Chapter Excerpt


About Being a Geek and a Dad

Once upon a time, the word geek was used to describe circusperformers. Then it evolved as a pejorative to describeawkward, skinny kids who got routinely thrown intoschool lockers by the high school football team. But these days, geekhas reinvented itself. This is the era of the geek. And geeks arecool.

There is some interchangeability between geek and nerd. Theyboth generally describe someone of restricted social ability whofinds enjoyment in pursuits outside the mainstream--pursuits likecomputers, role-playing games (RPGs), science fiction and fantasyliterature and movies, science and engineering, and so on--you getthe idea. But there is a key difference between the geek and thenerd.

One renowned geek dad (and honorary GeekDad), Wil Wheaton,describes it pretty simply: A geek is a self-aware nerd. It makes a lotof sense to me--I think geeks had those social issues growing upand liked all those things that weren't part of the popular culturein school, but we came to understand our nature and, in a veryKübler-Ross kind of way, moved past the self-limiting aspects ofnerdhood to a state of acceptance, and even enjoyment, of our placein the universe. Which, in a funny way, helped us take care of someof those social issues, because a lot of us ended up actually gettingmarried and having kids (which totally rocks!).

I think part of the current ascendancy of geeks in general, andGeekDads specifically, is that there are a lot more geeky womenthan people realize, and some of us geeky guys were smart enoughto recognize our own kind and attempt to mate and perpetuate thesubspecies.

But before I get too far along, let me point out something important:Geeks aren't just about the computers and the D&D and thepassion for anime and comic books. There's a whole lot more outthere that people get passionate about, even mildly obsessive about,that can qualify them as geeks. If you're so passionate about somethingthat you're not just good at it but can lose yourself doing it forlong periods of time (often to your social detriment), you may be ageek. If you carry encyclopedic knowledge about a topic and willjoyfully use it to act as the pedant whenever the subject is beingdiscussed, you may be a geek. If you have a room in your house devotedto a hobby that other family members avoid talking about,you may indeed be a geek. I'm not talking about "experts" or"professionals"--I'm talking about the real deal. Here are some examples:

So, what are the factors that make up the geek? I'd like to positthat the geek is a combination of common personality factors thatwe see in all sorts of people. Indeed, these factors taken aloneor only in pairs may lead to less desirable characters. See, for example,the Venn diagram below (talk about geeky!), where I've describedthe possible combinations of key personality factors thatmake up the geek, and its associated stereotypes: Knowledgeability,Obsessiveness, and Social Skills.

Knowledgeability represents having significant stored informationwith easy recall. That knowledge may be broad and relativelyshallow--the know-it-all--or itmay cover only a few topics butbe deep and profound--the expert/problem solver.

Obsessiveness is a person'sability to lose himself in somethinghe has a passion for. Commonsymptoms include losingtrack of time while coding HTML/CSS or staying up until four finish Portal because you hadto earn watching the final credits(and hearing that awesome JonathanCoulton song).

Social Skills can mean a lot ofthings, not all of which are aboutbeing "popular," which geeks and nerds always feel they neverwere in their formative years. But geeks do at least have enoughpresence and personality to form lasting relationships, which helpsdifferentiate them.

So first, it's easy to tag all the stand-alones: Dorks are the peoplewho are obsessive without the introspection to recognize it in themselvesor how it could affect others. Dweebs know everything butcan't apply or express themselves. Goobers are good-natured butlazy idiots--no one minds them, but they aren't much use.

It starts to get interesting when you begin combining the traits.The classic nerd has knowledge/intelligence AND the obsessive naturethat produces results. You can't expect them to carry on conversationsthat won't lose a non-nerd audience--they would talkyour ear off about something as nerdy as the exciting application ofquantum theory on the flow of mold over a piece of cheese, but setthem to work on a project without distraction, and you'll be able tomine the results for pure gold (especially if it has to do with Worldof Warcraft and, you know, gold mining).

The twit--well, I suppose there are other names for this person,probably a lot of regional variations--but the twit combines obsessivenessand social skills into a double-edged sword. This could bethat sales guy who can talk up a storm but who really doesn't knowsquat, or it could be the diligent hard worker everyone likes butwho really just doesn't get it.

And then there's the gadfly. He's smart and he gets invited toparties, but he's lazy. Or worse, he's intellectually smart but emotionallyignorant, and doesn't care. He's the one most likely to bethe pedant in any gathering, and he probably uses people to get thework done he finds beneath him.

Of course those are extremes, and there are perfectly lovely,functional people who fall into those categories; but they're not theones we're here to talk about. In the sweet spot, right there in themiddle, is the tripartite synergy that creates the geek. The mixtureof knowledge (about comic books, particle physics, or the works ofMozart), obsessiveness (they'll sit in front of a computer or a workbenchfor hours perfecting, building, or playing anything), and socialskills (they actually get together with people for pen-and-paperRPGs or get in line with a bunch of friends to see the midnightshowing of the next Star Trek movie), that makes a well-rounded,self-sustaining person of affable oddity.

