"Excuse me, I don't mean to interrupt."
I'm deep in a conversation, so this is clearly a lie. Even the most casual semiotician would gather that the meaning here was precisely interruption.
The interrupter is a short, wild-haired kid, perhaps 17 years old. He's non-specifically Asian, expectedly geeky in a Wil Wheaton "Don't Be A Dick" T-Shirt, cargo pants, and a safari vest studded with nerd-flair. He's clearly nervous behind his buddy holly glasses. Instantly charming.
"Oh hey, no problem. What's up?" I ask.
It really is OK. By Saturday afternoon I have PAX East figured out. Unlike GenCon or E3, PAX isn't about doing, it's about being.
Sure, there are plenty of things I could do: there are panels to line up for and attend. There are a dozen rooms with console games of every era. There's a 5-on-5 Steel Battalion setup, and a recreated 1980's Arcade complete with Phil Collins and Don Henley on the radio. For most folks here, I'm imagining doing all these things is the point.
For me, though, I have decided to simply be. To meet people and talk and be a part of something. To that end, I have put a large sticker on my pass that says "Julian Murdoch" in the hopes that people might recognize the name and introduce themselves. I am the only one I see all weekend long with a nametag.
I am not without ego. I won't deny that I enjoy it when someone comes up and says they liked my work or the podcast. And judging by the box of 150 business cards I exhaust in 72 hours, that happens a lot. But nine times out of ten the best part was the conversation after that initial awkward "hey I know you from the internet" introduction.
So when non-specific Asian kid with nerd-flair interrupts me, I am delighted. Here, I thought, is another member of Nerdnation, with another story to tell.
"Hi!" he says, proffering his hand. Against my better judgment I shake it eagerly (a decision I repeat a thousand times which will result in three days of fever and congestion.) "I just wanted to say how much I enjoy your work, and meet you in person."
The irony, of course, is that nearly these same words have come out of my mouth a dozen times in the previous days. PAX is a tremendous opportunity to put names with faces and make a human connection to other writers, editors and developers I've known for years, virtually. Without exception, every momentary awkwardness is overwhelmed by a sense of friendship and real connection.
In fact, it is one of these conversations that non-specific Asian kid is interrupting.
"That's so nice of you to say," I respond. "What did you think of the panel?"
Behind non-specific Asian kid, someone is dying of caged laughter. Clearly it's one of his friends. I laugh a little, not because I get the joke, but just because the good humor of PAX seems to permeate every conversation like gasoline vapors — the slightest spark can ignite a chuckle.
"When I played Bioshock, it was just …"
Behind me, Ken Levine snarfs water out his nose. The friend's contained mirth explodes into a seizure of belly laughs.
"Oh, you meant Ken, I'm Julian," I say, pointing to my nametag. His face drops. I recognize the panic and horror.
Ken, ever the gracious front man, shakes non-specific Asian kid's hand and immediately puts him at ease. They exchange pleasantries and a kind of nerd-Papal dispensation. The gaggle of folks standing nearby bursts into hysterics. I myself laugh so hard I wipe tears from my eyes.
The friend leans over to me and whispers.
"Sorry about that. I could see that train wreck happening, but just couldn't bring myself to stop it."
As the laughter dies down, non-specific Asian kid relaxes. I hope it's because he realizes we're not laughing at him in a cruel schoolyard way. I know firsthand how hard it is to walk up to a stranger you admire and say hello. Ken works his way around the group of us, introducing the kid to his wife, his colleagues, another writer or two.
"And this is Julian," he says. "But I think you two might have already met."
This kicks off another round of manic laughter from the assembled crowd. "His work's not bad either."
Later that evening, I find myself wandering PAX around midnight, alone. I've left my dinner companions, and I should be heading to bed. My path takes me past the door to the main theater, where Paul and Storm are on the verge of surrendering the stage to geek-muse Jonathan Coulton. I wander in.
I'd had no intention of attending any of the concerts at PAX; I'm not much one for waiting in lines. But miraculously, there seems to be room at the Inn. I wander forward, unmolested, and grab what seems to be an empty seat 20 feet or so from the stage, as if it had been saved just for me in a crowd of thousands. A few feet to my right, I see the mayor of geektown, Wil Wheaton, screaming "Argh" on cue (it's a pirate song). Looking around me, I recognize half a dozen faces, make a few nods of recognition.
I don't know all of the music played during the next hour. It’s entertaining, because its being done by skilled performers. I know a few of the early Coulton songs from their appearance on Rock Band.
“This was a triump …”
The audience erupts, as Coulton begins the lilting guitar part for “Still Alive,” the closing credits song from Valve’s Portal. Around the room, people hold up phones and DS’s and PSP’s to fill the room with an eerie blue glow.
“I’m making a note here: Huge Success.”
By the second line, it’s nearly impossible to hear Coulton’s voice over the thousands singing in unison.
That’s when it hits me: I am at the nerd communion rail receiving an unexpected but entirely welcome sacrament.
It’s not the content of the song, or the delivery of Coulton, or even the simple madness of crowds which makes even the most inexpert concert a community experience. The sacrament is instead one of acknowledging and celebrating a shared context.
That which defines geekdom is often solitary. Portal is a single player game. Even the most grandiose of multiplayer games - World of Warcraft is most often played solo or in small groups. Football fans and Parrotheads and diligent Episcopalians and Marathon runners all have community as an inherent part of their activities. They need no reminders that they are part of something larger than themselves, which has a history and a narrative and will last long after they are gone.
I won’t get to PAX Prime this year. And who knows how often I’ll make it to PAX East or GenCon or ComiCon. But I left the theater that night comforted that such things will go on whether I am there or not, and when I can make the Hajj to those sacred places, I will always be welcomed as family.