Of Apples And Trees

This is my daughter. She loves Halloween and being scared in small doses. Her favorite song (since she was barely able to talk) is by Siouxsie and the Banshees. Recently, when given a choice about what to listen to in the car, she’s specifically asked for “sad music.” Her favorite superhero is Batman.

In Short, I Think My Daughter May Be A Goth

Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a goth. That’s not what I’m saying at all. The concern is more about how much of a role I may have had in this development.

Let me first state that I was never a facepaint and black lipstick sort of person. I wore a lot of black t-shirts (because that’s the default color of shirts advertising a band), but never went in for the whole gothic uniform. However, I will admit that I’ve loved traditionally “gothic” music since the early 1990s.

I was an ethnomusicology major in college, which I’ve taken to  describing as a sociology and music double-major at job interviews. My senior project was a research paper about genre formation in post-punk music; essentially asking “where did this ‘goth’ thing come from, anyway?” While doing that research, I became good friends with a number of people in the local goth community. Eventually, I ended up in a band with some of those people, and did some remixes that were played at the weekly “goth night” at one of the local clubs.

I should probably also disclose that my former prog rock band in Denver won a Westword Music Showcase Award 6 years back in the Best Goth Band category, which was a bit of a surprise for everyone in the band and even prompted us to have to explain what “goth” was to more than one member.

My point is that while I never dressed like a goth, I’ve definitely been in goth circles for a large portion of my life.

It’s Not Just Goth Genetics

But here’s the thing: I have legitimate goth friends with non-goth kids. I imagine that for some of them, the black clothing and spooky aesthetic is an embarrassing thing that uncool parents do. There’s absolutely no reason my daughter should have latched onto this particular thing.

My wife is definitively not a goth. She may like The Cure, but that’s about where the commonalities end. She listened to ska and pop-punk and musicals when she was a teenager, and never went down the gloomy rabbit hole of playing RPGs where she pretended to be undead. She’s a cheerful, chipper person who wears bright colors and proudly proclaims her allegiance to the Hufflepuff house from Hogwarts.

And my daughter has plenty of those traits too. She’s a generally happy kid, who likes snuggling and telling people she loves them (and misses them when she’s at preschool). She likes Moana and Daniel Tiger and will definitely tell you her favorite color is pink. But she also has this kind of playful dark side. She drew me a cave the other day, and then there was a discussion about whether there was a bear in the cave and whether that bear ate babies (the response from me, in case you were concerned, was “no, that’s a vegetarian bear: he likes mushrooms).

I Know This Is My Fault Somehow

While it’s cute as hell to watch my daughter dress up like a bat and zoom around the house while listening to dark music from the 1980s, I can’t help but feel a little guilty. I want my kids to find their own style. Figuring out what you like and don’t like is a major step towards discovering who you are as a person, and my little scallywag is in the midst of that journey. I’d hate to think that I was unduly influencing her.

When she was a baby, I used to get up early in the morning with her and do some writing while she sat nearby and listened to whatever music I played. I viewed this as the beginning of her musical education. One day it was Zeppelin, the next was The Beatles. She got everything from Bach to Beastie Boys from me. Somewhere along the line, she discovered bebop jazz, and that became her preferred music. For a good 8 months, that was the only thing she wanted to hear (with the exception of her favorite Siouxsie song).

And that was great, because I like bebop, but I don’t LOVE it. It felt like she’d discovered it on her own. It felt like she claimed a niche that wasn’t mine. Even though she had chosen that music from the choices I had presented, it felt more like she had developed a preference at least semi-independently from me. This spooky fixation, on the other hand, feels at least partially like emulation; she sees what I like and likes it too.

It makes sense for young children to like the same things that their parents do. That’s how cultural identity is established, after all. Child Psychology research is pretty clear that it’s later in development (adolescence in particular) when children begin “splitting off” and rejecting the values of their parents in order to establish independence.

With that in mind, there’s a good chance that my little baby bat will eventually think that Halloween is lame, that goth music is boring, and that not every cave has a baby-eating bear or a vampire in it. While I’m sure that I will feel glad that my daughter is establishing her own identity with the rejection of all things goth, part of me will also miss it, I’m sure. I mean, not-quite-two year old girl running around a Michael’s in October yelling “Haalllloowweeeeeeen!” while picking up every product with a skull, bat and gravestone on it is adorable.

