Once upon a time, sometime in August, I made three friends.
It was not long after Mbot’s fifth birthday. It seemed all the toys he’d received at his party were breaking because they had outlived their unwritten life-expectancy of three weeks, or collecting dust, because they’d entered the boring zone.
The idea of robots originated with Mbot’s very first show-and-tell, over two years ago.
On the eve of his first show-and-tell, we (I use the term very loosely) made a recycle robot for his first preschool show-and-tell–not because we were trying to be clever, but because we were panicky and desperate (again, the term “we” used loosely). I documented that event in my post, Recycle Robot vs. Sister Mary Villus. Ever since, I secretly wanted to make more.
So I’d been piling recyclables in the garage–not all of them of course, but the choice items with interesting shapes or moving parts (cardboard tubes, ketchup bottles, wipies lids), in preparation for a recycle party that we hadn’t had. I envisioned inviting over some of the bots’ friends and making cool stuff out of all the cool stuff that other people thought were trash.
We have yet to have our recycle party, but I started partying with recyclables by myself. While During the seven weeks that I was going through radiation, I promised myself that I wouldn’t push myself too hard. I wouldn’t try to make headway on any of my writing projects. I would be kind to myself. I would have fun. I decided it was time to get out the pile o’ trash. I made these three dudes as toys for the weebots. They’re all about twenty inches tall (antennae not included) and have swiveling heads, moving arms, grasping hands, and secret compartments. I avoided using brads or any metal parts, for safety reasons.
What I didn’t know before I made the recycle robots is that they would turn out to be the perfect toys. Why?
1. They are cheap. They are made out of garbage!
2. When they break, I can fix them myself, because I made them in the first place!
3. When the bots get bored with them, I can change them! They will seem new again!
4. They can serve as friends, targets for Tae Kwon Do kicks, storage containers for other toys, or piggy banks. And it’s always nice to have a friend who’s also a piggy bank.
6. They can double as décor by adding a test tube filled with water and a flower.
7. They have turned my own weebots into lean, green, recycle machines; their favorite craft now is collecting junk, gluing it together, and adding eyes. They can, literally, make their own friends.
My friend Solveig, who’s been around since the failed Scotch sewing machine days, dubbed the robots–and we who make them–the Recycle Robot League.
Thanks to St. Peter’s Montessori Fall Festival–where, after three weeks of collecting recyclables, the children built their own recycle robots–there are now nearly fifty members!
Next week, I’ll post pictures of the kids’ robonderful creations. Toilet paper tubes have never had such a shiny future.
When a friend asked for step-by-step instructions so she could make them with her eight-year-old homeschooled twins, I sat down to write them, and at her prompting, made them downloadable on Etsy.com for $.99. The process that actually made the robots better, because I wanted to make sure to include tips on how to reinforce their bods to make them as durable as possible. Because while it’s great to be able to whip out a glue gun for a quick fix, it’s even better not to have to!
Several weeks ago, Mbot, in the backseat, said, apropos of nothing:
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost.
Whose woods these are, I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake,
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake,
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The snow is lovely, soft, and deep,
But I’ve got promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep
Before I could fill the car with astonished applause, Mbot added, “I wonder why he has to go to sleep twice?”
Apparently, Mbot’s class had learned the poem in preparation for St. Peter’s Montessori Fall Festival. This was the first I’d heard of it. I knew they’d been learning songs–Gbot spontaneously throughout the day would lift his voice to sing that the autumn leaves were falling, falling, and (crouching down, hands at his feet) touching…the…ground. But Robert Frost?
The fascinating thing about the spontaneous recitation was the the expressiveness with which Mbot spoke–it wasn’t like he was reciting it by rote as much as telling me with great enthusiasm about what he did last night (in extremely articulate rhyming iambic pentameter). He owned that poem! And obviously enjoyed the tumble of it from his tongue.
