Wednesday, May 13, 2015

birthday freebies.

My birthday was last month, and I turned 28. I feel old as hell, but that's not what I'm here to talk about. I'm here to tell you about birthday swag.

You would not BELIEVE all the free stuff you can get for your birthday.

I’m not talking about the free dessert you (usually) get when your friend tells your waiter that it’s your birthday in hopes of embarrassing you when the entire wait staff sings at your table.

There’s so much more than that out there! Sure, most of it is food, but I’m talking entire MEALS here: not just the brownie with a candle in it that comes standard-birthday-issue at your everyday restaurant.

I first discovered the joy of birthday freebies when I was living in Minneapolis. It was 2010: I was about to turn 23, and I was super broke. I was living with James in a garage-turned-apartment underneath someone’s house, I was finishing up an unpaid internship while James was finishing up student teaching, and I was working three minimum-wage jobs.

Obviously, a fancy birthday dinner was out of the question.

James and I were so poor that we couldn’t even afford to go to dinner to a place that would give you a free dessert for your birthday. Yes: even Applebee’s was out of our price range.

But that’s how it goes in your early 20s. So, like any good millennial, I turned to the internet for help. And what I found was a treasure trove. I stumbled across a website that listed all the businesses that would give you free stuff for your birthday. Many of these businesses required that you sign up for their mailing list, and they would send coupons during the week of your birthday. These coupons varied in value: some were buy-one-get-one free coupons (like that for a Dairy Queen Blizzard), some were a free appetizer or dessert with the purchase of a meal (Lonestar Steakhouse), and some would give you a certain dollar amount off a meal (Red Lobster). The best coupons were the ones that gave you an entire free meal.

Since I first signed up for those birthday coupons, they have become less generous. However, that first birthday, I was up to my eyeballs in free food.

IHOP gave me a free fruity pancake meal.
Perkins gave me a free Magnificent Seven meal.
Coldstone gave me free ice cream.
Noodles and Company gave me a free bowl of noodles.
Ruby Tuesday gave me a free burger.
Benihana gave me $30 to spend on a meal there.
Caribou gave me free coffee.

The very best coupon came from Tony Roma’s, which is a barbecue place. Like Benihana, they gave me a coupon worth $30 to use at their restaurant, which meant I got to have shrimp and barbecued pork ribs for my birthday. 

And the only thing I paid for was the tip.

And you know what else makes these coupons so great? Many of them give you two weeks to use them! You can spread out the joy and have free meals for days.

I was so overjoyed by these niceties that I wrote emails to every one of those companies thanking them for making my birthday delightful. I explained that I was an unpaid intern and couldn’t afford much of anything, and these gestures really made my day.

This is not to say that you can’t have a good birthday without spending money: you certainly can. James took me out for a great birthday celebration, and we spent very little money doing it. It was a beautiful spring day, and we explored St Anthony Falls, went to the Como Zoo, had Jucy Lucy’s at Matt’s Bar for lunch, and went to a midnight showing of The Room. It really was a great birthday.
And here are the pictures to prove it.

The offers have changed over the years: Coldstone switched to a buy-one-get-one-free plan, and I don’t think Benihana does the free meal anymore. (Though I’m not sure. I only took advantage of that once because I was the only one in the restaurant and felt super awkward and have never been back.)

My situation has changed in the past few years, as well. I have moved from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls to Luverne, and many of the places that sent me birthday coupons don’t exist in Sioux Falls and Luverne. (See: Benihana.) I have also come across new coupons that don’t involve food: DSW sends me a $5 birthday coupon each year, and World Market gives me $10. Awesome.
This is what I spent my World Market
dollars on this year.
I signed up for these birthday coupons five years ago, and I still get the emails. I don’t take advantage of them like I used to, mostly because James and I live in Luverne – Luverne doesn’t have ANY of the restaurants that offer birthday treats. It’s awfully hard for James and me to coordinate our schedules to wind up in Sioux Falls together, and I’m not about to go to Perkins and sit and eat my free Magnificent Seven by myself. And as I have (thankfully) gotten less poor over the years, it seems like less of a travesty to just let these free meals go.

I did cash in my free noodle bowl, though. And it was amazing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

my brief history of beer.

