Wednesday, October 22, 2014

let's talk about haunted houses.

YOU GUYS IT’S ALMOST HALLOWEEN ARE YOU EXCITED I AM SO EXCITED.

And Halloween is on a FRIDAY. YESSSSSSS.

Life is so good around Halloween. Though I am 27 (guh!), Halloween makes me feel like a kid again. Even though I may be far too old to trick-or-treat, I will never be too old to dress up and be filled with Halloween spirit. Do you hear me? NEVER.

I love almost everything about Halloween – ALMOST. I love the candy, the cheesy movies (Hocus Pocus, anyone?), the Halloween episodes of my favorite TV shows (Buffy!), the decorations, the costumes – all of that. But you know what I don’t love?

Haunted houses.

Allow me to clarify: I do love haunted houses that are “real” haunted houses: not one where you pay to go inside and there are people in ghoulish costumes hiding around corners and waiting to leap at you. I’m interested in the historical haunted houses: places like decrepit mental institutions and creaky Victorian houses where people have supposedly seen “real” ghosts. (I say and “real” because I subscribe to the Mark Twain system of beliefs when it comes to ghosts: I don’t believe in them, but I’m afraid of them.)

The historical haunted houses are the ones where the stories alone are enough to give you the heebie-jeebies. You’ll walk through these places and get the creeps just because a floorboard creaked somewhere, or you thought you felt a gust of wind. That type of scared is all in your head, and I love it.

The haunted houses I do NOT love are the ones that you stroll through with a group of friends and the lights are flashing and you are accosted by creeps who leap out at you and make you scream.

No. That is not my idea of a good time.

The first haunted house I ever attended was not a house at all: it was a haunted dorm. In Morris, the residents of Clayton A Gay Hall would turn the dorm into a labyrinth of garbage bags and fake blood. Seriously: garbage bags. They hung up black garbage bags on the walls and covered the floors and ceilings with them. They put on the old strobe lights, and a silent guide clad all in black would lead you from room to room. Each room (be they the community bathrooms, an empty dorm room, or the little kitchen on each floor) had a different horrific scene: the shower would be smeared with blood Psycho-style, someone would be conducting amateur surgery on the pool table, and so on. The actors weren’t acting at all: they kept perfectly still in their poses – be they holding a fake brain or being stabbed with a fork – and stared at you as you walked by. No one leapt out at you: you just took a peek at each staged scene and moved right along.

I went to the Haunted Dorm for two years, and that is the only kind of haunted house I can handle. How much did it cost to get in? One can of food.
Admission to the Zombie Prom was the same price.
The second time I went to a haunted house was in Connecticut. I visited my friend Sue 
towards the end of October, and Halloween festivities were in full swing.
Connecticut loves Halloween.
She suggested we go to the haunted house that her neighborhood put on every year. I was game, so off we went.

We stood in line in the cold for what seemed like ages. This appeared to be a common occurrence, as the proprietors had set up a tent with chairs, TVs screening horror movies, and free hot chocolate.

As soon as I walked in the door, I couldn’t wait for the haunted house experience to be over. This was the sort of haunted house where the main objective is to make you jump, and they did just that. There were people who would chase you down hallways and grab your ankles as you scurried by. (The employees of some haunted houses aren’t allowed to touch you – apparently, this was not one of those places.) People in horrifying clown costumes (!!!) would corner you and come within inches of your face, snarling and hissing. Once you snuck away, you’d be met with some other unpleasant creature. This particular haunted house was not guided, so you had to find your own way through the place.

Oh, and did I mention that my friend Sue has epilepsy? (Lest you think that I’m the kind of terrible person who would take her epileptic friend to a haunted house, I must remind you that it was Sue’s idea.) Haunted houses’ bread and butter are the strobe lights: they flash and disorient you and give you glimpses of something unfriendly hanging on the wall or running at you. Sue had to close her eyes with the strobe lights went off, so it was up to me to lead us through the maze. If there’s one place you do NOT want to be in a haunted house, it’s up front.

The haunted house itself probably only lasted about ten minutes, but it felt like HOURS.
The Connecticut haunted house was more than enough for me, and I had no plans to go through one ever again. But guess what I did last year?

I went to the haunted Canaries stadium with my friends Bob and Luke.

This was after the Zombie Walk in downtown Sioux Falls – we’d put on our zombie makeup, shambled along, and had had our supper of brains. (By brains, I mean burgers and beer.) Bob and Luke wanted to go to the haunted Canaries stadium – this particular haunted stadium was zombie-themed. After much hemming and hawing and them reassuring me that it wouldn’t be very scary (“zombies are slow! They can’t get us!”), like an idiot, I agreed to go with them.

We drove up to the stadium and could see the strobe lights and hear the prerecorded screams from the parking lot. We waited in line and ended up in a group with three little boys, who were so much braver than we were. Bob, Luke, and I traveled in a little nervous cluster, all with kung-fu grips on each other’s arms. A guide led us through, and he’d fake us out along the way: “Oh, I think we’re safe now!” Bob, Luke, and I were probably exactly the kind of people he wanted on his tour: we’d yell back: “We are NOT safe! We KNOW you’re lying!”

The guide took us through the locker rooms (zombies in the showers), down hallways (zombies eating brains as you turned the corner), through the stadium seats (which was the WORST because there were tons of creepy zombies hiding under seats and shambling across the open field), and finally, to freedom. Bob, Luke, and I – all in our late 20s – were relieved to see the end. All that screaming and the hiding and the scampering along while trying to stay as close together as humanly possible and the “OH GOD OH GOD WHAT IS THAT WHY IS IT RUNNING AT US” was enough for one Halloween.

Those little boys in the group with us?

Not scared at all.

