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My Life as a Geek: Defining Moments

My latest from the Stanford Alumni blog…

My Life as a Geek: Defining Moments

Just this week, the United States National Science Foundation released its annual report listing the “geekiest cities in America.” The findings were less than surprising. Hello, San Francisco! Great to see you, San Mateo! How’s the weather, Boston? A few dark horses threw themselves in here and there (Nice to meet you, Destin, Florida!), but for the most part the so-called “geekiest” cities were just about where you’d expect them to be. What was surprising about the report was the definition of “geek” as detailed by the Foundation. According to them, a geek is “any worker with a bachelor’s level of knowledge and education in science or engineering-related fields or workers in occupations that require some degree of technical knowledge or training.” Now, granted, this definition of geek works specifically within the parameters of the Foundation itself and is meant more as a broad term for those engaged in the technical or scientific professions. But then are they really geeks? Aren’t they, to put it in Stanford terms, just “techies”? Perhaps I’m dating myself but “techies” and “fuzzies” were the two factions during my tenure at Stanford and I was just about the fuzziest person ever to walk the hallowed halls of the Farm. (My unfortunate perm and untamed eyebrows didn’t help..) But despite how you fell on the techie/fuzzy spectrum, you could still be a geek.

I’m a geek. Not a technical, scientific, Destin, Floridian geek, but a literature buff, Monty Python quoting, New York Times crossword obsessive, Cabbage Patch dancing geek. Which makes me wonder…just what is the definiton of a geek?

I asked my husband just this question at dinner last night and he responded with “isn’t a geek someone who is socially awkward?” Wow. And here I am with a blog entitled “My Life as a Geek.” Should I just rename it “My Life as a Social Misfit” or maybe “My Life as a Women who Once Used the ‘Doctor Who’ Theme Song as her Ringtone”? Painful as it was to hear, I understood his point. Stereotypically, when one thinks of the word “geek” one does envision pocket protectors, Members Only jackets, sweatshirts with binary code on them and, yes, a fair amount of donkey laughs and knowledge of when Pi Day is. (March 14th, for those of you who are interested.) But once you scratch the surface of that…once you get over the “Revenge of the Nerds” references and really start to consider what the ingredients of geekdom are…it gets a little blurry.

Is “geek” one of those words that is fluid; offering varying degrees of translation depending upon the individual? I decided to poll a few of my friends to see how they would define geek and the results were fascinating. One of my dearest friends told me that the word refers to someone who is “super smart and has suffered teasing due to that intellect.” The fact that, to her, teasing was the true hallmark of a geek really interested me. I honestly hadn’t made that connection, and yet my first of these columns detailed my ridicule at the hands of a rather nasty seventh-grade girl. Whether I was aware of it or not, I used teasing as an example of my evolution as a geek. So does my self-proclaimed geekiness stem from specific incidences of teasing? It may very well be so, since those first few instances of teasing, while certainly painful and Depeche Mode inducing, still led me down a path of acceptance of my own unique qualities. Being teased for being smart was, perhaps, one of the best things that happened to me since it simultaneously told me how the world saw me and then allowed me to figure our how I felt about that designation. It took me a while to get there, but I did.

Another friend of mine defined geeks as “those who aren’t afraid to say the smart things when the dumb thing is most popular” and I ADORED his answer. With that one sentence, he perfectly captured the choice that geeks make to be true to their minds despite the popular vote. This fearlessness, this willingness to use the brain in their head is, for me, what defines a true geek. I am a geek. I embrace my geekdom and the definition that I have for it. I didn’t start out that way. I did my fair share of crying in the girl’s bathroom because I raised my hand too much or got extra credit for dressing up as an Egyptian Scribe for my 7th grade oral report. But now, as a 37 year old woman, I am utterly confident in my intelligence. Not in some Mensa, never-make-a-mistake, aren’t-I-amazing sort of way, but in a way that I don’t ever question the quality of my mind. Lord knows I’ve questioned just about everything else  – my appearance, my sense of humor, my cooking, my parenting, my weight, my place in the world – but I will never question my brain and what it holds. I’m proud of this brain of mine and will continue to throw the geek word around with great abandon and self-assurance in the hopes of removing the stigma attached to it. And also in the hopes of proving to each and every kid out there who thinks the dumb answer might be the better option to think twice and never, ever apologize for your mind. We are all defined by the moments in which we reveal our true selves.  So shine on, geeks and say the smart thing.


