Thursday, December 19, 2013

Lego Robotics and the Circle of Life, or Something

Zack, looking as unenthusiastic as possible
The second Saturday in December my boys participated in the 2013 Idaho Falls Lego Robotics Competition. This is where elementary to middle-school aged kids use Legos to build robots that are programmed to complete specific tasks. Points are acquired by the number and type of tasks completed during two-and-a-half minute time intervals.

First of all, this program is hard-core geek training which, in and of itself, rocks.

Second, it’s a fun and educational activity designed to teach kids teamwork, time management, and critical thinking skills. They race robots, create solutions to a proposed problem, give presentations, and engage in a teamwork exercise, all of which are judged by a panel of intimidating grown-ups.

I’d like to say I wasn’t surprised by the brilliance exhibited by my boys, who competed against each other on different teams. But I kinda was.

I watched as they planned and strategized to get their robots to launch an airplane across the board, activate a tsunami, move an ambulance to a “safe zone,” and relocate little Lego people—and their pets—to a secure location. And with little to no adult supervision.

Kaleb and his team with their trophy
This accomplished by the same boys that sporadically flush the toilet, claim that washing a sink full of dishes is an insurmountable task, and look at the vacuum cleaner like I’ve asked them to perform an alien autopsy.

I would like to know if Bill Gates gave his mother such grief.

But being surprised by our children isn’t a new experience for me. The truth is, our kids are getting older, and there are times when I look at them and wonder if left home alone for 48 hours they might gnaw their own limbs off. And then there are times when I’m blindsided by their maturity, convinced that with the combined force of their brilliance and compassion they could change the face of the planet for the better.

Or the worse.  It could swing either way, really.

At least that’s how it feels right now, with four of our kids in the teen zone, making choices that can simultaneously amaze and terrify us. Like the child who, in just one day, took on a pack of girls bullying a stranger and then, later that night, was identified as the kingpin of Booger Gate, otherwise known as the crystalized patch of snoot behind the basement couch.

Is that a future activist or a career gamer I have on my hands? Time will only tell.

Either way, for now those boys are going to state to race their robots, and I’m giddy with pride.

I’m also wondering how many vending machines might be at the event as that could distract my youngest participant to incapacity. 

Or motivate him to secure the state title.

It could swing either way, really.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Our Thanksgiving Turkey, the Partial Nudist

My Thanksgiving column:

As I write this I still have a turkey to cook, potatoes to mash, and pies to bake.  In fact, aforementioned turkey is still frozen, waiting to be brined—whatever that is.  But by the time you read this, it’ll all be over, and Thanksgiving 2013 will be one more tryptophan-induced coma of the past.

However, as long as y’all are still eating turkey leftovers, I think Thanksgiving is fair game, column-wise. So here goes…

I have big Thanksgiving plans, all secured via Pinterest—the one place women willingly go to feel dwarfed by the domestic goddesses of the Internet.  Okay, so maybe that’s just me.

I’m no Betty Crocker, and if you’ve read this column, say, twice, you already know that.  I simply aspire to keep my home out of the biohazard zone, so expectations are low around here, even for Thanksgiving.  Still, I make my cranberry sauce from scratch and follow Pioneer Woman’s pie recipes like instructions for bomb diffusion.  Because if there’s a margin for error, I’ll find it and work it like a rock star.

Our fully dressed turkey
So it may not surprise you that with my stack full of Thanksgiving recipes, I’m most excited about putting a tinfoil bikini on the turkey so, upon serving, she’ll flash a summer tan line that’ll make everyone laugh.  And that just may be enough to compensate for dry and tasteless turkey meat.  Maybe.

Unfortunately I shared my genius plan with the one child who is least aware of appropriate topics for public consumption. He told his Sunday School teachers.

Apparently when asked what truly remarkable thing was being planned for the holidays, he said he only knew about the cross-dressing turkey his mom was prepping.  Now imagine how that sounds coming from a 9-year old mouth.  Yes, we’re on CPS watch until Thanksgiving has passed.

About the same time I heard of my child’s turkey-bikini confession, another church leader asked me how in the world my daughter knew the word “nudist.”

“Whaaaa?”  was my articulate response.   

The woman explained, “After one child explained that a turkey must be plucked and cooked naked, your daughter was quick to say, ‘Then the turkey’s a nudist!’”  

