Thursday, 7 January 2010

Embracing Your Inner Nerd

I come from a long line of nerds. In my family, we were so nerdy we didn't even know what 'nerd' meant. And most of the time, excluding the hell of our teenage years, we didn't really care.

Wikipedia (See? Nerd-like, I have provided a link) have a good definition for nerd: a term often bearing a derogatory connotation or stereotype, that refers to a person who passionately pursues intellectual activities, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests that are age-inappropriate rather than engaging in more social or popular activities...a nerd is often excluded from physical activity and considered a loner by peers, or will tend to associate with like-minded people.

Obscure, age-inappropriate interests was us to a T. My sisters and I were, over the years, totally obsessed with the following subjects: Vikings, Romans, Germans, Spanish, Chinese, buttons and stamps (we had massive collections),Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, cats, Victorian literature, and poetry.

Not surprisingly, my sisters and I had a tough time finding like-minded people. We had a few friends, but like us, they tended to be nerdy too. My sisters were a little more athletic than I was, but that isn't saying much. I was the pathetic kid who always got picked last at every ball sport; in fact, I often caused quarrels -- "That's not fair--we had her last!" -- "No you didn't, we did!" while I scowled and stared at the ground. Middle school and high school were no fun at all. I'd go through labor again before a week's worth of junior high, and believe me, that's saying a lot.

My parents were both spectacular nerds. They got married very late, in the early 1950s, meeting through a Christian match-making service where they were able to view each other's particulars on file cards. My father was impressed that my mother liked poetry and was learning Spanish; my mother was impressed that my father read books and did not drink or smoke. She overlooked the fact that he did not have a job; he overlooked the fact that her height was listed as 6' 2". (The agency had made a clerical error: she had told them 62 inches in order to avoid the shame of having to say "five foot two").

As kids, I loved my parents, but I was embarrassed to death by them. I was embarrassed by their disparate heights: my father, rail thin and just under 6' 4", stood over a head taller than my slightly pudgy mother. I was also embarrassed by the fact that our parents were more than a decade older than our peers' parents and had met through a match-making agency, which struck me as terribly shameful. The younger, trendier parents of our friends had met at dance halls or universities or clubs. If any of them had met each other through a match-making agency, they were too savvy to tell anyone. So was I. For some reason, this question came up a number of times; I always half-lied and mumbled that they'd shared a common love of Spanish, books, and poetry.

Nerds tend to give rise to nerds: my parents were so old that I hardly had a chance to meet my grandparents let alone get to know them, but from the sound of things, they were mostly nerds too. Strangely enough, though, I married a non-nerd; I think something in me yearned to even out the gene pool. My husband grew up athletic, sociable, and quite gregarious.

The gene pool evening out didn't really work: both of our daughters take after me.

My oldest daughter knows the Chinese celestial gods and the seven celestial warriors for each god. She can bore you senseless with fan fiction and used to entertain me for hours with passages from The Lord of the Rings. But she has inherited a little of my husband's sporty non-nerdiness: she's a great swimmer and socially gregarious.

My youngest daughter can sit in her room downloading anime fanfiction until the cows come home. She can bend your ear about things like the history of tea in China, the meanings and origins of different clan seals in Japan, and the Korean syllabary. She is learning Korean, Chinese, and Japanese, and enjoys tutoring me in Turkish (the blind leading the blind maybe, but it's still impressive). She knows the Turkish national anthem and can belt it out on the piano; she knows all the capitals of just about every country on earth, including Kiribati and Sierra Leone. She can tell you all about the hexidecimal representation of color (please don't ask me) and has a total of eleven Yahoo accounts. She has lectured her friends on the differences between Chinese, Japanese, and Korean (language and nationality) and complained at a restaurant that had the characters for 'Shanghai' (上海) upside-down. She loves to design her own desktop background, and at age 9, was able to tell her business management teacher the keyboard shortcuts for 'copy', 'paste', and 'cut'. And she couldn't ride uphill on a bicycle if her life depended on it.

Sometimes I feel like we ought to be doing more interesting things. Surely a teenager should be socializing and having fun with her peers? On New Years Eve, my husband and I were shattered, having spent the entire day teaching. "Do you want to do anything special?" I asked our youngest, thinking she might like to go out.