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Installing the Compass

Installing the Compass – my latest from the Stanford Alumni blog…

my second grade class picture

Seems you can’t read a newspaper or listen to the radio lately without seeing or hearing about Amy Chua and her Wall Street Journal piece “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”. I firmly believe that quite a bit of Chua’s goal in writing the article and in including such incendiary comments, was to create a stir in the press (which she did with flying colors). And whether you find yourself agreeing with her or nodding along with David Brooks who, among other things, said that Chua may be putting her children at a disadvantage not because of her strict parenting but because he wishes she “recognized that in some important ways the school cafeteria is most intellectually demanding that the library” (hear! hear!), I think the take-away from both of these pieces is that it has opened up a worthwhile dialogue among parents. How we parent. How we discipline. Are we too easy on our kids? Too demanding? Do we expect enough of them or are we praising them into complacency? And while I do not think that there is one common denominator in parenting – no magic bean that anyone can plant to grow the perfect child – I do think that it is an absolute necessity for parents to sit down and talk about how they want to raise their kids.


My husband and I have never been parenting book types of people. Yes, we bought “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” (mostly because we were told it was a vital part of the birthing process…like an epidural) but we’ve never really taken advantage of the many parental self-help books available. And I’ll be the first to admit that part of this hesitation stems from an inherent distaste for the genre. Please don’t get me wrong. Books are wonderful. They are vital to life. And self-help books offer much-needed assistance to millions or people worldwide every day. And I do believe that out there in the publishing ephemera, there are many really fantastic and legitimate books that can solve many of the problems of the world today. That said (phew!), I’m just not one of those people who wants to be seen on the Bart reading one. I find the majority of them preachy, even overzealous – as if by following “these six easy steps!”  you’ll have a life of eternal happiness and peace. Maybe I’m missing out. Maybe I’d be a walking-talking bastion of self-love with one on my Kindle, but it’s just not my bag.

But, in a moment of weakness and curiosity, we did recently read “”Bringing up Geeks: How to Protect Your Kid’s Childhood in a Grow-up-too-fast World” by Marybeth Hicks. And, amazingly, I was kind of hooked. It was a bit like red licorice at the movies – you like it well enough and then before you know it you’ve eaten the whole box. Suddenly, I had finished the book – and could actually see a bit of myself in it. So, the introductory gist of the book is that the word “Geek” can be seen as an acronym for “Genuine, Enthusiastic, Empowered Kids.”  Admittedly, this turned me off. Seriously, we need to turn “geek” into an acronym? But I stuck with it. And, despite a few meanderings into religion which I secretly skimmed, I fundamentally agreed with most of her points. Those being:

  • imbue a love of learning in your children and it will stay with them forever
  • let your child be “uncommon”, meaning let them be who they are and embrace the many facets of their emerging personalities as unique and special
  • don’t be in a rush to have your children grow up too fast – and adopt behaviors before they are ready

and, perhaps most importantly,

  • don’t fall into the trap of letting making your child care about what is “cool” instead of what is “right”

That last one really stuck with me. And I think it’s an idea that needs more fleshing out, more dialogue. This whole idea of coolness filtering down into our children scares the living daylights out of me and we see the repercussions of it daily in the news in terms of bullying, teen depression, violence, suicide….Already in my sons’ elementary school I’m seeing the distinct patterns of cliques and groups and posses and have overhead some pretty mean things being said between different types of kids. And these are GOOD kids! With great families and support networks and afterschool activities. And still the cool factor is wrecking havoc on their minds and hearts. It worries me because I have been privy to quite a few parenting decisions being made on the basis of “cool” versus “right.” Even growing up, there were those parents who seemed to be almost proud or titillated by the antics of their children. “Oh, Danny stole the car last night and ran into a tree? Har de har har. Boys will be boys!” or “So, Suzie came home last night at 3am! And her curfew is 11pm! She’s just like me at her age! Ha ha!” And deep within those disturbing statements is the feeling, on behalf of the parents, that it’s better for their kids to be cool than uncool. Better for them to be stealing the car with the posse than be the kid who’s reading in his bedroom.  Better for them to break curfew with the cool kids than come home at 11pm like they’ve been told. And to this, I say “no.”

Granted, parents make decisions for a wide variety of reason and I don’t claim or care to make severe judgment calls on another’s choices. All I can do is work on my own family and infuse ideals and values that make sense for us. And, for me, I’d rather my children be whimsical and imaginative and self-assured and utterly individual than cool. Because who dictates what is cool? Can’t my son, who can quote entire lines of Roald Dahl and announced to me yesterday that he wants to be a college professor of history so he can write a book about JFK, be the cool one? Can’t my younger son who sings Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” at the top of his lungs at all times of the day and who chooses to do math problems for fun be the ringleader? Can’t we turn “cool” on its ear and open up the doors of coolness to not just imply a certain stereotype? Let every kid be cool in his or her own way and define that coolness by their individual talents and interests. Let their rebellions come as a means of expressing themselves and with the necessary repercussions to remind them of what is right and what is wrong.

