Helmet Heads Can Be Cool

As the mother of four children, three of them extreme sport-loving boys, I am very familiar with the dangerous side of having fun. This is why I was thrilled to see GeekMom Ariane’s recent post about the importance of wearing helmets while ice skating. Fortunately, many people are finally realizing that flying down the hill on skis requires a good helmet, but it’s taken a bit longer to get the skating crowd on board.

I blame part of this trend on the movies and television shows. When you think about the life moments that might find you sliding around a rink, you usually envision the cute stocking cap on your head, or scarf around your neck. The skating outfit is usually a part of the winter fun scene that television and movie directors are looking for. Adding a rigid dome to the actors’ heads isn’t an option.

There is a reason life doesn’t really look like the movies. From wardrobe to relationships, most of us are smart enough to realize that the real world life is a bit messier.

It’s time for winter sports season once again. Whether you live near a scenic frozen lake or have a rink tucked conveniently in your local shopping mall or town square, a lot of people have access to skating once the winter months hit. So it’s time to talk about helmets. Continue reading Helmet Heads Can Be Cool

Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor

The excitement in our household was barely containable. Anticipation, joy, and dreams of what could be all radiated from the two geeks who live with me.

What caused such enthusiasm, you ask? Was it Christmas? Someone’s birthday? An anniversary, perhaps? The new Star Wars movie?

No, my friends. It was the announcement that Barnes & Noble, in partnership with Make Magazine, was going to be hosting a Mini Maker Faire at every single store location in the U.S. Continue reading Lessons From a First-Time Mini Maker Faire Exhibitor

The Davis Instruments Weather Box Fills My Need for Data

While I wouldn’t call myself a “weather geek” per se, meteorology and weather have interested me since at least high school. I love looking at weather maps, learning about low and high pressures, knowing what the marks on wind direction maps mean, and parsing the extensive data tables that come out of weather records.

Seeing how weather changes over a year for a particular spot really helps me get a feel of a place. Is it a wet winter or a rainy summer? Does it get above freezing during the winter? Is there a monsoon season? How likely are there to be mosquitoes (see: rainfall, among other things)? I’ve especially enjoyed how much more accurate weather forecasting has gotten over my (42 year) lifetime.

Before I got to try out the Davis Instruments Weather Box recently, the closest I ever got to a weather station was an outdoor temperature probe that was connected to an indoor wall clock. I loved weather data but had never had my own data to play with. So when the Weather Box arrived in the mail, I was excited to set it up. My 14-year-old daughter, equally excited, made me wait until she was available before getting started. She’s the type of weather geek who keeps a cloud journal.

Continue reading The Davis Instruments Weather Box Fills My Need for Data

To the Parents of High School Seniors

Dear Parents of High School Seniors,

You don’t know me. In about nine months, your child will walk into a classroom on a college campus. Most likely, I, or someone just like me, will be standing in front of your wide-eyed, excited child explaining what a syllabus is.

Unless your child isn’t excited. Unless your child doesn’t want to be in college. Unless your child is feeling societal and parental pressure to make the most expensive mistake of his/her life.

Are you listening to your child? Are you really? Continue reading To the Parents of High School Seniors

Kickstart Your Kids’ Confidence in Math with MathKit

Of course you read books aloud to your kids often, but have you ever thought about setting aside time to cuddle and solve math problems together?

Leslie Gilbert, a math teacher and creator of MathKit, has created a collection of games to show kids that math can be a fun way to spend family time—and give them the confidence to keep trying and learning, even when they get a problem wrong.

MathKit is currently running a crowdfunding campaign to get the kits in the hands of kids from kindergarten to third grade. My first grader and I recently had the chance to check out the games ourselves.

After a rainy day playing together, my daughter declared, “This does make math fun!”

Continue reading Kickstart Your Kids’ Confidence in Math with MathKit

Start Kids on a Coding Adventure with the ‘Minecraft’ Hour of Code

Not only will your coding Padawan have the opportunity to learn programming concepts with the help of Star Wars, this morning Microsoft released a new Minecraft coding tutorial for the Hour of Code.

The Hour of Code Minecraft tutorial, aimed at kids ages 6 and up, encourages young Minecraft fans to learn to code with Blockly, a simple drag-and-drop interface.

Continue reading Start Kids on a Coding Adventure with the ‘Minecraft’ Hour of Code

Cardboard STEM: 25 Ideas for All Those BOXES

There’s no escaping the cold, hard truth: Children love to play with cardboard boxes.

As parents, we’ve all experienced this cardboard-fueled phenomenon. It’s almost become an old adage: He played with the box more than the gift.

With the holidays on the horizon, there will be oodles of boxes to contend with especially if, like myself, you prefer to do your holiday shopping online in your jammies. And, as the holidays draw near, the to-do list increases. There are gifts to buy, presents to wrap, gatherings to organize. If your home is anything like ours, it can be tricky to get all the things done with children underfoot. Unless, of course, you have a plan.

And have I got a plan this year! This plan is sure to keep your children engaged and learning and provide you with some uninterrupted time to tackle that mounting must-do list. This plan requires your kids to get creative and to think outside of that proverbial box… while playing with all those cardboard boxes that are strewn about your home just waiting to be recycled. Continue reading Cardboard STEM: 25 Ideas for All Those BOXES

Why You and Your Children Should Read a Book With No Words

Since becoming a children’s librarian, I’ve found a new appreciation for picture books. The good ones (not the cheesy ones thrown together to cash in on a popular character or make grandparents go “awwww” that show up in the discount bin at the grocery store) are true works of art. Picture books are one kind of story you need to have in paper form, to open up and spread out in front of you, to experience as a whole. The words are chosen carefully, to say a lot with a little, like poetry (even when they don’t rhyme). The pictures don’t just illustrate the story, they enhance it, adding detail and humor that words can’t do alone. Even the page turns are considered to get the pacing right.


November is Picture Book Month, part of an international literacy initiative to raise awareness of and celebrate picture books as an art form that can and should be appreciated by people of all ages.

But in today’s score-driven educational environment, too many people see picture books as something to be outgrown. A year after learning to read, children are being pushed into chapter books, sometimes by teachers, but more often by parents. The more words, the better. Accelerated Reader, a program used by thousands of school districts in the U.S. to track student reading, awards students more points based not on the difficulty of the book, but on the length. Picture books, being almost all just 32 pages long, are worth exactly one-half of a point on Accelerated Reader. Kids trying to rack up points will almost always go for one longer book over several half-point books, even if the total number of words is the same.

And if there are no words at all, what’s the point? Continue reading Why You and Your Children Should Read a Book With No Words

The Hour of Code Awakens: Build Your Own Game With Star Wars

Remember in my PAX Review how I mentioned that Disney Infinity was going to be even bigger—especially with anything Star Wars related? Well, this is it.

Disney is teaming up with Code.org for this year’s Hour of Code and it is going to be big: Coding. Gaming. And, best of all, sharing!!

Continue reading The Hour of Code Awakens: Build Your Own Game With Star Wars

Can Neuroscience Explain the Popularity of The Hunger Games?

We’ve learned more about the human brain in the last ten years than the previous ten thousand. Adolescence in particular is a time of dramatic change.

I’m currently pursing a master’s in social science and as I have two daughters on either side of the teenage spectrum (10 and 19), I decided to enroll in a course on Adolescent Brain Development.  

I’ve learned that from age 10 to 25, approximately, the human brain goes through significant structural transitions as it is both built up through the maturation of various areas of the cortex and the myelination (coating) of neurons, and thinned out through synaptic pruning, a kind of knowledge specialization.

The teenage brain advances in a back-to-front pattern. The prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for executive functions such as impulse control, emotional response, decision making, planning and judgement, is not considered fully matured until the mid-twenties.

Let me put it another way: it’s a lot like the Hunger Games. Continue reading Can Neuroscience Explain the Popularity of The Hunger Games?

In Search of ‘Ten Pieces II’: My Battle With CBBC Envy

“Classical music is a little bit like having a spaceship. It can take you anywhere you want.”
— Dominic Wood (of CBBC’s Dick and Dom) in Ten Pieces.

We listen to a ton of music of all genres in our home. I’m proud to say my 6-year-old, who enjoys Yo-Yo Ma, can identify Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major for Solo Cello, BWV 1007, as quickly as she can The Ramone’s “Pet Sematery,” the latter of which she just recently quit referring to as “Don’t Put Me in the Berry.”

Over the past month leading up to Halloween, we had been playing several “dark classics,” including, among other pieces, Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” and especially the goose bump-inducing Bach masterpiece Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.

