The Rockwood Files: Why it’s “in” to geek out

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

I am a geek. Always have been. But now it’s easy – and almost cool – to admit it. Twenty-five years ago? Not so much. Back then, my glasses, braces and clarinet carrying case were all social life liabilities. In the 80s, if you aced a few spelling tests or a teacher praised you for being smart, you found yourself on the fast track to Geeksville, and nobody wanted to be there.

But times have changed and now we live in a much more geek-friendly world. Some of our coolest modern-day conveniences wouldn’t exist were it not for the i love geekslong hours and irrational obsessions nurtured by a few world-changing geeks. The next time you use a computer, Google something using a smartphone, or “like” a funny picture on Facebook, you have a geek to thank.

I’m happy to report that, thanks to a kinder, gentler geek-loving culture, smart kids are flourishing. About a month ago, I volunteered to help coach my son’s middle school Quiz Bowl team as they prepare for an upcoming tournament. Lucky for me, the coaching duties are easy. I mostly just ask the kids trivia questions and read off the answers when they miss one.

These limited duties work in my favor because these kids are way smarter than me. I marvel at how they can recall who invented the cotton gin or the main characters in a Shakespearian play. The sheer proximity to this wealth of brain power has turned me into one of “those parents” – the ones who get a little too enthusiastic about their kids’ extra-curricular activities.

After a few Quiz Bowl practices, I noticed a pattern in the types of questions the kids had trouble with, so I researched those subjects and made a study guide full of the kind of random facts that win Quiz Bowl competitions: a list of amendments to the U.S. Constitution, definitions for terms like “spondee” and “anapest” and everything you ever didn’t want to know about elements in the periodic table.

I made copies of all this study-guide gold and then assembled the pages on my living room floor one night, hole-punching, organizing and putting them into 3-ring binders. That’s when it hit me that perhaps I’d caught a bad case of geek fever.

In the midst of all the hole-punching, I looked over to Tom who was watching television like a normal person and said, “Honey, have I gone too far here? The kids are going to think I’m weird, right?”

“No, it’s… nice that you’re being helpful,” he said, (which I’m pretty sure was code for “Oh no, what have I done? I married a Super Nerd.”)

During the next practice session, I passed out my super geeky study guide binders to the kids on the Quiz Bowl team, hoping it might give them a competitive edge in the upcoming tournament. None of them rolled their tween-age eyes at me, and – even though perhaps they should have – no one told me to go get a life. And that just reinforces what I love most about great geeks – the way they not only accept but embrace what used to be shunned as geeky.

They don’t dumb themselves down so that they’ll blend more easily into the typical teenage social scene. But they don’t let their intelligence turn them arrogant, either. They’re smart and quirky but also kind and funny – four of the best adjectives you can be.

I’m grateful to be raising kids during a time when parents can be happy if their kids excel at sports but also equally thrilled when kids find their niche in other areas that require just as much skill and strategy.

As the super-smart, quirky people often say, the “geek shall inherit the Earth.”

gwen rockwoodGwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography

The Rockwood Files: Procrastinator, heal thyself

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Like most writers, I have a dance partner whose name is Procrastination. I hate his guts. What a slacker. And yet we keep on dancing. We side-step and disco-delay until I’m up against a wall and have no choice but to kick him out and get down to work.

So in an effort to “know my enemy,” I’m reading a book about procrastination. (And yes, I’m fully aware that reading a book about procrastination might just be another way I’m procrastinating doing the actual work. But I’ve already admitted there’s a problem, so give a girl some credit.)

I’m about halfway through the book, which is titled The Now Habit, by Neil Fiore. It promises to not only explain how to stop procrastinating but also offer insight on why we do it in the first place.

Most people think procrastinators are sprawled out on the sofa watching the Kardashians get weirder by the second, while their work goes untouched and obligations get ignored. But that’s a misconception. Because a lot of procrastinators are a whirlwind of activity. We are what I’d call “productive procrastinators.”

It’s amazing the amount of work I can get done on other chores when there’s a more important project I’m actively avoiding. If my kitchen is spotless, it’s because I’ve been seeking escape at the bottom of a sink of sudsy dishes. If the pantry is pristine, it’s because I’m looking behind cans of green beans for the willpower to start that looming project.

I’m not alone in this, right? Please tell me I’m not alone. There are more than 1,700 books about procrastination on Amazon, so apparently many of us struggle with this push-pull between work and distraction. If you, like me, are sick of waiting around for that magical, extended block of inspired time to tackle a project, here are three things I’ve learned so far:

should graphicShoot the “should.” Most of us spend a large part of the day thinking about what we “should” do. But that’s kind of like carrying a cranky, finger-pointing school teacher around in our head all day, and our response is to resist the authority. The book advises us to recognize that what we do – or not do – is our choice, regardless of the consequences. So “choose” to do something or not to do it. Shoot the should.

