I'm feeling all glowy and happy and barefoot and pregnant.
Click here to see what else I'm wearing!
Something exciting happened today. Those of you with dehydrators at home will be thoroughly unimpressed, but for those of us without (and I'll admit I'm now tempted to buy one, but I am in clearing-out mode, damnit, and already have far too many kitchen contraptions), this is pretty rad. 

I made fruit leather. Myself. And so can you. All you need is fruit, and an oven. And if you're kitchen contraption-equipped, a handheld immersion blender makes for a nice accessory to this project.

Here's what you do: 

1. Pick your fruit. As in literally, or as in choose and purchase some. Texas happens to offer precious little in the pick-your-own department; we go hog-wild when we travel Northeast or Northwest in the summer months, picking buckets of blueberries, strawberries and blackberries and then eating ourselves sick because we can't possibly bring them home. But right now, for about five minutes, it's strawberry season here in Tejas. We plan to go picking this coming Saturday, but in the meantime I bought five pints of beautiful, organic, fresh-picked berries at the farmer's market this past weekend. Why so many? Because we eat a lot of berries around here. And I had big, fancy plans for this batch.

2. Chop your berries (two pints is a good starting point, but you could certainly work with more) into small pieces and place in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently until your mixture's simmering and looking a bit soupy. Stir here and there for another five to ten minutes, pressing occasionally on the berries with a slotted spoon (or any spoon) to help release the juices. You want these to simmer gently but not to burn, so use your best judgment and turn the heat down if necessary. This step made my kitchen smell exactly the way I remember my childhood home smelling when my mom made strawberry jam. Divine.

3. Remove the pan from the heat and allow it to cool for a little while. Pre-heat your oven to 175 degrees Fehrenheit, and line a rimmed baking pan with parchment paper. (I keep it real and non-toxic with this stuff.)

4. If you have a handheld immersion blender, go ahead and immersion-blend your berry mixture so it's nice and smooth. If you don't have an immersion blender, mash your mixture with whatever you can -- a food mill, a small seive, or a potato-masher, fork, or whatever. 

5. Pour your berry mixture onto the parchment paper and spread it out so it's uniformly about 1/4 inch thick. If you've filled the parchment and have some mixture left over in the pan, save it in the fridge and make a second batch when the first batch is done. Or line another baking sheet and have at it right away.

6. Put your pan into the oven and let it do its thing. Briefly opening the oven now and then will actually help keep the temperature where you'll want it -- mimicking a real dehydrator -- but I honestly didn't check mine very often at all. You'll want to check on yours after three hours at first. Poke it with a finger. If your finger breaks the thin film that's formed on the fruit leather's surface, and it's still gooey in there, keep it going in the oven for a while longer. Ovens vary, so it could be five or six hours before your leather isn't gooey inside anymore. Just make sure it doesn't burn.

7. When it's finished dehydrating and has the appearance and texture of, well, fruit leather, remove your pan from the oven. After allowing the leather to cool, cut it into strips with kitchen scissors (parchment still on), roll them up (parchment side out) and secure them with twine, rubber bands, scotch tape -- anything you have handy. The leather will keep in an airtight container for a good month, but I guarantee it won't be around that long. Kaspar, as you can see, loved this naturally-sweet, nutritious snack; had I allowed it, he'd have devoured the entire batch this very afternoon. Between the two of us, it'll be gone by tomorrow. (If Aaron wants to try some, he'd better get in there, and fast.)

And that's it. Bam! Fruit leather. Cheaper than the store-bought stuff, for sure, especially if you pick your own buckets full of berries at a local farm. I'm going to try making different flavors now that we've made a successful batch. Mango, maybe? Let me know what fruits you try! 
Guess what. Baby #2 just gave away his flavor. ;-)
I went in for a sequential scan today, the only testing I've opted in to for new baby Newman. As it turned out, the baby's too long for the full test to take place (apparently there's a cutoff length for them to do the blood work on the mom? Don't quite understand why, but whatever...), as I completely spaced my initially-scheduled appointment and was thus about a week late on my timing. No matter. While we were there I asked if we might sneak a peek between the baby's legs. The sonographer said it's sometimes possible to tell what gender the baby is at this point, especially with boys, but that it might still be a mystery. As it happened, what we saw when we looked was not subtle: it's a boy! That pic there at top is a nice side view of his funny little alienesque self. Cute-cute. 

