Friday, July 29, 2011

The “Feelings Toolkit”

Our daughter is ten and has been home with us since May 2010 (with the adoption finalized in Nov.).   She’s made huge progress.   In the beginning, she would only acknowledge two emotions: happy and mad.  Either everything was great and she was sweet, loving, joyful and oh, so desperate to please or she was ANGRY.   She would scream for an hour at a time.    She couldn’t give any reason for her big feelings other than “You made me mad!”  She didn’t want to talk about her feelings or her past.   She tantrummed at the slightest correction or gentlest “no”.

I have a background in early childhood education and have worked with at risk preschoolers for years.  After several months, it finally occurred to me to try some of what I use with these children at home with my daughter.  Though my daughter came to us at 9, she was often stuck at the toddler or preschool level emotionally.  I teach preschool teachers to use Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline methods in classrooms.  I made copies of some of those materials and brought them home for my daughter. 

I stuck a feelings chart in a clear sleeve and put some relaxation exercises together in a little booklet.

I taught her “the balloon” when she was calm.  This is a breathing exercise where you put your arms over your head and take a deep breath in while inflating your arms like a balloon.  Then you blow the air out (quickly and loudly at our house!) to deflate your balloon.

I started telling her, “You are safe.  You are loved.  You can handle this.” I repeated this mantra as she screamed and cried.  As I started to recognize the signs of a meltdown, I would say it softly and have her repeat me.  I would remind her to do a balloon if I saw her getting agitated.

I realized that she didn’t understand other feelings.   She was trying so hard to put on a happy front and when that failed, “mad” was her default.   It’s all she knew.   I explained to her that mad is a big and loud feeling, so it’s easy for other feelings to hide behind.   I started talking about other feelings and asking if they might be hiding behind her mad.

I made her a “Feelings Toolkit”.  I gathered up lots of items we had around the house, picked up a few cheap things from the store and taped some handwritten labels on a couple things.  I put it all in a plastic storage box and wrote, “(Her Name)’s Feelings Toolkit” on it.  We talked about each item in the box, so she had some ideas of how to use it to help her.  I tried to include items that she would want to use for a variety of emotional age levels and that would appeal to all her senses.

Items for relaxation and connection:
  • An album filled with photos of her with us and some of her biological siblings to remember happier times and that she is not alone
  • The booklet of breathing exercises, including The Balloon
  • A printed reminder of “You are safe, loved and can handle this”
  • Instructions for how to be a S.T.A.R.  (Stop, take a deep breath and relax)
  • An eraser to “erase” feelings she wants to get rid of
  • A book of little notes and a pen to write to people she’s thinking of
  • Texas and Florida quarters to represent where she came from and where she is now
  • A token from a go-kart place she loves going to with her Dad
  • A broken cell phone to pretend to call someone to talk
  • Calming Cream Lotion (just regular face cream that I stuck a label on)
Sensory Items of Different Textures for Soothing and Distraction:
  • A baby blanket square
  • Little stuffed dog
  • A variety of handheld puzzles /games
  • A mini kaleidoscope
  • Some squishy balls
  • Silly putty
  • A brush  (to use on her skin or hair) with a mirror attached
  • A little rubber duckie
  • A very scented Strawberry Shortcake figure
  • A charm that flashes
  • A little “I spy” pouch with a clear cover and filled with tiny items hidden in white beads to find.  (Sort of like this)
Items for Feelings Work:
  • The feelings chart
  • American Girl “The Feelings Book:  The Care and Keeping of Your Emotions”
  • A notebook and pens for journaling
  • A book called “Twenty-two Feelings from Nice to Nasty”
  • A book of questions
  • A little box that I stuck a label on that says, “Safe Box:  For Keeping Feelings You Aren’t Ready to Share Yet”.
  • An envelope with slips of paper inside that say, “Today I feel…”
My husband will tell you that the feelings box was an epic fail because she only brought it out a handful of times.  We continued talking about how to recognize the different feelings that hide behind mad and ways to calm down when upset.   Slowly, she started opening up about what was really bothering her more and more.  Fear hides behind her mad a lot.  So does sadness, loss and grief.  Shame loves hiding behind her mad.

