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March 2014
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May 2014

Stating the obvious

Yesterday was a rough day. We only won two out of six matches, and some of those losses were heartbreakingly close. One of them was a soul-shredding robot fail that left the boys standing there, unable to do anything but watch the clock count down. So sad. And one of the other matches, all three of the other robots failed, leaving our robot hemmed in by carcasses, scarcely able to do anything. We won that one (I should hope so), but it wasn't what you'd call a pretty win.

Everyone is exhausted. They're scraping the bottom of the barrel for parts, disassembling broken pieces to try to jury-rig what they need. Tempers are running a little high.

And yet, when I left them in the pit a little while ago, there was a determined knot of kids around their robot. They knelt around it and fiddled and jabbered at each other. They're still fighting.

I'd like to report that they're winning everything - or even most of the things. But they are pushing forward, on a field that pushes back harder than anything they've ever faced so far. I'm proud of them. 

And so, I'd like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the week so far. The first night here, as we were leaving to head back to the hotel, we passed a team that was huddled up, giving a loud, enthusiastic chant about how great their team is for making it to World.

"Hey, guys," I said, "YOU need a chant!"

Volkan, who is club president and one of Tre's very best friends, looked at me, bemused.

"Why would we do that?" he asked. "They're just stating the obvious."

Ah yes. From the robot, to the adorably robot-like, they're winners. Obviously.

UPDATE: Midway through the morning I got a text and a surprise. Look who just dropped by?

Okay, I have a terrible picture to show you of me with Clay's daughter, Jennie, and her youngest son, A.J. It's a terribe picture of two absolutely wonderful people, plus me, and I can't show you because it's on my phone, and I'm having terrible problems with the wifi. Ugh. I'll try to upload it later.

ANYHOW, Jennie drove here to see Tre's team compete! FROM MICHIGAN. She spent eight hours in a car with two little boys (Quentin, age 3 and A.J., 9 months old - I'M SAYING), so she could watch their robot battle. (She also brought her sister-in-law, Margaret.) It makes me teary, just thinking about it. That was an amazing thing for her to do. And those boys. I swear my hands get hungry to touch them. They're just so precious. 

UPDATE #2: The boys discovered what was wrong with the robot! It was a teeny tiny line of code, that was causing the power supply to turn on and off rapidly, rather than running constantly. You can imagine what a difference this made. Their last two matches were beautiful, with them performing the way I expect them to. They won, and they won, but in the end it wasn't enough to overcome the earlier losses. 

They didn't make it into the finals, which was hard. But when I asked Tre how he was doing, he said, "You know, I can't even be sad about losing. Look at us. Look where we are!"

And we did. We looked around, at the chaos and wonder of it all. They're really winners.

Obviously.


Block party!

Google Maps will tell you it takes roughly twelve hours to drive from Denver to St. Louis. Google Maps lies.

It takes all the hours.

It takes every single one of all the hours, and by the time you arrive in St. Louis, you're aching from the effort of being in the car that long, and everything seems surreal, and you kind of want to die a little. There would be no good reason to do that, if it weren't for the FTC Championships.

And in that case, I was happy to.

Tuesday morning I headed off, the middle of a three vehicle caravan, to help get Tre's robotics team to World. My car had Tre and the other two seniors on the team, plus one well behaved sophomore and his mom. The truck behind us carried the gear and the robot. The van in front of us had all the kids with poor impulse control. I'm not saying it was their fault we didn't arrive until 2 AM, but it WAS their idea to stop every single time we did. I thought the kids in my car were going to have a coronary. You know it's getting serious when an 18 year old boy suggests that everyone just skip dinner. 

But we got here! And after a bracing few hours of sleep, we headed off to the competition. I've been thinking about how to explain the size of this event, and I can't seem to find the words. There are kids everywhere, in costume or matching tshirts. Kids from all over the U.S., sure, but from the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, China, Siberia, and more. Hundreds and hundreds of kids, all aglow with the wonder of being here. They made it to World. They can't stop grinning. It's kind of stunning.

