Category Archives: Geek crafts

Nature studies galore at Estes Park

After our adventures at DetCon1 last week, we met up with my wonderful in-laws at the YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, where they were cabin-camping with the kiddo (hence letting us have our first kid-free vacation in many years).

I had no idea a place like this existed.  It was simply mind-blowing, how big this family camp is and how many activities they have.  I only wish we hadn’t been so tired and eager to get home, as we could have enjoyed it even more.

Many of the activities were free classes, and plenty of others charged a reasonable fee.  There’s also a day camp for kids age three and up on weekdays.  Free classes included things like tree art (gather your own twigs, leaves, pine needles, etc. and glue them to paper), photography, exercise classes, you name it.  The complex had a pool, tennis courts, craft center, mini golf, pony and horse rides, exercise track, picnic areas, miles and miles of hiking trails, restaurants, lodges, cabins… I could go on and on.

We had two wonderful days of watching a little girl take in nature.  We went hiking around a high mountain lake in Rocky Mountain National Park just a few minutes’ drive away.  We hiked around the huge YMCA campus, and attended a cookout.  Precious treasures were collected, in the form of sparkly pebbles, a ceramic horse she painted herself at the craft center, and countless twigs and dandelions.

Wildlife sightings included deer, hundreds of blue dragonflies, a baby rabbit, chipmunks, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, ants, roly-polies, deer, birds, and fish.   We ended each day exhausted by both the hiking and the high mountain air, and thoroughly enjoyed it all.  I love watching my little budding scientist at work, discovering the world around her.  If time off and budget permit, I would love to go back for a full week next summer and let her experience the day camp.

Where is your favorite place to experience nature?

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Filed under Geek crafts, Nature walks

Cross Stitching for Geeks

I love being crafty, but I’ll admit it’s not my forte. I can hem pants and cross-stitch and make basic sewn items from a pattern. I bake, but don’t even think about asking me to decorate a cake beyond writing “Happy Birthday” crookedly.

Fortunately for me, there are a lot of easy crafts out there – easy to learn, easy to do, or at least with good instructions. That’s one of the reasons I like to cross-stitch. Learning the basics of cross-stitch is easy, and from there you can make things as simple or complicated as you like. It’s also a craft I find soothing, something to do with my hands that requires some, but not all, of my focus.

There are some amazing folks out there who have come up with supremely awesome geeky cross stitch patterns. This is good, since making patterns is beyond my skill but following them is well within my reach.

Spend a few minutes searching Pinterest, Etsy, and Buzzfeed and you will find an amazing variety of patterns and completed cross-stitches ranging from the very basic to amazingly detailed works of art that must have taken someone months, possibly years.  Below are some of my favorites that have been added to the “someday when I have time to catch up on stuff like this” list.

If you have time to dig around on google, there are a lot of free patterns out there.  The ones that aren’t free tend to be in the $3-6 range.  If a pattern is more than $10 it better be something really, really amazing.  Here are a few of the better free ones I’ve seen.

Except it should say it in larger, friendlier letters

Just try to read that without hearing it in Vader’s voice.

In the paid range for patterns, the best ones I’ve found are all on Etsy. Weelittlestitches has these great patterns for the characters of many beloved movies, comics, shows, and games.  The ones that currently have my eye are the Fellowship of the Ring and Star Wars casts.  She also has Sherlock, Big Bang Theory, Princess Bride, Dr. Who, Buffy, Labyrinth, and… yeah, I could spend a lifetime trying to make all these adorable cross stitches.

Someday, I will get to stitch wee hobbitses and dwarves and men!

Another Etsy seller, Bombastitch, has Benedict Cumberbatch (who wouldn’t want that face on their wall?) and this beautiful throwback to  my childhood:

In my head I read this in Sean Connery’s voice.

Etsy seller CraftyCompanion has a great assortment of Dr. Who, My Little Pony, and other assorted geekiness.

Books and TARDISes. Two of my favorite things…

And probably the first one I of these I will actually make, from Etsy seller Dorkstitch, because my kid is kinda obsessed with Darth Vader:

It even has a little Death Star!

This one from Nerdylittlestitcher would be awesome as an end-of-school-year gift for a math teacher:

Apple Pi. Yum.

From Capesandcrafts comes this awesome Captain Mal quote (with lovely decorative border!):

And one of the best Star Wars lines of all time, also with ridiculously great border:

I saved the best for last – this beauty from robinsdesign, which is both decorative and functional.  I’m determined to make one before my kid takes high school chemistry.  So I have less than a decade left… sounds about right.