It reminded me of the first time I can remembering hearing classical music (although I’m sure I’d heard it before)–in a gray-linoleumed, fluorescent-lit music room where my third grade class filed once a week to sing simple songs very badly. The music teacher lowered a record’s needle onto a vinyl disk, and the first notes of “Morning Song,” at the beginning of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite were breathed into my consciousness. I didn’t know what it was. I remember sitting in my metal folding chair as the music described the rising sun, transfixed with joy–I had never even imagined that anything that beautiful that could exist. I went home and asked my mom if it would be possible to actually buy it. Soon afterward, this appeared in our living room:
I couldn’t care less about the Nutcracker. But I listened to the B-side of that record as often as my mother would agree to load it onto the turntable of my dad’s treasured hi-fi stereo, whose amplifiers he had built by hand (and whose vacuum tubes periodically self-destructed in a dramatic cloud of smoke that filled the house with the smell of freshly charred wiring).
Partly because of the vividness of that memory, I’ve never believed in dumbing down language or music for children. Sure, we read picture books by the shelf-foot, and sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” But I also read to the bots whatever they’ll sit still for–parts of articles from National Geographic or the New Yorker (Ian Frazier’s adventures in northern Russia, for some reason, particularly captured Mbot’s interest), and I intersperse what is now the Bot’s fave music–“beat music” (any popular dance song, whose lyrics they argue over, both of them wrong), with large doses of classical, and not the Little Einstein version, either. Once in a while they complain about it (Mbot: “I will NOT thank whoever wrote THIS music”), but not often. Who knows what the bots get out of all these grown-up forms of artistic expression? But if they’re ready to get something, it’ll be there for them to get, and they’ll get it.
The Fall Festival was just over two weeks ago. Mbot and the other kindergartners recited Robert Frost, almost incoherently–it was much better performed solo in the back of the car; Gbot performed his extremely brief song about falling leaves while waving a gauzy scarf in autumnal colors, and the elementary class recited Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Arrow and the Song”:
I shot an arrow into the air
It fell to earth, I know not where,
For, so swiftly it flew, the sight
Could not follow it in its flight.
I breathed a song into the air,
It fell to earth, I know not where;
For who has sight so keen and strong,
That it can follow the flight of song?
Long, long afterward, in an oak,
I found the arrow, still unbroke;
And the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
Since the Festival, Gbot has been reciting bits and pieces of this poem, out of the blue. I provide the words when he can’t remember, but generally, he just seems to be enjoying saying a couple of lines at a time; his favorite combo goes straight from breathing a song into the air to finding it again in the heart of a friend.
Since Junebug has died, we’ve been talking about her almost every day; we’ve been talking about death lately, too, because the antique cat–after nearly eighteen years, having beaten diabetes but unable to conquer renal failure–is finally sneaking up on the end of his ninth life. Needless to say, there are way more questions in the house these days than answers for them.
Yesterday afternoon, I happened to say to Gbot at breakfast something like, “Goodness, your cereal just disappeared.”
At which point there was a brief pause before Gbot responded, “And June disappeared.”
“Yes,” I said.
There was another pause, and Gbot replied, “And you know not where.”
Gbot’s use of the poem’s antiquated syntax made me think that he was making a connection to the song breathed into the air, and its trajectory. It reminded me of the power of poetry–not only to create beauty in the presence of grief, but to connect seemingly disparate facts, objects, memories, experiences–and build a harmony of them filled with subtle and complex understanding.
Even as tears sprang to my eyes, I had to stifle a giggle. I thought for a moment. “Into the hearts of her friends,” I said. Then we went out and rode bikes.
Yesterday we said goodbye to Junebug.
Since I picked her in 2001 from among sixty inmates at the Animal Shelter of the Wood River Valley, where she’d been living for twelve months, we never really knew how old she was. According to the lady at the shelter, the scrawny black and white dog was one or two when she’d arrived, which would make her fourteen or fifteen this year.