I still tell her she’s safe, loved, and can handle this; whatever “this” is at the moment.  I’ve heard her telling it to her stuffed animals and our pets.  She taught her best friend to do the balloon.

She had a big melt down in May.  It was a doozy that went on and on in waves of screaming, crying, disrespect and defiance.   Lots of big feelings hiding behind a giant wall of mad.   She packed her laundry hamper full of stuff and said she was running away.   She sat in the driveway of the vacant house next door.
She finally calmed down and we got to the bottom of what triggered it and the real feelings attached. 

, I was amazed at what I found in there.  Her weighted blanket (“feel our love holding you and keeping you safe”), a photo album (to remember happier times), lavender body lotion (to relax and soothe) and a notebook and pen (for writing down thoughts and feelings).

Her words and actions certainly weren’t saying it, but she was trying to calm herself down.  She didn’t want to be in that state.  She remembered her tools on her own and just needed time to put them to use.

She didn’t write anything in the notebook that day, but as I took photos of the items in the toolkit for this post, I found something she wrote on one of the “Today I feel…” slips of paper.  It was dated September 26 (five months after coming home) and said, “Happy, safe, cared for, loved”.

She has had a great summer with few meltdowns.  When she does lose her "calm brain", she's able become regulated again pretty quickly - and often on her own!  She still doesn’t always choose to use her tools or acknowledge her real feelings right away.  She can almost always talk about it after a meltdown now, though.  She told me that she’s proud of me because I help her talk about her feelings.    We still have a lot of healing ahead of us, but she’s made such huge progress.  We have so much hope for her future.  And we’re so very proud she’s our daughter! 

I think having the Feelings Toolkit has really helped her wrap her head around the concepts of feelings and what to do about them.  Even though she rarely brings it out, she's told me how much she likes knowing it's available.

Read more about our older child adoption journey at

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


My baby is screaming fear this week. Her camp is the same she attended last year. She was a student at the school where the camp is held from the day she came home. Sadly the elementary level program is closing at the end of summer. So friends she has had since the first week she came home have been exiting at various times over the summer. This week came the ultimate loss. Her teacher- the one person with whom she has a trust relationship with at the school- is leaving.

When she was teased in a kid- appropriate (but mean) way- she LOST it. Old school RAD style. Spiting, kicking, cussing, yelling, etc. She hasn't had a fit on that level in about 6 months. But sadly the continual sense of loss this summer was just too overwhelming. Her own words once calm: "how can she leave? I am so scared for her! What will become of her?"

She is not welcome back at camp.

Fortunately, I have a lot of community support. So she will just stay with me for the last three weeks of the summer.

(I sobbed over her little sleeping body last night. And she is expressing her self most vehemently with pee.)

She feels so much safer with me, her aunt and my mentor whom we all call "mom". But of course for those who don't understand PTSD and RAD....the fear is "isn't she being rewarded for her bad behavior?"

Well, no.

She is being provided an opportunity to be in a safe place. She feels safe- she is successful. Its pretty simple.

If anything she has a new challenge. All day with people who love her? Terrifying. All day with people who have the same expectations? No one who is perceived as the weak link? Wholly control battles!

3 adults who can both playfully engage and draw the line? For her this is going to be a new challenge!

For me its a chance to spend a few weeks of close quarters with my girl before we head to our next big challenge......

Public school.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Define "Heal"

I have been doing a lot of thinking this week about expectations.
What expectations did I have of my daughter before parenting her?
What expectations do I have now?
How do those expectations color my experience as her parent?

In the trauma world we often use variations of the word "heal" as an indicator of our childrens progress/status/place at a given point in time.

"She is healing."
"He is healed."
"He can not heal."
"She does not want to heal."
"I need personal healing."
"We are healing."
"My kids are healed."

Healing is a funny word. If you scrape you knee- it heals. If you have a traumatic brain injury- you can heal-partially, fully, not at all. If you are mentally ill- healing may be fleeting.

My dd was presented to me as a child with severe cognitive deficits (file read moderate mental retardation) and autism. She was also dx'd with RAD, PTSD, and ODD. Abc's had been picked up and dropped repeatedly for her in her early years.