But that’s one of the fundamental paradoxes of parenting, isn’t it? We are proud when our kids are like us, and proud when they are not like us. We can’t wait for them to grow up, but feel nostalgic for when they were younger. We want them to be independent, but feel bad when they don’t need us anymore. We rejoice when they flutter around the house like a bat, but also fret when they sleep hanging upside down from a cave.

 

GO TO SLEEP

As I write this, I am standing watch outside my toddler’s bedroom door. It is after 10pm and it is only a matter of time before a mostly-naked child wearing only a nighttime pull-up will come storming past me, giggling maniacally.

I hate this game.

How Did It Come To This?

There are three factors at play in this scenario (and a fourth secret one), and I am going over each one with a fine toothed comb. While I’m sure our situation is in no way unique to our family, it still feels like we’ve brought something horrible on ourselves. At the same time, I feel like my wife and I have made all our big parenting decisions through at least some degree of reasoned, research-based methodology (though there really is no “best practices” when it comes to raising children). We never made unilateral decisions, we always considered long-term outcomes, and we always consulted peer-reviewed research.

So why am I now a bouncer outside my daughter’s room?

Reason One: Co-sleeping Instead of Sleep-training

When we brought our little bundle of joy (blissfully unaware of her future career as a sleep terrorist) we decided that rather than try to force our child to sleep by herself, we’d let the baby sleep in the same bed with us. For the record, I don’t regret this decision, although I understand that no everyone agrees with this position.

At the time, the advantages were that both my wife and I had very minimal disruptions to our sleep schedules. The baby very rapidly adapted to the nighttime routine that we followed ourselves, and when she needed food in the middle of the night, it was so easy to provide it that it barely involved waking up.

I understand the concerns about this practice: there is a fear that one or more adult humans might accidentally roll over and crush a newborn. This, for one, is an unfounded fear: parents are instinctually coded not to do that, unless that instinct is clouded by other factors (such as alcohol). Another major concern is that a child won’t learn to self sooth or become independent if they co-sleep with parents. Again, I can point to my own daughter as an example of a child who is about as independent as they come and figured out how to calm herself down with two fingers in her mouth on the early side of the wide developmental range that this behavior is supposed to manifest.

What it did do, and what is vexing me right now, is that she never learned to put herself to sleep without a parent handy. We moved her as an infant from co-sleeping briefly to a crib near her parents, and then to her own bed. While she loves her bed, and having her own room, and sleeping on her own, she still hasn’t quite gotten used to the idea that she can put herself to sleep. This was a tradeoff that we accepted at the time, and I still feel that it was worth the tradeoff of not dealing with a crying baby in the middle of the night.

She’s a cuddler, and wants the adult who reads her books and tells her stories to remain with her until she falls asleep (at which point, they are free to go). This isn’t an unreasonable position, honestly; I’m sure many people fall asleep faster when they have someone to snuggle with as well. The problem was that my evenings were shot: I’d read a few books, retell one of her favorite “mouth stories” (usually Star Wars, but sometimes “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” for some reason), and then I’d be woken by my wife a few hours later having drifted off in a toddler-sized bed. There were even times -dark times- when I couldn’t be roused at all and spent the night sleeping in a kid’s room, my neck uncomfortably crooked to accommodate the plethora of stuffed animals, my legs cramped from curling to accommodate the fact that I was a grown man sleeping in a bed meant for a child.

Reason Two: Playing Games

Mom and Dad play games; games are a big part of our household culture. The daughter has been to Gen Con twice as a human and once as a fetus. She has her own board games which are age appropriate and teach various things. We’ve played games as a family: one of my fondest memories is the “Word Game”  when she was just beginning to talk and we’d ask her to try to pronounce various words that we liked.

Not surprisingly, she has taken to playing games herself. Her favorite games at school are imagination games (the one I witnessed recently was where she was pretending to be an animal in a zoo, waiting for the zoo keeper to fall asleep so she could escape. I could tell she was my kid because the animal she chose to be was a dragon). She likes to pretend to be all sorts of things (including farm equipment), and play-acts with her toys. She even plays at being scared.

My point here is that she was raised in a culture of games, so maybe she can be cut some slack that she thinks some things are games that are really not. When she bolts from her bedroom and runs past me, she thinks we’re playing. But we’re not playing: I’m getting increasingly agitated and frustrated that this kid won’t go to sleep at 10pm. She’s so involved in her game that she can’t see that no one else is having fun with it. Or, y’know, basic child psychology that ascribes a distinct lack of empathy to children around her age (I choose not to buy into this paradigm too much, because I see examples of empathy all the time).

