Tuesday, February 24, 2015

top ten Tuesday: UMM jazz songs.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: I had the BEST time in college. I was fortunate enough to choose exactly the right college for me, which is fairly remarkable considering I toured exactly three colleges.

Honestly, I didn’t even WANT to tour the University of Minnesota, Morris. I was planning to go to Gustavus Adolphus in St Peter because 1.) what a cool name, and 2.) they had the best food court I had ever seen. Quality reasons, I know.

But I visited UMM anyway, one lovely October day in 2004. My mom (who had wanted me to give UMM a chance all along) and I made the journey to Morris, and as soon as I set foot on the campus, I knew this was the place for me. It was love at first sight.

My tenure at UMM was chock-full of good things. I discovered the joys of art history, worked at the radio station and the newspaper, met my future husband, and made life-long friends.

Those friends and that future husband? All in the UMM jazz band.
I didn’t join jazz band until my sophomore year – after all, I was a clarinet player, and our jazz band didn’t have a clarinet section. I spent my freshman year playing my clarinet in concert band and being jealous of all my friends in jazz band, and I gamely tried my best to learn tenor saxophone over the summer. When school crept around again, I was decent enough to join one of the Cougar jazz bands.

During my time in UMM jazz, the jazz bands were broken into four main groups: Jazz I (super good), Jazz II (good), and Cougar I and II. The Cougar bands were the same, talent-wise: the only difference was that one was led by the jazz director and the other was led by a student director. We affectionately called them the Cougs. The Coug bands were the noncommittal jazz bands – for those of us who weren’t necessarily that good and just wanted to play. (Without having to practice much/at all.)

Those were also the jazz bands that music majors would join if they wanted to try their hand at a different instrument: my friend Nate played trombone in Jazz I and trumpet in Coug I.

Most of my jazz band time was spent in Coug I (save for the single semester Coug I wouldn’t fit into my schedule, and I was relegated to Monday night Coug II). My friends were all in Coug I, and I loved each student director: Nolan my first year, Kevin my second, and James my last. (I wish I could say that having my then-boyfriend-now-husband as a director allowed me special privileges, but it didn’t. Maybe he didn’t appreciate me boo-ing a few of his song choices from the front row.)

Coug I was a fifty-minute class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I sat next to my friend and fellow tenor sax Clara, who was way better than me and bravely took the solos. We moaned and groaned at our least favorite songs and accidentally stole egg shakers.
My friends Sara, Nate, and Donovan were trumpet players, they cheerfully heckled each student director from their place on the risers. Jazz band was the greatest.
We had three concerts a year (October, November, February), three jazz dances (December, February, April), and one Jazz Fest (April). My parents happily came to Morris for each concert, which – we all agreed – were much more fun than the concert band concerts.
It was great fun for me to play, but it was just as much fun for me to listen to the other bands play. Jazz I always performed last, and they were show-stoppers.

So, for this musical top ten Tuesday, I’d like to present my top ten UMM jazz band songs. Five of them I played, five of them I didn’t. I noted the date we played them to the best of my memory/researching some of the old jazz programs James still has saved. So allow me to present my ten favorite UMM jazz songs!


Blues in the Night
November 2006
We played "Blues in the Night" at my second jazz concert of all time. (Alas, I can't remember what I played at my first jazz concert of all time.) I recall being very excited that I could actually play the saxophone part - keep in mind that I had been playing saxophone for a mere five months by this point. You don't have to be impressed, but I'm still going to feel a-ok about it.

Jazz Fest 2007
My first Jazz Fest! It was always fun to go to Jazz Fest, but it was nowhere near as fun as playing in it. 
First Jazz Fest!
We all had our matching t-shirts and matching excitement, and I got to use an egg shaker for the first time. (It wasn't until my final jazz fest that I accidentally stole the egg shaker. It may or may not still be in my saxophone case to this day.)

Coconut Champagne
October 2007
"Coconut Champagne" is by far my favorite song that I played during my jazz years. It was so much fun to play, and it was catchy as hell. The saxophone part was super fun - fun enough that I even WANTED to practice. I NEVER want to practice. That, my friends, is a big deal.

Carnival del Soul
February 2008
As you've probably noticed, all of my favorite songs are super catchy. "Carnival del Soul" is not only catchy, but short and sweet: the recording I have of the UMM Jazz Band clocks in at just over two minutes. It's got a great beat and speeds right along, and you can't say that about all jazz.

jazz dances, 2008 - 2009
As I was making this list, I noticed that songs from James's days as the jazz director didn't make the cut. "Didn't you pick anything good?" I asked him. "I wanted to, but you guys had already played the good stuff!" he said. So under James's direction, we played the good stuff at the jazz dances. I loved playing "Birdland," and you have to admit that it just makes you want to dance.


The First Circle
November 2006
Jazz I was made up of the best and the brightest: the super-talented musicians who could take anything thrown at them. "The First Circle" was a song that Jazz I played one concert just to show us how just exactly how talented they were. "The First Circle" was full of crazy time signatures that changed all the time, and James says it was super complicated and he tried to explain why but he ended up getting really technical and convoluted, so let's just leave it at this: it was hard and sounded really cool. The end.

Village Dance
October 2007
While "Coconut Champagne" is my favorite song that I've played in jazz band, "Village Dance" is my favorite song from any of the jazz concerts and dances, period. I asked James (who played in all of these songs but one) what I should say about "Village Dance," and he gave me the following bullshit:

"The low brass is explosive!"
"The sound is voluptuous!"
"It's like a power ballad... but not a ballad."

