Meet the Recycle Robots!

Meet Omega-3, Heinz, and Joebot. (copyright Betsy Andrews Etchart)

The pioneers: Omega-3, Heinz, and Joebot. (copyright Betsy Andrews Etchart)

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.

Heinz door open

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.

Heinz 2

Wouldn’t you love to have him holding out a flower to you all day? (No test tube in this picture; I added it later.)

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.

Fresh off his shift as a sparring partner, Joebot becomes a handy Lego container.

Fresh off his shift as a sparring partner, Joebot becomes a handy Lego container. (At far left, Mbot’s speedboat, complete with a hatch that opens into a raisin box filled with ninjas that look a lot like wine corks.)

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!

It is very cool to have a hungry robot bigger than yourself greet you at school!

It is very cool to have a hungry robot bigger than yourself greet you at school!

Next week, I’ll post pictures of the kids’ robonderful creations. Toilet paper tubes have never had such a shiny future.

RRL Montessori Fall Fest 11When 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  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!

Pinata de Ironman: Back From the Dead

ironman 1 fullbody with m

For many of you, my Ironman pinata of ridiciulous dimensions is old news. But last June, just as I was finishing building the largest and best behaved guest at Mbot’s fourth birthday party, my camera died at the hands of said birthday boy, and so the final images that appeared on the blog were teeny-tiny stills captured from my video camera, and I didn’t know how to make them any bigger. Well, seven months later, I have figured out how, and due to the overwhelming number of Google searches for Ironman pinatas, many of them in Spanish, I’ve decided to post them here, just in case anyone wants to repeat my folly and create in their dining room a 5’8″ hollow Superhero sculpture made of newspaper, water, flour, and balloons.

I do not recommend it.

ironman complete thighs up

The entire premise of building a pinata in your dining room–especially when you live in Arizona, within a thirty-minute drive of an ENORMOUS pinata store, and your assistants are two hyperactive midgets with too little appreciation for long-term goals and too much appreciation for flour paste, is ludicrous. But there is nothing like laundering many small socks, wiping many small booties, and preparing many small meals every day, many of which are greeted with “Blech!” before being pushed half way across the table, to inspire one to create something big and lasting that will be greeted with “Ooohs!” and “Ahhhs!”, even if it’s eventually whacked to bits and survives only in photos. It was that sort of housewifishness, mother-of-weebots, frustrated artist mentality that drove me to purchase the thirty-inch high “It’s a boy!” bottle-shaped balloon that would become Ironman’s torso, setting the scale for Ironman’s body, and coming to represent the first circle of Pinata Hell.

ironman complete legs down

ironman torso legs

Here we have Ironman at about the midway point. The coat hanger that we hung him from is visible sticking out his neck and arm holes. The hanger eventually required reinforcement in the form of Gorilla glue, when the metal hook pulled out of the wood.

I suppose I should report on what has finally happened to Ironman. For a long time–many months–I kept his limbs in a pile in the garage. The bots got a kick out of trying on the legs from the knee down, and chasing each other wearing the giant red arms. My plan was that perhaps I would reassemble him and hang him in their room, slanting from the ceiling like he was flying.

But a few weeks ago, in a claustrophobic cleaning frenzy of the sort that grips me every ten years or so, I stacked the body parts in the recycle bin and breathed a sigh of relief that it was gone. After seven months, in my mind, he had finally turned into an it. I forgot one arm, and the bots spent an afternoon chasing each other with it, at which point I think it, too, went into the recycle bin. This morning when I brought the empty bin back into the garage, I saw a single red finger laying on the concrete. I thought of evil little Peter Pettigrew in the Harry Potter books, who cut off his own finger before turning into a rat, to “prove” to everyone he was really dead.

Hmmm. Is Ironman not really dead? Does he live on? If I ever start building a giant rat pinata, will somebody please stop me?

ironman behind complete hanging

For those of you who missed the original posts, just click on these and you, too, will be able to witness the whole sordid affair:

If I Build an Ironman Pinata, Will Robert Downey, Jr. Jump Out of It?

Ironman, The Killer Pinata, Part 2: Taking Up Arms

T – 19 Days: Ironman the Killer Pinata, Part 3

T – 8 Days: Ironman the Needy Pinata Boyfriend

T – 4 Days: Ironic Man

T – 2 Days: You Say Pinata, I Say Peanuta

T – 0: Blast Off: (From Both Ends)

Yesterday’s Mystery Post, Take Two

Sorry it’s so dark. But it IS a cave. Mbot is modeling the giant bat ears that demonstrate how well bats can hear. So here he is hearing the story of the unlucky sloth, told over and over again, really really loudly.