So when, regardless of that information, assured them that YES I wanted to adopt her- I expected......a girl whose biggest challenges would be self care. Life long in home care. Making provisions for my adult child after my death so there would not be gaps in her constant care.

Then I met her. I am not a diagnostitian. I am a teacher. Its my job to make observations- not judgments, decisions, or diagnosis. BUT I had taught children who had MR and Autism before. And this just wasn't that. Gut. Instinct.

By the time I'd gotten 3 months in I'd decided that these diagnosis were wrong. My team of support (dr, teacher, therapist etc) agreed.

Its the RAD. Its been so debilitating for her for seven years (at that point) that she was consumed with life or death fear 24/7. She couldn't focus on potty training because she couldn't release control. She couldn't learn anything because she couldn't release control.

Ask me how she's doing...."She's healing."

But make no mistake. I by no means ever expect my child to respond to the world the way her neuro typical peers do. "Healed" isn't really going to be some happy "normal" paradise where its just like 7 years of neglect plus 3 years of starvation and abuse never happened.

Progress as defined as movement toward a goal is not what I see here. Because my "goal" for her is as big as a football field. She lands anywhere in it, and that would be awesome. Even if she lands in the concession stand waiting line or in the loo! She will have made it to the stadium!!!

I knew when I adopted that she would most likely be involved with the criminal justice system at some point. While it hasn't happened yet- she's nine- give it time. Impulse control is not a strength. I just keep my parking tickets paid up so when they come looking for her- they don't take me in too. ;) pessimistic? No. Realistic.

Let's hope she blows me out of the water on that one and I get to eat those words one day.

In the mean time, it would appear that my expectation of what life would be like with her is dramatically different than reality. It is hard. ITS RAD. But its not a lifetime in diapers. Its not setting up trust funds for her care. Its not watching a terminally ill child die.

Its vigilant 24/7 emotional engagement. Its knowing that she may either never leave home because of her anxiety, may leave "late", or may run out the door never to return. Its knowing that my behavior is just as important as hers. Its knowing that my expectations are probably stupid. Its planning for the absolute freaking worst, and hoping for the best.

Its pure acceptance. Its staying committed.

Even if being committed to her means the best thing is re-homing or rtc or psych ward. Those take commitment to doing the right thing for your kid too.

Its maintaining the hope that a shard, shred, or sliver of the love I've shared has reached her.

Cause it may...or may not.

But as long as I draw breath, I will hope. I will hope that she can "heal". Whatever the hell that means at that day/moment/second.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Riding in the shopping cart

To piggy back on Colleen's post about parenting our children the way they need to be parented despite what others think...

Our daughter is ten and a half and will soon be entering 5th grade.   Her healing, growth and attachment have come a long way in the 15 months she's been home.  Her emotional age matches her chronological age most of the time now.  

It wasn't that long ago that her emotional age was stuck in the toddler phase.  Lots of arguing, defiance, pushing boundaries and tantrums.  Big tantrums.  Screaming, kicking, dropping to the floor tantrums.

I try to parent to her emotional age.   Sometimes that's tricky.   Picking up a three year old who keeps running wild in the aisles and carrying her out of the store is pretty easy to do.  Picking up your ten year old who is acting like a three year old and removing her from the store is a whole different story! 

I started having her climb in the cart as soon as we entered a store -  or even before if a cart was available in the parking lot.   Yes, we get strange looks and comments from strangers about her being too big.  I smile and pretend I didn't hear a word they said.  I remind her that Mom & Dad make decisions for what is best for her and it doesn't matter what other people think.

Riding in the cart eases a lot of the temptations and makes controlling her impulses much easier.  It makes her feel safe. 

Even now that she's in a pretty good place emotionally, she still likes sitting in the cart. 

And I still let her. 

Even though she's 10 and a half and about to start 5th grade.

Even though she weighs over 100 pounds.

Even though she is so scrunched up these days that she can't possibly comfortable.

Even though people stare at us or make comments.

Even though I have to lift her out so the cart doesn't tip over and she's really heavy!

Even though my husband hates it because he's terrified a classmate will see her and make fun of her.

I don't think she got to experience much riding in the cart when she was little.   I think she enjoys getting that experience now.  It makes her feel safe and cared for.  It helps her feel that I'm the mom, she's the child and I'm providing for her needs.   She feels protected and can relax because she doesn't have to work so hard at trying to make good decisions.

