Unstoppable Energy is just that… Unstoppable.

Woo Hoo! They did it! Team Unstoppable Energy stepped up their game last weekend and advanced to the state level of the Lego robotics world competition on February 24th. The competition is getting much, much tougher. These three fifth-graders are now up against teams comprised mostly of eighth-graders. Of the 640 Minnesota teams (Minnesota has the most teams of any state, btw), there are only 50 left (about 8%). We couldn’t be more proud (except, maybe, for the Vikings). Go team!

2017 Christmas Ornament Wrap-up

I got off to a late start making snowman ornaments for Robyn this year.  With less than a week until Christmas, I made my move (which amounted to scratching my belly, drinking some holiday margaritas, and catching up on my emails). Determined to win yet another procrastination trophy, I put the whole thing out of my mind. Despite this, ideas seeped past my protective subconscious barrier like acid rain through an old roof, and I gave in. We’re talking Faberge Egg quality ideas. Too bad they all required way more time than I had left. So I decided to wing it, and just started cutting wood to see what evolved. The sound of band saws floated through the cold, night air.

I have to admit, not all the ornaments this year were painstakenly crafted in my shop. The first ornament took about as long for me to make as for Robyn to unwrap. After 26 years, I think she’s catching on to my “managing expectations” ploy, because she seemed to sense better things coming. I have to give her credit, though, at least she feigned interest. I could tell this by her many questions about how I made it, materials used and such. Questions like:

“Did you use, I mean steal, the balls from grandma’s dining table centerpiece to make this?”  To which grandma replied, “He did what!?”

“Is that a colored pencil as the nose? You stuck a colored pencil through grandma’s table decoration? Seriously?”  “He did what!?

“Was this the box you asked me to wrap on Christmas Eve? You had me wrap my own present, didn’t you?”  “He did what!?

I wish grandma’s hearing wasn’t so good.

Yep. That went about as well as expected (for those of you worried about grandma’s centerpiece, the ornament is held together only by friction and a knot of ribbon. It’s fine. Really. Please don’t send emails.)

The next ornament falls under the category “good in theory, not so good in practice.” The idea was to create a customizable snowman ornament toy, changeable each year with different features and attire – a Mr. Potato Head for the Christmas tree. Except, I’d use magnets. Fun, huh?

I thought I was so clever. I’d just buy a couple of steel balls and a variety of magnets and let Robyn and Beck do the building. Score one for Team Lazy.

It didn’t work. It was far too heavy and plummeted right off the branch, homicidally taking two other ornaments with it (which I now have to repair, damn it). And, it is too small and fussy to handle. The tiny neodymium magnets are seriously strong and can hardly be pried apart from all the other tiny parts. They naturally snap together in a clump, pinching fingers on their way.

What’s more, all the shiny reflections obscure its features, like its eyes and nose. The Christmas tree needles reflect off its surface giving it better camouflage than a sniper. If your tree is steel-reinforced, you may be able to hang it (I’d recommend securing it with an arc welder), but you will never find it again. I’d show you a picture of it hanging on a tree, but you’d have an easier time finding Waldo. Plus, I don’t dare attempt to hang it again. Someone could lose a foot.

Maybe someday I’ll try making another one. I’ll bury the steel balls within wood balls and embed the tiny magnets into wood features and… yeah. That’ll be a cold day in hell.

No worries, though, two snowman down, and I was ready with more. Thank you, Lego Company. Beck and I raided the Legos he received last Christmas (which were the ones, actually, he gave to me for Christmas, but why quibble over ownership). We got in some play time, and Robyn got some ornaments. A win-win (except I have fewer Legos, now. Or Beck does. Whatever.). Of the two snowmen, one of them is a bit closer to the grave than the other. See if you can guess which.

The next ornament is the first of my new primitive collection. That’s what I’m calling it, because I’ve already used the word lazy, and I’m too lazy to use a thesaurus. Honestly, I like its bold simplicity (in addition to it’s speed of manufacture). Not sure if most people will know it’s a snowman, though. Must be art or something.