Now, I’ve never been much of a rebel. I did go along rather unwillingly in high school to steal a license plate in the middle of the night during a sleepover, but I honestly hated every minute of it and I was that kid who kept saying things like “don’t you think we should go back” and “i think i hear a siren”…I didn’t drink in high school and had my first drunken moment as a freshman in Branner during the ubiquitous “progressive” on the 3rd floor. After the fourth Sex on the Beach, I leaned up against the wall, slid down to the floor and announced to my friend Karen that “everyone looks really attractive to me.” I’ve never been tattooed. Never bungee jumped. Never took off in the middle of the night on a motorcycle with nothing but a change of clothes in a backpack. I did date a guy with a motorcycle once upon a time, but when he took me for a ride along Highway 1 I spent the entire time singing Amazing Grace at the top of my lungs to avoid certain death. And the one and only time I tried to smoke a cigarette, I didn’t know how to hold it (up near my head, or down near my legs???) so I held it midway and consequently burned the back of a little person’s neck at the bar. And if that isn’t a sign to lead a nicotine-less existence, I’m not sure what is.

All this is to say that my rebellions were relatively tame and came later in life. I wasn’t necessarily the cool kid in school. And I wasn’t perfect, either. I had teen angst. I wrote bad poems. I quoted DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Price on occasion, telling my parents they just didn’t understand. And yet I always, always knew what was right and what was wrong. My husband and I have talked about this quite often, for he, too, felt the ever-present moral compass in his own heart growing up. And we ask ourselves, how did our parents encourage that? How did they manage to instill that sense of decorum within us while still allowing us to become who we are? And I don’t think the answer is easy. I don’t think we can turn ourselves into Amy Chuas, nor do I think we can just cross our parental fingers and hope for the best. I think we, as parents, need to be present and be able to admit that there is not only one definition of cool. Not one stereotype you must inhabit to walk proudly through the world. That we are all cool and all geeky at the same time. And that we, as parents, are more vital to the emotional well-being of our children than any paperback self-help book or convenient acronym.  We need to be aware and need to be willing to perform the sometime painful operation of inserting that moral compass within our children. For despite the side effects of such surgery, the outcome is good.


originally published January 19th, 2011


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The Road Not Considered

My latest from the Walnut Creek Patch…originally published January 4th, 2011.

There seem to be a lot of people in the world who list high school as the happiest time of their life. And while I certainly loved riding in the back of Phil’s Volkswagen bug with six other of my fellow Lincolnian newspaper editors in the middle of the night to get Mongolian barbecue, I’m not sure high school was it for me. College perhaps? Of course, Stanford was fantastic. Surrounded by really smart kids in my penny loafers and blazer and dancing to House of Pain’s “Jump Around” as if I had any business dancing to House of Pain’s “Jump Around.” Studying literature at Oxford? Dreamy spires and Guinness at the ready and fulfilling every Anglophile fantasy I’d ever had? Priceless. Living as a single gal in Washington D.C. with my dear friends and late nights at Millie & Al’s with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” on the jukebox (So Good! So Good! So Good!). Perhaps. But not quite.

Thinking back to the jobs I’ve held in my life, I have to laugh. My first real job was writing newsletters for home owner’s associations, reminding residents “please do not allow your children to enter the hot tub wearing diapers as they are prone to dissolve in the hot water.” Which is, of course, valuable knowledge to have. As an intern at the Sierra Club in Washington D.C., I was on a team of people responsible for conducting a “21 Chainsaw Salute” on the lawn of the White House in protest of the annihilation of the Northern Spotted Owl. What could be better? After graduate school, I moved to Washington D.C. again, this time for real, and got a job with a think tank. Sounds rather intellectual, don’t you think? There I was, little Katie with dreams of clandestinely spreading the message of Democracy and a liberal social agenda within the walls of a conservative think tank. What they didn’t explain to me in my interview is that one of my tasks would be to follow Robert Bork around with a battery-operated ash tray to ensure that he did not drop his cigarettes on any of the carpets in the foyer. Fulfilling? How could it not be? Later, as a public relations professional, I got to come up with taglines for a new condom called…wait for it…EZ-On. Could life get better than that? The answer is, yes, as I was later allowed to don a 70′s style aerobic outfit, complete with leg warmers, and visit local Bay Area radio stations with the latest offerings from Hot Pockets. Jealous, are you?

