Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy 2012!

Although penmanship has never been a strength of mine, I'm having fun playing around with handwriting styles and my new Parker Urban fountain pen, a post-Christmas gift from my husband.  The calendar page is from a desk calendar he found at an antique mall.  Since 1960 was a leap year, too, it seems appropriate. 

I've been working on a post about my efforts with Spencerian Business Script, shown above, and what led me to this uncharacteristic new interest.  However, I've been thoroughly enjoying time with family, friends, and books these past two weeks, so it's not quite ready.  I very much doubt that pencasting is anywhere in my near future, but I'm finding that as I get older, I'm more open to trying things that don't come easily to me.

I hope 2012 finds you and your loved ones well and happy.  I've enjoyed dipping my toe into the blogosphere (Thanks, Dwayne, for encouraging me!) and am looking forward to reading your posts in the year ahead!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Have yourself a nerdy little Christmas!

This year, at House Full of Nerds, we don't have our usual Christmas tree.  It's a long story involving a load of bamboo flooring and several robots.  We've had to get a bit creative with our decorations, so the Nerd in Chief has strung an X of fishing line high in our dining room and hung ornaments on it, so they appear to be floating in space, "like at Hogwarts!" as my younger daughter says.

Hanging the ornaments this high was also our solution when we had a cat who loved to climb the Christmas tree.

Even with the cool dining room decorations, my girls and I were bummed out about having to forgo the ritual of setting up and decorating our tree, an artificial one we've had for more than 20 years.  Over that time, we've accumulated an eclectic assortment of ornaments, many purchased at bargain prices the week after Christmas.  Our favorites include poor Captain Pike from Star Trek TOS, and a clear plastic ball trimmed with gold-tinted cardboard, reflecting the rationing during World War II, when my mom acquired it.

Claire solved the "no tree" problem when she dug out a table-top Christmas tree.  Her older sister got it at a white elephant gift exchange last year and promptly passed along to her.  "I decorated it with Mardi Gras beads!" she said triumphantly.  I added a couple of bells I'd found in a drawer, having forgotten to put them away the previous year, and we put the tree in the living room with some of our many robots.  It's festive, the perfect focal point for gifts, and small enough to be whisked away easily when it's time to install the flooring.

Godzilla and the robots are making sure no one peeks too closely at the presents.

With the tree situation resolved, I was pleased to discover that the remaining essential elements of my family's Christmas celebration were in a single box in the garage:  Our stockings, the Nativity set that goes on our mantle, the Advent wreath, and the Christmas Squirrel. 

The Christmas Squirrel is a relatively recent tradition, introduced to us by my best friend, Adela:  "Remember when you were a kid, and you would get stuff like underwear and tube socks in your stocking?"


"Well, Santa wouldn't do that to you.  That was the Christmas Squirrel."

Yes, those are tube socks in his little paws!
 Why a squirrel?  Since my kids read my blog sometimes, I won't go into the creature's unsettling origins.  Anyway, the adorable stuffed animal Adela fitted with a hand-made Santa hat and coat is so disarmingly cheery that it's been easy for our family to accept it as a well-intentioned provider of necessary if boring footwear.  Its exact origins don't really matter.  Hmm... I don't think that's the first time I've made that argument at this time of year.  I'd better quit before I get too metaphysical.  I hope this finds you and your loved ones happy and healthy, and if you celebrate Christmas, I hope it's a good one!

Please note that all photos are by Dwayne, aka the Nerd in Chief. He can be found at

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Nerd Roots

Argh, an extended absence and now a blank slate.  It's like writing my first post all over again.  I'm still trying to catch up after spending ten days around Thanksgiving at my parents' house in Arizona.  I went because my mom had knee replacement surgery (actually a "revision," I learned, since the surgeon was replacing an old artificial knee).  Mom needed a couple of extra days in the hospital, so I got to spend a lot of time with my dad, which got me thinking about my nerdy origins.
My dad never watched "Star Trek" or read Arthur C. Clark novels, but I trace my nerd-dom directly to him.  He had a cool Lego gear set that I envied (this was back when Legos were just colorful bricks).  It was his toy, not mine - he'd owned it before I was born and I'm his first child. We moved several times when I was growing up and each place we lived, we were the only family in our neighborhood with a compost pile.  Even at the retirement home where he and my mom live now, my dad saves banana peels and coffee grounds for the petunias.  I'm not sure whether the nerdiest thing my dad has done was teaching himself to knit so he wouldn't get bored on business trips (this was way pre-9/11) or spending a week studying soybeans at the University of Illinois (my mom will point out that this was when they were serving on our church's Hunger Action Committee, but he's been both an unapologetic meat-eater and a soybean enthusiast for as long as I've known him).  It is from him that I get my tendency to pick objects up with my toes, my preference for solitude over socializing, and my suspicion towards whatever the latest craze happens to be.

