L.A. Sunday Funday

us n muralWe had a crazy fun family day on Sunday, inspired by The Industry’s Hopscotch Opera, which Scott and I were lucky enough to experience the day before. Hopscotch is performed entirely in cars that drive around L.A., and at various sites at which the cars stop. Beg, borrow, or steal a ticket if you can. It’s remarkable. The city  itself is an integral thread in the fabric of the story, and we walked away pumped to explore more of this magical, maddening place we call home.

Tariku’s passion for visual art has really been blossoming lately, and he constantly draws dinosaurs and sea monsters and knights and dragons. He is obsessed with drawing the Phoenix, which seems like a particularly poignant symbol for a boy who has come so far.

us muralsSo Scott and I decided that we’d all go see the downtown murals, and then design our own to “paint” (with chalk) on the walls in our backyard.

It was a blast! We wandered the Downtown Arts District and gaped at the mind-blowing street art, then settled in at Wurstkuche to munch their outstanding sausages and fries (yum!), while we drew our design plans. We then took the plans home and executed them. Afterwards, we rewarded ourselves with some pumpkin pie we had picked up at The Pie Hole.

The experience gave us a chance to educate Tariku about the history and culture of street art, which was thrilling to him, because it’s essentially the Robin Hood story, but with art. We also talked about color, composition, and how we choose our content.

Most importantly for us, we discussed how art is positive way to express our feelings- especially the ones that are bubbling up and need to get out of us! Tariku probably said is best: “It’s better than screaming and yelling!”

Amen to that.

I can’t extol enough the virtues of project-based learning. Or of a stroll through the Downtown Arts District.

Look at that proud face.



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Real Life and Its Skunks

IMG_6911I’m sitting at the very far corner of the coffee shop this morning, because I still smell vaguely of the skunk that sprayed our dog for the fourth time in a month. We’re calling the movie of our life right now, Skunkageddon: Revenge of the Rodents.

We hired a company to humanely trap the skunks and return them to whatever hell mouth they hail from. They’ve trapped twelve so far. Twelve. There are two sitting calmly in traps in the yard right now. This morning I locked beady eyes with one of them and tried to psychically communicate with him. I told him that we wished his family well, but would appreciate it if could they would all go across town and terrorize a Republican family instead.

acoveThen I went inside and stared for a few minutes at the sole rotting avocado in the fridge, because I didn’t make it to the grocery store yesterday. Like if I stared hard enough, it might magically turn into an egg sandwich.

A study in opposites, my mind drifted back to Greece last week…

ausboatAfter we left Athens, the rest of our time was spent on an epic odyssey, exploring the beaches of Aegina and then driving through charming villages tucked into the folds of the Peloponnese Mountains. As I sit here annoyed by the guy on his cell phone next to me and vaguely nauseated by the residual skunk smell, I can remember drinking an iced coffee in the dappled light beneath the Sycamore tree that shaded the town square of Karyes. I remember standing quietly by the bell tower on the town’s tallest peak and listening to the goat bells echo through the hillsides. I remember eating grilled octopus in a seaside taverna, while the kids trolled the shoreline for sea urchins.

I don’t mean to over-romanticize…I can’t say Greece was relaxing, exactly. Vacations with active children who struggle with transitions are not generally relaxing. There were times I was so tired and brain-baked and T was acting like such a little jerk, I wanted to swan dive off one of those beautiful cliffs. There were also times I felt numb, like I couldn’t feel my life.

Or rather, I could feel my life, but they weren’t what I deemed the appropriate feelings-  the awe and gratitude I believed to be equal to the scenery. I got mad at myself. I yearned for that pre-kid me, the one who would just drink it all in, content to roll with inconveniences, to drift wide-eyed  through the world with five dollars in my pocket.

But there was this one moment…

One morning, we took a little boat to the tiny, uninhabited island of Moni, off the coast of Aegina. We played for a while on a gorgeous little crescent of beach, in the shadow of cliffs that contain caves where acetic monks once lived.

We walked over a little path that traversed the island and found ourselves in a deserted cove, with only a single sailboat anchored in the distance. The water was deep and you had to jump off the rocks to get in, but all the kids took the plunge eventually. After T jumped, I swam along next to him as he looked under the water with his goggles. He lifted his head and excitedly said, “THIS is what the ocean looks like!” As if the world and his dreams had fallen into line for a brief moment.afood

I looked around at the thousand shades of blue water, the cliffs rising above us, the cloudless sky, that smile of my son’s that can turn a whole day around, and I thought, “THIS is what Greece looks like.”

What I meant was, this is what sharing the world with my son looks like. Its moments of wonder can feel even richer for being harder won.

