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Sushi and Sayonara: How a Japanese Homestay Impacted Our Family

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We weren’t even sure a foreign student would want to stay with our family. I mean let’s face it, our kids are pretty rambunctious and not the most well behaved young humans. What if we couldn’t pull off “normal American family” for three whole weeks? We had our distinct doubts and fears.

Japanese culinary student, Urara Suzuki, stayed with us in our home for three weeks this Summer. The 17-year-old lived amongst craft supplies, Legos and plastic toys, in the kid’s playroom, on the pullout couch. It was an incredible experience and our family will always remember it fondly.

Before her arrival we attended a homestay meeting where we learned about rules, cultural differences and general guidelines. It was a helpful starting point. Months earlier, the program coordinator had visited our home. She’d needed to confirm that we weren’t hoarders living in a one bedroom ramshackle trailer with boarded up windows and cockroaches wandering freely. After passing that test, we were allowed to choose our student.

It felt like an adoption process of sorts. As the kids and I hovered around the plastic three-ring binder holding all the prospective home stay student’s information, we searched for a suitable match. We scanned the applications for adjectives such as: outgoing, adventurous, energetic. Soon, we’d found our girl. As the oldest of three sisters and conforming to our requirements — Urara seemed like the perfect match.image

Finally, the day arrived when we were to pick up Urara. With our homemade welcome posters in hand, we set off to meet our Japanese daughter/sister/friend. A couple of our family members were unable to attend, but luckily and a little laughably, we had stand-ins.image

We received Urara with open arms and huge smiles. Understandably, she seemed a little confused. Overwhelmed, maybe. Immediately we were aware of the gaping language barrier. Simple communication was no longer simple. Soon, though, we learned to communicate via charades, Google translate (which, brings new meaning to the term “lost in translation”) and a free smartphone app called Line that translates texts.

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Throughout the next several weeks we visited many Southern California tourist destinations and local hot spots. We bonded. We laughed together. We learned about each other’s cultures through cooking and spending quality time together.imageimageimageimage

Did you know the 80’s surf brand Stussy is all the rage in Japan right now? Neither did we. While we were in Los Angeles we side-tripped over to a Stussy store in which Urara had expressed interest. As we walked up, a handful of surgical mask wearing Japanese counterculture youth sauntered out of the shop. Sexually explicit graffiti-like “art” adorned the walls, that my cackling sons quickly (and loudly) pointed out. No more than three simple garments on heavy wooden hangers sparsely hung on each clothing rack. It didn’t look like much of anything special to me, but what do I know? Compared to Japanese prices, these seemingly overpriced items were a bargain for Urara. She was gleeful.image

One of the highlights of the home stay experience was the Japanese cooking. We shopped for all of the ingredients at a popular Japanese market together. Later, we eagerly watched and learned as Urara showed us how to cook various Japanese meals. First we made sushi. All the kids bravely sampled the sushi, although they didn’t all approve of consuming uncooked gill-bearing aquatic craniates (aka: fish).imageimageimage

imageimageOver the next couple of evenings we learned to make Sukiyaki and Okonamiyaki. The kids enjoyed fumbling around with their chopsticks at dinners. We were surprised to learn that our 5-year-old is an expert in the area of chopstick usage.

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The prospect of driving to school and home from their daily field trip seemed a bit daunting at first. But, after joining forces with two other local families, we organized a carpool. In fact, the driving requirement was my main fear (just beneath the fear of my kids’ behaving badly) about the homestay. In the end, the driving wasn’t so bad. It all worked out.