One of the things I admire most about my dad is his blatant disregard for what everyone else will think. Even as a teenager, I got a kick out of telling people that my dad had knit the sweater I was wearing, although I did slink down in the passenger seat of our Travel-All so I'd be out of sight when he stopped on a particularly tree-lined street to steal bags of leaves for his compost pile.  For the most part, though, it's hard to think of a time when I haven't appreciated his uniqueness and resourcefulness:  We had the coolest swing set in the neighborhood, made from an I-beam supported by 12-foot steel legs, because a store-bought piece of junk wasn't safe enough (or good enough) for his kids.  He made sourdough pancakes and bread from starter he'd had since 1964.  And when the antenna snapped off of my first radio because I threw it down in a fit of anger, he skipped the lecture and fixed it with a thick piece of copper he just happened to have lying around.

Either my appreciation of parental eccentricities is a family trait or my children aren't yet old enough to have outgrown it.  My fourteen-year-old recently told me she doesn't miss watching TV, and neither she nor my eleven-year-old have any qualms about taking weird leftovers to school for lunch; in fact my older daughter enjoys grossing out her friends.  When my parents visit, my eleven-year-old enjoys the four mile round-trip walk to the grocery store with my dad, and fondly remembers the time they walked home in the rain.  She maintains that they would have been just fine if I hadn't shown up with the car to rescue them.  My fourteen-year-old looks forward to the violin-viola duets she and my dad play because "it's nice to play with someone else who really cares about how they sound."  While they only barely tolerate my dad's puns, they both appreciate his kindness and positive outlook on life, which although not exclusively nerdy traits, may partly explain why my mom has put up with my dad's quirks so willingly for the past 48 years.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Thing Under the Bed

Saturday night, I was reading in bed, something I increasingly find I have to do in order to fall asleep.  I had re-read the same paragraph for the third time and considering calling it a night when the mattress beneath my feet moved.  The movement was accompanied by a thumping sound, as if something were under the bed.  I froze, as I often do in nightmares when I'm unable even to speak, let alone jerk away and escape.  What was it?  I tried to rationalize myself out of my panic.  Even if ghosts were real, which they're not, I told myself, no ghost in its right mind would wait over 13 years to make its presence known.  

The movement and thumping continued as I worked my way down my mental checklist of what couldn't be causing it:  An animal?  It sure sounded like one, but how big would an animal have to be to be felt through the box springs and mattress, and how could one have gotten into the house?  Even though I knew it wasn't an animal, I reacted as if it were - by kicking the mattress where it was moving.  I was rewarded when the motion and noise stopped, about half a minute or so after it had begun.

I lay there, my heart pounding.  I didn't dare get out of bed - not because I thought there was anything more nefarious than boxes of too-small sweaters underneath, because that would be crazy, but I couldn't make myself dangle a foot over the edge, let alone get up.  I wanted to call out for my husband but didn't for fear of waking my daughters and - more importantly - looking like a fool.  It was all too easy to picture his patient, indulgent smile as he reassured me that I couldn't possibly have felt anything and that he'd take a look at the flap over the drier vent sometime soon.  Instead, I turned my cell phone back on, in case whatever it was returned and I needed to summon him immediately.  I moved to the center of the bed, away from the spot where the Thing had attacked, opened my book, and tried to concentrate.  It was a long time before I turned off the light.

The following morning, when I read about the late-night earthquake near Oklahoma City, I felt relieved ("Oh, not an animal, just an earthquake!") and vindicated ("I'm not crazy!").  My husband, who'd been in the basement at the time, had felt a vibration and heard a noise like our front-loading washing machine on spin cycle but hadn't let it trouble him beyond a fleeting "that's odd."  Both my daughters had slept through it, much to my fourteen-year-old's disappointment.  In our sun-lit dining room, around our cluttered table, it was easy to make light of the fear I'd felt the night before and my illogical solution to the bed's shaking.

It was even easier to joke about it the following day when a coworker and I regaled our fellows with tales of the big quake - none of them had noticed it.  "It was like someone was under my bed, banging on it," my coworker said.  

"Yeah, exactly," I agreed.  

"When it stopped, I ran into Carter's room to make sure he was okay."

Oops.  Does this mean I'm a bad mom?  I'm no Sarah Conner, but I like to think I'd fight to the death to keep my children from harm.  Then a little bump under the bed unnerves me so much I can barely move.  Having spent most of my life in Kansas, the thought that I was experiencing an earthquake never crossed my mind, but neither did the thought that I should check on my kids - do I get bonus points for not wanting to wake them, at least?  I reassured myself with the thought that I wasn't a bad mom, we're just raising our children to be self-sufficient. 