Which ones are your favorites?

 

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The Art and Science of Home Preserving- AKA fun with fruit lava

Definitely worth the effort

Definitely worth the effort

It’s apricot season here.  Last year I missed it because I didn’t realize the season is only a few short weeks.  So this year, the second I saw apricots showing up at the farmer’s markets and roadside stands, I pounced right away.  Why?  Because the relatives almost rioted when there was no apricot jam in with their Christmas presents last year.  Apparently after three years of our living in California – land of produce-a-plenty – it had come to be expected.  And berry jams just weren’t cutting it.  So this year it was get the apricots or have some disappointed and upset relatives on my hands (starting with my apricot-loving spouse).

So last weekend before the wrist surgery there was a bit of a frantic jam-making day with some probably-not-as-ripe-as-ideal apricots before I had to try to do jam-making while one-handed.  Working with one, non-dominant hand is a lot less than ideal when you’re dealing with what I fondly refer to as ‘fruit lava.’

I love home preserving.  It makes me feel like I have one more valuable skill in case of the apocalypse, the products tend to be way better than storebought, and it’s an inexpensive (albeit time-consuming) way to make some very nice gifts.  Especially if people send you back their empty jars.  Also, it involves a whole lot of science, whether you notice it or not.

I first started preserving about five years ago, when we lived in Monterey.  We had joined a CSA and I just couldn’t keep up with the bounty, even with us getting the “small” boxes each week.  Even with a lot of it being turned into homemade baby food (another post on the ease and cost-effectiveness of that later!), there was just so much produce.  I’d always adored the fresh jam my aunt made when I was growing up, so I decided to take a stab at it.

After all, people have been doing home preserving for millennia.  How hard could it be?  I learned that while it’s not that hard, it does take a lot of time.  And work.  And a bit of trial-and-error.

Naturally, I bought books on the subject.  My two favorites are The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (AKA the bible of canning), and Canning for a New Generation, recommended to me by a friend.  The Ball book is put out by the Ball company and is very user-friendly.  After all, it’s in their interest to make it easy for people to use their products.  Ball is pretty much synonymous with jars.  Even though there are several other companies on the market, you mainly see Ball on the shelves at grocery stores.

Speaking of Ball, I also like to support their jar division because it probably helps keeps their aerospace division afloat in the lean times of the aerospace industry.  No kidding, Ball Aerospace is part of the same company.  And they make really nifty parts for spacecraft.  The specialize in things like moving parts, sensors, and small satellite buses (platforms that host payloads), and I got to tour one of their really cool facilities in Colorado once.  Neat company – and seriously, all the same company.  So buying Ball jars, in a tiny, roundabout way, helps support the space industry.

Back to the jam-making.  It involves science on many levels, and once I trust my kid around fruit lava I think it’s going to make for some awesome ‘kitchen lab’ lesson time.  Here are just a few of the areas in home preserving that directly relate to serious science:

1) Killing and keeping out germs – you sterilize the jars, cook the snot out of the fruit, put the jars through a nice water bath, and seal them really nicely.  There’s also the sugar and the acid to help preserve and keep those nasty germs at bay.  Because if you screw up the sterilization part, your lovely Christmas gift could turn into botulism, and no one wants that!

2) Pectin – Whether you use storebought packages of pectin, or throw in some slices of apple in a cheesecloth, or just cook your fruit down forever and use the pectin already in there and hope it gets thick enough for your liking, it’s not technically jam if you don’t thicken it up (it’s just preserves).  And good luck making jelly without a lot of pectin.  There’s a lot of chemistry involved in turning your fruit from solid to liquid to a gel.

3) Sealing – why do you need head space in the jar, and what causes that satisfying little pop when your jars seal?  This is a great chance to talk about gases heating and expanding.  You leave that head space so there is a little bit of air.  Then when you put the jars through the water bath, that air heats up and some gets pushed out.  Pull the jar out to cool, and… as it contracts, you get a little bit of vacuum to suck that lid down nice and tight – and it makes that lid button go ‘pop!’ and tell you it has sealed.

4) The states of fruit lava in the lab – why does fruit break down and ooze juice when you add sugar to it (technical term: macerating)?  Why does lemon juice keep the fruit from turning brown (oxidizing)?  How long does it take your fruit to break down before slowly turning from solid to rolling-boil fruit lava to glossy, lovely jam?

