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You know those stories where a character walks through a door into a completely different world? One where things are totally alien and fascinating and sometimes scary and dangerous? Lucy into Narnia, Alice into Wonderland. I, too, opened a magic door and went into a parallel universe.

A few years ago, I was on a decorating quest in December. I needed a wooden oar and a wicker creel for my dad’s home office. The only place that had both items was Cabela’s, the “world’s foremost outfitter.” I’d heard of Cabela’s, but had never been there. I figured there would be fishing stuff, some camping gear, maybe a kayak or two. And Alice figured it was just a rabbit hole.

I approached the huge, lodge-like building along with hundreds of other Christmas shoppers. I walked up to the glass doors beside a nice looking family carrying their 3-year-old princess. There was a small sign that encouraged me to check my guns at the door. I raised an eyebrow. But the princess wasn’t packing and neither was I, so we went inside.

Now, let me say that I’m not a complete outdoor neophyte. My dad has been a fisherman and hunter most of his life. I was a fisherkid for quite a while. I like nature and have been camping a time or two. But nothing in my experience had prepared me for this place.

Like Dorothy seeing Oz for the first time, I stood there with my mouth hanging open and my eyes bugging out. Stretched out before me were two stories jam packed with outdoor gear. My eyes bounced from vests and boots to poles and boats to sonars and sights to guns and ammo. The place was so big it made all the shoppers look like Munchkins. The sheer volume of stuff was overwhelming. I couldn’t take it all in. I was a stranger in a very strange land. I just hoped someone there spoke Suburban English.

Fortunately, the Land of Cabela’s is divided into mini-lands, each with its own character and signage. Each mini-land is further divided into smaller territories. I wondered if I needed a passport. I put my eyes back into their sockets and headed toward the province called Fish World. I found what I needed in about five minutes. But I was so curious that I decided to explore more of this odd country.

Fish World had a very large walk-through aquarium. Lots of lovely and strange creatures dreamily swimming about in a soft blue glow. It was kind of nice until I realized that they were surrounded by everything you need to kill a fish. Imagine having to stare all day at the tools that would some day snag and gut you. That could mess you up. A large-mouth bass swam up to the glass and gave me boo-boo eyes, begging me for help. It creeped me out a little, so I left.

Up ahead was Crappie Land. I was savvy enough to know that this area had nothing to do with port-a-potties or lousy theme parks. It had to do with an unfortunately named freshwater fish that you catch and throw back. Seems kind of pointless, I know, but there was a ton of Crappie crap to be bought, so somebody must enjoy it.

I was being hypnotized by a wall of fluorescent lures when the heads caught my eye.

Hanging above me, along the store walls, were mounted deer heads. My dad used to have a six-point buck hanging in our home, so it wasn’t a big shock to see something like that. Until I started counting them. I quit at 60. The entire 180,000 square foot showroom was ringed with the heads of dead animals. All sorts of woodland creatures stared down at me with glass eyes and formaldehyde induced grimaces.

As I scanned the showroom with a growing sense of yuck, I saw it. In the center of Cabela Country was Conservation Mountain.

Two stories of fake rock sprinkled with “hundreds of museum-quality wildlife displays in natural habitats.” On one side were polar bears; around the bend were deer and mountain goats. Lynx and caribou and badgers, oh my.

My brain refused to accept the obvious. I found an employee and stuttered, “So, all these animals. . . are they, um, real, or are they just really nice recreations?” She laughed and said, “Oh, they’re real!” Apparently, if you shoot a trophy sized animal Cabela’s will buy and display it in one of their stores. If it’s really special it’ll go on Conservation Mountain. I wanted to ask, “So, you’re conserving what, carcasses?” but I didn’t want to get kicked out just yet, so I just smiled and let her get back to sorting camouflage baby bibs.

Behind Conservation Mountain I found the Mule Deer Museum.

It seems that Mule Deer are on the decline, which is a bad thing. So they have a museum displaying 90 stuffed “Mulies” in their natural surroundings. (I’m assuming that their natural surroundings are fake hills and trees nestled close to hunting rifles inside a giant retail outlet.) There’s also an animatronic “Old Timer” who is happy to tell you that he’d be content huntin’ Mule Deer ‘til the day he dies. Yahoo.

