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Seriously. I shouldn’t complain about having to come home from Mexico. Granted, I had to leave this…

Moon Palace - Cancun, Mexico

Around the pool in the evening - Moon Palace Sunrise, Riviera Maya

Moon Palace - Cancun, Mexico

The pool - Moon Palace Grand, Riviera Maya

Moon Palace - Cancun, Mexico

One of eight infinity pools at Moon Palace Grand

Moon Palace - Cancun, Mexico

The view from our balcony

Moon Palace - Cancun, Mexico

The view from the sushi bar

Moon Palace - Cancun, Mexico

Sunrise over Moon Palace Grand

But I got to come home to this…

Spring in Kansas City

Tulips along Shawnee Mission Parkway

Spring in Kansas City

The Aristocrat Pear off our back porch

Spring in Kansas City

The neighbor's redbud

Spring in Kansas City

Buds on our flowering crabapple

Spring in Kansas City

Another flowering crabapple framed by our Aristocrat Pear

So you see, it’s really ridiculous for me to complain. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss this gorgeous spring for anything! I hope your spring, wherever you are, is just as beautiful…maybe less pollen soaked than we are here at the moment…but still showy and colorful and glorious. Oh, dang it, hold on…AhhhhhhCHOOOO! Whew! Sigh.

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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.

Ever since going gluten free (GF) nearly a year ago, I have searched for and experimented with a multitude of GF alternatives for certain foods. Unfortunately, my efforts have largely been for naught. Don’t get me wrong, GF food isn’t all horrible; but, as a general rule, it is different than the “real” food it’s trying to replace. Different taste, different density, vastly different texture. Some GF foods are perfectly fine, but some just don’t work in translation.

For example, you can find GF bread fairly easily, but it’s really not “bread” as most of us know it. At least not the yummy, yeasty, warm, airy loaves of heavenly near-orgasm-inducing goodness available at your neighborhood bakery. Nope. Nothing like that at all. GF bread is an entirely different animal.

In all fairness, GF bread sort of looks like normal bread, and, yes, technically you can smear it with peanut butter and jelly or grill it into something that approximates a grilled cheese; the problem comes when you try to eat it. I have yet to be able to choke down more than four or five bites of any type of GF bread. That’s good and bad. The upside is you’re actually full–stuffed, really–after four or five bites. The downside is you feel like you’re eating a hunk of slightly damp drywall in the process. I suspect this paragraph is going to produce a flood of responses from my wonderfully supportive and compassionate readers with recipes attached for “gluten-free bread so good you’ll never know it’s not the real thing.” Fabulous! Send ’em on. I would love to be proved wrong. Oh, how I would love to be proved wrong. Until then, I’ll just wrap my ham and cheese or tuna salad in a lettuce leaf.

Even though I’ve pretty much given up hope of ever eating “real” bread again, I have discovered some very pleasant substitutes along the way for other foods I despaired of never being able to eat again, so I thought I’d take the time to share a couple of those recipes with those of you who have to eat GF,  who are thinking about experimenting with eating GF, or who would just love to bake some delectable goodies for me as a SURPRISE! Anyone? Anyone?

THE FIRST RECIPE

The first discovery I want to share with you is a cheesecake. For the last six months or so, I have experimented repeatedly with a crustless GF cheesecake recipe that a friend gave me years ago, but I have never managed to get it quite right. The finished cheesecake from this recipe usually tastes good–great, even–but the texture or some other aspect of the thing would be all wrong. Certainly not something I could serve to guests (other than my kids) or take to someone else’s home as my contribution to a meal. More importantly, it didn’t have a crust!

Enter Kinnikinnick Foods S’moreables Graham Style Crackers, graham crackers for the GF crowd. I had noticed these little gems in the health food section of my local store on several occasions, but I’d assumed–based on previous experiences with similar products–that they’d be a disappointment. Oh, ye of little faith. Last week, I finally picked up a package of the crackers, instead of just sneering at them as my gaze grazed the display, and noticed a recipe for Lemon Cheesecake on the back of the box using the crackers to make the cheesecake’s crust. Sold. Heck, what did I have to loose? The crustless version was going nowhere fast, so I gathered the ingredients and headed home to give it a whirl.

Oh, my gosh. Heaven! Crust! Creamy cheesy goodness and crust!

Gluten-Free Lemon Cheesecake

Crust:
1 package (8 oz.) of Kinnikinnick S’moreables Graham Style Crackers, crushed into crumbs
1/4 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons melted butter

Grease and line the base and sides of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment paper.

