Finn’s first grade year

Last week, at the end of Finn’s final day of first grade, he strode down the steps of the bus and said, “I’m a second grader now!”

I still remember his first day of the school year last August, when he reluctantly boarded that same “B Blue” bus in tears. He didn’t want to set a single foot on a big vehicle driven by a stranger. He didn’t want to walk into a new classroom filled with new students and a teacher he didn’t know.

But after a few tentative steps, he moved forward into a good day:

 Finn on the first day of first grade!

And as the year went on, his steps became more assured and self-directed. Finn — never one to get moving too quickly in the morning — started rushing out of bed and dressing in his uniform to ensure that we would make it to the bus stop on time. He made new friends on his own and returned home to share stories about how they all sang “It’s Raining Tacos” in unison on the bus, about Henry’s outrageous shark stories in the lunchroom, about the funny, red chair that Zander spun around in at his classroom table. Finn laughed with his new peers and grew to love Mrs. Correa, who encouraged him with her lovely smile and innovative ideas, like the weekly presentations he gave on “Finn’s Fantastic Fact Fridays” about subjects such as sauropods, theropods, hadrosaurs, phytosaurs, raptors, invasive species, endangered animals, plant and animal camouflage, the solar system — and chicken eggs.

His confidence grew to the point where he was even willing to audition for and participate in a school talent show, during which he stepped onstage by himself to recite a Shel Silverstein poem entitled “Spaghetti” — in front of over 400 people!

finn-spaghetti from Sarah on Vimeo.

“Could you see that my legs were shaking?” he asked afterwards. This was, for me, a true gauge of Finn’s stronger footing, a measure of his more assertive footsteps. He proved to himself that he didn’t have to be stopped by fear.

He also proved it when we took our first camping trip this past January to Wekiwa Springs. Although we had been camping in the back yard before, this was Finn’s first REAL experience sleeping out in the wilderness — and it happened to be during a rare cold snap in Florida, with 40 degree nights. But that wasn’t the challenging part, as we prepared well and stayed pretty warm:

Finn's first time camping at Wekiwa Springs!

The test came after we hiked to the actual springs and Finn considered a swim. Although it had warmed up during the day, I wasn’t personally keen on taking a dip in the chilly waters; still, I didn’t want to discourage Finn from his uncharacteristic spontaneity. After taking off the majority of his clothes and going back and forth in his head for nearly an hour — I’ll do it! I can’t! Yes! No way! I can do it! — he finally pushed off with bare feet and jumped in to the clear springs.



It might have been an ordinary thing, but we were so proud of him for that initial leap.

Other firsts this year?  Finn stood on a little stepping stool to gather Vera and Hopster’s first lovely, light teal eggs from the nesting box…


Chickens 2015 from Sarah on Vimeo.

He walked into the arena to watch his first hockey game…


He ran around with a toothless smile for the first time since he was six months old…


…and (speaking of toothlessness), he stood still to hold his new cousin Zoë for the first time:


Finn’s first grade year was filled with lots of growth and new things.

Before second grade brings us more, we’ll stop to blow a bittersweet goodbye kiss to the past school year…


…and circle around to embrace and dance for a bit with a fun, old friend: summertime.


Finn’s Geology Party

DSC00469Each day in the past month since Finn’s birthday, I’ve looked at the large papier-mâché boulder still out on the patio and felt the burden of what I haven’t done: post party pictures. 

Of rocks. Lots of rocks. Big ones and little ones, colorful ones and black and gray ones, real ones and pretend ones.

Outside the front door, Finn welcomed guests for his geology party with hand-painted pictures of limestone, pyrite, obsidian, aluminum, scoria, graphite, crysocolla, and turquoise.

And an exploding volcano, of course.


Inside, we hung a lava rock banner — thanks to a couple of my students who offered their artistic skills after school.


And then there were the real rocks.