Now maybe weigh it just slightly toward the social skill set, andyou have someone who can actually get a date, find a mate, get married,and procreate. That, in a nutshell, is how a GeekDad comesinto being. The conditions need to continue to be favorable--isthere support at home for ongoing geekiness? Will infecting thechild(ren) be allowed? How many times will the wife feign a chucklewhen you lift your little tyke and in a deep voice intone, "Luke, Iam your father" (knowing it's a misquote) before it gets old? Howmany jokes about containment breaches will be tolerated at diaperchangingtime?

It helps immeasurably when your mate is a geek, too (but that'sanother book). I've been lucky enough to have that situation in mymarriage. In fact, not only have my little quirks been tolerated, butsome of them have actually been encouraged. And in return, I encourageback. I mean, how many men can say their wives wanted atrip to a science fiction convention for their anniversary? I'm onelucky man.

But the best part is getting to share with my kids, share thegeeky things that informed my childhood and continue to informmy existence: Star Wars, Star Trek, math, science, reading, writing,music, computers and video games, movies and television. I can'ttell you the joy of having my kids get into Doctor Who and comicbooks and Lord of the Rings, and then talking with them about theimportant aspects of the stories and watching them just soak it up.I lived through the school years as a breed apart (though I hadgood friends who were geeks, too), so it makes me feel great to beable to inform and guide my kids through the social aspects, andthe occasional challenges, of growing up as a geek. All parents wantto protect their kids, but I like to think the best protection I canoffer them is to help them understand what will happen, why, andhow to best deal with it. I want them to know that different isn'tbad, and that being intelligent and inquisitive is something to beproud of.

Indeed, that's what being a GeekDad really means for me. For allour personality quirks and interests in pursuits that are outside themainstream (or at least interests more technical than is usually palatablefor the mainstream), we're all about understanding, and communicating,and connecting with others by sharing what we loveand helping others to grok it as well. Of course there's a biologicalimperative to have kids and raise them to survive and thrive, butwe want them to be happy, too--whatever happiness may mean tothem.

I'll encourage my kids to love what I do, but I won't force it onthem, and when they want to try something different, I'm happy tolet them just as long as they come at it like a geek: They should beknowledgeable about it, be a little obsessive about it, and get alongwith the other people who are doing it. That's what all the greatestgeeks do.

Geeky Projects for Dads and Kids to Share

Most "parenting" books aren't about things you can do with yourkids. Most are about things to do to your kids, tricks and tactics fortweaking their behavior in some desired manner usually at oddswith what kids really want: to play, and spend real quality timewith you.

I'm not saying all those books are bad. Some of them do try toreinforce the idea of spending quality time (though I'd really like tofind a new phrase to replace quality time) with your kids. This bookhas the same goal of those others: to help you share time with yourkids in their formative years in constructive, educational ways,without making that time seem as if it's supposed to be constructiveor educational (not always easy). The difference here is thatfrom a geek's perspective, constructive and educational may notmean what all those other books think it means. Here's what makesour approach different:

- Geeks like games that require a fantastic imagination.

- Geeks love science and knowing how things work. Experimentation is the best way to learn those things. If things go"boom" in the process, all the better.

- Geeks love finding interesting, ,, creative solutions for problemsthat could be solved in a more mundane fashion.

- Geeks love to play, but in playing, to build and learn aswell.

There is a plethora of projects included here about an eclecticarray of subjects, from board games to electronics, crafts to coding.But I'm not here to tell you exactly what to do. The instructions aremeant give you a structure to start your adventure with your kids.Each of these projects will allow for extensive customization andpersonalization. Indeed, what I have in my workshop and availableat the hardware store in my town may be rather different from whatyou have. So I expect you to improvise, adapt, and even (quitelikely) improve on these projects.

Project Information

At the start of each project, you'll see a table with summary informationto give you an idea what to expect from it, and there aresome symbols not unlike what you see in a restaurant or hotel reviewto explain cost and difficulty. Here's a legend to explain theirmeaning.

One thing you'll notice as you go through the projects in thisbook is that they are not long, costly, or overly difficult and involvedprojects that take too much work before paying off in thefun department. If you and your kid have the kind of patience andgeeky determination to spend days/weeks/months on a project,then let me suggest you take up painting Warhammer armies ormapping the visible sky in your area with a telescope you builtfrom scratch.

It's not that I don't have respect for folks that do that kind ofthing! On the contrary, they are the epitome of geekhood, and I amnot worthy to clean their brushes or polish their lenses. I just don'thave that kind of time or energy. I want to do something fun withmy kids NOW (or at least in the few minutes to couple of hours ittakes to complete any project in this book). So you'll find that themost important common features all these projects have is that theyare accessible, affordable, and truly buildable for just about anyonewith an ounce of geek in them.

Okay, it's time. Go get your kid(s) and get started!

Excerpted from Geek Dad: Awesomely Geeky Projects and Activities for Dads and Kids to Share by Ken Denmead
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.