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I was rather surprised–shocked, really–to discover that it’s been nearly six weeks since my last post. I had purposely taken a break from writing to tackle the ever-increasing stack of books that have been collecting on various shelves and tabletops around here since before the holidays (I hate how unread books have a tendency to induce guilt, don’t you?), but I had no idea it’d been six weeks. Groan.

I did read some great books, though. Grin. More on that in a future post.

In my defense–if a defense is even necessary–I was also on vacation one of those six weeks, reading feverishly, holding down a lounge chair on the beach (it’s a tough job, but I assure you I was up to the task), and sipping fruity rum libations…which brings be to the topic of today’s post…rum withdrawal.

I’m not a big drinker. Not at all. One glass of wine typically numbs my face and makes me giggle, but there’s something about lazing around in the Mexican sunshine that requires rum. Not piddly amounts of rum–nor, of course, quantities that result in bouts of wild, drunken buffoonery–but rum in a slow, steady stream of red and orange and yellow concoctions (so many choices); rum in quantities that makes the rest of the world dissolve like the crushed ice in my glass. Ahhhhh…

At some point over the years, the smells of salty, sea air and sunscreen have become enmeshed with the taste of rum in my mind. As far as I’m concerned, if you have one of the three, you’re all but required to have the other two. If you can manage to bring it all together on a gorgeous beach in sunny Mexico…JACKPOT!

Beach chair with a bit of shade and a clear view of the sand and the surf? Check.

A fluffy beach towel? Check.

Sunscreen? Check.

A steamy bodice ripper to read between naps? Check.

Singles to tip the cabana servers who so cheerfully keep the fruity drinks coming with a mere nod or wave of the hand? Check.

Oh, señorita…

The beach at Moon Palace, Cancun, Mexico

The beach at Moon Palace, Cancun, Mexico

The beach at Moon Palace, Cancun, Mexico

Yep, I’m definitely having a serious case of rum withdrawal. I defy you to blame me.

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I took piano lessons for seven years when I was a kid and generally hated it. Piano teachers who insisted on perfect fingering and ramrod straight posture, endless–and mindless–scales up and down the keyboard over and over again, forced practicing nearly every dang day (sorry I was such a brat, Dad), and humiliating piano recitals. It’s a wonder I survived to tell the tale.

The magic keys

But survive I did. Moreover, I regretted quitting almost from the day of my last lesson and have thought numerous times about how wonderful it would be to start again. I just never managed to get around to making it happen. Until now. Finally, 38 years later, I’m once again at the keyboard, taking lessons…of my own volition…even paying for it out of my own pocket…and I’m loving it. LOVING IT! Don’t get me wrong, I still suck, but I don’t care. I really don’t. Making music is a magical power even when the music is lousy.

In my defense, some of the lousy is due to the fact that my piano is waaaay out of tune and some of the keys are sticking, but the piano tuner is coming. I know I may be singing a different tune after he gets here and I can no longer blame the piano for the strange sounds and missed notes, but I don’t think so. I can make music! Really. Whole songs that Tom, Brian, and Dad have all said they enjoy hearing me play. Of course, they’re a biased (and captive) audience, but still. Music! That I’m making! All by myself!

Luckily for me, I’ve found a wonderful piano teacher who is not only talented and knowledgeable, but also extremely patient and kind. Even better, she’s willing to make allowances–bend the rules, if you will–for her “non-traditional” students. Translation: no scales. Oh, and did I mention that she’s patient? AND she said I don’t have to participate in the piano recitals if I don’t want to. Suuuu-weeet! On the downside, she doesn’t give her “non-traditional” students stickers when they’ve mastered a piece. Sigh.

So why am I telling you this? Because I want to challenge you to do something you’ve wanted to do for a long time. Now that you’re an adult, you can do things you’ve been dreaming about and do them just for fun. At this point, no one will expect you to become an expert. No one will expect you to get a college scholarship or turn your passion into a career. You can just follow your passion for the pure enjoyment of it. In other words, you’re free to be totally stink-o and totally happy being totally stink-o. You get to call the shots! Go on. I dare you. Then write and tell me what you’re doing.

After 15 days and 4, 072.7 miles, the Tedster and I finally pulled into our driveway last night, spent but happy for our efforts. We were ready to be home even if home was covered in snow and the car thermometer barely topped 20 degrees F. Tom made sure the cold crap-ola outside was negated by the warmth inside. He had a pot of potato soup steaming on the stove, flowers on the island in the kitchen, the house cleaned, and was standing in the doorway smiling when the garage door went up. Damn, it’s good to be home. Teddy doesn’t even seem to mind the snow covering the grass.

That’s the great thing about Teddy. He never complains about anything…except being left alone (see my post about Midland, TX). No matter where we went or what we did, he was a perfect gentleman, accepting love and attention from everyone we encountered. He never got cranky because a meal wasn’t offered at the normal time, never fussed about being in the car for long stretches of time, never complained about the hotel we stayed in (I repeat, avoid the Guesthouse Suites in El Paso at all cost), never whined because the only place to have a wee was a windswept muddy patch of ground with RVs pulling in and out, never bristled at the comments about his bum leg.

And here I must pause for an aside. Since I’ve never had a handicap (at least a visible handicap–bumfuzzlement is a handicap, isn’t it?), I’ve never fully understood why people with handicaps complain that others see only their wheelchairs, their braces, or their white canes. I mean, I understand the lament on an intellectual level, but haven’t on an emotional one. After traveling with Teddy, I think I now have a little better understanding of how they feel. I was blown away by how many people we encountered who first commented on Teddy’s bum wheel. Forget that he’s as well-behaved as any dog on the planet, that he has an adorable wrinkly face, that he’s wearing a jaunty red neckerchief that makes him look quite dapper, or that he spins his tail in a complete circle when he meets someone new. People first noticed and asked about his leg. I did my best to patiently explain his condition, and Teddy eagerly exchanged howdy-dos with anyone who stopped to chat, but after a while I wanted to scream, “He’s a great little dog! Forget about his leg! HE HAS!” Please understand. I’m talking into the mirror here. This rant is all about me. I’m just letting you know I will be making a concerted effort in the future to look beyond visible handicaps to see people. Thanks to the Ted-meister.