Also stunning is how much STUFF some of these teams have. We goggled at their charter buses and custom vans and personalized trailers. The equipment and tools and costumes. What does it cost to outfit a few dozen kids as pandas in tutus, exactly? Our boys moved in among them, the ten of them dwarfed by teams five times their size. We were suddenly less impressed by the fact that we'd brought ten pounds of atomic fireballs to hand out. It was a little bit intimidating. 

At the opening ceremony last night, it was mentioned that this crowd represents the top three percent of robotics teams in the world. In the world. 

Yesterday was technical judging and interviews. Matches start today. I'm exhausted and a little queasy from eating food-like substances instead of food. But I tell you what, it's an honor to be here. I mean, the boys are honored to be here, sure. But I am amazed to be able to watch and grin from the sidelines. First match is in a few hours. You can watch the streaming (courtesy of NASA) here http://science.ksc.nasa.gov/robotics/first/st-louis-2014/

We'll be on the Franklin field, I believe. Our robot is 4287. 

And we're so happy to be here.


Stuff Happened.

So, I've done it again. I've gotten so far behind on stuff to tell you that I don't know where to start, and there's no way to get it all caught up on. So instead, I guess I'll tell you some stuff.

Last week we went out to Phoenix for the wedding of Clay's sister, Theresa, to her beloved, Jordan. They had a gorgeous, sun-drenched backyard wedding. It was just beautiful. They sent their guests colorful prayer flags to decorate with advice, wishes, prayers, and these fluttered overhead as they said their vows. Really gorgeous. Whenever I go to a exquisitely crafted event like that, I think two things: 1) Oh, I wish I had that much good taste and energy and 2) LORD HAVE MERCY, I'm glad I'm not getting married again.

Weddings, man. Brutal.

But the main thing is that Jordan and Theresa love each other, and they made it offical, and we got to be there to wish them well. It matters, it just does.

And then we got sick.

Oh, so sick.

Clay started throwing up the day after the wedding, right before I flew home (into a snowstorm) with Tre and Max. I got home, settled in, and started throwing up the next day. Back in Phoenix, Sophia started throwing up the day after that. The next day Clay and Raphi flew home with a limp, sad Sophia. Now my dad's battling through the end of it. It is a bad and terrible virus, and no one should ever have it ever. Lord. 

I don't think most people at the wedding got sick. Just us, and a few other members of Clay's family, who had the bad fortune to be in close quarters with us (Sorry Maggie! Sorry Sharon! Sorry Dan!). OH, I hope it didn't go any further. I'm left feeling both guilty for being the bearer of the badness and resentful that we got it. Stupid virus owes me at least a week of my life back. TWO DAYS of which were supposed to be kid-free, I'M JUST SAYING.

I love Clay's family, though. The last two times now that I've gone out to Phoenix to spend time with them, we've all ended up with a terrible stomach flu, and I'm really hoping no one notices that we're the common (puking) denominator, and they don't disown us or start having secret family meetings without us in North Dakota or something. That would be very sad. 

Anyhow, we survived. And it's Easter! And I don't know, maybe there was something weird going on this morning, but we were overrun by weirdo strangers, raiding the kids' baskets.

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This guy was all up in Tre's candy. 

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I do NOT like the look of that guy. Shifty.

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That one too. Shifty, I tell ya.

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And that one's just plain scary. Seriously. How did this happen?

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It's a good thing we have this fierce and mighty dog to protect us. See? Max is back already! THAT'S better.

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So to sum up: stuff happened. We all survived. We wish you and yours a blessed and joyful Easter, with lots of candy and weirdos and love.

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Oh, and attitude.


Tre's robotics team and the next great thing that happened.

You guys. You guys. Last week, when I posted about Tre's robotics' team? And I finished with a small whine about the support they're not getting? I swear to you I was not fishing.

And yet.

People just...responded. They've stepped forward and made offers and wanted to help, and it has blown my little mind. By the end of the day on Friday, three people had offered to cover my hotel room. But as it turns out, they won't need to. Because we set up a fund raising campaign over at Indiegogo, and with that support, the school has stepped up to pay for my room. (It doesn't hurt that the kids - ahem, young men - in the club pitched a fit about me not being able to go. Love those boys.)