Some waited in buckets for the kids;…


…others were just on display, both outside…
girls at party table
…and inside:


Although everyone laughed at me, I even made rock napkin holders. They were a cute idea, but not very practical, as the heavy stones wouldn’t remain facing upwards. It was a shame, considering the amount of time I spent cleaning the rocks and then gluing them to little rings I made out of pipe cleaners. Ah, well. Maybe I’ll use them again sometime???
 Not likely.
But our geology library… what could be more practical? It included some of Finn’s own heavily-used books as well as others I purchased as party favors — to hopefully be read again and again. We had rock and mineral guides, pop-ups about volcanoes, books about gems, minerals, rock collecting, the rock cycle, and the study of geology in general. Among them were National Geographic books, Magic School Bus books, and Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science books. My favorite of them all, though, was the poetically written and beautifully illustrated A Rock is Lively.

  DSC00439DSC00454 We had rocks on the food table, too. Well, the edible kind. My igneous rock cookies were pretty authentic looking, and tasted somewhat better than actual rocks might. I think.

DSC00446   The Earth’s Crust pudding didn’t turn out quite as well, however, since the layers didn’t stack properly. But I couldn’t stop staring at the colorful chocolate pebbles on top.

DSC00445   People definitely dug into the strata lasagna and sedimentary sandwiches…


…and they shoveled down the quartz and geode salad:

DSC00448  But the “fruit-rock cave” was the sight to behold. My sister Sunshine, who used to co-own a vegan raw foods restaurant on South Beach, is a master carver. She created a fruit dino for last year’s paleontology party and a fruit robot the year before that. This year, she became a jeweler: watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, and pomegranate gems overflowed like treasure from inside of a sweet cave lit by tiny, battery-operated tea-lights:

DSC00441 My metamorphic rock garden was pretty convincing, I think, but the spinach parmesan balls and purple, red, and white fingerling potatoes looked more like everyday river rocks than colorful gems:

DSC00441_2Most of the action, though, wasn’t inside at the table, but outside. First, we discussed the difference between sedimentary and metamorphic rocks with a little playdoh activity:

play-doh Finn with play-doh

Then we moved into igneous territory and erupted a  volcano. Or struggled to, anyway. Despite the many hours of work Keith put into building one out of chicken wire, papier-mâché, and paint, it sat dormant at first… until he made a couple of adjustments and we finally saw some lava and ash clouds:


watching volcanoDSC00491

After the eruption, each child received a magnifying glass and a bucket filled with rocks buried in sand. Two at a time, they poured their buckets into handmade sifters and ran them through water to uncover finds such as banded amethyst, quartz points, red carnelian, black onyx, petrified wood, and pyrite.


Once the kids separated and cleaned their rocks and minerals, they began their closer scientific study. First they compared their specimens to those in a 3D touchable rock display I put together, looking for matches. Then they filled out their identification charts.

DSC00453DSC00506DSC00510DSC00508When finished, the young geologists ran off to other adventures.

They climbed a bigger but definitely dormant volcano,…


…they tossed around a huge boulder until it cracked,…

skye and summer w boulder


…and they decorated rocks at the craft table with their own artistic touches.

IMG_0783 I thought it was going to be impossible to get them all back together for cake, but the truth is that whenever my sister Ilianna and her husband Brian do the baking, it’s always a pièce de résistance! For Finn’s second birthday, it was a bright red fire truck; for his fourth, the sun’s entire solar system; for his fifth, a two-and-a half-foot WALL-E robot; last year it was a fossilized but roaring dinosaur. This time, who could resist running to see this incredible sedimentary masterpiece?


It was quite a challenge to neatly slice through the thick piles of sweet strata, but with the proper tools and lots of precision, we chiseled through layer upon layer of vanilla, red velvet, and spiced cake, chocolate brownie, butterscotch frosting, oreo crumbles, sugar wafer cookies, and I’m not sure what else. It was the funniest, strangest, most unique combination of flavors — a special compression of so many different things that came together over time and through hard work to form something solid, something fascinating, something new. It was like the party itself, a composite of colorful ideas and effort. It was like Finn, growing inch by inch more multi-faceted each year. It was like parenting, growing sweeter and more complicated every moment — like layers upon layers of gem-filled rock.

Note to my seven-year-old boy

To Finn, my now seven-year-old boy:

It’s becoming more and more of a challenge to pin down who you are in words. You’ve long been your own person with your own definite character, yet you continue to evolve into someone more indefinable and complex each day. One thing I can say for certain, however, is that this year, for the first time, the epic world of fiction and fantasy rival fact.