They say that beer is an acquired taste.

They would be right.

Life is so much easier when you’re a beer drinker – especially in college. I went to college in Morris, Minnesota: where, every Thursday night, you could buy cups of beer for a quarter. Sure, the beer was watered-down swill, but college students will drink pretty much anything if it only costs a quarter. As a non-beer-drinker, I missed out on that whole experience. You could get dollar mixed drinks, but it just wasn’t the same as Quarter Taps. Plus, that meant my drinks cost four times as much as everyone else’s. In college, that’s a LOT of money.

It was shortly after college that I made the conscious decision to acquire a taste for beer. I no longer wanted to be the fussy one who didn’t drink beer, and I wanted to be able to enjoy brewery tours and beer tastings. Plus, I was still poor after college, and going out for drinks was way cheaper if you ordered beer.

I have only spent about five years actively trying to enjoy beer, and I feel good about the progress I’ve made so far. My brief history of beer can be broken down into five distinct eras:

Leinenkugel’s Honeyweiss
My life in beer began with a Midwestern standard: Honeyweiss. Friends told me that this was a great beginner beer, and they were right: it wasn’t too beery, but it was enough of a beer that I didn’t feel totally lame drinking it. (See: the next beer.) Honeyweiss is how I found out that I am a wheat beer kind of gal. Honeyweiss led to a brief dalliance with Blue Moon, which I’ll still drink in a pinch. While I have moved beyond Honeyweiss, it brings back great memories of living in Minneapolis and learning how to drink beer. Yes, I was already 23, but you never forget the first beer you actually learned to enjoy. (I was going to say “you never forget your first beer,” but that’s not true at all. I don’t remember the first beer I ever had – I just remember the first one that clicked with me, and that was Honeyweiss.)

Michelob Ultra Cactus Lime Beer
This beer is fairly embarrassing, but I’m going to go ahead and own up to it anyway. My favorite summertime destination is, hands down, Lake Poinsett. There’s nothing like having a beer on the beaches of Lake Poinsett with your family and friends. That being said, before I was a beer drinker, I’d drink Mike’s Hard Lemonade. That’s all well and good, more than one Mike’s = gut rot city. They are SO sugary, and they’ve been known to make my teeth hurt. Beer does not give you those problems. I tried the cactus beer one day at Lake Poinsett, and I was stunned at how much I liked it. I actually went to the liquor store and bought a six-pack: I had never done that with a beer before. As the beer was Michelob Ultra, I endured ridicule from actual beer-drinkers. I don’t remember the last time I had a cactus beer, but I credit this beer with showing me how great it was to have a beer at the lake.

Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy
This is the beer that hit home for me. The balance between the beer taste and the lemony flavors was downright heavenly. I wish I could remember where I was and who I was with the first time I had a summer shandy, but I remember it being ice cold and exactly what I needed. Summer shandy is now the herald of summer, and this is the beer I drink on the beach. This is the beer I drink on a patio at a restaurant. This is the beer I drink during grilling season. This is the beer I stock up on at the end of summer so that I can continue pretending it’s summer well into the fall. This is the beer James and I had at our wedding, spreading the summer shandy love to our family and friends. 
Summer shandy goes great with Twins games...
...especially the away games!
There are a few other good shandies out there (surprisingly, Coors has a fairly delicious shandy), but no one does it like Leinenkugel’s.

Schell’s Schell Shocked
I have been to Oktoberfest in New Ulm three times – which also means I’ve been through the Schell’s brewery tour three times. 
 The first time (October 2010), I went with James, and I enjoyed absolutely none of the beer we were offered. The second time was with Mom, who drinks no beer at all. It was at that tour (I remember it well: October 2012) that Schell’s introduced their new grapefruit radler: Schell Shocked. 
It was FANTASTIC. So refreshing and grapefruity. I immediately began searching for it at liquor stores, but to no avail. It wasn’t until August 2013 that I saw Schell Shocked for sale. It was at Noodles and Company, and my family and I were in Sioux Falls, celebrating the fact that James and I (with the help of said family) had just moved into our new house in Luverne. Schell Shocked was on the beer list at Noodle’s and Company, and it was the perfect addition to an already fantastic few weeks. (We had also just returned from our honeymoon.) Since then, I’ve been able to find Schell Shocked fairly easily: even at the Luverne liquor store. The third time (October 2014) I went to Oktoberfest, it was with James, my brother Mitch, James’s brother Jesse, and Jesse’s girlfriend Megan. It was at this tasting that I discovered the magic of Schell’s Goosetown. I don’t love it as much as Schell Shocked, but I’m expanding my beer portfolio nonetheless.