5) Dealing with frustration in the lab – sometimes your best efforts are not rewarded.  Something goes wrong with the recipe.  Your jam foams, or it sticks to the bottom, or your pickles turn out soggy instead of crispy.  A jar fails to seal.  This is a great lesson opportunity for budding scientists – failed experiments are ones to learn from and start over.  Also, if the jar doesn’t seal you can still stick it in the fridge and eat it within a few weeks (or put it in the freezer for a few months – just don’t try to give it to grandma for Christmas).

6) One of these days I want to get a pressure canner and branch out even more.  Beyond what you can do with fruits, tomato sauce, and pickles using just a water bath, canning most (low-acid) vegetables safely needs more heat.  Short of getting industrial equipment, a pressure canner is the best I could get at home.

Bottom line, canning is both an art and a science.  I’ve gotten better with practice.  I’m still working on keeping my strawberry from foaming/bubbling, and those perfectly crisp pickled squash chips are still eluding me, but I’m getting closer with every experiment – er, batch.  And my daughter will slowly move up from fruit-washing assistant through the ranks: fruit cutter, sugar measurer, assistant stirrer, pot washer, and someday, when she is ready… wielder of the jar grabber.

What science experiments do you like to do with your kids in the kitchen?  Have you ever tried home preserving?  Do you think it’s worth the effort?

If you’re looking for an easy way to get started, I recommend starting with freezer jam.  It’s low-effort, delicious, and pretty much impossible to screw up.

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Ode to my Uber-Excessive Collection of Small Kitchen Appliances

Being both a geek and a foodie means I have a lot of kitchen gadgets.  I mean a lot a lot.  And I covet more.  If it were up to me, I’d have every multi-use and single-use kitchen doodad known to man – and about three times as many cupboards as I currently have to hold them all.

Many are the result of combining two households, some were received as wedding gifts, and some just seem to have appeared in the collection in between moves somewhere.  As in “Hey, did that mystery thing even come out of one of our boxes?”

So doing a quick inventory I came up with, in order of most-used to least-used: microwave, coffee maker (x2 – one lives at work), rice cooker, electric kettle, blender, toaster, slow cooker (x2), food processor, stand mixer, crepe maker, immersion blender, fondue pot, waffle iron, ice cream maker.  This doesn’t begin to tackle the list of thingamajigs I have that don’t plug in, by the way.  And I’m not even the chef in the family!

What don’t I have anymore that I collected over the years?  There are a few things that actually didn’t make the gadget-hoarding cut.  The donut maker never worked right, so it went to Goodwill a few weeks ago.  The electric skillet died in the last move.  The juicer was more trouble than it was worth to clean and was passed on to someone who might love it more than me.  Maybe I’ll try a different one someday (when I can afford it).

Then there are the gadgets I’ve loved to death.  I’ve killed the motor on several blenders and one immersion blender.  The blender/mini-food processor combo was handy and space-saving, but under-powered.  The George Foreman grill was highly overrated and generally just terrible at cooking things.  A popcorn air-popper that never really worked right.  In my just-after-college years I used to death a very cheap rice cooker that was upgraded to my current fuzzy-logic masterpiece.  And those infamous movers get credit for cracking the bowl of the old food processor.

What would I add to the collection if I could?  In order of would-love-to have: A Vitamix, a dehydrator, an induction burner, a deep fryer (which I actually won’t ever buy because I like fried food way too much to have that in my house) an electric griddle, and a raclette grill – just because I want to try it.  And of course the remaining KitchenAid accessories I don’t have: the meat grinder, the pasta maker, and the ice-cream maker attachment for whenever my current one dies.

If I had to whittle it down a bit, I could probably cut down, but… no, probably not.  I might use them all again in the next month or two!

The one that surprises me with its frequency of use is the Panasonic rice cooker.  This fuzzy-logic little marvel is multitalented.  I think we use it to steam things more than we use it to cook rice.  It has an awesome steaming tray and is perfect for vegetables or heating up those nice frozen pork buns.  Mmmm, Dim Sum.

This baby has settings for white rice, sticky rice, and brown rice.  It has a set-ahead timer so I can have fresh rice to make Misubi with in the morning, and it has a porridge setting so I can do overnight steel cut oats as well.  I haven’t ever tried it, but it even has a recipe for chocolate cake.  Yes, in the rice cooker.  So that, by far, wins first place in my book as the ultimate geek kitchen gadget.

My favorite kitchen appliance

The other gadget that *gasp* doesn’t plug in that I can’t live without is the apple peeler-corer.  For under $20 one of these little wonders will save you a lot of time with anything you need to mass-peel and slice.  It can be set up to just peel, just core, or both, meaning that when you have to feed 20 for Thanksgiving you can actually use it to peel potatoes for the mashed potatoes.