For those of you who read yesterday’s cryptic post before I discovered that most of it was missing, I apologize. Now, in today’s few bot-free minutes, I will try to recreate it:

11,000 years ago, a sloth fell through a crack. It fell into a cave. It couldn’t get out. It died in the cave.

The kind docent in the Shasta Ground Sloth cave at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum told us this story on Sunday when we were admiring the fossilized skeleton and the ancient sloth poop that I managed to not delete in yesterday’s post.

The bots listened with great concern and then baraged the docent with questions. “Why did he fall through the crack?” (I was going to answer, ‘because it didn’t come when it’s mother called it’ but she beat me with ‘Sloths don’t have very big brains.’) “Why could he not get out?” (There was no door.) “Why did he die?” (Because he couldn’t get out of the cave.) While Mbot tried on a giant pair of bat ears which magnified all the cave sounds, Gbot stood rooted in place beside the docent, craning his neck upward to look at her and repeating the questions. Perhaps hoping for different, better answers. But the answers didn’t change.

On the way home, he retold the story many times.

Gbot: “The three-tailed ground sloth fell through the crack. He fell into the cave. He couldn’t get out and” (voice lowering sadly) “he died in the cave.”

Over the next few days, the story was told over and over again. To Daddy, to Aunt Susan, to Grandma, to Nanny over the phone, to Miss Mary the music teacher. It was obviously sad and disturbing. How was I to know it was going to turn into a story of rescue and redemption?

On Wednesday, from the backseat, Gbot told the story again. “But Mama,” he said, “we could use Bob the Builder’s tools!”

“You’re right!” I exclaimed. “A jackhammer can cut through concrete and rock.”

Gbot: “Yeah, and we could make a door and he would say, ‘What a wonderful door you made, Mama and Gbot,’ and he would go through the door in the cave and he would go home to his mommy. And we would go home and talk about how the sloth fell into the cave and got out the door. And the sloth would say, ‘Thank you for making my door in the cave.'”

I praised his creative solution to the sloth’s big problem. Now, perhaps, we could stop hearing about the sloth in the cave. Although it was awfully cute.

But of course, as all answers do, this one led to another question. After a brief pause from the back seat, Gbot asked, concern edging his voice again,

“What if we were sloths, Mama?”

“We would be careful sloths, Spice Bear,” I said. “And we would always carry jackhammers, just in case.”

More about the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum later this week. There were many moments to savor. Today’s recommendation, which would have been yesterday’s recommendation if my post hadn’t fallen through a crack, is: Go there!


Unlucky Sloth’s Lucky Day

Ancient sloth poop at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

“But why could it not get out?” they asked, again, several times, with great concern.

“There was no door,” she replied.

* * *

I guess I should have named this post “Lucky Betsy’s Unlucky Day,” because when I came to see that the post had been published, it had, minus 99% of the story. The only thing that remained were the two lines above, from somewhere in the middle of the post. I have no idea how this happened. Nearly my entire text fell into oblivion, just like the giant sloth did 11,000 years ago. I’d stolen time to write about it while my niece watche  the bots, and now she’s gone, and so it will have to wait for a moment when the bots are trying to spread yogurt all over themselves or open up the new apple juice container or tip over my coffee by themselves. Oh well. The sloth waited 11,000 years to be discovered by us; I guess it can wait another day. Sometimes I believe that motherhood and blogging are about as compatible as a ground sloth and an underground cave.

Monsoons and Mud Duds

Sitting in the clouds.

There has been more rain this summer than any summer in the last five years. Which means that here in West Phoenix, we’ve been rained on maybe eight times since March, and all in the last three weeks. As the heat builds over the desert, clouds begin building over the Bradshaw Mountains, twenty miles to the north. Some years, they build for a month of afternoons, hovering like a promise on the horizon and vanishing by morning into a dense humidity that dissipates in the baking oven of midmorning.

But this year, the rain has been falling. The timing coincided with my lugging the livingroom rug outside and draping it over the patio railing to hose off after the latest bouts of canine incontinence. My plan was that it would dry in twelve hours, at which point I’d bring it back in and call the rug cleaner. But then it rained, so I left it out to dry. And then it rained again. And again.