You read that right. One of these things is most definitely not like the other. After my beer trials and tribulations, I was pretty convinced that I should stick to the lighter end of the beer spectrum. James is a dark beer drinker, and he would have me try his dark beers from time to time. And they were all terrible. He would get these pitch-black porters that tasted like firewood and meat, and he would savor it and its weird flavors. I planned to stay the hell away. Until one day, that is. A new restaurant had just opened in Luverne, which was cause for celebration: Luverne doesn’t get new stuff. James and I went to eat there, and he ordered a Guinness. Against my better judgment, I took a drink… and kind of loved it. I had expected to taste something like James’s gross meaty beers, but Guinness was nothing like that. It was smooth and flavorful, and I actually enjoyed it. (James says that the restaurant in Luverne is really good at pouring Guinness, which apparently makes a difference to its flavor.) Now, when James orders a Guinness, he orders one big enough for the both of us. I haven’t graduated to ordering a full Guinness to drink by myself, but this is some serious progress.


Ever since I put my mind to enjoying beer, I have been better able to enjoy the very things I set out to enjoy in the first place. We went to a beer festival in Luverne for James’s birthday last year, and it was a blast. I have finally learned to appreciate the beer at Schell’s: third time is the charm, I guess. I toured the Boulevard brewery in Kansas City, and while I learned that I don’t like Boulevard at all, I enjoyed having the opportunity to find out.
None of us likes Boulevard, as it turns out.
In my pre-beer days, I wouldn’t have given new-to-me beers the chance they deserved. I recently had a beer called Two Women from a small brewery in New Glarus, Wisconsin. Two Women is a new favorite of mine, and my dad (who went on the brewery tour and brought the beer back) passed on the knowledge from the brewmasters: everybody loves Two Women. And you know what? Out of the four of us drinking Two Women that night, everyone DID love it.

I am fully aware that I have a long way to go in my beer journey. But these five beers have shown me that I can do it. I can appreciate beer. Right now? That’s my American dream.

U-S-A! U-S-A!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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

Oh look! Another cheap outfit blog!

Obviously, I have a great time putting these cheap outfit posts together.  I am (and always have been) fond of a great bargain, and these clothes showcase some of the great deals I’ve gotten. And while I get a great deal of personal pride out of finding said deals, I have even more fun showing them to you.

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

I’ve told you before, but $35 is the perfect price point for me. Outfits under $40 were too easy: where was the fun in that? Outfits under $30 were ok, but they were a little boring – with a price limit that low, it’s hard to add fun things like accessories. The $35 limit is high enough to let me add small touches like accessories, but low enough so that I have to be creative with my clothing items and their prices.

As always, I’ll recap the 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. The only items I will reuse from past blog posts are shoes. Why? Because I only have so many super cheap pairs of shoes, and without reusing them, I would’ve had to be done with these cheap blog posts long ago. Since I am reusing shoes, I won’t tell you about them unless they’re shoes that are new to the series. I will include gifts (aka, free items), but only jewelry –not something that could make or break the outfit. No foundation garments – tank tops, socks, etc – are used as part of my total. Prices are almost always exact, but some are from memory – and those are likely within fifty cents. Lastly, I tried to include items from a variety of stores. After all, no one wants to see ten outfits made entirely of clothes from Target.