When James played this song that year, he had just learned how to circular breathe: you push air through your horn with your mouth while still breathing air in through your nose. It creates the illusion that you never stop for air, and it's really cool if you execute it correctly. James tried out circular breathing during his solo in "Village Dance," and it worked like a charm. The crowd went wild.

Jalapeno Dreams
February 2008
When Jazz I played something really cool, they always played it right at the end. No surprise, "Jalapeno Dreams" was one such piece. There are a lot of songs on this list vying for the title of catchiest, but I wonder if "Jalapeno Dreams" couldn't take the title. I'm listening to it as I'm typing, and I'm involuntarily bobbing my head - and out of the corner of my eye, I see James doing the same thing. James, the resident jazz expert, wants you to know that they played it at 200 beats per minute: aka very VERY fast. He also thinks you should know that it features each section individually. You're getting quite the music lesson today.

St Thomas
jazz combo
Yet another magnificently catchy jazz standard. There have been times I've had "St Thomas" stuck in my head for days on end. And you know what? I was ok with it. At the UMM jazz concerts, the four big jazz bands played, but sprinkled among them were combos. The combos had anywhere from three to nine people, and they played one song apiece. One combo played "St Thomas," which I'd never heard before. Changed my life.

The Bunny Hop
jazz dances
At the jazz dances, Jazz I played last and got all the best dance songs like "In the Mood" and "Sing Sing Sing." And of course, "The Bunny Hop." What made it memorable was that the musicians would come out on the dance floor and play their instruments... while doing the actual Bunny Hop. (If you didn't watch the Lawrence Welk video, do it right now. That's the Bunny Hop, and it's even more fantastic when Lawrence Welk does it.) That truly takes talent.


There you have it: my top ten UMM jazz songs. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to go and play my saxophone.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

let's talk about Beanie Babies.

I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but I, too, was a part of the Beanie Baby craze of the mid-to-late 90s.

Don’t worry: I wasn’t in it for the money. (I was eight. No eight-year-old is in ANYTHING for the money.) I just thought they were super cute.

I wasn’t even aware that Beanie Babies were THE must-have toy until long after everyone else. (Story of my life. I’m fairly terrible at adopting trends.) My cousins from Colorado had Beanie Babies, so I was first introduced to Beanie Babies on a trip to visit said cousins. They had piles of Beanie Babies in their rooms, and I thought the Beanie Babies were cute and cuddly and oh look they come with names and birthdays and why don’t I own them ALL?

My first Beanie Baby came from my Grandma Lorraine and Grandpa Harvey. Back when the Brookings mall housed Cover to Cover, we’d go there on occasion to browse the books or to look at the fun giftware they sold. Eventually, Cover to Cover started carrying Beanie Babies. One Easter, my brother, sister, and I all got a Beanie Baby from Grandma and Grandpa. I don’t recall dropping great big hints about Beanie Babies to my grandparents, so they must’ve caught onto the trend.

My first Beanie Baby was a black and white dog named Spot.
(In my extensive research for this story – also known as Wikipedia – I found out that Spot was one of nine original Beanie Babies released in 1993.) At the time, we had a real dog named Spot (who was unspotted), so I’m sure this was the inspiration behind this particular Beanie Baby. Spot came with a little tag clipped to his ear that informed me of his name and birth date. (If my memory serves me correctly, Spot had the same birthday as my dad: January 3. It was meant to be.)

During Beanie Baby 101 at my cousins’ house in Colorado, I was informed that the absolute most important number one Beanie Baby owning rule is to make sure that those tags are NEVER removed from your Beanie Babies. That tag is how you know that you have a 100% authentic Beanie Baby, and without that tag, the value will plummet. From the day I got my first Beanie Baby, I was borderline obsessive: not one of my tags was ever removed, and I even bought those stupid heart-shaped plastic tag protectors for my favorite Beanie Babies’ tags. How ridiculous.

Spot was just the first of many Beanie Babies yet to come. My second Beanie Baby came from my Great Aunt Ruth and Great Uncle Orin: the grandparents of the cousins with all the Beanie Babies. They gave me a little white unicorn, and I spent years convinced that my unicorn was much more valuable than any other unicorns: my unicorn had a brown horn while all the other unicorns had iridescent sparkly horns. My unicorn was special.
(Note: I have never actually cared enough to look this up – if my brown-horned unicorn is somehow more special than the iridescent-horned unicorn. I still don’t care enough to look it up.)

The older I got, the more Beanie Babies I wanted. After all, new Beanie Babies were being released all the time, with each generation cuter than the last. And I was on a never-ending search for a Beanie Baby that shared my birthday. (Note: I never found one on my own, but with my aforementioned extensive research – Wikipedia – I learned that Quackers the Duck has the same birthday as me.)

Every Christmas and birthday list contained a special Beanie Baby section. I had dogs (a terrier, a pug, a dachshund), cats (a calico, a Siamese, a cougar), birds (a flamingo, a penguin, an ostrich, a cardinal, a hummingbird), various bears, a star spangled elephant (back when I thought I’d grow up to be a Republican – thankfully, I grew out of THAT), a butterfly, a walrus, a jellyfish, a rhino… it was a whole menagerie.
Did you know that there was even such a thing as a
Beanie Baby jellyfish?
On occasion, I’d save up enough allowance to buy a Beanie Baby at an arts festival. I could never afford to buy one in a store, but there was usually a bit of room for negotiating if the vendor had a booth in a flea market or something. I bought the coolest Beanie Baby dragon at Prairie Village Days in Madison – it had red crinkly wings and was this cool textured brown color. 
I’d like to say that I spent ten dollars on it, which was a fortune in 1996 Calla dollars. The other Beanie Baby I clearly remembered buying at such an event was the commemorative Princess Diana bear. 
Why I felt inclined to buy this particular Beanie Baby, I do not know. It was very pretty with its deep purple color and embroidered rose, but I was ten when Princess Diana died and don’t recall feeling any sort of special attachment to her. What I do remember is that the vendor wouldn’t take any less than twelve dollars for this Beanie Baby. Since I had spent so much on it, the Princess Diana bear merited one of my plastic tag protectors.

