it, in his autobiography. “We were kids without fathers … and in a way, that was a gift,” the rapper and businessman writes in Decoded. “We got to pick and choose the ancestors who would inspire the world we were going to make for ourselves.”
If you choose the right inspirations, growing up without a dad can be a gift. But, as the title of Jay-Z’s album Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse suggests, there’s a flip side. Many of us who spend Father’s Day wishing we had somebody to celebrate with haven’t chosen the right influences as substitutes. We might not be making many choices at all.
I grew up without a father regularly in my life. I would leave my mom’s house every morning searching for what was missing at home – the role models who could show me how to be a man. Like many kids in the same situation – and many of my peers were fatherless – I found those role models on television and in music.
Jay-Z was one of them: the pre-Beyoncé Jay-Z of the late 1990s and early 2000s, big pimpin’ and trading disses with fellow New York rapper Nas. His tough-guy bravado, glorification of crime, flashy jewelry and videos full of dancing women captivated me. I tried my best to emulate him and other rappers. My friends and I wanted to use drugs and thought selling them was cool; we got into fights, skipped classes and in some cases dropped out altogether. Studying seemed boring when compared with the gangster fairytales we shared. Delayed gratification, which is vital to living life with long-term benefits in mind, was a foreign concept.
I have no interest in blaming Jay-Z – or any other man – for playing a role in my life he didn’t ask for. My father uniquely carried the responsibility of setting an example for me. But he, too, had fallen to the curse of fatherlessness. Born an orphan in Kenya, he was re-orphaned at 14 when his adoptive parents passed away. He persevered, working his way from an apprentice at the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi to a chef at the Hilton Hotel in London by the time he was 21. When the time came for him to have a family of his own, however, the curse caught up with him. He didn’t know how to be a husband to my mom or a dad to me. He had no examples from his past or his present to provide guidance. Unlike the years my father spent training with other chefs to learn how to succeed in the kitchen, he had no role models to show him how to be a family man. It didn’t take long for my father to give up and disappear.
My family is not alone in experiencing the curse of growing up without a dad in the house. Fatherless children are more likely to use drugs or alcohol, repeat grades in school, become teenage parents, go to prison and engage in criminal or other delinquent behaviours. A 2013 literature review by researchers from Princeton, Cornell and Berkeley universities concluded: “We find strong evidence that father absence negatively affects children’s social-emotional development, particularly by increasing externalizing behavior [such as aggression and attention seeking].” The review also notes these affects may be more pronounced for boys than girls.
Evidently, it’s not easy to fill the void – but even easier to find the wrong influences. Kids today are exposed to a much broader range of media technologies than I was in the 1990s through which to find examples for what a “man” is. Online communities formed through social media and discussion boards can exert their own kind of masculine peer pressure: incel (“involuntarily celibate”) culture, which became the subject of international media coverage after this year’s mass murders in Parkland, Florida, and my hometown, Toronto, is an example of how young men can develop resentful, angry and self-victimizing masculine identities while having these identities reinforced by an online peer group.
Adam Savage, host of the tv show MythBusters, has a workshop in San Francisco’s Mission District. The walls and shelves—pretty much every surface, actually—are covered in movie and TV costumes and props, some actually used in filming and some replicas Savage acquired or made. Every time I go there I turn into Rain Man, compelled to silently identify and catalog everything I see, names and metadata popping up in front of my eyes like in the Terminator’s head-up display. Gun from Blade Runner. Glove from Hellboy. Go bag from The Bourne Identity. Time travel watch from Voyagers!
At a party at the workshop one evening I find myself talking to a Noted Writer, familiar from magazines and radio, a star of a kind. She is sitting on the edge of Savage’s brown-felted pool table. I introduce her to Paul Sabourin, half the comedy musical duo Paul and Storm, and explain that I’m about to write a story about the fan cruise he helps organize, the JoCo Cruise Crazy, named after its cofounder and headline performer, singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton.
After chatting with us for a few minutes, Sabourin moves on, and I’m left alone with the Noted Writer. “Do you know what all this stuff is?” she asks, motioning at the display cases with her drink. “I have no idea what any of it is.”
“It’s kind of my thing,” I say. “You know, theref’s a lot of overlap between liking this kind of stuff and the JoCo Cruise.”
“Right,” the Noted Writer says, frowning. “Nerds.” She puts her drink down on the pool table.
It has been years since I have heard anyone say that word, nerds, with contempt. It’s been a compliment for, what, a decade now?
“I’m really sorry about this,” I say, reaching to move her glass. It’s wet; it’ll hurt the felt. And even though it’s not my party and not my workshop, I’m suddenly feeling very defensive.