The Third Reason

Our child is a gremlin with boundless inappropriate energy (like many children, I suspect). Why else would I be forced to write this hours after her bedtime and frankly long after I’d rather be asleep myself? It doesn’t help that she’s used this week to master door knobs. Like many kids, she gets “punchy” when she’s tired, which any parent will agree is pretty much the worst reaction to being tired ever.

There’s no carefully-weighted parenting decision here: some/most kids are just energetic at all the wrong times. Ours is no exception

The Fourth Secret Reason

Our child is not just energetic, but devious. She learned pretty early on how to manipulate adults with cute ploys (which, I want to make it clear, do not work on parents). She’s also figured out the “rules” and won’t hesitate to adhere to them just to get what she wants. By way of example: about 20 minutes ago, while I was blocking the door to her room so she couldn’t get out, she informed me that she needed to go potty. Knowing full well that the rule is that, thanks to Daniel Tiger, “when you have to go potty, stop and go right away.” She didn’t really need to use the bathroom, but it bought her precious time not doing the thing that I told her to do (GO TO SLEEP!)

This was followed up by a plaintive plea only 10 minutes later for a hug, which she also knows I can’t walk away from. She’s tried negotiating (“What about desert instead?”) and has even made bold assertions (“It’s WAKE UP TIME!”); really anything to get us to change the terms of the order (which, again, she thinks of as a rule in a game).

Conclusion

I don’t actually regret either of the two actual parenting choices that I included as reasons why my daughter hasn’t quite mastered putting herself to sleep yet. They were weighed carefully, and I still believe the decisions were right for our kid and our family (your family may be different). The inappropriate energy is not my fault, nor are her attempts to “lawyer” us. That’s just who she is.

Nope. My only regret is that when my daughter wants to fall asleep snuggling with me, I can’t do it. Not if I want to teach her how to fall asleep on her own. Which she just now did. On her own. By herself. Without me.

 

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Scary-Not-Too-Scary

What is it about humans that we actively seek out “negative” emotional states for pleasure? We sometimes want to be angry (or we wouldn’t seek out partisan political opinions), we sometimes want to be sad (entire genres of music are dedicated to this) and most pertinent to what I want to talk about, we sometimes want to be scared.

Horror Movies

I’ll admit, I love a good horror movie. Actually, I love the bad ones too, but for different reasons. I’m a fan of atmospheric horror and lingering dread more than a startling “jump scare,” and I will watch anything that has a consistently creepy vibe Image result for the changelingrather than going for gross-out stuff (not that there isn’t a place for body horror or violent “slasher” stuff, just that it’s not my favorite flavor of horror). In particular, I love a good ghost story and have for as long as I remember getting a bit of joy from being frightened.

More Than Just A Movie

Horror films have an added resonance for me. When I was a teenager learning to cope with a mood disorder, I self-medicated with horror movies. I’ve given a lot of thought about why I found horror as a genre comforting when I was depressed, and the best I’ve come up with was two-fold.

Although you are meant to identify with a protagonist in a horror movie, character depth is usually pretty shallow. You don’t care TOO much about a character in a horror movie because they rarely give you a reason to, but also because you know not to get too attached to anyone in that sort of film. That means that these sorts of films can be passively observed; sometimes it is refreshing to be a neutral observer when it is hard to feel much of anything emotionally. The superficiality of a bad horror movie can actually be an asset because the bad stuff is happening to someone else that you are completely disconnected from. On the flip side, when a horror movie is really effective and building tension and a good scary vibe… well, hey, at least you are feeling SOMETHING. When depressed, getting a good adrenal kick due to quality filmmaking is a reminder that you are alive.

Not Everyone Shares My Interests

My wife has no interest in horror as a genre, and that has never been an issue in our relationship. There are exceptions (we both really like a grandiose gothic tale either in literature or in movies like Crimson Peak and The Woman In Black, Image result for crimson peakwhich also hit my sweet spot by being haunted house movies), but by and large I’m on my own when it comes to scary movies. She knows that I like to watch horror movies when it begins to feel like autumn and when I am feeling under the weather (either physically or emotionally) and leaves me to it. However, I have a not-so-secret hope that at least one of my kids will eventually become a horror movie fan, just so I can have someone to watch these movies with.