Aim for half. Not half the project. Just half an hour. You can do almost anything for half an hour, right? Set a timer, work for 30 minutes and then stop or switch to something easier. That half-hour of time is long enough to get started (which is always the hardest part) but not long enough to feel like drudgery. Then (and this part is important) give yourself credit for that short burst of focused work. Write down each half-hour and total them up each week.

Nurture your inner toddler. When my kids were little, I’d often get them to clean up their toys by promising that we could go outside and play afterward. It made it easier for them to do the boring stuff because they knew fun stuff was coming up next.

Similarly, the book advises procrastinators to schedule our own version of playtime, like lunch with a friend, a trip to get coffee or some time to sit and do nothing. Knowing you’re carving out time to relax makes it easier to focus during work. And free time feels a lot more “free” when you’re not mentally beating yourself up about what you “should” be doing.

Finally, here’s a great line from the book, which speaks to the heart of any perfection-loving procrastinator: “Work for an imperfect, perfectly human first effort.”

Projects can’t ever get better if they never get started.

gwen rockwoodGwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography

The Rockwood Files: To selfie or not to selfie…

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Remember the story of Narcissus? He’s the main character in a Greek myth about a man so entranced by his own good looks that he pines away while staring at his reflection in a pool. The story makes me wonder: If smartphone screens were pools of water, would people be drowning every day? Has the selfie phenomenon brought a tidal wave of our own reflection at which we can’t stop staring?

As easy as it would be to hate everything about the selfie movement, I don’t think it’s all bad. I’m sitting smack dab on the selfie fence. I’ve snapped a few pictures while using the backward-facing camera on my smartphone, but most of those shots have been “ussies” which are pictures of yourself next to someone else. The “ussie” is the selfie’s less indulgent first cousin, and it’s about capturing a moment of friendship.

But I feel awkward about selfies because it seems like I’m desperately writing the words “Look at me!” on my forehead and then sharing that image with the world. But maybe that’s a hang-up unique to my generation. Today’s generation of girls are growing up with a “Why not look at me?” philosophy.

So for research purposes, I took a few selfies today. Then I looked at the shots, paying attention to what went through my mind:

“Wow, I had no idea my left eyebrow is so weird. I shouldn’t have smiled so much. It makes my upper lip practically disappear, and there’s nothing pretty about that much gum tissue. I should shoot this again and this time lower my left eyebrow and decrease the smile by like 20 percent. And I’m going to raise the camera and shoot the picture from above so my neck looks skinnier.”

gwen selfie for emailSo then I shot more selfies, most of which prominently feature my own thumb in the corner of the frame. Finally, I captured one that was not completely awful. Hurray! Selfie success. The process reminded me of a cartoon I saw online not long ago that says: “Behind every good selfie are approximately 36 nearly identical pictures that didn’t make the cut.”

Part of the reason we often avoid someone else’s camera is because we have no idea how the shot will look. But selfies offer us control. We can change the angle, expression and our hair until everything is just right – or as right as it can be.

So maybe for some, the selfie is a shot of confidence – useful to glance at on those days when we beat ourselves up about our looks. It’s a visual reminder that we’re not as unattractive as negative feelings sometimes convince us we are.

On the other hand, selfies are notorious for being overshared on social media, silently asking for electronic “likes” and “hearts.” What’s with all the selfie sharing? Humans have a basic need to be seen and recognized – at home, work, school, etc. A recent article in Forbes magazine points out that “when people are recognized and feel appreciated, they repeat the behavior that was recognized.” Hence, the selfie overpopulation problem.

Part of me admires those bold selfie shooters who look so comfortable in their own skin. The other part of me thinks a restriction on the number of selfies shared on social media makes perfect sense. Two selfies per month seems like more than enough, doesn’t it? No one is going to forget what your face looks like within the next two weeks.

Those who insist on flooding us with an endless string of selfies should know that they’re starting to look a whole lot like Narcissus – lost in admiration and dangerously close to drowning in a pool of their own reflection.

gwen rockwoodGwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography

The Rockwood Files: Pet Bullies

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

Sometimes I feel like I’m being bullied in my own home – by the pets. I’m bigger than they are, so how is it that they always seem to get their way? I should be controlling them – not the other way around.

If cats could tell time, I would get our cat Percy a reliable Timex and strap it on her furry leg. Because when the sun goes down, Percy starts performing a barrage of harassing “feed me” reminders. She’s afraid I’ll forget to crack open her nightly can of Fancy Feast before I go to bed.

I don’t go to bed until 10 or 11 p.m., but Percy starts the reminders around six o’clock. That’s at least four hours of being stalked by a loud, insistent cat. And if percy the greatI stand still for more than a few seconds, she weaves in and out of my legs in an obvious attempt to trip me and cause me bodily harm.

One time last week, I came upstairs after dark to change a load of laundry, but Percy must have assumed I was turning in for the night while her food bowl was still empty. You can imagine her feline outrage. Just as I rounded the corner with a full laundry basket in hand, she came at me in a sideways galloping run with her back bowed up and her tail bushed out – trying to make herself as big and scary as possible. If that’s not a direct cat threat, I don’t know what is.