It’s probably pretty obvious by now that these haunted houses are pretty tame by most standards. These haunted houses are for kids – and wimps like me. If I went through a legitimate haunted house – the ones that state they are for adults 18 and up and may make you sign a release to get in – I would probably have a full-blown panic attack. Having never had a panic attack, I’m not about to try it out by going into a super-scary haunted house.

So that’s where I stand on haunted houses. I can be peer-pressured into going to the so-called “family friendly” haunted houses, but there’s nothing you can do (short of offering me large sums of money) to get me into an “adults only” haunted house. If little kids can’t handle it, I sure as hell can’t handle it.

But be warned: if you do convince me to go to a wussy-by-anyone-elses’s-standards-but-completley-terrifying-by-mine haunted house, I WILL be attached to your arm at all times, and I WILL sacrifice you to whatever zombie happens to be chasing us.


Which is why you probably shouldn’t invite me to haunted houses. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

top ten Tuesday: elementary school flashback songs.

Forgive the incredibly lame simile, but certain songs are like time machines. Hearing a particular song can transport me right back to fourth grade. There are just some songs with such strong memories attached to them that they will forever evoke a different time.

There are TONS of songs that make me think of specific times in my life, but the songs we’re talking about today are the ones that remind me of my elementary school days. Some songs remind me of very specific situations; others just remind me of a particular grade or age. You’ll notice that the majority of them are from 1997 and 1998: I was in fourth grade. That was the grade when music suddenly became really important in my young life. That was also the year that I made the transition from country music (which my parents listened to) to pop music (which my friends listened to).

These songs are all concentrated in the 90s, and I’m including the year the songs were released because I became obsessed with said songs around the time they came out. (This will not necessarily be the case for my high school flashback songs: stay tuned for those!) I’m starting with the earliest 90s song and working my way to the end of the decade. Prepare yourselves for a 90s flashback.

(You’ll notice that my friend Sarah shows up quite a bit in this set of songs – Sarah and I shared a taste for corny pop music, and let me tell you: living through the pop music of the late 90s will form an unshakable bond.)

Trisha Yearwood – She’s in Love with the Boy – 1991
“She’s in Love with the Boy” was the first song I ever truly loved. My parents listened to nothing but country music, and I heard this song on the radio all the time when riding around with them. The first cassette tape I ever truly owned (ie, not a hand-me-down, but something I actually requested) was something like Trisha Yearwood’s greatest hits. I was obsessed with this song for years: I would play the tape over and over and OVER in my room, doing my best twangy country singer voice when I sang along. And I ALWAYS sang along. I would even act this song out with Barbies. Of course, I had very little idea what the song was about: just some girl named Katie who had a boyfriend named Tommy that her dad didn’t like. Like all good country songs, this one had a message: Katie’s mom steps in and informs her overprotective husband that HER father didn’t like him, and look how happy they are! So he should give Tommy a chance! How sweet! (Tommy, it should be noted, proposes to Katie with his class ring. The lyrics go: “He said, ‘My high school ring will have to do/til I can buy a wedding band.’” For years, I thought Tommy needed to buy a wedding van. When I finally figured out that he was buying a wedding band, I thought he meant a pack of musicians for his wedding. I had a lot to learn.)

John Michael Montgomery – Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident) – 1995
This song is fantastically corny: a guy is at an auction and sees a pretty girl, and he is “sold” to her because she “bids” on his heart. Blech. But I liked it because it was catchy, and the chorus was supposed to be a little like auctioneering (which I have always thought is impressive). Double bonus: the lady in the song is touted as having blonde hair and blue eyes. I, too, had blonde hair and blue eyes. As a very awkward eight-year-old entering the notorious Fat Calla/ugly duckling years, I liked to picture myself as the pretty lady at the Grundy County Auction.

Duncan Sheik – Barely Breathing – 1996
Enter: the summer before fourth grade. Though this song came out when I was still in third grade, I listened to it the most in the summer of 1997. It was during that time when I realized that almost none of my classmates listened to country music. Therefore, it was no longer cool to listen to country music. If you were cool, you listened to 104.7, which played all the popular music. Like nearly all fourth-graders, I desperately wanted to be cool, so I commenced begging my parents to switch the radio to 104.7. My mom did so semi-cooperatively, but my dad adopted the “my car, my radio” stance. (Looking back, I can’t say I blame him.) “Barely Breathing” is one of the first songs I remember hearing and liking, and my friend Sarah and I worked hard that entire summer to learn the words. We loved the singer’s weird inflections: next time you listen to it, pay attention to them. They’re a little bit hilarious.

Savage Garden – I Want You – 1996
I had a tough time choosing between two Savage Garden songs: this one and “Truly Madly Deeply.” Both were fourth grade favorites, even though the lyrics to “Truly Madly Deeply” made me gag. (Fun fact: they still do.) Like the Duncan Sheik song, Sarah and I spent a great deal of time trying to learn the words to “I Want You,” struggling because the verses were so fast. I clearly remember us diving into the Arlington swimming pool and trying to mouth as many words as we could underwater before we had to come up for air. Our favorite part? The chick-a-cherry-cola.

Billie Myers – Kiss the Rain – 1997
This song? RIDICULOUS. First of all, it should be noted it took my friends and I quite a while to figure out if the singer was a man or a woman. (Said singer was ambiguously named Billie, so that was no help to us.) Turns out Billie is a woman, and we were SHOCKED. It was the manliest woman’s voice we’d heard in our ten years. Granted, we would’ve been SHOCKED if Billie had turned out to be a man – then it would’ve been the womanliest man voice we’d heard thus far. Poor Billie just wasn’t going to win with the fourth grade crowd. Even as fourth graders, Sarah and I knew how absurd the song was: how exactly does one kiss the rain? When it rained, we’d dance around outside – usually at the Badger playground – and sing this song. We tried to kiss the rain, but it never really worked out.