You’ve always been obsessed with information: at age three you absorbed whatever you could about the bizarrely-lit ocean animals of the midnight zone; at four you studied black holes, the sulfuric acid on Venus, and the dwarf planets; at five and six you read and talked (incessantly) about prehistoric swimming reptiles, sauropods of the Mesozoic Era, the measurements of the newly discovered Dreadnoughtus, and the possibility of cloning a mammoth from frozen DNA.

And then came Giganotolestes, a four-foot-long insect with lightning-bolt antennae. You designed it for a kindergarten assignment, started to ponder where it came from, and crafted in your mind the fictional Planet Wacodoodle, a gigantic watery world twice the size of our sun. On Planet Wacodoodle, the Giganotolestes resides in the swamps, the Psybubble-fish-frog swims and walks on webbed feet along the coastlines, and the Massotops, a creature of the deep, satisfies its more complex requirements with a head on each end of its body – one that uses an angler-fish-style light to hunt in the dark seas, and the other that just gets to play and relax.

The Massotops you created was like you in some ways – pulled in different directions, adapting to new surroundings. As a new elementary student, you had to figure out how to define yourself at home and at school, how to balance work and play, how to transition from the old to the new.

The new was filled with its own creatures of the dark, outside both your science books and your own imagination – creatures that waited in the hallways of your school, poised for attack: creatures of the Pokémon world. I resisted them at home, just as I have with all heavily marketed characters that brainwash kids with their products. I disliked the context of battle that governed the Pokémon existence and abhorred the fact that humans used animals to fight on their behalf. But I watched how, as you struggled to find your place among the other kids, you longed to connect with what other boys were doing, and I saw how intrigued you were by the evolutionary principles operating this new universe. Just as you had memorized the different characteristics and classifiable types of all of the dinosaurs, you studied the specific attributes and families of the Pokémon. You considered their strengths and weaknesses, categorized them, drew them, wrote about them. They came alive for you. That’s when I, your human mom, lost the battle against Pikachu and every other Pokémon. My influence – or as you would say, my HP – was just not strong enough to keep them away.

Still, I’m happy to say that our parental restrictions did encourage some creative redirection. You adapted by inventing Poké-inspired creations such as “Dino Clash,” your own role-playing card game and book series in which Triceratops EX battles with a charge attack, Gorgonops XY combats with its signature hopeless howl, and Mega-Iguanodon EX strikes using a thumb spike attack.

And when dinosaurs aren’t battling, salt can battle pepper, or broccoli can battle bananas in my personal favorite Finn-created universe, “Food Fight.” In the ever-expanding Food Fight world, the current card with the highest HP is PB&J EX, a stage 2 card that has evolved what you call a “sticky me” attack that paralyzes its opponent by trapping it in peanut butter.

I’ve fought throughout your life to shield you from violence and to avoid presenting things in terms of absolutes like “good guys vs. bad guys” or “us vs. them.” We shut off the TV and cancelled cable when you were a baby and pushed science instead of superheroes ever since. We’ve never wanted you to see the world so simply.

But it’s true that outside of fictional realms there are real-life battles on planet Earth – battles we engage in against others and against ourselves. There are battles of the heart, like the one you recently lost when you stormed off the soccer field in tears and quit the game because your team was losing; there are battles of principle, like the one you recently won when you stood up to a 4th grade bully in the new world of bus-riders – fighting back not with a thumb-spike attack, but with your first-grader mouth as you defended yourself and your cousins and then went to adults for help. And of course there are those battles of the brain we keep encouraging you to face, like going beyond broccoli to discover that grapes and strawberries won’t hurt you, or learning how to let go of the fear that keeps you from dancing the “whip and nae nae” with all of your friends.

You’ll always face challenges, Finch, some more serious than others. That’s part of what it means to be alive, regardless what species – human, hadrosaur, mouse Pokémon, fire-breathing dragon, Vermicious Knid, or two-headed Massotops. But whether on planet Earth or planet Wacodoodle, you’ll create your own ways to adapt.

I love you – in any place and at every stage of your evolution.