I'll admit, I was a *little* disappointed not to get to go all Rainbow Brite on a little girl's wardrobe, but I'm also a *lot* relieved not to be looking ahead to eventual face-offs with an adolescent girl. (Any daughter of mine would be NO picnic at 16, trust me.) And of course all I really care about is having a healthy, happy baby. Now that we know our newbie's flavor, this has become all that more real, and I've fallen yet more deeply in love with our second son. (Whoa.) Bake away, little buddy. 

Now to choose a name...
One of Kaspar's favorite houses along the trail.
Kaspar's been on spring break this week, so aside from a major work meeting on Tuesday and some email-businessy-things that just couldn't wait, my regular weekly to-do list has been forwarded to next week's calendar in favor of fresh air, time with close friends (we love it when our coastal peeps all land in town for South-by!) and all-around Kaspar-oriented action. We've ridden the train at Zilker park, seen a few bands, attended a birthday party, knocked out some doctor's appointments and made frequent stops at the library. Next year, we plan to rent our house out for SXSW week, and to skip town entirely for somewhere exotic and fun, but for now we've enjoyed just hanging close to home, switching up our pace a little bit and taking in some of what Austin has to offer. 

One of my dates with Kaspar this week took place at the Zilker Botanical Garden; we've been many times before, but we went yesterday for the garden center's 1st Annual Faerie Architecture Show. (I'm just going to put it out there right now that I feel really awkward and nerdy spelling fairy that way, but since it's the official approach taken by the gardens, I'm rolling with it when referring to the event itself.) Our family's been busily welcoming spring for the past couple of weeks, and I planned to do some fairy-house building with Kaspar (as a perfect, age-appropriate, seasonal outdoor activity) sometime soon. I knew he'd be into it -- which surely won't be the case in a few short years from now -- and when I saw the botanical garden's announcement of their own Faerie (wince) House event, I knew immediately that Kaspar would get a kick out of it, and that it'd give him some context for our own house-building project, later, at home. 

We arrived about an hour and a half before Kaspar's usual nap time. The parking lot was pretty packed, as swarms of families, playgroups, kids of all ages and countless little girls wearing frilly dresses and fairy wings arrived at the gardens, clearly headed for the fairy houses, too. Despite the crowds, it didn't feel crowded. After paying a mere three dollar entry fee (the gardens used to be free, but there are few valuable things in this world that can be had for $3, and I'm happy to support this beautiful local fixture at this level), we easily found a parking spot and made our way into the visitor's center/gift shop to get our bearings. A (sweet, senior citizen) volunteer immediately highlighted, on a map, the path we'd want to take for the houses, and then led us -- along with another family who'd just arrived -- to a bright room in the back of the building with a few fairy houses on display. She clearly took genuine pleasure in watching the kids' eyes widen as they took in the tiny details, and then wished us a good time exploring the gardens, and the houses that were to be found there.

We headed outside, around the parking lot, and then down a small slope to the beginning of the looped path where the fairy house 'hood began. A large group of moms and kiddos arrived just before us, and the kids all started running down the slope; Kaspar got caught up in the excitement and ran down with them (then stopped abruptly to re-locate his mama). There were other families already making their way around the (large, wooded) loop, as well, but everyone quickly spaced out as kids and parents moved at different paces. It was fun to overlap with others, actually, as the kids would point the houses' unique features out excitedly, and then naturally sort of talk with each other and show each other things, while parents exchanged smiles, took photos and said friendly hellos. Kaspar really got into looking at the houses (some of them were pretty amazing), and then running to find the next one -- he found a few I'd have otherwise missed: little squat ones tucked under low-lying ferns. And he even started pointing to natural formations -- large rocks, knots in trees -- and announcing them as fairy houses, too. He definitely got the idea. 

