Sunday, December 30, 2007

Burning Questions and their Interesting Answers

Solstice CandlesTo pass the time on our recent "over the river and through the woods, to grandmother's house we go" car trip, I thought of a game I called "Burning Questions". Basically, we just took turns asking each other whatever questions we really wanted the answers to. This could be personal: "what kind of animal would you be if you had one day to be an animal?" or general "Is there an end to the universe, or does it just go on and on forever?". As always, it is so fun to have a window inside my children's minds, to see the different ways they think about things.

When I asked Mackenzie if he could go back in history and talk to any one person, who would he visit and what would he talk with them about, he answered that he would go back in time and visit George Washington. The reason? To convince him not to kill a hippopotamus in order to use its ivory for his false teeth. And Asa stumped me with this one: "Why are barns usually painted red?" After talking about it for awhile, we concluded that it might be so that they would stand out visually in a snow blizzard, or perhaps that red was an inexpensive or easily-accessible color of paint for early farmers to use. As it turns out, we were partially right. According to, European barns were traditionally painted with linseed oil, an easily-accessible sealant made from flaxseed oil that was dark golden in color. To this, they might add ferrous oxide, known to inhibit growth of mold and moss.

Our game eventually spiraled off into a discussion of whether or not other alien species would be likely to follow something like Star Trek's prime directive, and leave us alone down here on earth if they discovered us, but not before we discovered a lot more about each other. So the next time you hear "I'm bored" on a car trip, here's one more idea to pass the time.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Place I Call Home

I was tagged by Jody for this meme. If you don't read her blog already, you should. She's one of the wittiest people I've ever had the good fortune to meet.

So I'm supposed to impart some local knowledge here - seven things about living in my state. Oregon is what I consider my "home", despite having been born (and lived very briefly) in Oklahoma City, living for a few years in the Bay Area, and living in the Seattle area for over a decade, Oregon has never stopped being my home. I'm a 3rd generation Oregonian on both sides of the family, and have never found any place on earth that feels quite the same as this homeland does to me.

Without Further Ado, Seven Things About Oregon

1) Oregon is the only state in the union that has a two-sided flag (beaver on one side, shield on the other)

2) One of the things I love best about Oregon is all the natural diversity here. In one day, I can get to the beach, or the mountains, or the desert, to sand dunes, sagebrush, old growth fir, cedar, or redwood forests, granite-faced mountains, gigantic river gorges, lava fields, fern-banked roaring mountain streams, oak-filled meadows. When people use the term "God's country", it doesn't even encompass the beauty here. It's more like God-filled country. Everywhere you turn, it's the face of God.

3) Oregon was a Union state. Living on the west coast, we're fairly removed from the Civil War, but Oregon was definitely a state at that time and our cemetery here in town has a Civil War section. Our state motto used to be "The Union", but now it is "She Flies With Her Own Wings", which has a nice poetic appeal to me (as someone whose name denotes a bird, and who loves to fly, and wishes she had her own wings!).

4) My little corner of Oregon is perhaps known best for the fact that most of the hippies in the U.S. eventually ended up here. We host the Oregon Country Fair (largest gathering of aging and newly-minted hippies on the planet and not a place to go if, like me, you are allergic to patchouli). As a result, a liberal, tolerant, environmentally conscious worldview pervades our immediate surroundings. The other day, I was asking the librarian for a book on religions of the world and she said "There's one I saw just the other day, I think I put it on the Peace Shelf". I love that we have a library with a peace shelf, that there are more "Impeach Bush" bumperstickers here than probably in the entire rest of the US, that I could go to a talk or a rally or a benefit concert for peace or sustainability or environmental activism or religious tolerance on every night of the week. I like feeling like people around me are conscious, are paying attention, aren't plugged into The Matrix, ya know?

5) It doesn't rain here nearly as much as we tell the rest of y'all it does365 Day 116: Rain Rain Go Away
6) Oregon is the best place I've been in America to ride a bicycle. My home town has more bicycle bridges than it does bridges for cars. You can ride a bike around town, through the countryside, down the many bike paths, you can ride to one of our fabulous wineries in the rolling hills between the broad Willamette Valley and the coast (Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Oregon are excellent, by the way). People here decorate their bikes with feather boas, macrame, fringe, tinsel, streamers, and all kinds of things. There are many different kinds of bikes and biking gear made in my town: foldable bikes and tandems by Bike Friday, tandems by Co-motion, trailers by Burley, and cargo bikes, utility bikes, and most of the town's bike racks by the Center for Appropriate Transport.