But while the rug was languishing in the storms and the eucalyptus on the front lawn came down one night, the bots reveled in the puddles appeared and reappeared miraculously overnight. One of Mbot’s fashion-foward friends asked her mother if she could buy a “mud suit” especially for playing in puddles. The bots are not so concerned about specific mud duds. For them, anything will do, from diapers to school clothes.


But while my patience for tomatoes smashed on a door is limited, my patience for mud-soaked weebots is about infinite. I grew up in Juneau, Alaska, on the edge of a coastal rainforest. It was a world of reflections. Although I found the near-constant overcast oppressive, the reflections–on the bay, on the wet macadam, in the puddles on the playground–were like live scraps of energy, rippling with their own life–maybe I liked them so much because like liquid mirrors, they added light to world of blues and grays.

I have come to crave the rain here like I craved the sun there. And so when the puddles appear, we sit in them. And we pay the extra fee for having the backing on the rug replaced because, it turns out, saturation is not nearly as good for rugs as it is for children.

In the froggie boots, too fast for freeze frame.


Dear Husbot, Thank You, But Did You Have To…

$16.95 + $4.95 shipping, from Crate and Barrel. That’s $33.90 + $9.90, for two.

Dear Husbot,

Thank you for killing the black widow spider hanging in front of the front door.

But did you have to throw away my broom afterward? The one with the whimsically stripy handle that makes me feel not quite so bitter about sweeping?

I mean, I’m totally thrilled that you a.) identified the spider that I incorrectly identified as “not a black widow, I didn’t see that red hour glass on its back,” b) didn’t snicker while pointing out that the hourglass is actually on its tummy and c) stomped on it repeatedly because my simply throwing two issues of the Sunday New York Times on it the night before when I incorrectly identified it was obviously an inadequate murder technique.

But did you have to throw away my broom afterward? Without telling me? And not replace it? Immediately? In a household in which gravity is twice as strong as at other locations on Earth, and in which at least once a week an object fabricated either of glass or ceramics explodes on the tile floor?

Really. Thank you for compensating for my ignorance regarding the Insects of the Desert and their feeding, sleep, and recreational habits. I had not known that a spider hanging no more than eighteen inches above the ground in a lit doorway at night would be a spider that could poison my children. Forgive me: our children. And that a black widow has a tough exoskeleton that renders it impervious to the impact of even a month’s worth of lightly read Times. And that after suffering such an insult, it would scurry into a hole until darkness fell again, at which point it would resume hunting. In our doorway.

But did you have to throw away my broom afterward? I still don’t quite understand why. When there are four extremely tender feet that depend on my using it almost daily. Did you throw it away because of the black widow, or because you then used it to reach the giant cockroach that I spotted camping out high on the wall, after you’d killed the black widow? The one that instigated a call to Pete the Bug Guy who I thought you’d called last month?

Thank you for killing the giant cockroach.

But did you have to throw away my broom?

The Amazing Powers of Weebots

Tara Gaffney Photography

Aside from last night, when Gbot shook an enormous red thigh until a lone, leftover Tootsie Pop fell out, life P.I. (Post Ironman) has returned to normal. It’s a heavy, pre-monsoon 106 degrees outside our air-conditioned box, and so we went to the zoo early. The fun of visiting the zoo often and at different times of day is that it offers the opportunity to see all of the animals active some of the time. Yesterday, one of the normally sedate Colobus monkeys was zooming back and forth across forty feet of tree branch, long white fringes flying, making him look like a throwback from the seventies; any minute I expected him to hop on a mechanical bull.

Mbot wanted to ride the merry-go-round, but the zoo was in sleepy summer weekday mode and it wasn’t open. As we walked past the silent carousel, Mbot asked thoughtfully, “Do you think the guy who works there has to stay home and listen to his mother?”

A little further on, Gbot broke free, raced past the monkeys and the birds, and disappeared around the eucalyptus trees. I knew where he was heading: to the reptile house. The bots are in thrall to reptiles these days, as long as they are alive and not just a reconstructed set of ancient bones. I found him using his whole small body to angle open the glass door. It was all his thirty-seven pounds could do to keep it open long enough for me to slip through, too. He looked up, his rump and shoulders still pressed hard against the glass, and said from beneath sweaty curls, “I opened the door with my AMAZING POWERS!”

It occurred to me that he had never opened that door before. Had never been allowed to; had never been able to. And now he could. It wouldn’t have been any more amazing if I had suddenly shot a web out of my index finger and pinkie and swung on it into the top of the eucalyptus.