She looked at me shyly. "Want to sporcle?" (Sporcle, in case you don't know it, is pretty much Nerd Central, along with Free Rice.)

And so we sporcled out the old year, together, my girl and me. We had a blast too: African capitals; countries with K; recognizing countries by shape. Ahhh...

What can I say? Like mother, like daughter.


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm a nerd from way back. although I was fairly athletic. I was fast at least. But I was always the book nerd and cool fact nerd (the cool facts being ones that no one else wanted to know.)

Bish Denham said...


"I'm called Little Buttercup,
Poor Little Buttercup,
Though I could never tell why..."

My sister and I knew all the words to all the songs of the H. M S. Pinafore and sang them loudly. You are not alone in coming from a nerdy family. And it's absolutely wonderful that you sporcled in the New Year with your daughter!

TechnoBabe said...

Your family sounds wonderful to me. I hope you and your daughter do Free Rice often. Lots of people could benefit from your amazing minds.

Blythe said...

"The nerd is strong in this one..." as we say around here. I love knowing that the world is dotted with households full of enthusiasms like yours. Now I think I'll go Sporcle my afternoon away in a celebration of nerdiness.

Mary Witzl said...

Charles -- You were an athletic nerd? I had all sorts of mad crushes on athletic nerds, all sadly unrequited.

My sisters and I were all book nerds. My girls are huge on cool facts. I'm more of an obscure detail nerd myself.

Bish -- Yay, another G & S fan! My older sister knows just about all the lyrics W S Gilbert ever wrote, including even the more obscure operettas like Yeoman of the Guard and Iolanthe. My husband is a G & S fan too, and our kids are as well. We've taken them to see The H M S Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado, and they happily sang along. (Thank God most of the people in the audience smiled indulgently. I think they were just glad to see a younger generation of G & S fans.)

TechnoBabe -- Thank you! We visit the Free Rice site a lot more than we should. We're determined to nail Guinea Bisseau, Timor Leste, and Uzbekistan. If we're really feeding people in the process, so much the better.

Blythe -- I'm so glad that there are people who approve -- or commiserate. I spent half my life trying to hide my nerdiness; it's kind of nice to be out of the closet finally.

Helen said...

Yay the Nerds! One day we shall rule the earth. We were such nerds when we were little - My Mum and Dad (equally as embarassing as yours - older by far and we only had a motorbike, no car, which they both would ride around on)were amateur play types and were in every G&S ever put on by local groups. My sister and I went to every performance in our PJ's. Sigh. And there was no way "athletic" would ever describe us. Thanks for introducing us to Free Rice - we have had an absolute ball!!!!!

Postman said...

Nerds forever! Both you and your daughters have some impressive interests (fancy being interested in Vikings as a little girl!). That's quite amazing that your daughter has decided to tackle not one, not two, but three of the Asian tongues simultaneously. I've got my hands full with Korean alone, though I've decided (after watching thousands of hours of anime) that I'd like to take a crack at Japanese eventually.

Okay, since we all seem to be having a Nerds-Not-So-Anonymous meeting here, I'll step up to the mike. My big thing as a kid was World War II airplanes. Before I entered high school I could recite the name, designation, range, armament, nationality, manufacturer, and crew number of any fighter, bomber, reconnaissance, cargo or utility plane in any theater on either side of the conflict. And in the case of Japanese planes, I could recite their actual names (Shiden-kai, Hayate, Raiden) in addition to their allied code names (George, Frank, Jack). Even now I'm still expanding my knowledge base to Korean War and World War I warbirds, not to mention latter-day civilian aircraft like Cessnas and Pipers and Beechcraft. Love 'em.

And for the icing on the cake, I did the same thing with Star Wars spaceships: X-Wings, Y-Wings, B-Wings...heh heh.

Excuse me, I have to go look up Sporcle now.

Robert the Skeptic said...

My descent into Nerddom was the result of both "nature and nurture". My genetics caused me to be smaller than other boys, and my mother used "Leave It To Beaver" as her guide as to what she thought kids wore to school. I had no chance of ever being cool.