That’s not all I learned on our trip. I learned that Teddy likes Elton John…a lot. He also likes Kenny Chesney and the Eagles, but Elton’s the man. I learned he hates rumble strips and slowing down for the tollbooths on the Austin turnpike…totally unnecessary interruptions to a good nap. I also learned that he’s willing to sit in the car and wait for me to have my own potty stop as long as I park the car where he can watch me go into the building and come back out again. If I want to leave him a Beggin’ Strip to nibble on during my absence, well, that’s just fine, too.

Hey, where'd you go?

He learned a few things about me in the process, as well. For example, he now knows that I have little tolerance (and more than a few bad words) for idiots…um hum, excuse me, drivers…who drive down the left lane of the interstate for miles and miles without passing anyone…often without even GOING THE SPEED LIMIT. Deep breath.

He also now knows that if he uses just the right tone of voice I will get out of my hotel bed at four in the morning to take him outside for a wee even when the spot for weeing is surrounded by idling 18-wheelers and that, if he waits me out, I will resort to hand-feeding him to ensure that we don’t get on the road in the morning with an empty stomach. Little shit.

Together, we discovered that the stretch of Interstate 10 between about 60 miles east of El Paso and about 60 miles west of San Antonio runs through some of the prettiest scenery you’ll see anywhere. Albeit, as desolate as you’ll see anywhere, but gorgeous nonetheless. It’s also a great stretch of wide open road for…well, if you must know…for driving fast. My dad, who worries about me a lot, reads my blog, so I can’t tell you exactly how fast Teddy and I were going, but let’s just say that my little six-speed G35 with just over 300 horsepower was very happy. Very, very happy. ‘Nuf said.

Because I have no idea what this little peak is called--and because I can be very juvenile on occasion--I've dubbed this little outcropping "The Texas Titty." See the wide-open highway? It was like this most of the way.

Mostly, we loved our trip because we got to see (or in Teddy’s case, meet) a bunch of people we know and love in Arizona and Texas. I want to thank them all for adjusting their schedules to accommodate our visit. Spending time with them went a long way toward adjusting my pissy attitude. It certainly didn’t hurt that they fixed us great meals, regaled us with hilarious stories, and–in a couple of instances–put us up for several nights. We had a blast with each and every one of them and miss them all like crazy already. Just know, if I ever get to be Queen of the World, I’m going to make it illegal for family members to live more than 100 miles apart from one another.

Is it just me, or does Dad look rather pleased about our departure?

My only regret is that our fifteen-day-long jaunt was an interstate trip–a trip more about the destination than the journey–and not a two-lane county-road-type trip that encouraged lots of stops and dilly-dallying along the way. If we’d stopped at every interesting little town, scenic overlook, and point-of-interest, we’d still be on our way to Arizona. So much to see. So little time. I’m guessing the road will beckon again soon. Teddy and I will be ready.

Okay, so the temperatures here in Tucson since my arrival last week have been cooler than normal, and the sunshine has been intermittent at best. Maybe not what I was counting on, but still, I’ve had hours-long stretches of sunshine to bask in on several occasions—which is way more than I was getting at home—and I’ve been able to go entire days without wearing my coat, hat, and scarf. I’ve even gotten to wear sandals a few times; although I’m sure the locals think I’m a bit loony. Fair enough. Maybe I am a bit hasty in throwing aside my winter togs, but bare toes and bare arms have been exactly the thing to jumpstart the attitude adjustment I so desperately needed.

Better yet, I’ve gotten to spend time with nearly all my family and friends in both Tucson and Phoenix. No small feat when you consider they’re busy people and I arrived without much notice. I’m grateful to each of them for adjusting already full schedules at the last minute to accommodate my visit, and I thank Dad’s friends for making room for me at their table at Burger King where they meet every weekday morning. Keep me posted on the glowing circles, guys!

I have to thank my Dad, especially, for being such a terrific host to both Teddy and me. Teddy has been welcomed everywhere we’ve gone, but nowhere more so than at Dad’s, where he was greeted with open arms and given the run of the house…and the run of the backseat of Dad’s beloved yellow Beetle. Dad’s not going to know what to do when we leave and he no longer has to hurdle over a sleeping dog sprawled from wall-to-wall in the hallway.

As for me, I’ve been taken to lunch at all my favorite restaurants here in Tucson, including the Firebird up in the northwest part of town, and to a wonderful local theater called The Gaslight Theatre for an afternoon of really well done (and incredibly goofy) melodrama. (Thanks for babysitting Teddy, Chris!) In every way, I’ve been treated like visiting royalty.

Moreover, the short stretches of time we’ve actually been here at Dad’s have been blissfully quiet and relaxing. I’ve gotten to do some reading, practice the piano (but not enough…I apologize in advance, Lori), write a little, and sleep like the dead every night. I’ve even gotten to do a good bit of cooking.

On Monday, a cold (“cold” being a relative term) and dreary day, Dad and I spent the entire afternoon in the kitchen, chopping, peeling, sautéing, simmering, mixing, and baking. By the time we were done, Dad’s freezer was stuffed with multiple containers of three different kinds of soup and enough BBQ’d meatballs to…to…well, I don’t know to what, but the shelves on his freezer door are groaning from the weight of them. He won’t go hungry for a couple of months. That’s all I’m saying.

