Hanging out with Texas Hobbit and Lembas Junkie - (Published originally in [i]She[/i] magazine
If you've been reading the articles I've submitted to She in the last year, you probably have begun to suspect that I have deep and abiding roots in geekdom, but I know with this article I will fully "out" myself as a geek, because when Melia set the topic of connections the first thing I thought of was my virtual connections, my friends on the internet message boards. I know for many of us the idea of having virtual friendships conjures up images of pedophiles lurking in teenage chat rooms, but most of the people I've met on the boards are no more harmless than I am (you may take that to mean whatever you wish). What is both scary and beautiful about message boarding is that you have no idea how to categorize the person you are talking to--you don't know if she is young or old, rich or poor, local or foreign, white or black or neither. And, if this person has chosen a non-specific gender screen name, you don't know if she is even a she at all. It can be the purest form of communication, and the most deceptive, and that's what makes it so much fun. Inhibitions go by the wayside when no one knows who you are.
I began my message boarding after I saw Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. You may find this hard to believe, but there is no one in Marion that likes that movie as much as I did--even the teenage boys who thought the movie was cool would politely begin to edge away after a few minutes of discussion on the name of Gandalf's sword or why Galadriel suddenly went radioactive--and so I began casting about on the internet to find out what I could about the movie and its sequels. I started with the Official Site, and then moved through Ringbearer and BagendInn and The One Ring, which was the best site for up-to-date information and spoilers concerning the sequels, but my favorite message boards are on TolkienOnline.
For the uninitiated, let me explain. Message boards are those areas of websites where the general public can post comments they've written on the topics at hand. These topics are called threads, and once a user has registered with the board (a free service on most boards, unless you want to be a premium member, which usually means you can put pictures in your signature box) she can post. Although sometimes individual users will be on line at the same time, the boards aren't chat rooms, which have their own brand of shortcut language, but are more like post offices, where letters are exchanged in a way they haven't been since the old days of the penny post and before the invention of the telephone.
Because our connections are made only with our words (and the odd signature picture), to me these message boards provide a pure form of communication. No one is prejudged before he writes, because the readers don't know who the writer is. In TolkienOnline, the topics vary from philosophy to role playing to gaming to Tolkien's writings to elvish lessons, but I find myself most often in the Movies section, responding to and writing posts both serious and silly. One of my favorite threads is Teremia's "Movies Reads the Books," where we reexamine the books in light of the movies. There are threads on Tolkien's Moral Universe and the parallelism found in all three movies and whether or not Elijah Wood was the proper choice for Frodo. Another favorite thread was the delightfully playful examination of Aragorn's and Lurtz' battle in FOTR in Freudian terms--we had stepped just a tad too far on the edge of naughty when a little under-aged angel wandered in to play. The moderator came and whisked her away before she came to harm.
Many of the threads were dedicated to spoilers--attempts to find out information about the sequels before they hit the theatres, and I must say we were far more up to date than the official sites and light years ahead of the Internet Movie Database. We had pictures of Saruman's impaling before the first movie ever came out, and when it leaked that Arwen was going to make a Xena-like appearance at Helm's Deep, we protested so strongly that Jackson cut the sequences from The Two Towers. From links provided by individual posters at TolkienOnline, I was able to download an early trailer for Return of the King from a Czech website, and when I showed it to my teenage neighbor, he looked at me with the cautious eyes that the sane reserve for the insane, or at least the seriously dweeby. Marty, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, became the hero of the boards in the fall of 2003 because he saw an early screening of Return of the King and started a question and answer spoiler thread where he would give cryptic answers to any of our questions without trying to give away too much at once. Trying to figure out the right question to ask was half the fun. Many of us promised to bear his children in gratitude, although according to Marty we all broke our promises.
We also play with our signature pictures, having theme months like "Evil Minion Month" and "When Movies Collide Month" and "Product Placement Month," the last of which had a laundry ad featuring Gandalf the Grey and Gandalf the White, all created with Photoshop, of course. The ultimate signature picture play occurs in the yearly Man of Middle Earth Pageant (known as MOME), where board members host different characters, including not only the likely male candidates (Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas) but the unlikely as well (the Nazgul, Bill the Pony, Lurtz) and have them participate in evening wear, swimwear and western wear competitions, while other posters participate in role play. These are silly to the extreme, with the Frodo Fangirls usually storming the session (most of the "girls," by the way, are middle-aged women who have been swooning for Frodo the character since the 1970s) and creating absolute havoc.
On rare occasion we "come out" in our signature pictures, putting actual pictures of ourselves on the boards, sometimes with an actor from the films (the hobbits are generally the most likely to pose with fans, but I've also seen occasional Elves--not Orlando Bloom--and wizards and dwarves and plenty of third orcs from the right). Then I'm usually surprised at how normal we all look, and diverse. Male and female, young and old, of every race and from quite a few countries (Sweden, Australia, Great Britain, and the United States, of course, although I'm the only one from South Carolina that I've seen). But through posting, we've become a community. We comment if we haven't heard from one of our group in a while, and every time a hurricane roars up the coastline I get concerned PMs (private messages). I received several after Katrina hit New Orleans, because it seems Americans aren't the only ones who stink at geography, but I was touched at everyone's thoughtfulness. When RL (real life) issues enter the board, we are quick to console each other and pray for each other and give comfort to each other, and even if I may not be sure exactly what Nazguls-R-Us and Lembas-Junkie and Texas-Hobbit look like, I've been touched by their concern. I read their fan fiction (Mechtild's is the best) and examine their fan art (Whiteling's is magnificent) and visit their websites (TGShaw's screen capping skills are miraculous) and log on to their LJ's (Live journals, which I'm far too private ever to do).
As the excitement from the movies has waned, I only check in now and then, but the community is still there, spending its time watching upcoming projects of LOTR actors and spreading news of Peter Jackson's King Kong. I know a day will come when I'll realize I haven't posted in over a month, and then another day will come when I won't check my message board e-mails, but until then I enjoy this community. For someone like me who lives in a small town and basically has only the moms of my kids' friends as my friends, it's wonderful to have access to a community of people as weird as me at my fingertips. They may be virtual connections, but they are still connections, and in some sense they are realer than real.
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