She won't want to ride in the cart forever, but this is an easy thing for me to give her while she needs it. 

Visit me at for more of our story.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

"Therapeutic" parenting

How do you get other (spouses, family members, friends, teachers etc) to understand how you are parenting and how do you get them on board?

I personally have 2 distinct advantages in this field. The first is single parenting-- no undermining, no convincing, no triangulating. The second is being a Montessori teacher- certified in early childhood and well respected in my field- people generally assume I have a clue. (Haha to them!)

That hasn't stopped well meaning extended family members, random supermarket people, or others from commenting on certain aspects of my parenting.

For example: about 6 months ago I was shopping at a grocery store we affectionately call "Whole Check" because they sell predominantly health centered foods- it gets pricey. I made the mistake of going on wednesday at about 5. Me and every one else in big city. My daughter was getting hungry, crowded and needed more attention than I was able to focus soley on her. So I made a comforting action- I picked her up and put her on my hip. She was 8 almost 9. After about 5 min I noticed an older lady "stalking" us. My dd has a quick smile (aka charming) and is very polite (aka CHARMING) and so I am used to people noticing her. It didn't cross my mind again until we were at the check out counter. The woman approached us and said loudly "BABY! BABY! BABY! Put that girl down! You are spoiling her like a big baby! " I was flustered for 2 seconds before I taught my daughter a new word when I said "you need to BACK THE FU*K UP!" Suddenly the security, manager, and everyone else was there and the security escorted her from the store. The staff was lovely about it. My sweet girl did well and beamed with pride that I had protected her from "the mean lady". The manager fell all over himself trying to make sure I was a happy camper.

This lady couldn't silence her need to tell me that carrying my 8 year old was spoiling. The more I thought about it- the more I realized as an older child parent, I'd missed out in years of such advice reminding me to make my infant wear socks, or not suck her thumb, or not breastfeed past 3 months or whatever.

But those who know your family is new probably want to give you advice too. Such as my well meaning aunt who announced that by making my daughter follow rules to the letter with out variation I was hurting my child's feelings. This is the aunt I will be calling so I can take myself on a mommy vacation to Orlando in 2013. You keep her for a week and tell me what happens when the rules and expectations get lax.

I could explain trauma and RAD to people until I am blue in the face. Guess what? No one wants to believe that a child has been treated so badly- they are so wounded emotionally- that they require specialized parenting. They want to believe my love is all she needs to be "a normal little girl". And love is a HUGE part of it- the root of it- the core of it- EVERYTHING I DO IS OUT OF LOVE. But I can't sit around and wait hoping love seeps into her, I have to guide it. That's where the therapeutic part comes in.

So what do I say to all these well meaning, caring souls? "I am practicing attachment parenting."

Oh. Well that makes sense to them. They get that "attachment" should happen in adoption. And they have heard of that attachment parenting stuff before. Some of them breast fed, or co slept or had a baby sling.

And for those t that need more specific information, I can turn to trusty old Dr. Sears. They've heard of him too. And by jove, they had that book of his when their baby was little.
These principles are taken from Dr. Sears - The Baby Book, and are what he calls the 7 Baby B's of Attachment Parenting.

1. Birth Bonding - Connect With Your Baby Early

"The way baby and parents get started with one another often sets the tone of how this early attachment unfolds."

So she may not be a baby- but we are bonding like crazy. We are always doing some "bonding". Rather than explain why time in works "we're bonding" why we can't go on a 2 day cruise with 15 families from church "we're bonding". We are always bonding.

2. Belief in Your Baby's Cries - Read & Respond to Your Baby's Cues

"Pick up your baby when he cries. As simple as this sounds, there are many parents who have been told to let their babies cry it out, for the reason that they must not reward "bad" behavior. But newborns don't misbehave; they communicate the only way nature allows them to."

Traumatized kids don't misbehave either. My daughter uses her behavior as cries- attention, structure, freedom, hungry, tired, scared. My job is to get in tune with her cries, and respond appropriately.

3.Breastfeed Your Baby

"The benefits of breastfeeding in enhancing baby's health and development are enormous, but what is not fully appreciated are the magnificent effects of breastfeeding on the mother."