So we've got this campaign going, and if you're so inclined, you can help out at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/send-lotus-robotics-team-to-the-world-ftc-competition/x/6992740

And thank you again, sincerely, for all your support. From the comments to the "where can I send a check?" emails, you people are amazing. I have gotten all teary several times a day since Friday, and you've bouyed my sense of what is real and possible in the world. God bless you all, and I mean that.


Figuring out the whole World

Last month I had the opportunity to drive half of Tre's school robotics team to the State competition. Now, lest you think the word choice "opportunity" sounded a little sarcastic, I was really happy to be going. Tre has been completely obsessed with robotics for his entire high school career, and it's actually guided him in what college he chose. It's been pretty important, is what I'm saying. And I was aware that this competition could very well be his last high school robotics competition ever, which seems both impossible and sad.

Tre and I stumbled out of the house in the early, dark, bitterly cold morning. We drove to the school in silence. Not even the excitement of the competition could override our shared lack of enthusiasm at morning. Plus, after picking up the others at school, we had another hour's drive ahead of us. Hard to get worked up over all that.

We arrived at the school and made our way through dark, empty hallways to the robotics room. What is creepier than a quiet, dark high school hallway? The rest of the team was in the robotics room, packing the robot and its accessories into plastic bins. When I walked in the room, I was struck full in the face by a wall of air. Air that had not moved out of that room all school year long. Air that held the smell of teen aged boys who had logged hours in that room, had stressed and worked and argued and triumphed and eaten obscene amounts of junk food. Air with TEXTURE.

There are no girls on this robotics team. In case that wasn't obvious.

They got it all loaded, the other adults arrived, and we left. When we arrived at the school gym that would be my home for the day, I sat down on the bleachers to judge the level of comfort they'd offer. They seemed to have been designed for maximum pain. Nice. Plus, I was so so so sick that day, drowning inside my own head. This was going to be a long day.

Except you know what? It wasn't. It was THRILLING. These boys? This team of boys, from the mean streets of Aurora? This little, underfunded, ridiculously disorganized robotics team that began four years ago with the tiniest, most pitiful little robot? 

THEY DOMINATED.

They were AMAZING. In this robotics league, they are partnered up with an alliance team for each match. More than once, their alliance's robot stopped working, and they went on to single-robotedly defeat BOTH other teams. 

I wish I could really explain how many hours these kids spent working on their robot. Since September, it's been like a part time job for them. After school nearly every day. Saturdays. Fall break. Winter break. These boys were there, in that little, airless room, crafting their robot. And it was beautiful.

In statewide competitions like this (they'd already been through Regionals, so these were the top teams in the state), you can't always clearly pick out the very best. There are lots of different strengths used in different ways, and the competition is close and hard fought. But this day, our boys swept the field. It was beautiful. 

And they won, you guys. They took first place in State, and for the first time in their high school robotics career, they were headed to Super Regionals. In California.

Now, you know I could draw this story out for another 600 words or so, right? I could describe the texts from Tre, updating me after every match, the roller coaster of emotions, the constant recalculations on where they were in the standings? But I'll cut to the chase. This was Super Regionals. The best of the best. They did not dominate, like they did at State.

But they did final.

And they are going to the World Championships this month.

It's like Hoosiers, you guys, but with robots. You should be standing up and screaming. I'm crying right now, a little.

But I'm also complaining a little, because this is a big deal. A huge accomplishment. But because it's not basketball or football or some other sort of ball, people don't really care. I think this is news, a great honor for the state, but no one really cares. 

The boys have to build a new robot for World. And their school has been as supportive as they can afford to be, paying for new parts for the robot. But that doesn't cover travel costs, or slick 3D printers like other teams have. I was going to drive them to World, but I'd have to pay for my own hotel room, and that's not doable right now. 

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These kids, right here? They're amazing. They deserve it all. And I wish I could give it to them.

I don't suppose I should let that bother me. They'll figure it out.