Before we could say domo arigato, it was time for Urara to return home to Japan. The tears began flowing on the eve of her departure, during the student performance. Saying goodbye isn’t easy. This was no exception.imageimageimageimage

Dropping her off the next morning proved to be painful. One of our daughters was crying uncontrollably. Other families around us cried and hugged their Japanese daughters. Through tears and with heavy hearts we said our goodbyes. We know we’ll meet again. Our home will always be open to Urara, her family and her friends. One day our family will visit Japan. Urara and her family have invited us to stay at their home.imageimage

Our four kids have learned that compassion and patience are necessary components of communicating with someone who speaks another language. Hosting a Japanese student was an ideal way to introduce our children to another culture. Oh, and our kids did not behave like model citizens the entire time. Nope. Not at all. I suppose that’s all part of the real life American family experience though. Until we meet again…sayōnara.image

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New Mom Club

Surrounding us were young, fresh faced moms. Shrill squeals and eager baby babble floated through the air like a fresh breeze. Fashionable moms feverishly diced their little one’s food, while Petunia Pickle Bottoms gently bounced on the back of their chairs. Newbie moms with their babies and toddlers enveloped us.image
We’d popped in for a quick lunch. It was a day that my youngest had stayed home from school sick. So, we were outsiders to this young mom luncheon club. There was a time, not long ago, that I ran the club. Of course it’s a fictitious club, built on the pillars of younger mom’s novice status. It’s a club that all moms belong to at one time or another though.image

I’ve barely graduated from the club. My youngest just began his 16 year educational journey this week. He’s now officially a kindergartener. I’m new at the alumni status thing. I was the mom always afraid my babies and young kids were the loudest, the messiest, the most unruly or the most complicated. With four kids born in five years, my fears were largely not unfounded. I became accustomed to older restaurant patrons whispering requests to their server to be moved away from our clan’s table. On airplanes we’d receive cold glances and stoney smiles. Sorry about those crushed eggs in the dairy section, my missing toddler was apparently quelling his curiosity. At restaurants we’d try to clean our dining area, then leave a little extra ”damage control” tip and quickly dash out the door.

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As we sat there, quietly munching on our chicken nuggets, an active young mom club member hurriedly approached me. She reached under my chair, and her eyes met mine. Apologizing about her child’s sippy cup that had been hurled our direction and lay under my chair, she indeed looked embarrassed. As I smiled and admitted I hadn’t even noticed the flying sippy, there was so much that I wanted to tell her.

I was suddenly overcome by emotion. It was emotion that I did not want to acknowledge at noonish on a weekday in a crowded fast food joint with my five year old. Unwelcomed tears seem to kick up at the most inconvenient times.

I wanted to tell that flustered young mom that it is ok. Her kids are ok. She’s ok. It’s really going to be ok. Ok? Seriously, it does get easier than launched spill proof sippies at mealtimes. The no sleeping at night issue? It will improve. I know all about babies on the go — gnawing on chords, and crawling into anything dangerous and off limits possible. One day soon all that baby proofing will be unnecessary. Tantrums? Well, just wait until your daughter is a tween or teen. You’ll think the toddler tantrums were a serious cake walk.
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Although I’ve phased out of baby, toddler and preschool land, there are many phases ahead for me. I have yet to sail the tumultuous teenage sea or navigate through uncharted territory as adult kids leave home. The idea of handing over the car keys to our teen driver sends chills down my spine. Dating and puberty are high on my OMG list too. I may have mastered the art of changing a squirmy baby’s diaper in the trunk of a mini-van at Costco, but I’m still trying to unlock the secret to communicating with my tween.image

As this small chapter of my life as a mom closes, I know that many chapters have yet to be written. I look forward to what lies ahead. It’s been said many times, and it’s true. The days are long but the years are short. It goes fast. Be present. Join the the club. Hold on tightly. It’s a wild ride.image

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Camping is for the Birds

Every summer families eagerly pack up their belongings and head out to the wild blue yonder. They pay good money to rent a dusty plot of land in the dirt where they pitch a tent and pretend they’re homeless for several days. It escapes me why people love this odd ritual.

At this year’s multi-family campout we decided to go big or go home. We forked over the big bucks to rent an overpriced 28’ motor home. After last year’s tent camping experience at the annual family campout, I thought so called “glamping” might ease the pain of camping for me.imageimage

I’ll admit that it was indeed a step up from flimsy tent camping next to the constantly flushing, mega loud restrooms we endured last year. At 5 every morning no fewer than 5,000 squawking black crows descend greedily upon the camp ground. Campers are rudely awakened. Sleep ceases.