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

sweatshirt – Country Peddler – FREE! (was $8, used credit)
jeans – – $27.92
shoes – Y’s Buys – $3
fleur de lis necklace – Helzberg – gift
TOTAL = $30.92

The older I get, the more I want to just wear Levi’s all the time. I think they’re fantastically comfortable, and they’re an American institution. However, it’s rather difficult (for me) to find a good pair of Levi’s. (Let it be noted that I’m only looking for Levi’s skinny jeans. Their bootcut jeans and I have never gotten along.) If you go to a Levi’s store, most of the jeans are what they call their “curve ID” jeans – they’re super expensive and have the magical ability to make my butt appear 25% larger than it actually is. What I want are the classic Levi’s: the 524 skinny jeans, to be precise. Those are a little more difficult to find, especially if you’re like me and aren’t looking to pay full price. Thankfully, the online Levi’s store is there to save the day. They stock the 524 skinny jeans, and they’ll have some pretty great promotions from time to time (30% off and free shipping). That is how I got these Levi’s – and the other two pairs of Levi’s that you’ll see in this blog post. The fancy sweatshirt came from Country Peddler (thanks to my store credit!), and I have to tell you, I have a serious thing for fancy sweatshirts. They’re as comfortable as a regular old sweatshirt, but with the embellishment (in this instance, lace), they make you look put-together – and not like you’re just wearing a sweatshirt (which is totally the case). The necklace was a gift from James. It’s a fleur-de-lis, which I have had a serious love for ever since I lived in New Orleans.

sweatshirt – Plato's Closet – FREE! (was $6, used credit)
pants – Target – $22 (gift from James)
sandals – JCPenney – $3
necklace – $10 (40% employee discount)
TOTAL: $35

Oh look! Another fancy sweatshirt! I really love clothing with decorative zippers: add that to my love of embellished sweatshirts, and I was sold. I usually don’t have much patience for Plato’s Closet as the racks always super-crowded and not very compatible with browsing. This time, though, I was waiting for the buyer to go through some clothes I’d brought in, and I sifted through one of the racks. And it’s a good thing, because I wear this sweatshirt all the time. (Extra bonus: the Plato’s Closet buyer had taken some of my clothes, so I just cashed in for this sweatshirt.) The red pants were a gift from James many years ago. I know, I know, I said that I wasn’t going to use clothing gifts as part of my blogs, but I’m making an exception. Justification: I know how much the pants cost, so I’m using the price as part of the outfit total. Plus, I just wanted to wear red pants. This necklace is one of the few things I have left from my American Eagle employee days – I stopped working there in 2010, which pretty much meant I stopped shopping there in 2010.

dress – Country Peddler – $0 (was $12, used credit)
shoes – Target – $19.99
pearl earrings – Etsy – $10
TOTAL = $29.99

These cheap outfit blogs would be nothing without Country Peddler. Like all of the Country Peddler clothes I’ve featured, I got this dress using my store credit. I had tried on the dress once before and wasn’t sure about it – it was too flowy, too bright, too something. When I came back a few months later and found the dress still on the rack (and marked down), I gave it another shot. Who knows what changed from the first time I tried it on, but the second time, I loved it. One of the reasons I love it is because of its length. I love long dresses, and I really love when a dress is long enough so that I don’t necessarily have to wear tights with it in the winter. Tights are the bane of my existence, and dresses like this help me avoid them. My earrings are real pearls – cheap real pearls, thanks to the miracle that is Etsy. They had to be shipped from China, so the wait time was a tad long, but you know what? Shipping from China was FREE, so you won’t hear me complain.
sweatshirt – Goodwill Brookings – $3.75
jeans – – $26.17
sandals – Target – $5-ish
TOTAL: $34.92

These Levi’s were also part of some kind of promotion through the Levi’s website. Because seriously: you just can’t find a good pair of Levi’s for that price. These particular jeans are especially stretchy, so the comfort level is high. As you know, Lake Poinsett is one of my favorite places on earth. There are a few area stores that sell Lake Poinsett gear, and it’s always rather expensive. So imagine my utter delight when I came across this sweatshirt at the Brookings Goodwill. I haven’t really had the ambition for a Goodwill clothes shopping session lately – they require much patience and perseverance – but finds like that remind me why I do it.

shirt – Old Navy – $4.75 (buy one, get one free)
skirt – eShakti – $9.97 ($25 gift certificate + 30% off)
shoes – Target – $7-ish
scarf – Forever21 – $8.80
TOTAL = $30.52