My daughter, age 2.5 at the moment, is experimenting with being scared. She’s been doing this for a while, and it is fascinating. She’s testing her tolerance and pushing the boundary a little at a time. By far the most-watched episode of her favorite show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, is the one where Daniel sleeps over at his friend Prince Wednesday’s house and is spooked by a weird shape on the wall which turns out to just be a shadow of a friendly stuffed animal. Image result for daniel tiger sleepover]The song that goes along with the episode is called “See What It Is, You Might Feel Better,” which is great advice for a toddler who is feeling apprehensive, but terrible advice for any protagonist in a horror film.

My daughter asks for this episode specifically (“I want to see Daniel Tiger get scared!”) because she relates to the feeling of unease and the reassurance when it turns out to be okay. Being scared a little bit while at the same time knowing you are safe is essential for kids to overcome anxiety. Building up a tolerance for scary things makes the world a little less scary overall.

Helping Kids Be Scared

I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating for showing horror movies to children. Kids have plenty of things that make them scared already, from a darkened room to imaginary monsters. And remember that some things that kids find scary are totally innocuous to adults. My daughter recently revealed that she was a little freaked out by a broad desert in a movie we were watching. Why were the sand dunes scary? Who knows?

We’ve given her opportunities to set her own comfort level with fear, Image result for the lion king hyenasgradually easing her into things. For a while, The Lion King was her favorite film, and we dutifully fast forwarded past the stampede scene and accompanying death of Mufasa. Sometimes (but not always) she wanted to see the scene where the hyaenas chase Nala and Simba, so we had our finger on the remote for that one too. It was up to her to gauge how brave she was feeling and how scared she wanted to be.

Image result for te fiti fireI’m not great with repetitive viewing (unlike my daughter), so I was relieved when Moana replaced The Lion King as the movie of her heart. By the time that had happened, she’d built up enough fear tolerance that she wanted to watch all the scenes with the lava monster, and didn’t even bat an eye at the giant crab or the coconut-monster pirates. We knew there was a risk that she would react poorly to any one of those scenes, and we’d find out the hard way with nightmares, but we lucked out that time. When asked, she will sometimes say that the scary part is her favorite, but in fairness, she’s been known to say that about any part of Moana she is currently watching or has just seen.

Mistakes Were Made

We’ve made a few missteps, but I think that an element of trial and error is ultimately necessary to finding the things that are in that perfect zone of scary-not-too-scary. Image result for paranormanMy wife showed her ParaNorman once, which is a great film and has a great lesson about celebrating being different and weird. It also has a lot of zombies, ghosts and a witch.

Before you judge us too harshly, I should state in my defense that this kid loves the aesthetics of Halloween. Last October, she was seen running around a Michael’s craft store picking up miniature gravestones, skulls, bats and assorted ominous objects and screaming “Halloweeeeeeeeen” in a jubilant voice. It was on par with Christmas in terms of holiday excitement, so I think the thought was that a movie that just, sort of, extended those themes would be okay.

While the kid didn’t freak out, we got the feeling that we’d pushed her too far. She spent most of the movie asking, “what’s going to happen?” which we interpreted as a request for the thrills to be mitigated just a little bit by predictability. Also, ghosts and zombies are hard to explain to a kid with no conception of death. We haven’t revisited this movie, and consider it a close call that we narrowly avoided.

I almost made the same mistake with Kubo and the Image result for kubo and the two strings sistersTwo Strings. Luckily, I recognized my horrible error pretty much right away. Nope. Sorry. If there’s a scene that I find unsettling, there’s no way I’m letting my toddler see it. Great movie, but not anywhere close to “scary-not-too-scary.”

On Monsters

My daughter talks about monsters a lot.

She will tell me about a monster in an empty room, and sometimes actually have authentic trepidation about going into a room she thinks has one. I, of course, have seen enough monster movies to know that if I assure her that there are no such things as monsters, I have doomed myself to be killed by one. Image result for groverRather than try to fight against her (extremely active) imagination, we shift the conversation by telling her that any monsters she encounters in our house are definitely friendly. This ties in nicely with Sesame Street, where the monsters are all cute and fuzzy and extremely friendly.

On the spectrum of scary-not-too-scary, she’s setting up a scenario for herself where there is something concrete that is scary (a monster in mommy and daddy’s room) and then asking us to help provide supports for coping with it. Those supports include us reminding her that any monsters in our house are friendly, that there are parents who will keep her safe, and that monsters are only temporary.

We’ve had some pretty good success with this policy, which has led to her branching out and extrapolating a bit. Yesterday, she told me that she wished there was a “little monster in my room that would play with me.” We call that a younger sibling, honey, and you’re in luck.