I sought out Beanie Babies not just in the regular size, but in the Teeny size and jumbo size, as well. I had one big Beanie Baby: it was a super-soft penguin that I bought when my Colorado cousin and I did chores for Ruth and Orin (her grandparents, my great aunt and uncle) so that we could each earn enough money to buy a stuffed animal from the Index in downtown Brookings. (Fun fact: that penguin was also twelve dollars, which made me question why I the purple Diana bear – significantly smaller and not nearly as soft – was the same price.)

The Teeny Beanies came in Happy Meals, and lucky for me, I hadn’t quite aged out of the Happy Meal bracket. If I couldn’t get the Teeny Beanie I wanted via a Happy Meal, I found that these were quite affordable at craft shows and flea markets. (The key was to look for one in its original plastic McDonalds packaging. Then you knew you had a good one.) I had a whole other zoo of Teeny Beanies: a red bull, more penguins, a lobster. But three sizes of Beanie Baby weren’t enough for me: oh no. At a craft show in Arlington, I bought teeny tiny clay renderings of the penguin Beanie Baby and the Princess Diana bear Beanie Baby – they even had teeny tiny red tags. While not official Beanie Babies (after all, they were melted-looking things that were crafted by some ambitious South Dakotan), I still considered them part of my collection.

It was inevitable that I would grow out of Beanie Babies, and sure enough, I did. I got rid of a bunch of them – not by selling them and making a fortune (ha!), but by donating them to Goodwill or the church rummage sale. I kept a few of the especially cute ones, like the dragon and the flamingo and the teeny lobster. (Who can resist a teeny lobster?) 
Not me.
And there is a leopard Beanie Baby that rides around in my car – I saw it sitting sad and alone at a Sioux Falls Goodwill and for some reason could not leave without it. James bought it for me, and it is awfully cute. This second-hand leopard never did have its red Beanie Baby tag, and as it turns out, that doesn’t matter at all. I just don’t know its name and birthday.
(Extensive research note: Wikipedia tells me that the leopard’s name is Freckles and its birthday is June 3, 1996. We can all breathe a sigh of relief now that the mystery is solved.) 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

ode to my All-Stars.

Dear All-Stars,

How time flies.

It seems like just yesterday that I brought you home. It was December 2008, and I was home from college for winter break – my final winter break, as it was my senior year. I had gone to Sioux Falls to spend my hard-earned Christmas money. I had wanted a pair of black Converse All-Stars for a while, and this seemed like the day to commit. I strolled into JCPenney, and in a few short minutes, I was the proud owner of a brand-new pair of Converse All-Stars.

All-Stars, you were the perfect shoes. As soon as I put you on, I wondered what took me so long to buy you. Where had you been all my life? Never before had I loved a pair of sneakers so much.
Converses' first picture.
I wore you almost every day during that last semester of college. That was a busy semester for me, and I needed you. I wore you to work at the Common Cup Coffeehouse at 6am on Mondays and Fridays, and I wore you to my 8am art history class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. (An 8am class is a college student’s worst nightmare, and I had managed to avoid them until my last semester.) Without you, dear All-Stars, I never would’ve been on time for either one. All-Stars, I didn’t want to pay for a campus parking pass, so you got me back and forth to class each day – be it on foot or by bicycle. By the time I graduated, you were dingy and dirty and looked as well-loved as you were.
A fellow Converse enthusiast.
But our adventures were far from over. After college, I embarked upon internships in art museums in Denver, New Orleans, and Minneapolis. These internships were all unpaid, so my entertainment was limited to things that were free. And you know what is free, All-Stars? Walking. And you can’t go walking without a good pair of sneakers.
You also can't ride the bus next to discarded hair extensions without a good pair of sneakers.
All-Stars, you took me everywhere. We walked around Denver together, enjoying summer in the mountains. In New Orleans, we spent countless hours exploring the French Quarter, Magazine Street, and Lake Ponchartrain.
I made friends with a French Quarter trombonist in
my Converses.
Downtown Minneapolis was not too far from my apartment, so I’d put on my All-Stars and stroll to the Nicollet Mall. 
Over my lunch break at work, my All-Stars and I took countless trips to Lake Calhoun. Rain or shine, All-Stars, we were out discovering new things about the places we lived.
Like fun graffiti...
...or rock formations...
...or giant interactive sculptures...
...or swing sets...
...or waterfalls...
...or apple orchards.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though, All-Stars. Not all of our time together was spent walking around and absorbing the beauty of those three cities. No, a lot of it was hard work. In Denver, New Orleans, and Minneapolis, I was working at least two minimum wage jobs in addition to my internships. After all, I still had to eat.I worked at American Eagle in all three cities, plus a fireworks store in Denver, Michael’s in New Orleans, and three Craigslist jobs in Minneapolis. All of those jobs required a lot of time on my feet, and there were many days that I was going right from one job to another. All-Stars, I wouldn’t have been able to log all hours without you.