Tanned turkey with an unfortunate
(or fortunate, depending on how you look at it)
placement of the timer.
She paused, and may have even sighed.  “Your kids are just so full of personality!”  Which I believe is code for, “What kind of ship are you Belyoaks running over there?”

Just so we’re clear, our turkey will be both clothed and naked at our festivities, which may mean that our main dish is a stripper, technically speaking.  But I don’t really want to think about that right now.   There are too many other things to worry about over here.

Important stuff like will a 20-pound turkey feed 12 people, can you stream the Macy’s Day Parade over the Internet, and how DID my daughter know the word ‘nudist’? 

P.S. If we’re friends on FaceBook, you know I totally smoked out my kitchen with one Pioneer-Woman pecan pie.  Because I rocked that margin of error, that’s why.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why Our Family is Nothing Like a Three-Ring Circus

I would say our family is like a three-ring circus, but that implies a sense of order and direction we have yet to achieve.  Also, circuses are managed by ring masters, and who are we kidding?  The unicycle-riding bears run the show around here.

With a blended family of nine people, we’re not just outnumbered, we’re overrun by children.  And if they ever decided to organize, we’d be overthrown.  Thank heavens for sibling rivalry!

Their periodic angst and constant energy are understandable.  Coming to terms with a blended family is simultaneously exciting and disheartening.  On the one hand, you’ve got enough players for two-sided Red Rover.  On the other, getting one-on-one attention from parents requires a dizzying coordination of schedules, imaginative distractionary tactics, possibly a babysitter and/or the incapacitation of their competition.  Also, because there are so many of them, our children seem to believe that being heard requires being inexplicably loud.  And they are very good at that. 

Only one oldest and one youngest child have retained their family ranking.  My baby was bumped to middle-child status, and he’s still struggling to come to terms with it.  Although he has maintained his title as Troublemaker.  So there’s that. 

This may explain why my youngest gave Mr. Charming’s youngest a shiner in the heat of a frying-pan ping pong game early one Saturday morning.  I say ‘early’ so that you understand why Mike and I were sleeping instead of refereeing. 

The reigning frying-pan ping pong champ is also the loudest in the house and is the one child who has spent more time inside of his room than outside of it.  He’s also the first blamed anytime someone cries.  Including me.

So all of us are experiencing growing pains as we try to adapt to blended-family living and determine what, exactly, our new roles require.  It just so happens that in the midst of this process, we moved into a nice, older neighborhood in Idaho Falls. While in the early 70’s this was probably a block full of younger children, now it’s the place where mature couples are settling into their golden years. 

Enter the Belyoaks.

So let me issue an open apology to our neighbors who may wonder if our home doubles as the residence for inexplicably loud and boisterous children.  Yes, it does.  But it also houses a slew of imaginative souls doubling as superheroes, time lords, dance champions, and, on bad days, ultimate fighters.  Give us a chance and we just might save the world someday. 

Or avoid jail time.

Either way it’s win-win, right?

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Werewolf Syndrome

Subject: Michael Charming in the throes of Werewolf Syndrome
(and some really bad Photoshop)
Just because I call my husband Mr. Charming doesn’t mean we don’t experience our fair share of ups and downs.  Like most couples, we engage in heated arguments from time to time.  In fact, for the past several months I’ve realized that our most intense arguments seem to follow a cyclical pattern.

So, being the astute and somewhat analytic creature that I am (stop laughing!), I began to track our marital discord, only to discover that the majority of our confrontations take place roughly the same time every month.  Strange, right?

I hate to air our dirty laundry like this, but I have to admit that for approximately two to three days every four weeks, Mr. Charming becomes somewhat insensitive and thoughtless.  I won’t share any specifics.  Instead, I’ll just offer the following example of something Mr. Charming might say after I attempt to articulate my most basic wants and needs:

MR. CHARMING: So, if I understand you correctly, sometimes living with me is like freefalling into an endless pit of razor blades while Fran Drescher recites long passages from Twilight?

First of all, it’s bad form to quote your spouse in a heated debate.  Second of all, in this hypothetical situation, he’s deliberately ignoring the intended symbolism of my totally made up and not real statement, which is also bad form.  Completely insensitive and thoughtless, right?  Borderline animalistic, really.

So as I’ve continued to research the problem, I’ve decided that I’m on to something here.  With the noted time lapse between episodes, which just happen to take place during each full moon, I believe that my husband may be experiencing what I’d like to call Werewolf Syndrome. 

