Recycle Robot League Takes Over Local Kindergarten Class

1-2014 April and March 232

The Collector-Bot reports to class.

After a winter in hibernation, the Recycle Robots have returned, just in time for Earth Day.

When Eileen Kelly, a kindergarten teacher at nearby Archway Trivium Academy, called to ask if I’d help her students make recycle robots, I happily agreed. I built a Collector-Bot, which the children spent the next week feeding with recyclables they brought daily from home–cardboard tubes, yogurt containers, lids, cracker boxes, water bottles, vinegar bottles–anything that could fit in its mouth.

I watched while Mrs. Kelly demonstrated what happened when she dropped a bottle cap in its mouth (the bottle cap dropped into the see-through “stomach”, whose latched door we then opened to retrieve it). The “oohs” and “aahs” would have made you think she’d made the Statue of Liberty vanish and reappear right there in the classroom. She did the same thing with a yogurt cup, and got the same reaction. She did the same thing with a paper towel tube, and got the same reaction. I knew we had a hit on our hands.

This week, I returned to the classroom to help the kids build their own robots fr1-2014 April and March 217om the loot they’d fed the Collector-Bot. And what a pile it was. Thirty-odd five- and six-year-olds sat in a big circle, taking turns picking out robot parts: bodies, heads, legs, and extra bits and pieces that caught their eye. It looked to me like they were just reveling in the opportunity to play with trash. But each one chose main body parts with great thought, and it was fabulous to see their imaginations at work as they visualized the bot they would create.

Then Mrs. Kelly and I armed ourselves with hot glue guns, and construction began. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the kids at work, which is a shame, because the enthusiasm was inspiring. But I did have a chance to scribble a quote midway through. Watching me tear a scrap of tin foil from the lip of a yogurt drink container she’d chosen as her robot’s legs, one student thoughtfully said, “I have a story about that gray stuff. One time my dad left some of that gray stuff on some butter that he heated up in the microwave. It caught on fire. It was AWESOME.”

Fortunately, none of the robots caught on fire, but every single one was awesome, from the six-legged robo-deer to the Mountain Dew Monster with munching jaws; from the red-headed milk-jug robo-dog to the graceful, long-necked Minute-Maid with a turning head; from the Q-tip Crusader to the Capri-Sun Creature with the smiling mouth that opens and closes.

The kids will take them home–along with, maybe, a new way of looking at what most of us consider trash, a feeling of power that they can create fun in unexpected ways, and a realization that they can help shape their world.

My favorite moment of the afternoon came near the end when a shy, quiet boy considered his finished creation of toilet paper tubes and Chobani containers, and said to me, in a tone of deep surprise, “I didn’t think mine could turn out so cool.”

Recycle Robot League: Mission accomplished.

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From the Notebooks of Bots

1-1-2013 October 8 247

by Mbot

Me: “Mbot, what are you drawing?”

Mbot: “It’s a fox. It has super attachments and power-boosters and a giant cannon and he can’t shoot a squirrel. He (the squirrel) is looking into his computer and he’s seeing the fox’s giant blaster. Then he’s transferring his giant thing that has a camera–he has lots of cameras-and he has knee protections on his giant robot….”

Me: “Is this the squirrel?”

Mbot: “Yeah, the squirrel, because of the sideways wings. The fox is dropping a box on the squirrel but the squirrel is shooting giant missiles….”


1-Gbot's telephone

by Gbot


Me: “Gbot, what are you drawing?”

Gbot: “Oh, just an OLD-FASHIONED telephone!”

Blockbuster a Bust, and a Lesson in Neurology

I am a total novice in the collage department, but our trip to the Blockbuster yesterday called for a little something special. It was, perhaps, the shortest and most infuriating trip to a video store ever to be recorded in human history and memorialized with an amateur cut-and-paste project.