Rangers seem to overlook their self imposed rule of 10 pm to 8 am quite time. Campers are noisy until late at night. Since the primary goal of that particular campground is to cram as many motorized vehicles and electronic devices into its vast concrete jungle as humanly possible, it’s not your average getaway-from-it-all trip in the woods.

After two nights in the motor home with our four kids and their two friends, I’d had quite enough. Whoever coined the term glamping, should know that there’s really nothing glamorous about it. The impending dirt that constantly threatened to overtake every square inch of the minescule space combined with the stinky toilet, the ever shifting temporary home on wheels and piles of filthy clothes, is, in my humble opinion, overrated.image

As an adult, camping seems like endless work. There’s the packing. Clothes for all types of weather and situations, meals, snacks, sleeping bags, swim gear, bikes and toiletries are just the beginning. Then there’s that matter of cooking over an open fire or a does-this-thing-still-work portable stove. Trying to keep the camper or tent swept and filth-free is impossible.

Growing up, our family camped. We’d camp where showers and paved roads didn’t exist. Stinky port-o-potties packed full of human waste or digging a hole in the woods were the only options when nature called. We’d swim all day in the river and relax by the campfire before crawling into our faded green canvas tent to sleep at night. I’m not sure how the adults involved felt, but we kids loved camping.

There was one camping trip in my adult life that I truly enjoyed. Our family joined forces with another family who were avid campers. Their favorite type of cooking was over a campfire using a big black rustic caldron. We reaped the benefits of camping with experienced campers who, even as adults, enjoyed camping. They brought most of the necessary camp supplies. Our site backed up to a secluded, gently flowing river that our kids played in endlessly. The majestic scenery that surrounded us was almost surreal.image

Kids these days have far too much screen time and not enough stream time. Phones and other devices seduce our children into hours of inactivity. Camping is a way for kids to explore and enjoy the great outdoors. It allows kids freedom and opportunities they may not otherwise have at home.image

My husband still enjoys camping. Adventure Guides, through the YMCA, provides the ideal outlet for him to take the girls camping monthly. He also takes the boys camping each month with their group. While camping may not be the most desirable activity for me as an adult, it’s a kid friendly, fun adventure for children.image

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Doggy Daze: Is Owner Entitlement Out of Control?

One of our family members is a furry four legged, rescued friend. My kids love dogs. I grew up with dogs. We are dog people. But, our dog does not go with us everywhere. Dog owner entitlement seems to be on the rise.image

As my two little boys and I recently pulled into the parking lot of a local restaurant I noticed the older couple on the patio with their medium sized dog lying next to them. I didn’t think much about it. It’s become quite common to see dogs of all sizes and breeds with their owners inside stores, on restaurant patios and in most public areas.

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We ordered and found a table outside, on the patio. I quickly dashed inside to retrieve condiments, drinks and napkins. I was inside for less than one minute, when my older son came running in to tell me brother was crying. I returned to find the dog owner holding my five-year-old’s hand and apologizing. Confused, I immediately assumed that he’d gotten scared while I was away and had started crying. Just as the mom guilt washed over me, the woman explained that her dog had bitten my son.

I did my best to remain calm. All eyes were on me. I could feel the weight of an entire restaurant watching me. Waiting. I hugged my scared little guy. I pulled up his shorts to check the chomp. There was a definite bite mark. Skin was broken in a couple of areas and hints of blood threatened to surface. The area was already bruising. There would be no trip to the ER, thankfully.image

The dog owners apologized and recounted their version of what had occurred. My unassuming son had headed to the nearby trash can. He’d started out walking, then had run the last few steps to the trash. The startled dog lashed out at him.

The owners said their dog was known to have certain fears and would randomly lunge at people. This aggressive animal with a checkered past was brought to an enclosed area with many people nearby. My son, who had in no way interacted with or provoked this animal, and was minding his own business, was attacked.

An onlooker stopped by the patio as she was leaving the restaurant. To my surprise she was not concerned by the fact that my young son had been bitten. No. She was there to console…the dog! She cooed over the dog, while petting it’s head. Really? My child was attacked and this woman wanted to soothe the attacker! Unreal. When did furry friends become more important than humans?