I had to take the path less chosen or get beaten up. Over time I found that being different would be my saving grace; the different path became my path of choice.

Some of the most famous and successful people in history were/are "Nerds". To me, everyone else are just "sheep".

Robin said...

You all sound wonderful to me. I'm all ready to move in. Oh? You didn't ask me? A minor detail.

We have an even worse phenomenon, here. Nerd resistance. We embrace nerdism, yet our sons try to be, *shudder*, cool. It is horrible. You can see them fighting their natural tendencies. It breaks my heart.

Kevin yelled at his chess club teacher because he wrote the names of all the chess club kids on the board. Sigh.

Mary Witzl said...

Helen -- It's so nice to meet other nerds! And I just knew that you would like Free Rice.

My father was a policeman in The Pirates of Penzance. He went around the house for weeks singing his head off about his constabulary duties; it was almost too much to bear. But I'll bet you still like G & S -- right?

Postman -- This is great: all of us nerds are outing ourselves! I feel so free!

I was the one who was crazy about Vikings. I memorized epic poems about them, made a miniature Viking ship out of balsa wood, and read books about Leif Erickson. A couple of our cats were given Viking names.

I've got cousins who were really up on their WWII planes (these things run in families). My uncle and cousins knew all about Zeros, Messerschmitts, Hawkers and you-name-it. You sound like you could give them some serious competition, though. I know close to zip-all about warplanes, but I do know that the raiden had superior maneuverability and could climb better than other planes, and that it was very effective in bringing down B-29 bombers -- I've read a lot of WWII memoirs. (God, listen to me!)

Robert -- Ah, Leave it to Beaver! The nostalgia! My mother had a thing about clothes too. She had no fashion sense whatsoever and couldn't accessorize or apply make up to save her soul. My sisters and I were hopelessly awkward and clueless; I couldn't have taken another path if I'd wanted to (and by the time I got to high school, boy, did I).

But now that I'm a full-fledged adult, I'm so glad I grew up a nerd. Like you, I'm sure it's a good thing. And I know it made me less of a sheep.

Robin -- You mean we don't all sound barking mad? What a relief!

Don't worry about your sons. I spent almost all of my high school years in total denial. I lied and tried to hide my natural tendencies, though I never managed to fool anyone. And now look at me! One day your sons will certainly follow in your footsteps, just wait and see.

Postman said...

That is so neat! Memorizing poems and building miniature ships...yeah, you were deep into it. What a worthy subject of study. I'll bet that was oodles of fun. I got into Norse mythology there for a bit but wasn't up on my shipbuilding or poems like you. Awesome. I'm feeling freer by the minute myself...

Congratulations! You're learning vital aircraft statistics by association. I need to read more war memoirs myself. Sounds like I could still get my plane fix doing it, too...I really want to get Saburo Sakai's book, "Samurai!" (I believe he was the second highest-scoring Imperial Japanese Navy fighter ace in WWII, if I'm not mistaken; do you know of him?)

Let's hope those cousins of yours and I never meet, or else you just know what the conversation is going to be like...

Jacqui said...

Love this. My sister loves to play a game with my husband and I that she calls "Dork-off."

But I think today's kid nerds are luckier. There's the internet, so 1. computer nerds are suddenly cool, and 2. you can always find somebody else with your same strange obsession.

Lily Cate said...

I love Free Rice.
I am also a nerd stranded in a family of non-nerds. My parents are devout non-nerds, my husband is a non-nerd, and my son is shaping up to be a social butterfly
just like Daddy.(although he has strong nerdish tendencies, especially towards mechanics)
At least I have the internet. Think of all those olden day nerds, lost in the library with the card catalogue and the microfilm.

Merry Monteleone said...

I love this.

My 12 year old had a sleepover over winter break. I wound up with four middle school girls here over night. After realizing they'd been holed up in her room for an hour without making much noise, I went to check on them...

They were oohing and ahhhing over all of her books. Telling her about ones they had, asking to borrow ones of hers... and she was proudly showing off the new novels she'd gotten for Christmas.

