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Andy IhnatkoWil Wheaton's Book Reviewed

by - October 29th, 2004



Today's mail brought two goodies: a CD containing a piece of software that I am very much not supposed to have, and my press copy of Wil Wheaton's proto-memoir, Just A Geek.

I've only read the first four chapters so far (greetings from the bakery cafe on Route One in Dedham, aka the "B" Venue for my weekly casual lunch away from the office), but I'm all ready to recommend it to people. It's the perfect thing to read over lunch, or while flying from one coast to the other. It's a thoughtful piece; Wheaton's tales of navigating the unsure waters between Snotty Kid and Responsible Grownup serve to remind me that Life = Experiences x Perspective.

Somewhere in the Ihnatko School Book Depository (aka Unit 399 at the Waltham E-Z-Stor) I've got a book by a former Disney animator which, a friend promised me, was a brilliantly entertaining story about what it was like to work at the Mouse House during Disney's golden age. I read the whole thing cover to cover (spurred on by memories of Chuck Jones' marvy-lous "Chuck Amuck") and it doesn't stick as one of the more pleasant incidents from my life. Slogging through this book was like being a kid at a family barbecue, and not being able to get away from the drunk and bitter uncle who insists that the only reason why he never amounted to anything was because they never caught a break, not one miserable, stinkin' break, in forty goddamn years of bustin' his or her hump for those brown-nosing bastards at the aluminum-siding plant.

In this world, there are no such beasts as Good Things and Bad Things. Stuff just happens, and in our own minds we fashion these events into victories and successes. Granted, when you win a quarter of a billion dollars in a multi-state lottery, it's hard to see the downside, but it's arrogant to conclude that the lottery chose you. The weekend weather guy pushed a button, four dozen balls bounced around in a hopper while he rattled off a few birthdays, and a minute later, a sequence of numbers was chosen and all of your most distant friends and relatives started putting you on speed-dial.

The animator was more than seventy years old when he wrote that book...and yet he had all the perspective of a twelve-year-old. You want to become a bitter seventy-year-old man? Here's the secret: you should never sit back and review the events of your life in a larger context. Never try to step twelve feet away from your body and see yourself as one unique component of a gloriously vast and complex system.

What I like about Wil's book is that he seemed to have picked up that lesson shortly after his thirtieth birthday. By then, he was an actor who'd seen a lot of successes and a few dry spells, and after taking a series of knocks, the fenders of his psychological bodywork were in major need of a little Bondo and re-painting. Over his previous two decades as a professional actor, he'd made good decisions and bad ones, in his estimation. He slowly grew to understand that some things were intractibly important and discovered that there were other parts of his life that he was holding onto largely out of force of habit. Somewhere in Southern California, that unnamed animator is still alive, bunkered with his greatest fetish: the care and maintenance of ancient grudges and disappointments. But Wil opted to just get on with it.

I should also mention that he's a terrific writer. There are some moments in the book where I wished he'd climb out of his own head for a while, but on the whole Wil the Author seems to understands that we're his readers, not his freakin' analyst.

So I'm telling you that "Just A Geek" is worth the 25 clams, though if you can arrange to become a fabulously popular international technology pundit and get these things for free, well, all the better.

I'll close by telling you about The Big Favor I Once Did For Wil Wheaton, chiefly because it puts the man in a highly-positive light. The first time we interacted in The Big Room (the one with the huge ceilings and the Giant Fiery Day-Ball) was last summer, when I was a speaker on the MacMania cruise and he was -- appropriately enough -- on board the ship with one foot in the Mac Geeks cruise, one foot in the concurrent Star Trek Geeks cruise, and a third foot, surgically installed specially for the occasion, in the Linux Geeks cruise.

I try not to be disappointed when I'm introduced to the meatware implementation of someone whom I've grown to like solely through their weblog writings. If someone writes like a sweet old grandmother beckoning to you from her porch swing with a pitcher full of lemonade and a tray of fresh toll house cookies, but who speaks to you like a member of the merchant marine who suspects that you've been sleeping with his wife, well, that's not his fault. Nobody's obligated to live up to the image that someone else has chosen to impose upon them. But I met Wil and he turned out to be one of those people that I instinctively like. Here was a man who clearly had found the Babel Fish at one point in his life, and if you understood that reference, dear reader, then you, too are precisely the sort of person whom I instinctively like.