If your adopted child is young enough- I advocate adoptive breastfeeding. Mine was 7. We went with bottles and pacis and caramels while rocking rocking rocking her daily. I have to feed the "baby" that is still scared and feels worthless and alone, so my big girl can come out to shine.

4.Babywearing - Carry Your Baby a Lot

"It's good for the baby, and it makes life easier for the mother"

Clearly I am rocking this one! But physical closeness comes in many forms! It can be rocking, piggy back rides, swimming, snuggling, even a bit of the rough housing! TOUCH YOUR CHILD EVERY DAY.

5.Bedding Close to Baby

"Most babies the world over sleep with their parents. Even in our own culture more and more parents enjoy this sleeping arrangement - they just don't tell their friends or relatives about it."

This one can be trickier because of some childrens histories. My dd has co-slept and now often sleeps on a sleeping bag on my floor. I have slept many a night in her room (she has two twin beds) too. Guess what? Co-sleepers don't go to college still wanting to sleep with mama. This could be a nap time thing even. Or as simple as letting her sleep in your old tee shirts, or with your childhood bear. The point is- physical closeness and comfort.

6.Balance & Boundaries

".how to be appropriately responsive to your baby, which means knowing when to say yes and when to say no, and also have the wisdom to say yes to your own needs. When mom and dad are doing well, baby will also do well."

Did you hear that? Dr. Sears said TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF TOO.

7.Beware of Baby Trainers

"Be prepared to be the target of well-meaning advisers who will shower you with detachment advice, such as: Let her cry it out, Get her on a schedule, You shouldn't still be nursing her, and Don't pick her up so much, you're spoiling her. If carried to the extreme, baby training is a lose-lose situation"

Learn to say "I am attachment parenting." And "our therapist advises we do it this way." And "back off."
And prepare to create distance between yourself and those who seek to create self doubt, or undermine you.

Every single child is different. Your attachment/therapeutic parenting may not look like mine. That's ok. When we are operating under the same basic guidelines- its good stuff!

People don't have to "get it". "It" hurts. "It" sucks. But we can help them respect it, by setting boundaries and explaining in ways that they do get.

And other times you just have to tell people to "BACK THE FU*K UP!" :)
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Thursday, July 7, 2011

Back story

I realize I may not have properly introduced myself. :)

I am a single mama by choice. I started the adoption process at 25 and adopted at 26. I am now 28. I am a (certified AMS) Montessori teacher in a 3-6 classroom. I have been teaching for 10 years and working in schools for over 15 years. I studied sociology at 2 universities. One of the schools I went to was a historically black college associated with the AME church. I am a Unitarian with Buddhist and Naturalist leanings. My family is predominantly Irish with a healthy dose of Creole and Cherokee. I prefer cats. I am an avid antique and shabby chic decorator. I like to be creative. I grew up in the a city about the 20th in size and now live one of the top 5 largest cities in the nation.

I graduated in the year 2001. A year later my daughter would be born, unbeknownst to me.

My dd's first few years were horrific. Then she entered foster care. That wasn't much better. I won't delve into her private details too much here, but as you know these early experiences of abandonment, loss, and mistreatment have led to RAD, and a host of other alphabets strung behind her name. She was languishing in a long term placement that was more than happy to increase her med doses to sedate her.

I started the adoption process October 14th 2008 at my local CPS office. I was licensed the following June (I moved to a larger home in mid-process). I was forwarded a email bulletin that included my dd before I was licensed and received a polite- get back to us when you are legally open. After I was open I applied for over 100 little girls, including the daughter of one of my fellow bloggers! Most I got no response. I sent out a simple tri fold booklet about myself to every cps office in TX. I was in the top 3 several times. I worked my adoption like a full time job. Once I saw my dd again on TARE, I called her caseworker up and began a relationship with her by claiming my baby. My best friend came from MAYLASIA to be with me the week of the selection. When I was selected......I was over the moon. CPS had never assigned me a caseworker so my PRIDE trainer kindly went above and beyond by representing my interest.