I have to tell you, I left the room wanting to jump up and down. YES! They likes booksies!

Of course they spent the rest of the night and into the morning doing makeovers and videotaping their own music videos, but still.

Anne Spollen said...

I'm not a total nerd, just an English nerd. I know this because when I rent movies, the kids say, "Oh no! It's a mom movie with a big plot, like something they make us watch in English!"

Those big plots...

And I can't do hw with my kids because I like things like punctuation and sentence variety. I am an English nerd and proud of it.

Charlie said...

I think nerdity is a gift. As a mother, you should be happy your daughters are running around mostly nude at the mall.

And about you and your sisters: your maiden name wasn't Brontë, was it?

a. fortis said...

Kiribati is a country? I guess I'm not as much of a nerd as I thought I was...although one of my favorite activities at the age of about six or seven was, after school, listening and singing along with Gilbert and Sullivan operettas on my grandfather's record player.

I hadn't heard of Sporcle, but it seems very cool, kinda like Mental Floss. Like I need more online diversions!!

Mary Witzl said...

Postman -- Just to give you some idea of what we're talking about here, the ship was built out of popsicle sticks and I was nine. Your airplane stuff is far more impressive.

I've run into Saburo Sakai's name before and there seems no question that he was a brave and talented airman. I don't agree with some of the things he said about the war (in particular, Nanjing and the plight of the WWII comfort women), but I admire his outspokenness about the emperor's culpability, which is another example of his bravery.

Jacqui -- You are SO right: nowadays there is a nerd-friendly environment that almost encourages kids to indulge. My daughters have a lot of nerd friends and they all get together quite openly and talk about their nerdy pursuits. They are even capable of self-deprecatory humor, which just amazes me. I was a shy little loner and heavily in denial. And I wasn't strong (or savvy) enough to make fun of my nerdiness -- it was just too pathetic. A support group would have come in handy.

Lily -- That's some feat, being born into a family of non-nerds and coming out okay! My sister has two kids who are both very much non-nerds: athletic, gregarious, and confident (though they do read). We look at them and shake our heads in awe: how did that happen? All the nerd genes went into my youngest.

And yes -- hooray for the internet. The library would be my home if it weren't for the internet!

Merry -- With kids like that, you've got the best of both worlds. My eldest daughter is like that: she can talk about books for hours on end, but when she's done, she wants to give somebody a makeover and talk about movies.

I'll never forget the first time our girls were both reading, quietly, together. My husband and I just looked at each other and smiled -- it was one of the best moments of our parenting career.

Anne -- A 'mom movie with a big plot' -- I love that!

Last night, I watched The Hours with my youngest daughter. It took us a long time to get into it, but when we finally realized what the Mrs Dalloway link was, we were both caught up entirely. I don't think I could watch that movie with my eldest, but who knows? Maybe nerdiness ripens over the years and it'll happen.

And here's to Nerd Pride. We ought to have our own slogan and caps and buttons and everything! Maybe even a secret handshake...

Charlie -- My girls like malls, but they can only take so much of them. Also, the eldest went out clubbing with a couple of friends here -- once. She came back disgusted. There was SMOKING there and IT COST MONEY and THE MUSIC WAS TOO LOUD, etc. I had to struggle not to smile.

No, we weren't the Brontës, but we sure did read them.

Sarah -- It's a group of islands, a whole slew of them plus one raised coral island. The Japanese occupied most of the islands during WWII, which is the only reason I know about it.

So we have G & S in common too? A junior high, high school, and writing group -- and now this. To this day I sing G & S songs, out loud, any place I damn well please. My favorite one is Tit-willow from the Mikado.

Blythe said...


You must look at this Viking ship.

Trust me. It vindicates you.

One of my indexing teachers was a Scotswoman: "I always include the names of trees. I like them, and I think everyone else should as well." (Not an exact quote but very nearly so.)

Angela said...

Sporcle? That's a new one on me. I think you're fab just the way you are!

Charlie said...

I THOUGHT I proofread my comment, but apparently I didn't. I'm sure you caught my error, tee-cha, but please know that I meant "your daughters are NOT" instead of "are."

I feel like an ass when I do things like that.