Combine the crushed crackers, sugar, and butter. Mix well. Press the crumb mixture onto the bottom and 2 inches up the sides of the prepared pan. Refrigerate for 1 hour.

Filling:
2 (8 oz.) packages of cream cheese, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons grated lemon peel
2/3 cup sour cream
1/2 ricotta cheese
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs, room temperature

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Using an electric mixer, beat the first three ingredients in a large bowl until smooth; do not over beat. Add the sour cream, ricotta, lemon juice, and vanilla. Beat until combined. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until combined before adding the next egg. Pour the filling into the crust. Place the pan on a baking sheet. Bake, uncovered, in the preheated oven for about 1 hour or until the cheesecake is set. Cool. Cover the springform pan and refrigerate the cheesecake for 8 hours or overnight.

Serve with whipped cream and berries or drizzled with chocolate. Use your imagination.

THE SECOND RECIPE

The second recipe I want to share–the one I’m really excited about–is one I got this weekend when I attended a gluten-free desserts class at the Culinary Center of Kansas City. Before I go any further, if you live in the KC metro area (and love food) and have never visited or taken a class at the Culinary Center, I must insist that you remedy the situation immediately. Seriously. They offer so much: hands-on cooking classes, dinners on demand, bistro dinners, team builders, Tuesday staff lunches, private parties…the list is long and grows longer every year. I’ve never participated in any activity there that I didn’t enjoy. Plus most everything they do involves a glass of wine…or two. I’ve given you the link to their site. Check it out!

Anyway, the gluten-free desserts class was taught by Danica Pollard, the pastry chef at Lidia’s. Okay, I must pause again–briefly–if you live in the KC metro area and have never been to Lidia’s, a fabulous Italian restaurant located in the Freight House in the Crossroads District, get out of your chair right now and call for a reservation. Better yet, stay right where you are and click on either link I’ve provided and make your reservation online. You won’t be sorry…even if you’re GF. If  you’re not GF, I recommend the Pasta Tasting Trio. Man, I miss the Pasta Tasting Trio. Okay, back to our regularly scheduled post…

Danica made four incredibly delicious gluten-free desserts, and not one of them tasted–or had the mouth-feel–of your typical GF offering. My favorite was her GF Super Fudgey Brownies, which I share with you now (because I love you):

Danica Pollard’s Gluten-Free Super Fudgey Brownies

1 cup GF flour mixture (see below)
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa
8 oz. 60-72% chocolate, in small pieces
6 oz. butter
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
4 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon double strength vanilla

GF Flour Mixture (makes 9 cups):
6 cups white rice flour
2 cups potato starch (not potato flour)
1 cup tapioca flour
3 tablespoons xantham gum

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Sift together the flour, salt, and cocoa. Set aside.

Place the chocolate and the butter in a metal or heatproof bowl over simmering water or in a double-boiler. Allow the chocolate and butter to melt slowly, stirring frequently until they are completely melted. Turn off the heat.

With the bowl still over the water, whisk the sugars in until well mixed. Remove the bowl from the heat and fold in the eggs and vanilla. Gently fold in the dry ingredients. Do not over mix. The more you fold or stir the batter, the cakier and less fudge-like the brownies will be.

Pour the batter into a greased 9×13 glass baking dish (Danica recommends a glass baking dish if you want the brownies to be really fudgey–believe me, you want the brownies to be really fudgey). Bake for 25 minutes. Rotate and then bake for an additional 15-20 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs.

Taaaast-eeee!

So, what are you waiting for? Get going!

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.

…literally. Teddy tooted all the way across New Mexico and half of Texas, which not only made for a rather unpleasant journey, but also a lot of–as it turns out–unnecessary stops at rest areas and truck plazas where we’d pile out of the car and I’d lead him around pleading, “Go potty, Teddy!” in as sweet a voice as I could muster. All to no avail. The goofy dog didn’t do anything until we got checked into the hotel…except fart. If he toots in his sleep tonight, he’s sleeping in the car!

Oh, and if anyone ever asks if you want to go to El Paso, Texas, run the other way as fast as you possibly can. That’s all I’m saying.

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…

Maybe it’s my hormones. Maybe it’s these goofy braces that cause me to make highly embarrassing, cow-stuck-in-the-mud sucking noises unwittingly in public. (Ever had a toot or a belch sneak out on you? Yeah, it’s like that.) Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve had less than a total of six hours of sunshine here in Kansas City since Christmas Eve. Maybe it’s because I’ve given up sweets and haven’t had a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup since December 21. (Yes, it’s pathetic. I actually remember the exact day–and time–I ate my last one. Consider yourself warned.) Maybe it’s cabin fever. Maybe. Or maybe I just have a pissy attitude.