I’m a one-job gal now and have been for some time. While I can’t wear you every day, All-Stars, I gladly wear you on casual Fridays or weekends.
Especially when my weekends involve climbing
in tractor tires...
...or playing with happy black labs.
All-Stars, you were my first. You opened the door for other All-Stars in varying colors and patterns – I even wore turquoise All-Stars on my wedding day.
But it all started with you, my black All-Stars. Without you, I never would’ve known the glory of the Converse All-Star. And you can bet that I’ll never forget.

All-Stars, you have been with me for almost six years, and we’ve been through a lot together. Through the good and the bad, you’ve been there for me. I’ll always remember all the jobs we’ve worked, all the places we’ve been, and all the streets we’ve explored.
My Converses. My brother's Converses.
You’re faded now, and your soles are worn down. Your edges are cracked, and you don’t keep out the snow and rain like you used to. My dear All-Stars, the time has come for you to retire. After the thousands of miles we’ve put on, you’ve earned a rest. Though it pains me to have to say goodbye, we both know it’s time. I’ll replace you with a pair of new black All-Stars, but they’ll never be as special as you.
Our last great adventure together: a New Orleans
Rest in peace, dear black All-Stars. I’ll never forget you.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

let's talk about toast.

Everyone has an all-time favorite food. It’s hard to narrow it down out of all the amazing things one eats over a lifetime, but when you think about it, there’s probably one food that stands above the rest.

For me? It’s toast.

You may be thinking that toast is an awfully lame favorite food. And you might be right. There are certainly foods I’d pick before toast if offered the two side-by-side: Nick’s hamburgers, Café du Monde beignets, arts festival cheese curds. But toast has been with me the longest. I have been eating toast for most of my life, and I still love it. You can’t say that about just anything.

My earliest toasty memories are from when I couldn’t have been much older than three. Mom and Dad would make me cinnamon and sugar toast – to this day, cinnamon and sugar is one of my favorite toast toppings. As the refined three-year-old that I was, I got a huge kick of trying to get as much cinnamon and sugar on my face as possible.

My grandma Sheila is famous for her homemade cinnamon bread, and she has been for as long as I can remember. She makes loaves and loaves, especially around the holidays, and we were lucky recipients. It’s delicious on its own, but it’s at its best when toasted. This cinnamon bread is smaller than a regular loaf of bread, so you have to be careful not to get the tiny slices stuck in the toaster. But you haven’t lived until you’ve had a piece of Grandma Sheila’s buttered toasted cinnamon bread.

English muffin toasting bread will forever remind me of my grandma Lorraine. Whenever I’d spend the day in Brookings with Grandma Lorraine and Grandpa Harvey, Mom would drop me off early – before she went to work. I’d be ready for breakfast, and Grandma would make me buttered slices of English Muffin toasting bread with red plum jelly. Nobody could butter toast like Grandma Lorraine.

Because of those days with Grandma Lorraine, English muffin toasting bread with butter and red plum jam became my default. I’d come home from school and have toast. I’d get up on a Saturday morning and have toast. Always with red plum jam. It wasn’t until I started listening to Simon and Garfunkel that I switched up my jam routine. In a bizarre song called “Punky’s Delight,” Paul Simon sings about how he “prefers boysenberry more than any ordinary jam.” So of course, I had to try it. I don’t know if it was my deep and abiding love for all things Simon and Garfunkel or if I truly liked it, but boysenberry replaced red plum as the top dog in my jam repertoire.

I consumed loaves and LOAVES of English muffin toasting bread during my school years, only eating regular toast when we were out of English muffin (horrors!) or when my breakfast order at a restaurant came with plain old white or wheat. However, when I began working at the Dairy Mart as a high school senior, I was introduced to the world of Texas toast. The Dairy Mart would throw in a side of Texas toast with their chicken strip baskets, and this toast was simply delightful. It was impressively thick, and all it needed was butter. When we Dairy Mart employees got hungry on slow nights, you can bet that we headed right for the toaster.

My dad listened to the Bob and Tom radio show from time to time, and our neighbor lent him a collection of Bob and Tom CDs one day. Dad was a bit hesitant to listen to them with the whole family around – if you’ve ever listened to Bob and Tom, you know that they’re not the most family-friendly radio personalities. However, we did catch one of their songs – “Yeah Toast!” When I first heard it, I felt like I had kindred spirits in Bob and Tom. The song goes:

All around the country and coast
People always say, “What do you like most?”
I don’t wanna brag, I don’t wanna boast.
I always tell ‘em I like toast.

Seriously, it could be my theme song.

Keep in mind, all these great toast milestones occurred before I went off to college. My friends, I didn’t truly know what toast was – the absolute grandeur and delicious magic of what toast could be. I lived without knowing… until I went to Don’s.

Don’s is a little café in Morris, Minnesota – where I went to college. I arrived for orientation in August, and one of the first things we (and all incoming freshman) were told was that toast at Don’s was an absolute must. Being the obedient freshman that I was, I gathered up my floormates (who had heard the same thing about this mythical toast) and went to Don’s.

Oh joy. Oh rapture!

I had never had anything like Don’s toast, and I doubt I ever will. They make their own bread and cut it into these incredibly thick slices. It’s toasted, saturated with butter, and delivered piping-hot to your table with your choice of jam. (Strawberry jam on Don’s toast was always my favorite.)
Toast circa 2006.
I couldn’t count how many times I’ve had Don’s toast over the years, but it will never be enough. I’ve gone back to Morris a few times since graduating – mainly so that I can get toast at Don’s. They even sell shirts that say “I got toasted at Don’s!” – a shirt that my sister Darrah got in trouble for wearing when she was still in high school.
That's the one.
If you’re lucky and get to Don’s early enough, you can buy an entire loaf of Don’s bread to take home with you and toast at your leisure. The thing is the size of a newborn and weighs about as much. I’ve missed out on the loaves for the last few times I’ve been to Don’s – as you can imagine, they’re in high demand. That just leaves me to dream of Don’s toast and plot my next pilgrimage. I can never go too long in between Don’s visits.