Before leaving the restaurant, I obtained the dog owner’s contact information and reported the incident to the manager. Although, obviously unenforced, the manager confirmed that dogs are prohibited on the patio. It was negligent of these owners to bring their aggressive dog to an enclosed restaurant. I suspect they’ll continue doing so. The next day, I reported the bite to Animal Control. Contrary to popular belief, nothing much happens when a bite occurs and is reported.image

Children should be taught to always ask the owner’s permission before petting a dog. If an owner says they’d rather not let my child pet their dog, I respect — even commend the owner for setting that boundary. For safety and sanitary reasons, dogs simply shouldn’t be allowed everywhere with humans. Authentic, card carrying service dogs are a different matter.

Dog ownership isn’t just a privilege. It’s a responsibility. I’m grateful the bite didn’t deter my son’s love of dogs. It could’ve been worse. But, it wasn’t.image

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Mommy Said the F Word

As it drew closer, the kids counted down the days to spring break. No homework. No school. No problem. I’d envisioned sitting poolside, working on my tan while the kids swam for hours. There would be no rushing around, since most of the after school activities had been cancelled.

It began with a bang. We threw my daughter’s surprise birthday party on the last day of school. Giggling, screeching girls filled our home until late that night. I’m still sweeping up strands of fuchsia clip-on hair extensions and hot pink glitter.image

imageAfter a day trip to the La Brea Tar Pits with friends, spring break stagnated. Our normally bustling cul-de-sac was eerily quiet. Many neighbors had packed up and headed out, seeking either snow or sun.image

I decided we’d make our own fun. I’d take the kids to San Diego for a quick overnight getaway while my husband worked. After pulling an all-nighter to ensure nobody had to go naked, wear their underpants inside out or dirty laundry dive, we were off to find our FUN spring break.

By the time we arrived, everyone was ranting and raving about how starving they were. Driving our over-sized family SUV in a crowded metropolitan area with one way only signs on every other street and crabby kids proved difficult. Finally we found a suitable watering hole.

While impatiently awaiting our food, kids visited the restroom in shifts. Shift #1 returned to the table sprinkled in water. It was reported that the toilet had shot water at them. I somehow managed to convince them we didn’t need to leave immediately to shower and change clothes. A family friendly conversation of explaining what and how a bidet is used followed, over lunch. The hole-in-the-wall Mediterranean fare was delicious and plentiful. One of the kids finding a small black spider meandering through his yellow rice? Not so much. Lunch came to an abrupt halt and we high tailed it out of there, feeling a bit queasy.

We checked in to the hotel. Kids rejoiced in jumping on the freshly made beds, watching tv, waving to passersby below from the balcony, drawing on the note pads, playing “hotel” on the unplugged room phone and making coffee…just because.image

Sunshine hid behind a thick grey blanket of clouds. We ventured out for dinner. After threatening to ship each of the complaining, bickering offspring back to the room, we returned. Together. We warmed up in our jammies. Just as we were settling in for the night…FIRE ALARM!

Through the deafening, relentless noise of the hotel fire alarm I barked at the kids to find their shoes. The girls immediately began sobbing, and dashed around the room gathering belongs they didn’t want to burn. Seeing their sisters fall apart, the boys’ tears began flowing. I tried shouting over the horrendous racket that it was probably a false alarm. My voice went unheard.

As quickly as the chaos ensued, it ended. We got word that indeed it had been a false alarm. Nevertheless, all kids were thoroughly rattled and begged to return home. Nope. We were going to stay and have fun, darn it.

We talked about what had happened. “Mommy said the F word”, said one kid in a hushed and questioning voice. Oh. That. I did recall some forbidden word escaping my lips when it all began. Shoot. “Well Mommies make mistakes too”, I replied. The whole trip seemed like one giant mistake at that point.

The next morning was rainy and cold. We got dressed in our skimpy summer clothes and headed out for morning gelato. I mean, why not? Our getaway had been an epic failure. With no umbrella and without warm clothes, I made the executive decision to leave that morning. Home had never sounded better.