Moving away from rough-sawn simplicity, here are four snowmen for the price of one (except I don’t sell them, sorry. So technically it’s just four snowmen in one).

In an uncharacteristic departure from snowmen, I drilled a hole and stuck an eyelet into an old bowling pin trophy. It took no time at all, but Robyn says it still counts. You see, we cleaned out my parents’ old house this year, since my dad lives in Florida now and my mother passed away many years ago. She loved to bowl, and this is one of her trophies. Just a little remembrance. You won’t find our Christmas tree gracing the cover of Architectural Digest, but it works for us.

Along the same lines, I came across a boatload (ok, a box, actually) of old Josten’s paraphernalia. My father spent the better part of his life selling class rings and graduation announcements. A few pieces of that life made their way into this little snowman ornament.

As mentioned here, my ornaments often reflect the zeitgeist of the year, and a good chunk of this year was spent with Legos. Not the little bricks, but the technic robotics. If you didn’t know, Legos makes parts that include a little computer, motors, gears, sensors (such as color, ultrasonic, infrared and touch) that allow you to build autonomous robots (sadly, not the kind that shoot flames and spin blades. Cuz that would be cool!).

Beck and a couple of his friends formed a team last year and competed in the Legos International Robotics Challenge. They built a robot and programmed it for this year’s competition and are currently competing against 600 teams across Minnesota. The team won their first competition while Beck won an award for innovative programming. Kudos, kids! These rambunctious 11-year olds face their next competition in February (unless you read about their coaches in the local paper – watch for stories of escaped mental patients and explosions).

And that’s all folks. Hope you have a great new year!

‘Tis the Season

Sing along with me:

‘Tis the season, yet my workshop lies dormant. Fa la la la la… la la la la. 

Some sort of weird conspiracy between Life and his arch nemesis, Work, nailed the door to my workshop shut – for the entire year! I’m praying the little elves inside have managed to survive on nothing but hopes and dreams, and possibly some mouse droppings. But, I must get the door open soon or there will be NO Christmas this year. Only one week remains to make Robyn’s Christmas ornament. Read the backstory here.

Don’t get all nervous for me, but if I can’t kick aside all those elf carcasses and get my machinery running, Robyn will have to adorn the tree this year with something made from pipe cleaners, Q-tips and cotton balls. Think, Martha Stewart {shudder}.

Just in case I don’t make it (and Rudolph, with that giant red nose always in his eyes, broadsides a building or something), here are a few snowmen from years’ past. The one at the top is the very first snowman I ever made, back in 1992, and still one of Robyn’s favorites (probably just sentimentality talking). I honestly didn’t realize, back then, I was starting a tradition. It’s three snowmen in one, really, depending on your viewpoint, and about the size of an egg (but not from one of those hormone fed chickens, God forbid). Amazingly, I didn’t have any tools back then and I don’t remember how I made the snowman. Probably gnawed at the wood with my teeth.



Sauntering down memory lane

The snowmen below are some of the first ones I made that incorporate a photo – sort of like Christmas tree lockets.

 


This snowman comes from deep down in the dark crevices of my subconsious, possibly inspired by memories growing up with Alfred Hitchcock on the tube. Gooood eve-a-ning.

 

 



And finally, a tribute to the Labrador Retreiver we lost the year our son, Beck, was born.

 

Sometimes You Can Stick Your Tongue Out at Danger, Other Times…

As Hurricane Irma bears down on Florida, I can’t stop thinking about a couple of my favorite clients and their home on Marco Island. Category 5 is a hefty breeze. Be safe Jeff and Marsha!

Undoubtedly, we’ll soon hear stories of surfers taking advantage of the gnarly waves, which reminds me of a quote by THAT guy:

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity,
and I’m not sure about the former. 

Albert Einstein

What Did You Do Over the Weekend? I Built an Ultimate Fighting Death Ring.

Problem: How do you keep the young neighborhood whippersnappers off your lawn?