So we hung out a bit. We were in the ship's Karaoke Lounge on a Thursday night with many of the people from all three cruises.

("It's a damned shame that the rest of the 2300 passengers on this ship have the unmitigated gall to just up and use the Karaoke lounge without even checking with us first," I had said, after my big presentation on Tuesday night. "I therefore suggest that in the ageless tradition of countless Western white men throughout history, we declare that the Lounge is incapable of self-government and then we annex it. Thursday night at around 8-ish, I'm guessing." The wisdom of this proclamation was self-evident and my proposal was quickly and unanimously ratified without debate from the floor.)

And there in the Lounge, after I delivered an enthusiastic (if variably on-key) rendition of "The Impossible Dream," I found Wil, literally backed against a wall, being badgered by a boor.

Folks, you're well aware that in the grand variety of humanity, there are some who are born without sight, hearing, or fashion sense. The most troubling specimens are those who lack that most crucial of components of the social software package: radar. They can't be faulted for pranging their bumpers into the cement barricades of civilized behavior. Most of us have some method of sensing that crucial moment when, through our words or actions, we are getting dangerously close to jackass behavior; we hear that little Beep and we back off before severe tire damage occurs.

The unfortunate remainder, alas, see Wil Wheaton, a former castmember of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" castmember, and they're genetically compelled to step right up and dive in with the Trekkie jokes. I can't remember what the Boor was saying exactly, but I know the type very well, being confronted by these specimens at least once a month. There are people who believe that if a man has purchased a hat and a pair of bitchin' sideburns then clearly, he's trying to look like (or actually is) John Popper...the increasingly-marginal lead singer and harmonica player for Blues Traveller.

"Do you play the harmonica?" a typical boor will ask me.

"No, actually," I'll say.

"I bet you get that a lot."

"Yeah, sort of."

"You know what you should do? You should get a harmonica. And when people say that, you should pull it out."


"I bet you could learn to play it, too. Do you like harmonicas? If you like harmonicas, you should learn to play one.""

"Hmm...?" At this point I'm wondering when the hell my dinner companion is going to arrive, and feeling an increasing need to (a) re-commit myself to the Golden Rule, and (b) stick her with the check for being ten minutes late and forcing me to smile and nod when any reasonable man would now be kicking this guy in the kneecaps.

You see what I mean. This person is either a total idiot, or they sense that I am the possessor of one of those ancient and refined souls, and that thus I need to hear the magic phrase "Your mother swims after troop ships" before I'll get enraged enough to administer the severe beating that was clearly justified thirty seconds into this sort of conversation.

Translate all of that into Trekkese, and you'll understand what Young Wheaton was facing. And he was enduring it like a champ. While I was loading fresh batteries into the Fist of Justice and making sure it was on the table where Wil could reach it, Wil was just smiling and chuckling indulgently.

The boor noticed that I was standing just a few feet away and he handed me a camera. "Could you take my picture with Wesley?" he asked. I waggled my eyebrows at Wil, employing the unspoken language between men (I actually used the "Can we get away with one more beer before wives and girlfriends start to suspect that we're not at the vet getting the cat's prescription filled?" waggle, but it sufficed), and upon receiving the proper countersign that sure, this was OK, I accepted the man's 35MM and told him that nothing would give me greater pleasure, honestly.

And a week or two later, the man got his prints back and pulled out a handsome 4x6 print of two anonymous men, shot from the neck down.

Thanks for the book, young geek.

digs the Mac, and has been writing about the Mac for longer than most of us could tell the difference between a bite of Apple Sauce from a byte of Apple code. You can read his monthly column at Macworld magazine, and his blog at the Colossal Waste of Bandwidth.

Andy's latest book is The Mac OS X Tiger Book (US$16.49 - Amazon).

You can send your comments directly to Andy, or you can also post your comments below.

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