Therefore, I tapped into the wonders of world-connecting Internet, as well as my insatiable journey for all things educational, and spiraled myself into a corner of frustration, as I tried to access the video content of BBC’s young people’s programming branch, CBBC’s, classical music film and outreach program for secondary schools, Ten Pieces II. Continue reading In Search of ‘Ten Pieces II’: My Battle With CBBC Envy

Is Grocery Shopping Making You Sick?

Quick Quiz:

  1. Do you use reusable grocery bags?
  2. If so, do you wash them regularly?

I’m going to put on my psychic turban and predict your answers were “yes” and “no.” And you wouldn’t be alone. I ran my own unscientific survey and found 94% of my friends have reusable bags, and while 38% of my friends wash them occasionally, 57% have never washed them. Not once. Ever.

Worse yet, my friends are over-achievers. According to a 2011 study published in Food Protection Trends, 97% of the users they studied have never washed their bags.

That study goes on to say that 75% of their respondents don’t dedicate separate bags for vegetables and meat. In my informal poll, the number was higher with 94% of my friends using bags randomly. I admit, I’m one of them.

What's been in your bags? Photo copyright: Janine Lamontagne
What’s been in your bags?
Photo copyright: Janine Lamontagne

But why does that matter, you ask? Continue reading Is Grocery Shopping Making You Sick?

Accio Literatia! Information Literacy and the Illustrated Harry Potter

Several years ago, I swooned with pride over a series of student blogs discussing the story ownership through the active process of reading compared to the passive process of movie watching.

My teacher’s heart swelled ten sizes as the group of first-year students debated the difference between reading Lord of the Rings and watching the movies because one student complained that comic book movies were never as good as the books.

Watching the group of engineering first-year students debate how imagining the written word leads to ownership of literature, I smugly sat back thinking that they had learned an important lesson.

Earlier this week, we started reading the new illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with our son.

I began questioning the viability of reading an illustrated book. Continue reading Accio Literatia! Information Literacy and the Illustrated Harry Potter

Combating Geek Prejudice… But Not the Way You Think

“Mom, I know I need to wait for Dad to help me with my math homework.”

“Mom, you’d never be able to build this Lego set.”

“Mom, you’ve never coded anything?!”

All of these are things my amazing 10-year-old future engineer has said to me.

She really doesn’t mean to hurt my feelings. She’s just calling it like she sees it. Her dad, her idol, is an engineer. They design stuff, build stuff, talk deeply about science-y stuff, and code stuff. My day job is in marketing and I don’t do any of that stuff. 

And frankly, I haven’t done myself any favors, talking about how confusing her math algorithms are to me (this is not a Common Core post, but it’s true fact that I do not recognize how to do long division anymore), how I’m “not into” building things, how I’ve never been interested in coding.

But it does hurt my feelings when she writes me off because the things I know are different from the things she and her dad know.

And most of the time, they’re not as relevant or valuable to her, because the things that are relevant and valuable to her fall very reliably into STEM and sometimes STEAM. There’s no “H” in there for humanities, which is where my particular strengths lie (I tried, but SHTEAM just didn’t work).
Continue reading Combating Geek Prejudice… But Not the Way You Think

50 Ways to Fight Nature Deficit Disorder This Fall and Winter

You can’t go very far these days without hearing about Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), but have you heard of Nature-Deficit Disorder?

In his best-selling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit DisorderRichard Louv explores research linking children’s health and well-being to direct exposure to nature.

The reality is, nowadays, our children are better able to identify jungle and zoo animals than the animals that reside in their own backyard.

In this age of screens, our nation’s children are not getting out there and this has a direct impact on their health and happiness. And, lest you think nature only benefits children, Louv shares the benefits for adults in his book, The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age.

After reading Louv’s books, you won’t want to come inside. Louv uses research to show the many benefits of time spent in nature, including: Continue reading 50 Ways to Fight Nature Deficit Disorder This Fall and Winter

The Dreaded G-Word: When Your Child is Asynchronous

I remember that morning as if it had happened yesterday. We were just leaving the restaurant, where we had enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with friends. I had met these women when we’d had our first babies, at a mothers’ group sponsored by the hospital where we had delivered. Those first babies were now 5-years-old and each had at least one younger sibling.

We held the door for one another and shuffled our tribe carefully out of the restaurant and into the parking lot. The kids were busy fooling around, and their laughter filled the air until one voice shouted above the rest. I knew that voice very well: It was my 5-year-old son, Leo.

“Hey! GUYS!! LOOK!! LOOK!!!! Doesn’t that latticework remind you of a portcullis? It’s SO BEAUTIFUL!” Leo shouted. He was jumping up and down, bursting with excitement, pointing toward the restaurant’s garden.

His friends paused for a moment, looked in the general vicinity of where he was pointing for a second or two, and then carried on with their play. I, too, looked at the trellis and then I grabbed my phone and Googled portcullis. Continue reading The Dreaded G-Word: When Your Child is Asynchronous

Why I Don’t Throw a Vulcan Salute

I remember standing there, my eyes pressed closed, my face buried in my mother’s hip. As I got older I would instead look down and softly recite a prayer with everything in my heart, soul, and mind. Above me, around me, engulfing us all was the sound of the chazzan (cantor) and the priestly chorus.

By יעקב [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Priestly Blessing in a synagogue in Ofra. By יעקב [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Continue reading Why I Don’t Throw a Vulcan Salute

Appreciating How to Fail: A Library Storytime

When brainstorming topics for my weekly Family Storytimes at the public library, I like to browse the Brownielocks site for unusual holidays. I’ve spun storytimes out of the likes of Squirrel Awareness Month, National Truck Driver Appreciation Week, World Vegetarian Day, and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day.

October 13, as it turned out, was The International Day For Failure. There are a lot of commemorative days that do not make good family storytime topics, and at first glance “International Day For Failure” seemed like a pass. It sounded like a cynical joke, a day to fail. By the bemused looks on the faces of everyone who saw the week’s topic when I scheduled it, this is a common reaction.

But when I read what http://dayforfailure.com/ had to say about it, I knew I couldn’t pass it up. Continue reading Appreciating How to Fail: A Library Storytime

Why Feminism Is Good For Our Sons

I often wonder what it does to a child if they’re told they can’t play with what interests them because of their gender and/or race?

I believe we are all harmed if we discourage a child from exploring their interests. I feel we’re potentially discouraging the contributions they could make as adults which might benefit us all.

When my sister and I were young we used to play with my older brother’s toys. He is five years older so by the time I wanted to play he had outgrown them. My parents were all for it. Recycling for the win!

Much has changed since I was a little girl. We’ve made great strides in teaching our girls they are not bound by what is traditionally considered girl things. However, I think we often forget to teach our boys similar lessons around traditional boy activities.

We’re still fighting similar battles to the ones when I was a kid. How do make sure future generations won’t? Continue reading Why Feminism Is Good For Our Sons

An Acrostic Poem In Honor of Ada Lovelace

I have to admit that when I first heard the name of Ada Lovelace, I had to look her up. When girls and women had few options outside the home, Ada followed her dreams, studied mathematics and became the world’s first computer programmer.

It’s awesome to see so many women who’ve made vast contributions to the world finally coming to light. And it’s even more awesome that my friend, Laurie Wallmark, got to tell her story in Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine

In honor of the book’s release, Laure composed an acrostic poem to Ada:

A proper Victorian gentlewoman,
Determined to become
A professional mathematician.

Lady Ada Lovelace,
Of noble birth, a
Excited by the marvels of the Industrial Age.
Lord Byron’s daughter,
Appreciator of technology, the world’s first
Computer programmer and an
Exceptional mathematician.

Of course I had to plague Laurie to pen an acrostic poem to describe her debut picture book.

Laurie  is one of my oldest friends in NJSCBWI (the New Jersey chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Our resident technical wizard, Laurie maintains the chapter website and builds the online forms that make registering for events and workshops so easy for our membership.

You can find out more about the book and Laurie at her website, or on Facebook and Twitter.

‘Covalence’ Game: Cooperative, Educational, Chemistry Fun

I love cooperative games because the dynamics of the group shift from finding any possible way to beat the live humans hanging around with you to exploring all possibilities within a game system to triumph together.  I also appreciate educational games that keep the fun.

Is it possible to have all three in one?

Why, yes, and the game is called Covalence: A Molecule Building Game recently put out by Genius Games. This is the latest in their series of science-based table-top games.

How does it work?