While it in no way compares to Don’s, the other toast-friendly restaurant that I frequent is Raising Cane’s. It’s a chicken finger restaurant that I first experienced in New Orleans, and it is simply fantastic. The chicken fingers are crispy and never frozen, and the Cane’s sauce is a secret blend of deliciousness. However, the toast is almost – ALMOST – my favorite part of the meal. Raising Cane’s puts their toast right on the grill, and it’s so dense and wonderful with its sesame seeds and crunchy butteriness on the outside. When I lived in New Orleans and was incredibly poor, I would go to Raising Cane’s and order a couple of pieces of toast. And that magical toast would make me forget – just for a moment – how poor I was.

Luckily for me, Raising Cane’s isn’t just in the south. There are a couple of locations in the cities and a couple more in Omaha. Alas, it’s still a three-plus hour drive either way. But I have hooked a number of people on Raising Cane’s – James included – so it’s not hard to convince him to stop there whenever we take a trip.

So that’s why toast is my favorite food. I’ve loved it in so many different forms and in so many different times and places. Toast has carried me through nearly three decades of life (yeesh), and I’m always looking forward to my next serving of toast.

Especially if it’s from Don’s. Oh please let it be from Don’s.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

the struggles of being someone named Calla.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but my first name is kind of weird. It’s Calla – not Kayla, Carla, or Callie. Calla.

Odd names like mine are a dime a dozen today. Parents everywhere are giving their children complicated names – usually with an extra letter y or two. So perhaps these kids will face the same anguish that I did when faced with a rack of personalized pens or ornaments or keychains or what have you.

There was never a Calla.

You know what I’m talking about: those big displays with rows and rows of souvenir-y things with names printed on them. If your name was Jessica or Emily or Steve or Todd, you’d have no trouble finding your name. My parents (Tim and Brenda) and my brother (Mitch) could find their names. However, my sister (Darrah) is most certainly in the same boat as me.

It’s hard to say if I even would’ve wanted any of this personalized stuff if my name was more common and could be easily found. However, I desperately wanted a keychain with my name on it – probably because it was not at all easy to come by. I wanted what I couldn’t have, which was something of a theme throughout my childhood.   

But this was different. The personalized knick-knack industry seemed remarkably unfair to me. Those rows and rows of names were an affront to people like me. Why should we be left out? What happens when I want a snowglobe ornament printed with my name? Nothing, that’s what.  

Growing up, my three best friends were Sarah, Allison, and Meagan. Sarah and Allison could usually find their names – Sarah’s only problem was that “Sarah” was often sold out, and “Sara” wasn’t going to cut it. Allison might be left with “Alison,” but more often than not, both “Allison” and “Alison” were available. Meagan had a harder time – “Megan” was always there, but “Meagan” was often not. You could find “Meghan” more easily than “Meagan.” But you were a lot more likely to find “Meagan” than you were to find “Calla.”

Any personalized items that I had were thanks to special orders placed by my parents. Now, you must remember that this was the mid-to-late 90s: you didn’t just jump on the internet and place an order and you’re done. My family didn’t have internet until the year 2000, and even then, who knows how many years it was before any of us was brave enough to online shop.

No, in order to get a special personalized order placed for their kids with weird names, Mom and Dad had to go right to the source. The first few things I ever had with my name on them were hand-made by my great grandma Bunny: she was the craftiest person I’ve ever known, and she made me pillows and cross-stitch and all sorts of things.

The other personalized item from my very early childhood was a wooden cutout of my name painted with red hearts. I’m not sure who made this or when I got it, but for YEARS, I loved hearts and the color red. So I was apparently old enough to be able to impart that information. My parents knew some woodworkers, so I’m betting my wooden name was a special order from one of them.

When kindergarten rolled around, Mom and Dad presented me with a brand new pencil box. It was red (of course), and it had my NAME on it. I was thoroughly amazed, and that pencil box was my pride and joy for many school years thereafter.

If you grow up with a more common name, chances are that you will run into some fictional character somewhere that shares your name. Alas, that privilege was difficult for me to come by – made even more difficult by the fact that we didn’t have cable. Turns out there was a Princess  Calla in that old Disney cartoon The Gummi Bears, a fact I discovered thanks to my cousin sending me a Gummi Bears book. Princess Calla had blonde hair and blue eyes like I did – clearly, the Gummi Bears people modeled her after me. 
The resemblance is uncanny.
How else would they know to give her a name like Calla?

Mom and Dad noticed how much I liked seeing my name in print, so for Christmas, they ordered a special copy of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with me as the star. The story was the same as regular Rudolph, but a special little girl from Arlington named Calla got to help save Christmas. They even put Claws, our crabby old cat, into the story.

Personalized items were such a rare commodity, and every time I got one, I was blown away. I knew how much extra work had to go into acquiring something with my peculiar name on it, and that made those personalized items all the more special. I still have the keychain my Grandma Sheila brought me from Albuquerque, the duffel bag my parents had made for me in Colorado, the embroidered Arlington Cardinals jacket I got for Christmas one year, and the little glass vial with my name written on a piece of rice that my parents brought back from Las Vegas.