Matchbox 20 – 3 am – 1997
I am not at all ashamed to admit that I still love this song. While I can’t listen to most of the songs on this list without cringing, “3 am” has a permanent place in my iPod rotation. “3 am” is one of those songs to which I can’t help but sing along, and it’s the ugly kind of sing along: all with the face scrunching and the fist clenching. When I was in college and staying up until 3 am was a regular occurrence, I would play this song. At 3 am. Like a tool. Nowadays, I am much too old to stay awake until 3 am, but if I did, I would play this song. At 3 am. Like a tool. Bonus points if it’s raining.

Hanson – MMMBop – 1997
You know I can’t let a blog about elementary school music go by without mentioning Hanson. Alas, I, too, fell under the Hanson spell. How could I not? I was ten, and “MMMBop” was catchy as hell. I remember going to Sarah’s eleventh birthday party that summer – “MMMBop” was reasonably fresh, and Sarah had gotten the CD for her birthday. She had a pool party at a hotel in Watertown, and a dozen or so of us sat in the hotel room and listened to “MMMBop” on repeat. For HOURS. (Redeeming fact: while I loved “MMMBop,” I never had a crush on any of the Hanson brothers. I was too busy swooning over Leonardo DiCaprio, so I didn’t have time for that nonsense.)

Goo Goo Dolls – Slide – 1998
Out of all these songs, “Slide” is the one that reminds me the most of fourth grade. Why, exactly, I don’t know. I don’t have a big story for “Slide” like I do for many of these other songs – it was just on the radio all the time, and it stuck with me. Maybe it was that infectious opening guitar lick. However, even as an eleven-year-old, I had to remind myself not to listen too hard to the magnificently trite lyrics: “What you feel is what you are/and what you are is beautiful.” GAG. I should mention that I feel like a complete idiot when I say that I used to listen to the Goo Goo Dolls, and I feel like a complete idiot typing out the name “Goo Goo Dolls.” Seriously. Who names themselves the Goo Goo Dolls? Bands who write lyrics like “Would you whisper in my ear/ the things you want to feel/I’ll give you everything/to feel it coming,” that’s who.

Semisonic – Closing Time – 1998
We had PE three times a week in elementary school, and I hated every second of it (except for hockey, but that’s neither here nor there). Of all the things about PE I loathed, my absolute least favorite was running laps around the gym. While we sluggishly ran (“ran” being a very generous term for what we were doing) our laps, our PE teacher would turn the radio to 104.7. “Closing Time” and “Save Tonight” by Eagle Eye Cherry (remember that song?) were the two songs I heard most often while I chugged around the gymnasium. Despite the PE memories (shiver), “Closing Time” really is an ok song. I work the closing shift at the library at least once a week, and every time, I think about how great it would be if we could play this over the intercom system at closing time. Minus the part about one last call for alcohol, the sentiment is the same: you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here. 

Barenaked Ladies – One Week – 1998
“One Week” was the first song where I made a conscious effort to learn the lyrics. I’m usually able to pick up song lyrics pretty quickly, but “One Week” proved a challenge for me: you can’t learn the lyrics if you can’t understand a damn word they’re saying. The verses were rapid-fire and unintelligible; the most I could do was pick up a phrase here and there. “I summon fish to the dish mumble mumble mumble sushi because it’s never touched the frying pan!” Sarah came to my rescue: she was the lucky recipient of Seventeen magazine, and they had published the lyrics to “One Week.” She tore it out for me, and I had that song down pat in days. Or perhaps one week. (See what I did there?)

-----

Well, there you are: a lovely little peek into my elementary school brain. Listening to any of these songs makes me feel like I’m a kid again. These were ten of my all-time childhood favorites. Say what you will about them – I know I should be ashamed of nearly all of these – but they all hold a special place in my heart.

Or maybe these songs have ruined me! Did you read what I just wrote?? "Special place in my heart"???! Have the clich├ęd song lyrics made their way into my writing? AHHHHH!!!!! SOMEONE SAVE ME FROM THE 90s!!!!!!!!!

Monday, October 13, 2014

happy anniversary - year three!

(My apologizes for being a little slow on the uptake this year - I started the blog on October 10, and it's now October 13. Please forgive me those three days.)

Believe it or not, it's been three years since I started this blog.


I have a little tradition of recapping all the wonderful things that have happened to me in the past year - particularly, the things that wouldn't have happened without me moving to the Sioux Falls area.


After all, one of the major reasons I started this blog was to try to quell my anxiety about moving to Sioux Falls. (The other major reason was that I had enough bizarre stories that I thought it was about time to start recording them.) Nothing like voicing your thoughts into the great expanse of the internet to make you feel a little bit better about your particular situation.


If you recall, in 2011, I had just moved to Sioux Falls from Minneapolis. I had done it for two reasons: to be closer to my family, and to be closer to my then-boyfriend James. My job in Minneapolis was so very very strange, and I was ready for a change. I had been applying for jobs in the cities as well as in Sioux Falls, and it just so happened that the job offer I got was in Sioux Falls.


I loved Minneapolis - I loved all the places there were to go, the things to see, the food to eat... but that stuff just wasn't as fun without someone to go with me. While I had friends in the cities, they all had significant others and/or demanding careers. I had neither (as my significant other was located four hours away), so I had much more spare time. James would come to visit me from time to time, and we always had a blast doing cities things - but the time would inevitably come for James to drive back to Ellsworth and me to go back to being alone.