The gardens themselves extend much farther than the fairy house loop, but we've explored the extended grounds before and will do so again. Kaspar set our pace on our house tour, and completing the small loop took exactly as much time as I'd thought we should probably spend there before he petered out and would be ready for some lunch and a good doze. We sat in a shaded gazebo and sipped water, to mark our transition, and then made our way back to the car. On the way home, we talked about our favorite fairy houses we'd seen (he liked one with a giant pet turtle in a little fenced-in pen beside the main residence), and about building one of our own later that day. After his nap, we spent a couple of hours collecting materials like moss, rocks, and sticks from the woods behind our house -- in itself a throughly absorbing job for a small child -- and then Aaron assisted with the actual fairy house construction while I fielded a few of those aforementioned work-email-things. They'd (meaning Kaspar) deconstructed whatever they ended up building by the time I went out to admire it, but Kaspar stashed the materials back in the paper bag we collected them in, with the expressed intent of building another house at a later time. Since this sequence of adventures, he's continued identifying fairy houses in everything from extra-elaborate arrangements of tree branches to the most basic of bird feeders. His imagination is running wild.

The fairy houses will be set up at Zilker Botanical Garden through May, with a Starlight Faerie Trail Walk going down on March 15 (that's tomorrow!), a Faerie Tea Party on April 20th, and a Faerie Landscaping Workshop on May 11th. Whether you attend one of the organized events, or just go check out the houses freestyle, like we did, you -- and your littles -- will enjoy yourselves. Highly recommend. 
I'd totally live here.
Texas winters confuse my Northeastern sense of seasons -- we basically jump from 80 degrees one day to 60 the next, for several months between the winter holidays and sometime in April, before the real heat kicks back in -- but spring is nonetheless unmistakable. Friends shared photos on Facebook of a snowy Brooklyn sunrise this morning while we stepped outside into a gentle, misting Texas rain. I adore rainy days and am usually disappointed by their brevity here in Austin, but today's rain picked up and found its steady rhythm right up until the time Kaspar came home from school. Then, the birds began singing, the breezes smelled of watered earth, and we headed outside for a walk, to hunt for the many signs of spring. 

Kaspar, like all kids, loves seasonal activities; reading books about the seasons, talking about what distinguishes them, and making time to experience their changes together helps him to connect with his environment, and to expand his understanding of his world (not to mention his vocabulary). Now three years old, he has the motor skills and attention span for more complex activities -- like origami or fairy-house construction (see below) -- and he's still filled with wonder at this planet's every detail. Spring is a particularly magical time of natural regeneration and growth, and celebrating the season as a family reminds us adults, too, of the wonder that's all around us, just outside our door, and within our homes and hearts. Read on for ten ways we're celebrating springtime with our preschooler; I hope you and your kids have fun with these ideas, and expand upon them. Please feel free to share other ways you've found to celebrate spring, too, in the comments!
Kaspar discovered a "Daddy snail and baby snail" while searching for signs of spring.
1. Take a walk in the woods (or just around your neighborhood) and search for signs of spring: Spring can be found through all five of our senses. The sounds of birds singing; the feeling of warm breezes or cold mud on our skin; the smell of thawing (or just-rained-on) earth, the taste of seasonal produce and the sight of daffodils, earthworms and budding trees all speak to us of springtime. Walking without a physical destination or a time commitment, but instead with the express purpose of paying attention to one's senses and surroundings, helps kids cultivate mindful awareness in the here and now, which is oh-so-enjoyable at this time of year. 

2. Do some spring cleaning: I've been clearing out my closets (and bringing in the house-cleaning pros) for a couple of months now, and have been enjoying every inch of my less-cluttered, spic n' span space. There's really something to be said for getting rid of what you don't need, on a physical level, but also on mental and emotional levels, as well. All three mark important -- and easily-shafted, when things get busy, so it's all the more important to make a point of prioritizing them -- practices for parents... and all people, really. You'll find, in this practice, those shoes you haven't worn in two years, but also the secret to sanity. As it happens, kids love to clean, too. But let's be honest; they're not always all that effective at it. Don't let that stop you from cleaning house as a family; giving kids real jobs to do provides them with a sense of independence, accomplishment and capability that's worth so much more than properly-folded laundry. Expand upon the definition of 'real jobs', too; Kaspar held a car wash in our driveway last week, and proceeded to "clean" all of his Hot Wheels cars for over an hour. Materials? One container, some water, two wash cloths and a few toys. Cost? Zero dollars. One hour of outdoor, TV-free, self-directed entertainment? Priceless.
3. Celebrate the solstice: Last year, we celebrated Easter, because I missed the solstice entirely and Easter was a (totally successful) backup plan. But this year, we're on our game! The solstice is officially March 21st, but we're going to do our thing on the 23rd, since the latter date is a Saturday. We're planning a picnic with friends complete with some outdoor playtime, and perhaps with a bit watercolor painting thrown in. At home, we'll plant some flowers in our backyard (our zinnias ended up thriving last year -- they got HUGE -- and they needed exceptionally little care), read some springtime books -- here's a good one for kiddos about the equinox itself, with lots of ideas for ways to celebrate, and here's another lovely one about a little boy's anticipation and enjoyment of spring -- and start a few new family traditions: making a springtime altar and having a treat hunt around the house are definitely happening. 