And then, after many years of taglines and product launches and press releases, something miraculous occurred. I gave birth to my first son and went on maternity leave. Wait, let me back up. My son was two weeks overdue and my nesting instinct was in overdrive. Bored with watching ER reruns on TNT and unable to walk across the room without hyperventilating, my husband suggested that I revisit an old talent and take out some construction paper, scissors and a glue stick and creating artwork for our baby-to-be. And what began with hormones and a glue stick has turned into k.t. blue designs (www.ktblue.com), my handcut paper artwork business that is now going on eight years (and another son) old. You see, after I finally gave birth and friends came over to see our new little one, they’d see the big personalized collage I had made and, by some stroke of sheer luck and wonderment, started ordering them. Since then, I’ve created wall art for nurseries, living rooms, children’s rooms and kitchens from California to Virginia and lots of spots in between.

I started out specializing just in handmade, personalized framed artwork, featuring a child’s name and likeness. I’ve now grown to offer a wide variety of artwork, stationery (including, note cards, notebooks, magnets and other cute items) and apparel (children’s tees and onesies). I’ve made dogs and vacation homes. Created artwork based on heartbreaking quotations and love songs. I’ve even made Burt Reynolds atop a bearskin rug. (Don’t ask.) And in the last two years, I’ve been fortunate enough to share my love of art by teaching art appreciation classes for children both privately and as after school enrichment classes at my sons’ elementary school. And this amazing new turn my life has taken has been both unexpected and expected. I’ve always created art from paper – my friends from college can tell you that in between studying Charles Dickens and Jack Kerouac, I was always making cards for someone with paper and scissors. But my degrees in English Literature didn’t necessarily get me here. Nor did my expert handling of that ash tray. It was just a road that I didn’t know I would travel, and that, luckily, I was willing to read the road signs towards. Thereby traveling the road not considered.

To be completely honest with you, I’m happiest now. A wonderful husband, two beautiful sons, the best neighborhood in the world, filled with friends I adore. But what makes it so good, as compared to the other points in my life, is that I finally feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. And not only in terms of being a mother, which is, by far, the most wonderful, utterly overwhelming, challenging, rewarding, heartbreaking, fulfilling job I’ve ever had, but because in those quiet moments when the children are at school (or watching Scooby Doo – why is it a favorite? Are there subliminal messages?) I get to cut and paste paper into artwork that people actually purchase, I get to teach children about Haring and Kooning and da Vinci and marvel at the fact that they actually remember what “sfumato” is…and, most of all, I get to write, which has always, always, always been my first love. I write in the form of these columns for The Patch, as a blogger for the Stanford Alumni Association and through my children’s book recommendation site, My Mama’s Goodnight, in which I share one favorite children’s book per day with my readers. And the fact that I get to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) every day and share my thoughts with an audience as varied an interesting as ever, is a gift I’ve given myself.

I remember an interview with Meryl Streep long ago in which she said that she’s always felt like she was 40 years old, so that by the time she hit 40, she felt confident and sure of herself. While I’m not 40 yet, I’m getting remarkably close and I think I understand what she’s saying. I feel now, at this point in my life, that I am who I was meant to become. That every experience I’ve had in my life has led me to this point and the culmination of that knowledge and those experiences makes me happy in a way I haven’t been before. At this time of my life, I hold the best job in the world. And while I, at times, reminisce fondly about Robert Bork’s ash tray and Northern Owls and Dissolving Diapers and Mongolian Barbecue and Neil Diamond, I wouldn’t trade any of those for what I have now. So Good! So Good! So Good!