But most importantly to me it 1) makes “slinky apples” for my kid with its amazing spiral-slicing, and 2) makes things like homemade applesauce, apple butter, and apple pie a whole lot less painful.  I also get a surprising amount of use out of my salad spinner, because while I love the convenience of bagged salad, it usually disappoints.

What kitchen gadget(s) can’t you live without?

 

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Parent-Child Costumes

Most kids I’ve seen at cons absolutely love cosplay.  They love seeing the costumes, and they love dressing up in costumes.  It’s basically like an extra Halloween for them.  My kid is no exception – in fact, she has asked to wear a costume to the next con we go to.  She loves cosplay so much that the best way to get her to sit still through having her tangled hair brushed out in the morning is to watch youtube videos of awesome cosplay.  Current favorite is this one:

 

I’ve been slacking in my costume-making endeavors lately, mostly due to the lack of that one thing parents never have enough of: time.  My sewing pile has a bunch of mending items I need to get to before I can even consider finishing my Kaylee costume, and the first thing in line for the hot glue gun and spraypaint is the kiddo’s fairy wand in need of repair, not my never-finished steampunk rifle (formerly known as a super soaker).

I have a little time off coming up for wrist surgery, and I’m trying to think of some fun things I can make that are low-effort and can be done one-handed and without requiring a lot of coordination (naturally, I managed to injure my dominant hand).  I’ve seen some really awesome parent-child cosplays, and would love your input for even more ideas.  Also, this will probably end up being our Halloween costume this year – because time.

So here’s the list of possibilities, based on our interests, my limited sewing skills, and two-person costumes:

1) Kaylee/Serenity: me finally finishing my Kaylee costume (the coveralls outfit) and kiddo in a cardboard/spraypaint version of the ship

2) Steampunk Scout Leader/Girl Scout: based purely on the fact that I found a vintage scout leader uniform at Goodwill last year and we could make some really cool steampunk-ed merit badges

3) Leia/Ewok: because Ewoks.  And she’s about the right height for it.  The cool long-braid Leia hairdo would obviously require a wig.

4) Elsa/Olaf: like most of her age-mates, it’s her current favorite.  And she’s the right height for Olaf.  And because it would make me wear a dress for once…

5) Cyberman/Dalek: they’re robots, albeit super creepy ones.  She’s really into robots lately.  This one would be by far the most time-consuming/difficult, though.

What other cosplays would be good for an adult/kid combo?

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Product Review: Ice Sabers Star Wars Cookbook

I have way too many cookbooks and kitchen gadgets, but when I saw this item in the clearance section at Barnes & Noble, I couldn’t resist.  Who doesn’t want to eat a lightsaber popsicle?

The problem is, you don’t get much for the money here.  The mold makes four very tiny popsicles – all four of them together might add up to one regular-sized popsicle.  It’s also a tall, skinny mold so you have to prop it up somewhere in the freezer to keep it from tipping.  And then… there’s the challenge of getting them out.  Long, skinny, small popsicles with too short of a stick in a little plastic mold means that no matter what I did, the end of the lightsaber would break off and stay stuck in the mold.

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I tried the warm water to loosen them thing, tried it some more, tried being extra gentle, tried the molds with different recipes.  Always ended up with sadly broken-off lightsabers and using a chopstick to fish the other end of it out of the mold.  When my daughter tried to eat one off the stick, the remaining portion would fall off very easily as well, really upping the mess factor.

I was surprised to see this had a 3.6-star average on Amazon.  The general idea of their 20 reviews was about the same, though.  Cool idea, poor execution.

The cookbook that comes with the molds could easily have just been a little booklet.  There are few recipes for the main lightsaber colors (I started with red and then green) that are pretty basic and involve food coloring.  The rest are just everyday average popsicle recipes.  All of this you could find for free with a quick Google search and save the shelf space.

Overall, I can’t recommend these.  I’ll stick with our rocket pop molds, which work better and cost me I think two or three dollars.  I really wanted them to work, but after six batches of disappointment I threw in the towel and evicted them from my kitchen collection along with that stupid donut maker that never worked right.

Have you had better luck with these?  Any cool geeky popsicle or candy molds you can recommend?

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Creating a “Space” Space

If you happened to be wondering what a space-themed, gender-neutral kids’ room can look like, look no further!  I’m not going to show the whole room, because putting the detailed contents of my daughter’s room on the internet seems awfully creepy, but I will put close-ups or stock photos of as many of the items as I can.