Dragons

Dragons hold a similar place in her personal mythology. She’s fascinated by them, but a little afraid of them at the same time. When she was younger, she’d tell us she was concerned about dragons on the ceiling, and we were confused by this oddly specific fear (accompanied by her adamant belief that a robot lived on our roof). One day, we were at the puppet theater where her grandfather likes to take her and noticed a large Chinese dragon puppet high up on the wall near the ceiling: mystery solved.

Image result for dragons love tacosMy daughter’s concerns about dragons have shifted over time. Initially, she was worried that a dragon would come and eat all of her books. More recently, she’s been anxious about dragons nibbling on her toes. And in the past few weeks she’s been using her dragon toy to playfully work through her concerns about the consumption of her parents and little brother at the hands of flying reptiles.

Playing With Fear

This may seem complicated, but her love/fear relationship with dragons and monsters is pretty emblematic of the tumultuous emotional work she’s putting into recognizing where she is safe, where she is not, and when it is okay (or even fun) to be afraid. We’ve had to make sure that the adults in her life know that sometimes she will say that she is scared when she is, in fact, playing at being scared to see what it feels like.

And by and large, our little girl is pretty confident. She may be a little shy with strangers and new situations, but she has no problem being left in the care of trusted adults. I suspect that working through her fear is a part of establishing this confidence. So we push on with baby steps, letting her experiment with what makes her scared and what feels safe, knowing that there will inevitably be missteps where she goes a little too far and freaks out, hoping that the trauma won’t be lasting.

In The Meantime

My daughter may be comfortable playing with fear, with playing with toys to work through her fear of monsters or dragons, with hearing stories of Star Wars droids so that robots aren’t mysterious and creepy anymore, with enjoying media that is probably a little too exciting for her, and going down slides on the playground that make her parents nervous. On the other hand, I’m terrified. I’m terrified that I’m not a good parent. I’m scared that she’s going to get hurt, that she’s going to have nightmares, and that she’ll stumble onto something that she’s not ready for. And this is not an unreasonable fear: recently, at a science museum, she played with a simulation of the life cycle of a star and then was genuinely upset when the star died. I certainly didn’t expect to have to explain life and death to a 2 year old in the context of a giant ball of gas, but I also didn’t expect her to be afraid of the desert.

I mean, the desert… what’s that about?

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Geek Nostalgia In 3 Easy Steps

I can pinpoint the exact moment in my life where I irrevocably became a geek. Or rather, I can identify the three specific points that cemented geekdom forever into my soul.

They occurred when I was 4, when I was 7, and when I was 10.

First Contact

My first exposure was in preschool. I attended the local university’s childcare facility for kids of students and faculty and I was lucky enough to do so when Star Wars hysteria was still going strong. Not only did I have the opportunity to pretend to be Luke Skywalker on the playground every single day, but the teachers were young, idealistic and constantly trying out new things with us.

One teacher, in particular, sticks in my mind. I will forever visualize Bruce Atkinson as an impossibly tall viking with long red hair, but when I met him again as an adult in a graduate child development class, his hair was conservative and white and he was shorter than me. In addition to activities like making pinhole cameras, Bruce’s great influence on me was to introduce me to Tolkien.

The Hobbit is the most accessible of Tolkien’s books, but it is still not something appropriate to read to a preschooler. Instead, Bruce retold the story as if it were a fairy tale, utilizing pictures from the Rankin-Bass animated movie as illustrations. Back in the day, vinyl records were still the preferred method of playing music, and children’s movies often released an abridged version of the audio on LP, with a dustjacket that sort of doubled as a storybook with images from the movie. Equipped with nothing more than his storytelling ability, rapport with children, and an LP dustjacket, Bruce completely immersed me in the world of hobbits, elves, dwarves and dragons.

I was completely enraptured. My parents, being prolific readers themselves, acquiesced to my demand that they read me the actual novel. I remember distinctly accompanying my parents on one of their many trips to the bookstore and browsing the fantasy and science fiction book covers, finding an edition of The Hobbit that featured Bilbo and his companions in the nest of a giant golden eagle

At some point, I owned a copy of the movie tie-in record as well. Strangely, I have much less memory of the movie itself. I know I saw it at some point when I was a kid, but the story was already so indelibly imprinted on me that it didn’t seem that essential. The version of the dwarves’ Misty Mountains song from the film sticks with me, but the animation not so much.