With the advent of the online shopping, it’s nowhere near as difficult to get something personalized as it once was. I can hop on Etsy and order something with my name on it in no time at all. But that’s not really the point. The point is that I never got to stumble across my name on a ready-made knick knack in a store. Except for ONCE. I was at the Minnesota State Fair with my friend Lacee (who also had trouble finding her name in such situations), and as we strolled through some of the crafty booths in one of the giant buildings, we stopped at a display full of little ceramic hearts. Now, this display consisted of several tables put together, and it spanned for at least fifteen feet. (If you think I’m exaggerating, you have clearly never been to the Minnesota State Fair.) These little ceramic hearts were each painted with a name, and because of the sheer volume, Lacee and I both started looking for our names. After all, when you’ve got that many little ceramic hearts, it doesn’t hurt to look for the weird names. And wouldn’t you know it? There was a Lacee AND a Calla. This was the first and only time I’ve ever found my name. Did I buy the ceramic heart that said Calla? Nope. I was a poor college student at the fair, and every spare cent had to go towards greasy food and gas to get home. Sigh.

Because of that one experience – that one glimmer of hope at the State Fair – I still look for my name in souvenir shops selling those damn key chains and flashlights and whatnot. Even though chances are good that I’m not going to find it, now that I’ve found it once, I can’t seem to help wanting to find it again. And who knows? Maybe someday I will.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

ode to SmartWool.

My entire family is obsessed with SmartWool.

SmartWool socks.

As you know, I love a good sock – I don’t think I’ve owned a plain pair of socks for almost twenty years – but SmartWool socks are not just socks.

They’re magic.

And they’ve ruined me for all other socks.

SmartWool has been around for a long time, but it didn’t cross my family’s radar until 2012. My cousin is a Marine, and he was stationed in Afghanistan at the time. Dad would sent my cousin care packages from time to time, and he would ask for a list of things my cousin wanted or needed. My cousin requested a particular brand of socks: SmartWool. He said they were the best socks you could ever hope to have.

So off Dad went to find these mythical socks. He found them at Fergen’s: a clothing store in Brookings. Dad bought out the stock… only to find out that he’d gotten the wrong kind of SmartWool. SmartWool, as it turns out, comes in a zillion varieties depending on your activity: running, hunting, snowboarding, skiing. Dad had gotten the “lifestyle” variety, and my cousin was looking for the hiking socks.

Dad ordered a bunch of SmartWool hiking socks online, and on a whim, ordered a pair for himself. After all, he wanted to see what was so great about these socks. As soon as he put his SmartWool socks on, Dad was hooked. My brother Mitch got a pair, my mom got a pair, and James was given some of the original lifestyle variety. They all preached the gospel of SmartWool.

As a non-SmartWool owner, I was out of the loop. I was not sure what the big deal was – they seemed like any other sock, only ten times as expensive. What did SmartWool socks do that other socks couldn’t?

In Christmas 2013, I finally found out. I got a pair of SmartWool socks in my Christmas stocking: beautiful colorful stripes, the lifestyle variety. I put these socks on, and I was in heaven. The glory of SmartWool is hard to describe, but once I was wearing these socks, it felt like my feet had been missing out all these years. The socks are wool, but they’re not itchy. They’re sturdy, but comfortable. They’re lean, but warm. In short, they’re magic.

I joined my family in their passion for SmartWool. I made detours in sporting goods stores to explore the sock section. I visited North Face stores just for their SmartWool section: they had the best end-of-season clearance. (And since I am one of the few who wears size small in SmartWool, there are always leftover size smalls for me.) I looked on the internet for past-season deals on SmartWool.

Now, in addition to being categorized by activity, SmartWool socks also come in varying levels of cushion. (The lifestyle socks tend to be light cushion so that they can fit into any shoe.) You can get anywhere between ultra light cushion for running and ultra thick cushion for mountaineering. (I once spent a good five minutes in the sock department at Scheels just squeezing the ultra thick cushioned SmartWool socks. They are truly amazing.)

It was through my clearance SmartWool adventures that I entered the world of medium cushion PhD SmartWool. They advertise their PhD socks as being extra amazing, and I must say, they ARE. I found two pairs of medium cushion PhD running socks (size small) on super-clearance at the North Face store in Minneapolis – one pair in February, one pair in April. And let me tell you: wearing those socks is like walking on pillows. They are incredible. That’s my SmartWool sweet spot.

SmartWool has become a new Christmas tradition. Everyone gets SmartWool in their Christmas stockings, and everyone winds up wearing their new SmartWool the next day. Finding SmartWool in the Christmas stocking results in happy cries of “SmartWool!” No one is ever disappointed.

SmartWool socks run in the neighborhood of $20, and it’s hard to believe that a cheapskate like me would pay that much for a single pair of socks. First of all, I don’t: clearance, my friends. But even clearance SmartWool isn’t what you’d call cheap: I found a pair of SmartWool (medium cushion!) for $13.77 at Scheels the other day, and that is a GREAT deal in SmartWool terms. Secondly, I justify it this way. If I found a lovely sweater for $13.77, that would be an outstanding deal, right? And I’d buy it, right? But how often would I wear that sweater? Once or twice a month? My SmartWool socks are on a steady rotation, and I most definitely get my $13.77 worth. Plus, wearing a pair of SmartWool socks has made me happier than wearing any sweater I’ve ever bought.

Who would’ve thought that socks could bring us so much joy?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

top ten Tuesday: outfits under $35, part III.

Guess what? It’s another cheap outfit blog!