7) In Oregon, you must still sit in your car idly while someone else gets paid to pump your gas (and yes, we still want to keep on doing that, and keep voting to be able to do that despite the best efforts of the fuel lobby that puts it on our ballot every few years), you can return your bottles and cans for money back at the store due to our bottle bill passed a few decades ago, it's one of the few places where medically-assisted suicide is legal, and you can get medical marijuana (if by some remote possibility you don't know anyone who grows their own in their basement with lamps). Oregonians still cling to that rugged individualism that came over with the pioneers - we do things a bit differently here in many ways. And I like it that way.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


So, my kids' robotics team, the Solar Dragons, went to the regional tournament last weekend. I knew that they were very well prepared, their robot was solid, they had put in a lot of time perfecting their programs, their runs on the challenge table, their research project and presentation, and I knew that they were operating as an exceptional team with respect for each other and for the other teams. What I didn't even imagine in my wildest dreams is that they would WIN THE WHOLE TOURNAMENT! Yep, that's it. They really did it!

First of all, their runs on the robot table went very well. They practiced their approach so many times that there was no fumbling or nervousness at the table, just a smooth running of all the things they needed to do (remove and replace attachments, add cargo, aim robot, select program, run robot). They had decided that they would all run their programs at the table, but according to Lego competition rules, only two of them could be at the table at any given time, so they took a tag-team approach. They helped each other out, and as each kid was done with their turn, they tagged the next.

They also faced three panels of judges. One teamwork panel that asked them questions about how they worked as a team (my favorite moments, when they asked things like "who is your team leader" and the kids said "we operate by consensus", LOL.) One panel was technical judging, where they had the kids run their programs and asked them about their programs and robot design, and a third panel evaluated their research project (they had five minutes to do a presentation, and another five minutes of Q&A - they actually knew their stuff so well, the panel ran out of questions to ask them!). When we saw the research projects of some of the other groups of kids, I knew that our kids would do really well. Many kids from school teams had used their classrooms or part of their school building for the energy audit. While this was probably technically admissible, I think the real goal from Lego FIRST League in setting this as a project for this year was to get the kids out and interacting with the community. Since our team really did choose a big and complex public building to audit, and researched extensively on alternative energy solutions, I knew they'd wow the judges (and they did!).

I am proudest of the fact that they scored a perfect 100 on teamwork. I know they're a great group of kids and they have worked so well together and have had so much fun together, it really showed. Whenever they've made a team decision, it has almost always been unamimous. I think it also really speaks volumes that we have two pairs of siblings on the team (not always the easiest to work with your own family members!) and that the kids come from different educational venues (two different schools plus some homeschoolers). They also got the highest score on their research presentation, something they've put so much time and effort into (see my previous post for a description of what they did). The got the 2nd highest score on the robot table as well, garnering 195 points with their seven mission programs.

So without further ado, here's some pics of these magnificent kids in action!

Here's the table setup in the main competition hall. Two teams compete against each other in timed table runs.

Their first run at the table, Claire and Asa work together to send the robot out on a mission to plant trees.

Time for their technical presentation. Whoops, I forgot to bring the folder with printouts of their programming. Good thing I'm a trained runner!

Waiting for their turn.

Mackenzie and Daniel get the power lines in place, the rest of the team waits behind for their turn to be tagged.

Waiting outside the presentation judging room. It was cold enough to snow and the poor kids were shivering. They're holding the photos for their research presentation.

Presenting to the panel of judges.

We were all so impressed with this kid, Thomas. His entire team backed out, but he came and competed all by himself!

We can't believe it, we won the whole thing!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lego Robotics!

I've probably mentioned it somewhere in the last couple of months, but I'm coaching the kids' Lego Robotics team for the first time this year. Last year, they had a great time with the months of teamwork and then the big competition (which is really for fun, not seriously competitive for them).
Their coach from last year moved away, so I took it on this year and that certainly has made me appreciate all of the work the coach did last year! I've been meaning to write about it for awhile but... I've been too busy!

All in all, the Lego FIRST League competitions are an excellent experience. They stress teamwork, "gracious professionalism", honoring the process over the end-product, and having the kids do all the work. So the coach literally can't even make a suggestion as to how they should do something (which is very hard for this engineering brain of mine to keep in mind!)

