I think my mom has kind of gotten a raw deal in my columns. This isn’t because I don’t love her or don’t get along with her or something. She’d just asked, when I started doing this, that I keep her out of it. I’d thought she’d meant keeping her out of my columns and any writing that I posted publicly completely. What she really meant was just that she didn’t want me to use her name. So, I’m going to correct what I did not believe to be an oversight, even though it turned out to be one.
It’s been easier to write about my dad’s contributions to my geekhood because the real, solid genre evidence is mostly the result of his guidance. Dad and I watched cartoons and “Star Trek” together. When I go home, Dad and I still watch “Buck Rogers” and “Outer Limits” or whatever sci-fi reruns are going on the local vintage TV network. Dad got me started watching “Star Wars” and he’s the reason that I watched “Creature from the Black Lagoon” for the first time. I can trace so much of my particular geekness through Dad’s influence. I can assure you that, while the presentation has been lopsided, the contribution certainly wasn’t.
My mom isn’t all that keen on sci-fi and she never has been. She read The Lord of the Rings when she was younger and it didn’t really do all that much for her. She still wanted to see the movies when they came out, although she had no desire to see them in a theater. Mom is really more of a chick-flick kind of movie-goer, which is fine, that’s her thing, and it really is its own special kind of fantasy.
Mom always encouraged me to read. It really didn’t matter what, although she teased me a lot about the “weird stuff” that I always seemed to bring home. We made frequent trips to the library, and when it became all too clear that my voracious reading habit had far outstripped the contents of the library in my hometown, we started making the almost thirty mile drive to a bigger library.
When I was a starry-eyed little sprocket, I started watching “Reading Rainbow” and there was one episode involving bubbles. I was fascinated because the people on TV were making bigger bubbles than I had ever seen before in my entire life. They had bubbles with smoke in them and bubbles that didn’t quite pop right away and, most amazing of all, they had a whole book about bubbles with recipes and everything. I was excited.
Mom took me to the library and I explained to the librarian there (who was a really wonderful lady, she was very kind and very patient) about the book that I had seen on “Reading Rainbow”. This particular library was very good about stocking books that had been featured on the show and I was just sure that they would have it. They didn’t. However, the librarian offered to order it and, for fifty cents, she would put a hold on it so I could be the very first one to check it out. My mom agreed.
The book did arrive, finally, and we made a trip to the library to get it. Mom and I looked at it and we went into the local drugstore to get glycerin, which was the magical ingredient to make really large bubbles. A coat hanger was sacrificed to the cause of science and bent into a roughly oval shape to be used as a huge bubble wand. For the next several days, we made batches of bubble soap and stood out in our yard making huge bubbles.
My mom was the one who caught the little lizards and the snakes and toads that lived around our yard. She didn’t do that to exterminate them. She caught them for me because I asked her to so that I could get a closer look at them. We had this book from Reader’s Digest, which I think is still in our house called North American Wildlife, and we used it to identify different animals and read about them. It was mostly encyclopedic in approach, with brief, factual entries that offered up enough information to determine the animal was probably non-threatening.
Growing up in a rural area meant that while most of my peers were busy zoning out on cable and running around with friends in town, I was spending a lot of time outside or on my own with books. Mom picked out a lot of magazines for me and she knew that as much as I loved books with dragons and dinosaurs in them, when it came to the world around me, I was all about the science. She ordered “Zoobooks” for me, along with “Your Big Backyard” and, when I got older, “National Geographic World”. I also got “3-2-1 Contact” Magazine for a while.
I was especially fond of anything about animals or fossils. Those magazines would come in the mail and I would immediately plunk down in the big, brown Naugahyde chair in the corner and read those magazines to tatters. They contained glossy paper windows to worlds I hadn’t even begun to imagine in my landlocked state. It was beautiful and exciting and, the best part, it all really did exist.
Mom never discouraged my interest in science. She never told me that little girls shouldn’t like dinosaurs or Garfield comics or dragons. Instead, Mom helped me find the books that I wanted to read and kept me interested in the natural world through magazines and TV shows and the occasional toad we picked up in the garden.
If I picked up a rock and wanted to know why it was shiny, then Mom found a way to get me the answer. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that this was all going on pre-internet. We had to work to find the research (not that you don’t when you use the internet, it’s just a different kind of work involved in considering your sources). When I got into school and had to start doing research papers and essays, I already had a very good idea of how to do research and how a library worked because Mom had already started teaching me those things.