Vijaya said...

Dontcha just love nerds? I do ...

Mary Witzl said...

Blythe -- 15,000 MILLION ice cream sticks? I can't get over that! And you are right: I had NO IDEA that anyone else might attempt this sort of thing. Believe me, my ship was a poor effort compared to that.

Was your indexing colleague named Ann, by any chance? If so, I know her: she was my indexing teacher too, for a short time. I know she had students in the States and Canada. And she LOVED trees.

Angela -- Aw, thank you! I yam what I yam, as Popeye says; even if nobody liked me this way, I couldn't change.

If you're ever looking for another procrastinating opportunity, look no further than Sporcle. On the other hand, if you're trying to get any work done, avoid it like the plague.

Charlie -- I knew exactly what you meant! And you've just outed yourself: although there are non-nerds who would come back to clarify things, I'm betting that most of them wouldn't really care. It's a nerd thing to correct typos. Whenever I make a typo, I can't stand myself until I go back and fix it.

Vijaya -- I love us too. There is a place in the world for us; things would be a lot less fun (and lonelier) without the nerds of the world.

Anonymous said...

Mother dear:

Would it interest you to know that I introduced a friend to sporcle, and we spent many an hour yelling at the screen because we had forgotten Lesotho, Andorra or Ohio? Strangely addictive, to be sure.

Also very useful for remembering the first 100 english pokemon names, in order. Might want to get May started on that one.

Peace out.

Chris Eldin said...

You made me go to sporcle, and I almost never came back!
I love this story! But "Nerd" is now my kids' favorite word to curse others...sigh... And they don't realize they have nerd inclinations themselves (watching science channel, liking to sew and cook, there is more...)


Mary Witzl said...

Hi honey -- Yes, that would interest me, of course. But what interests me even more is that you forgot Lesotho, Andorra AND Ohio! How could you forget OHIO? What kind of self-respecting nerd could forget an entire state? (smiling face)

You're one of us, no doubt in my mind. Glad you turned somebody else too. Non-nerds can easily be converted.

Chris -- When I was growing up, 'nerd' was absolutely an insult and it was used a lot. Now, I think your kids may just find themselves in the minority. Wait until someone clues into their cooking/sewing/science channel interest and they may go underground. Or surprise you by embracing their true nerdishness.

Marian said...

My mom would have liked it if I shared her interests, like cooking and sewing and netball. She won a couple of trophies in netball, but the first time she took me to a game of hers, I brought a book and read that.

We were very close in other ways, but we never bonded over nerdy pursuits. It sounds wonderful that you and your daughters do that. :)

Falak said...

My brother has an entire collection of encyclopedias and knows capitals of countries I never even knew existed. I even went to the extent of bunking sports day in school. When my friends were busy running around the play ground during a free period I would find my self a comfortable spot and dig into a good book.When my cousins were discussing clothes I was busy discussing Lord of the Rings with my brother. That means I am a nerd, right?

Kit said...

So now I finally have discovered my true identity - growing up with G&S and knowing far too many lyrics and have far more books than LPs as a teenager, though heavily in denial at the time. Thanks for starting the nerd support group here! It's great to know that nerds are now cool in their own right - my kids can grow up proud of their incipient nerdiness.

Mary Witzl said...

Marian -- I know how your mother must have felt. I love working out and going for long, sweaty walks. I yearn to have my kids accompany me, but they find all sorts of excuses. And I do lots of nerdy things that my kids could hardly care less about. Writing is just one of them, though I think that might change one day. I hope it does: I can't help wanting them to know how I've suffered.

Falak -- You prefer LOTR to talking about clothes? Me too! You sound like a full-fledged nerd, so congratulations!

How did you manage to get out of sports day? If I'd tried to hole up with a book on sports day, they'd have found me and dragged me back. In America, sports day is treated very seriously. In Japan, it's even worse...

Kit -- I was very much in denial too. It was so un-trendy and horrible and I didn't want to believe it about myself. I told myself that my sisters were nerds so I was guilty by association. But the truth was that I was nerd straight through; all they did was out me.

Patrick said...

Such a nice family you have there..=)

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