And that’s where I go in my mind this morning. Because, in the words of Gershwin, you can’t take that away from me…

Not even as real life and all its skunks close in.akastanitza


Why I Sing Loudly at Whole Foods


“She used to sing musical theater loud in the grocery store,” said Scott, when we and the other people in our foster parent training were talking about what sort of strategies we might use to address public tantrums.

“I did?” I asked.

“Don’t you remember that?” he seemed shocked.

“Oh yeah, I did, didn’t I?”

How could I have possibly forgotten about the singing? That was the best idea I ever had! I didn’t make it up- it was an amalgam of advice from mommy bloggers and late night phone calls to old friends. But it was, indeed, a great strategy. How had I forgotten it completely? My memories of those first few years with Tariku are peppered with strange blank spots– probably the result of the combined trauma of what we as a family went through.

But when he mentioned it, it all came flooding back. So in case it might be useful to anyone, I thought I’d share it…

Often, children whose nervous systems have been impacted by trauma can become easily overwhelmed and have hair trigger tantrums. This was certainly the case with us. Between 18 months and about 4 years, Tariku had alarming tantrums that would pitch him backward into some vortex of primal fear. Ten times a day, he would wail and thrash and bite and hit, inevitably at the most inconvenient times: Target, the movies, the mall, Disneyland (admittedly, I often feel the same way there). At first it was really embarrassing. Then I stopped caring what other people thought. After that it was just exhausting, and often left me hopeless and despairing at the end of the day.

We even had the police called on us. I’ll never forget the day a police officer showed up at my front door because someone had reported our license plate as a potential kidnapping, from the pony rides at Griffith Park.

Extreme problems sometimes demand extreme measures…

Sometimes, if I could catch the tantrum while the wave was just starting to roll to shore, I found I could short-circuit it. At the first flicker of trouble, I would break into a chorus of “That’s Entertainment.” And nothing, I mean nothing, will stop a child in his tracks and have him begging for you to stop quite like a time step in the produce section.

Except the big trick was, I would make up my own words and they would go something like this (everybody now, to the tune of “Oklahoma”):

I love you! I will always love you! There is nothing you can do to make me not love you! I don’t care if you bite me every day for the rest of your life, I will still love you! I don’t care if you hate me, I still love you! Oh boy you’re being a big pain right now but guess what I love you! I love you I love you I love you!

You get the idea.

I forgot about it because I haven’t needed it in so long.

Now, once in a while, when I get an, “I hate you!” I’ll respond, “I love you!” in musical theater voice.

And if I really want to annoy him, when he’s ordering me around, I’ll resort to talking in a cockney accent and calling him the “Little Lord.”

“Would the Little Lord like some ketchup with his corn dog?”

Wow, does he ever hate that! He’ll start saying “please” so fast it’ll make your head spin!

Which is all to say…

Sometimes we have to throw a wrench into the habitual, negative patterns our brains can fall into. For us, often playfulness is not just the best option, it’s the only option– unless I want to lock horns with my child and get caught in an unwinnable power struggle. Sometimes we all need to step outside our comfort zones, of our ideas of what is right and wrong and how we should all be behaving.

Sometimes you just have to sing “I love you” to the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening” until there’s nothing left to do but laugh your ass off.

On Special Needs…


When I was stuck in traffic after the camp drop-off this morning, I found myself musing about the day I first heard the words “special needs” applied to T. It seems a lifetime ago. I remember the combination of fear and relief I felt. What would this mean to him? To our lives? How had my life strayed so far from any picture I ever had of motherhood? Some part of me felt like I was betraying him every time I said it, by admitting that he wasn’t perfect. Another part of me was grateful that I had some external validation for my concerns about his behaviors- I hadn’t just been imagining it all along.

Special needs. Say it a few times. See how it feels.

You may feel embarrassed. You may feel like you’re getting benched, not allowed out on the field with these other competitive moms who are humble-bragging at the coffee shop about their six-year-old playing Chopin and speaking Mandarin.

That’s okay. Don’t stop. Say it a few more times.

You may find that it begins to change shape in your mind, to grow roots in your heart. You may recognize it as truth, and truth is almost always a relief. You may begin to feel that rather than benching you, it puts you on exactly the right playing field, where you suddenly understand the game.

Say it a few more times. Say it like its no big deal because it isn’t any more. You will begin to hear an echo.

My kid has special needs, too!

You may find that the echo is coming from people that you’d far rather spend time with than the Mandarin-drilling Tiger Moms anyway. You may find that you’re proud to be among this new group of people, that all you had been waiting for was to feel less alone, and now you do. And while it is not all fixed, you have something better than fixed: you have hope.

These were my traffic thoughts this morning. How remarkably different from three years ago, when I used to drive around literally cursing at God. I am so grateful to the special needs community- the parents, the therapists, the educators, the kids. They have given me a life far richer than the one I imagined, when I first envisioned being a mom.