In any case, it’s time to stop wallowing in the funk and get over it.

To that end, I’m going to start by focusing on the good stuff and share it with you here. Reinforce the high points, so to speak.

Let’s start with the snow…or lack thereof. With the exception of some humongous piles still heaped in the parking lots around town, the snow that started falling Christmas Eve has finally melted.

The biggest upside to the snow melting is I can drive my car again. That’s a good thing. I’m not very good behind the wheel of the pickup, my backup vehicle. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful to have a backup vehicle, but the darn thing is just too big. Way too big. Stupid, damn curbs.

Plus, it’s wonderful to be able to see the deck and the backyard again.

We thought it would never melt!

Just in case you’ve forgotten, the pile in the picture above was easily two and a half feet tall at its zenith.

It was unbelievable!

But…before the snow melted, Teddy gave us a valentine in the snow, albeit a few weeks early. Still, what a sweetie! I love Teddy.

Teddy loves me!

Just ignore the poo piles.

Bless his heart, Teddy was a real trooper in the snow. We worried about his ability to navigate through the deep drifts with only three wheels, but with one exception–when he got high-centered on the drift just off the patio–he managed quite well.

Three-wheeling through the snow

Of course, all that three-wheeling required extra naps to recuperate. And snacks. Don’t forget the snacks.

Who turned off the sunshine?

I also got to babysit my grand-dog, Otis, a couple of days last week. He’s always good for a laugh or two.

Otis, a.k.a. Mr. Cool

I love Otis.

Then there’s the kids. They never fail to amuse me…or baffle me. Either way, they’re a diversion. How could I not love them?

I have no idea what this is all about

Oh, and Tom bought me a kick-ass Le Creuset casserole dish. Spicy red. One day I mention how nice it would be to have one; three days later, the UPS guy is bringing it to my door. It’s fabulous! It’s definitely making the other casserole dishes around here feel like wimps. Tom’s a good egg. I love him, too! Even when he doesn’t buy me fancy, French ceramic cookware.

Nice? Oui?

So, see. I’ve had lots of reasons to smile in the last few weeks. There’s no excuse for my foul mood. Still it’s undeniable. I’m currently the poster child of pissy attitudes. Time for drastic measures. Time for a…

ROAD TRIP!

Since I can now get my car out on the road again, I’m going to pack my bags, throw Teddy in the passenger seat, and head for the sunshine and warmer weather in Arizona before the snow comes back. Get the heck outta Dodge while the gettin’s good. So for the next few weeks, feel free to travel with us. We can’t promise to cure your winter blues, but we might be able to divert your attention from the lousy winter weather for a bit. That is unless you live where the weather is already and/or always nice, in which case, you have no earthly idea what I’m talking about and you get no sympathy from me. Still, join Teddy and me. We’d love the company.

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!

We don’t get big snows that often around here, but this snowstorm is one I’m sure most of us will remember for a long time. For those whose Christmas plans and /or travels were grievously disrupted by the weather, the memories probably aren’t going to be all that pleasant, but for those of us lucky enough to be able to stay tucked inside, it’s been quite a show. Tom and I–who fall into the latter category–haven’t had to get out into the cold and onto the snow-packed streets unless we really wanted to, so we’ve enjoyed nearly every frosty, wind-blown moment of it. Tom’s even gotten to use his snow blower, and  I just can’t seem to stop taking pictures. Here are just a few of my pictures:

Christmas snow aftermath

Christmas Snow 2009

All the white has provided quite a backdrop for the “wildlife” around here. For instance, as I was working in the kitchen yesterday afternoon, I looked out and saw what I thought was a coyote chasing a rabbit through the snow in our neighbors backyard. I ran for my camera and shot a dozen or so pictures of him frolicking in the snow. We watched him for nearly 10 minutes and then were sorely disappointed when the neighbors let him into their garage. Either they’re bigger nature lovers than they’ve let on, or they’ve gotten a new dog. Check the animal out in the picture below. Help me out, here. That looks like a coyote, doesn’t it? If you think so, tell Tom. He’s still laughing at me.

Wile E. Coyote, a.k.a. Damn Dog

A closer view for your consideration

It's going to be a long time before we can go out our back door again

Yes, it's as cold as it looks, but at least the wind stopped blowing for a while

Any one want to hazard a guess as to how long it's going to take for these busters to melt?