Summer 2015: some old and some new

In some ways, our two months off flowed quickly and easily, following the current of summers past. We did a lot of what we do every year:

We swam,…

Tired out Uncle Alex in the pool today! Thanks for a fun day! @alexrlunawe celebrated lots of family,… Happy Birthday to the man who makes my universe work. You anchor me when I'm drifting and lighten me when things feel heavy. You give my life gravity and levity, balance and growth, security and surprise. I love you so much more than the height of your bThree generations! Happy Father's Day! @keithcrossmanDSC00100DSC00111DSC00399 Family night out at the Strikers game…and we celebrated lots of dinosaurs, too, of course! Finn began by joining his friend Ethan for two weeks at “Jurassicamp,” a daily adventure that turned out to be a lot less paleontology-oriented than we had hoped. Our little dinosaur lovers are getting so BIG! @nathalia_ruiz We stepped up the intensity with serious dinosaur animatronics at the Detroit Zoo… Prehistoric Life at the Detroit Zio DSC00172DSC00165

DSC00183…and with another summer visit to the prehistoric era and one of Finn’s favorite places — Dinosaur World: 

We're back to visit Dinosaur World!


DSC00369  We also returned to dreamy summer Sundays at the family cottage on Sugden Lake: Summertime at Sugden Lake, Michigan DSC00150


…and to the green walks and shallow, cool creek by Aba and Abuelo’s house in Milford:

DSC00198A branch in a creekPebbles from the creekDSC00255DSC00243DSC00262DSC00248

At the end of July, as always, we headed back to the pool and “lazy river” at the same Orlando resort:

Summer vacay!DSC00320Two cousins, a pool, a floatie, and... a soccer ball?One time around the And at home we just played like always — with toys, legos, and board games — but there were new things to learn, too. Finn discovered that losing can be fun through Telestrations, where a scribbled beard became a mummy became a striped prisoner became the bars of a jail; and he learned that fun can be tiring through our step up from Monopoly Jr. to the more complex Monopoly-style DINO-OPOLY, with bones and museums instead of houses and hotels. The first time Finn had to sell back his bones and mortgage his beloved Giganotosaurus, his eyes filled up with tears. But then the laughter started, and he was cry-laughing — or craffing, as Daddy calls it — because a three-hour long board game played past bedtime was new territory, and we were all nearly extinct.

Got a new game!Something that DID become extinct, though, was Finn’s first tooth, which after weeks of the wiggles, was the first to finally fall out.

Finn's loose tooth finally fell out! He wrote a letter to the tooth fairy before he put the tooth out that night:

Finn's note to the tooth fairy... Both the gap between his teeth and his question signified how big a boy he’s becoming. And when the tooth fairy answered “an artist,” he asked me, “Did you write that?”

Finn also ventured into bigger boy literary territory this summer with books by Raold Dahl. The Dinosaur Cove series finished, he needed something new to really love, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was just the place to start. Chocolate rivers and candy grass? Definitely! I adored hearing the excitement in his voice when he read to me from that gloriously crazy novel — but I did not adore the fact that he followed his reading with an imitation of one of the book’s atrociously behaved children. “I’m like Violet Beauregarde!” he said one afternoon in the car, and when I turned around to look at him, he had already (as she does) put a piece of gum behind his ear and, accidentally, also into his hair. “It’ll come out, right?” he asked. “Sure. With scissors,” I said, trying to sound stern but fighting back the urge to smile. Even though I wasn’t happy about the wad of gum in his hair, it still seemed so surprisingly funny and touching to me that while reading such a big boy book, he pulled such a little boy move. It reminded me of how young he still is, how easily a six-year-old blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Finn seemed astonished that his moment of silly play had consequences in the real world.

So he's halfway through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and absolutely loving it. Great! I thought. Then he asked for a piece of gum in the car today. "I'm like Violet Beauregarde," he said. "When I need a break from chewing, I'll just put it behind my

But the hardest and most serious real world lesson learned this summer was about loss. Just last weekend we lost one of our pet chickens, our sweet Janie, who had been back and forth from the vet with a crop problem. Because she’d needed extra care from us, we were closer to her than to the other chickens, and Finn spent hours holding her in his lap, petting her soft, speckled, gold-brown-black feathers.

Finn's enjoying some special time with Janie, who essentially had her stomach pumped at the vet yesterday. Poor little thing seems much better today; hopefully her medicine, a restricted diet, and some love and care will help her to recover!