To my surprise the kids didn’t want to leave. As I listened to each of them recount their favorite parts of the trip, it actually sounded like they’d enjoyed themselves. Really? It certainly hadn’t been what I’d envisioned.

The ups and downs are all part of it. Life. Our kids didn’t need our vacation to be epic. They don’t need perfection. Through it all they’d found the fun.

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QT With a Cutie

Extreme chaos and ear-splitting volume is simply the norm in our home. There are four young kids fiercely competing with each other in the “Parent’s Attention” playoffs. Each child tries to out do their sibling in an effort to be seen or heard. Kids can feel lost in the shuffle. It can be truly exhausting and overwhelming for everyone involved.

I’ve found that taking the time to connect with each child — alone — is invaluable. Finding that alone time can be incredibly difficult. Sometimes it requires pulling the cutie out of school for a few hours or dispersing siblings throughout the neighborhood. It’s amazing how different kids act when they’re plucked from the herd.

Without the need to outshine each other, calmness transcends. I’ve marveled at my kids’ behavior transformation when they’re alone. They act like completely different individuals. Thoughtful conversation replaces heated yelling.

My dear friend called to ask me what advice I might have to pass along to another friend of hers. The friend was in labor with their fourth baby. Without much thought I said, “regular alone time with each child”. That’s been one of the best kept secrets about how to stay sane while raising four spritely offspring. Sometimes it can be helpful in resetting a child’s bad behavior or poor choices. Any family with two or more kids can reap rewards from one-on-one time.

When the kids were younger, and they clung to me like monkeys, one-on-one quality time was a little different. Maybe it was reading a story while the others watched tv in another room. It often meant doing a craft with an older child, while their younger sibling napped. Sometimes it was baking cookies together while other kids played outside.

Recently I carved out QT with our oldest daughter. She and I were able to talk in a calm atmosphere without constant interruptions. We were able to bypass the constant sister bickering and connect in a way that simply isn’t possible with siblings present. I could listen without feeling guilty about ignoring another child.image

One-on-one time can be nothing more elaborate than driving home from water polo practice with only my little swimmer in the car. It’s rare, but once in awhile all the stars align and it’s just us. Listening to him eagerly tell me about his day for the five minute drive home? Priceless.image

My younger daughter found me last night as I was trying to sneak a quick shut eye. At first, I was irritated that I’d been discovered. But, when she sheepishly admitted that she wanted to snuggle with me, I welcomed her inside the warm covers. She simply needed me to listen with undivided attention. She categorically reviewed all of her body’s owies from head to toe. As we snuggled in bed, I could feel the day’s struggles melting away.

Kids grow up fast. By spending one-on-one time with each child, a clear message is conveyed. That child understands that they are important to you. I want each of my children to know they are loved and important.image

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Eleven Years and Counting

I watched as you confidently hopped out of our car this morning, adjusted your new floral cross body birthday purse, and walked next to me into the store. You looked so grown up.

It struck me then.

Eleven years ago today I was a terrified brand new mom. I’d suddenly gone into labor six weeks before my due date. The obstetrician at the hospital assured me that my baby was well on her way. Labor could not and would not be stopped.

As I lay on the rigid white hospital bed, shaking with fear and writhing in pain, I feared the future. This was not how it was suppose to happen. I hadn’t even had a chance to pack my hospital bag. I’d spent hours reading baby books in preparation for your much anticipated arrival. I’m a planner by nature and this was unplanned and undetermined.

imageWhen your bun is born six weeks before she was suppose to be finished baking in the oven, you worry. A lot. I didn’t know if you would be ok. Would you have developmental issues? What types of hurdles would we face? It all felt so uncertain and scary.image

imageAfter leaving my baby in the NICU for 14 agonizing days, to be cared for by strangers, we got to bring you home. I remember that day so well. It was a rainy, dreary day, much like today. Daddy and I were such rookies back them. Neither of us could believe that they trusted us to transport this tiny human, who came with zero instructions, in our car. Alone.image

Nurses wheeled me out in a wheelchair, despite the fact that I’d been released weeks ago. Baby Sarah Elizabeth lay in our gleaming, brand new infant car seat, carefully perched on my lap.

