April Snow & Fireworks

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People talk a lot about the weather in Nebraska, often because we have bizarre weeks were it’s winter one day and springtime the next. That’s what happened on Thursday last week, when a blizzard rolled into town and delivered us a winter wonderland over the course of an afternoon. It melted right off the roads but coated everything else with a snowy frosting, much to the bewilderment of the robins and squirrels that had been expecting spring.

Our pair of tulips fortunately made it through the snow, and Vivian took he kids outside to play in the snow and make a snowman and have a snowball fight before the white stuff was almost entirely vaporized by the end of the day.

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The rest of our weekend weather was absolutely gorgeous — 60 degrees and sunny. It was nice enough for a “walk” with the folks from the Autism Society of Nebraska, (who had a “virtual Fun Fest” today in lieu of a real one), and Hannah also got to do some art reproducing one of our tulips.

Then that evening, we headed down to Werner Park for a drive-in fireworks show hosted by the Omaha Storm Chasers. It was a community event that seemed to be held just to lift up some spirits in the midst of a pandemic. It seemed the whole metro area came to join us, lining the streets and parking in empty fields adjacent to the park. We got the perfect view of the show from our spot on the west side. Hannah got an eyeful standing atop our CR-V while Aaron hunkered down in the trunk (with the window open). The show started around 8:45 and lasted all of ten minutes, but there was something magical and fun about seeing fireworks in the open air with thousands of others sitting a top their cars and in the beds of pickup trucks.

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Things stayed fairly low-key on Sunday. We tuned in to Wildewood’s service on Facebook live (a weekly tradition in many pandemic-bound households, I’m guessing) and took Harold the Guinea Pig outside to graze in our front yard for the first time. I spent the afternoon cleaning the garage as Hannah brought out her entire collection of dolls for some fresh air. Vivian made some homemade pizza for dinner that evening, and we tuned in to the Hope Rising benefit concert online, making use of my Raspberry Pi plugged into a Goodwill TV in our living room (which is usually used as a weather/calendar kiosk).

How are you faring during this world-wide lock down? I’m quite grateful we’re able to live more or less normal lives with the kids during all of this, albeit without weekly visits to grandma and grandpa’s house. My hope is that we’re on the down slope now and will soon see this period of time in the rear-view mirror of history. For the moment, though, we’re still enjoying life very much — and grateful all of us are healthy!

Easter Weekend in Quarantine

I hope you and everyone you love had a wonderful Easter Weekend. Despite the pandemic and nearly everything in some state of lock down (including Omaha’s public parks, of all things), we still managed to have a whole lot of fun with our friends and family.

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On Friday night, we had a Virtual Fish Fry with some of our mutual friends. Vivian made some battered fish fillets, french fries, and even some mac and cheese doctored up with beer cheese (and apple strudel, courtesy of Betty Across the Street). Naturally, we couldn’t share any of this with our friends, who all joined us with their own food at our dining room table via Zoom on my Chromebook. We were still able to catch up with everyone, and they even joined us for a round of “Sweet Caroline” as Paul even broke out his guitar. It didn’t turn out so well, thanks to Internet lag, but it was worth a try. Even Zoom’s 40 minute time limit couldn’t keep us down, as most of us were able to reconnect without much trouble and carry on until nearly nine o’clock.

Some of our friends had to bail for Good Friday, but it was still great to catch up with everyone. I expect some kind of catch-up party once the pandemic is over (whenever that may be).

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On Saturday morning, we got to see how bored people were getting with the pandemic by participating in a “Mask-eurade ‘Drive Along’ Parade” with the Omaha Children’s Museum and Rose Theater. A mile-long line of cars were packed Douglas Street and barely moved for an hour just to roll their way to 20th Street and pass by a few costumed characters. We saw the Paw Patrol, Bob the Builder, Leonardo, Cat in the Hat, Darth Vader, Miss Frizzle, Pooh and Piglet and a handful of others along the way.

The weather was gorgeous, so I got out to snap photos as we waited. It was still fun just to get outside nonetheless. Mostly, I hope the kids will have one more memory of the strange things people did during this unique time in history.