We were all heart-broken to lose her, but Finn was devastated. “There’ll be no more Janie!” he cried. “She’ll be gone forever!”

Still, in between tears and hugs, as we spoke about burying her in the backyard, he wanted to be involved, suggesting on his own that we put her out by the coop near our other chickens, Vera and Hopster. Afterward, Finn wrote her name on a stone we placed on top of the dirt.

After spending the summer giving special care to one of our chickens, our sweet little Janie, we finally lost her late last night and buried her this morning in dirt and tears.

“How long will I feel sad?” he asked me later. “It will get easier with time,” I told him. “But I’ll never be quite the same,” he said sadly. And even though he seems to have recovered from the initial shock of Janie’s absence, I know he thinks of her often, touching the feather we kept or just mentioning her in conversation. A couple of days ago, Finn woke up and said with a smile, “I dreamed Janie was flying.” In real life, because her crop problem kept her too top heavy to even fly into her nesting box with the other birds, she would instead use a shallow ladder to slowly make her ascent. But Finn’s dream made her lighter, infusing reality with fantasy. Although he knew the difference between the two and understood that Janie was gone, he also learned somehow that healing and growth depend upon not just accepting reality, but envisioning something better. What a lift it was to picture Janie in flight. What a lift it was to see Finn smile.

Goodbye Spring!

The days are already long and lazy and hot, the summer solstice just over a week away, and I have yet to document any of this past spring! As a matter of fact, I haven’t posted a single thing since January. But that doesn’t mean that the last four months haven’t been so full of life,

…from vegetables in the garden…

Planting more carrot seeds #backyardgardenPicked our last carrots so we can plant some more! #backyardgarden

Kale and carrots: backyard to table!

…to the first blooms on our beautiful jade vine:After two years of waiting and care, Keith's jade vine finally bloomed today. #nofilter #backyardgarden #jadevineThe spectacular jade vine's blooms turn from bluish-green to bluish-purple right before they fall from the plant. #backyardgarden #jadevine

Zoning out under the jade vine as the sun goes down...

We saw lots of life in the animal world too, as we released ladybugs for Sarah and Margot’s fifth birthday,…

We had so much fun celebrating the girls today! The ladybugs were a hit. @sunshinephelps

Snuggly ladybug

…inspected the bioluminescent tropical click bugs that visit us every May,…

The bioluminescent tropical click bug: our visitor -- en masse -- every May.

…and, quite momentously, gained our first family pets, Hopster (from top moving clockwise), Vera, and Janie:


Finn gets in a little bonding time with Hopster, Vera, and Janie, the newest additions to our family.

Loving the chick

A boy and his chicken

Finn's enjoying some special time with Janie, who essentially had her stomach pumped at the vet yesterday. Poor little thing seems much better today; hopefully her medicine, a restricted diet, and some love and care will help her to recover!

We visited some larger animals from a bit more of a distance at Zoo Miami, some of them real…


…and others a little more — well — prehistoric:

IMG_8525 IMG_8493

We got close to quite a few real alligators on a trip to Shark Valley in the Everglades…



…and maybe tried to be a little too snuggly with this guy:

Finn's failed attempt to make friends with a sunning Anhinga

But most importantly, we got close to those who matter most:



My beautiful sister and nieces! Love you @sunshinephelps

Cousins: Finn and Oliver (who just turned two!)


Celebrating Mom

Celebrating Mother's Day with my heart of hearts...

Finn’s year 5 to 6 video: my New Year’s resolution done! (for once)

The holidays came and went, with cute dinosaurs in pilgrim hats…

Happy Thanksgiving from me, Finn, and, of course, a dinosaur in a Pilgrim hat.

a cute pair of antlers…

Got to volunteer in Finn's kindergarten classroom today! I never thought I'd be the kind of mom who loves stuff like this... but it's so much fun.

…and lots of cute cousins not always willing to sit still for photos:

Cousins in front of the tree...

...and here's tree number two, completely decorated by the kids

Finn and his older cousins celebrate Christmas Eve

@sunshinephelps My attempt to get the kids and Mom in a nice photo together was an utter failure. The kids were too distracted... But they enjoyed themselves and Christmas dinner was absolutely delicious! Thank you for making my favorite dishes!