Always in the past (always being three times, past being the last five weeks, since I initiated our $5/month “family membership” in lieu of Netflix’s impoverished streaming options), there’s been a movie playing on multiple screens around the store. Always it’s been a kid’s movie. Today was no different, except that today we happened to walk in during the scary part.

I have no idea what movie it was, except as I dropped Elmo’s Alphabet into the return slot, thunder growled, ominous music rose, and shrieking broke out behind me. I turned to find that Mbot had plastered his back to the windows and was yelling to get out. Of course Blockbuster is set up so you can’t go out through the in door (Led Zeppelin almost named an album after this problem). You have to go all the way around the checkout counter in order to escape.

As we made our way around, in fits and starts, I dragging Mbot by the hand as I issued orders for Gbot to follow, between uttering soothing yet urgent words to Mbot, I asked the young man behind the counter to turn off the movie. He looked at me blankly and, over Mbot’s shrieks of, “It’s scary! It’s scary! Get us out of here!”, I repeated myself. The employee moved, slowly, three feet. But it was not toward the video control; it was toward the counter to help the only other customer in the store. “Please turn off the movie!” I repeated again over Mbot’s  howling. He did not, nor did he offer any indication that he understood it might be the right time to move swiftly in order to Make a Difference. Does Blockbuster management encourage employees to take drugs before their shifts, or do they have a hiring policy that includes the vastly stupid?

I was furious at his lack of response. I managed to drag both bots past the double doors out into the 103 degree heat, still soothing Mbot and then asking if Mbot was okay. He answered, tearfully, that he was, and once in the car, began the usual barrage of questions that attends any event, good, bad, in or out-of the ordinary: “Why did that man have on a scary movie? What was that bad movie? Did he not know boys would come into the movie store? How about that cloud with the fangs? Why did he not turn it off?”

In answer to the last question, I said, unable to help myself, “Because he is a dopey man.”

“Why is he dopey?”

And I’m afraid I responded, “Because he doesn’t have enough brain cells.”

Mbot (who has apparently learned a little about God at preschool inspite of my less-than-god-in-heavenish approach): “Why did God not think he needed more brain cells?”

Me: “Because God is wrong sometimes.”

Mbot: “Would he not be dopey if I gave him some of my brain cells?”

Me: “He might still be dopey. Besides, you need to keep yours, Moon Pie. We need all the brain cells we’ve got.”

Gbot entered the conversation: “I do not need brain cells.”

Me: “You really do.”

Gbot: “I will give him some of my brain cells.”

Me: “Well that’s very kind, Spice Bear. Look. We’re home. Let’s watch the Backyardigans go to Mars…again!”

The cloud with fangs. What can I say? I was on a roll.

Introducing the Love Child of Picasso, Euclid, and Martha Stewart

Dot-to-Dot: The love child of Picasso, Euclid, and Martha Stewart!

Yes, it’s an old-fashioned connect-the-dots game, brought into the twenty-first century by Husbot with an unmistakeable you-can-do-this-at-home! vibe.

I mentioned to him last night that I’d like to see Mbot trying to focus more on the shapes of numbers and letters, and so this morning he Mbot on his lap and drew some impromptu pictures, just faintly dotted outlines with numbers (in order, of course) at strategic points around the periphery.

And this perhaps is an alphabet-outlined sea-monster (C monster?) that’s been caught on a fishing line. Abdominal spikes added by Mbot.

I thought Husbot, although neither Picasso nor Euclid nor Martha, was pretty ingenius. Husbot asked Mbot to say the numbers or letters aloud as the tip of his colored pencil reached them. And you know, it kind of worked. But the big lesson for me was that customizing a silly connect-the-dots game makes it more interesting for the weebots, which means they actively engage, which means they learn more.

It was perfect for just-turned-four year-old Mbot–not so engaging for Gbot, not yet three. When I drew him a hamster (not shown, in order to retain my dignity), he claimed that hamsters do NOT have whiskers, and when I wrote the number 1 on top of his head, Gbot was so upset that I covered it up with a fire hat. “Let’s pretend he’s a Wonder Pet!” I cried, but it was in vain.