Jonathan Coulton loves cruise ships. He loves the weird artificial mall running down the middle, and he loves staring off the back of the ship into infinity. That’s not to say that David Foster Wallace’s famously dark assessment of shipboard vacationing (“There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad”) is unfamiliar. The lanyard that holds a laser-cut wooden JoCo Cruise name tag around my neck came printed with the phrase “A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again.” Inside jokes are the coin of the realm around here.
We’re sitting in the courtyard of a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, hotel; our ship departs tomorrow morning. Around us, other cruise-bound performers are gathering—Grant Imahara of MythBusters is introducing himself to NPR host Peter Sagal. The comedian Paul F. Tompkins is filling a plate with nachos at the buffet. This trip, Coulton says, he might break his rule not to go Jet Skiing, but he’s not sure what he’ll do with his glasses.
Coulton has built a career out of self-released albums and podcasts. Gentle and bearded, he’s the “one-man house band” on an NPR quiz show and was the “contributing troubadour” for the magazine Popular Science. Coulton used to be a software engineer, a nerd in a cubicle, but he dreamed of being a musician—and unlike most people with those kinds of dreams, he made it happen. Perhaps more impressive, he did it without a record label, through persistence and online savvy, including a year in which he podcasted a new song every week. That heroic origin story resonates with white-collar nerds who feel their spark of creativity getting dimmer while they screw around in IT or at a lab bench.
When Coulton was at Yale and a member of the Whiffenpoofs, the a cappella group had a gig on a cruise. They befriended a blackjack dealer and cadged an invitation to a crew-only party, a whole secret world belowdecks. Coulton says the party was a sweaty, dancy good time. So maybe it makes sense that for the past four years he has run his own alternate world on a cruise ship. “We think of it more like a convention than a music cruise,” Coulton says. “Actually, I’ve never been on a music cruise. I should probably go on one.”
Fan cruises are big business, of course, but for Coulton it’s certainly not about the money. He’d probably make more touring. “I just think of it as a thing that is really fun and feels really great,” he says. “And it has continued to get more and more special as we evolve these traditions.”
Allow me to push up my glasses and explain what the people on this cruise have in common: The performers are apex nerds, primary exponents of nerd culture. Owing to his past as a coder, his heavy presence online, and the fact that his songs often involve supervillains and zombies, Coulton has an epic following among the geekily inclined. The other performers on the cruise—led by Paul and Storm, and including, among others, the musical duo Pomplamoose, musicians Sara and Sean Watkins, the creators of the Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast, and Lego artist Nathan Sawaya—are highly relevant to those interests.
And the passengers? This convention at sea has grown increasingly elaborate. For this year, the fourth, 800 Sea Monkeys (as they call themselves) are boarding the Independence of the Seas not just for nightly musical and comedy performances. They are coming for the 24-hour game room run by Wil Wheaton (famed blogger, gaming expert, cast member on Star Trek: The Next Generation), hot tub “office hours” with author and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, and a semiformal dance where fezzes and tiaras are de rigueur. They’ll commune with their fellows at their own shadow festival of karaoke, off-the-books parties, and events that they’ve coordinated for months on social media and, while at sea, on fan-built apps that use the ship’s Wi-Fi. “It’s a very tribal thing that happens. They certainly self-identify as nerds and/or geeks. I prefer to think of them as ‘enthusiasts,’” Coulton says. “I’m not being modest when I say that for many people this event is less about me and more about the community.”
Indeed, as we board it’s clear that the Sea Monkeys unite around much more than Coulton’s music. They share a love of cosplay, gaming (computer and tabletop), and science fiction. A disproportionate number are scientists and engineers. When the onboard PA calls out for every passenger to muster for the mandatory lifeboat drill, one of the Sea Monkeys in my group imitates the whistle from the intercom on the original Star Trek series. Everyone in the crowd laughs in recognition. On the cruise, everything that once signified outcast status becomes the triumphant plumage of a culture in ascendance.
So: A ship of nerds, of which I am one. A secret font of geek culture. A pop-up community that inverts the classic rules of social hierarchy and celebrates new ones. Which should sound pretty great to me. It really should.
This is a partial list of T-shirts that I see on the JoCo Cruise Crazy:
Superman logos (slightly fewer)
Supernatural (a long-running TV show about attractive young men who hunt demons)
Welcome to Nightvale (a podcast about a fictional town with supernatural problems)
Famous scientists rendered in line drawings (“There’s a key on the back,” its owner says.)
Firefly (the short-lived space adventure TV show from Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon)
A Tardis (the blue phone-booth-shaped mode of travel through time and space on Doctor Who)
“Math Is Delicious”
Grimlock (a Transformer robot who turns into a Tyrannosaurus rex and talks like the Hulk: “Me Grimlock!”)