We made three of my very favorite soups that I knew—or suspected—Dad would like: my mom’s potato soup (which I’ve modified slightly since she taught me to make it years ago); a yummy roasted carrot soup that makes the house smell incredible for several hours while you’re roasting the carrots, parsnips, onions, and ginger; and a knock-your-socks-off corn chowder that my dear friend Tiffany gave me the recipe for two winters ago. I’m including the recipe for each of them at the end of this post if you’d like to try them for yourselves. Just scroll down. I’m also including the recipe for the meatballs because, not only are they smack-your-grandma delicious, they’re perfect to serve at a Super Bowl party. Enjoy!

The Tedster and I have had a blast in Tucson and are feeling much better about the world in general, but it’s time to move on. Tomorrow morning, we’re back on the road. The weather in KC is still crappy…and keeps getting crappier by the minute…and promises to remain uber crappy until early next week…so we’ve decided to head to the very bottom of Texas to see my niece and her family who live in the McAllen area. On the way north from their place, we’ll be able to stop and see my sister and other niece in Austin. With any luck, the weather will clear in the Midwest while Teddy and I are wandering around in the bowels of Texas, and we’ll be able to drive into KC on Tuesday. (From my lips to the weather gods’ ears.)

Anyway, I hate to admit it, but I suppose I’ve been gone long enough. Tom’s clearly been left at home alone longer than he should have been. Yesterday when he made his lunch, he forgot to remove the waxed paper from the deli cheese he used on his sandwich and ended up eating several bites of it at lunchtime before he figured out why the darn thing tasted so lousy. It’s good to be needed. Sigh.

The recipes:

Mom’s Potato Soup (slightly modified)
6 servings

2 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced into ¼ inch pieces
4 stalks of celery, sliced crosswise
2 teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon of pepper
3 large russet potatoes, diced into 1 inch pieces (peeling the potatoes is optional)
4 cups of rich chicken broth
4 tablespoons of butter
1 cup of cream

Optional (for serving):
Bacon crumbles
Grated cheese

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a stockpot. Add the onions, celery, salt, and pepper. Sauté the onions and celery until the onions are transparent. About 7 minutes.

Add the potatoes and broth. The broth should cover the potatoes. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender. About 20 minutes.

Use a potato masher (for a chunky soup) or an immersion blender (for a creamy soup) to mash/puree the vegetables. Add the butter and cream. Add salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 5 more minutes.

Serve with crumbled bacon and/or your favorite grated cheese.

Roasted Carrot Soup
Serves 10

Preheat the oven to 350°

1½ lbs. carrots, peeled and halved lengthwise
1 lb. parsnips, peeled and quartered lengthwise
1 large onion, sliced
3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and diced
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar
8 cups rich chicken broth (more if necessary)
2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of cayenne pepper
¼ cup crème fraîche, for garnish
Snipped fresh chives, for garnish

Combine the carrots, parsnips, onion, and ginger in a shallow roasting pan. Dot the vegetables with butter and sprinkle with the brown sugar. Pour 2 cups of the broth over the vegetables.

Cover the roasting pan with foil and bake for 2 hours until the vegetables are very tender.

Transfer the vegetables and broth into a large stockpot and add the remaining 6 cups of broth. Add the salt and cayenne pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for 10 minutes.

Puree the soup in batches in a blender and return to the stockpot or puree with mixture with an immersion blender. Adjust the seasonings and simmer for 20 minutes more.

Serve with a dollop of crème fraîche and a sprinkling of snipped chives.

Cozy Corn Chowder
6 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, cut into ¼ inch dice
1 large red bell pepper, cut into ¼ inch dice
1 cup carrots, peeled and cut into ¼ inch dice
3 jalapenos, seeded and sliced (3 makes the soup pretty spicy; adjust accordingly)
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups chicken broth
3 cups fresh corn (about 5 ears)
2 medium russet potatoes, cut into ½ inch dice
1 bay leaf
Pinch cayenne
Juice of 1 lime
¼ cup milk
1 tablespoon real maple syrup

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a stockpot. Add the onion, bell pepper, carrots, jalapenos, salt, and pepper and sauté in the olive oil until the onions are transparent. About 7 minutes.

Add the rosemary and thyme. Sauté 1 minute more.

Add the broth, corn, potatoes, bay leaf, and cayenne. Cover and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are tender.

Uncover and simmer about 10 more minutes to let the liquid reduce a bit.

Remove the bay leaf and puree half the chowder in a blender until smooth. Return the pureed chowder back to the stockpot. Add the lime juice, milk, and maple syrup. Simmer for 5 more minutes. Let the chowder sit for 10 minutes before serving.

Barbeque Meatballs
Makes 4 dozen meatballs

Preheat the oven to 350°

Sauce:
2 cups catsup
2 cups brown sugar
¼ of a large yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon Liquid Smoke
½ teaspoon garlic salt

Mix the sauce ingredients in a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the sauce while you mix and form the meatballs.

Meatballs:
1 large can of evaporated milk
2 cups oatmeal
¾ of a large onion, diced
2 eggs
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons salt
½ tablespoon black pepper
½ tablespoon garlic powder
3 lbs. lean ground beef

Mix the first 8 ingredients together in a large bowl. Work the ground beef into the mixture. Form the mixture into small meatballs (slightly smaller than ping pong balls). Place the meatballs in a single layer on two cookie sheets.

Cover the meatballs with the sauce and bake for 1 hour.

Although I’ve had nearly two days to recuperate and gather my wits after three days on the road, I’m still not feeling particularly coherent. Moreover, I’m not feeling at all motivated to be coherent, so I’m just going to bullet-point a few random thoughts and observations about our adventures thus far:

  • T. Boone Pickens–or someone similarly inclined–has covered a large portion of central Texas with wind turbines. For miles, you see them perched on the mesas and lined up across the cotton fields. Hundreds of them in every direction. Almost makes you feel like aliens have invaded. Eerie, but very ecologically minded. Brownie points–I mean, Greenie Points–for Texas.