If it’s something that can be bought online, there will be a link from the photo.  If it’s from a store, I’ll try to remember which one.  If it’s one of the wonderful homemade items, I hope you have as many talented crafty relatives and friends as I do.

Some of these items have been outgrown and are in storage for the next kid, but most are still in her room receiving loving use.

Boppy cover with stars and rockets (which I sadly could not find for sale anymore):

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Light-up mobile with clear acrylic moons and stars with LED lights.  It didn’t get hung this move because it would interfere with the ceiling fans, and I couldn’t find a picture of the exact one.  It looked a little bit like this one, though:

Rocket night light (unfortunately discontinued):

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Lamaze Space baby gym.  I don’t remember it being nearly that expensive.  Maybe it’s ‘rare’ now?

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Space ceiling fan/light (my personal favorite!):

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Rocket lamp, which we use as a giant night light so we put a red bulb in it.  Also, I definitely paid less for it than the one I found here:

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Rocket pillow from Target:

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Star-print crib sheets from Target:

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Framed pictures of each of the planets in the solar system – the set of prints I got one year for free for renewing either my Space Society or Planetary Society membership (can’t remember which), and the frames I bought on clearance through framesbymail.com.  I thought the yellow would provide a nice, cheery contrast to the dark prints.  Wall decals are from Target.

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Rocket storage box, found at Ross, and solar system rug (the small size):

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Growth Chart from Amazon (customized with her name, not shown):

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Rocket rug:

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Not shown: Lots and lots of glow-in-the-dark stickers.

In the homemade category:

Star blanket

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Space quilted pillow

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Cross-stitch from my amazingly talented MIL

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Space pillowcases (I actually made these – they’re about the extent of my sewing skills).  Currently in use so wrinkly and taken in bad light!

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photo 1

What else would you love to see in a space-themed nursery?

What are some other good gender-neutral geek themes for kids rooms?

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Busting that Stereotype, Cracking that Ceiling, and Proving Those Jerks Wrong.

One of my favorite t-shirts – from http://www.offworlddesigns.com

This is for every girl or woman who had to grow up hearing any of these.  A little motivation for a gray February day.

“Girls aren’t good at math and science.”

We are.  We may not always be encouraged to be, but we are.  I’m encouraging you now.  Surround yourself with others who will encourage you.  Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something or aren’t good at something if you haven’t tried at least a dozen different approaches to get better in your weaker areas.  Find a tutor, or a book that explains it better, or work with a friend.  You’d be amazed how much a fresh perspective and a little support can do to make you realize that math and science are fun – and not that hard if you’re not constantly told you can’t.

“Oh, don’t you look pretty in that outfit.”

You do – but that’s not all you are.  You have substance, you have worth, you have brains.  You are more than the fashion of the moment, a doll, an object, or your external appearance.

“Why are you playing with a boy’s toy?  Don’t you want a dolly?”

Variety is the spice of life.  Choice is important.  Figure out what you like, and don’t let others dictate what you enjoy.  You don’t have to pick pink sparkly things – but if you do, it should be because you were allowed a choice and decided for yourself what your tastes are.  There’s nothing wrong with pink, sparkles, ruffles, dolls, rainbows, kittens, or bows – but they shouldn’t be crammed down anyone’s throat as the only way to go or the only acceptable things for girls to play or decorate with.

“Oh, you’re such a sweet little princess”

Being a princess isn’t actually very glamorous in real life.  They have schedules, keepers, public appearances, and not a whole lot of freedom.  A real-life princess is scrutinized in the press, never gets any privacy, and has the whole world notice if she gets a gray hair or dares wear the same outfit twice.  Their ‘subjects’ often question why they are even still around – it’s rough to have a bunch of people say you aren’t necessary, or even that you’re a burden.  They’re also usually extremely well-educated, politically savvy, and highly accomplished women in their own rights, not fluff-headed cartoon characters full of sweetness and light.

“That’s such an un-feminine thing to say or do.”

Who gets to define that?  Feminine according to what standard?  None of it makes any sense and there’s no consistency.  Women should cook at home, but men get to be great chefs?  How does it even make sense that one is ‘feminine’ while the other is ‘masculine’?  Women should be in trim shape, but not so fit as to be muscular?  Skirted garments are for women in one culture, but for men in others?  You should dress ‘pretty’ but not ‘sexy’ and have to know where that moving-target fine line is at all times?  These ‘rules’ change from decade to decade and culture to culture.  So don’t bother chasing an ever-changing impossible ‘standard.’  Be yourself and find things to do that you enjoy and are willing to work hard at.