I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had putting these together. I really enjoy the challenge of finding an outfit that not only looks good, but is easy on the old wallet.

(While I love putting together and writing about the outfits, taking the pictures is the WORST. I always think I look like a complete dork, and I don't have any poses - obviously, because I always end up with my hand on my hip and a big dopey grin. James, my ever-suffering photographer, gets tired of me saying "what should I do with my hands? what does ANYONE do with their hands??!" Plus, there are only so many places to pose in and around our house.)

This is my third blog post where the outfits are $35 or less. You can find the other two here and here. I’ve also done blog posts where the outfits were $30 or less (here) and $40 or less (here).

$35 is where I’ll stay. I’ve told you this before, but here’s why: outfits under $40 were too easy, and I enjoy a good challenge. Outfits under $30 were doable, but it was tough to add fun things, like accessories. The $35 limit allows me to make a complete outfit (accessories and all) while still requiring me to think creatively about my items and their accompanying prices.

As always, I’d better go over my rules: I won’t post an outfit on this blog that I wouldn’t wear as an actual outfit. These outfits are not something I just threw together for the sake of it being cheap – I think they look good, and anything you see here is something that I would gladly wear out in public. I will not reuse any clothing item from past blog posts: the exception being shoes. (Since you’ve seen most of these shoes before, I’ll also try to refrain from telling you about them. If they’re new to the blog, then all bets are off.) The only gifts (aka, free) items I will include will be jewelry – so not something that could make or break the outfit. No foundation garments – tank tops, socks, etc – as part of my total. Prices are almost always exact, but some are from memory – and those are probably within fifty cents. Finally, I included outfits from as many different places as I could. After all, variety is the spice of life.

With all that out of the way, please enjoy the fifth (!!!) installment of my top ten cheap outfits!!

zipper cardigan – Plato’s Closet – $12
jeans – Plato’s Closet – FREE! (org $14, used credit)
t-shirt – Old Navy – $3.97 (clearance)
octopus necklace – Hobby Lobby – $5 for supplies
flats – JCPenney – $13
TOTAL: $33.97

Plato’s Closet and I have a complicated relationship. I like that they give you cash for your clothes, but I don’t like that it’s something like 20% of what they’ll sell it for – a pittance. I like that they have lots of options, but I don’t like how crowded the place is. Also, their employees tend to be on the snotty side. So Plato’s Closet is not one of my favorites, but every once in a while, I’ll decide that I want to go there. And shopping at Plato’s Closet most definitely requires the right do-or-die attitude. Both this cardigan and these jeans came from Plato’s Closet – I had sold a few things, so I used that money to get the jeans. So I’m calling them free. I have a thing for decorative zippers right now, so clearly, this cardigan had to come home with me. Old Navy is my go-to place for plain v-necks, and let me tell you, you can build endless outfits around them. Finally, my necklace. It is an octopus that I put together using supplies from Hobby Lobby. Awesome? Awesome.

dress – Forever 21 – $27.80
flower necklace – gift
flats – Y’s Buys – $3
TOTAL: $30.80

I’ve told you before that I am too old for Forever 21: except for accessories. (And even then, it’s touch and go.) However, I bought this dress BEFORE I was too old for Forever 21 and BEFORE the store itself started selling nothing but crop tops and harem pants. I bought this dress in early 2011: I still lived in Minneapolis and the Mall of America was just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Maxi dresses were a fresh trend, and I wanted to try it out – but I didn’t want to look a.) pregnant or b.) like a sister wife. If you’re looking to try out a new trend on the cheap, Forever 21 is your place. I tried this dress on, liked it, and that was that. It opened the door for many other maxi dresses – which are as comfy as pajamas, and you feel like you’re getting away with something.

dress – Mikarose – $29.99 
sandals – JCPenney – $3 
necklace – gift (Botanical Garden)
TOTAL: $32.99

Hey, look! Another decorative zipper! This dress came from an online store called Mikarose, which is totally run by Mormons. They specialize in “modest” dresses – not like FLDS modest, but dresses that aren’t too low cut or too short. Maybe I’m a Mormon at heart, but that’s exactly how I like my dresses. Plus, the dress has pockets. You know how much I love dresses with pockets. The necklace was a gift from my sister Darrah – the first time we visited her in Arizona was May 2010, and we went to the Desert Botanical Gardens and died of heat. The necklace came from their gift shop – authentic Arizona turquoise!

shirt – Storyville – $12 (flash sale)
shorts – Younkers – $14.99
sandals – Gap Outlet – $7-ish
TOTAL = $33.99

Last summer, Younkers was having this gigantic online sale where you could get shorts and summer clothes for almost nothing. Younkers is not my favorite place to shop – while they have nice shoes and purses, their clothes are either too old or way too young for me. I’m in Younkers no man’s land. However, during the online sale, I did find this one pair of Levi shorts – and I’ve been wearing them like crazy ever since. The NOLA tank top comes from Storyville – a t-shirt shop with locations only in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. However, they do have an online store, and every so often, they have a flash sale. They’ll pick a handful of shirts and sell them for $12 for a few days. I live for Storyville flash sales.

shirt – Goodwill St Paul – $2 (half off day)
skirt – hand-me-down from Grandma
necklace – Mikarose – $9.99
wedges – Target – $19.99
TOTAL: $31.98