United Federation of Planets (Star Trek)
“Bookwyrm” (with a picture of a dragon wearing reading glasses in a library)
Rubik’s Cubes in various states of disintegration (melting ones, colored squares as Post-its blowing away in the wind, etc.)
“Back to the Tardis” (The Doctor from Doctor Who, but instead of his Tardis—see above—he’s standing in front of the time-traveling DeLorean from the Back to the Future movies)
“Fake Geek Girl” (on a man)
Minnie Mouse as a monster-god out of HP Lovecraft, with a green face full of tentacles
“Ravenclaw Quidditch Captain” (Harry Potter. Everyone on this cruise was Ravenclaw.)
“Old School” written in early-1980s-style LED letters next to a first-generation Atari joystick
A Tyrannosaurus rex being lifted aloft by balloons
Evil Spock (with the goatee) from the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror,” rendered in the style of Shepard Fairey’s Obey print
Velma from the cartoon Scooby-Doo, looking postapocalyptic and armed with a gun and a machete, alongside a ferocious-looking Great Dane version of Scooby and a Mad Max-style armored version of the Mystery Machine that’s decorated with subtle memorials to the rest of the apparently dead Scooby gang
A Jawa from Star Wars armed with a katana, pulling on chains an armless C-3P0 and armless silver droid that otherwise looked just like C-3P0 (this is E-3P0, who appears briefly in The Empire Strikes Back) across the Tatooine desert, just like Michonne does with two armless zombies in the comic book The Walking Dead
I bring up the T-shirts not just because they illustrate, literally, the common bonds that nerds like to assert—Hey, I like the things you like! Many of which are somewhat obscure!—but because of how utterly ordinary they are aboard the Independence of the Seas. For the weeklong JoCo Cruise, those T-shirts are not a declaration of otherness. They are a uniform.
The esprit de dork doesn’t stop with the shirts. At a dance party early in the cruise, Hodgman and his friend David Rees—known for the online comic Get Your War On and the TV show Going Deep—share DJ duties. They spent weeks before the cruise perfecting their sets. As they work the Sea Monkeys into a pulsing frenzy (and as I drink more), a pattern emerges on the dance floor. Look past the loony variability—the couple doing the polka to “Ring of Fire,” the woman dancing with an illuminated Hula Hoop, the kilts and utility pouches—and you see the congruity: This is the most unabashed display of nerdness I’ve seen outside MIT. It is a skyscraper-sized boat full of people who were once sequestered and who are now calling the shots for modern popular culture. It feels like a victory party.
Two days later, as Paul and Storm’s main-stage concert is reaching a crescendo, Sabourin asks for the house lights to come up. He looks out at the crowd. “This is like the analog Internet,” he says. “I think tech support in most of North America is down by 26 percent.”
Big laugh. On the JoCo Cruise, Paul and Storm have just slightly lower billing than Coulton. And their big hit, the song everyone is waiting for, is “The Captain’s Wife’s Lament,” referred to colloquially as “The Pirate Song.” It’s a chantey, sung from the perspective of a woman whose husband returns from more than a year at sea and brings his entire crew to stay at their house. The punch line is that the next morning, the wife awakens to find seamen everywhere. (“There’s seamen here in front of me/And seamen in the rear/My God—there’s even seamen/Hanging from the chandelier.”)
Because it’s the Big Hit, Paul and Storm like to wind the crowd up a bit, get them in a piratical mood. They ask the audience to give them a big “Arrrrr!” Like a pirate.
“Hit us two times!” Storm says.
“Arrrrr! Arrrrr!” the audience shouts back in unison.
“Hit us pi times!” Storm says.
“Arrrrr! Arrrrr! Arrrrr! Ar!” goes the audience. Accuracy counts, right?
Sabourin is satisfied. “All right,” he says to cheers. “Let’s fucking do this!” And they start playing the song.
It is the kind of moment that should make you love nerds—the camaraderie, the reveling in the obscure, the punch-line-as-emergent-behavior. I should have been ready to hit Paul and Storm with e arrrrrs and maybe even i more. I roll pretty hard when it comes to nerd-dom (if rolling hard means having a custom set of gaming dice). I wore a Ghostbusters pin on my knockoff Members Only jacket for all of eighth grade. In college I worked in a lab where my job was to collect sea urchin semen for a study of intracellular motility. The only sport I have ever shown facility with is fencing. I once played Magic: The Gathering for 18 hours straight. I have a personal relationship with the Force, know what powers a Klingon starship, tried to convince my wife to name one of our kids after a character from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and one year at San Diego Comic-Con got drunk with the cast of Stargate SG-1. I cover science. For WIRED.