Friends and I in Idaho’s Wood River Valley joked that she was a genuine Wood River Retriever. The product of ne’er-do-well parents sporting substantial doses of Labrador and Border Collie in their questionable pedigrees, these middle-sized, athletic, poorly trained hounds are ubiquitous in the Valley. The B.C./Lab mix gave Junebug webbed toes, an unquenchable desire to run far, far away, and a dense, fluffy undercoat protected by a long, oily topcoat, with which she performed Olympian feats of shedding.
Junie was as strange a dog as her appearance suggests, by turns cripplingly empathetic and discouragingly aloof. In spite of her flipper-like feet and waterproof coat, she did not like to swim. Instead, she preferred to wade, and after our first month as a team, during which together we watched dozens of tennis balls bob downstream and out of sight, she finally succeeded in training me not to throw tennis balls.
But if I demonstrated undue optimism in the early days, I wasn’t alone. Every morning she woke up knowing that this–this!–would be the day that she would finally catch a squirrel.
She chased cats (although it’s important to note that not once did she chase Tesserwell), and she chased foxes, but her quarry of choice was the squirrel. Idaho, where she spent her first seven years, is ideal for such pursuit, boasting thirteen species of ground squirrel. All of them were faster than June.
This morning, teary-eyed while tying his sneakers, Mbot asked me to tell another Junie story. “Juniebug woke up every morning,” I began, “knowing–just knowing!–that that day would be the day she caught a squirrel.” I zipped the bots into sweatshirts and we shuffled over the new Bermuda grass, glowing green around our shoes, to the car. “But she never did.”
“Well, there was one time….We were housesitting at Nanny and Poppy’s. Now, you know how Nanny and Poppy don’t like the smell of onions, right? For some reason I can’t remember now, I had one with me, and put it on top of my car overnight instead of bringing it inside. Then I did some gardening at Nanny and Poppy’s and Junie spent the morning racing around in the grass and woods after squirrels. Now, Junie was fast–fast as a cheetah on the African plains. But not as fast as a squirrel.
“Well, just as I was getting ready to get in the car and go home, Juniebug prances up to me, and by jigger if she wasn’t carrying a squirrel in her mouth. Oh, she was so pleased with herself! She was prancing and dancing. Can you imagine Junie prancing and dancing? I, on the other paw, was horrified. By the look of the squirrel, it had probably been dead for a day. That would explain why it was so stiff, and also why it couldn’t outrun Junie. I took it out of her mouth–she didn’t care, she was still dancing and prancing with glee to finally get a taste of squirrel–it tasted just like candy to her–Squirrel Skittles, and Squirrel Duds–and I put it on top of the car next to the onion.
“Then I went to get a bag to put it in. I didn’t want it stinking up Nanny and Poppy’s garbage. But I got distracted, and forgot about it, and finished up the gardening, and called Juniebugs out of the trees, where she was looking to double her score, and she leaped into the back of the car–can you imagine Juniebugs leaping? Just like a gazelle on the African plains. And we drove home.
“And out on the road, I said to Junie, ‘I must look awfully lovely today! Everyone we pass is looking at us. Aren’t we a couple of beautiful girls?’ And it was true: heads were turning on the highway the whole drive home.
“And then we got home. I climbed out of the car and Junie jumped out and sat looking at the car. ‘What?’ I asked. ‘It’s time to go inside.’ But she just sat looking past me, and so I turned around, and what did I see? There on the top of the car were the onion and the squirrel. I had driven all the way home with an onion and a dead squirrel on top of my car! Everyone we passed must have thought I was going to make squirrel soup. Junebug particularly wanted me to, because after all it was the first squirrel she’d ever caught. Oh, that was a happy day for Junebug!”
By that time, we’d reached school. We bundled out of the car, navigated the parking lot holding hands, hugged and kissed goodbye, Junie temporarily forgotten in pursuit of the day.
I have told the bots that we need to be thankful that Junebug was part of our family. I can’t with a clear conscious tell them that she went to heaven. Unless heaven is our collective consciousness, the narrative through which we navigate past and present and future, as real and powerful and invisible as oxygen or gravity. We’ll tell Junebug stories.
And so Junie’s having a good day, today, chasing squirrels, and catching them.