I was chosen in mid august. I drove the several hours away to her hometown for a extended "visit" over friday- sunday. On sunday I was to bring her back home. On the way to small town I was called by the caseworker. She informed me that the foster parent wanted baby girl gone that evening. That she did not want a dinner, return, play day-slumber party- return and go. She just wanted her picked up today. The foster parent did not want baby to leave, she did everything she could to doom and gloom me out of adopting baby. This was her final attempt to scare me off. I don't scare easy.

I said "fine." I was waiting for baby when she got off the school bus. Bless her she had to move to a new school because her school district started school a week before mine. Despite the numerous transitions in her life they by law had to send her to that week of school even though that meant new building, new teacher, new kids etc- for the week before she moved across state.

When I arrived I was given baby's numerous belongings. She had been in the same home for 4 yrs. I was given more warning about her perceived issues.

When she walked through the door, the worker placed her hand on my back as I teared up and sighed. I would have said I loved and claimed her before I ever met her, and so seeing her face was.....striking. It was the force of the love that struck me so hard, I was blown away. And it was a little awkward at first, but we fell into step nicely and she said goodbye to everything she had conscious memory of and left with me 20 minutes after meeting me.

We stayed in the hotel that friday night, went to dinner at chilis (she later told me this was were a former perspective placement that failed brought her) and when we couldn't settle went for ice cream.

The next morning we had cracker barrel and were off to big city. She started a slow transition into school that monday. And here we have been ever since.

Working the therapeutic vibes since August 28, 2009.

Baby has always had an inordinate fear of caseworkers. Though she was never moved herself, she lived through an array of foster sisters coming and going. We worked with the judge and her caseworker to waive the 6 month waiting period and finalized in court at 7 weeks. In October 2009 just a few days over a year since I began the process, baby was legally mine forever.

And that is my side of our back story. The full story is more sordid, and traumatizing than you can imagine. Well maybe not you. If you are reading this---your kids probably have similar stories. The kind that other people like to pretend don't happen in our country. In our neighborhoods. In our families. But that story is not mine to tell. Perhaps one day she'll tell it herself. She volunteers it at random times to random people. Or so it seems to me. Except the last person she told broke down in tears and told us how he was fighting to get his drug addicted sisters kids out of foster care, and how much he needed to hear that good things could happen. Maybe she knows something I don't. :)
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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Another test. Tried the post from text thing. Sounded great....except I was limited to 160 characters! Now I am trying posting via email.....will it work?
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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Telling Others Your "Story"

This is Quackenmom blogging here.  You can visit my actual blog at

We just moved to a new state.  It's going great!  The girls (5 & 7) have almost been in our lives for a year.  In fact, it's been over a year since I learned of the girls, and July 13th is the anniversary of the first time we all met.  They've come so far in under a year... I can't wait to see what this next year brings for us.

Being in a new neighborhood, we have neighbors with kids the girl's ages.  One little girl across the street came over with her dad yesterday, and all three girls played together very well.  Half way through the visit, "Neighbor Girl" (8 y/o) came down without the girls, and she said to me, "It is really sad what their other mom did to them.  I can't believe she did those things."   I just said, "Well some parents have a hard time making good choices, now the girls have a family that makes good choices though." 

This prompted me having to inform her dad of the girls "baggage" just so he knew what the girls had told his daughter. 

Later in the evening, we went out to dinner, and on the ride home, I talked to the girls about telling people what they endured in their birth home.  I explained that it might not be something other kids should know about, and it might make other kids feel uncomfortable because they may not know how to handle hearing about their new friends being hurt by people. 

My older daughter said, "Well she asked, what was I supposed to say?"   So I told her, "From now on, how about we just say that they weren't able to make the best choices so it was safer for you to live with a new family."   She agreed that would be a better response.

It's hard to navigate.  She is their first friend outside of school.  I feel like we struck a good balance.  I don't want my girls to go through life telling their "pity me story" to everyone, because they are safe and happy now.  I don't want their "story" to be an icebreaker conversation.  I am happy that they feel comfortable divulging such sensitive topics in their lives, but around other children, I don't think it's the best idea.  If they were older, sure, but they are both so young. 

Something new everyday! 


Saturday, July 2, 2011

Testing: supposedly I am supposed to be able to blog from my crackberry via text message. This is a test. :)