Strangers casually sauntered past us as we prepared to load our precious new cargo into our car. Nobody seemed to notice anything unusual as we embarked on our extraordinary journey into parenthood. Life around us seemed normal, unchanged.

The next several months were spent in a hazy sleep deprived state. You wouldn’t breastfeed from the source. So, every 2-3 hours, around the clock, I pumped my milk for you. Then, through your tears, and my own, I’d try unsuccessfully to get you to latch. I’d end up feeding you that liquid gold from a tiny bottle. We kept careful track of how many cubic centimeters you drank each time. A home nurse visited once a week to weigh you, help you latch and check you. Eventually you caught on.image

I was that freak of a mom, who today I would politely steer clear of. I called the pediatrician often. I needed to fix you. I wanted to make sure I was doing it all right. You were a colicky little thing and preferred to perform your nightly screamfest between the hours of 4pm and 2am. Nothing, I repeat nothing could get you to stop screaming. Daddy and I would take shifts pacing the hall of our little condo, hoping we weren’t waking neighbors and wondering if you’d ever stop.image

I’d felt like a giant failure during those hours. Daddy would rhythmically bounce you for hours in your ocean themed bouncy seat, to relieve me and soothe you. You’d calm down a little…until the bouncing stopped. That was a brutal phase.

Around four months old, your tummy issues simmered down and colic began to give way to smiles and high pitched giggles. I would spend hours with you asleep on my chest during the day; just breathing you in. I’d sit on our couch in our very first home, snuggling my nose into your baby fine hair; soaking up your baby scent and smiling. This was how I’d imagined it.image

imageimageNew moms are constantly comparing their babies to other babies the same age. I was no different. In the Mommy group that you and I attended, you were usually behind the other babies in development. But that day I watched you sit up all by yourself, on the floor of our little home, I knew you’d be fine.

It was you who crowned us Mommy and Daddy. Because of you we became parents. You schooled us in soiled diapers, owies, cutting teeth, puréed food and baby proofing from floor to ceiling. You.image

We have the honor of being your parents. You blazed the trail for your younger siblings. Thank you for deconstructing parenthood for us. We struggled a little less with each of your newborn siblings, because of you.

I tried not to allow my emotions to run away today as I watched you. Memories flooded my mind as I remembered.

So many memories.

You’re becoming a young lady. In doing so, you are taking us on another journey. This time it’s not about changing diapers, potty training or taking first steps.

We are here to guide you the best that we can. These years will be full of difficulty with friends. More than ever before, you’ll learn what it means to have a friend and to be a friend. You’ll learn lessons you never wanted to learn about friends. And that will be tough.

Right now it might seem as though your body is defying you, as it starts to change. I promise that part gets easier. That’s all I’ll say about that because I know you’re horrified that I’m even bringing it up.

Please know that we love you with all of our hearts. Sarah, you are everything to us. You will always have your family to lean on. Yes, even your obnoxious farting brothers, and meddling sister are here for you.

Just as I knew you’d be fine then, I know you will be fine — more than fine — now.

Happy 11th Birthday to our very first baby. We love you more than you know.image

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Miserable Mornings

The last door has slammed. Bickering children, hormonal girls and tears of frustration have piled in Daddy’s truck and are off to school. Our house now lays strangely silent.

Weekday mornings at our house are hectic. There are four young people with four distinctly different personalities all clamoring to get out the door in unison.imageimage

There is Slow Man. He operates at one speed: snail pace. Slow Man does not worry about making himself or others tardy for school. He’s definitely not a morning person and isn’t interested in eating breakfast before 10:00 am. Slow Man causes everyone around him to feel frustrated and angry.image

Then there’s the one who arises before the entire family, eats, gets dressed and is ready for school before the rest of us set foot downstairs. Fantastic. However, Early Riser will then linger about, watching everyone else stumble through their morning obstacle course — taunting and making unnecessary comments to her siblings. Usually the taunting ends with a giant outpouring of hormonal tears and shrieking. Doors slam. The house trembles.