Covalence uses deduction. Continue reading ‘Covalence’ Game: Cooperative, Educational, Chemistry Fun

Raising Kids With Weed – Living the High Life in Colorado

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

Our family has lived all over the country, following my husband’s job. With each new location I made an effort to get to know the cultural climate of our new home town. In Utah I read up on the Mormon faith. When we landed in Upstate New York, we explored the Big Apple as much as possible. Then four years ago we moved to Colorado. It was immediately apparent that I needed to research the topic of marijuana.

Medicinal use had been legal in my new state since the year 2000. The summer we moved to town the country was gearing up for a presidential election and the state was gearing up to see if its residents would be some of the firsts in the country to allow legal recreational use. By the first week in November it came to be. We were now parenting our four children in the land of legal weed.

This lead to an exploration of not only how marijuana can be used by amputees like myself to mitigate pain but also, unexpectedly, how it might be used to treat one of my children for an unexpected and difficult condition. The answers were eye-opening.  Continue reading Raising Kids With Weed – Living the High Life in Colorado

Everything You Need to Be a Craft Beer Geek—Except the Beard

Grab a brew and pull up a chair - We're talking beer! Photo Courtesy iStock.
Grab a brew and pull up a chair – We’re talking beer!
Photo Courtesy iStock. Copyright: Silvrshootr

“Let’s grab a drink!”

The next thing you know, you find yourself in a bar surrounded by copious amounts of facial hair, skinny jeans, and ironic conversation Ts. You look at the menu only to find 653 different types of beer—of which you know two. You have a couple of choices: play a game of craft beer roulette, or go ahead and order the domestic light. Of course, the only thing that screams “girl” more than that is a white wine spritzer. Allow me to offer a third option—a crash course in craft beer geekdom!

First, let me stress I have nothing against domestic light beers. They definitely have their time and place. I’ve never yet asked for a bully porter at a tailgate—but a sliver bullet goes down nicely. And the consistency (as we’ll learn later) of the American lager is a testament to the skill of master brewers. Of course, light beers are still the biggest sellers, but this is the era of the crafts, and a little knowledge is helpful. Unless you enjoy taking that brew gamble…

Lesson 1:

So what makes a beer a beer, and not, for example, wine?

The Four Essential Ingredients of Beer. Photo Courtesy iStock Copyright RBOZUK
The Four Essential Ingredients of Beer.
Photo Courtesy iStock. Copyright: RBOZUK

Beer is a deceptively simple drink. All varieties can be boiled down to four basic ingredients: water, yeast, hops, and grain. Seems simple enough until you remember the vastness of that beer menu and its 653 varieties.


These miraculous little beasties are what give beer identity and national style. At the most basic level, and the least understood if my impromptu poll of folks at the grocery store is any indicator, yeast determines if you are drinking an ale or a lager. Yes, it’s hard to believe while wading through a brew house, but all beer breaks down into these two categories.

Most craft brews are ales, while those domestic lights I mentioned are lagers. And here’s what makes that above mentioned consistency so impressive: Lagers must be brewed at a lower temperature, thus giving less room for error. Ales brew at higher temperatures and are more forgiving. Which is probably why they’ve been around longer, historically, and are the go-to for the basic home brewer. Those higher temps allow for a wider variety of flavors to break out, but that can often lead to slightly unique profiles in each batch. Lower temps require careful monitoring to create uniform flavor. So the next time you grab that fine American Pilsner, remember it has some impressive credentials of its own.

While many brewers will develop their own propriety yeast, you heard me right, it’s the ancestry of the little bugs that matters the most. If a beer is labeled as “Belgium,” that is simply a reference to where the yeast got its passport stamped, not the country where the beer was brewed. Nationality isn’t just a label where these little guys are concerned. Belgium yeast imparts different flavors than German or American yeast. And that’s just the prepackaged varieties—just wait until we get to the free-range critters!


In case you don’t know, and very few of my grocery store interviewees did, the hops used by the modern brewer are actually the flower of the plant Humulus lupulus. Varieties are sold as bittering, aroma, or dual purpose, and just like yeast, contribute greatly to flavor.

Photo courtesy iStock Copyright: LICreate
A handful of goodness – brew ready hops!
Photo courtesy iStock. Copyright: LICreate

Hops add depth of flavor and help to balance the malt. While there are certainly many hop-heavy beers—some American craft brewers seem to subscribe to the adage “go big or go home” when it comes to hops—malt-intensive brews are equally available.

Like yeast, hops are unique to their area of origin. Their soils, climates, and country of birth help impart unique layers of flavor. But unlike yeast, they don’t determine the nationality of a beer. Often, a brewer will experiment with several types of hops added at different points in the brewing process. A true melting pot!


When most people think of beer, they think barley. And they’d be right. It’s barley that becomes malt. And the char on that determines the color of the beer—the darker the char, the darker the beer. And without barley, the yeast wouldn’t be able to do their business. Barley is unique in providing just the right sugars for the little beasties to consume and make those byproducts we enjoy so much: bubbles and alcohol! Barley even provides that nice frothy head when not all its proteins get converted to sugar.

But barley isn’t the only grain to be found in that amber goodness. Wheat, rice, corn, rye, and even oats make occasional appearances in today’s craft brews. Wheat beer tends to have more body and a hazy, often tart, complexion. Rice in a beer is about as nondescript as on a Chinese menu: great as filler, but no flavor. Corn is similar, although it is often thought to impart a bit more sweetness. Rye can be toasted to add caramel notes or left natural for more spice. Oats give creaminess—think oatmeal stout.


Lesson 2:

Now that you know what makes a beer a beer, you can probably take a stab at that menu. However, to get more in depth, and provide the beer novice (or the beer-stuck-in-a-rutter) a slightly better idea of what they are ordering, I gathered a group of willing victims volunteers at our local Flying Saucer Draught Emporium to taste-test a wide variety. All for the sake of this article, of course.

Ground Rules:

While different arrangements are possible, many bars list their beers by either category (e.g., “sours” or “hop-heavy”) or country of origin. For the purpose of this article, I am using country as a means of categorization.

Along with my (slightly hung-over) friends, I was assisted in this tasting by Cari Contreras, girl-wonder-certified-cicerone, and someone everyone should take drinking. If you are wondering what a cicerone is, think sommelier but for beer. (Yes, they exist—and just knowing that word will go far toward your craft-geek-cred, but for a few more crafty words, see the bottom of this article.)

And away we go…


American Craft Beers come in lots of styles. Photo courtesy iStock Copyright Maksymowicz
American Craft Beers come in lots of styles.
Photo courtesy iStock. Copyright: Maksymowicz
  • CLASSIC PILSNER: Craft varieties of this standard lager may be harder to locate, but if on a menu, this is often a safe bet. Although my group of tasters agreed it was “a standard beer” and “great for a summer day at the pool,” when drinking a craft beer they wanted “more personality.”
  • BLONDE: This is an entry level—i.e., easy to drink—craft ale. My tasters enjoyed this saying it was “more complex” and “a bit more bitter.” One even decided it had “just a tinge of s’mores.”
  • WHEAT: Wheat added to the barley gives this ale its cloudy color and crispness. Another entry level beer described by one taster as “the beer equivalent of the lemon drop.”
  • AMBER: Sometimes called “Red Ale.” Intended to be drinkable, but not bland with a strong toasty or caramel undertone. The tasters agreed calling it “a cozy, full beer with a slightly mouthwatering aftertaste.”
  • BROWN: The American version of the classic English Brown Ale does what ‘Murica does best and cranks the volume. More hops, more malt, and more brown. We agreed with thoughts ranging from “a beer latte” to “dessert!”
  • PALE ALE: This American adaptation (more hops) of the English brew has come to be the standard of craft beers. One taster decided this beer “goes with dinner and life pretty well.” But, if you don’t like hops, be warned.
  • IPA: Stands for India Pale Ale, and like many of these “American” beers, has a European cousin. But, as an American beer, the flavors are turned up to eleven. (If you don’t get that, may I suggest renting This Is Spinal Tap?) Most of the hop-crazy beers fall into this category or its brother IMPERIAL IPA.
  • BARLEYWINE: This is a beer, despite the name, but will have a higher alcohol content, often 7 to 12%. You are warned. The American versions are, you guessed it, hoppier but not as extreme as an IPA. The tasters ranked this one high, asking if it came in pints!
  • STOUT: Another American version of an English standard. Roasted and toasty, maltier and full of American hops making it stronger than its British ancestors. The tasters found it “thick and warm with hints of molasses and roasted coffee.”