Scattered throughout the display were signs that said, ”Without you the future of the Mule Deer is bleak!” They tried to explain that without hunters the Mule Deer just might disappear.

Now I admit I’ve never had a bent for logic. My kids can solve logic problems better than I can. But it seems to me that when a large company that sells hunting rifles to people who like to shoot animals rewards people for shooting said animals, it just might create a pretty bleak situation right there. Let’s keep the deer alive by giving you guns-n-things to kill them with. And to help motivate you, here’s some money and a shiny plaque. This kind of logic is way over my little head.

I’d had enough of Bleakville, so I moved on. I began to wonder about the other shoppers. What kinds of people voluntarily came to a place like this? I guess I was expecting a bunch of guys named Cletus wandering around in overalls and scratching a lot. But what I saw were normal looking people, most of whom weren’t scratching. Some guys looked like they drove trucks, others probably drove BMWs. I saw a mom with a Cheerio popping toddler near the hunting hats. A young man telling his wife how good she’d look in those camo overalls. A grandma checking the scope on a rifle. The longer I looked, the weirder it got. I felt way out of my element so I tried to be invisible, which is hard to do carrying a six-foot oar and a large basket. Still, I moved carefully. You don’t want to startle someone with a gutting knife in their hands.

I realized that I’d only been exploring the first level of this death world, so I hiked up the grand staircase, which ran right up alongside Conservation Mountain. I got a close up view of all those animals they had saved, especially the ones who had been conserved at higher elevations. Their glassy stares followed me all the way up, making my skin crawl.

I was now in the Realm of Gamey Gourmet Goodness. This place was all about what to do with your critters once they’re dead (besides stuffing them). Did you know that after you kill [insert your favorite animal here] with [insert favorite weapon here] you can gut it, skin it, slice it and grind it up immediately? Yes, for only $49.99, you, too, can own your very own portable meat grinding kit. No more bloody messes in your truck or at home – just grind, heat and eat! Don’t feel like rabbit patties tonight? How about a jerky gun and drying rack for a leathery late night snack? Or a mix to whip up a batch of squirrel stew? And if all that makes you hungry now, you can stop by the in-store café for a freshly killed nosh and a latte. I suppressed the need to hurl and went the other way.

If you want to shop unencumbered by children, just drop your tykes off at the family friendly shooting gallery.

Yes, in this Land O’Killer Kiddies, an animatronic bear and lion greet you at the door, then toss lame insults at each other as the sound of gunshots fills the air. Kids can spend hours with a rifle at the shoulder, popping off half of Noah’s ark. Hmmm, how can we focus the energies of today’s youth? I know, let’s give them guns!

Back downstairs there was a line of people snaking toward another world-within-a-world: Fake African Savannahville. A blue sky backdrop surrounded loads of majestic dead creatures. A small pride of lions lounging peacefully. Some quietly grazing antelope. The special attraction, though, was Santa Claus. People had lined up to have pictures taken with the Jolly Old Elf (he was alive). There he was, in his chair, happy kiddies on his lap. And in the background of all those pictures?

A lion tearing the throat out of a terrified zebra.

And the scariest thing was that no one seemed to mind. Time for me to go.

I hastily dodged through the hordes of holiday hunters, paid for my items and escaped through the magic glass doors. As I breathed in some fresh air and tried to find my happy place, I noticed another line in the parking lot. More parents and their dolled up hunters-to-be were queued up at a little white tent. A sign read “Pictures with Live Reindeer.” I assumed that inside was a hapless reindeer tethered to a festive backdrop of some kind (Armageddon?) and wearing a blanket to soak up dribbles from leaky diapers. I briefly toyed with the idea of setting Rudolph free, just in case anybody had a hankering for reindeer jerky. But angering a bunch of newly armed predators and their spawn at Christmas probably wasn’t such a good idea. I sadly left him to his fate.

As I peeled out of the parking lot, tires smoking, I was grateful that the doors to the eerie world of Cabela’s didn’t open into other worlds. What if the natives encountered Aslan, the White Rabbit, or the Cowardly Lion? The glare of shiny new plaques would be blinding.

So, if ever you find yourself lost in Crappie Land or caught in the laser sights of a 9-year-old on safari, click your heels three times and make a mad dash for the wardrobe. And grab some camo for cover on your way out – there’s an Old Timer in there with an itchy trigger finger looking for something else he can conserve.