There’s a reason Mr. Spock resonates—he was a genius, he didn’t understand emotion, and even if a girl liked him, he couldn’t really figure out what to do about it.
By rights, the JoCo Cruise Crazy should be, for me, a comforting voyage into a world of geek triumphalism. But even as the dance party hangover ebbs, I can’t get comfortable with all this … overtness. I am already in the club, but somehow I can’t identify as a member.
Three or four decades ago, being a nerd was isolating, lonely. Maybe you found some solace at comic conventions or via the Doctor Who fan club newsletter (my dad got me a subscription), but by and large, nerds mostly got made fun of for reading too much and ate lunch alone. Lacking the ability to form an empathic connection to other human beings didn’t help. There’s a reason Mr. Spock resonates—he was a genius, he didn’t understand emotion, and even if a girl liked him, he couldn’t really figure out what to do about it. (Poor Nurse Chapel, right?)
In the wild, that kind of person stood out and was victimized for it—like everyone who doesn’t live at the top of the stochastic distribution. But then a weird thing happened. Somewhere let’s say in the mid- to late 1980s, the overculture started seeking out nerds, geeks, wonks, whatever you called them, because they could do stuff that was starting to seem important. They needed us. “A lot of the stigma is evaporating, not because of anything nerds have done themselves but because of a realization that the qualities of the nerds are useful for the world,” says John Scalzi, a New York Times best-selling science fiction writer and veteran of two JoCo Cruises.
At the same time, the increasingly ubiquitous communications technologies that made geeks valuable also let them get in touch with each other. It turned out they—we—weren’t eating lunch alone. We were eating lunch together, just really far apart. Online bulletin boards, chat rooms, Multi-User Dungeons, the Usenet … suddenly we could talk to one another.
Result: The overculture started the process of absorption and commodification. Nerds became an economic bloc to be marketed to. And with some strategic improvements in visual-effects technologies, other people—snorks, as they’re called here on ship—could come to appreciate the pop culture staples that had sustained us through the dark years. Now everyone is into geeky stuff. Now all the movies are superhero movies. That’s how The Avengers made more than $1 billion worldwide in 2012.
The JoCo Cruise celebrates that mainstreaming but also manages to feel special, small, and isolated from the real world. Safe. “It’s very hard living on the outside,” says Rachel Baker, whom I meet in the bar at the top of the ship. It’s called Olive or Twist, but because it has huge, outward-projecting windows, Sea Monkeys call it Ten Forward. Baker owns a bookstore in Alexandria, Virginia. She’s sociable, tattooed, nicely dressed. I’m not trying to be creepy—my point is that anywhere else Baker would not trigger even my fairly sensitive nerd-dar. I’d be wrong; she gets misty talking about being an outsider. The cruise, she says, “is so special. I’m really happy to meet more of my own people.”
I am not. Where the Sea Monkeys see community, I see epistemic closure. All the shared references and common rhetorical tactics don’t feel supportive to me—they feel almost lazy, as if the triumph of the nerds means not having to meet the normals halfway.
Down where the games are, a lower-deck cluster of three converted conference rooms, someone has posted a sign on the wall: SNORKS ARE PEOPLE TOO! (“We the undersigned pledge to be nice to snorks and to refrain from making snarky snork comments!”)
Snorks are people too. The sign is supposed to remind everyone to treat them compassionately, to not insult them or look down upon them for being Other. In other words: Don’t be bullies.
The performers’ chill-out room is a nice suite on deck 10 with a long balcony, a baby grand piano, a decently stocked bar with snacks, and a creepy skinless robot cat that meows and purrs. The performers hang there just about every night, well into the early morning. They talk about the performances they liked. And they plan future collaborations. Coulton’s wife, Christine Connor, produces David Rees’ TV show. Coulton wrote a theme song for Scalzi’s book Redshirts. Everyone seems to have been guests on one another’s podcasts, or plans to be. Scalzi calls it “a ferment,” but that doesn’t quite do the gathering justice. These are the nerd illuminati.
The performers admit, though, to being a little astonished by the depth and reach of Sea Monkey culture. John Roderick, lead singer for the Long Winters, old friend of Coulton and Hodgman, and costar of a podcast with geek efficiency expert Merlin Mann, describes the common thread among fans on board as a culture thing, being “resolutely un-negative,” possibly to the point of a disconcerting social relativism. “The central dogmas are ‘do as thou wilt’ and ‘be excellent to one another,’” Roderick says. “It’s like Bill & Ted.”
So why would something so cultlike grow up around Coulton? He’s charismatic, but he isn’t leading any kind of movement to overturn the jockocracy. “Jon is a futurist and a utopian,” Roderick says. “To him, ignorance is the enemy of enlightenment. If you just learn, your prejudice will go away.”