Solution: Cull the herd with an octagon of death

It took all my years of intense design study and many trips back to the drawing board to get here, but it is complete. Well, mostly. Due to unexpected budget overruns, I was forced to eliminate the chain link and barbed wire. Do you know how much that stuff costs?

Sadly, the octagon of death cannot contain the little urchins without it, so now it’s just an octagon. Happily, my son Beck suggested we repurpose it and use it as a Gaga pit. For those of you older than fifteen, it’s a game like dodgeball and has nothing to do with the Lady.

Now my yard is regularly trampled by even more tiny little feet than before, proving the adage, if you build it, they will come. Much like the Coyote, I am relegated to forever dreaming up new, fiendish traps. The spinning-tree-swing-of-death, for example (that didn’t work either, btw). If only Acme sold something useful…

It started out as a chunk of forest. A little work with a chainsaw and Bobcat, and voila… a mudpit.

I enlisted grandpa and a few of the neighborhood kids to help out while I oversaw the construction. As an architect I never actually build anything. Rather, I nurture others in their dreams of building (or as many of my contractor buddies would say, sit on my ass and dream up stuff that’s impossible for them to build – eh, one or the other).

If you were wondering, my wife, Robyn, gave me that shirt in the pictures. It says “50% Architect, 50% superhero.” Sweet, huh? Now everyone asks me which I am today, a half-assed architect, or half-assed superhero. I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt that her intentions were good.

Note: No children were harmed in the making of the octagon of death.

The wood wasn’t even cold before word spread across the neighborhood

 

Dark Chocolate, Banana Cream Pie Hot Cocoa – Proof That Sugar-Free Doesn’t Have To Be Icky

There’s a fat man inside me struggling to get out.

I’m not going to let him.

Part one of my three-step plan to thwart the fat man is to cut sugar out of my diet. Part two removes fat and carbs. Part three eliminates food altogether. That’ll show him.

Turns out it’s not so easy to forego sugar when it seductively whispers your name throughout the day, promising ecstasies beyond mortal comprehension. To silence the voice (that lovely, wonderful voice), I have tried sugar-free everything, but I just can’t get past artificial sweeteners like Aspartame, and the thought of contorted, glowing green lab rats with cancerous pustules oozing atop other festering cancers.

The after-lunch cravings are the worst.

Here’s Where the Cocoa Comes in…

I had a solution… nurse a cup of sugar-free cocoa, like a baby with a pacifier, but more dignified and adult-like. The only problem, I couldn’t find a good sugar-free, packaged hot cocoa, or even a decent recipe for that matter. Empty-handed, I had little choice but to attempt to create a recipe of my own. Keep in mind, I’m no chef, but the bar was low. As long as it didn’t taste like wrung-out sweat sock juice, I was good. A quick analysis of the problem indicated three major hurdles:

First I needed to find a sugar-free, low fat substitute for milk (even 1% milk is loaded with sugar and fat, albeit the good stuff apparently), with a non-watery, pleasantly thick consistency. After testing every form of liquid known to man, including numerous varieties of tequila (those were good days), I settled on Silk’s Unsweetened Cashew Milk. There are other brands available, but they are too strong and nutty for my taste.

The next hurdle was finding a sugar-free sweetener that wasn’t potentially harmful or just plain icky (I’m looking at you Stevia. Yuck). Frankly, the sweetener was the toughest part. Monk fruit extract was my prime candidate for a long time, but no matter what I mixed with it, the fruity, sickly aftertaste remained (not as bad as Stevia, but not good either). I suspect it tastes fine in fruit drinks, but definitely not cocoa. Then I came across Lakanto Monk Fruit Sweetener. It’s a granular substance that looks like sugar, tastes like sugar, but is comprised of a tiny bit of Monk fruit juice mixed together with a whole lot of Erythritol (a scary sounding alias for fermented corn). The name alone almost turned me away, but I felt better after doing some research. Apparently it’s the Great, White Hope of sugar substitutes. You can find it at Whole Foods or online.