Texas going green

En masse, the turbines look like an army of giant aliens

  • Anyone who bemoans the desolation of western Kansas and eastern Colorado has never driven across the west half of Texas. Seriously. Nothing…nothing…and more nothing…sprinkled with an occasional oil refinery. Personally, I’d rather see the nothing.

The nothingness of western Texas

  • Right smack dab in the middle of all the nothing (translation: Midland, Texas) are three of the nicest people I’ve ever met. On Wednesday afternoon, Teddy and I pit-stopped at the Texas Visitors’ Center there, desperately in need of a wee. The Visitors’ Center was the only place we could find that had anything approximating a grassy patch for Teddy’s…uh hum…convenience. (Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a grassy patch of any kind–either green or brown–anywhere south and west of Gainesville, Texas?) Anyway, after Teddy had taken care of business, I decided to loop his leash around the base of a tree so he could sit outside and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine–as opposed to sitting in the car–while I went inside for my own pit stop. He wasn’t having it. Barked like a maniac, so I took him up to the patio in front of the building and tried looping the leash around a park bench set in concrete by the front door. Again, Mr. Separation Anxiety wasn’t going for it, so I poked my head in the door and asked if pets were allowed in the Center. A very sweet-looking lady looked up and shook her head slowly, but when she saw the desperation in my face and the Tedster sitting out on the sidewalk, she jumped up from the desk, saying, “If you have an dog out there, I’ll be happy to watch him for you,” followed by, “He doesn’t bite, does he?” as she headed for the door. She was outside introducing herself to Teddy before I could even answer. By the time I got back outside less than five minutes later, all three employees (the only three people within 50 miles of the Center) were out on the patio, fussing over His Royal Fuzz-Buttness–one of them snapping pictures of Teddy like he was a visiting dignitary. Of course, in Teddy’s world, he is. What a ham! He has yet to meet a stranger. I wish I’d gotten a picture of those lovely people. You need to stop in and meet them.

"Hey! Don't you walk away from me. Do you hear me?"

  • In a related observation, I can’t prove this, but I’m convinced that Teddy makes an extra effort to turn on the charm around pretty girls. I caught him making bigger and sadder than normal I-sure-could-use-an-ear-scratchin’ eyes on two different occasions when cute girls were nearby. Both efforts resulted in said ear-scratching, clucking, and cooing. He’s absolutely shameless. I’m betting Teddy wishes I’d gotten pictures of them.
  • We were only on the road for a few hours before Teddy figured out we were going to be in the car for a while and he quieted, but it took him a day and a half to finally find the optimal position for nap-taking. Once he figured it out, he napped with gusto.

"Close, but nope."

"Dang, this isn't it either."

"Ahhhh, there we go."

  • Teddy is also confused. All the landscaping in Dad’s condo complex is a variation on the same theme: rocks. Big rocks, little rocks, black rocks, red rocks, medium rocks. In a word, rocks. Worse, none of the trees or bushes in and amongst the rocks are even slightly familiar. Some are even prickly. More than once, Teddy has looked up at me as if to say, “What the hell?” Certainly an adventure for a little guy with Midwestern sensibilities who is used to having an acre of thick grass on which to poo and wee. He is, however, thoroughly enjoying the sunshine. Yesterday, we sat out on the front stoop for nearly an hour just watching the world go by and soaking up the warmth, thankful to be out of the weather mess back home. To those of you in the Midwest, I’ll do my best to bring some sunshine home with me.
  • If you survive the tedium of nothing and get far enough west in Texas, you’re treated to some really lovely mountains.

The Guadalupe Mountains in far west Texas

The Guadalupe Mountains basking in the sun

  • Travelers’ Advisory: Even if you’re bone-tired and don’t think you can drive another mile; even if the caffeine you’re mainlining is no longer working and you’re in peril of driving off the road if you don’t stop immediately, do not stay at the Guesthouse Suites in El Paso. Keep driving. That’s all I’m saying. I’ll let their little “welcome” sign in the bathroom say the rest–except to add their towels and pillows were total crap. And the room wasn’t all that clean. But that’s all I’m saying.

Dear Guesthouse Suites El Paso Management, I must both compliment your unfaltering ineptness while checking me in and thank you for the lovely welcome sign in the bathroom. I was charmed.

  • For the first time in all the years I’ve been coming out to Arizona, I finally got to see snow in the mountains. How ironic. I drive 1,500 miles to get away from the snow and the cold and then nearly drive off the interstate trying to take a picture of the snow. Brilliant.

Yes, VIrginia, that's snow in southern Arizona

  • I recommend driving into Arizona on I-10 West. You go through Texas Canyon, one of the prettiest places in the state. A place where it looks like the desert gods have been playing with Silly Sand on either side of the highway. You remember Silly Sand, don’t you? You know, the stuff we used to play with back in the 60s? As an aside, you can still buy this vintage toy…if you have a mere $200. For those of you too young to remember Silly Sand…my sympathies. Playing with Silly Sand was a blast. A messy blast that typically pissed off the parents, but a blast!

Some of the formations in Texas Canyon

Hundreds of teetery rock formations seemily rise up out of nothing

More soon…

When I was a kid in the 1960s, going to downtown Kansas City was a big deal. We always knew a week or so in advance that we were going and, on the big day, had to dress in our Sunday school clothes and nice shoes. We rarely went unless it was for a special occasion like back-to-school shopping or to take out-of-town company to do a bit of sightseeing, but at no time was downtown more fun to visit than during the holidays. Back then, suburban malls were starting to catch on, but downtown was still where the real magic happened.