Our team has six kids, ages 8 to 14. Two girls and six boys. I am constantly impressed by their abilities to work hard as a team, put in a ton of effort, and come up with creative solutions. The robotics challenge this year was exceedingly difficult - an order of magnitude more complex than last years'. On top of that, the kids had to select a public building and perform a utility audit of the building, then research alternative energies and make suggestions on how the building could become more energy-efficient. In addition, they need to present this information in a public forum. They'll be doing that today with a presentation at our public library.

Next week we will go to our competition. They'll have three tries with their robot on the challenge table, they'll present their research project to a panel of judges, face another panel for technical judging, and a third panel for teamwork judging. I have faith that they will all do a terrific job, but I'm not sure if I will survive the day without an anxiety attack. My to-do list to get ready for this event reads about as long as the one before my wedding day (without having to make 500 hors d'oevres however). I have to have robots, spare parts, batteries, cables, connectors, presentation materials, kids, t-shirts, paperwork, parents, folders, nametags, sack lunches, and probably a million other things all in the right places. I remind myself, that just like when I do a triathlon (which is also an equipment-heavy event with complicated timing) that it will all be fun and totally worth it once its underway. Wish us luck!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Unexpected Gifts

One thing I like the most about life with children is the unexpected moments when you come upon some scene and just laugh out loud. Don't get me wrong, when you want to take a bath it can sometimes be frustrating to have to remove an entire herd of horses from your bathtub! But at the same time, you have to smile and think to yourself that even in just a few years the horses will be relegated to a shelf at best, a box or Goodwill at worst and their days of galloping around the rim of the tub will be all in the past.

And who will tuck the potholders into bed at night when my little ones are grown?

Monday, November 12, 2007

More Kitten Pics


Asa and Bandit:

Monday, November 05, 2007

Kittens Aplenty, Kittens Galore

By popular demand, here's a bunch of pictures of the kittens I've taken over the last month or so. We're trying to find a good home for some of them. Here they are in all their cuteness!

Garfield, who has also been knicknamed "Mr. Trouble"
Smokey and Bandit waking up from a catnap...

Garfield and Ginger with the kittens' favorite toy monkey

One of my favorites, I love the expression I caught on Smokey's face as she and Bandit were playing!

We rolled up the carpet so the kittens couldn't ruin it when they were small. But they've taken to climbing up and sleeping all the way up near the ceiling!

It's the getting down that's the hard part though...

Mr. Garfield: "Who me? Try to eat your socks?"

Bandit's favorite piece of string

Looking fierce here, but he's really nursing here.

Smokey the curious investigating the underside of the piano bench

Ginger: "I'm a little tied up at the moment"

Ginger" Do I blend in with these striped pajamas?"

Bandit, practicing his black panther impression

The last photo I managed to take of them nursing. I think mama cat has weaned them now.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Celebrating The Halloween Season

Halloween isn't just an event for my kids, it's a season. So the last week or so has been filled with trips to a couple of different pumpkin patches, hayrides, Halloween parties, picking out and creating costumes, carving pumpkins, and of course the big night last night. It reminds me of why holidays exist in the first place - to mark a season, to have a sense of the year turning 'round again, to create family rituals and moments, to let free our creative spirits, to remember the joys of being truly childlike and imaginative, and of course to have fun and eat candy!

So without further ado, here's our photographic tour through the Halloween season...

Stop #1: On a family bike ride, we stopped by the harvest festival thrown by the one of the "city farms" - big community gardens. They were pressing cider, had a blacksmith shop, worm bins and composting, and of course pumpkins!

Then later that week, it's on to one of the bigger pumpkin patches just out of town, to feed the goats and get some bigger pumpkins...

Except that their hay ride was taken over by busloads of school kids on field trips... (and I always wonder when I see this, how our school districts can complain about class sizes and not having enough money to buy books, but I digress...). Bottom line, we couldn't even get on the a hayride to get a pumpkin! So we headed to a different pumpkin patch the next day. This one was fun because "Crazy Walt" gives the hayrides, and he sets up pumpkins on top of scarecrows and all the kids go pick tons of tiny pmpkins to use as ammo, so as Walt crazily drives the tractor, the kids are trying to knock the pumpkins off of the scarecrows. It was really fun!

And of course the hay fort!

Then it's pumpkin carving with crazy dad, not to mention the curious kittens...

And last but definitely not least... costumes and The Big Night...