So when the job offer came from the Department of Labor in Sioux Falls, I accepted - and moved, which much trepidation, to Sioux Falls. A number of things had me nervous: I would be basically moving home, as I grew up going to Sioux Falls. I would be taking a significant pay cut. I feared that I'd be stuck living in Sioux Falls, while I wanted to live so many other places. Moving to Sioux Falls would bring me closer to James, but we'd still be living an hour away from each other. How were we going to work that out? 


And you know what happened? Everything worked out. Just a few short months after I moved to Sioux Falls, I got a job at the library - a dream come true for a book lover like me. Less than a year after I moved, James proposed. Two years after I moved, James and I were married, had bought a house, and had gotten a cat. 


In retrospect, I had nothing to worry about.


Traditionally, I like to talk about all the wonderful life events that have taken place since my last anniversary post. However, it's going to be awfully hard to top last year's update. In my last update, I had gotten promoted, gotten married, and closed on a house: all in the span of two weeks. We had also gotten a cat, which was very exciting. (We have since learned that cats - at least, our cat - aren't actually that great.)


This year has been good, but I have no major life events to report. After all, getting married, buying a house, and adopting your first pet are big ones, and we covered all that in 2013.


But I'm here to tell you about the good stuff that has happened while living here in southwestern Minnesota and working in Sioux Falls - good stuff that most certainly wouldn't have happened if I had stayed in my same job in Minneapolis.


Since my last update, I've been fortunate enough to go on a number of fun trips: New Orleans for New Year's, Phoenix in May, and Rapid City in July, not to mention little road trips to places like Lanesboro, New Ulm, and Morris - AND a great number of trips to Lake Poinsett this summer. At my job in Minneapolis, vacation time was a rare commodity, and I never would've been able to swing all those trips. Additionally, with the cost of living being pretty low here, it's easier to afford things like vacations and houses and furniture for said house.


But the LAKE. Lake Poinsett is one of my favorite places on this earth, and this was the summer that I FINALLY learned to waterski. I had been trying and trying and TRYING to ski since I was about seven years old, and I just couldn't do it. I couldn't manage to balance myself on skis while pulling myself out of the water, and every time I'd try, I'd just end up face-planting into the lake. Until this summer. After the traditional failed attempts, something just clicked, and I finally skiied! I was assured that it wasn't a fluke when I was able to get back up on skis again... and again. And that, my friends, is definitely not something I could've accomplished while living in Minneapolis.


I have also had the fantastic opportunity to volunteer in the Ellsworth Elementary School library. James teaches in Ellsworth, which is the smallest district in Minnesota. At the beginnning of the school year, Ellsworth found themselves short a person to help in the library (as the teacher who had been running the library had taken another job). I volunteered to help, and that was that. I have been working since August, and it's been wonderful. I've been able to help organize the library into a new digitized system, as well as help implement the Dewey Decimal system. I am also able to do story times, which is about the best thing ever.


While I don't have as much major news to report in this three-year blog update, things are going well here in Luverne. I do miss living in Minneapolis, but I must remind myself that all of this great stuff I have going for me - great job, cozy house, freedom for road trips, proximity to my family, happy husband who loves his small-town Minnesota job - would've been much harder to come by had I stayed in Minneapolis. 


So here's to another wonderful year of living and blogging - as long as you're still willing to read them, I've got many years' worth of stories left to tell.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

let's talk about Duluth.

I’ve told you before how much I enjoy summer road trips. Care to guess one of my favorite road trip destinations?

Give up?

Duluth.
I had never been to Duluth before August 2010. That was my first summer in Minneapolis, and James was about to move to Ellsworth to start his teaching job. As our last summer hurrah, we decided to take a day-trip to Duluth. It was only about two hours from Minneapolis: totally doable.

I didn’t know what to expect from Duluth, but I LOVED it. Ever since our trip to a naval base in Virginia when I was 14, I’ve been fascinated with big ships. (During that trip – thanks to a friendly sailor named Paul – we got a tour of an aircraft carrier. Best vacation ever.) Duluth is a great place to go if you like big ships. These gigantic cargo ships sail into Duluth every day, and you can check the shipping schedule to make sure that you’re around to see one come it. It’s hard to explain how absolutely incredible it is to see one of these monstrous ships go sailing through the canal – so close that you almost feel as if you could be crushed. 
(No worries – no one gets crushed.)

It’s not just the ships that make Duluth so appealing to me – I grew up on a lake and therefore gained an appreciation of lakes, so Lake Superior is… well, superior. You stand on the edge of the lake and look out to the horizon, and all you see is water. It looks like an ocean – nothing but cold, deep water for miles.

When I say cold, I mean COLD. James and I have been to Duluth three times, each time in August on a brutally hot day. And each time, I stuck my feet in Lake Superior – and the water was so cold that it almost took my breath away. But I keep going back for more. I might be a slow learner.
SO COLD.
In Duluth, James and I stick mostly to the touristy stuff: Canal Park is gorgeous, and that’s where you watch the ships, wade in the lake, walk out to the lighthouse, and get dive-bombed by seagulls. Along Canal Park, there are little cutesy shops and restaurants, and you can stroll a walking path around Lake Superior. (Not ALL the way around, obviously.)

Of all the typical tourist stuff we’ve done in Duluth (the aquarium, Fitger’s, the ship museum, watching the lift bridge go up, etc), just walking around the lake and watching the ships is by far my favorite. 
And taking corny pictures with the lift bridge.
The perfect time of day to be there is just around sunset – by then, many of the tourists have gone home, and Canal Park is filled with a beautiful calm. You can watch the sun go down and the moon rise over the lake, and it’s breathtaking.