I’m certain our neighbors think we all crazy. Later, when I see the smiling next door neighbor at the mailbox, I’ll wonder what was overheard and quickly avert my eyes with shame.

Don’t forget about Instigator. Instigator is well known across the land for striking up arguments. She stirs the pot knowing full well that she is brewing problems. Instigator has a knack for getting people fired up. Once they’re fired up, and they flip out, she enjoys playing the role of victim. She even finds humor in getting a sibling or three angry enough that they lose their temper and their minds.image

Last but not least, is Baby Bear. Baby Bear doesn’t usually cause problems. He’s the youngest and just content being along for the ride. He’s our one and only mellow child. His biggest fault is not being able to do many things on his own yet. During the morning flurry Baby Bear often gets lost in the shuffle. Sometimes he’ll take matters into his own hands for attention and to increase his standing in the unsanctioned Bottiaux kid ranking. He’s been known to strip naked and chase shrieking sisters and their friends around the house in order to put himself on the family map.image

In an effort to streamline our morning frenzy, we’ve tried a few things lately. Getting Slow Man’s outfit ready the night before seems to help him through his sluggish morning haze. Setting the timer helps put a jump in his step. He’s always up for a race; even if it’s against the clock.

Clear guidelines are necessary for the others before the drama begins. They need to know that starting fights will insure that their free time is filled with extra chores and revoked privileges.

Showing a little interest might be what’s needed. Maybe they’re acting out because they are worried about something happening at school. At my older daughter’s age, there are a lot of issues with friends. One day she’s in friend land and everyone is getting along beautifully. The next day, they’re enemies and she’s avoiding them at all costs. Taking a minute to draw out of each child what could be causing anxiety might lead to a more subdued morning.

Lunches. Oh how I dislike packing them. Nighttime assembly would be ideal. I know this. But, I’m exhausted and sick of cleaning up other people’s messes by the day’s end. So, project lunch box is handled in the morning.

Up until a few months ago we were cereal people. Easy. Suddenly I became a short order cook with bossy customers. One kid can’t live without his framed egg. Another needs an acai bowl with all the fixings. Porridge and protein shakes are on the morning menu too. The oldest can help with eggs and porridge. But, the high powered blender business is an adult matter.

One day, when they’re all grown, mornings won’t be so rushed, stressful or chaotic. In the meantime, I will try to find joy in providing them with healthy meals and a loving home.image

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Dana Point Discoveries

Today wasn’t a day that could be spent indoors. It was a clear, crisp day waiting to unfold before us. The aquamarine sky and sparkling ocean beckoned us. While all the big kids were in school, my youngest and I took a field trip to one of our favorite local spots.

The Dana Point Nature Interpretive Center and Trail System are local gems. There’s something for all ages inside the Nature Center. Kids can pop their heads up through a clear dome and gain the perspective of a small animal in a mini re-created headlands area. We learned about watersheds by listening to recorded information through headphones and examining an expansive wooden watershed model.imageimageimage
My son got to spin the species wheel. When the wheel stopped and pointed to an animal, he would eagerly locate the animal inside of the nature center. We dared to stick our hands into the mystery box and guess its contents. I braved the box first. I have to admit, I was a bit squeamish about reaching into a box involving unknown ingredients. I’ll give one hint: it doesn’t bite. As we marveled at the enormous hand painted mural that captures the era of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. it transported us back in time.image
Friendly and knowledgeable Docent, Tressa Lam provided a wealth of information. She explained how the prized Pacific Pocket Mouse is closely monitored by biologists within the confines of the conservation area. We got to speak with one of the biologists about the Pocket Mouse tracking system. Tracking tubes are used to measure the number of paw prints of these tiny fur balls. The mice, once thought to be entirely extinct, are hibernating in these Winter months, and will re-emerge March through October.image
Tucked away in 29.4 acres of conservation area, the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area is home to many native plants and animals species. The Coastal California Gnatcatcher and the Pacific Pocket Mouse are on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Threatened and Endangered Species List. Both make their home in the conservation area. Coastal Sagebrush grows rampantly throughout the area. We were taught to rub the plant in our hands and then breathe in the fresh scent.
The mostly flat one mile trail is ideal for young children. We borrowed a pair of binoculars and took them out on the trail to enhance the already majestic panoramic views. As we walked the easy sand trail, we were serranaded by birds and the distant crashing of waves. The ocean shimmered and shone under the warm golden sun. The views on this clear day were breathtaking. Both of us enjoyed pointing out animal tracks and mysterious holes that were presumably animal’s homes.imageimage
People we encountered on the trail seemed happy. Some even stopped for casual conversation. Quick greetings and friendly smiles were exchanged with passersby. It was as if we had an unspoken understanding that this lovely location was a small slice of heaven. Visiting this place was a beautiful way to reconnect with nature, oneself and rediscover the simple pleasures in life.image