English/Scottish/Irish: (Note: All the beers listed above as having British equivalents can often be found in both the amped-up American versions and the more sedate English brews on extensive beer menus)

  • PORTER: The first mass produced style of ale has a dark roasted, chocolaty malt flavor. The tasters were mixed, with one saying it was “too malty” and another liking it with the comment that “it didn’t taste as dark as it looked, like a stout-light.”
  • MILK STOUT: Also called a SWEET STOUT or a CREAM due to the addition of unfermentable lactose (milk) sugars. This beer lives up to its name with the tasters saying it “looks like a coke” and “smells as sweet as it tastes.”
  • OATMEAL STOUT: In either British or American versions, the oatmeal adds creaminess to the malty richness of the base stout. “Don’t be scared of how dark it is! It’s easy to drink, it just fills you up—bread in a glass!”
  • DRY STOUT: Guinness is the quintessential example. A favorite of many. “Not heavy,” with an unusual “umami nose.” “Crisper than it looks” Cari Contreras pointed out the unusual feature that Guinness uses nitrous gas to disperse the beer rather than the traditional CO2, which leads to less gas intake, and thus less gas (eh hum) output! (We can all appreciate that.)
  • RUSSIAN IMPERIAL STOUT: Born of the connection between the English and Russian monarchies, this stout was brewed to survive the trip to the Russian court. Generally not a favorite with my tasters, with one saying “it feels like they threw everything at it,” and another calling it “ugh in a beer.” However, it has its fans, with a lone tester saying it was what she thought of when she wanted “to taste Russia.”
  • 60/70/80/90 SHILLING: A traditionally Scottish beer with a gradation of strengths from the weakest 60 (rarely found and then only on tap) up to the “wee heavy” 90. An interesting beer if you are looking for unique—very few hops, which don’t grow well in Scotland, but definite notes of the ever-available Scottish peat. The tasters gave this style top ratings saying it was “hard not to like” and “tasted like fresh air and Scottish Heather.”
Welcome to Cologne, Germany, home to fan favorite Kolsch beer. Photo courtesy iStock Copyright artJazz
Welcome to Cologne, Germany, home to fan favorite Kolsch beer.
Photo courtesy iStock. Copyright: artJazz


  • WEIZEN/HEFEWEIZEN: The most popular beer in Southern Germany. In 1516, the use of wheat was outlawed in beer, but as the nobility could ignore these laws with impunity, wheat beer became synonymous with royalty. While that is an interesting fact to drop while bellied up to the bar, the most important thing to note about this brew is that it is usually found with an excess of yeast and you may be either asked how you’d like that yeast, or provided with the remainder in the bottle. Many connoisseurs like to sprinkle the yeast over the top of the beer. This met with mixed reviews, with one taster saying it was too much like “drinking sea monkeys.” The beer, sans sea monkeys, however, had high marks with notes of banana and crisp wheat.
  • KOLSCH: Traditionally brewed only in the city of Cologne, this beer is a hybrid as it uses ale yeast but is then cold lagered like a traditional lager brew. When my tasters gave point scores, this style got the highest overall score of any beer we tested. Universally described as “easy to drink but with enough oomph to feel authentic.”
  • VIENNA LAGER: Obviously not an ale. Very dark larger with lots of malt, but not enough to save it from being described as “crisp, drinkable, and completely forgettable.”
  • BOCK: What the IPA does for hops, this does for malt. One taster said it has so much malt it’s “almost chewy.” Enjoyment of this beer, like the IPA, is mostly determined by malt preference. Those who enjoyed the malty beers loved, those who didn’t, well, didn’t.


  • WIT/WHITE/WITBIER: This white ale was the first type of beer to include hops. This beer often incorporates elements of wheat and spices such as coriander and orange peel. Another highly rated beer with the tasters. Comments such as “smells like a barnyard, tastes like heaven.”
  • SAISON: Meaning season, this ale uses a yeast closely related to the yeast used in red wine which produces a uniquely spicy brew. Cari pointed out that all saisons have a higher alcohol content and a slightly bitter taste due to the increased number of phenols produced by this yeast. But what you need to know is our tasters’ opinion, which was to rank this their second favorite! With comments like “peppery” to “my husband’s first choice, one of my top three!”
  • DOUBLE/DUBBEL: If it seems like we skipped the single, we did! They are only available at the brewery with doubles found in retail. This is a strong beer with not so subtle hints of prune. Not a favorite with the tasters with one describing it as “cloying, like prune juice mixed with a beer.”
  • TRIPLE: This is a higher alcohol brew, but not exactly related to a double. A fruity beer described by my tasters as “a little like drinking a juicy fruit gum.”

    Belgium beers and glass of Triple. Photo courtesy iStock Copyright JurgaR
    Belgium beers and a glass of Triple.
    Photo courtesy iStock. Copyright: JurgaR
  • LAMBIC: Strange things happen in Belgium. I mean, honestly, waffles? I love them, but who decided to start ironing food? So maybe it’s no surprise that Belgium would be home to free-range yeast. This beer is made by opening the windows and the tanks and inviting whatever little beasties are nearby to stop in for dinner. The yeast bring their bacteria friends and have a party. If Cari’s dreams come true and sour becomes the new hops, this style will be everywhere. The yeast do the fermenting and the bacteria make the sour. Oddly, this was something of a hit with my tasters with one saying she must “have a masochistic streak” because she couldn’t stop sipping. “Like an aged cheese, or sour patch kids,” you have to keep sampling.
  • FRAMBOISE: This is a raspberry beer with a lambic base. Surprisingly, the berry moves the sour into sweet. In fact, the tasters thought it tasted “more like dessert” or “it’s the beer equivalent of a parfait!” Sweet and fizzy, “the smart girl’s answer to the apple-tini.”


Glossary of terms that will impress your friends:

Abbey: Beers brewed in the style of the Belgium (Trappist) monks, but not by the monks. Any beer can be named Abbey, but very few can be called Trappist.

Bock/Doppel Bock: Fun facts: Bock means goat, so look for that on most Bock labels. True Doppel Bock names will always end in “Atop” or “Ator.”

Cicerone: The sommelier of the beer world. Fun fact: there are close to 200 master sommeliers but only 7 master cicerones alive today. There are three levels of cicerone: certified beer server (level 1), certified cicerone (Girl-wonder-Cari is one of these), and master cicerone. Why so few? They’ll tell you its harder—believe it or not, beer is more complex. More ingredients, more origins, thus, more flavors. Just imagine the food pairings!

Daytime: Exactly like sessionable. Drink this at lunch and then head back to work. You’ll still be productive. Sort of.

Esters: Along with phenols, CO2, and alchohol, a byproduct of yeast fermentation. Usually responsible for fruity taste elements. More often found at higher temperatures of fermentation, thus more common in ales than lagers.

Humulus Lupulus: The plant that produces hops. From the Cannabis family. Only the female plant produces the “cone” that become hops.

Imperial: In a beer this means higher alcohol. You are warned.

Phenols: One of the by products of yeast fermentation, along with esters, CO2, and alcohol. Usually responsible for the spicy tastes such as clove and pepper. Can also create an undesired “medicinal” taste.

Reinheitsgebot: The German beer purity law of 1516 outlawing the use of wheat. Beer was strictly limited to barley, hops, water, and yeast.

Now get out there and order something new! photo courtesy iStock Copyright SensorSpot
Now get out there and order something new!
Photo courtesy iStock. Copyright: SensorSpot

Trappist: Beer brewed in one of the eleven Trappist monasteries in Europe.

Sessionable: The opposite of Imperial, lower alcohol. Meant to be drunk as part of a session of beers.

Umami: Another category of taste (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) meaning a meaty, savory taste. Warning: In the wrong company you will just sound pretentious if you use this word.





Not Just for Snowboots, This Dial Also Adjusts Prosthetics

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

In the world of prosthetics, any little change in the design of a socket can make a huge difference when it comes to comfort. Much like athletic shoe design, when someone comes up with a new idea that works, it can change the game.

Three years ago, I told you about a new idea in prosthetic leg sockets that I was very excited about. A guy named Joe Mahon, who just happens to be the very first prosthetist I had after my surgery, had found a way to make a socket adjustable, using the same kind of dial you might find on a snowboard boot. In the amputee world, this means a huge reduction in the number of afternoons you sit in an office, waiting for adjustments by the professionals. It also means a lot more freedom when you’re far away from your prosthetist, say on a hiking trail or lounging on a long lost beach. Continue reading Not Just for Snowboots, This Dial Also Adjusts Prosthetics

Walking On A Foot That Costs More Than A Car

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

When you get the chance to try out a product that retails for $70,000, you clear your calendar and sign up. If the product happens to be a computerized foot, it’s even more exciting.