This skirt belonged to my grandma in the 1950s. How cool is that? It’s perfectly classy, and it even has fun little pleats. It is made of wool, so it is not an all-season skirt, but that means I’m all the more excited to wear it when fall rolls around. The necklace is from the Mormon store – turns out that they not only have modest dresses, but fancy necklaces! The shoes came from Target – they’re a tad bit impractical, but since when has that stopped me? When I worked at the interpreting agency in Minneapolis (which is a story for another time), they would give you a $20 Target gift card on your birthday. Awesome. I bought these shoes for $29.99 using that gift card, so it was only $10 out of my own pocket. Wouldn’t you know it, they go on sale for $19.99 the very next week. Luckily, I hadn’t worn the shoes yet, so I brought them back and asked for a price adjustment. Target said no, so I returned them… and rebought them at the lower price the same day. Don’t mess with ME, Target. Now, this outfit marks something rather unusual in all my cheap outfit blog posts: it is the ONLY ONE with a yet-unseen item from Goodwill. (Another post has Goodwill shoes, but you've seen those before.) It’s been a while since I’ve had a Goodwill haul, so I’m running low on items to show you. But I do have a lovely striped shirt, so I guess we’ll take quality over quantity this time.

Levis – Amazon – $17.99
sweater – Target – $8.38
shoes – Plato’s Closet – FREE! (originally $6; used credit)
TOTAL: $26.37

These jeans are the most comfortable jeans I have ever owned. They’re soft and flexible like pajamas, but they’re still definitely jeans. I had never bought jeans on Amazon before, but the price was right, so I gave it a shot. Definite success. This sweater was an end-of-fall clearance find last year, and it’s just as comfy as these jeans. I rarely buy secondhand shoes, but these (along with the black Ys Buys shoes) are a new exception. They were at Plato’s Closet, and I can’t resist a good wedge. I found them while I was waiting for Plato’s Closet to go through a pile of my clothes to buy, and when I went to pay, it turned out that I had more than enough credit to cover the shoes. So I’m calling them free. 

shirt – Old Navy – $5.99
skirt – Forever21 – $10.80
belt – Forever21 – FREE! (came with skirt)
wedges – Goodwill St Paul – $4.99
TOTAL = $21.78

This, friends, is an exceptionally cheap outfit. Yes, my shirt has little cats on it. No, I am not a crazy cat lady: I got this shirt WAY before I got Mona. I know I told you earlier that I’m too old for Forever 21 clothing, and here we are with a second piece of clothing from said store. This skirt falls into the same category as the maxi dress: it’s something I bought almost four years ago, back when a.) I wasn’t too old, and b.) Forever 21 clothes were less ridiculous. It came with the belt, so hooray for that.

maxi dress – Modcloth – $26.99
flats – Target – $7-ish
earrings – Lewis Drug – $.99
TOTAL: $34.98

Hey, another maxi dress! Modcloth has big clearance sales every so often, and that’s when I strike. Their stuff is a tad overpriced at the outset, so I just bide my time until the price drops. Around Christmas, they’re pretty generous with their discounts, so you just have to know when to be watching. Much like the maxi dress from earlier, this dress is like wearing pajamas. You will not hear me complain. And yes, I got my earrings (that are hidden by my hair) at a drug store. Nothing wrong with that.

shirt – Country Peddler – $0 (used $6 credit)
Silver jeans – Maurices – $22.24 (75%off)
sandals – GoJane – $11.84 (20% coupon)
pearl earrings – Etsy – free with wedding bracelet
fleur de lis charm – Hobby Lobby – $.50 (pack of three @ $1.50)
TOTAL = $34.58

Maurices goes a little clearance crazy sometimes, and that’s when I do my best. These jeans were 75% off their clearance price, and it’s almost a miracle that they had my size. When you sell brand-name jeans at a price that low, you’re usually only left with the ridiculous sizes, like 000 extra-long. But luckily for me, they had normal-person sizes, too! The shirt is a lovely Country Peddler find, where I used my store credit to come home with something new. The sandals came from a website called GoJane, where you can almost always find an online coupon. The pearl earrings were tossed in as a freebie when I bought a pearl bracelet for my wedding. Etsy was where I got all sorts of wedding wear – my bracelet, my antique pearl hair comb, and my red slip (to go with my red petticoat). Whoever made the bracelet saw it fit to throw in a pair of earrings for free, and I wear them all the time. Lastly, the fleur de lis charm came from Hobby Lobby as part of a three-pack for $1.50: hence, fifty cents for the individual piece. I had my own chain, so twenty seconds and one pair of needle-nosed pliers later, I had myself a necklace.

dress – Country Peddler – $0 ($32 but used credit)
flats – 6pm – $16.99
belt – Forever21 – $5.80
ampersand earrings – Modcloth – $9.99
TOTAL: $32.78

This dress was a truly great Country Peddler find. It was brand spanking new – it still had the tags attached, and the original price was – get this – $148. It was marked for $32 at Country Peddler, but as always, I used my store credit. I am of the increasingly popular persuasion that something is more desirable if you put a bird on it, and this dress has birds EVERYWHERE. You can’t see my earrings too well in this picture, but you’re going to have to trust me when I tell you that they’re ampersands. I also have quotation mark earrings – what can I say? I have a thing for punctuation.


Well, another cheap outfit post has come to an end. This time, I showed you items from 24 different places: six online clothing/shoe stores, five mall-ish stores, four consignment/thrift stores, two craft stores, one ginormous online retailer, one all-purpose store, one online crafty flea markety store, one outlet store, one drug store, one botanical garden gift shop, my Grandma’s closet, as well as three gifts of indeterminate origin.

That about does it for this latest foray into bargain shopping. I’ve got plenty of other thrifty outfits to show you, so keep your eyes open for the next installment of the cheap outfit blog!