At Christmas time, giant crowns hung over all the major intersections and twinkly Christmas lights lined both sides of the streets. Retailers battled one another to see who could create the most enchanting window displays. Although they were all worth stopping to ogle, my favorites were always the moving mechanical displays of Santa’s elves making toys in the windows at Harzfeld’s. Or was it Adler’s? Shoot, I was a little kid. I can’t remember. All I remember was being jostled by all the other people–big and small–who wanted to press their noses to the glass just like I was doing.

The other mechanical must-see was the giant laughing Santa at Emery Bird Thayer. The enormous Santa still laughs today, only now he’s at Crown Center for a whole new generation to enjoy.

Of course, no visit to downtown at Christmas was complete without a visit to see the big guy himself at the Jones Store. Looking back, I’m awed by the amount of work the folks at Jones did to create pure Christmas delight for the children of Kansas City every year. What seemed like one whole floor of the store (although I’m sure now that was just a child’s perspective) was turned into Santa’s Village complete with a train that took us, mouths open and eyes bugged, through the North Pole and Santa’s Workshop before dropping us off to stand in line to share our wish lists with the jolly old elf.

If my sister and I were extra good (or lucky), we’d also get to visit the Christmas Fairy Princess at Kline’s. The beautiful Fairy Princess would ask us to make a wish, and then she’d wave her sparkly magic wand over our heads and give us a present. Really. It couldn’t get much better.

And then, by the time I’d graduated from high school, most if not all the big department stores in downtown Kansas City had fled to the suburban malls, and the area was well on its way to becoming the ghost town it was for nearly 30 years.

Not anymore. I am thrilled to tell you that while no large department stores have returned to the area yet, many smaller retailers have along with a host of restaurants, lofts and condos in every price range, a grand public library, a 18,000-seat multi-use arena, a state-of-the-art movie theater, and a food-lovers’ grocery store. Most of the existing performance venues have been refurbished in the last ten years, and the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is scheduled to open in the fall of 2011.

Downtown Kansas City is well on it’s way to being fabulous. Maybe not the vibrant downtown of my childhood yet, but it’s getting there. A real downtown again! There are even Christmas lights!

Tom and I were down there on Monday afternoon and evening, and the place was bustling. On a Monday! In frigid temperatures! I’m telling you, people, if you live here in Kansas City and haven’t been downtown yet, escape from the ‘burbs and go. If  you don’t live here in Kansas City, please come visit us soon. Enjoy the amenities of our new downtown. Yes, you may have to pay a little bit for parking, but it’s worth it. I promise. Here are a few pictures to tempt you:

Looking south on Main Street

Ingredient - a yummy local restaurant with a terrific menu

Cosentino's Market - they have everything...we checked!

The streets are lined once again with Christmas lights and people

A great theater for date night

What are you waiting for? GO!

The UPS man delivered the last box of gifts an hour or so ago. Whew! All the presents are now wrapped and under the tree. Dinner is in the oven. Dessert is cooling on the counter top, and–as the weather wonks predicted–the sleet and ice have begun to fall.

A white Christmas?

We woke up to temperatures in the 50s this morning, but it’s well below freezing now. If the local meteorologists are right, we’ll wake up to a white Christmas tomorrow morning. I’ll believe it when I see it, but they get Brownie points for being right about the sleet. Hey, it’s Christmas. I’m feeling generous. Brownie points for everyone!

The halls--and the tree--are decked...finally

All that’s left to do is fix a nice glass of egg nog with a splash (or a big glug) of rum, take a long, hot shower, and get ready for dinner, but I just had to stop long enough to wish you all a Merry Christmas. I really hope you’re tucked in someplace warm and toasty, surrounded by the people you love–or at least like a lot. May your entire holiday season be filled with family, friends, laughter, good music, and lots of yummy food. And maybe a little rum.

Ho! Ho! Ho!

Hard to believe, but I’m actually happy to be home from Paradise. Oh, we had a fantastic time for sure, but after twelve days on the road…getting in and out of the minivan dozens of times every day…schelpping luggage and tote bags around…and sleeping in strange beds every night, I was most happy to come home and see my boys, my own bathroom, and my bed. And, as has been the case any time I’ve traveled off on my own during the nearly 29 years of our marriage, I came home to a spotless house, an empty laundry basket, a shiny, clean car with a full gas tank, and a bouquet of flowers. Sorry, girls. Tom’s taken. Permanently.

I have so much to tell you–and I will over the next week or two–stuff I just never had the time to sit down and write while we were there mostly because we crammed every day full. By the time we got back to the condo in the evening, we were exhausted. Plus, I encountered technical difficulties at our condo in Waikiki. The one time I attempted to post while we were there, downloading a picture took forever. Since I have lots of pictures to post, I quickly decided I just wasn’t going to use my time in Hawaii watching a stupid progress indicator crawl slowly up to 100% over and over again…especially when there were mai tais to drink, beaches to be walked along, and sunsets to watch.

However, I can report–smugly–that we came home with every item checked off of Ruth’s list of things to see and do. A list that included seeing a volcano, watching a lava flow up close at night, shopping, visiting Pearl Harbor, exploring a coffee plantation and a pineapple plantation, shopping, learning about Hawaii’s history at the Iolani Palace in Honolulu, attending a luau, seeing the BIG waves off the North Shore of Oahu, shopping, and dipping her toes in the surf. We did it ALL! Plus a bit more. And we have the pictures to prove it–more than 1,000 pictures plus hours of video shot and narrated by Carole. Hours. Seriously. She missed nothing.

I’ve given you of brief synopsis of what we did on the Big Island in a previous post, but over the next week or so, I’ll share more details and pictures of our adventures on both islands. Meantime, I’m sorting through all our photos, my notes, the literature we picked up, and my memories while scrambling to get back into the routine of my everyday life. I thank you in advance for your patience while I get it all done. How about if I tempt you to come back with pictures of our view from the lanai at our condo in Waikiki?