I’ve been an amputee for almost 12 years and have worn about six different feet. They have gotten progressively better through the years. When I chose to have my amputation in 2004, I knew I’d be happy with the technology they had at the time. However, I also suspected it was destined to be an exciting new field for engineers and designers.

In fact, I had several arguments with my surgeon about how much of my leg to cut off (true story). He saw me as a patient who had a deformed foot, but a healthy leg from the ankle up. He wanted to cut it off right above my ankle. I knew if I wanted to be ready for the feet of the future, I’d have to have the clearance for them. I’d needed room for the hardware. We met in the middle and he did the amputation halfway up my calf.

I had been hearing about a brand new design in prosthetic feet and ankles that was coming from the lab of a guy named Hugh Herr. Mr. Herr is a rock star in the world of prosthetics. An engineer and an amputee himself (from a rock climbing accident), he’s spent a few decades designing prosthetics that make sense. The BIOM foot is a new way of trying to master a more natural gait.

Inside my foot shaped shell, a mini spring. Photo: Judy Berna
Inside my foot shaped shell, a mini spring. Photo: Judy Berna

The foot I wear today is basically a smaller version of the Cheetah leg you see Paralympic athletes using. I get the energy return by pushing down on the spring action, which propels me forward. This new design (the BIOM) actually has a computer built in. It uses a battery. It also promises to be able to give much more precise energy return.

Once I heard there was a scientific study being conducted on the BIOM, and it was taking place not far from me in Boulder, I signed up. Ironically, one of the parameters to be able to be in the study was having enough clearance from the end of your socket to the ground. Once again, I was glad I won that argument with the surgeon so long ago.

I showed up at the lab on the campus of the University of Colorado ready to try out this new idea. I’d heard great things about it, but had never known anyone personally who had one (most likely because of the price).

After meeting the two interns, the prosthetist, and the woman from the BIOM company, we got to work. My regular foot was taken off my socket and the new BIOM was attached to it.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

For the next few hours, I walked up and down a runway. My ankle was connected by Bluetooth to the tablet the prosthetist was holding in her hand. She could make adjustments to fit my own personal gait. Each amputee has their own unique settings, taking into consideration not just their gait pattern, but their height, weight, and how far up their amputation goes.

My impression? It felt like nothing else I’d ever worn. It’s so hard to use words to describe anything related to how a prosthetic feels. It’s a unique experience to begin with. Having the nerves in my stump being read by my brain as “foot” nerves, including still being able to feel my missing foot planted firmly on the ground, just complicates the situation.

Let’s start with how the ankle works. Every time I’d push down the toe, in a normal gait cycle, the ankle read how much force I was putting on it, and responded by giving the foot more or less propulsion forward. The first word that came to mind when I started out on that runway was “squishy.” It felt like I was stepping on something squishy, but not in a way that interrupted my gait, as would normally happen. With the squishiness came actual forward motion. As the prosthetist played with the settings, giving me more and less response, I was trying hard to read what that was doing to my foot and to my gait. It’s a mentally exhausting process.

The treadmill that got the best of me in the clinical trial. Photo: Judy Berna
The treadmill that got the best of me in the clinical trial. Photo: Judy Berna

To complicate my situation, my real foot isn’t totally normal. I’ve lost some range of motion and it wants to roll to the outside. I wear an insert in my right shoe, which helps keep my ankle upright in everyday life. But when walking in such a specific way, down that runway, I found myself concentrating on keeping my real foot doing the right thing, as much as I was concentrating on the new computerized foot. It was more than a bit distracting.

After the extensive settings stage, I moved to the treadmill. This is where the study was actually going to take place. Eventually, they put millions of little dots all over each subject, and cameras were posted all over the room to read what each part of the body was doing, all while the subject walked briskly on the treadmill.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that this stage really tripped me up. I do some work on treadmills at the gym. I set it on a slow speed and practice long strides, as a way of teaching my body what normal gait should feel like. But I never crank the speed up.

As they increased the speed at the lab, I found myself in a panic. I had to hold onto the bars on each side to keep my balance. Even having one of the interns standing behind me, with his hand on my back to reassure me that I wouldn’t go flying off the back, didn’t seem to help.

I’m just not used to walking fast. I’ve never been a fast walker. With my old foot strapped to that leg brace for so many years, I sure didn’t walk fast. Since I’ve had prosthetics, I rarely needed to be in a hurry and prefer to walk a bit slower, concentrating more on accurate gait. This treadmill test was a real challenge.

When it became apparent that I would not be able to keep the speed that was necessary for the study without holding onto the side rails, it was obvious to all of us that my part of the study was over. I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t help more in the development of this new technology, but the researchers assured me that every situation taught them something.

They not only needed to know which types of amputees loved the foot, but also which types of amputees weren’t comfortable in it. I fall into the second category. There is great energy return with the BIOM foot, but it was almost too much help for me. I learned something about myself through this study too. I never realized how much I concentrate on both sides of my body when I walk. I consciously think about doing the heel strike with my prosthetic foot to make it work correctly, but I’m also very aware of my right foot, to keep it from rolling to the side. Having so much going on, on the prosthetic side, was just too distracting for me.

My regular foot, exactly as stable as I need it to be. Photo: Judy Berna
My regular foot, exactly as stable as I need it to be. Photo: Judy Berna

I’ve heard that people who had two normal ankles/feet, then lost one, love this foot. They say it feels, by far, the most like their natural foot. I have never had a good ankle on my left side. It’s always been locked up with little range of motion. The bit of energy return I get from the foot I’m wearing today was life-changing when I put on my leg. It was just enough to feel like I had participation from the left side, something I’d never had before. And in the end, it seems to be the exact amount I need. Having more just gave me too much to think about.

What I do like about the BIOM foot is that it’s literally the next step. It’s destined to be the forerunner in a whole line of prosthetic feet that will respond in new ways to what the body is telling it to do. Next year, there will probably be a new version. The year after that, another. Who knows what I’ll be trying out by the time 2020 rolls around?

I also love that its design addressed the problem of slopes. Most prosthetic feet have no ability to pick up the toe. This means when you encounter a slope, even a slight incline, you generally have to walk on your toe or risk hyperextending your knee.

I was really excited to try out this feature and the researchers were kind enough to let me play with that at a slower treadmill speed before they switched out the BIOM foot. I kept having to tell myself that I was on a slope, because I was walking as normally as I would have on a flat surface. I even asked the assistant at one point, “Are you sure you set it to a slope?” That’s an exciting idea for the future of prosthetic feet. You don’t realize how many slight slopes you encounter in life, from sidewalks that gently incline to raised crosswalks on city streets, until you struggle with not being able to raise your toe.

I think the BIOM will be a good fit for many amputees. For those who had two healthy legs and lost one, it is definitely worth trying. I can see how it might be very close to what they used to feel when they had their natural foot. Here is a video of a double amputee walking up hills and slopes with the BIOM, which is very inspiring to folks who want to regain their activity level after an amputation.

Two issues will need to be addressed. One is the price, obviously. The second is the care of the foot. It is basically a computer strapped to your ankle. I wouldn’t be able to knock it around like I do my regular titanium foot. I wouldn’t be able to walk through a stream or even a very wet parking lot, like I can now. I’d have to carry extra batteries (the black square on the back, in the picture) and make sure they were charged.

I’m a pretty low-maintenance person. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about taking care of my current foot. It’s practically indestructible, if I make sure to get it cleaned out a couple of times a year. It fits in my lifestyle.

I was excited and honored to be even a small part of the study that will improve the technology available to amputees. It’s a fluid market, and every new idea is welcome. I can’t wait to see what designs show up in the future. Maybe I will get that slope-climbing foot some day—just in time for a hike up a mountain with my kids.

Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge: And Back to School We Go

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 4.45.14 PM

Image: Scholastic

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Summer is waning. Even here in North Carolina, where the hot season tends to linger a little longer than I’d like, we’ve had hints of autumn. My daughter just started preschool, and my son is back to school next week. But they had some great times this summer—we traveled, we relaxed (well, at least they did), and we immersed ourselves in some great books.

5 Word Book Reviews (or less)

Here are the books that rocked my kids’ summer.

Get in on the Instant Win Action

Image: Energizer

Energizer® and Scholastic are partnering to create the “Power the Possibilities” campaign which gives moms the tools they need to unlock their child’s talents, fuel their ambitions, and set them up for future success. Parents can buy any specially marked pack of Energizer® brand batteries to scratch for a chance to win one of thousands of prizes that will power discovery and learning.