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Notes from a Small Island

My latest from the Stanford Alumni blog, “My Life as a Geek”…

We call it the “Zeigler Family Manifesto” and it’s written on a wrinkled piece of lobster-juice stained paper thumb tacked to the bulletin board in our office. And it has been, by far, the most effective, inspiring, useful piece of familial organization I’ve ever seen. Confused? Let me backtrack a bit… Every summer, we have the luxury of visiting my husband’s family’s house on an island off the coast of Maine. It is, by far, the most spectacular place on the face of the Earth and, as we tearfully float away by boat at the end of every summer, we faithfully begin the countdown until next year. It is the place where I feel most at home, most at peace with myself and my place in the world, and a place where time seems to have stood still…With no electricity (except for the few renegades who have installed solar power on their cottages) the gas lamps and gas stove and gas-powered refrigerator mean three things: 1) don’t light the broiler if the gas has been running for too long or you’ll burn your eyebrows and most of your hairline off, thereby bearing a striking resemblance to Queen Elizabeth I. 2) the little popping noise that gas lamps make is the perfect soundtrack to eating fresh lobster on the back porch and 3) with no electricity, you and your children will literally unplug and have more fun than you’ve ever thought possible. No television. No video games. Just ocean, sea glass, boat rides, reading books, drawing pictures of osprey, playing Parcheesi and allowing your inner clock to slow down just a bit and embrace life at a simpler and more enjoyable pace. As you can imagine, it is here that most resolutions begin. Like a midsummer New Year’s Eve, this particular island inspires new beginnings: pledging to fit into a smaller bathing suit by next summer being one of those that seems to roll over (no pun intended) into each year. Others include: spending more time playing card games as a family, watching less television when we return home, eating more shellfish (although we’ve committed to not eating lobster anywhere outside of the state of Maine unless, of course, it’s in some sort of bisque in which case all bets are off), exercising more, learning how to water-ski, diving off the high-high dive (infinitely more impressive than the lowly high-dive) and just generally taking things less seriously. This past summer, we decided, as a family, to sit down and actually go through these resolutions together. Right there, on the back porch overlooking the ocean and the occasional hum of the lobster boats. And what came out of this picturesque family meeting was (drum roll, please), The Zeigler Family Manifesto. We decided to come up with five “pillars” for our family. Five things that are most important to us as individuals and as a group and to commit to those five things for a year. Spurred by the overwhelming feelings that sometimes plague families: too many sports, too many classes, too many social obligations, too many commitments, too many lobster rolls (is that just me?)…we figured by articulating these five pillars, we might be able to say “no” more often to things that really aren’t all that important to us – and thereby focus our family a bit more as a collective. That said, the five pillars of our family are: 1) Family 2) Education 3) Responsibility 4) Art 5) Fun Or, FERAF for you acronym-obsessed folk. Once we had those established, we let the boys brainstorm what they thought should fall under each pillar – things they like to do, people who are important to us, goals we have for the future – and it was utterly amazing how excited they were about this process, how much they wanted to each come up with their own ideas, their individual “ownership” of each pillar. We wanted to make sure that they knew that one person’s idea of fun may not be another’s, and that’s alright – we may think differently about what falls under the “art” pillar and that’s just fine… Family was easy – spending time with those we love. Learning more about our family’s history and genealogy. Coming back to this island we love and seeing our cousins and second cousins and third cousins twice removed – all of whom we just call Aunt and Uncle for simplicity’s sake. Education included both mind and body – school, homework, reading, sports, karate, basketball, learning new things, cooking, going to the library, learning how to drive Uncle Niv’s boat…It was an amazing thing for the boys to see that education isn’t just school – it goes way beyond it and can encompass all the things we are passionate about. Responsibility included “do you best” (perfect for my older son who is a Cub Scout), knowing the rules and following them, doing the right thing, helping others, serving the community and, as my five year old said with great dignity, “picking up trash on the ground.” Art has always been something my husband and I have held dear – in its many iterations: theatre, dance, music, painting, etc. For this pillar we wanted to continue our love for the arts – visiting museums, taking the boys to different theatre productions, piano lessons, and for my older son, “watching “So You Think You Can Dance.” And then there’s Fun. Reading Books. Visiting open spaces. Taking walks. Riding bikes. Having friends over. Taking time to invest in our friendships – new and old. Taking a moment from the business of our lives to really laugh and giggle and make fools of ourselves. And as anal as all of this may seem to some, the effect it has had on our family is profound. We took the boys to see Bill Irwin in Scapin at ACT in San Francisco and on the way there, my 5 year old said, “This is awesome. This is the Art Pillar!” On other occasions, the boys like to see just how many pillars we are fulfilling at one time. “This is Responsibility and Family and Fun and Art!” (as they put their napkins in their laps while we eat together at a restaurant and draw silly pictures on the napkins.) That sunny afternoon on our little Maine island has brought focus to our otherwise manic lives and has allowed all of us, my husband and I included, to really prioritize what we hold most dear. The Zeigler Family Manifesto, as ominous as it stands, will continue on as a living document to be amended and edited and revisited as we, as a family, grow and change and develop. And the fact that this little piece of paper has brought us closer together is exactly what we hoped for. The fact that it’s stained with lobster juice is just an added bonus.

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