“Oh God,” I say. “It’s Star Trek.”
Roderick pats me on the back: “Next Generation.”
Which, a couple of days later, leads me to Wil Wheaton. I find him on a couch in the performers’ suite, drinking 10-year-old Laphroaig. Since Star Trek, Wheaton has had a successful run as a writer and video host, along with gigs on The Big Bang Theory and other shows. His take: “We tend to be an inclusive, enthusiastic, welcoming group of people. If we can turn a Muggle into a gamer, then we have another person we can play games with.”
“But there’s a certain audience-maintenance aspect, right?” I am figuring that a cruise like this is an alternative to, say, touring or promoting a product.
“That’s a cynical, business way to look at it,” Wheaton says. “I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t enjoy it.” He says his agent hates that the cruise takes him away from Los Angeles in the middle of pilot-casting season. Wheaton comes anyway.
But now I’m working through a checklist of possible explanations for the cruise’s culture. “So is it a victory lap for nerd-dom?”
“I don’t think of it as a victory lap. I think of it as a celebration of our ability to find people who share the things we love,” Wheaton says. “We did have to live in the shadows because the so-called cool kids were cruel to us. A lot of us who grew up in that, we’re adults now, and it’s important to us to make a world where our kids don’t feel that.”
That churns up a few shards from the archive, I have to admit. Getting made fun of for using big words, for reading too much, for wearing a Spock shirt to third grade, for—
“One more thing,” Wheaton says.
“Get our culture right. I am inherently distrustful of all media. There are still journalists who would try to make it a freak show.”
Wait. What? I don’t even trigger Wheaton’s presumably keen nerd sensors? I am rendered simultaneously relieved and lonely.
Even though Wheaton hasn’t pinged me as a friendly, his words have an effect. He doesn’t dwell on it, but he was a Starfleet officer serving under the legendary Captain Jean-Luc Picard on the USS Enterprise. (On television.) (But still.) Also, Wheaton sports facial hair that has a kind of Commander Riker vibe. So for me this is a little like getting a peat-scented scolding from both the Enterprise‘s XO and Ensign Wesley Crusher at once. It is all I can do not to say, “Aye, sir.”
When we get to Grand Cayman, I go on an excursion: snorkeling. I am a lousy swimmer, but I went snorkeling once in Belize, and after I got over the fear of drowning and the weird acrophobia you get from floating high above a seabed and the claustrophobia of confinement underwater, it was pretty fun.
Not this time. I basically freak out as soon as I get into the water, listening to my own breath in the snorkel get more and more ragged and irregular, flailing around instead of floating. I can’t seem to move in any direction except dangerously close to the boat or dangerously far from it. Finally I give up.
While I am sitting on the boat’s edge trying to convince myself to get back in—when the hell else am I going to be in Grand Cayman, snorkeling on WIRED’s dime?—one of the other people on the excursion comes over. She is tall and thin with cropped, multicolored hair (mostly blue) and a pierced lip. She introduces herself as Sara, but I already know who she is.
This is Sara Chicazul, famous among Sea Monkeys for, among other things, having sold handmade custom fezzes to other Sea Monkeys to fund her cruise. This year she also made buttons that said “Hi,” so people who felt lonely would know that anybody wearing one was someone they were welcome to talk to. Chicazul is not her real name, of course. She does her textile work in a mostly blue vernacular, and having been on the Internet since she turned 14, she has systematically removed her true identity from all social media. In real life, Chicazul works in retail in Vancouver.
When she came up to introduce herself on the snorkeling boat, I looked alone, out of place, and frightened. I looked like a fucking nerd on a boat. She walked over to make that OK. And even though I sort of realize what she is doing, and in my head am making noises like, “Oh, no, right, I see, but I’m totally fine, and I’m not part of this because in my bag there is a notebook and I’m really just here as a reporter, though on the other hand thank you,” what I in fact say is my name, and we chat about how she got started making fezzes.
Looking back on it I have to think that Chicazul coming up to me, hair dye running down her forehead, shivering in the breeze, wearing the only articles of clothing she’d packed that she hadn’t made—bathing suit and a borrowed T-shirt—was just about the sweetest thing ever. “I was making a really aggressive goal this time of, if I don’t know someone, to walk over and introduce myself,” Chicazul later tells me.
After we talk on the snorkeling boat I go back in the water. It’s fun.
Peter Sagal, host of the NPR game show Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, is built like a quad ATV. He’s an avid runner—he leads jogs every morning around the track on the Independence‘s upper deck. The group eventually dubs itself “Wait, Wait, Don’t Lap Me.”