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After the “parade,” we had a little lunch across the river at Rivers Edge Park. All the parks in Omaha are closed (because “social distancing”), but Iowa’s are still open, so we ate some burgers and fries on the steps where Loessfest would normally be happening had the park not been flooded repeatedly.

Since our last visit, they’ve installed a giant sculpture made of scrap aluminum, which stared at the sky as we wandered the grounds around it. It was a gorgeous day to get out and run around a bit, as birds and blossoms seemed to indicate that spring was finally here — despite snow forecast for the next day.

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Our extended outdoor lunch was more than just a fun diversion — we were also giving Grammy (AKA the Easter Bunny) the chance to plant some eggs in our yard so the kids could return and find them. You couldn’t have asked for a better day for an Easter Egg hunt, and the kids had some fun running around the front and back yards gathering them up for us. My parents came by to watch (as did Grammy) and even dropped off some Easter gifts for us before saying goodbye.

It was warm enough to do a little bit of yard work afterward, and our happy little flowers were peeking up and blooming for us. We spent the evening having some chicken sandwiches made with the legendary “red bag chicken” from Aldi, which are chicken patties not unlike the ones at Chick-Fil-A and have developed a strange reputation online for being both delicious and perpetually out of stock (I can confirm both are true).

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We got up bright at early on Easter Sunday as both our kids managed to find their Easter Baskets long before the “Easter Bunny” expected. We got dressed and headed down to Bellevue Christian Center at 8:30, where they had a “drive-in” Easter service in their parking lot. Despite the drizzling rain and cold, it was quite nice, with a worship team singing on a makeshift stage and broadcasting via short-range FM to our car radio. Pastor Hooker wandered the lot greeting cars spaced strategically six feet apart (both for social distancing and a view of the stage), and then Pastor Andy got up and gave a message, looking a bit like Billy Graham in a hat and coat (according to Vivian).

Our kids remained happy and quiet in the backseat all the while as well, which was something of an Easter miracle in itself, and we rewarded them afterward with some after-church donuts from Dunkin.

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The rest of our Easter Sunday was full of quiet fun at our house, fueled with sugar from Easter baskets and a handful of delicious, flowery cupcakes that came courtesy of Grammy later in the afternoon. We watched the Wildewood Easter Service online as Aaron danced happily to the music, and then the kids played with some of their Easter basket goodies, which included some headlights and wind-up chicks. Later on, we broke out the eggs and dye and got the kids to color a dozen eggs together at our kitchen table. We let the colors set as we had some Easter dinner of ham, scalloped potatoes, and biscuits toward the end of the day.

It was certainly a unique Easter weekend with the pandemic still in full force, but considering we got to enjoy an Easter egg hunt with the grandparents and even get out of the house for church together, it still felt very much like a traditional Easter all around.

He is risen, everyone!

Drive-by Palm Sunday and Dim Sum at the Park

It’s been another quiet week in quarantine, though we’ve been able to find excuses to get out of the house and enjoy some fresh air as more and more of our daily go-to activities seems to be getting locked down.

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On Thursday last week, Omaha “lit it up blue” for autism, so Vivian and I took the kids for a drive to check it out. They were fairly underwhelmed, as seeing the Woodmen Tower and the pedestrian bridge lit in blue lights wasn’t quite the thrill they were expecting — at least not with the cold and drizzling rain (which turned son to snow) that kept us inside the warm car. We got a dusting of snow the next day that made roads slippery and wintry again, but it was vaporized within days once the temperature broke 80 again.

We’ve been getting a lot more use out of the teleconferencing app Zoom as well. We attended bible studies at church both on Saturday and Tuesday using Zoom, and we also let the kids say hello to Grandma and Grandpa again on Saturday morning.

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On Palm Sunday, we decided to take the kids for a ride around the neighborhood with some homemade palm fronds, which we waved our friends the Mills and Campbells as well as Grammy and my parents, shouting “Hosanna” from an socially distant six feet away (at least).

It was a good enough excuse to get out of the house, and we celebrated later with some German chocolate cake courtesy of our across-the-street neighbor Betty and some homemade pizza.