Upon finishing The Hobbit, which was absolutely the first chapter book I remember reading, I immediately demanded the Lord of the Rings, a great story ruined by too many adverbs. By that point, I was out of preschool and in Kindergarten (and beyond) and I was starting to be able to read them myself midway through the series. They were dense and hard to parse and way beyond my reading level. The time it took to read those books also probably contributes to why the narrative is not nearly as vivid for me: I wasn’t that into those books because the story hadn’t been instilled in me like a fairy tale, and if I hadn’t had further geek touchstones I might have drifted off and lost interest in science-fiction/fantasy fandom.

The Contagion Spreads

The second pivotal event was playing D&D for the first time. I had a neighbor who was my age, and his older brother announced one day that we were going to play Dungeons & Dragons. I was the cleric. I remember being confused at first that there wasn’t a board, but I went with it and had a blast exploring a series of trapped caves with my friend, and fighting a monster of some sort.

A number of things sort of fell into place for me shortly thereafter. I acquired a copy of the Dungeon! board game, which scratched the itch for dungeon crawling a little bit, and I ended up with a copy of the AD&D Monster Manual from a box of donated books from my other neighbor. I had no idea what any of the numbers meant, but I loved reading about the various creatures and making up stories in my head about how one might encounter each sort of creature. I began to sketch out maps of endless dungeons (more like obstacle courses in their linear nature) and draw lots of pictures of warriors and dragons. So many dragons; my elementary school teacher must have been so bored with all the dragon pictures she got from me.

The funny thing in retrospect was that I was so invested in dungeon-crawling fantasy, but I had only played one session of Dungeons & Dragons. I had no conception of the rules, or really how roleplaying games were supposed to run, or anything beyond one single experience of pretending to be a cleric (whatever that was). I just sort of made it up, based on what I was interested in.

Somewhere in this time, my friends and I read Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s excellent young adult Green Sky series (starting with the gripping “Below The Root,” which I think every young nerd should read); we reconstructed the Ewok-esque tree-dwellings from the book with cardboard and duct-tape in actual trees, and made little people out of clothespins and pipecleaners to inhabit them. Actually, I remember on many occasions constructing tiny kingdoms and communities with my friends, using legos, metal figures, or clay.

The Geekdom Becomes Terminal

A few years later, I was in an extracurricular science fiction class. Ostensibly, it was supposed to be a book club of sorts, with an instructor who guided us through age-appropriate literature. Some of the kids, slightly older than me, were D&D players, and talked the instructor in the class into playing a short scenario. This was the final touchstone of geekness; my tangential interest in fantasy, in cartography, in storytelling, in fiction, and in the creative construction of imaginary communities all came together in one glorious epiphany. I wanted to play this game. I wanted to play it a lot. And I wanted to be the one creating the stories and worlds that the players explored.

I immediately bought a copy of the “Red Box” basic D&D and ran the game for whatever captive audience I could rope into it (I remember my grandmother and my dad being patient-if-confused participants to my early attempts). The pathological mapping and fictional-kingdom creation were reinvigorated, even if I didn’t have a group to play with and had only the barest concept of the rules.

The Basic Set didn’t hold my interest for long: it felt limiting somehow, and I was bothered by the fact that “elf,” “dwarf” and “halfling” were character classes rather than racial options. Coincidentally, an older friend of one of my friends had a collection of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books they had no further interest in, so I inherited a small gaming library in one swoop. Even though the AD&D Players Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide weren’t nearly as well-organized and user-friendly, I knew I wanted to play that instead. After all, it was ADVANCED.

My best friend’s older brother (a different friend and a different older brother than the one who initially introduced me to D&D) had a sizeable collection of back issues of Dragon magazine, and I began to read them voraciously. They were only a couple of years old, at that time, but it felt like archaeology, digging up the glorious early days of gaming. I quickly got a contemporary subscription to Dragon myself, and began recruiting my closest friends into my first regular roleplaying group. I was still in elementary school.

Dragon magazine, which was essentially a “house organ” for TSR and D&D at the time, was ironically responsible for me branching out into other games. Once that Pandora’s Box was opened, there was no going back. D&D became less and less interesting as other options presented themselves, and I admit that I became a bit of a gaming snob, preferring newer games to ones that were beginning to show their age like AD&D. By the time 2nd edition came out, I had already moved on to games by Palladium Books and FASA, and even further afield.

I entered Jr. High (they switched to a Middle School model the year I began High School) a full-fledged gaming nerd. It wasn’t hard for me to find the other gaming geeks, or to recruit fantasy/sci-fi fans into playing. 7th through 9th grade was a golden age of gaming for me, with plenty of players (all male, incidentally) from two different schools, and new games being published all the time for me to read and play. A friend and I even started a gaming ‘zine (which we charged a dollar for).