“You’re not skinny/pretty/stylish enough.”

Be healthy.  Be confident.  Take care of yourself.  None of the rest of it matters.

“You’re too bossy/b*tchy/pushy”

If you were a boy or man, you’d be described as ‘confident’ instead.  Or a ‘good leader,’ or ‘persuasive.’  It’s another double standard.  Be yourself, and stand up for yourself.  Stay tactful, but don’t be afraid to push back.  And never, ever be afraid to say ‘no.’  It’s a very powerful word.

“You’re such a feminist.”

Definition of feminism according to Merriam-Webster: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.  How did that ever become an insult?  Why is it ‘ the other f-word?’  What is so awful about wanting equal rights and opportunities?  Feminist doesn’t equal misandrist.  There’s nothing in the definition about hating men, thinking women are better than men, wanting to take anything away from men.  What is so horribly threatening about people wanting to be equal?

“You’ll never find a husband doing (insert whatever they think you’re doing wrong)”

A husband is a life partner.  Partner.  As in equal.  Not someone who will take pity on you or somehow be talked or tricked into attaching himself to you for life.  If you aren’t yourself when finding a spouse or partner, you’re basing the whole relationship on a lie.  It’s not fair to either of you.  Be the best self you can be – and remember that being someone you are not won’t find you a compatible partner, it will find you misery.

“Girls/women can’t do (insert pretty much anything here).”

So there’s a bunch of stuff that an entire half of the world’s population can’t do?  Women can’t fight a war?  It’s been done at least part of the time for most of recorded history.  Win a Nobel Prize?  Many times over.  Finish an Iron Man?  Check.  Climb Everest?  Done.  Discover a new element?  Yes.  Reach the North Pole?  Yep.  Win Iditarod?  Done.  Engineer, CEO, film director, doctor, physicist, astronaut, ship captain, general, inventor, you name it, it’s pretty darned likely a woman has done it.  Probably lots of women, many of them against incredible odds and extra barriers.  So don’t tell me a woman or girl can’t do something.  When you say that, what I hear is actually, “I personally don’t think you should for some reason, but I’ll say ‘girls’ or ‘women’ to generalize so I don’t sound quite as much like a jerk.”  When you tell a girl she can’t, you’re probably doing it for a selfish or ignorant reason, or out of long habit you don’t feel like breaking.  Don’t you dare ever tell a little girl she can’t do something.  It takes a pretty soulless schmuck to squash the dreams of a child.

Yeah, ok, so I’m feeling a little punchy on this topic today.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go back to work on trying to follow my own advice 🙂

Has anyone ever told you that you can’t do something?  How did you respond?  What do you wish someone had told you that you could achieve when you were little?

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Filed under Geek crafts, Opinion pieces

Kids at Cons

This is something of a polarizing topic.  Geeks love to get together with other geeks.  There are conventions for just about anything, ranging from the very broad (general sci-fi/fantasy/comic/gaming conventions) to the specific (one fandom, such as Gallifrey One for Dr. Who).  Fans tend to be passionate and extremely particular.  And they also tend to hold very strong opinions about whether kids belong at cons.

On one side is the argument that we need to raise the next generation of con-goers and con-runners.  Plus kids generally love this kind of stuff and it’s easy to get them interested when they are young.  You want to get them really into it before they get old enough to be embarrassed!  On the other side are the folks, usually childless (but not always), who want to go enjoy the con in peace and not be bothered by those ‘snot-nosed kids’.

The issue gets even more complicated when you consider content and interest level of things at the con.  Comics, movies, games, TV shows, cartoons, manga, books, anime, and graphic novels can be very kid-friendly things, but there also some extremely adult ones out there.  My daughter loves any excuse to wear a costume, and sees cons as Halloween-like opportunities to dress up, eat too much junk, and run around with other kids a lot.

One of the issues that has come up in recent years – at San Diego Comic-Con, for example – is that there isn’t any attempt to keep these apart. There can be booths for Ni Hao Kai-lan next to booths selling artwork of a fantasy warrior woman with impossible proportions fighting in scraps of leather.  If your kid is in the “why?” and “what’s that” stages, this can make for some awkward conversations you would rather have a little later.  How do we balance wanting our Spiderman-obsessed kid to get to see all the people dressed as her favorite hero with not wanting her to see someone dressed in a BDSM-Spiderman mashup outfit or a booth selling graphic Spiderman slashfic?