Finally, I needed a cocoa richer and tastier than the standard Nestle or Hershey powders typically found in grocery stores: a dark and rich chocolate, but not bitter (I don’t ask for much). The answer was Dutch-processed cocoa. My preference is Cocoa Barry Extra Brute. If you don’t want to order a two pound bag online, many grocery stores carry a wonderful, but more expensive, alternative by Droste.

Yet, something was still missing. I think it was the absense of Cocoa Butter. I needed something to replace its buttery taste. That something was English toffee extract. Amoretti is the gold standard with no alcohol, no chemicals and no artificial flavors or colors. LorAnn makes a great economical alternative.

The result is an all-natural, very dark chocolate loaded with flavonoids and antioxidants – read the 7 Health Benefits of Drinking Hot Cocoa.

If you are looking for a milky, hot cocoa… this isn’t it.

It’s dark. “As dark as your soul,” says my wife, Robyn, “and thick, like your B.S.”  I think it’s like drinking a candy bar.

Best of all, it’s:

  • Sugar-free with no artificial flavors and non-GMO
  • Zero on the glycemic Index
  • Relatively low in calories and fat, with just a few token carbs
  • Gluten, lactose and anchovy-Free
  • Compatible with all the trendy diets: Vegan, Mediterranean and possibly Martian (we won’t know for sure until we discover their ancient ruins). Sorry, it’s not Paleo. I guess cavemen didn’t ferment corn or use state-of-the-art industrial processing facilities.

Dark Chocolate, Banana Cream Pie Hot Cocoa

The four ingredients required for basic dark cocoa are listed above, but if you want to try the chocolate banana cream pie, you will need these, as well :

LorAnn Banana Emulsion. This is a flavoring used by bakers to enhance their creations (it is not sold at your local grocery store, but may be ordered direct from LorAnn or Amazon).

LorAnn Marshmallow Flavoring (an extract without alcohol). Who needs all the sugar and gelatin of real marshmallows. You know where gelatin comes from, right? If you want to have fun with your cocoa, try some of their many other flavorings, from Hazelnut to Cookies and Cream.

Shredded Coconut, Unsweetened.

 

 

Here’s the Recipe…

Sugar-Free Dark Chocolate, Banana Cream Pie Hot Cocoa

Zero Sugar, low carbohydrate, low fat, dairy-free, soy-free, non-GMO, Vegan

Course Beverages
Prep Time 5 minutes
Cook Time 2 minutes
Total Time 7 minutes
Servings 1
Calories 60 kcal
Author Tim Bjella

Ingredients

  • 1 cup Silk Unsweetened Cashew Milk
  • 2-1/2 T Cocoa Barry Extra Brute or Droste Dutch Cocoa
  • 4 T Lakanto Monkfruit Sweetener, Classic
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 2 drops Amoretti English Toffee Extract (use an eye dropper)
  • 1 glop LorAnn Banana Emulsion (1 glop = 1 giant drop)
  • 5 drops LorAnn Marshmallow Flavoring (use an eye dropper)
  • 1 pinch Nutmeg
  • 1 sprinkle Coconut Shavings

Instructions

  1. For basic hot cocoa, simply mix the cocoa, sweetener, English toffee extract and salt into the hot cashew milk. 

  2. For hot cocoa with an essence of marshmallow, also include the marshmallow flavoring.

  3. For chocolate, banana cream pie hot cocoa, add all of the ingredients together.

  4. For even richer, sipping chocolate (like drinking a candy bar), add 2 additional tablespoons of cocoa powder and two additional tablespoons of monkfruit sweetener

Recipe Notes

This cocoa is best prepared on a stovetop with a light and loving touch by gently warming the cashew milk until it is ready to accept the subtle nuances of the cocoa (I just nuke it in a microwave).

Don't care for sugar-free? Substitute sugar 1:1 for the sugar-free sweetener, and prepare to toss and turn all night wallowing in your guilt.