Epilogue

It was much later, in High School, that my friends and I played on a regular basis, or that our gaming group expanded to include girls (that was due, in a large part, to the broad appeal of Vampire: The Masquerade, by the way). But the point was, I was completely hooked by the time I enrolled in Jr. High.

The three pivotal moments in my geek life have made “genre” and roleplaying games so deeply ingrained in who I am that while most of my friends from adolescence have drifted off and found other interests to one degree or another, I honestly can’t imagine my life without them.

The Next Generation

I married another gamer, and we have played many board games, video games, and yes, roleplaying games together. “Geek culture” is our mutual background, and is part of our shared language as a couple. We are worried that our kids will be disinterested or, at worst, actively embarrassed by our geeky passions. It’s not that we don’t want them to have interests of their own, it’s that “geek stuff” has brought us so much collective joy in our lives that we want to share it with our offspring, especially because it will give us a “common tongue” with which to communicate with them.

All this deep reflection on the events that shaped my nerdiness aren’t part of a scheme to replicate my childhood to create a reflection of myself in my kids, but they are events that stuck with me as some of the most cherished memories I have. I want to provide my children with opportunities to form their own life-changing events separate from me (as, I assure you, my geeky interests are distant from my own parents), but at the same time, I feel it can’t hurt to offer up my interests in a child-friendly way to my kids.

So how am I to accomplish that? It starts with storytelling. My wife and I read to our daughter regularly, to the point that “book” was her first word. After the lights are off, my daughter has taken to asking me to tell her stories not from a book (she calls it “reading a book with your mouth”), and she has her favorites: my abbreviated retelling of the original Star Wars trilogy has gone over quite well despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she has never seen the movies. Someday, I hope to tell her the story of the Hobbit, perhaps with pictures to accompany it, but she hasn’t  shown any interest for it, even though I tell her it has a dragon in it (her favorite thing at the moment).

For me, anyway, that’s how it started. So maybe it will be the beginning of another life-long love affair with science fiction and fantasy for her as well. Or maybe not. But either way, it never hurts to make it available. Kids love stories, after all.

By Way Of Introduction: I’m A Geek

My name is Cameron Hays, and I’m a geek parent.

Just to be clear, I was a geek before I was a parent, so it’s not as if becoming a parent suddenly made me be interested in science fiction, fantasy, horror, video games, tabletop roleplaying games, or comics. It’s just that now that I’m a geek who is also a parent, I’ve found that my wife (who is also a geek) and I are having a slightly different child-rearing experience than others we know.

We seem to have given birth to a geek kid. Which is great, because now we’re a geek family, but also really interesting from a parenting perspective. After all, there isn’t a geek gene, which means that stuff we did as parents rubbed off on our little one and made her interested in Star Wars (despite never having seen it), super heroes (despite not knowing exactly what they do), castles (despite never having been to one), robots (despite never having seen one) and dragons (despite being kind of afraid of them).

So this blog is, among other things, a record of how we navigated (and continue to navigate) the disparate worlds of being a geek and being a parent, which sometimes overlap.

Education Geek

To give a little background, I spent a decade as a teacher in middle school and high schools. My first endorsement was in social studies for secondary education, although I’ve since gotten a second endorsement in K-12 gifted education. I did some work as a substitute teacher at the beginning of my career, mostly art, music, social studies and English, before falling into a job at one of the schools I had attended myself as a teenager.

While at this weird little alternative school in an antique building, I was given almost total freedom to design my own curriculum for social studies (world history, American history, and geography), and had many chances to branch out into other subjects like music journalism, rock and roll history, mythology, abnormal psychology, learning theory, research techniques, and victorian gothic literature. I even spent a few years doing double duty as the school’s music teacher.

Somewhere along the way, I picked up a masters degree in educational psychology (with an emphasis on human learning), and a few years ago I started on a PhD in curriculum & instruction. My research focus is “curiosity” and gifted education in particular. My dissertation is trying to establish if gifted students actually express higher levels of curiosity, and if so, if it could be used to find gifted students in previously underrepresented and under-served populations.

In the fall, I’ll begin work on an ED.S (Educational Specialist graduate degree) and accompanying Principal’s License. Because when you owe this much in student loans, you might as well see how far you can push it.