Sometimes I think that, if I were to skip a few nights of her beloved Fancy Feast, she might smother me in my sleep just to teach me a lesson.

I wish I could say the dog is sweeter than the cat, but he is just as manipulative – although he uses a different approach. The trouble started after I bought Charlie a doggie bowtie that fastens onto his collar. It’s funny and makes him look as ironically dignified as a Beagle can look, but obviously the fancy new style is going straight to his head.

Suddenly he’s too good for his dog bed on the floor, and he has learned to use those puppy dog eyes as a weapon. He plays the “sweet and pitiful card” until he gets exactly what he wants. And what he wants is to execute a hostile takeover of our king size bed.

One night, in a moment of weakness, I let him get on the bed, and he has never been the same since. Now, he sprints for the bedroom and bounds up onto the bed. He sticks his nose under the edge of the comforter and roots his way under the covers until he reaches the foot of the bed. Then he burrows into his own little Beagle cave and snores softly all night, dreaming of squirrels and table scraps.

I worry sometimes that he’ll suffocate under there, but he sleeps just fine, only coming up for air when one of us accidentally sticks a foot into his personal space. And speaking of personal space, Charlie takes up a lot of it.

He’s a small dog, the runt of his litter, but he stretches out all four of his spindly legs until he has occupied nearly half the space – which just goes to prove that old saying: “If you give a dog an inch, he’ll take your whole bed.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love these little hairy beasts, which is why I tolerate their shenanigans. But sometimes I can’t help but notice that the word “pets” is only one letter away from the word “pests.” Coincidence? You decide.

gwen rockwoodGwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography

The Rockwood Files: Completing the loop

rockwood files colorBy Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

If you’re feeling a little distracted and loopy lately, the culprit might just be – get this – loops. Specifically? Open loops.

An “open loop” is anything that pops into your mind – or your email inbox or voicemail – that distracts you and needs your attention. It could range from small things like “buy cat food” to big things like “start a new business” or anything in the middle.

The idea of “open loops” became popular more than a decade ago when author David Allen published a business book called “Getting Things Done.” But 12 SONY DSCyears ago I was busy with babies instead of business books, spending most of my time on repeated readings of Goodnight Moon. So I was out of the loop on the problem with loops. The only loops I knew about were Froot Loops and the actual loops I ran while chasing toddlers around the house.

But now that those three babies are busy school-age kids, I find myself in a constant quest to get more done in a day. Some weeks feel like a blur of work, school, piano lessons, dance classes, dentist appointments, birthday parties and an endless stream of work and family tasks I can’t seem to tame. So if “open loops” are keeping me from getting ahead, I’d like to find out how to close them.

After a little research, I found some real science behind the “open loop” concept. Back in the 1920s, a Lithuanian graduate student named Bluma Zeigarnik sat in a restaurant and noticed that waiters were able to remember complicated dinner orders right up until the customers finished the meal and the waiter dropped off the check. After the check was paid, those complex orders seemed to vanish from the waiters’ minds.

So the observant grad student theorized that mental energy is drawn to tasks that are incomplete. Once the task is dealt with (and the loop is closed), it leaves the mind. Lab studies backed up her theory, and the concept of being distracted by incomplete tasks is now known as the “Zeigarnik Effect.” (If you’ve ever studied half the night, took a test the next morning, and then realized that you’d already forgotten at least half the study material during the 10 minutes after finishing the test, then you’ve had personal experience with the Ziegarnik Effect. Apparently my college years were chock full of the Ziegarnik Effect, but I digress.)

If Ms. Zeigarnik was alive today, I bet she’d be astonished at all the dangling, open loops in modern society. Social media, in particular, has brought an onslaught of new loops. After I spend a few minutes scrolling through my Facebook feed, I feel overwhelmed by hundreds of new bits of information that probably float in and around the open loops in my head, creating a tangled mess where forgotten appointments go to die.

Perhaps our human nature craves a complete circle. We want novels to be tied up in a bow by the final line. And we can’t help but feel supremely annoyed when a television show leaves us hanging in the final minute with nothing more than those maddening three little words: to be continued.

Productivity experts like Allen say that one of the best things we can do to clear our heads is to find a system for capturing and writing down all those open loops. Once we write them down and figure out the next step needed to close the loops, the more our minds can relax and stop running around in proverbial circles. No more bolting upright in bed, just as you were drifting off to sleep, because you suddenly remembered something you were supposed to do.

So this week I’m going to avoid tackling a bunch of new tasks and focus instead on closing the ones already in progress. Who knows? Maybe finishing more projects will clear my mind and put me into a zen-like state of loop-free contentment.

Or maybe this is all just a bunch of psycho-babble hooey, as my dad might say. I suppose there’s only one way to know. We should test it out by giving ourselves the satisfaction of closing a…

loops2(See what I did there?)

Loop.

gwen rockwoodGwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of nwaMotherlode.com. To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography

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