Mahalo and aloha!

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The view from our lanai in Waikiki looking north

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The view from our lanai looking south toward Diamond Head - see it peeking over the top of the buildings?

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Moonlight over Waikiki - the morning we left for the airport

Okay, okay. I know I promised that I would keep you all updated on our travels, but that was before I found out we would be going non-stop, all day, every day for the last four days. Any time we’ve been here at the condo since early Friday morning, it’s been to shower, sleep, and get organized for the next outing. This evening, after four full days of exploring the Big Island, we’ve come back early to re-group and get ready to fly to Oahu tomorrow afternoon. Finally, I have a bit of time to write and get you all caught up. I don’t have time to go into great detail, but I will give you an overview of what we’ve been doing.

Friday was our only truly leisurely morning on the lanai. Oh sure, we’ve eaten breakfast out there every morning because what kind of idiots would we be if we didn’t, but our morning meal has become more of a planning session than a relaxing repast. With maps, tourist magazines, and Fodor’s spread out before us, we plan our daily forays with a level of precision that would put most military strategists to shame. Our efforts have paid off. In four days, we’ve covered nearly every corner of this island. That’s not to say that we’ve seen everything. Far from it; however, we have gotten our money’s worth. That’s all I’m saying.

Because our door-to-door travel time getting from KC to Kailua-Kona on Thursday promised to be a nearly 24-hour affair, we agreed weeks ago that Friday would be a day of rest and relaxation. Ha! Excitement and adrenaline got the better of us, and we were out the door before lunchtime, headed into town.

Our first stop was a locally owned restaurant in the shopping district along the waterfront. While our noon meal was nothing to blog about, the quaint little oceanside city of Kailua-Kona is. Shops, galleries, and open-air restaurants line the narrow winding road that runs along the coast. Since few sidewalks exist, visitors and locals alike walk single file along the edge of the pavement as they go about their business while locals sit along the seawall watching the tourists parade by in their goofy hats and loud Hawaiian shirts. A few of the more industrious locals weave hats out of reeds or strum guitars as they watch the world go by, but most just sit and enjoy the show.

Downtown Kailua-Kona

After lunch we did a bit of wandering ourselves, stopping first in an art gallery, then the grounds of St. Michael’s Catholic Church, and finally at the flea market where we loaded up on some exotic local fruits, including dragon fruit, rambutans, and papayas. After a quick run back to the condo, we returned to a well-reviewed restaurant (thanks to the restaurant-finding application on Carey’s iPod) in Kailua-Kona to enjoy dinner on their open-air patio perched on piers above the water. The drinking of fruity alcoholic beverages with little umbrellas ensued.

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Rambutans

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Dragon fruit

Our Saturday morning started early because we were heading across the island to see the volcano. To get there, we traveled south along the Kona Coast, stopping as we went to see Kealakekua Bay and St. Benedict’s Painted Church.

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Kealakekua Bay

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St. Benedict's Painted Church

As we rounded the southern tip of the island, we got off the main highway and headed even further south down a bumpy mostly one-lane road (Hertz is going to love us) to South Point (Ka Lae) the southern-most tip of the island which is also the southern-most tip of the United States. Talk about windswept and desolate. You feel like you’re literally clinging to the edge of the world, but, oh my word, is it beautiful.

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The road to Ka Lae (South Point)

At some point in the last twenty or so years, some enterprising soul thought to erect a wind farm to capture the gales roaring across the peninsula, but today most of the tall, ghostly white turbines are abandoned and rusting. Only one row of newer looking windmills still spin in the wind. We don’t know why, but there you are.

The rutted narrow road leading to South Point ends at a parking area more than a quarter of a mile up a rather steep incline from the water, so we all piled out and started hiking. I’m so glad we did. The sea was at low tide, so as we clamored over the hardened lava flow lining the beach, we found numerous tide pools full of small fish and tiny crabs.

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Ka Lae (South Point)

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Exploring the tide pools on Ka Lae

Our next stop was at a black sand beach on the east side of the island called Punalu’u Beach Park where we saw a big ol’ sea turtle sunning himself, doing his best to ignore all the tourists who were flapping around him, snapping pictures.

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Sunbathing sea turtle

After another hour or so of driving, we could see the plume of smoke rising from Kilauea and could smell the sulphur. Only a few minutes later we arrived at what the GPS was telling us was the entrance to the park. It was closed! In a bit of a panic, we tuned the car radio to the park’s information station and learned that the volcano’s sulphur emissions are currently two to four times levels considered safe, so the National Park Service had closed the downwind half of the road that runs around the rim of the volcano. Luckily for us and everyone else atop Kilauea that day, the upwind portion of the park was still open. Hazzah! We hurried to that entrance and to the visitor’s center. At this point, I could write forever about what we saw and experience at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park—I think all five of us would hardily agree that we enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime experience—but I could never do it all justice in the short time I have to write this post, but I will give you a short synopsis and then post pictures.

In a nutshell: we stood at the rim of the caldera where the plume we saw as we approached the park was rising hundreds of feet into the sky; we saw steam pouring from vents all around us and even got to stand right over a couple of the vents and feel the heat rising from the earth’s interior; we walked through the Thurston Lava Tube, “a lighted prehistoric cavelike tube”  where “several hundred years ago a river of red hot lava rushed through” on its way to the sea; and we walked nearly a mile across a hardened lava field in the pitch dark (aided only by dinky little flashlights) to see fiery lava flowing down the side of the volcano, through the vegetation where trees exploded in its path, and finally into the ocean where massive towers of glowing red and orange smoke rose into the night sky. It was spectacular. It was breath-taking. It was unbelievable. And, please note, when I say “we,” I mean all five of us. Ruth did it all. She’s a ROCK STAR!