Sagal’s big performance is a monologue, a reading accompanied by Sara Watkins playing a mournful pseudo-This American Life fiddle. It is a story of how he and his nerd friends used to try to “pass,” to not appear as nerds. “We studied sports,” he says. “We learned to laugh like a normal person, which is ‘ha, ha,’ not the nerd way, which is ‘that’s very amusing.’” Eventually, jocks raided his D&D game, but the nerds fought back—he calls it, to laughter, the Short Hills Riot—“the start of the nerd liberation movement.” The Sea Monkeys impress him, he says, because they are “proud. You’re out.”
Stipulated: Push on Sagal’s analogy too hard and it’ll break. No country has ever made nerdery punishable by imprisonment or death. No one has ever said that their religious text prohibits nerdy behavior. It has always been legal for nerds to get married. But still, Sagal is onto something.
Growing up, I wasn’t exactly proud and out myself. I tamped it down. In response to my own inability to function in polite society as a nerd, and in response to society’s inability to be polite to me, I tried to dress better. I learned to read cues to someone’s emotional state through observation and learned to manifest my own emotions in a believable way. I stopped quoting Ghostbusters all the time (mostly), and I tried to quit being such an arrogant jerk. Anybody at all close to me wouldn’t be fooled, but for purposes of casual consumption? I went into the closet.
When I was old enough, I channeled all that wariness, curiosity, and observational ability—the classic combination of chutzpah and insecurity—into a job. And now, even on a cruise ship full of my people, I hold up a notebook, force-field-like, between them and me.
My experience is hardly unique. One night I follow a bunch of the performers to the all-day buffet upstairs for dinner; they are playing hooky from their command table in the formal dining room. Todd Cooper, Sara Watkins’ husband, talks about having done the same thing I did—getting out of the nerd stuff, putting on nicer clothes. He plays in a band and suggests that some of the older nerds with the deep signifiers, the long greasy hair and weird beards and Bajoran nose piercings or whatever, are the equivalent of old punks, guys who are still trying to say fuck you to the Man. They choose to be Other.
So I’m … what? A sellout, an Uncle Tom, a “confirmed bachelor.” Hiding my true self.
I have, in fact, packed my own perfect T-shirt—dark blue with two winged B’s facing each other, an insignia from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. I could wear that shirt on the street and people would assume it was a band or a startup. But here? It would be … apposite.
And yet, once aboard the boat, I shove the shirt into the bottom drawer of the slick built-in cabinet system in my cabin and bury it under shorts. I put in my contact lenses. I exercise assiduously, wear linen slacks and nice shirts, shave every day. Amid ponytailed gamers and Magic-playing coders, my snork disguise stays zipped up and buttoned. Mostly.
The night of the big formal dance, the game room is buzzing. A Sea Monkey has set up a table to sell earrings she made from 20-sided dice. Somewhere a couple of guys are running a clinic for tying bow ties. Chicazul is here too, putting the finishing touches on her outfit, fitting grommets into a corset, trying to coax a little more oomph out of her portable sewing machine. As they do for a lot of Sea Monkeys, these cruises inspire creativity in her. “On the first trip I forgot a hammer and had to ask my steward to find one,” she says. “But now I have my travel grommeting kit.” People keep coming up to show her the fezzes she made for them, but she doesn’t evince any annoyance. One guy has one he made with long green flippers coming off the side and a single eyeball on a stalk coming out of the top.
“Is that a Lovecraftian tentacle or a dianoga?” I ask.
“What’s that?” Chicazul says.
“The dianoga was the trash compactor monster in Star Wars,” I say, regretting nothing. The mask has slipped; I couldn’t resist the impulse to nerdsplain.
Chicazul and everyone else is right about how gosh-darned nice everyone is. I mean, of course you still get the maladjusted dude with the dandruff-flake-crusted shoulders who, upon seeing a woman with a tattoo on the nape of her neck of a Japanese character and paw prints, walks over, invades her personal space, stares at the tattoo, and after way too long finally says, “I get it. Dogs,” and then wanders off. But at the same time there’s a programmer who has been on all four cruises and this year has brought his son, a recent college grad. There’s a guy in a perfectly nice gray suit with a white pocket square and a Star Trek insignia lapel pin. Also a guy dressed like a pirate, and the single best Doctor Who scarf I have ever seen. Turns out its owner made it himself. When I ask him about it he says, “You don’t put this much effort into it without getting it right.” But by then I can’t quite hear anyone, because we’re opposite the ship’s karaoke lounge and a Sea Monkey is singing along to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” but with lyrics based on Battlestar Galactica. “Adama! Oooh oooh! You’re almost the man we need!” “She’s just a skin job—nobody loves her.”