That’s right.  Once a month, Mr. Charming falls victim to his baser instincts, making life pretty miserable for the rest of us, and by the ‘rest of us,’ I mean me.

As I’ve pondered potential solutions, I can’t help but reflect on a show I have never before watched in my entire life: Vampire Diaries.  In Vampire Diaries (I’m told, because I’ve never before watched one full episode in my entire life), the lead werewolf protects himself and those around him by chaining himself to the walls of an underground dungeon each full moon. 

I believe that Mr. Charming could save the rest of us a lot of heartache if he would metaphorically lock himself in the spare room each Werewolf Syndrome Cycle.  I’d even be willing to push his food through a hatch in the dungeon door, if he wants. 

When I mentioned this potential solution, Mr. Charming suggested that perhaps the episodes were more reasonably attributed to me and my anatomy.  Seriously?  He’s going to play the gender card?  

It’s sad when you’re so far gone that your only means for coping is in projecting the problem onto someone else. 

Because, reaaaalllly, it couldn’t possibly be me.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Belyoak Landscape

At the Salt Lake City ComiCon, we stumbled upon Kat Martin, an artist who takes cheap landscapes and paints different characters onto them.  Like this Doctor-Who themed one:

We loved the idea and decided that if we ever found a cheesy landscape, we would upscale it for our home by adding characters representing each of us.  Because Mr. Charming is crazy talented like that.

So, a few weeks ago we found this at DI:

And because we were at the onset of a kid-free weekend, we decided to go for it. 

First we picked characters for the kids and us.  And then Mike worked his magic and transferred his representations of those characters onto the painting.  I was his paint-by-numbers assistant--filing in the outlines with the appropriate colors--and he worked behind me, shading them so they looked real.  He’s super good at it, and I’m not just saying that because I sleep with him and stuff.

See for yourself.  This is the Spiderman I painted:

Mike took that sad sorry thing and turned it into this: 

Mr. Charming's pretty amazing, right?  He’s also blindingly handsome with a rock-hard heiny.  

With each picture, I became more and more amazed at my husband's talent. 

Claire’s Peace Sun:

Carma’s Rarity:

Greyson’s Minion:

 Leah’s Rainbow Dash:

My Alias (Sidney Bristow) Pony:

And Harrison’s Banksy Mouse:

We almost finished the entire picture in one weekend, but ran out of time after painting the TARDIS and Mike’s Cthulu tentacles.  But just this weekend there was a window of time where Mike was able to finish shading both.  Here’s the finished product:

I heart this.  Almost as much as I heart Mr. Charming's heiny.  Almost.

And that’s why we decided that instead of hanging it in the basement like we first planned, we would hang it over the mantel in our family room, for all to see.  Because we’re nerdy like that.  

Monday, October 21, 2013

In Which Post My BFF Slaughters Five Chickens

There are times in our lives when friends outgrow us and move on. It may have less to do with incompatibility and more to do with the need for greater stimulation.

This past weekend, my BFF slaughtered 5 chickens and graduated from our friendship. Love may no longer be enough to keep us together.

But first, a little backstory.

By Monday morning I had decidedly had a rough weekend. The last 60 hours had included the apprehension and prosecution of one in-house vandal, a basement sleepover robbing 9 people of 38 hours of sleep, and a garage cleanup which resulted in 6 cans of garbage, one truckload of furniture donations and 7 hours mediating the usage of an industrial broom by five children.

Story problem: After the aforementioned 60 hours how much sanity remains between the two step/parents?

Answer: There may not be enough back episodes of Parks & Recreation to completely recover.

So when I called my BFF on Monday morning to debrief, she calmly listened to me recount my weekend, for which she offered the appropriate amounts of sympathy. Then I asked how her weekend went.

BFF: I slaughtered the chickens.

ME: What? Where was Jason?

BFF: He had to fix the van so I told him I would take care of the chickens.

Before we go any further, let me just say, yes, of course they have chickens. It’s like Little House on the Prairie, Idaho Falls edition.

My next thought? If me and Mr. Charming were to ever have chickens needing slaughter, and he said, “Hey, honey. I’ve got to fix the car today.” I would immediately reply, “Ok, dear. I’m going to postpone the slaughtering of our chickens until next Saturday.” Because in no alternate reality can I imagine myself volunteering to decapitate, pluck and gut 5 chickens—and I don’t even know if that’s the proper ordering of butchering tasks.