“I do not WANT a hamster in a fire hat!” cried Gbot back.

So, as with everything in parenting, even great ideas, there are potholes, and you will fall into them. But at least we’ll all go down counting.

Buck-toothed shark. Will he get you? It’s a number’s game.

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

Ironman assumes the filling position

….But let’s NOT call the whole thing off.

As you can see, my camera issues still haven’t been resolved, due mainly to Ironman, who doesn’t like me to cook meals, do laundry, run errands, or shave my legs (who knew that about Ironman?). Tuesday, I reached The Stuffing Stage. I could go no further until we bought innards and put ’em in. So Mbot and I made a special trip to The Dollar Tree and then to Party City to buy stuff to stuff into the pinata from hell.

Now, here is a little secret I will share: I don’t like pinatas, and not just because of my experience with the current model. I don’t like the beating. I don’t like the scrabbling for loot. I don’t like the loot: cheap plastic toys that are made at the expense of the earth’s health, and cheap candy that is eaten at the expense of our health. Maybe next time I’ll make a water-soluble pinata the kids can take turns spraying with a hose, and when it dissolves, a hundred miniature helium balloons with strings attached (and miraculously untangled) will emerge and hover just high enough above the ground to provide several minutes of entertainment while everyone tries to jump up and catch ’em. (And just low enough not to fly away and become dangerous to other forms of wildlife.)

But back to reality: We bought a few cheap plastic trinkets. Also 3-D foam stickers, superhero bandaids, and a dollar box of 48 crayons. Then I saw bags of peanuts in the shell. The bots love peanuts in the shell. Peanuts in the shell are lightweight, bulky, and healthy. And, important in Arizona in June: they won’t melt. I doublechecked with parents about peanut allergies, and there were none. The peanuts went in the bag.

Then on to Party City, where I let Mbot pick out one big bag of something, and he chose mini boxes with pictures of superheroes on them; inside are sugar sticks that are just about the most flavorless things I’ve ever tasted, but who cares. Ironman is the ultimate argument that packaging counts. And I got a mix of mini Tootsie pops and rolls. I stayed away from the candy sold in bulk, because it was 15 for a dollar, and the bagged candy was cheaper. In retrospect, I should have spent a few bucks on Jolly Ranchers, because who doesn’t like Jolly Ranchers–and I still may go back and get some and drop them through a hole in Ironman’s head.

So I stuffed him, through wrists, feet, head, and throat, patched him up, let him dry, and then the decorative painting began. I’d been looking forward to the painting stage. It would mean I was almost done. All I had to do was splash on a little silver here, a little gold here. But seeing Jessica’s rendition of The Big I’s face made me realize with a sinking heart that that wouldn’t be enough. I had to include some of the seams in Ironman’s armor. Some of the detailing on the abdomen. Otherwise, he’d just look like a big red blob. SHEEEE-it.

So yesterday afternoon, during naptime (I worked hard at wearing the bots out at the Y and the splash pad that morning), I patched up a crack in the back of Ironman’s left knee, and then got out the fine-tipped brush.

I’d rather be reading….

Not wanting to risk a fatal rupture before The Big Day, I propped up The Big I by his crotch, and then started grabbing books off the shelf to prop under the left foot. I did not pick and choose–a book is a book is a book when it comes to propping. I grabbed them without looking and noticed, as I slid the last one under the sole of I’s foot, saw that it was Shakespeare. Much Ado About Nothing.

I think the universe is trying to tell me something.

Students of Shakespeare know that the nature of human nature dictates that even if someone had told me what I was getting into four weeks ago, I would not have believed it could happen to me.

Vote for me!

T Minus 19 Days: Ironman, The Killer Pinata, Part 3

It would be so much simpler to just drape Robert Downey, Jr. in wet newspaper, allow it to dry, and then gently snip it off.