Another dilemma is whether or not to stay at the con hotel(s).  It’s easy on parents to be able to take a tired kid back to a hotel room for some TV or a snack and a nap, but how close a room to the party floor did the hotel give you?  Will there be naked drunk people running around the hotel hallways after midnight?  Will the midnight drum circle be in the room directly below yours?

So what is a con-going geek parent to do?  First, gauge the family-friendliness level of the particular con as well as the ‘adult’ level.  Look at the website and see what kind of programming they will have.  Ask someone who has been to that con before not only what the nightlife is like, but how far it tends so spread from the party floor.  Check with the hotel to see if you  can get a room far, far away from the party floor – preferably in a separate tower if the hotel is big enough for that.

Judge the size and focus of the con as well.  Is it a small, fan-run literary convention or a large, for-profit convention run by professionals?  Both of these can end up being family-friendly, but in different ways.

Sometimes you can tell how family friendly a con is by looking at the average age of attendees. Are there mostly folks in their twenties, or is the average age closer to fifty or beyond?  This isn’t a perfect way to tell, though. Some of the cons with mostly older attendees are making concerted efforts to attract younger people and kids to keep the con from dying out (young volunteers have more energy!). And some of the younger crowd want to have their fun without little kids around.  But in general, the cons we have attended that consisted mostly of older people were the same ones where we were frowned upon for dragging a toddler around with us.

We haven’t actually had the experience of going to a con without a child.  Other than some Star Trek conventions I went to with my dad and older siblings as a youth, my first con was BaltiCon when my daughter was about 7 weeks.  We were “that couple with the baby.”

It was surprisingly easy to attend panels and enjoy programming with a newborn, because she slept through the entire thing in the Baby Bjorn.  We alternated who got to wear the baby and be sweaty, and I’d have to find a quiet corner to nurse her every few hours, but other than that it was pretty much a non-issue.  We sat through an entire reading by our favorite author without her making so much as a peep.  We did go home each night, though, since it was a short drive.  So our first con experience was a positive one, and an easy thing to manage even as new parents.

Things have gotten more complicated as she has grown older, though.  Age two was probably the hardest period for con-going. She was a little ball of energy who couldn’t hold still and couldn’t stay quiet no matter what activity or snack we gave her.  Toddlers are a difficult age at a con, because they’re too old to just sleep and too young to really do any of the kids programming.  So what is a geek parent to do?

Not going isn’t really an option.  Cons aren’t just for fun for us – I do panels on things like Women in STEM and getting kids interested in STEM fields, spacecraft design, military sci-fi, and anything else they’ll put me on that sounds interesting and matches my skill/experience set.

My husband is a writer and takes advantage of the cons for both education and networking.  The cons with a more literary bent almost always have a writer’s workshop and several panels on things like traditional publishing vs. e-publishing, worldbuilding, what the big publishers are looking for now, etc.  There are often representatives from the major publishing houses, magazines, and agencies, as well as big-name authors and well-respected editors.

So short of not going, let’s look at the options available for attending a con with kids.  First, in terms of judging things for kids to do and places for them to go at the con, here is the range we have seen at the cons we’ve been to (which is not that wide, so please feel free to comment and add others we haven’t seen yet):

  • Family friendly room: a designated space in the hotel or convention center where parents can take kids to run around and play.  Policies vary, but normally small kids must have a parent with them at all times and older kids can often be left there unsupervised.  Sometimes there will be formal programming going on in the room, but more often it’s just a big open room with toys and craft supplies, and some heroic volunteers. These are people who deserve medals and frequently end up totally frazzled by the end of the weekend.  Be sure to thank these kind souls.
  • Kids programming: an actual track of specific programming for kids, usually a mix of some science experiments, crafts such as making your own wand or lightsaber, kid-friendly musical events (we’ve seen a harp demonstration and sing-along g-rated filk sessions), foam sword-fighting, and Arduino projects.  There’s almost always something involving legos and some sort of workshop for making costume pieces.  At the larger cons, this programming is sometimes broken up into separate tracks by age ranges. The minimum age to participate varies. At some it’s 3-and-up (if potty trained) and at others it’s 6-and-up, etc.  Young kids normally have to be signed in and out, but policies vary by each con so be sure to ask.
  • Teen programming: pretty self-explanatory.  Stuff geared towards what the teens like, in an effort to let them enjoy the con away from their horribly embarrassing parents.
  • Professional, licensed childcare service: this is usually only available at the bigger cons.  We were able to take advantage of this at WorldCon last time.  The prices are around $10-15 an hour, and they have great hours (at Chicon7, at least) – they were open late enough that we could go to the Masquerade and the Hugo Awards Ceremony.  It seemed terribly under-utilized there, though.  Our daughter was usually one of a handful of kids, sometimes the only one. The kids were sometimes outnumbered by employees and had two whole rooms to roam.  I hope it doesn’t mean they will eventually get rid of this service because not enough people are using it.  The company they used was really good, and we were very impressed by the professional caregivers.  There was a state-law-mandated limit of 10 hours per day of care, but I don’t think we ever came anywhere near using that much.