The truth is my BFF has been leading up to this for some time. Since spring of this year I believe she’s canned or pickled quarts and quarts of peach jam, strawberry jam, apricots, black, white and pinto beans, tomatoes, zucchini, grape juice concentrate, apples, and jalapeno carrots—all while managing the affairs of a third-world country via email transmission.  Ok, so that last part’s not true, but it’s totally within her capacity.

This woman is better prepared for the zombocalypse than me, and I’m married to the man who actually created a board game about it. My BFF now simultaneously awes and terrifies me.

So thus you see how I am concerned I may not be enough friend for my bestie. She may be better aligned with a warrior princess from the Amazon. You know—like with an invisible airplane, a lasso of truth, and bulletproof golden bracelets?

Until then, I’m here as long as she’ll have me.  And when she offers me a jar of pickled jalapeno carrots and a budgeting plan that could restart the government, I’ll offer her a ride to Sam’s Club and a sneak peak at my column.  Heck, maybe I’ll even write one about her.

Because that’s what friends are for.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Wrath of ComiCon

For months my three kids had been planning to attend the Salt Lake ComiCon with their father. So when we discovered, last-minute, that my ex would be unable to take them, Mr. Charming and I decided to go in his place.

I will never be the same.

For those of you who may not know, a comicon is an annual convention originally intended for comic book, sci-fi/fantasy fiction, television and movie fans which has long since expanded to include enthusiasts of any movie, sitcom, anime, video game, board or card game. Plainly put, if you like something a whole lot, can make your own character costume for it, and are willing to sweat it out in full regalia at a venue that defies fire regulations, you’re ComiCon’s intended demographic.

First of all, deciding to go was a no-brainer. My husband is a consummate nerd; the only dilemma was in attending ComiCon without a genius costume. People plan for these things weeks, if not months, in advance, and we were leaving for Salt Lake just hours after purchasing our tickets online. So—armed only with our Teefury shirts and a combined encyclopedic knowledge of Marvel Comics, Doctor Who, My Little Pony and the world of HP Lovecraft—we set off.

Entering the Salt Palace Convention Center for ComiCon is like walking into the mosh pit of junior-high outcasts who had finally shed their alter egos, bad acne, and aversion to deodorant. Within ten minutes we saw (and photographed) 4 Doctor Whos, 2 Spidermen, all the Avengers, assembled—including Spiderman, who was never officially an Avenger but helped them out in a few issues, 2 Wonder Women, 1 Rainbow Dash, 2 post-apocalyptic cyber-guys, Russell from Up, the entire Hobbit cast, 1 dancing Wolverine, 2 Ghost Busters, and a weeping angel.


We spent our first three hours there gawking at all the elaborate costumes, and then, like giggling groupies, asking perfect strangers if we could take pictures with them.

My son, whose Doctor Who costume has become a daily uniform, had suddenly joined an army of 11th doctor clones. While ecstatic to happen upon so many Whovians, he was downcast at being one of the least originally dressed. This is where the more obscure your costume, the geekier—and thus, cooler—you and anyone who recognizes you becomes.

The absolute best part of ComiCon for us was a photo op with Stan Lee, 84-year old father of Marvel Comics and ultimate hero of my 9-year old boy. We stood in line for 3 hours to get one 8x10 of a frail Stan Lee with his arm slung casually over Zack’s shoulder.

While waiting, I noticed one woman in a DC comic shirt ahead of us in line. “The nerve,” I whispered to my husband. “Wearing a DC comic shirt at a Stan Lee photo-op.” If my sons had taught me anything, it was that Marvel and DC were rival comics, and you never aligned yourself with a DC superhero.

Mr. Charming looked at me in mock surprise and said, “Wow! Can’t we just all get along?” He then reminded me of a Coexist shirt we had seen with letters comprised of DC and Marvel superhero logos.

So, that warm and fuzzy feeling I had that weekend? It came from the realization that ComiCon is where all —regardless of race, creed, gender, political affiliations, life form, alternate reality, bond or free, Orc or Hobbit—are welcome and celebrated. So to all those who have ever been tormented, mocked or alienated for being a nerd, remember, it gets better.

And there is always ComiCon.