My single-minded pursuit of the perfect Ironman last week removed me from the daily reminders of how amazing the weebots’ world is, and mine. The most amazing power, I think, is the power to be amazed.

Tara Gaffney Photography


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I’d Rather Be Eating Something Cold and Fattening

"Tesserwell Surfing the Perfect Wave," by Mbot. 17" x 14" acrylic on newsprint. Contact agent for price.

I apologize for the four-day break. It’s partly due to the new heat of summer. Although not scheduled in the rest of the world to begin until June twenty-first, summer officially started in Arizona at the dawn of the Cenozoic era. The heat is squashing me flat.

Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to be affecting the bots, the dog, or the antique cat (above), who apparently is projecting such a spunky aura that he was recently depicted by a local artist as a surfer dude. (Mbot named the painting himself; several days earlier, he pointed out, while reading The Stomach Book for the five hundredth time, that the villi were surfing the perfect spit-up. (In fact, I believe they were riding on a river of diarrhea. Tomato, tomahto.)

But I am not surfing the perfect anything. The mercury has risen to just beneath my nose. I’ll get used to it. We’ll get into our summer routine: out early, wading pool, sprinkler, swimming. But really. Deserts are for adding an “s” to and eating.

Desert or dessert? I'll have one of the latter, please.

Those Aren’t Red-Headed Beetlebugs….

Goat Camp Trail: Home of the Red-Headed Beetlebug

I grew up in Alaska. When he went for a family hike, my father packed heat. The bad guys were large and had global reputations, like the Taliban: bears. Whatever bugs we encountered were large and annoying but generally benign.

Now I live in Arizona. Here in the desert, the big guys are benign (coyotes) and the good guys are little and have global reputations. But there are a lot that are little that you’ve never heard of.

On Sunday, we went for a family hike in the desert.

I packed everything we would need: sunscreen, water, extra pants, a picnic lunch, a gray-and-white wash rascal (right), and an Angry Bird (below).

I did not bring a Sonoran Desert Insect Identification Book, which perhaps would have served us better.

It was a lovely, cool morning, one of the last we’ll enjoy until October, possibly November. Everyone was cheerful. (Except the bird). Everyone was cooperative and enthusiastic and energetic.

Mbot took a picture:

Gbot took a picture:

As we hiked up the wide, gentle trail, Husbot, a native Arizonan, pointed high in the sky at turkey vultures gliding on updrafts. He pointed into the shadow of a fiery-blossomed creosote bush, where an Arizona skink was, according to Mbot, looking for his family. He pointed to the prickly prong of a saguaro, and I saw the tiny crested profile of a phainopepla:

Who knew? (

He showed the bots mesquite and brittle bush and jojoba and even some mistletoe entwined in the branches of palo verde tree. We admired the sunny bloom of a chain cholla.

Husbot and Gbot marched along in front of me and Mbot. Suddenly I spotted a really cool bug in the sparse growth beside the trail. I was pleased at sighting something Husbot had missed.

“Look at that!” I exclaimed, pointing for Mbot. “A red-headed beetlebug!* (*fictional name.)

Even in Alaska I’ve gone out of my way to avoid bugs. I have had people cross town on bicycles to kill spiders for me. I am trying not to pass this inconvenient aversion on to the next generation. “And look!” I cried with what was genuine enthusiasm, because these bugs really were so cool, about two inches long and yellow with bright red heads. And they were moving slowly and we could always run. “Another! And another!”

We stepped to the edge of the trail to get a really good look before I realized there were at least ten of them, crawling slowly but inexorably closer. Look at these things!” I called to Husbot.

Holding Gbot’s hand, he retraced his steps. Half way back, he said, “They’re wasps, Honey.” He turned on the Daddy Voice. “Alright, guys, let’s not get too close. They can sting and hurt people.”

We attempted to beat a hasty retreat, but one of us dropped to the dust and began to cry. “I want to see da wed-headed beetlebugs! I want to see da wed-headed beetlebugs!”

But it turned out both of us were wrong. I wasn’t even trying to be right, and Husbot realized just after he made his daddy announcement that the army of insects was a troop of harmless blister beetles–iron cross blister beetles, to be exact. Still, they can bite. And it seemed easier to continue our retreat and let the bots be wary of red and yellow bugs marching toward them in the desert. “Because,” according to Husbot, “usually they’re not good.”

Husbot scooped up the fallen party. Further along the trail, we actually picnicked peacefully in the shade of an ironwood tree.