Other than the con services and programming, there are a few other options for parents going to cons with their kids.  The one we fall back on the most is the tag-team parenting.

  • Trade off: pick which panels and events you really want to attend and tag-team the kid duties.  We go through the hardcopy schedule with a highlighter and mark which ones are most important to us, then negotiate over the ones that overlap.  Handoff can happen in the hallway between panels, at the hotel room, at the family friendly room, at the restaurant for lunch, wherever.  While one parent is attending something on the program, the other can be making a run to get food, taking kiddo up to the room for a nap, strolling through the dealer’s room, or finding something else on the program that is generally more kid-friendly to do.  Sword fighting demos, LARP, movie rooms or concerts (depending on what’s playing), and quidditch games are good for this. The big drawback to this method is the adults never get to really do anything together.
  • Roll the dice and take the kid along: Do this armed with many distractions, and hope he or she cooperates.  Only in appropriate events/panels of course.  Whenever possible, my husband comes along to the panels I speak on as moral support (and as a ringer in case the audience clams up at question time, which basically never happens).   He sits in the very back with our daughter, armed to the teeth with coloring books, toys, snacks, the iPad and headphones.  If she gets noisy, they sneak out the door.  We’ve also done this together when there is a panel, reading, or event we both really want to attend  The older the kid is, the easier this one is to pull off.  There’s usually another, older kid or two at the back of the room completely engrossed in texting or playing a PSP game – while mom or dad is watching the panel, pre-teen probably isn’t even aware it’s going on.
  • Spread the load: go to the con with some other parents you know, and trade off babysitting duties.  If there are friends you trust at the con,  one adult can watch all of the kids while the rest of the adults are off doing other things.  This is easier for folks who tend to go to the same cons each year and have well-established friendships with other geek families.  For us, this hasn’t been an option yet because we move every couple of years and we don’t have an established “home town con” we go to every year.
  • Don’t bring the kids at all: this option only works, of course, if you have someone to leave them with.  Again, the older the kids are, the easier this is to achieve.  The easiest way to manage this is to go to cons where your relatives live. My parents have helped us out with daytime con-babysitting twice, and we are hoping to get to a con this summer while our daughter is spending some time visiting my in-laws.
  • Bring backup: invite your favorite babysitter or a relative to stay with you, if you know someone who would like to go to the con.  Offer to pay for the ticket and the room (or share the room if you’re cheap like us and get along well with your relatives) in exchange for them babysitting for part of the con.  We were able to do this once and killed two birds with one stone – our daughter got some quality time with an aunt she doesn’t get to see very often, and we got some babysitting time and a nice visit with my SIL.

So what are your thoughts on kids at cons?  Any suggestions for methods we haven’t tried for dividing kid duties and making sure everyone has a good time while not annoying the other con-goers?  For our family, cons are both work and play, so we want to make sure we can get the work part done while ensuring our kid has a safe, fun, and educational experience.  Do you know of some particularly kid-friendly cons?

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The Incredible, Edible Minion

I got home late from work and the house is still full of sick people.  So, without further ado, tonight I give you a very short post showcasing an awesome geeky craft to enjoy with your kids: minion cupcakes!  And yes, they looked better on Pinterest.  But mine are still pretty cute, for a not-very-artistically-talented baker.

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I made these a while back as a thank-you for a friend who was kind enough to pet-sit for us, and happens to love the minions (who doesn’t, right?).  I’ll add that this is the one and only time twinkies have ever been in my house.  Ever.   Also, the twinkies were hard as rocks by the second day so you either need to eat these quickly, or just pull off the twinkie and treat it as one giant, inedible-but-adorable decoration while you enjoy the cupcake.  This will also save you from a mouth dyed black by the somewhat creepy black gel frosting.

You can make these with any type of cupcake and frosting, and twinkies cut in half.  Use a fine decorating tip and your own decorating frosting, or you can cheat like me and buy a little tube of pre-made decorating gel and some sugar eyeballs (these are also great for making Sesame Street Characters).

And remember – baking is not just an art, it’s a science.  Delicious science.

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