Isn’t there some culture out there with a creation story involving balloons and masking tape?

This is Stage One of Ironman’s left leg. Did I mention I am beginning to dislike Ironman? And not just because his legs are longer than mine. But because, as the project continues, I am faced at every turn with several ways to do things right and several thousand ways to do things wrong.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, in which he explains cultural and social reasons for the existence of, say, Bill Gates, and The Beatles, explains that it has been calculated in cases from Mozart to McCartney that it takes a person 10,000 hours of doing something before he truly becomes an expert.

Bill Gates was able to spend about that much time in front of a computer with a modem–almost unheard of at the time–before he turned twenty-five. The Beatles played nightly six-hour sets in a German club before they returned home to change history. And Mozart, of course, if he began composing at the age of four, had about that many hours tucked under his frock when he wrote The Marriage of Figaro.

And so, assuming that I possess an innate ability, if I practice paper mache three hours a day, every day, even on Christmas and when I have a hangover, I should be an expert at Ironman pinata-making by Malcolm’s fourteenth birthday. A sobering thought. Do you force your fourteen year-old to use the Ironman pinata you’ve been perfecting for ten years? Maybe my time (not to mention my Times) would be more wisely spent elsewhere.

I’ve got nineteen days to get this big boy (way too big) ready to hang. I will  not be an expert by then. But I might be 100 hours closer. (And when I put it THAT way, I am really quite unsure about whether I want the crap candy beaten out of him!)

It seems to just keep getting messier.


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.

The Editing Life: A Few of My Favorite Sings

Today I spent a couple of hours doing edits on a book manuscript of a young woman’s search for…for lots of things but not things–things more in the sense of how Mbot says it; not yet able to form the voiceless dental fricative, his “things” come out “sings.”

She is looking for sings–things that will sing within her. She is an artist and a searcher and she wants to give. But what she’s got to give–a quirky, hilarious, bittersweet take on the world, a need to meditate, to reflect–is a tough sell in a society that more values the ability to answer a phone or write code or invent a new drug or sell something or enforce the rules of a bureaucracy.  Artists and meditators need apply only if they can appeal to a large enough cash platform or look smashing in their yoga pants. There are of course many exceptions, but not enough. She is teetering at the tip of a population pyramid, like the one the USDA came up with, no doubt in close cooperation with the Grains Council of America. She is Fats, Oils, and Sweets, all rolled into one. I’ll have me some of that.

I am lucky, because I can get me some of that, I get paid for it, and I get to stick my big fat opinions into the text during the creative process. I’ve always been a sucker for process. I’d rather have the line-drawn studies for a painting on my wall than the finished product; my favorite part of The Guru’s ship model-building is when the hull planks haven’t yet been set in place over the curving poetry of ribs. I love seeing how artists’ work develops over years and decades. In fact, I am so enamored of process that it somewhat retards my ability to complete my own sings. And you only have a chance of getting paid for sings–the payment, society’s validation of your worth–when you turn them into things.

Engaging in the process of the work of another –when I really believe in that person’s work–is exhilarating, partly because I get to be part of their process, but also because it makes it suddenly easy to think about my own work in a different way, in a distanced, critical mode. There is a lover vs. working girl metaphor I could use here, but my parents are reading this, so I’ll restrain myself. And I’ve already indulged in enough metaphors for one post.

Time for more dessert.

What are your favorite sings?

For Those About to Face-Paint, I Salute You

A pro bass fisherman carries his own Arbogast Hula Popper.(available for $5.79 from Cabela's)

If assassination happens to be your line of work, you don’t locate your victim and then ask to borrow his 44. Likewise, a chef always carries her own knives, a bartender his wine key and apron, a bass fisherman his lucky lure. So why, when I signed up to work the face-painting table at Mbot’s preschool Halloween party, did I arrive empty-handed, allowing my success–at least partially–to rest in the hands of those who would provide my equipment, and who probably had spent as much time face-painting as I had ( none)?