And I can't resist a good lighthouse.
James and I have visited Duluth in August 2010, August 2011, and August 2013 (on our way back from our Canadian honeymoon), and each time, I’ve appreciated it more and more. One of these days, we’re going to drive up to Duluth and continue along the North Shore – we haven’t done it yet because we always seem to be short on time. But isn’t that just the way it goes?

The jury is out on when we’ll get to Duluth again, but here’s hoping it’s soon. Until then, if you find yourself in Duluth, say hello to the ships for me.
And the lift bridge, if you don't mind.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

a spelling bee story.

When I was in first grade, I was chosen for a regional spelling bee.

I know. You’re impressed.

The spelling bee was to involve a handful of area schools, and it would be held in our school gym. First through sixth graders were to compete with each other, and each grade level would be awarded first through fifth place. It was a big deal.

So how did I make it into such elite company? Honestly, I don’t really remember. There were three of us from the Arlington first grade class who made it in: my friend Allison, a girl named Jill, and me. I have a hazy memory of us being selected by a to-the-death spelling bee in which all of the thirty-some first graders were pitted against each other. The three of us happened to be the last three standing, and that’s how we earned our places. Or so I think.

We each received a little blue spelling book and were instructed by the principal to get practicing. 
Spelling bees were a big deal to him, and he wanted a good showing from his school. The three of us got out of class to practice in the elementary library, and I remember feeling a great sense of accomplishment when I spelled the word “beautiful” correctly on my first try.

I took my blue spelling book home and practiced with my dad. I’ve never been much for practicing, so I didn’t put as much time into it as I should have – something that Dad would remind me of later.

The day of the spelling bee came, and Allison and I were dressed to impress. We hovered around the trophy table, eyeing the gigantic first prize trophy, each hoping that we’d be able to triumphantly take it home.

Allison and I spelled like champs. We spelled in the tried-and-true spelling bee form: say the word, spell it, repeat the word. We were unstoppable. When the spelling bee was over and done, Allison and I did indeed come out on top. Allison won first place, and I went home with second.

My parents were thrilled for me. “Second place!” they said. “That’s great!” I, however, was devastated. I hated losing, and I viewed second place as a losing place. Mom and Dad assured me that second place did not make me a loser – think of how many people I beat to get that trophy! But I would have none of it.
Check out that fake smile.
When we got home, in classic drama queen fashion, I promptly threw my trophy in the garbage. My dad fished it out and sat me down for a talk that would go down in Bjorklund parenting history. He gathered up a handful of pennies – one penny for each spelling bee competitor. Dad then separated two pennies from the pack. “Do you see these two pennies?” he said. “These pennies are you and Allison.” He pointed at the pile of pennies left behind. “These pennies are everyone you beat in the spelling bee today. You spelled better than all of these other pennies.” A great point and a great visual, yes. But I was stubborn, and Dad’s pep talk did nothing to change my disappointment in my perceived poor performance that day.

Despite my sore loser-dom, I wound up in the regional spelling bee again in second grade. This time, it was held in a neighboring school. So much for home field advantage. It had been a year since my first grade defeat, but my heart wasn’t in this spelling bee. I ended up in fifth place thanks to my ability to spell the word “business.”

That year, our principal retired. With him went the regional spelling bee. However, Arlington could still send students to spelling bees in larger towns, so that’s what they did. Allison and I were still the two best spellers in the glass, so in third grade, we were sent off to larger spelling bees: Allison went to Watertown, and I was sent to Brookings.

This particular Brookings spelling bee was just for third graders, and it was held in the library of the newly-built middle school. It was an evening bee, and we circled our chairs near the large windows – I remember the backdrop of the night sky being so different than the gymnasium walls of spelling bees past.

My parents and uncle (who happened to be visiting from Colorado – and who wouldn’t want to spend part of their vacation at a spelling bee?) sat and watched the spelling be. It’s not much of a spectator sport, but when you’ve got an athletically challenged child like yours truly, I suppose you take what you can get.

I did fairly well in this spelling bee – I was trucking along and breezing past my rivals… until I was given the word “hew.” Yes, a very simple word. I knew how to spell “hue,” of course, but I wondered if that was just too easy. I asked for a definition and was told that “hew” meant to strike with force, usually in reference to cutting down trees. In my nine years, I had never heard “hew” used in that way. (It’s now eighteen years later, and I still never hear the word “hew” – except when I tell this story.) I took a chance, spelled the word “h-u-e,” and was eliminated.

Despite my hew/hue issues, I was awarded third place. For my efforts, I was given a blue travel mug that I still use to this day.
It's a little faded, but you can sort of see where
it used to say "Brookings Register."
That Brookings spelling bee marked the end of my spelling bee era. Despite my nearly two decade long absence from competitive spelling, I am still a pretty darn good speller. Just don’t ask me to spell hew.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

one year with Mona.

These last two months have had two major one-year milestones: one year of marriage in July and one year of home ownership/Minnesotan living in August. But it’s not over yet, folks. September marks one year that we’ve had our cat, Mona.
She came from James’s parents’ house. Their cat has a couple litters of kittens every year, and the kittens are always the cutest, fluffiest things you’ve ever seen. Mona was no exception. She was born last July, and she was a ball of fuzz.

James and I had never lived in a place where pets were allowed, so we had never even considered it. When we bought our house in Luverne, that meant that we could FINALLY have a pet. I wanted a dog so badly (and still do), but James and I simply aren’t around enough to give the dog the attention he’d deserve. We both commute to work, so the dog would be at home alone for at least ten hours a day. We also love to take road trips on weekends (true story: we only spent only two entire weekends at home this entire summer), which would prove much more difficult with a dog.