Prizes include a family trip to New York City, a Scholastic Study Corner Makeover, a tablet with Scholastic apps, a library of Scholastic books and more! Everyone who plays can also download free digital stories for their family.

Refrain from Brain Drain

The summer is almost over, but thankfully the Power Up and Read Summer Reading Challenge has you covered. Scholastic’s Maggie McGuire has 5 easy tips for making reading a priority for your child, like setting a weekly minutes goal, reserving special time to read together as a family, and celebrating reading accomplishments. It’s not too late to get your kids reading.

More Reading Resources

Scholastic has joined together with ENERGIZER® to power the 2015 Summer Reading Challenge and encourage families to find innovative ways to discover the power and joy of reading. It’s not too late to take part! Now through September 4th, visit Scholastic.com/Summer. Click the links below for a sampling of the fun resources you’ll find with Scholastic:


Scholastic is a GeekMom sponsor.

Back To School 2015: Electronics, Gadgets, and Shiny Stuff!

Back to School \ Image: flickr user Jesuscm some rights reserved
Back to School \ Image: Flickr user Jesuscm, some rights reserved.

It’s time to head back to school and in this year’s planning guide, we have a little bit of style, a little bit of gadgets, and a lot of coolness. So let’s get started!

Electronic Accessories
Witti Dotti ($69.99)
This app-controlled pixel light will keep you posted on all of your notifications, with the added bonus of being able to customize the lights to suit your style.

Photo App Keyboards \ Image: Photojojo
Photo App Keyboards \ Image: Photojojo

Keyboard Shortcut Skins ($30)
Keyboard Shortcut Skins by Photojojo are one of my go-to accessories for my MacBook Pro. I have the one for Final Cut Pro and it’s a huge help when trying to learn the program. Shortcut Skins are also available for Photoshop (CS4/CS5/CS6), Aperture (2.0/3.0), Final Cut Pro/Express, or Lightroom (2/3/4/5). The available keyboard models include the MacBook with black or white keys, Macbook Air 13″, Apple Ultra-Thin Keyboard w/o Numeric Keypad, and the Apple Ultra-Thin Keyboard w/Numeric Keypad. Use coupon code: GEEKMOM for $5 off!

Scosche’s freeKEY ($49.99)
For the student on the go, check out this roll-up bBuetooth keyboard.

Ultimate Screen Care Kit by Dust Off ($24.99)
Electronic users should have one of these in every bag they carry. It comes with a bottle of screen cleaner, a cleaning shammy, and a mobile cleaning pad.

Power Tap \ Image courtesy of Thumbs Up UK
Power Tap \ Image courtesy of Thumbs Up UK

Power USB Tap by Thumbs Up UK ($19.71)
The Power Tap is a fun and unique way to “turn on” power to your device for charging. The blue/red light tells you if the device is charging or not and offers a great little nightlight to any room.

Scanmarker ($79.99)
I’m not a fan of highlights in my textbooks because I usually end up typing my notes anyway. With the Scanmarker, I can just scan my notes in directly from my textbook without marking them up (makes for better resale value as well). The Scanmarker lets you capture text and then edit it on your computer.

Gunnar Optiks Gaming/Computer Glasses ($50-150 depending on whether you need a prescription)
These glasses ease eye strain for anyone who spends a lot of time looking at screens (computer or gaming). They really work. It’s not magic; it’s a combination of anti-glare coating and amber tinting.

Nyrius Aries Prime ($199.99)
Apple users have been able to stream their PC to a TV with the help of Apple TV and now Windows users can do the same thing with Nyrius Aries Prime. I use this at home when previewing my slideshows for class and I love it. My son loves it too because he likes to stream his Minecraft games to our TV.

Inateck MP 1300 13.3 Inch Macbook Air Sleave \ Image courtesy of Inateck
Inateck MP 1300 13.3-inch MacBook Air Sleeve \ Image courtesy of Inateck

Inateck MacBook Sleeve ($16.99)
A soft, felted sleeve for your MacBook. This gender neutral case allows you to transport your laptop in your backpack or purse in style.

Lumo Lift Posture and Activity Tracker ($79.99)
Posture is something everyone needs work on here and there. The Lumo Lift will tell you when you are slouching and keep a record of how much time a day you spend in a good posture. It’s a nifty little device for those of us who spend our day sitting at a desk and are not always aware of how we are sitting until it’s too late.

Kinivo BTH220 ($20.99)
I’ve had more than one pair of Kinivo headphones and for the price, they’re pretty good. These are over-the-ear headphones that work via Bluetooth, with buttons to play your music as well as make and receive phone calls.

Audiofly’s AF33 Headphones ($39.99)
If wired headphones are more your thing, check out Audiofly’s AF33. They may be on the pricey side, but they offer noise isolation and are comfy to wear.

Scosche’s goBAT 6000 ($54.99)
I love this little battery charger because it doesn’t require any cables. Just plug it into the wall when the battery dies and wait for the red light to go off. It’s also lightweight compared to other chargers and is small enough to fit into your back pocket.

Coffee Cup Power Inverter V2.0 ($34.99)
When my husband first saw this, he thought it was a mug you can heat up in the car. He was kind of close. It’s a charger that looks like a coffee cup and can accommodate up to two wall chargers and one USB cable. The best part is that it fits in your cup holder so there’s no awkward worrying about where to put it while it’s plugged in. 

Tablift ($59.99)
My brother saw this and thought I would be lazy for using it. He obviously hasn’t tried to lay in bed while watching lectures and taking notes. Not to mention, it’s great for keeping your hands free while watching a movie, so you can eat your snacks. I set it up the other day to hold my iPad to help me follow directions on a sewing pattern. Tablift helped keep it off the floor and out of my pup’s mouth. 

Stress Relievers and Fun

Recess for the Soul \ Image courtesy of Deepfun.com
Recess for the Soul \ Image courtesy of Deepfun.com

Recess for the Soul by Bernie DeKoven
Meditations on the mind’s “inner playground” are perfect for teachers to practice with kids of all ages. Parents too. Check out the recording Recess for the Soul by Bernie DeKoven to practice exercises for “inner swing set” and “teeter-taughter teachings.” It’s $20 for the CD, $9.99 for the iTunes album, or $0.99 per track.

Oregon Scientific Aroma Diffuser Elite ($99.99)
Who doesn’t want to wake up to the smell of their favorite essential oil? Instead of waking you up with a noise you just hit the snooze on, this alarm clock wakes you up to the essential oil of your choice. If you are not allergic, I suggest starting the day off with peppermint. It’s my favorite.

DreamPad 26 \ Image courtesy of ILS
DreamPad 26 \ Image courtesy of ILS

Integrated Listening System’s Dreampad 26 with Optional Bluetooth Receiver ($209)
Not everyone wants to fall asleep to white noise or music. Integrated Listening System’s Dreampad 26 has a built-in speaker that lets you plug in your device and listen to your heart’s content, while not disturbing those around you. If you want to keep your device charging while you sleep, pick up the optional Bluetooth receiver as well.

Lunch Box Jokes \ Image courtesy of Lunchboxjokes.com
Lunch Box Jokes \ Image courtesy of Lunchboxjokes.com

Lunchbox Jokes: 100 Fun Tear-Out Notes for Kids ($7.99)
Add extra humor to cafeteria time with Lunchbox Jokes: 100 Fun Tear-Out Notes for Kids. It’s especially good for 1st to 3rd grades.

Color Me Crazy: Insanely Detailed Creations to Challenge Your Skills and Blow Your
Pick up some colored pencils, make yourself a blanket fort, and color your cares away in this adult coloring book. I enjoy coloring in mine when I have a headache or when I’m anxious and it helps me forget the pain.

Scrabble Twist ($19.99)
Scrabble Twist is my newest addiction. It’s small enough to fit into a purse and has multiplayer and solo game features. A single game lasts about a minute, so it offers a quick break from studying. 


Xventure SmartCord Sling bag \ Image courtesy of Brakentron
Xventure SmartCord Sling bag \ Image courtesy of Bracketron

Bracketron: SmartCord Sling Bag ($24.99)
The Braketron: SmartCord Sling Bag will protect your tablet/smartphone and other personal belongings from the weather and has a special holder to make sure your headphones are close by. Great for anyone who has minimal stuff to carry.

Zelda Eject Backpack ($54.99)
My favorite part of this Zelda-themed backpack is not that it’s Zelda, but that the lunch box is on the outside and comes off. If you want to carry just the lunch box, unzip the edges and attach the shoulder strap. Otherwise, you have a cooler and a backpack in one.