Stalking Wonder

“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?”

- from ‘Our Town’ by Thornton Wilder

I recently stumbled across a blog post titled Stalking Wonder. It’s about taking the time and making the effort to seek out the little, every day wonders that make life rich. And that, most of the time, we miss because we’re too busy, too stressed, to inwardly focused.

I had to take the girls to piano lessons last night and, instead of waiting in the car, I decided to explore a nearby park that I’d never taken the time to visit. And I took my camera so I could stalk a little wonder during that hour. So glad I did. If I had stayed in the car, nose in book (one of my favorite places to stick my nose), I would have missed the way the sunshine and shadows danced together in these bushes…

… three very young goslings …

… this craggy landscape of exposed tree roots…

…this sleeping beauty …

…or this turtle sunning himself one more time before dark.

I’m so glad I didn’t miss out on on the wind in these willows…

… or the water droplets on this fellow’s feathers…

And I’m very glad that I took time to find that this, apparently, is where the sidewalk ends:

I think that my new-found interest in photography helps me slow down and stalk some wonder, even in my own back yard.

I’ve always found a deep sense of peace, wonder and connection to God in the things of nature. My handy-dandy digital point-and-shoot and its macro and super macro settings let me get close to the wonders, big and small, that are all around me . I just have to look for them.

And I think that’s why I like sharing my photographs on Facebook and Flickr – I hope that these bits of beauty that I’ve tried to capture will bring a little wonder to you. Help you slow down for just a minute and realize a little life.

Today doesn’t have the sunshine and soft breezes that yesterday did. It’s dark and rainy. So I threw open my window so I could hear the storm. And remember this poem by Langston Hughes:

April Rain Song

Let the rain kiss you.

Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.

Let the rain sing you a lullaby.

The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.

The rain makes running pools in the gutter.

The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night –

I love the rain.

Where will you find wonder today?

Green-a-licious

Green: a color long overdue in this prairie landscape.

One of my favorite bloggers, The Pioneer Woman, has readers submit themed photos now and then. This week’s theme is ‘Green’ and I, for one, am loving all the lush color of the submissions. Check ‘em out here on Flickr.

After 542 days of frigid temps, stony gray skies and/or mounds of ice and snow, I am thrilled to see little green buds sprouting on my trees and shrubs.

To celebrate that spring is finally here, dammit, here are some green-a-licious pictures I’ve taken. Some are recent, some from last spring.

And if you make it to the end of this post, you’ll find a lovely little recipe involving a green veggie. (Even the Mr. said Yum, so you know it’s good!)

Enjoy the green-ness!

Giant cabbage at Powell Gardens

Sea glass

Ash-Leaf Spirea buds

Moss & Lichen on The Grandfather Tree

Sedum 'Autumn Joy' in spring.

Christopher Elbow Chocolates

And here’s the recipe I promised. Quick, easy and tasty. It’s from Smitten Kitchen.

Quick Sauté of Zucchini with Toasted Almonds

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons thinly sliced almonds
  • 1 to 2 small zucchini, cut into 1/8-inch matchsticks with a knife or julienne blade on a mandoline
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Few ounces pecorino Romano or paremsan, in thin slices — a peeler  works great for this

Heat the oil on high in a large skillet. When it is hot but not smoking, add the almonds to the pan. Cook them, while stirring, until the almonds are golden-brown, approximately a minute or two.

Add the zucchini to the pan, tossing it with the oil and almonds until it just begins to glisten, about one minute. The idea is not to cook the zucchini so much as warm it.

Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately, with or without cheese on top.

House Beautiful-ish

Spring Cleaning: What I am not doing.

I like a clean house. I really do. Not that you can tell by looking at my home. Cover of House Beautiful, it’s not.  House Lived in and Slightly Trashed, maybe.

I am not, as they say, a domestic goddess. Had I been among the pantheon of gods and goddesses of the home, I would have been chucked out a long time ago, relegated to the nether regions of earth for being way under qualified for the job.

I could blame it on the kids. They are young and they are messy.

But if you were to compare their room and my office, they look much the same. If our rooms were a person they would look like they’d slept in their clothes and had a severe case of bed head.