A cat would be a better option, but I thought a cat was out of the question. For years, James had thought that he was allergic to cats – his parents’ cats live outside, and whenever he’d play with them, his eyes would get itchy and he’d sneeze. I knew this, and I resigned myself to never having a housecat. I’d made it 26 years without one, so I knew I could survive. (SIGH.)

But then Mona came along. James saw her and fell in love. You could hold her in the palm of your hand, and she’d stretch out and flop upside down. James’s mom offered Mona to us, and James said, “Well… my eyes aren’t TOO itchy, so I bet I’d be ok! Let’s take her!”
(Turns out he’s not allergic to cats at all. James always played with the cats outside, so his allergies were just your regular old pollen and such.)

James’s brother Jesse was the one who gave Mona her name. (It’s important to note that Jesse doesn’t like cats.) James, Jesse, and I were sitting on the steps with the kittens, and we were trying to come up with a name for our new cat. “How about Mona?” Jesse said. “It’s the ugliest name I can think of.” He had once had a van named Mona, and somehow, it seemed perfect for our cat. Mona stuck.

We brought Mona home when she was two months old. We knew absolutely nothing about cats, so we didn’t think to get a cat carrier for the three-hour drive home. Mona sat in a paper box and mewed as we pulled out of the driveway. We felt terrible, so Mona spent the rest of the ride roaming around the car and sitting on our shoulders.
 She explored her new home with gusto and settled in nicely. She loved to nap on bellies and laps, and she was nothing but adorable. 
Until she wasn’t.

James and I quickly learned that kittens actually suck. Mona’s sweet cuddly phase lasted all of a week. As soon as she felt at home in the house, she let us know. Mona was a holy terror. She would bite our hands with her tiny kitten teeth and wait around corners to pounce on us when we came down the stairs. As she grew older, the higher her vertical became: she had been at our house for mere month, and she was already big enough to make the four-foot jump onto our kitchen counter.

Mona began to drag Kleenexes out of the garbage and chew them up, and she would take stray dollar bills and hide them.
This also happened. More than once.
We bought her countless toys, but she would manage to get them stuck behind or under something within seconds. I came home one day to find our gigantic aloe plant in the sink. Her little paws grew so strong that she learned how to open drawers – she even opened the door into the garage by sitting on a nearby shelf and jumping on the handle with all her weight. If Mona ever grows thumbs, we’re in serious trouble.

For all the mischief Mona got into, she still had her cute moments. She would climb into the dryer while I was folding clothes, or we’d find her sitting innocently in the sink.
Mona would cuddle you while you were sitting on the couch, and she’d rub up against your legs when you came home from work.

However, the mischief was far more prevalent than the cute. James and I assumed she’d grow out of it eventually – after all, she was still just a baby. For the first few months, we let her sleep on our bed. She would inevitably wake us up in the middle of night by a.) chewing on my hair, b.) climbing up on the headboard and then falling off, or c.) jumping on the dresser and swatting my earrings. I had to be the one to ban Mona from the bedroom, and for the sake of a good night’s sleep, I’m glad I did.

When James and I went to New Orleans in January, we left Mona with my parents. They had a great time with her – she snuggled on the couch and got off the table when Mom told her to. Our demon cat was a perfect angel for my parents (except when she climbed the Christmas tree). 

Why couldn’t she be that way at home?

In spring, our cat troubles increased. Mona’s eyes were watering all the time, so we took her to the vet – she had an upper respiratory infection, when meant liquid antibiotics and eye drops. A few weeks later, Mona began having accidents outside her litter box, so back to the vet we went. The vet informed us that Mona had crystals in her bladder and would need to be on special prescription bladder food for the rest of her life. Mona didn’t mind the change in food, but she did mind going to the vet. She spit and hissed – and REALLY didn’t like when she had to go back a month later when the problem came back. She had some kind of kidney infection, so we had to sneak pills into soft food and give her liver-flavored liquid antibiotics, which she didn’t appreciate in the least.

Because of all these problems, we had to put off spaying her until she was healthy. We experienced Mona in heat, and it was actually a nice change – instead of hunting us all the time, she would roll around on her back and want us to rub her belly. When you said, “Mona!” she would close her eyes and say, “Murrrr.”

We got Mona spayed in June, and she was pitiful for about a week… but then she was back in full force. Have you ever heard that spaying a cat makes them lazy? It’s not true. Mona no longer has a low gear. (And if she does, she only uses it when we’re not home.) Ever since she got spayed, Mona has been hunting us non-stop. She has a taste for flesh, so if you’re wearing shorts, she WILL come for your legs. She also likes to bite toes. We’ve tried everything to get her to stop biting us: from spray bottles to distracting her with toys to putting her in cat jail to verbal shaming, but nothing has worked (especially that last one).

Mona’s vertical has improved, too. She will leap up and wrap her freakishly strong little feet around your arm and latch on with her teeth. She jumps in the windows with absolutely no problem, and we find her on top of the fridge from time to time. Once, Mona jumped up and punched me in the face. No kidding.

Her biting has frustrated both of us to no end, and I've never been as mad at an animal as I have been with Mona. She only bites if there are two of us home - oddly, if it's just you and Mona, she will not only NOT bite you, but she will snuggle up on your lap. I can be totally furious with her, but all she has to do is settle in on my lap and start purring, and my heart just melts.
Damn that cat.
Mona does all sorts of typical cat things that are endearing enough for me to forget how mad I am at her after she bites. She loves to roll around on freshly vacuumed carpet and will sit in a paper bag for hours. Mona loves boxes and cramming into weird places.
We would find her in all sorts of nooks and crannies, so we started taking pictures of her and calling them “spot the cat.” James put them on Facebook, and they’ve been a huge hit.



Sometimes, he has people come up to him and say, “I couldn’t spot the cat! Where is she??” We might need to publish a book.