Music Geek

I played my first 21+ gig as a rock musician when I was 15. At that time I aspired to be the next electronic crossover artist, wedged somewhere between Depeche Mode and Nine Inch Nails. I kept that up through college, eventually getting some club play for remixes I’d done for other artists; nothing really amazing, but something I could be proud of.

I’d played bass in my high school jazz band, but it wasn’t until college in Portland that I started playing bass with a band that collaboratively wrote their own material. We got one song on a compilation CD before breaking up (although I’m still friends with them) and I moved to Seattle. I was angry and despondent, so I joined a math metal band and rocked out with them for a while. When that collapsed, I played here and there in a variety of projects, including one with a number of guys that had made it big during the “grunge boom” and were still living on residuals.

When the dot.com bubble burst, I moved back to my home state of Colorado and fell in with a band that played what could most charitably described as art rock, but what in retrospect sounds like my songwriting style butting up against the lead singer’s songwriting style. We put out an album. The band I followed that up with was sort of a prog rock goth thing, with crunchy guitars, violin and cello. We won a Westword Music Showcase Award and put out an album that I’m still pretty fond of.

Shortly after the band went our separate ways, I found out that I have an extremely rare medical condition called Pressure Urticaria. My body responds to any extended pressure on my skin by breaking out in hives. Essentially, I’m allergic to the physical world, and playing bass (or any other instrument) became problematic since it turned my hands into mittens filled with angry bees.

There is no cure for this frankly weird medical condition, although in most cases it goes away on its own after 5-10 years. I’m on year 4 and keep hoping that I can play music again regularly. In the meantime, I’ve kept up with songwriting and composing, since those don’t require extended pressure on my hands. I’ve done some neat instrumental electronica pieces with my good friend Brad Smalling, and I’ve written a number of children’s songs for geek parents. Although my first attempt to crowdfund an album of these songs wasn’t successful, I still hope to release an album of them at some point.

Genre Geek

I love science fiction and fantasy movies, even when they are stupid. I love horror movies, ESPECIALLY when they are stupid. I try to keep up-to-date on geeky tv shows and movies, ever since missing the initial run of Firefly completely and having to watch it after it was canceled.

I’m not as much of a voracious reader as I used to be, largely because of the sheer amount of research papers and academic journals I’ve gone through in the last few years in graduate school. That said, I try to at least be well-versed in the classics: Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Heinlein, Herbert, Bradbury, Dick. Recently, I’ve been really enjoying the work of John Scalzi, Greg Stolze, and Scott Lynch.

I’m not really a comic book guy, but I have good friends who are. They act as a sort of “comic book concierge” and provide me with stuff they know I’ll like. Therefore, despite my previous statement that I’m not really a comic book guy, I have a pretty large collection of graphic novels. My taste runs towards non-superhero stuff (crime, horror, fantasy, sci fi), but I have a definite fondness for the mythology surrounding Batman and Gotham City.

Gaming Geek

I’ve been hooked on tabletop roleplaying games since being introduced to the concept in 1st grade. I spent my childhood drawing pictures of dragons and dudes with swords, and I’m pleased to say that I never outgrew it.

I ran my first convention game right about the same time I was beginning to play music at bars (although I probably sucked at both, in retrospect), and played Vampire: The Masquerade every friday night while other high school students were out getting into trouble. When I didn’t click with the gamers I met in college, I drafted my non-gaming friends, and when I came home for the summer, I started a summer camp for kids that featured foam swords, silly voices, and what basically amounts to Live Action Role-Playing. The rules for that were collected in a book, which remains my only game-related publication.

I played roleplaying games fairly regularly throughout my 20s and 30s, and was lucky enough to meet a woman who was also a gamer and marry her. Not that I married her because she was a gamer, just that it was a nice perk that we had that in common.

Parenting Geek

There is nothing I love more than being a dad. My first job was working in an infant nursery, and I was a preschool art and music teacher for a while after college. Coupled with my graduate education in child development, and it should have been clear to anyone paying attention that I was really looking forward to having kids of my own. My two little munchkins haven’t disappointed.

Right now, my daughter is just over 2.5 years old and my son is just over 7 months old. In both cases, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to bring them with me to work a few times a week. With my daughter, I taught three classes a day with her strapped to my chest; with my son he spends once or twice a week being held or sleeping nearby as I fulfill my weird educator/social worker role.

My kids are a delight, and I am so very pleased that at least one of them is expressing interest in a lot of the same geeky things I enjoy. Which brings us full circle: this blog is about me, my wife, my kids, education, social justice, all things geek, and how they all fit together for us. We hope you’ll join us as we write about all of it.