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The Kilauea caldera

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A steam vent

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Thurston Lava Tube

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Lava flowing down the mountain

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Trees bursting into flames

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Lava spilling into the sea

It was nearly midnight by the time we got back over the mountains (volcanoes) and into bed, but we were up early on Sunday because Ruth, Janie, and Carole wanted to go to mass before we headed out to explore the Hilo side of Hawaii. While the three of them went into Kailua-Kona to attend mass at St. Michael’s, the nearly 160-year-old church we’d seen on Friday, a church where half the mass is done in Hawaiian, Carey and I did some research and mapped our route for the day.

They were back by 10:30 and we were headed to Hilo. This time, instead of going around the bottom of the island, we headed toward the top and crossed over on the north side of Mauna Kea, the tallest volcano on the island. Although it has not erupted in nearly 4,500 years, it is still considered an active volcano.

The Hilo side of the island is wetter than the Kona side, so it’s more tropical and lush. Hundreds of waterfalls flow from the mountaintops on that side of the island, many of which can be seen just driving down the highway. But we wanted to see a waterfall up close, so we stopped in Akaka Falls State Park to see one of the most dazzling and accessible falls (many require a strenuous hike or a four-wheel-drive vehicle to get to) on that part of the island. Spilling more than 400 feet to the floor of a steamy tropical rainforest filled with banyan trees, banana trees, two- and three-story tall bamboo shoots as thick as a weightlifter’s thigh, and hundreds of tropical plants and orchids of every shape and color, Akaka Falls is…is…well, shoot, I’m running out of adjectives. Some things you just have to see for yourself.

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Akaka Falls

After our stroll through the rainforest, we headed into Hilo with the intent of going to a botanical garden, but the garden was closed. We have no idea why, but this is Hawaii. Islanders seem to close things when it suits them. Guide books be damned. Probably a good day for surfing or fishing. Who knows. We weren’t too upset though. Short of having labels to tell us what we’d been looking at back at the Falls, we’d already walked through a spectacular botanical garden…even though—until a German tourist set us straight—we thought the blooms on the banana tree we were ogling and taking pictures of were some kind of an orchid. Somehow we missed the big bunches of bananas hanging nearby. Hey, give us a break. How many banana trees have you seen growing in Kansas!?

We noodled around with the idea of stopping to do some shopping in Hilo, but after the extremely late night the previous evening, we decided to make our way back to the other side of the island and eat dinner closer to the condo. Once again, Carey and some gee-whiz application on her iPod found us a great place to eat.

Monday, Ruth got a quick hit of Walmart and Target as we went screaming through both in search of aqua socks and sun hats. I don’t think she was very pleased about being rushed through her favorite haunts so quickly, but we were on a mission. We were heading to a local coffee plantation and then to the beach.

Compared to the other islands in the chain, there aren’t many sand beaches on the Big Island, but the ones that are here are gorgeous. For example, the Big Island has the only green sand beach in the world. Unfortunately, we were unable to go because it can only be accessed via an hour-and-a-half-long hike. Please note, if you plan on visiting the Big Island, rent a four-wheel drive and bring your hiking shoes. Many of the most raved about sites are hard to get to.

Anyway, for our outing on Monday, we chose a beach with easy access on the northwest shore called Hapuna Beach. It was glorious: white sand, rolling surf, and palm trees lining the beach. Because of the other activities we had planned for the day, we didn’t bring our suits, but we waded in as far as our capris, shorts, or skirts would allow. Not surprisingly, we walked out of the surf dripping wet from thighs down, smiling like idiots, sand between our toes. Even Ruth got in. Really. I have pictures. Look!

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Ruth ventures in...slowly

From the beach, we headed up to Kawaihae Harbor for a late lunch and a bit of shopping and then back to the condo to get ready to leave tomorrow…which is where we are now. If all goes as planned, Ruth, Janie, and Carole will be up and out the door early to cram in as much shopping as they can manage before we have to head to the airport. Carey and I will be holding down lounge chairs at the pool overlooking the ocean. Hey, someone’s got to do it.

Aloha!

My mother-in-law, Ruth, sisters-in-law, Janie and Carole, my daughter, Carey, and I departed for Hawaii from Kansas City on time Thursday morning with minimal flap. Oh, there was the requisite jostling of crap in and out of tote bags, digging in purses for IDs, and fumbling for Ziploc bags full of toiletries, but for this group of travelers, that can safely be called minimal flap. The flight itself was smooth and uneventful—that is, if you don’t count the coffee Ruth spilled on Janie—and we were even treated to a view of the Grand Canyon at no extra charge. Janie, Ruth, and Carole had a good view of the canyon from their side of the plane. Carey and I crossed the aisle for a peek. We touched down in LA 15 or 20 minutes early.

Thankfully, our layover in LA went very smoothly. I’ll admit, I jumped the gun on the airport shuttle, taking the shuttle that was headed to the parking lots instead of to the departure gates—Hey! the driver lied and told me he’d take us there—but we got where we needed to go with only minimal fuss, so no foul.

Once our checked luggage was safely on its way to whatever vortex checked luggage disappears into, we found a spot to sit and relax while we waited for Encounter, the restaurant atop the funky spaceship-looking building in the center of the airport complex, to open at 11 a.m. We had plenty to occupy us as we waited. LA is a fun place to people watch. I’m fairly the certain the per capita number of folks in sunglasses is at its highest in LA. Plus, Carey thinks she saw the guy who wrote and starred in Super Size Me, but we couldn’t be certain. I’m sorry to say, no other celebrity sightings occurred.