Finally we all make our way into the theater for the annual Paul F. Tompkins Memorial Mustache JoCo Live Band Formal Fezstravaganza Karaoke Night. Which is to say, Coulton’s fans sign up ahead of time to sing Coulton’s songs, accompanied live by Coulton and his band. To me, this sounds like an ironic Twilight Zone hell for musicians: forced to watch amateurs mangle their life’s work while they play along. But not only does Coulton do it every year, he cues nervous singers and speeds up or slows down for their tempo and dropped measures. When one fan forgets a lyric, the band plays around the gaffe. Coulton covers, prompts him with the words, and when the song ends sidelongs to the audience that “it’s just like a Jonathan Coulton show.”
After the karaoke ends, I walk with Coulton while he totes his guitar aft. “You must have the most Zen-like self-abnegation of ego and self,” I say.
“I have an entire cruise named after me,” Coulton answers. “I think I’m a pompous ass. Anyway, I love it. It lets me focus on my guitar-playing. That was the best set I’ve ever played.”
That right there is how Coulton could assemble such devout fans. In fact, it demolishes my earlier hypothesis. This cruise isn’t a victory lap. It’s more like communal worship—of the performers, and of each other. Sara Watkins tried to tell me earlier, but I hadn’t understood: “There’s something sacred about singing together,” she said. Coulton and Paul and Storm might have sparked something with their vague convocation to the faithful—be nice, be creative, be accepting—but upon that rock and roll the fans have built a church.
So I suppose that makes Chicazul a bishop. The day after JoCo karaoke I catch her in Ten Forward. And indeed, she is thinking about dogma. Chicazul has heard, for example, that some adherents worry that 800 people is too many. This cruise isn’t as intimate as the first one, which had only 300. She sees that, to first-timers, even she might seem unapproachable, “because I’m dressed as a princess,” she jokes. (Except Cinderella’s slipper wasn’t a Vibram FiveFingers shoe.)
Hence the buttons she made that say “Hi,” which she handed out at the cruise’s start: Creating an in-crowd among the Sea Monkeys would run counter to the spirit that made Chicazul fall in love with the cruise in the first place. “The thing about the Sea Monkeys that makes them special is the welcoming environment, open to new ideas, differences in people, trying new things,” she says. “And welcoming people who aren’t normally welcomed.” That’s what she felt on her first cruise, a feeling of belonging so powerful that on the last night she didn’t go to bed—she didn’t want it to end. “I am an introvert. I assumed when I first met a person that they didn’t want to talk to me and had better things to do,” Chicazul says. “After my first cruise, when we stayed in touch online, everyone told me they liked me. After a year of that I started to believe it. It made it easier for me to do things without worrying about other people’s opinions. Now I will never be alone.” There’s no zealot like a convert.
She wants to quit her job, do something more creative—like Coulton did. Never mind the messy facts about how he was already a singer, went to an Ivy League school, and was close friends with Hodgman while he was riding a fame trajectory. The salient point is that he’s nice, self-effacing, and changing his life with nerdiness. “The story of it is very compelling to a certain type,” Chicazul says. “Frustrated creatives—dreamers with a positive outlook. Those are the fan base.”
She’s already planning her outfits for next year’s cruise.
When the boat docks, I run like hell. I wheel my bag down the gangplank, fall into a cab, and head for the airport even though my flight doesn’t leave until much later in the day. I slept for just about six hours out of the prior 48, and the Florida sunshine feels like concertina wire in my eyes. Quiet time in an air-conditioned airport terminal promises to be therapeutic.
I’m sitting in the boarding lounge, glazing over, when a gate agent starts calling for departure on another plane. “Now boarding,” she says, “group A. A as in Aquaman.”
I look toward the agent’s podium. I want to see her face. Is she teasing?
“Group B,” she says, “as in Batman.” She sticks with the theme. C as in Captain America. D as in Daredevil. E as in—going obscure here—Elektra. I start looking around the terminal to see if anyone is wearing a nerd T-shirt. How can she tell? After a week of JoCo cruising I feel like I know every face from the trip, and I don’t see any of them. Nothing about me indicates where I have just come from. She can’t be pandering.
And yet I sit there wondering if she’s making fun of me.
If the JoCo Cruise is a church, I am apostate. That’s why I couldn’t stop worrying and love the Sea Monkeys. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a nerd anymore. It was that I did. Or rather, that I already, inescapably, was. That boat and those people? They were my hometown.
Like everyone’s hometown, mine embarrasses me. I have worked hard to lose my accent. I know every back-alley shortcut and every bit of secret gossip. I couldn’t leave soon enough. I miss it ferociously. I’m always happy to meet natives and always trying to avoid them. I’ll defend it with my life against any threat, even when I’m wrong.