My eleven-year-old, for the past two evenings, has taken great pleasure in saying things like, "Watch out for 'animals'" or "Don't let the thing under the bed bite" when I'm tucking her in.  Worse, she says this with a completely earnest face and just a hint of snark.  I love being the butt of an eleven-year-old's jokes.  Maybe we've raised them to be too self-sufficient... I'll see if I can go convince my husband to help me give her bed a few quick shakes.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ribbons and Saints

Warning:  This is not a particularly nerdy post.

Several weeks ago, I received three dusty boxes of ribbon and bows from my father-in-law, who was widowed for a second time last February.  Unlike my late mother-in-law, I am merely adequate when it comes to wrapping gifts - when I can't find an appropriate gift bag to re-use, I'll drag out our one roll of birthday paper (currently a unisex blue striped pattern) or choose from one of several jumbo rolls of Christmas paper we've had since our children were in preschool.  I don't mind the wrapping process and can usually get the corners nice and square, but rarely embellish beyond a hastily scrawled: "To _, From Mama and Daddy" or a bow recycled from a more conscientious wrapper - until recently, usually my mother-in-law, Vernilea.  

I tell myself I'm being "green" by not bothering with ribbon, but my laziness may also have something to do with it.  So when my father-in-law offered me three boxes of ribbon and bows, I wasn't about to refuse - how much greener can you get than rescuing stuff from a landfill, or at least using it once before sending it there?  And even someone as lazy as I am can retrieve a roll of ribbon and a matching bow from the basement.

Admittedly, when Don handed over the boxes, I felt disappointed and a bit overwhelmed.  There were several little plastic spools of ribbon like you buy at Target, but mostly there were cardboard reels 8 1/2 " in diameter, each originally holding 250 yards' worth - probably enough for me to host a neighborhood Maypole dance every year until my 11-year-old graduates from high school!  
All photos courtesy of the Nerd in Chief.  He can make anything look good!
Adding to my ribbon angst was the uncharacteristic dustiness of the boxes and their contents.  Vernilea and I weren't quite polar opposites when it comes to housekeeping, but she was at the far right end of the tidiness Bell curve, while I am at least one standard deviation (maybe two) left of center.  Receiving something dusty from my mother-in-law just felt wrong, so I did what I always do with items I can't immediately face - I piled two of the boxes at the far end of our dining table, set the third one under the kitchen table, and refused to make eye contact with them.

On Thursday I finally forced myself to sort through the ribbon - maybe because it seemed preferable to cleaning out the freezer.  I found a box of glittery pine cones and ornaments that cheered me right away, reminding me of Vernilea's elaborate bow arrangements on Christmas gifts.  I dusted the spools and reluctantly threw out stuff that was too faded or that I knew I'd never use, including gummed gift tags so forlorn they could only have come from a solicitation for a charitable organization.  At the bottom of one box, I found four gold gift tags that were heavy when I picked them up.  I realized they were thin metal Christmas tree ornaments like the ones my husband's parents had given him as a child - how cool that Vernilea's family had gotten the same kind!  Then I examined the first one and found my brother-in-law's name, Michael, and the date1978.  The next two were dated 1979, one for my husband and one for his brother.  The last one bore the name of my first mother-in-law, Margaret, mother to my husband and his brother Michael. 

We're lucky to live in a community where both All Saints Day and Dia de los Muerto are celebrated.  Tomorrow, when we go to a Dia de los Muertos celebration at our local art museum, we'll take this photo to put on the altar in honor of both my mothers-in-law, Vernilea and Margaret.  The two of them couldn't have been more different from each other, but a love of Christmas and gift-giving was one thing they shared.

Monday, October 31, 2011


Over the weekend, my daughters and I got our first taste of Quidditch played by Muggles.  Curious as to how a game that's supposed to be played by wizards on broomstick would look when played by the non-magical, we went to a demo by the University of Kansas's Quidditch team (  We found a spot on the sidelines and watched while while sipping butterbeer and clutching our newly-purchased "Kansas Quidditch" t-shirts.  (Now my eleven-year-old will have something other than her Godzilla shirt to wear on "favorite sports team" day at school!) 

Picturing a bunch of college kids willingly running around holding brooms between their legs, throwing a Quaffle (volleyball) through hoops to score points, and trying to hit each other with a Bludger (dodge ball) wasn't much of a stretch for my daughters and me (we are nerds, after all), but we were wondering how on earth they would manage to re-create the Snitch, the elusive, flying golden ball whose catching automatically ends a Quidditch game.  We figured a robotic Snitch could be programmed to fly within certain parameters easily enough, but doubted something that delicate would be able to withstand being snatched forcefully from the air.  Our question was partially answered when we heard a triumphant yell and saw a girl waving a tube sock with a tennis ball shoved into its toe - okay, so that must be the Snitch, but where had it come from?  Our attention had been elsewhere on the field.  Shortly after the next game started, a guy in a yellow shirt sprinted into the crowd and past us, pursued by one of the Seekers.  It turns out he was the Snitch, and the sock was tucked into the waistband of his shorts. The next time we saw him, he was on the other side of the alleyway where the game was being played, apparently having run halfway around the block to get there.