The New Year passed, with more visits, gifts, and food — and without any New Year’s resolutions. Except for one. One small, short-term promise to myself. I promised I’d finally put together Finn’s year 5 to 6 video, which I had not been able to finish before his birthday.

So although I’ll sure TRY to use the treadmill, get back into yoga, study photography, and do some writing, I won’t have to say “I’m gonna” with Finn’s video. I may be three months late, but I have to say that this is the best I’ve done with any New Year’s resolution, EVER. It’s only the first week of January, and it’s already done!

Finn’s Paleontologist Birthday Party


The prehistoric animals were dressed and ready to go long before I was:





But the birthday banner was up, (created by some of my amazingly talented student volunteers after school)…



…and Finn’s welcome sign waited outside the front door.


Out back, tiny dinosaurs were arranged on tables already covered with paper I had sponge-painted with therapod footprints and decorated with either kid-made volcanoes,



…or prehistoric ferns:


We also had a dinosaur drawing table ready with crayons, paper, and step-by-step instructions on how to draw a variety of prehistoric herbivores and carnivores.



Finally, as guests were starting to arrive, my sister and a friend (thank you Sunshine and Lisa!) helped me to get the food and drinks on the table. We had fossil mix, Dino Bone breadsticks shaped out of pizza dough, whole-grain jurassic dinosaur and ordovician sea-shell pasta, and a plate of sauropod-shaped sandwiches and chopped vegetables I called brontosaurus bites, for which Finn reprimanded me after the party. “Brontosaurus isn’t a real dinosaur name. It’s called an Apatosaurus. You should have called them BRACHIOSAURUS BITES,” he said, even understanding my alliterative designs.  Oops. Sorry, Finch. I forgot.



The coolest thing on the food table, though, was my sister Sunshine’s fruit dinosaur masterpiece, with beady red-grape-eyes and sharp watermelon-rind-teeth:


fruit dino front

Outside, the beverages were ready…


… and a serious Jurassic Adventure awaited:


But first we had a fossil hunt to embark on. In preparation, child paleontologists received fossil specimen collection bags and paleontologist hats.


Each bag contained a sharpened dinosaur pencil, a blank fossil report fastened to a clipboard, a prehistoric animal fact sheet identification book, a brush, and a rolled-up map that was tied with string. The rest had to be discovered — or actually uncovered — by the young scientists.

The kids unrolled their maps…



… and began their quests:


The first destination was Dino Skull Tree — our Royal Poinciana — under which they found rocks embedded with various dinosaur skulls. Daddy had baked them into rocks himself using a dough made of coffee grounds, flour, sand, and water.



They then made their way to the Ancient Fossil Pit, where they dug through mulch to find fossils of ammonites, trilobites, fish, crabs, and other ancient creatures:



The final dig site was the skeleton bed, where they had to excavate bones of dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles buried within a taped-off section of Daddy’s raised-bed vegetable garden.





After collecting all three specimens, each paleontologist returned to “Base Camp” for clean-up and “inspection.”

Daddy helped the young scientists to break open the rocks to reveal the hidden dinosaur skulls,…


…and then the kids cleaned and worked to identify their three fossil finds.



They filled out their fossil reports…



…and then ran off to partake in a Jurassic Adventure…






Some also took a prehistoric swim, luckily without any Liopleurodons,…



…unless, of course, you count this one:


The only thing that stopped what Finn would call “the rumpus prehistorica” (yes, his phrase) was, of course, DESSERT!

We served some fun fossil rock cookies,…


…but the real star of the dessert table was the spectacular cake made by my sister Ilianna and her husband Brian, who have amazed us in years past with a 3D Firetruck cake, 9 cake Solar System, and 2-foot tall WALL-E cake. This year, Finn had apparently made specific arrangements with Aunt Ilianna and Uncle Brian months in advance, because when I raised the topic with them, they said that Finn had already put in an order for this Triceratops skeleton in dirt:


It was pretty unbelievable, especially when it started to roar (literally). I wish I had video…

IMG_7778 BlowingOutCandlesFinn was awed; he collected all of the fondant bones and asked us to put them away “to play with later.” Then he ate the dirt.


It was delicious.