The Old Nerd on the Porch

Some reflections on life at 40.

The Old Nerd on the Porch

I turned 40 last fall. The day was rife with all the austere deflections of aging and folks trying to convince me that 40 was a meaningless milestone. But it also gave me pause in some unexpected ways. I don’t think I was hung up about mortality, though I did look at the thousands of comics in my basement and lament, “What even is this nerdy life?”

More than the threat of death, turning 40 pointed me toward a contemplation of beauty.

For my second collection of poems, I tried to write about beauty in some conventional and unconventional ways. There are poems in the manuscript about the giant mall called the Galleria in Houston, Texas, where I grew up. There are poems about the wonderful kitsch of Ocean City, Maryland, and trying to form traditions as a parent (a shout-out to the healing bonds of mini-golf).

But I also was trying to think through what beauty looks like as a kind of Black interiority. Whether you are a comic nerd, a theater nerd, or a poetry nerd, everyone ages into various questions that you realize will not be resolved in the life you have left. For me, those questions involve how much healing has or has not been done to my sense of beauty as I age.

Some pop-cultural objects seem preserved in a kind of loose amber of nostalgia and aesthetics. “Batman: The Animated Series” has only grown more and more gorgeous to my eye and ear as time has gone on. The somewhat recent news of Kevin Conroy dying was more disquieting than I thought it would be. Conroy, for many folks, is the voice of Batman, forever and ever, amen.

I’ve thought a great deal about what is lost when we lose a poet — all that they might have done to the language becomes speculation — but not so much about how it would feel to never hear Conroy play Batman again. What was lost was that belief that, somehow, the beauty of his voice would (like the caped crusader himself) live forever. And in many ways it will because of the show’s presence in pop culture, but maybe the sadness is that now the amber must harden a bit more and won’t ever be as loose again. The beauty of admiration and preservation may be two different kinds of beauty.

So, in the end, perhaps I am concerned about mortality — and not just my own. I grew up in the young-death 1990s, when, during every year of middle school, we lost an iconic American musician. One year, it was Kurt Cobain, and all the white kids were crying. Another year, it was Selena, and all the Latinx kids were bawling. Still another year, it was Biggie and Tupac, and all the Black kids were inconsolable.

Now that I’ve reached an age where Nichelle Nichols can no longer open the communication frequencies, and the Black Panther had to yield to colon cancer, I’m wondering what will become of the beautiful nerdiness that occupies the walls and basements of one’s heart. Will I think it all silliness — a banal salve to stave off loneliness? Will I become the bitter old man on the metaphorical porch, yelling about “back in my day”? Will some unlooked-for comic or cartoon keep my heart young? I am unsure.  

One thing I can say is that I’m grateful to have lived long enough to see the word “nerd” take on a more human shape in our culture. Never before has there been such an absurdity of riches in terms of comic-book media, anime, and toys. And no one needs to suffer to be a part of it.

Steven Leyva’s poetry collection is The Understudy’s Handbook.

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