4. Grow and bloom: This idea comes from the book I Love Dirt!, a wonderful resource for outdoor-oriented activities with kids. It's pretty simple, but preschool-aged kids love it; younger toddlers will, too. When talking/learning/exploring on the topic of plants growing from the earth, suggest to your kids -- and believe me, if you DO this, they will too -- that you and they act like new blades of grass, or new flowers. Crouch low to the ground, and then grow! Bloom! Slowly stand up and stretch toward the sky. Then do it all again. This will bring out your kids' inner yogis (who, trust me, aren't very hidden at all), and get their physical-activity endorphins pumping. 

5. Start a garden: Whether you're re-potting a few countertop-container herbs, starting vegetable seedlings that'll eventually move outside, or putting a whole bunch of stuff in the ground itself, gardening is a wonderful way to get kids working with their hands and connecting with their food. 
Source: Gardening Adventures with Alexis
6. Install a bird feeder: By which I mean, hang one up on a branch outside your house. (Or, if you don't have branches, from your fire escape or whatever!) This doesn't have to be expensive; you can make a bird-feeding craft, or go for something more permanent (hummingbird feeders are cool), but be sure to involve your preschooler in every step of this project. They'll love it, from start to finish. And, if you build it, they will come -- birds, squirrels, and all manner of endlessly-fascinating wildlife to watch for weeks and months to come. 

7. Make origami butterflies: Kaspar's Montessori class recently learned about -- and made -- origami for an entire week, and the kids loved it. They learned to make frogs and butterflies; you can find lots of kid-friendly origami instructions online. We attended an art opening/open house event at Kaspar's school and admired all of the folded-paper butterflies, which decorated his classroom's windows: a wonderful, colorful decorating idea for crafty preschool-aged kiddos in the mood for spring. 
Kaspar's butterfly
8. Visit a nursery, and/or your local botanical gardens: Prompted by my recent (vertical) nesting instinct, our family headed over to a local nursery last week, and returned home with two new houseplants. One is now hanging in our kitchen, and the other's a floor-plant in the living room. Before we left, however, we explored the heck out of the place, which boasted a balmy green house, a koi pond, a funky little cafe, and plants everywhere. (Obviously, right?) It felt like some kind of car-free, super-green alternate universe to me, anyway, not to mention Kaspar, who was out of his mind with happiness, high on fresh oxygen and free to roam without recourse... within eyesight and earshot, of course. We were there for well over an hour, and although -- after multiple reminders that it was time to leave -- we finally carried a kicking-and-screaming Kaspar back to our car (THREE years old, y'all, is a bit of a challenge at times), it was time well spent. Little man slept like a baby that night, and has been asking to go back ever since. We certainly will, but we might revisit our local botanical gardens first. We've been before, but not since last spring, and rumor has it the place is about to be filled in beautiful blooms.
At our local nursery. (Kaspar carried that flamingo around the whole time.)
9. Jump in puddles: This is another simple one, but it's not overrated. Kids love, love, love puddle-jumping, as we've all noticed. It's pretty fun for grown-ups, too. It really doesn't rain very frequently here, so when it does, I insist on going outside immediately and running around like a lunatic. Kaspar can never quite believe his luck, and jumps right into the action. Best rain-play follow-up activity? Get out of those wet clothes and into a warm bath, kiddo and all. 

10. Build a fairy house: while you're out in the woods, the garden, or your backyard, why not build a house for some springtime fairies? It's like fort-building, only in miniature: your kids will re-imagine sticks, moss, wildflowers, rocks and other natural materials into walls, beds, roofs and chimneys. This is fun on one's own (watch kiddo concentrate) or as a collaborative project among friends or siblings, and it's a great way to spend a weekend morning outdoors. 

Happy Spring!

The newbie's getting serious.