Pelican Elite \ Image courtesy of Pelican
Pelican Elite \ Image courtesy of Pelican

Pelican Elite Luggage ($505)
For the students with expensive stuff in their luggage or who plan on taking it white water rafting, check out the Pelican Elite Luggage. I use mine for carrying my costumes to and from events so I don’t arrive with a broken Bat cowl.

Build On Brick Bookends ($19.99)
Build your own bookends with ThinkGeek’s Lego bookends. Lego bricks not included.

Zoku Ice Cream Maker ($25.49) and Zoku Slush & Shake Maker ($17.95)
The Zoku Ice Cream Maker and the Zoku Slush and Shake Maker are a must-have for the dorm room refrigerator. My family loves pouring soda into the slush maker and getting a frosty treat within minutes. And with Pinterest having truckloads of ice cream recipes, it’s hard to pick which one to make first.

AutoSeal Kangaroo Water Bottle with Pocket ($12.18) and Gizmo Sip Kids Water Bottles ($9.81)
Keep your student hydrated with the Kangaroo Water Bottle or the Gizmo. Both have a great seal on them and won’t spill when tossed in your backpack. (I toss mine in with my iPad all the time.) The Kangaroo comes in a variety of colors and holds 24 ounces. The Gizmo model comes in four different colors and holds 14 ounces of your child’s favorite drink. Both are dishwasher-safe. My suggestion is to keep only water in them if your only option is hand-washing.

Slim Sack \ Image courtesy of Greenpaxx.com
Slim Sack \ Image courtesy of Greenpaxx.com

Slim Snack
($13.95 for a four-pack)

Talk about your eco-friendly, multi-purpose product. Slim Snack is it. These leak-proof silicone tubes are perfect for packing fruit, granola, applesauce, veggies, or whatever. When school’s out for the summer, use them to make your own ice pops out of blended fruit or juices. Each one is easy to fill, even for kids, especially if you stand one up in drinking glass.


Toothless Tail Fin Fighter Skirt \ Image courtesy of WeLoveFine
Toothless Tail Fin Fighter Skirt \ Image courtesy of WeLoveFine

WeLoveFine Toothless Tail Fin Skater Skirt ($25)
Get your dragon training on with this skirt inspired by Toothless the dragon.

Avengers Assemble Charm Bead Set – ThinkGeek Exclusive ($119.95)
Assemble the charms!

Rocket Raccon \ Image courtesy of SuperHeroStuff.com
Rocket Raccon \ Image courtesy of SuperHeroStuff.com

Rocket Raccoon Hooded Women’s Tank Top w/ Tail ($44.99)
This is one of my favorite pieces from SuperHeroStuff.com because I get so many compliments on it. I love the fluffy ears and the removable tail.

Superhero Belts from Superherostuff.com ($17.99)
Keep those pants where they should be with superhero style.

Batgirl Rhinestone Watch ($34.99)
Every superhero needs a watch and this one is sparkly and awesome.

Tote and Scarf \ Image courtesy of Uncommon Goods
Tote and Scarf \ Image courtesy of Uncommon Goods

Library Card Tote Bag and Literary Scarf ($20 for the Tote and $48 for the Scarf)
Uncommon Goods, which specializes in high-quality items from independent makers, offers this pair of stylish accessories for teachers, librarians, or book lovers. The natural cotton tote is printed to look like a vintage library card, instantly noticeable by anyone who has every checked out a book from a library. The silk-screen cotton infinity scarf contains passages from a choice of three timeless classics: Alice in Wonderland, Jane Eyre, or Wuthering Heights. Both products are sold on their own, with the tote made in Brooklyn and the scarf by  Tori Tissell out of Portland, Oregon.

When it comes to back to school, you can never have enough gadgets. What items are in your students’ arsenal for the new school year? Let us know in the comments!

Disclaimer: GeekMom may have received samples of some of these items. 

Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge: Giveaway and #MondayMinutesGoal

Image: Natania Barron -- My daughter, her bunny friend, and her favorite book.
Image: Natania Barron — My daughter, her bunny friend, and her favorite book.

It’s been a crazy busy summer here in the house, and what’s probably the most exciting bit when it comes to reading is just how much my daughter Elodie is getting into the habit. She’s not yet at the age where she can read, but she’s absolutely in love with stories and pictures. Every night she wants me to read her another story (her favorite is still Please Mr. Panda, which she just can’t get enough of).

While this summer has meant new jobs, a big move, and lots of changes, reading books at night has become a huge part of our day. And, I’ll be honest—sometimes it’s the very best part of my day. You can tell by her adventures with the Energizer Bunny that it’s been a fun—and stylish—summer for all of us.

Image: Scholastic
Image: Scholastic

The Innovation Book Packet Giveaway

While you’re tracking your kids’ reading minutes, I wanted to share a great giveaway that they’re doing right now that’s just up the alley for our geeky readers. The innovation book packet is a collection of Scholastic titles showcasing fiction and non-fiction boos for kids to want to get lost in the world of science, STEM, and inventions. Awesome, right?

The packet includes:

  • The Magic School Bus and the Electric Field Trip
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret
  • Extreme Science Careers
  • Extreme Experiments
  • Plus Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge materials including reading logs, pledges, bookmarks, and more!
The  Innovation Book Packet. Image: Scholastic
The Innovation Book Packet. Image: Scholastic

Introducing #MondayMinutes

In an effort to log as many minutes as possible through the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge AND to break the world record for summer reading, Scholastic is setting special weekly goals for young readers. Every Monday they’ll be announcing a #MondayMinutesGoal, the number of minutes for kids to read together in one week (by the following Monday).

Image: Energizer
Image: Energizer

Whether your child or student is reading independently aloud or together with you, you can join in. Here’s how:

  • Have your child log his/her minutes on the SRC website or on a paper log/piece of paper
  • Take a picture of him/her proudly displaying their minutes
  • Share it on social using #MondayMinutesGoal and #SummerReading and tag @GeekMomBlog!
  • We’ll pick a random winner.

US addresses only, prizing provided by Scholastic. Entries accepted through 8/7!

Sign up for the Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge

Scholastic is a GeekMom sponsor.

Is It Okay To Turn Amputees Away at Amusement Park Rides?

Photo: Judy Berna Canobie Lake, NH
Canobie Lake, NH. Photo: Judy Berna.

It’s summertime; the time you pack up the kids and head to the amusement park. If it’s hot outside you head to the water park. For most families, the only thing that might be worrisome is whether their youngster is tall enough to ride certain rides. But what if your child was turned away for other reasons—like the fact that they have a prosthetic limb?

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

In recent years, this has been happening more and more at parks around the country. It’s happening to children and adults. Sometimes it makes the local news and many times the article becomes a Facebook favorite. I have watched these stories with interest, since I am an amputee and have frequented many amusement parks without ever having a problem.

You might assume my point of view on this topic would be fully in support of the amputee in the story. Not necessarily.

First, let’s break down the issue. In the 12 years since I had my surgery, society’s acceptance of prosthetic limbs has changed dramatically. Amputees are no longer afraid of wearing shorts in public. In fact, the attitude has changed so much that most of the amputees I know have crazy designs on their legs that they like to show off.

I believe this change is part of the reason we’re seeing these stories about amusement park problems. Those who are missing limbs are no longer afraid of going on adventures with their families. And they are wearing shorts, so it’s very obvious they have bionic limbs. In past years, if an amputee showed up in line for a roller coaster, they most likely were wearing long pants, and the ride operator never knew.

Add to that the fact that amusement parks are more and more terrified of lawsuits. As our society becomes more sue-happy, these parks are having to be vigilant about safety rules and policies. For smaller parks, one major lawsuit could close their doors forever.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

So why would I ever not side with my fellow amputees, you might ask? The short answer is this: Every amputee is different, every prosthetic setup is different, and in some situations, they may not be safe on a ride they really want to try. It doesn’t matter how long they’ve been an amputee, how strong the rest of their body is, how far they had to travel to get there, or how badly they want to try this ride. If it’s not safe, it’s not safe.

Let’s use roller coasters as an example to represent the average amusement park ride. Let’s say this particular ride has a bar over your lap and your legs hang down. This ride was designed by engineers who were using a standard body as their subject. The only deviance would be allowing for extreme heights or weights. My six-and-a-half-foot teenager is technically barred from a few amusement park rides because a person of his height is not technically safe in the design of that ride.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

If a body is of average height, but has legs that only go down to mid-thigh, this kind of ride could actually be very dangerous. Much like a child who is too small for a booster seat can slide under the belt and be harmed, an amputee with short limbs can easily slide out from under the safety bar. Even an amputee with one above-the-knee amputation runs a higher risk of sliding out.