I could blame it on my husband. But he’s a neat freak. Ok, not a freak – he would consider that harsh, and perhaps it is. But to those of us who do not have the spiritual gift of cleaning, anyone who can do a good job at cleaning is a freak. And he is definitely superior to moi in the realm of cleanliness. I could clean my little fingers to the bone and be so proud of my work and he’ll come in and instantly spot the one or two or three places I missed.

Me: “Really, honey. I didn’t see that large pile of whatever that is in the corner.”

Him: “It’s 2 feet high and I think it just moved. How could you not see it?”

Me: “Ummm…”

He can’t help it. There’s a Thing in his brain that can’t deal with clutter. I’ve contemplated having it surgically removed, but it’s inoperable. If there is clutter about, his brain stutters. His capacity to concentrate gets short circuited and he just sits there and twitches until I smack his head or clean up the mess.

And I can’t help it. Well, maybe I could, but it would be really really really hard. My mother likes to tell the story of when I was 5 or 6 and faced with a monster mess to clean up in my room. I wasn’t to leave my room until it was finished. I sauntered out about 5 minutes later, ready to play. It didn’t take her long, however, to find out how I’d done it. Everything was put in its place – under my bed. I don’t do that now, of course. I couldn’t. Extra blankets, sweaters, stray slippers, dryer sheets, curled up magazines and dust badgers are in the way.

I try. Mostly.

Simple tasks get frustratingly complicated. Today for example. I vacuumed. (Thank you for that small smattering of applause.) As I vac’d, I noticed that the machine didn’t have a lot of suction. And it wheezed. I found myself slowly and ineffectively pushing around half an M & M like I was playing shuffleboard on the Ledo deck.

I popped open the hatch to see if the bag was full. I didn’t see the bag. I saw what appeared to be a large opossum. It didn’t surprise me – we have an opossum that hangs around the yard and rifles the garbage upon occasion. I call him Murray.  I hadn’t seen Murray in a while, so, you know, it could have been him in the vacuum cleaner. But it wasn’t.

The last time I changed the vac bag (1972?) I apparently didn’t put the new one in right. So what I had here was an opossum-sized wad of dust, Cheerios and dead spiders. Twenty minutes later the wad was out, the new bag was in, the carpet was dirtier than before and I was thoroughly grossed out and fed up with cleaning.

Not my idea of fun. Nobody, of course, actually likes cleaning. If they say they do, they lie. There’s a TV commercial for a cleaning service called Merry Maids. They claim to love cleaning. They show us this by dancing around with brooms and mops and laughing maniacally. I think they’re high. Too many parlays with Mr. Clean will put anybody over the edge.

Everybody’s at a different place with cleaning. I know people who haven’t cleaned up since they moved away from mom; people who only clean when company comes over; and people who clean so much that I’m worried for their mental well being. My mother-in-law kept a spotless house. She liked things new looking. So when they bought a new recliner, for example, she left the plastic wrap on the foot rest. For 15 years. Her husband was a well-ordered man. Everything had a place and everything had a neat little label. (See, I told you my husband couldn’t help it.) Things were so clean and tidy and new looking that it didn’t feel like they lived in the house – they merely existed in it. I’ve been in other homes so spotless and sanitized that the life was cleaned right out of the place. I will never be that tidy, but by golly, you’ll know that somebody lived – really lived – in my home.

See that pile of shoes by the door?

2 pairs of little feet have run and skipped and danced and jumped through the room, leaving laughter and a pile of socks in their wake. Their rhythm taps out, ‘we are here we are here we are here’ every every day. And I’m ok with that.

Not everybody feels that way. Take the whole ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’ thing. Written by a man. A Christian man, no less – John Wesley. But what did he know? (And more importantly, what did he clean?) If God thought cleanliness was the way to get to Him, you’d think He’d mention it a little more. Clean a little more. The only time in the Bible that God cleaned up was when he turned on the celestial spigot and flooded the whole planet, washing away the mess humanity had made of itself.

I’ve decided that cleaning is a part of the curse placed upon us when Eve bit the apple.

Maybe that’s why there aren’t any domestic gods – Eve started the whole mess, so she and all her girls get to clean it up.

I can’t turn the hose on my house and wash it all away. Darn it all. So I’ll slog through my piles, straighten out the shoes and do my best to teach my girls how to be neater than I am. And at the end of the day I can feel good about a clean-ish house where my husband can relax and not twitch for a little while.

At least until he checks under the bed.