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Then on Tuesday, we continued celebrating Take Out Tuesday with a trip to Golden Mountain for some Dim Sum (steamed pork and shrimp dumplings and Vietnamese spring rolls). We ate picnic style down at Memorial Park, up by the rose garden. I was hoping for more than just a few blossoms, but it was a gorgeous day with temperatures that broke into the 80s, and it felt good just to get out and let the kids run around (literally), climb a tree, and pay our respects. Loads of other people came by to enjoy the park as well — more than a “no parking” sign would allow for, at least. Now the city of Omaha has announced all parks are being shut down through the end of April, so I guess I should be glad we enjoyed it while we could.

Then on Wednesday we decided to celebrate the Last Supper on Wednesday with some kosher wine and unleavened bread. Next stop: Easter!

Fresh Air and Take-Out Tuesday

Spring is beginning to bud all over town (and in our yard), so over the past week, the Johnson Family has stopped “sheltering in place” long enough to have some fun outside, getting fresh air while waiting out the coronavirus (whether the kids like it or not).

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On Thursday, we had a picnic underneath the stage of Stinson Park and then had a lovely walk up and down the Keystone Trail. We got to see such things as fussy buds on a few trees, a stay birds’ nest, and some “shooting heart” graffiti underneath a bridge.

There are only a few restaurants open in Aksarben Village (and no movie theater) during the coronavirus lockdown, so the most activity I’ve seen are the window washers “flying” outside the Pacific Life building.

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In the meantime, we’ve been trying a few new things at home, such as homemade pizza, pretzels, sauce and salsa from Volcanic Peppers, and some “whipped coffee” that seems to be a craze online.

My parents also celebrated their 45th anniversary, but since we couldn’t join them, I installed Skype on my computer and let the kids say hello virtually. It’s getting a little frustrating not being able to say hello to grandma and grandpa these days, but hopefully this lock down will be over soon.

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On Sunday, we got some more fresh air walking the trails of the Fontenelle Forest. The doors seemed to be open for both members and non-members alike, so we got some exercise with the kids exploring the hilly trails, ponds, and overlooks around the forest, as well as the playground of course. We also got to see a red-headed woodpecker and the Constitution Tree before getting too tuckered out. Then Jack was kind enough to lend us some expiring fuel points to use on the way home, where we filled up at around $1.16/gallon.

When we’re not outside, I’ve been helping with some of our homeschooling as well, teaching Aaron math with Khan Academy, which he played out with chalk on the driveway one day driving home from work.

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We had a particularly special night on Take-Out Tuesday (as designated by our Governor). First, we swung by Dinker’s Bar and Grill to get some of Omaha’s Best Burgers for dinner, which we ate with fries picnic-style at Hanscom Park down the street. I’d visited this 150-year old park once or twice before, but this was the first time with the kids. Hannah was particularly interested in the “twisty tree” that swirled like a soft-serve cone.

Then after dinner, we drove down the street for a drive-by birthday parade for our Jitterbug friend Billy, who was turning forty. Some of our friends wanted to throw him an socially distant parade, so we and several Jitterbug friends lined up in our cars, some decorated appropriately, and drove past his house honking and waving around a 6:45. I think it made his day.

Social Distance

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As the world shuts down to deal with the Corona Virus, I spent Wednesday evening breaking quarantine to wish Uncle Jonny a Happy Birthday. The kids each decorated some birthday cards for him, which included such things as watermelon, corn kernels, Mega Man, and a maze. Vivian and I gave Uncle Jonny a gift card for RiffTrax to tide him over during the quarantine. He’s now working from home, and while everything else seems to be cancelled, they’ll be spending a lot of time indoors.

My mom made brownies for us, but we otherwise kept “socially distant.” I’m not sure when such things as walking with the kids to grandpa’s house will become a regular thing again, but I hope it’s soon.

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Of course, sheltering in place means more time for spring cleaning, so on Saturday I spent some time clearing out our storage area and setting up some shelving I’d bought at Aldi to help get things organized. I also gave our little apple tree a good pruning with the tips I’d learned from my visit to Ditmar’s a few weeks ago, and I even got a stake in the ground to help straighten it up a bit.