Another issue is prosthetic limbs that might fall off. I am actually very surprised I was allowed to ride a roller coaster in NY that allowed the rider’s legs to hang down. I have a below-the-knee prosthetic, made of hard plastic, with a foot made of titanium. I was confident my leg would not come off, because the design I wear allows for me to be pulled across a room by my leg, with my prosthetic never even coming close to coming loose.

But if I didn’t have this system, or if it was a hot day and my leg was looser than normal because of sweating (which happens), there is a real risk that my leg could have come off and been a very dangerous projectile. With as tightly as parks now pack their coasters into the footprint of their property, there is a good chance a leg would hit a human target.

There is no way a ride operator can be trained on all the different kinds of leg systems. There is no way there can be a blanket policy that applies to every kind of prosthetic socket. There are many amputees who can ride specific rides very safely. But how do the teenage park workers decide who is safe and who is not? Herein lies the problem.

Amusement Parks are a fun way to make new family memories.  Photo: Judy Berna
Amusement parks are a fun way to make new family memories. Photo: Judy Berna.

I hate to see my fellow amputees, adults and children, denied a fun day at the park with their families. It breaks my heart to think of an amputee child being told they can “do anything” with their prosthetic limb, then be turned away once they are at a park. This actually happened recently.

And because there is much confusion about what is safe and what isn’t, the result is people who have perfectly safe prosthetic limbs being turned away. This is exactly what happened to the 8-year-old in the link above. She had a below-the-knee prosthetic covered in a gel liner, and was turned away from a water slide because her leg “might scratch the slide.” This is completely ridiculous.

Parks have become over-vigilant to the point of lacking common sense, which results in more and more news stories about amputees being denied access.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

After much thought, I’ve come up with one solution. It might never come to fruition, but we need to start brainstorming to solve this problem.

Since a prosthetist is really the only person who is qualified to determine how stable a limb might be and which rides it would actually be safe on, they need to be involved in the decision. There needs to be a standardized form, which is offered to all amusement parks and water parks. This form would be filled out by an amputee’s prosthetist and presented to the customer service desk at the park. Then a special ID could be issued to the amputee, which demonstrates to the ride operator that the amputee can board.

This form could easily be printed off from a park’s website. Parks could also offer a season “pass,” which allows an amputee to turn the form in once, then every time they visit that park, they can refer back to the original form and get their special ID tag.

Somewhere in the language of the form, there would have to be a disclaimer, so the prosthetist would not be responsible for any injury or accident that might happen. Otherwise, no prosthetist in his right mind would sign a paper like that.

It would take a lot of organizing to make this happen, but it would sure beat the system we have now, where every park decides for themselves what their rules about prosthetic limbs might be. And they usually err on the side of caution, which denies many “safe” amputees a chance to enjoy the park.

GeekMom Judy's nephew, Soul, enjoying an amusement park ice cream cone.  Photo: Judy Berna
GeekMom Judy’s nephew, Soul, enjoying an amusement park ice cream cone. Photo: Judy Berna.

As an amusement park customer, or as a mom or dad to kids who love them, how do you feel about amusement parks turning away amputees, solely because they have a prosthetic limb? I’d love to hear the opinions of you able-bodied folks out there. Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section.

Now excuse me as I go load up the car with kids. We are on our way to the zoo. That’s one place I know I’ll be welcome, bionics and all.

Amputee Round-Up: Prosthetics and Amputees in the News

Photo: Born Just Right bornjustright.com
Photo: Born Just Right.

As your token amputee GeekMom writer, I love periodically filling our readers in on what’s going on in the amputee world. Of course, there are always new advancements in designs of prosthetic limbs, but there are also issues facing today’s amputee that are unrelated to how our hardware fits.

Let’s start with some stories that have been making the rounds, about how amputees are accepted (or rejected) at amusement parks and water parks. This is a huge issue in the amputee world. It’s becoming an even bigger issue as more and more amputees are no longer hiding their artificial limbs, and celebrating the mobility they have achieved.

In my childhood, there would have been very few amputees seen at a water park, and if they came in the gate, they probably wore long pants and didn’t participate on the rides. Those days are over. Current amputees are realizing there is nothing to hide and no reason not to participate in fun activities with their family and friends.

Photo: Judy Berna Enjoying Canobie Lake in NH
Enjoying Canobie Lake in NH. Photo: Judy Berna.

On the flip side, you have amusement park owners who are living in a sue-happy society and are doing everything they can to stay out of court. Every summer, there are more and more local news outlets reporting on an amputee who was turned away on a ride, solely because of their prosthetic limb. I have a variety of feelings about this practice, some which might surprise you. I plan to share those with you in another post next week. For now, here are a few of the most recent stories hitting the internet.

This one hits me the deepest. It’s a story about a little girl who is very active, even with her prosthetic leg. She and her family have often frequented water parks and amusement parks and had no issues. Then, on their last visit, she was made to exit the water slide “because her leg might scratch the slide.” Now, I can understand if the park feels like her safety is at risk, but turning away an 8-year-old because she might scratch your slide? Ridiculous.

Here is one about one of our Purple Heart recipients, who lost both of his legs fighting for our freedom, being turned away from a ride at Six Flags.

And here’s one that might surprise you… a man turned away from an amusement park ride because he has no hands.

GeekMom Judy's friend Jordan, and her prosthetist. Photo: Born Just Right
GeekMom Judy’s friend, Jordan, and her prosthetist. Photo: Born Just Right.

Now, on to more uplifting stories. It has not been a burden to continue seeing this next story pop up in my feed over and over again. A fitness photographer named Michael Stokes has turned his camera on to some of our own military veterans, and photographed them like he would his able-bodied models. The pictures are stunning (but a bit too graphic to post here). He has started a Kickstarter campaign to be able to publish his photographs in a book.

When people approach Mr. Stokes and tell him what a great job he’s doing to help the self esteem of these amputee vets, he quickly corrects them. He has been amazed by the confidence and power his subjects had when they walked in his door. They are already at the top of their game and ready to take on the world. I have to say, I love seeing amputees portrayed in this empowering way. I know these stories help every adult who might lose a limb in the future and every child who is facing this surgery. It’s no longer about your life being over. It’s about your life being changed.

How can you not love a story about kids with prosthetics and Lego building blocks? Here is a great article about one of the newest bionic hands, which is Lego adaptable. This means a kid can build whatever he wants in that spot where a hand might go. Be sure to check out the precious picture of a little guy who built a backhoe for a hand. All of the sudden, not having a second “real” hand doesn’t seem so awful.

The field of prosthetic hands is changing by the day and here is one of the latest hands that has been created. I have a young friend who uses her “helper arm” for some things in life, and is watching with interest as these new bionic options are being created. For her, these are all just steps toward a hand she might wear in the future. It takes a lot of mental energy to operate a prosthetic hand. But for now, it’s fun to watch the technology explode in exciting new ways.

If you’re a gamer, you might like this article, about how they are using gaming technology to help some amputees learn to walk again.

Here’s another inspiring story, about a teenager with two prosthetic legs, who is excelling at high-school level sports and making his way to the Paralympics.

Are you a surfer by chance? Here’s a great link about a guy who is competing at the first ever World Adaptive Surfing Championships, as a double amputee.

And speaking of the ocean, we can’t forget the two brave teenagers who lost arms this summer off the coast of North Carolina, all because of shark attacks. Hunter Treschl is actually from my home state of Colorado, and has shown stellar maturity through is experience.

Twelve-year-old Kiersten Yow lost her arm on the same day, on the same beach, and is also showing great maturity as she was released from the hospital recently. I know both of these young people will be welcomed into the amputee community and will never have to feel alone in their journey.

Photo: Challenged Athletes Foundation
Photo: Challenged Athletes Foundation.

I can’t finish this post without calling attention to a great advocate of the amputee world, who is now gone. Robin Williams would have turned 64 last week. Yes, he was a genius in the world of comedy, but he was also a genius of humanity for the great energy he put into supporting disabled athletes through the Challenged Athlete Foundation. The CAF hands out grants every year, to help people of all ages be able to buy the equipment they need to stay active. Every year, they finance hundreds of those bladed running legs (and many more adaptive devices), so more amputee athletes can have the chance to run. If you were a Robin Williams fan, consider clicking over to the CAF site and making a donation in his name, in honor of his birthday. I’m sure he would have been very pleased.

So there you have it; some of the latest stories that are floating around the internet about the world I live in. Feel free to send me links that you might see. It’s nice to stay up to date on the latest in prosthetics and amputee life, with the help of my friends and family.