So time to read up at Knowledge is the power to avoid crying in the dust.

Progress Report

The blog is not going as planned.

It wasn’t, almost right from the start. The plan was for an hour of meditation at the keyboard. Every morning. Type, Publish, End of Story. Literally.

Maybe I started the blog when I did in part because last week I found Diane Ackerman’s well-worn A Natural History of the Senses  in a box of baby clothes I was trying to organize (hand-down, goodwill, save until I’m at least seventy, for possible grandchildren), and never one to not procrastinate when the opportunity presents itself, I flipped open the book and read again of how some famous writers through the ages each had a routine they performed before writing every day. Notable examples Ackerman sites includes George Sands, who copulated wildly before moving directly to her writing table. Colette began each day by picking fleas off her cat. Ackerman herself power-walks every day. She emphasized that: every day. I hadn’t thought I’d noticed it at the time. But maybe the idea behind the blog was: This will be the grounding routine I perform before Mommying every day. At least it does not involve fleas.

The every day thing has happened. What I hadn’t counted on was that I don’t stop thinking about it, not really. Everything that occurs during the day is possible fodder for the blog. Like it’s a monster I need to feed. In a way, it is. And isn’t that what I wanted, really, when I began? Something to make me pay attention to the small things, in the hope of getting something back? Dredging the mud for clams. (We’re reading One Morning in Maine. When I grow up, I want to be Robert McCloskey. I want to be Sal.)

I didn’t want or need a monster. I wanted something small and low-maintenance that does not need to be walked much, a turtle or a goldfish. Something that absorbs my anxieties like factis absorbs graphite. A stress eraser. Like my antique (and flea-free) cat. Something whose company I can enjoy easily, something I can pet and it will purr. The accompanying litterbox I can deal with—its contents are the smallest poops in my life right now. (*”Poops” used literally; beside diapers and Superhero underpants, a few kitty nuggets are nothing.)

But those of you who’ve read a post or two will notice that either I am an efficient writer, or that I am a liar, about conjuring whole posts between five and six a.m. A kind soul might just figure I am being loose in my interpretation of when exactly five to six is or how long it lasts. But the world of nonfiction does not currently embrace loose interpretations unless otherwise stated. So here is my otherwise statement:

My goal is to write from five to six every morning. It’s a noble goal, like not using my cell phone while driving, and world peace. But an adaptation has proven necessary, one that takes actual reality into consideration. Yesterday, for example, I was on field triage all morning, always one and a half steps behind. (Prevention is so much easier, but so far, cages that hang from the ceiling have not yet been approved for children.*) This is why Robert McCloskey did not write One Morning in Arizona. Here is a synopsis of that nonCaldecott winner: out on the patio, Mbot picked up what might be a (poisonous) spider; Gbot toppled off his globe (note to globe owners: do not stand on globe) while I checked the spider (not poisonous—not even a spider, but some part of a blossom that looked uncannily spider-like, even to the point of wiggling in the breeze). I raced to comfort Gbot, Mbot raced to the bathroom, but not quite fast enough. I raced back to the patio to make sure Tesserwell hadn’t escaped through the door left open in the event of an emergency; meanwhile, Mbot decided to wipe himself midpoop and climb off the toilet. I found Tesserwell under a table but by then, Gbot was inspecting the toilet seat. A bath was drawn. A bath is more fun than a cage hanging from the ceiling, and it’s legal.

After nine hours of consciousness, the Midgets fell prey to their own diabolical energy, and lay comatose with their respective bears. And instead of preparing dinner, I fell into a chair to write. Because I had to post my blog. The Midgets slept on. I did not wake them. At 5:15 I hit “Publish,” and left a message on my sister’s phone. “I’ve blogged five days in a row! Can you believe it? We won’t be having dinner tonight, but I posted a thousand words!” (I had wanted to post 500 words, but editing is hell.)

Needless to say, this scenario is not conducive to the calm that is still a chief goal. It makes me feel more like an addict than a controlled user. But it is making me write. And it has been fun. And I tell you, after six weeks spent drafting query letters, manuscript synopses, and pretend flap copy, I just want to enjoy writing again.

I scrounged up a dinner that did not involve preservatives or artificial flavors. Everyone actually ate it. Full stomachs all round? Check. A little introspection? Check.

It’s a start.

Do you control your passions, or do they control you?

*Disclaimer: The author of this blog does not in any way condone or suggest the use of such cages.