So here I am in this Podunk airport, exhausted, and now crying—not at being made fun of but for having jumped to the conclusion, as I always used to, that I was being made fun of. And I realize: It’s not that you can’t go home again. It’s that you never really leave.
In recent years, data analysts have gone from optional to a career that holds great promise, but demand for quantitative skills applied in business decisions has raced ahead of supply as college curriculum often lags behind the fast-changing workplace.
CareerTu, a New York-based startup launched by a former marketing manager at Amazon, aims to close that talent gap. Think of it as Codecademy for digital marketing, data analytics, product design and a whole lot of other jobs that ask one to spot patterns from a sea of data that can potentially boost business efficiency. The six-year-old profitable business runs a flourishing community of 160,000 users and 500 recruiting patners including Amazon, Google and Alibaba, an achievement that has secured the startup a spot at Y Combinator’s latest batch plus a $150,000 check from the Mountain View-based accelerator.
In a way, CareerTu is helping fledgling tech startups on a tight budget train ready-to-use data experts. “American companies have a huge demand for digital marketing and data talents these days … but not all of them want to or can spend money on training, and that’s where we can come in,” said Xu, who made her way into Amazon after burying herself in online tutorials about digital marketing.
The gig was well paid, and Xu felt the urge to share her experience with people like her — Chinese workers and students seeking data jobs in the U.S. She took up blogging, and eventually grew it into an online school. CareerTu offers many of its classes for free while sets aside a handful of premium content for a fee. 6,000 of its users are actively paying, which translates to some $500,000 in revenue last year. The virtual academy continues to blossom as many students return to become mentors, helping their Chinese peers to chase the American dream.
Y Combinator founder Paul Graham (second left) with CareerTu founder Zhang Ruiwan (second right) and her team members / Photo: CareerTu
Securing a job in the U.S. could be a daunting task for international students, who must convince employers to invest the time and money in getting them a work visa. But when it comes to courting scare data talents, the visa trap becomes less relevant.
“Companies could have hired locals to do data work, but it’s very difficult to find the right candidate,” suggested Xu. LinkedIn estimated that in 2018 the U.S. had a shortage of more than 150,000 people with “data science skills,” which find application not just in tech but also traditional sectors like finance and logistics.
“Nationalities don’t matter in this case,” Xu continued. “Employers will happily apply a work visa or even a green card for the right candidate who can help them save money on marketing campaigns. And many Chinese people happen to have a really strong background in data and mathematics.”
A Chinese business in the US
Though most of CareerTu’s users live in the U.S., the business is largely built upon WeChat, Tencent’s messaging app ubiquitous among Chinese users. That CareerTu sticks to WeChat for content marketing, user acquisition and tutoring is telling of the super app’s user stickiness and how overseas Chinese are helping to extend its global footprint.
And it makes increasing sense to keep CareerTu within the WeChat ecosystem after Xu noticed a surge in inquiries coming from her homeland. In 2018, only 5 percent of CareerTu’s users were living in China, many of whom were export sellers on Amazon. By early 2019, the ratio has shot up to 12 percent.
Xu believes there are two forces at work. For one, Chinese exporters are leaving Amazon to set up independent ecommerce sites, efforts that are in part enabled by Shopify’s entry into China in 2018. The alternative path provides merchants more control over branding, margins and access to customer insights. Breaking up with the ecommerce titan, on the other hand, requires Chinese sellers to get savvier at reaching foreign shoppers, expertise that CareerTu prides itself on.
CareerTu offers online courses via WeChat / Photo: CareerTu
Next door, large Chinese tech firms are increasingly turning abroad to fuel growth. Bytedance is possibly the most aggressive adventurer among its peers in recent years, buying up media startups around the world including Musical.ly, which would later merge with TikTok. Indeed, some of CareerTu’s recent grads have gone on to work at the popular video app. Rising interest from China eventually paved Zhang’s way home as she recently set up her first Chinese office in her hometown Chengdu, the laid-back city known for its panda parks and witnessing a tech boom.
Just as foreign companies need crash courses on WeChat before entering China, Chinese firms going global must familiarize themselves with the marketing mechanisms of Facebook and Google despite China’s ban on the social network and search engine.
When American companies growth hack, they make long-term plans that involve “model building, A/B testing, and making discoveries from big data,” observed Xu. By comparison, Chinese companies fighting in a more competitive landscape are more agile and opportunist as they don’t have the time to ponder or test out the different variants in a campaign.
“Going abroad is a great thing for Chinese companies because it sets them against their American counterparts,” said Xu. “We are teaching Chinese the western way, but we are also learning the Chinese way of marketing from players like Bytedance. I’m excited to see in a few years whether any of these Chinese companies abroad will become a local favorite.”