Then on Sunday, we had our virtual church service from Wildewood in our living room while eating some bacon and pancakes (and kale for Harold). We’d gotten a bit stir-crazy by lunchtime and decided to get outside a bit, stopping by McDonald’s for a lunch of double Big Macs before going downtown. We had a nice little walk around the Old Market despite the gray and drizzling weather. The kids seemed to enjoy just running around the nearly vacant streets. We did find that Dolci was still open for business, so we all got some Italian ice cream before heading home.

How are you spending the quarantine? Let us know in the comments below.

Sheltered in place

So, how’s COVID-19 treating you and your family these days? The sheer number of things that have been shut down in a week is just staggering. A week ago, I was taking Hannah to her Wednesday night church group without a second thought. If you read my blog, you can see every entry has some activity where we’re around ten or more people at one event of another.

Now, we can’t go anywhere with ten or more people and every church, restaurant, and public facility is shut down. We’re still making the most of this downtime, but it’s still hard to come to grips with so much of the world being turned upside down.

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We’d planned on going to a St. Patrick’s Day parade on Saturday, but it was cancelled, so I went out with my folks to breakfast at First Watch instead, hoping to get in one last meal in a sit-down restaurant before everything became take-out only a few days later.

We also got a bit of a freakish, mid-March snow in the meantime, leaving us with a frosted winter wonderland for a day or two. With all group activities cancelled, we’ve been taking the kids on a few extra walks outside just to get some fresh air — one thing that hasn’t been restricted by any guidelines from the CDC.

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St. Patrick’s Day was similarly low-key — we got some corned beef and cabbage with red potatoes for dinner, but shopping has become a bit of a thrill ride. Every other store seems to be completely out of something — not just the famously impossible-to-find toilet paper or hand sanitizer but now pasta, canned tuna, bread and even milk can often be completely cleaned out of one store or another. Hearing rumors about a two-week lock down that included grocery stores (which later turned out to be Fake News) spurred me to fill an extra bucket of emergency food just in case

We’ll soon have to figure out some creative ways to have fun with ten or fewer people at a time, just to avoid cabin fever as we’re busy avoiding the Corona Virus. Fortunately, we got a head start on this schooling-from-home thing long before it became mandatory for everyone.

Pruned

It’s been a remarkably quiet week, with some lovely early spring weather that we’ve been enjoying as we hunker down and try not to get an unexpected case of COVID-19 (which seems to be tiptoeing its way into Nebraska). We were able to give our friends Nate and Lexi a night out for their anniversary by letting their kids play at our house for a couple hours Friday night, which I think was fun for everybody.

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Then on Saturday morning, I headed off to Ditmar’s Orchard with the family to learn how to prune a fruit tree. A guy with the Nebraska Extension office was there to show us the subtle art of clipping off tree branches, specifically picking off the ones that were likely to run against each other or cause potential problems, leaving us with enough “holes” to “throw a farm cat through.” In the meantime, the kids got the play area of Ditmars’ all to themselves for an hour or two before we headed home.

The rest of the weekend’s been fairly uneventful. I was able to clean the garage during the nice weather and then seemed to come down with a cold just as we lost an hour of sleep on Sunday. The kids got an extra hour of daylight, which they spent at the park, in the backyard, and chalking up a maze on our driveway. Good times.

Lent, Thomas More, and Kevin McCarthy

We kicked of Lent last week with a fun and busy cross-section of activities that included politics, a fish fry, and plenty of time outside enjoying some spring-like weather.

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On (Fat) Tuesday night, I got dressed up to attend the Thomas More Society dinner at St. Vincent de Paul Parish Center, courtesy of the Saint Paul VI Institute, which bought a whole table for me and my co-workers. I knew almost nothing about the Thomas More Society beforehand, and I got hear from founder Tom Brejcha talk about their legal work defending pro-lifers — particularly their right to protest.

The keynote speaker for the evening was David Bereit, founder of the 40 Days for Life campaign. He actually had a surprising connection to the Saint Paul VI Institute — his wife was actually treated for infertility by Dr. Hilgers many years ago and had two grown children now thanks to him. That was certainly surprising news to everyone at our table.