There’s not a whole lot that scares Mona. She will run away when you first turn the vacuum on, but she’ll come back to stare at it. I have a little wooden duck that you push around to make its feet flap. The first time we rolled that duck at her, she arched and hissed. “Hooray!” we thought. “When she bites us, we can just get out the duck!” But alas, it was not to be. After a few minutes of hissing and spitting, we turned around to find Mona nuzzling the duck. Dammit.

So after a year with Mona, we’ve got our fair share of puncture wounds, but we’ve also got plenty of fun “spot the cat” pictures. And Mona is nothing if not entertaining. She’ll get bursts of energy and zip all around the house making weird noises – until she runs into a door. Or she’ll trip down the stairs. Or she’ll go sliding off the table. Graceful? No. Hilarious? Yes.

Sometimes, I feel this overwhelming guilt that we didn't adopt a shelter cat. I volunteered with a cat rescue organization in Minneapolis and with the Humane Society in Sioux Falls, and there are so many wonderful cats everywhere that need homes. And we were the assholes who adopted the kitten because she was cute. However, she was a farm kitten, and judging from her less-than-intelligent behavior at home, she may have been a victim of natural selection if left in the wild. James assures me that we did the right thing by adopting Mona - the kittens at his house don't have the greatest survival rate thanks to cars, coyotes, and jealous feral cats. He says that the cute fluffy ones are the first one to go - I'm not sure if he's just making that up to make me feel better, but I'm going to choose to believe it. 

At this point in her life, Mona is just over a year old and is still a kitten, and we’re doing our best to keep that in mind. We’re anxiously awaiting the day when Mona is happy to sit on our laps and cuddle - without first giving us scar tissue. But for now, we’re just going to have to sit tight and wait it out. Mona may be an asshole, but she’s our asshole.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

top ten Tuesday: childhood books.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to read. I spent much of my childhood with my nose buried in a book – I would even bring a book along when I went out to eat with my family. (Rude, I know. Shame on me.) I blew through every elementary reading assignment – I was up to my neck in free pizzas from Book-It, and I eventually needed a second plaque for all my Accelerated Reader gold bars. I read the elementary school library dry, and the day I got my Brookings Public Library card was one of the best days of my young life.

So it’s no big surprise, really, that I ended up with an English degree and working in a public library. For an avid reader like me, being in close proximity to thousands of books every day is basically heaven on earth. I read more now than ever, thanks not only to the sheer convenience, but I am constantly making mental reading lists as I’m out and about on the library floor. Ever since I started working here, not having anything to read (previously a very real concern of mine) has not been a problem.

But I’m not here to talk about the books I read now. My love of books began long ago, and I want to talk about the books I loved most as a child. These are books that I can read now – twenty-some years later – and the memories of the first time I read them are as clear as day. So allow me to present my top ten childhood books!

(Note: I did cheat a little bit in some – ok, most – cases by counting a series of books as one entry. But you’re just going to have to live with it.)

(Another note: with the exception of Goosebumps and the Welcome Inn series - sadly, I no longer own those books - all of the photos of these books are the books from my own collection. You can tell because there's a cat named Mona in several of these pictures.)

Peppermint
See how beat up this book is? Obviously well-loved.
My first pets were cats – cuddly farm cats who would rub up against your legs and occasionally fall victim to the school bus. These cats were strictly outdoor cats, so I lived vicariously by reading about lucky children who were allowed to have house pets – and these pets, I might add, had a much longer lifespan than any of mine. (See: school bus.) Peppermint is the first book I can remember truly loving. It’s a picture book about a runty white kitten who is born in a candy shop. The candy shop owner names all of the kittens after candy and sells them – but nobody wants Peppermint. (My heart broke for Peppermint – as an emotional three-year-old, I wanted so badly to take Peppermint home and give her all the warm cuddles and canned tuna that she could ever hope for, but as you know, it’s hard to take a fictional cartoon kitten home with you.) Peppermint lives in the candy shop for a while, and her white fur gets all dirty and dusty. Finally, a little girl – the special little girl that was MEANT to have Peppermint – comes into the shop, sees Peppermint, and is in love. Peppermint and the little girl live happily ever after. When it comes to stories about cats and dogs, I love a good happy ending.

Ramona series – Beverly Cleary
Ramona Forever was the first Ramona book I ever read - that copy
sitting on top was given to me by my grandma Lorraine.
Beverly Cleary has a way of writing that perfectly captured the thoughts and feelings of a young overly enthusiastic girl. I’m counting the entire series as one entry because I couldn’t possibly choose my favorite Ramona book. Each and every one of them had chapters that hit home with me in such a way that it felt like Beverly Cleary was living inside my head. Remember in Ramona Quimby, Age 8 where Ramona throws up in class and is completely mortified? That was (and still is) one of my worst nightmares. And it’s not just Ramona herself that makes the series so good. The dynamic between Beezus (the older sister) and Ramona (the younger sister) is spot-on, and while I liked Ramona better as a character, I felt an awful lot of sympathy for Beezus. As an older sister myself, I understood very well Beezus’s desire to just be left alone with her book. I reread the Ramona series not too long ago, and those books were just as good as I remember.

The Little Duckling
The Little Duckling is one of only two picture books to make my list. It’s about a boy who finds a duck egg and – with the help of an incubator – hatches it. He names the little duckling Henry and raises him – he even teaches Henry how to swim in a kiddie pool. Henry is happy as a pet duck (he even goes on walks and sits with you while you read), but he knows there’s something more out there. When Henry becomes too big for his pool, the boy knows it’s time to set him free. The book ends with Henry happily swimming off into the sunset, and – this is true – finds a lady duck almost immediately. I would’ve killed for a pet duck like Henry.