The spaceship building at LAX is under renovation, so we had to skirt scaffolding and union protesters as we walked around the perimeter hunting for the entrance to Encounter. The scaffolding was up when I went through LA in March, and it doesn’t look like they’ve made any progress to speak of since. Anyway, after much marching about and asking for directions from kind (and bemused) strangers, our little parade of five, toting sundry Hawaiian rolling bags, backpacks, and purses, finally found the entrance and made our way to the elevators.

The Entourage

The Entourage

An Elevator Encounter

An elevator Encounter

The elevators going up to Encounter are an experience all on their own. The small, capsule-like enclosures with wild-colored amoeba shapes climbing up the walls have psychedelic piped-in music that starts as soon as the doors close and that stops as soon as the doors open. Groovy, man. The doors open onto a bar area and a mostly unobstructed 360° view of LAX…and the LA smog. Cough. Cough.

The manager of the restaurant greeted us like we were long-lost relatives and, with a grand flourish, showed us to a great table with a view, indicating a spot along a nearby wall where we could deposit our plunder. We had a lot of time to kill before our flight to Honolulu, so the meal was a leisurely affair. We took the edge off our hunger with a plate of edemame before enjoying our salads and sandwiches. And, of course, we took pictures. Pictures of the food, pictures of the view, pictures of us, pictures of us with Duane (our waiter), pictures of the funky bathroom, and pictures of the elevator. Our time at Encounter was well documented.

Janie, Ruth, Carole, Mary, Carey, and Duane at Encounter

Janie, Ruth, Carole, Mary, Carey, and Duane at Encounter

Then it was back to the terminal and through security. More fumbling.

Our flight to Honolulu was delayed while mechanics worked to replace the pilot’s oxygen canister. Apparently, testing showed it was threatening to malfunction. I suppose if anyone on the plane needs an oxygen mask in an emergency, it would be the pilot, so we waited…and waited…and waited. Just over an hour after our scheduled departure time, we pushed back from the gate and were on our way.

We were on a 767, a plane with two seats on the outside of the aisles and three seats between them. When I booked the flight, I struggled with our seat selection because I knew that Janie, Carole, and Carey would enjoy having a window seat and that Ruth would want a seat where she COULDN’T see the water. I settled on the outside aisle seats in three consecutive rows, seated two, two, and one. On that flight, I was the one. My seatmate, Mike, was a very nice man whom I would guess to be in his mid- to late-50s, a nice man who was easily 6’5” and close to 300 pounds. He sat in the aisle seat and, after lifting the armrest, part of mine. I’m not complaining, really. Mike was as pleasant and as considerate as he could have possibly been under the circumstances, but I was still smashed against the window. And then, as is so often the case when I find myself of long distance flights, I was sitting behind a total tool who threw his seat back into my lap. Whop!

The tool was the same numb nuts who got on the plane with a “carry-on” that was just barely smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle and who spent more than 20 minutes trying to cram the aforementioned monstrosity into an overhead bin where it clearly was NEVER going to fit. Finally, in frustration, he began asking other passengers if he could move their bags to bins further back in the plane so he could get his stowed. He then had the gall to act indignant when they told him, “No!” I repeat. He was a numb nuts, a total jerk who sat down RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME! Within 20 minutes his Mohawk—yes, he had a Mohawk, not a faux-hawk, but a Mohawk and he was easily my age—was lying in my lap sound asleep.

Meanwhile, a few rows back, Janie and Carole were having their own adventures. Early in the flight, Carole tried to get her headphones plugged in. As she fumbled around trying to insert the plug into any hole she could find within arm’s reach, she unknowingly pushed the call button. Both she and Janie were surprised when a cheerful flight attendant appeared asking what they needed. After assessing the situation and their blank faces, he smiled knowingly, gallantly plugged in Carole’s headset, and headed off to assist other hapless passengers. Sometime later, he re-appeared—this time, not so cheerily—and reached over their heads to turn off the call light that once again had mysteriously come on. Then, without saying a word, he reached over Janie and punched Carole’s call button (probably to disable it) and left. Carole was mortified, Janie was amused, and the flight attendant was…well, I’m guessing he’s seen it all before.

Thanks to Janie’s forethought and Darrell and Janie’s generosity, we were greeted at Honolulu International Airport with orchid leis. Much picture taking ensued. Daisy, the lei lady—I kid you not, her name was really Daisy; how’s that for irony—was absolutely wonderful. Thanks to her kind and patient guidance, our plane change in Honolulu went off without a hitch. As an added bonus, the intoxicating smell of the leis totally masked the full day of travel stink we’d accumulated since our departure from Kansas City nearly 21 hours earlier.

aDaisy Greets Ruth at the Airport
Daisy greets Ruth at the airport
Of course we're smiling. We just got lei'd!

Aloha! Hawaii

After a pleasant and very short flight, we were at the car rental place in Kona by 9:00 p.m. While Ruth guarded the luggage and Carole squirreled around with the GPS that her husband, Paul, had so thoughtfully pre-programmed with many of our destinations, the rest of us stood in line to get our car. Well, actually, it’s a minivan, but let’s not split hairs.

After loading the minivan with our luggage, we took off for a Safeway to get a few breakfast supplies before heading to the condo. We wanted to be sure that we wouldn’t have to get out this morning if we didn’t want to. We didn’t want to. It was pitch dark when we got here last night, so we couldn’t see the view off our lanai, but we could hear it. This morning, the view took our breath away. We’ve been sitting out here pretty much non-stop ever since. As Carey so insightfully and eloquently pointed out at one point during our reverie, “This does not suck.”

I’ll post a running narrative of our Hawaiian adventures here on this blog (including more details about the condo), and I’ll post information about specific places we visit on P.S. Wish You Were Here. We hope you’ll tag along!

Aloha!

The view off our lanai looking north

The view off our lanai looking north

The view looking north

The view looking south

The shore 25 feet off our lanai

The shore 25 feet off our lanai