It was a lovely evening, and I even got to take home a tiny Mardis Gras mask for Hannah’s doll in honor of Fat Tuesday.

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Ash Wednesday kicked off that Lenten season, and that means it’s time for fish fries! Our friends the Simpsons invited us along with them to St. Charles Borromeo for their annual fish fry. It was the first time our kids have had the “full line experience,” but they got to run outside a bit and then played a keep-away game with mommy as we shuffled our way through the line waiting to dish up.

The fish itself was probably the best of all the fish fries I’ve attended — fried fresh, crispy and golden — and even Hannah wound up stuffing herself with a filet or two. (Gabriel helped himself to his mom’s mac and cheese.)

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Vivian and I had a night out planned on Saturday, so we made a point of getting the kids outside to enjoy some of the lovely 60-degree weather. We had a picnic lunch in the shelter together and then burned off the PB&J on slides, the teeter-totter, and rolling aimlessly down the hill. Hannah also brought along her doll “Suki” to chase Aaron around the playground in-between rounds of play-fighting.

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Then that evening, Grammy watched the kids as Vivian and I dressed up and headed off to the Elephant Remembers dinner downtown. It’s the second time we’d been invited to this annual gala fundraiser, which meant we got to rub elbows with some of the typical Republican friends I bump into at town halls or parades (looking at you, Stephen). Scott Voorhees played emcee, and introduced a chain of speakers, such as Mayor Jean, Mike Foley, Ben Sasse, and Don Bacon. The keynote speaker was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who gave an stump speech about entering politics as a young man and his optimism about Republicans taking back the house in November. McCarthy received a few gifts before he left the stage — a bottle of whiskey from local distiller Soldier Valley, and an plaque naming him Admiral of the Nebraska Navy (an apparently annual joke I have yet to understand).

The honorees of the evening were Lee and Robyn Terry, and there was a nice table of Terry campaign memorabilia set up in the lobby for everyone to see as they came in. Bacon’s wing-man James Wright introduced Lee and Robyn, who both said a few words before being awarded a Nebraska baking pan by DCRP chair Theresa Thibodeau. There was one more award to Young Republican Spencer Head and a few words from Bacon’s second-in-command Kyle Clark to wrap things up. Naturally, plenty of folks stuck around to meet-and-greet a few of the speakers (and get photos), and I got to briefly shake McCarthy’s hand and told him I looked forward to him being the next Speaker. I also wound up taking a group photo of the Terry Team on my way out the door — always happy to lend a hand with my lens whenever possible.

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We had a nice and quiet Sunday, unexpectedly bumping into our friends the Lenarts at church over donuts. Then that evening we took the kids by First Presbyterian to play outside (and let Hannah try out her scooter) in the gorgeous weather before enjoying another one of their movie nights. This time it was 101 Dalmatians, a Disney classic I’d actually never seen, which we watched while eating Hot Dogs, sloppy joes, and Scooby Snacks of all things. They had some fun crafts afterward that included Dalmatian head bands, and Hannah made her own Dalmatian out of Play-Doh before we called it a night.

Cheesy Movie and the Circus

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There were a couple more fun things in store for us this week. On Tuesday, Joel Hodgson of MST3K fame came to Omaha to riff a movie live at the Orpheum. I got some Chinese food before the show with dad, Uncle Jonny, and Richard, and then we met up with Nathan to get wanded up and down before squeezing inside the Orpheum to find our seats (with LIsa’s help) with a couple hundred other MSTies. As usual, there were a number of dressed for the occasion, either as a character from the show or toting a life-sized Tom Servo.

The show itself followed the format of the original MST3K TV show. Joel came out and played the theme song on guitar (with the audience chiming in with a “la la la” or two), and then they introduced the cast — which included an “assistant” named Emily, a Pearl Forrester clone (and some Pearl puppets), as well as Krow and Servo. The movie being riffed was a monumentally cheesy Karate Kid knock-off called No Retreat, No Surrender, which was so delightfully cheesy it could be watched without riffs. Joel and the Bots performed a few skits during breaks (preceded with video of the classic “tunnel sequences”), and they had a curtain call with the actors themselves at the .