Beforehand, I’d been worried about remembering what a frog looks like. Other than that, I was pretty confident about my rudimentary drafting skills. A bat, a pumpkin, a ghost, all within my artistic reach. Still, pride had urged me to practice a little beforehand, but I got so involved making Mbot’s Spiderman costume, I didn’t have time. I comforted myself remembering that Mrs. Pursell had stressed the bar would be set very, very low.

It only works if you are on your knees. (

I hadn’t known it would be a limbo bar.

It wasn’t, actually–it just seemed that way when I realized, to my horror, that, as usual, I’d been worried about the wrong thing.

My first client, a four year-old dressed as a princess, asked for a butterfly on her cheek. A butterfly. A butterfly. I visualized Eric Carle’s post-cocoon caterpillar and dug my brush confidently into my makeup palette. It turned out I should have been losing sleep over whether the brushes would be too flimsy to dent the cakey makeup (yes), and if the makeup would uncake if mixed with water (no, not really, even when jabbed repeatedly with the flimsy brushes). The pink makeup went on clumpy, so I tried to add water, and it turned scrubby and translucent. After sixty seconds of intense concentration, the butterfly looked distinctly like a skin disorder, the kind my siblings and I loved to look at as kids in the hospital library while we were waiting for The Guru to finish his rounds. A wipie saved me and the princess and I started over, chirping, “Almost done!” in a voice I hoped registered joy.

I flailed away. The paints did not want to be tamed. I had to consciously stop myself from mumbling excuses about my equipment. It would have made me look petty, like I was blaming my materials for my near-misses with failure as I was presented with one smooth trusting upturned cheek after another. I finally figured out how to make large simple shapes by crushing the recalcitrant cakes into submission.

UK-based Chris Kuhn probably doesn't squirm or turn his head while he is painting his face. (

Fortunately, Randy, my partner, was the father of a six year-old daughter, and he was an old hand, having sat at the face painting table last year. That he volunteered for this a second year in a row instead of, say, manning the fishing station, which involves clipping treats to the end of a line dangled behind a reef-painted room divider, suggested he was either very good at face painting or that he just thought he was very good.  It turned out he was okay, although it was hard to tell, given the stubbornness of our materials, and it was a good thing Randy was the one who got asked to do a mermaid. With two boybots, I couldn’t have drawn a  convincing picture of Ariel if I’d been threatened with having to be a cheeseburger.

A better bet for the amateur: Fantasy F-X water-based face paint from

Half way through the party, my performance rose when, in desperation, I opened three little tubes of paint–white, black, and green–that Randy had brought in addition to the palettes of useless grease. At least they went on smooth, leaving me and my eye-hand coordination as the lowest common denominator.

The last kid who sat down in front of me was dressed as I don’t know what–he could have been one of Robin Hood’s merry men in his drab medieval-looking garb, except that his face didn’t look merry. “What do you want on your face?” I asked gaily. “A monster? A ghost?” He shook his head and said in that hushed whisper that all midgets use to express their deepest face painting fantasies, “Spiderman.”


The night before, I’d Googled “spiderman images.” I’d studied spidey eyes, cut out a pair, and zigzagged stitched around them, twice. I’d propped the netbook on the table, squeezed a red fleece mask over a birthday balloon, balanced it in a kitchen bowl, and squinted at the screen as I squeezed glow-in-the-dark 3D fabric paint webbing on the fuzzy red dome.

On a cheek: a simple red oval. White eyes. Black webs. Spiderman, I could do.

Consulting a mirror, the unmerry man grinned. I’d squeezed under the bar.

"There's a crazy lady making your face look like a bowl of melted rainbow sherbet? I'm on my way."

Have you risen to the occasion, or squeezed under the bar, poorly armed, lately?