Chocolate Tasting 101

Cocoa Dance: happy little hops of joy done upon receiving something chocolate.

The dance I did when I received these beauties:

Chocolate jewels from Christopher Elbow.

This world-class chocolatier just happens to operate from Kansas City. And the Mr. just happened to stop by the retail store downtown. And since Valentine’s Day and our anniversary are so close together, he – very very wisely – picked up this treasure box for me.

Now, as tempting as it may be to hork down little chocolate candies in a cacao-induced feeding frenzy, one must resist. There is actually a bit of an art to truly appreciating fine chocolate. Much like wine and coffee, chocolate is a complex creation, influenced by growing conditions, location, processing and more. So to truly get the most out of a good chocolate, you need to go through a tasting ritual that’s similar to a wine tasting or coffee cupping.

We first discovered this tasting process with chocolates from Vosges.

You might feel a little silly doing it at first, but when the different and subtle flavors roll over your tongue, and your eyes roll back in your head with pleasure, you’ll thank me.

Note: Chocolate purists will tell you to only bother with pure chocolate – to stay away from chocolates that have nuts and other flavors mixed in because it takes away from the pure chocolate experience. But I think they just say that so they can keep all the flavored chocolates away from us and enjoy them in little secret tasting parties we’re not invited to. Go ahead – try this on any good chocolate you want.

These instructions are from adapted from Vosges. They can be applied to truffles or “exotic candy bars.”

See… there should be a glossy shine to the chocolate, this shows a good temper: a tight bond between the cocoa butter and the cacao mass.

Smell… rub your thumb on the chocolate to help release the aromas. Inhale the chocolate and ingredient notes deeply through your nose.

Snap… quality chocolate should always be dry to the touch. If the chocolate is stored at ideal conditions, between 63-65 degrees Fahrenheit, when you take a bite you should hear a crisp, ringing snap breaking through the outside to reach the creamy ganache inside.  (You can sort of see the creamy ganache of this Lavender Chocolate truffle, even though the lighting is too yellow:

Taste… place the chocolate on your tongue and press it to the roof of your mouth. Within thirty seconds, the chocolate should slowly begin to melt around your tongue. The taste should not be evanescent; it should have a long, lingering finish. Make note of the different flavors and when they appear.  When I tasted this Masala Chai truffle:

The clove notes hit first, followed by cinnamon, then possibly cardamom and a little pepper.

Breathe…I’m adding this last instruction. Before you swallow the chocolate, breathe in a little bit through your mouth. This aspiration helps spread the taste across your whole tongue, allowing you to taste more of the subtleties in the chocolate.

Vosges has a nifty little sensory wheel you can download to guide you through a tasting experience.

To find out what a cocoa dance really is, check out the handy chocolate glossary at The Nibble.

Iron Deficiency

Iron Deficiency: being unable to remove wrinkles from clothing.

I realized quite some time ago that I will never be one of those women whose clothing is always wrinkle- and/or lint-free. Oh, I use an iron. I’ve used many irons over the years, and no matter what model it is, or how hard I try, I am never wrinkle free.

Witness today’s attempt. I needed to iron a shirt so I could look sharp for a photo shoot. Iron hot? Check. Steam activated? Check. Spray starch handy? Check. No more wrinkles? Check this out:

That’s as good as it gets, people.

No matter how long I run that sucker back and forth over my clothes, steaming, spraying, sweating and swearing, there are always some wrinkles that won’t let go. (I’m mentally preparing myself for the day when that same sentence will apply to my face.)

I see women darting around in their perfectly pressed pants and crisply creased skirts – heck, I’ve even seen plenty of t-shirts that look as if they’ve spent some time under some steam heat. How Do They Do It? Is there a magic iron model that I don’t know about? The Fancy Pants McSteamer 9000…? Or do they just go out and buy new stuff when wrinkles start to appear?

Ah well. I’ve pretty much come to terms with the fact that I’ll always be slightly rumpled, a little linty and sporting a small stain somewhere on my person. I have that lived-in look. Hopefully that makes folks feel a little more comfortable. Kinda like going to someone’s house and skirting past the formal living room that’s reserved for company (you know, the one with clean, white carpets and plastic still on the seats) and getting to sit down in the family room where you can put your shoes on the furniture.

This is  my world – welcome to it, y’all.

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