It was a very good show, though it felt like a much more formal a production than the similar shows I’ve seen with “the Mads.” Specifically, Joel and his cast stay on stage, while the Mads sit with the audience and have a Q&A after each show making for a much more interactive experience (especially with the meet-and-greet time before and after the show). Still, as a long-time fan of MST3K, it was great to see Joel himself up close and personal for one last “movie sign.”

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Then on Thursday, I took the entire day off just to enjoy about an hour at the Tangier Shrine Circus in Council Bluffs with Vivian, Grammy, and the kids.. They performed a shortened “free” show on Friday, which included a motorcycle on a swing, some trapeze artists, quick-change artists, a dog and pony show, and a few acts by the local Tangier clowns. They had one new act — a trio of motorcyclists riding around simultaneously inside a spherical cage. My favorite act, however, was the Chicago Boys, who I’d seen multiple times before bouncing around and jumping rope to energetic music. Aaron actually got up and started dancing during their act, which was especially fun to see. Grammy also bought the kids some cotton candy just to get the kids properly sugared up before we headed home.

In the meantime, we’ve had a couple lovely weekends with spring-like temperatures — warm enough to venture at least one trip to Stinson Park during a lunch break this week, and likely more on Saturday. Soon enough it’ll be time for flowers to blossom and for me to get back to work on the lawn and garden again.

V-Day 2020

It’s been another fun and busy couple of weeks, much of which involved romantic activities on and around Valentine’s Day.

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Last Thursday, I took Hannah out for a “Daddy/Daughter Date Night” down at the Chrysalis Event Center at Papillion Landing. It was a cute little occasion for dads and daughters to get dressed up and then have dinner together. There was also some dancing on the little space available on the dance floor, which Hannah seemed to enjoy after getting properly sugared up. A group of little girls even started a conga line during one song, which was adorable, though I couldn’t get Hannah to join in on it. Our friend Dennis was there with his daughter as well, so the two of us tried taking shaky, blurry photos of each other dancing with our little girls before calling it a night.

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A week later, it was Valentine’s Day, so I decided to take the day off for some romantic family fun on a Friday. I got up early enough to make some heart-shaped banana muffins, heart-shaped eggs, and avocado toast for breakfast. I also had a few bags of treats for the kids along with some hand-cartooned Valentine’s Day cards, per tradition. Hannah also had an assortment of cards made by her assortment of “kids.” Vivian had some things for me as well, including brigadeiro chocolates that she made up when I wasn’t looking.

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Then that evening, Vivian and I took a trip down to Raymond for a romantic dinner at James Arthur Vineyard. We’d been there a couple times before on V-Day for dinners and wine-pairings, but this time was a bit different — a got to pick a bottle of wine to eat over dinner that was served via a buffet line. Most of the food had some kind of chocolate theme to it, even the salad and the tacos. I think our favorite was the Triple chocolate beef and bean chili. We washed it all down with a bottle of “3 Legs White,” named after the very affectionate three-legged cat we met in the doorway on our way in (and out).

James Arthur Vineyards’ Valentine’s Day Buffet

  • Spring mix salad with chocolate chunks and strawberries and a chocolate vinaigrette
  • French bread with chocolate butter
  • Chocolate zucchini bread
  • Tortilla chips dipped in chocolate
  • Triple chocolate beef and bean chili
  • Strawberry brie and chocolate grilled crostinis
  • Cider and beer braised pork with chocolate mole and hwite chocolate rice
  • Chocolate chili tacos

Dessert table

  • Chocolate bread pudding
  • Coconut macaroons dipped in white chocolate
  • Chocolate dipped strawberries
  • Oreo truffles
  • Chocolate bacon and potato chip brownies
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We got to have some lovely, spring-like weather after Valentine’s Day, so I took the kids down to the Sandy Park for some quality time running around. Vivian got some chicken Parmesan happening back at the house, which we ate with our friends the Lenarts. Our kids got some quality time playing together and watching The Little Mermaid for the first time, while the grown-ups enjoyed a family tradition of eating too much for no particular reason.