After the girls and I reluctantly left the Quidditch players and made our way to the car, we rehashed our favorite things about what we'd seen.  True, it had been exciting to see college athletes play a sport created for a series of books about a wizard, and we all loved that it was co-ed, just like in the Harry Potter books.  Seeing KU's players teach the game to younger kids, many in Harry Potter garb, had also been inspiring.  However, the coolest thing for all of us was seeing the infinite resourcefulness of Muggles put to good use.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Welcome to "House Full of Nerds," a blog about living in a family with diverse and quirky interests.  Like many blogs, it may evolve over time, as this is the first time I've attempted such a thing.

In my family, "nerd" is a positive self-identifier.  My kids are so used to this that they are genuinely surprised when others' mental pictures of "nerds" are not as favorable, such as when my older daughter's Girl Scout troop wrote skits about stereotyping and the other girls who were portraying "nerds" showed up with thick glasses and out-of-date clothing.  My daughter's solution was to loudly refuse to use the "nerd" props, correctly insisting that "I'm a nerd and I don't dress like that!"  (The other troop leader and I tried to be more tactful, pointing out that since the intent of the skit was to teach younger girls not to stereotype, having the "nerds" look awkward and out of step was self-defeating.)

Admittedly, when I was my daughters' ages, I was more of a stereotypical nerd, at least somewhat fitting the first part of Merriam-Webster's definition of the word: "an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person."  I like to say I fit the second part of the definition more accurately: "one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits," but it wasn't until around eighth grade when I finally began to embrace my nerd nature - I realized that wearing the same clothes and makeup as the other girls and having hair that obediently feathered wouldn't cause me to fit in any more effectively, so I might as well give it up and be who I was.

While neither of my daughters have ever been unattractive or socially inept, devotion to intellectual and academic pursuits are a big part of their lives, which is evident in my older daughter's definition of nerd:  "a person who's smarter than the average dingo and who's not afraid to show it" (I was almost afraid to ask for her definition of dingo - it turns out it's the correct definition, but also a term she and some of her friends use when implying that someone is acting like an idiot.)  This is the child who used to entertain herself on Saturday mornings by writing facts about foxes gleaned from her Animal Encylcopedia (Hey, as long as she let Mommy and Daddy sleep in, no problem!).  Now fourteen, she balances high achievement in academics and the violin with a love of clothing and make-up.  My eleven-year-old's more cryptic definition is "someone who isn't all defensive if they're called a nerd and is awesome."  She observed her school's "favorite sports team" day recently by wearing a Godzilla shirt and likes to draw comics and build junk robots with her dad in her spare time.  

Neither my husband nor I are as quick to define "nerd" as our offspring, probably because of the way the definition has evolved since our youth (get a clue, Merriam-Webster!).  Quick to master all things mechanical and technical, my husband was an early computer nerd who spent his teen years in the country and took me target shooting on one of our first dates.  His acquisition of junk for robot parts has recently evolved into a fascination with typewriters.  I try hard to understand his explanations of technology, but my eyes glaze over and my thoughts wander to the NY Times crossword puzzle I'm completing (Thank you, Will Shortz!) or the book (yes, a physical book with pages that turn) I'm reading.  My tastes run to biographies and history, especially history of medical or public health issues, but I enjoy a good novel, with Star Trek fan fiction being an occasional guilty pleasure.

Several years ago, I struggled to complete a beginning-of-year survey my younger daughter's teacher had given to parents:  "What does your family enjoy doing together?"  "Uh... we like to make fun of Mark Trail comics and talk about what we read in the newspaper...?"  I ended up saying something about hiking together (still true,  but now we have less time for that), going to museums (also true), and having the occasional family movie night (which we still do, but now it's Star Trek movies or "Galaxy Quest" instead of the latest Pixar offering, unless our girls are feeling nostalgic).  

At moments of extreme nerdiness, such as pointing out a continuity problem in a Star Trek episode, we congratulate each other with the "nerd salute," invented by my brother-in-law (a shout-out to Michael!). This involves using one's index finger to push one's glasses up onto the bridge of the nose with a self-satisfied smirk.  Being the only family member with perfect vision, my younger daughter felt left out until her sister got contacts; now they both have to push up imaginary glasses.  The thing I love best about the nerd salute is that my friends who are nerds "get it" immediately and some of them have started using it, too.  So perhaps it's unnecessary to define "nerd" because, like pornography, we can recognize it when we see it.