Roald Dahl
This is an action shot of Mona knocking over my copy of The Witches.
I’ve never met a Roald Dahl book I haven’t liked. Some, however, shone above the rest. My absolute favorites were (and still are) Matilda, The Witches, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and The BFG. Roald Dahl’s stories are equal parts wonder and sarcasm, magic and harsh reality. He creates the most wonderful characters – a friendly giant who collects dreams? A reclusive candy magnate who has no qualms with putting ill-behaved children through the ringer? Witches who have square toes and wear wigs? A principal who was a champion javelin thrower and hurls students as such? And of course, the wonderful characters have equally wonderful adventures, and the good guy always wins in the end.

Great Illustrated Classics
Mona swoons for the Great Illustrated Classics.
I don’t remember how old I was when these books showed up at our house, but they were a gift from my grandma Lorraine – a former elementary school teacher. I ate them up. They’re exactly what they sound like: classic novels with an illustration on each page. I read each and every one of them, but I had my favorites: I couldn’t get enough of Treasure Island, and I read Oliver Twist time and time again. This was my first introduction into what could actually be called literature, and it was much more palpable when you knew anything you didn’t understand would be explained in an impressively penned illustration.

The Fudge series – Judy Blume
Mona would like me to quit taking pictures of books and
feed her already.
Just like Beverly Cleary and the Ramona books, Judy Blume’s Fudge books were perfect renditions of young life. However, Judy Blume goes beyond Beverly Cleary – age-wise and issue-wise. Where the Ramona books end when Ramona is ten-ish, Peter and Sheila make it all the way to twelve – and if you remember being twelve, that’s when shit starts to get serious. Sure, the Fudge books have the classic sibling conflicts (Peter v Fudge), but there’s some deeper stuff, like self-acceptance and conquering fear. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone could have a REAL childhood without reading Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary.

the Welcome Inn series
For the life of me, I absolutely could not remember what these books are called. I could picture the covers, I knew the main characters' names (Molly and Gwen O'Brien), and I remembered some plot snippets... but none of the important stuff stuck with me. No titles, no author, no series name. Even Google couldn't help me. I wanted to reread them so badly, but that wasn't going to happen until I figured out what they were called. But then? Library to the rescue. My library JUST started subscribing to a database called NoveList, and you can enter vague search terms (related to the plot, characters, whatever) to see if you can find your book. I tried about a zillion search terms, but the one that finally got me there was "Molly inn" filtered into children's books. When I saw that familiar cover, there was much rejoicing. Anyway, there were four books in the Welcome Inn series, and I acquired them all via Scholastic book orders. (Remember those? Book order days wqere the best.) These books were about two sisters who live with their parents in an inn on the east coast somewhere (they’re not homeless; the parents run the inn). There are all sorts of spooky adventures – they help three ancient sisters find a skeleton key, they explore secret passageways under the island, they free a ghost, and they run into mystical creatures called kelpies. The books were certainly intriguing, and I read them over and over. And now that I FINALLY know what they're called, I feel an Amazon order coming on.

Harriet the Spy
Who doesn’t love Harriet the Spy? Every kid who has ever read that book immediately started carrying around a little notebook, writing down observations. But hopefully you learned enough from the book so that you didn’t write down ALL your observations – after all, that’s what got Harriet into trouble in the first place. It’s a good lesson for real life, as a matter of fact. I, too, hauled around a spy notebook and jotted down my youthful ponderances, but it was short-lived. When I discovered that my deep thoughts about the world around me weren’t actually that deep, I gave up. It’s probably just as well – as Harriet could tell you, no one likes a spy.

Goosebumps – R L Stine
One of many that I owned in the late 90s.
Ahh, Goosebumps. Remember the utter joy of a brand new Goosebumps book? You could run your fingers over the slime-inspired Goosebumps logo and feel those little raised goosebumps. I loved these books, but I had to keep them hidden in my room – my sister, a notorious chicken for most of her young life, thought the covers were too scary. There were SO many Goosebumps books, and I could occasionally persuade my parents to buy one from the book order. Alas, I don’t remember a whole lot of the Goosebumps books – there was one about a ventriloquist dummy that I liked, and I really enjoyed the Goosebumps short story collections, but my favorites were the books where you chose your own ending. (I realize that Goosebumps was far from the first to do this, but it was the first time I’d ever seen it.) The choose-your-own-ending book set at an abandoned carnival that I recall being especially thrilling.

Fear Street Saga
Mona questions my literary choices.
I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but every main character in every Goosebumps book is twelve years old. Every single book. The Fear Street books are basically Goosebumps for the slightly older reader: the kids are teenagers who live on a cursed street, and their adventures are a little more grim. I never read a whole lot of the Fear Street books… except for the one my mom picked up at a garage sale. It was book two of the Fear Street Saga: the epic and chilling tale of how Fear Street came to be cursed. I read book two, loved it, and wound up with books one and three. Basically, it boils down to a family feud during the witch trials: a judge named Fier burns a girl named Goode at the stake because he doesn’t want his son to marry her – and the Goodes curse the Fiers. Gruesome misadventures follow over two centuries. I recently found all of these books at a used book store and bought them in a nostalgic haze. They’re awfully cheesy as I reread them fifteen years later, but I still find myself intrigued. R L Stine sure knows how to hook his readers.

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While there are so many books I loved as a child (don’t even get me started on Little Golden Books) and many more that I loved as I continued through school (Gone With the Wind! Flowers for Algernon!), these are the books that really stick in my mind. These books helped instill in me a lifelong love of reading, and what’s not to love about that? Reading them now is like revisiting an old friend, and I can still feel the same joy and excitement I felt when I was reading them twenty years (!!!) ago.