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The Cousin Experience

They’re on every young child’s holiday wish list. Our house certainly doesn’t need more of them. Toys are quickly forgotten, broken, outgrown or sucked up by the vacuum. Instead of giving in to their trendy toy desires, our extended family has created the Cousin Experience.

There are eight young cousins in our family. They range in age from five to thirteen years old. Every year we parents would frantically communicate with each other about our child’s top toy picks. Kids’ lists would include a wide variety of materialistic junk. We’d stress over ideas, race to stores, wrap the gifts and then haul the whole mess over to the celebration.

Family Christmas gatherings would yield a towering mountain of plastic packaging and heaps of shredded wrapping paper. Was there a way to improve upon the cousin Christmas? There had to be. We put our heads together and hatched a plan. I’m no Grinch, but limiting the amount of stuff our kids received sounded like a worthy idea.

More stuff.

More stuff.

With parents, siblings, cousins, grandparents and Santa delivering presents a plenty, kids were ending up with sleigh loads of stuff. Stuff is fun for a while. But, I can’t recall a single gift any of my kids received from a cousin over the years. It’s all mass produced, forgettable paraphernalia. Stuff is only special for a short while. When I asked them, there was a long awkward pause before my kids said simply they too couldn’t quite remember cousin gifts from Christmases past.

When the kids were younger we did allow them to exchange gifts. Cousins picked names from a hat and got a present for that person. In the early days, that route was easier than embarking on an experience. A few years ago we switched it up. What a great decision that was. We’ve never looked back.

Vivid memories of our day at CHILL at the Queen Mary last year are alive and well at family gatherings. Ice-skating with eight wobbly skaters rendered many screeches and plenty of hearty laughter. We narrowly avoided disaster when my daughter carelessly formed an arabesque on ice and nearly beheaded a nearby skater. Flying down the indoor ice hill on a sled, frigid wind blowing through their hair, beside cousins is priceless. Soaring through the air on swings from Neverland Ranch together twenty times in a row is a memory they’re sure to savor for years.

MJ's swings.

MJ’s swings.

Not the best place to strike a pose.

Not the best place to strike a pose.

A little help from a friend.

A little help from a friend.

Cousins on ice.

Cousins on ice.

This epic picture was taken while yours truly was in the restroom.

This epic picture was taken while yours truly was in the restroom.

One year we experienced an interactive pirate dinner theatre show together. Although the meal was barely fit for humans, the cousins bonded over watching skilled dancers fling themselves around on a giant pirate ship. They even braved the stage together at the show’s finale. It’s fun rehashing those pirate memories.

This year we’re planning a day trip on the train. We haven’t quite decided where our final destination lies. Maybe we’ll journey to San Diego for the day or possibly up to the City of Angels. It doesn’t matter where we go. It matters that we’ll all be together. One big loud, laughing bunch of cousins hanging out.

It’s not always easy to carve out quality cousin time. With everyone’s hectic schedules and busy lives, it gets tough to coordinate. We make the time though. The Cousin Experience allows us to bypass plastic stuff and have fun while creating crazy, happy memories together instead.

All the cousins with Grandma.

All the cousins with Grandma.