I will never forget the time that I asked Mom, after watching “Reading Rainbow” if we could go to Dinosaur National Monument in Dinosaur, Colorado. Mom just handed me our big Rand McNally Atlas of The United States and said “If you can find it on the map, we’ll take you there someday.” I don’t know if she underestimated my determination or if she thought it would be difficult to find on the map. Either way, I think she was more than a little surprised when I came into the kitchen and plopped the atlas down on the table, open to the double page spread depicting Colorado. I pointed to a square on the map and said “It’s right there!”
It took a few years, but Mom and Dad kept the promise. When I was 12 years old we took a huge family vacation that lasted a whole week. One of the stops was Dinosaur National Monument. It was, quite possibly, one of the most beautiful things that I had ever seen. There’s a whole wall of rock that is nothing but a jumble of fossils and footprints. It’s a slice of preserved, ancient chaos on a mind-bogglingly grand scale. Of course, since I was just a random kid on vacation, I didn’t get the access that “Reading Rainbow” did to the facility, but it didn’t matter, I was a twitchingly happy excited little sprocket.
We also went to Tuba City, Arizona on that trip. I’m not sure how Mom had found out about the place, but it was a surprise to me. The draw there, or at least the draw for us, were the dinosaur tracks. When we were there, at least, which was a few years ago, the tracks weren’t roped off at all. We could walk right up to them and walk along with them, trying to match our stride to the dinosaurs. I know there are pictures of me giving it my best effort.
Now, I understand, I was a weird little kid. There’s no doubt about that one, or if there is, you only have to look at the weird adult I am now to realize that’s simple truth. While most of the kids around me wanted to go fling themselves around amusement parks like demented superballs, I liked museums and historical sights, especially if there was anything pertaining to earth sciences or fossils involved.
Denver was close enough to be a day trip and I made many happy visits with my family to the Denver Museum of Natural History to see the Dunkleosteus head on display. It’s a giant, armor plated Devonian era fish and that head was taller than my dad. The fish had large bony plates in its mouth that were used primarily for crushing and it was easy to imagine it as a formidable predator.
Mom is also just as much responsible for the fact that I write now. She wasn’t necessarily telling me that I should write, but Mom is really the one in our house who has the artistic bent. I had seen her draw and paint. She could follow craft patterns and make the things she was making look just like the pictures, if not better.
We made a lot of stuff in our house. We made noodles from scratch, which mostly meant I got to crank the handle on the noodle machine and hold my arms out for noodles to be draped on them to dry. We made bread dough snakes from a recipe in a magazine and our own play dough from a recipe that Mom had inherited.
Whenever Mom made art, she would let me try, too. I had the usual assortment of coloring books and paint by number and sticker books that little kids usually accumulate. But, I also had used real paint brushes and actual paints. When it came to the art supplies in our house, the answer wasn’t ever no, the answer was always that she had to help me. Mom let me use real watercolor paper and watercolors to paint. She even taught me how to make the colors bleed together by getting the paper wet first. Before I ever understood what the term wash meant in relation to art, I actually knew how to make one.
There was also always music in our house. Mom and I have always sung together. By the time I was in second grade, I knew every word to “The Eagles Greatest Hits 1971-1975” and we were on our second cassette tape, because we’d completely worn out the vinyl album and the first tape. Before I was ten, I knew all the words to Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and that it was not called Jeremiah was a bullfrog. One of my favorite things to listen to was John Denver reciting the poem “The Box”, which was on a very scratchy old record that skipped sometimes. I knew Christmas was on the way when Mom got out the record of Gene Autry singing “Here Comes Santa Claus”, which had a truly hideous neon pink and purple cover. Mom didn’t know it, but she was teaching me poetry through song lyrics, an album at a time.
Really, Mom encouraged art and science in our house without ever telling me that I needed to behave like a “young lady”. She taught me manners, to be sure, but she never made me feel embarrassed about the things I like. That, really, is how my Mom taught me to be a true Geek. She taught me to take joy in the things that made me happy without worrying about what the rest of the world thought. If I liked it, that was okay. If I found an interest to pursue, that was fine, as long as it was something that made me happy.
So, really, while Dad gave me the reference materials, it has really been my mom who taught me the true spirit of being a Geek. Like I said at the start of this column, the representation may have been lopsided, but the contribution absolutely was not.