Out there in cyberspace, there’s a website called eShakti. They make clothes to order – you can customize the sleeve length, neckline, length, and so on. You can even send them your measurements, and they’ll make a garment based on them. As you might expect, such custom clothing runs toward the expensive side – which is why I never gave eShakti much thought. That is, until I was looking for a skirt with an anchor on it. You see, I had purchased an anchor skirt from Modcloth, found that it was a bit too big, and returned it for one size smaller. However, the smaller size was too small, and the original size was sold out. I called Modcloth to find out that my return of the original size had not been relisted on the website. They said that instead of restocking it, they’d just send it back to me. Fantastic – in theory. When two weeks had passed with no shipping confirmation email, I called Modcloth, and they delivered the bad news: there had been some kind of miscommunication between customer service and shipping, and my skirt had been put on the website. No surprise, someone else purchased it right away. What a bummer. I went on a half-hearted internet search for a similar skirt and wound up at I balked at the original price of the skirt, but I quickly realized that there were a great many promotions to be had. Not only was eShakti running a 30% off sale, but they were offering a $25 gift certificate to a first-time buyer. And that’s how I got a custom-made anchor shirt for less than ten dollars.

jacket – Plato’s Closet – $12
trousers ­– Maurices – $8.74 (75% off)
shoes – Modcloth – FREE
TOTAL = $20.74

Last summer, Maurices had this crazy sale on dress pants. (You’ll see another pair at the end of this blog.) I don’t particularly enjoy wearing dress pants, but I like buying them even less. They’re always expensive, and I just don’t want to spend money on things that I don’t really want but know I need (much like tights). Maurices to the rescue. I had tried on their dress pants before and liked the way they fit, but I wasn’t about to spend $40 on them. However, when I found said dress pants on the 75% off rack, I was suddenly a lot more willing to buy them. The only real downside to these pants (and all the Maurices dress pants I bought that day) is that they have no pockets. I would’ve been willing to pay extra for pockets. And my shoes? FREE. It’s not too often that you get a pair of brand-new shoes for free. (Besides, you know, as a gift.) I was on the hunt for red heels, and I ordered this pair from Modcloth. When they arrived, they had a substantial scuff on the heel. I took a picture of it and emailed it to Modcloth, assuming that they’d offer to exchange the shoes or to give me a small percentage back as a refund. I received an email back from them saying that – oh no! – these shoes were sold out in my size, so they couldn’t exchange… but to cover the repair cost (repair? ha!) of the scuff, they would refund me THE FULL AMOUNT. Modcloth for the win!

shirt – Country Peddler – $0 ($15, used credit)
jeans – Levis – $26.17
belt – Charlotte Russe – FREE! (came with a shirt)
shoes – American Eagle – $6
necklace – Helzberg – gift
TOTAL = $32.17

Like many businesses out there, Country Peddler has a Facebook page. They’ll post pictures of some of the new clothes they’ve gotten in, and I get a kick out of looking at their pictures. When Country Peddler posts something on Facebook, they’re usually inundated with requests from people asking them to hold the item. The featured clothing sells really quickly, and that’s why I was amazed to stroll into Country Peddler one day and find this blue shirt. I’d seen the shirt on a mannequin in one of their Facebook pictures and assumed it would be long gone by the time I could get there. It wasn’t – and wouldn’t you know it, it was my size. These jeans are the last of the cheap Levi’s, and I’ve worn these so much that they’re already starting to wear at the knees. The necklace was a gift from James for Christmas 2013 – it has black and blue diamonds and came with a matching ring. James is pretty great.

shirt – Francesca's – $9.98
pants – JCPenney – $8 ($10 off coupon)
belt – Modcloth – FREE! (came with a dress)
shoes – Target – $14.98
TOTAL: $32.96

Francesca’s was one of those stores that I never really ventured into – I only saw them in the cities, and they always looked overpriced and overcrowded. I finally went into one in a cities suburb and found out that it’s not so bad – as long as you stick to the clearance rack and try not to let the overabundance of colorful patterns get the best of you. Sioux Falls opened a Francesca’s not too long ago, and the first time I went in, I emerged triumphantly with this shirt. It had come off the clearance rack (surprise) and was marked as final sale. That’s the thing about Francesca’s – if you get it on super sale, you might not be able to return it. In this case, I was willing to take the chance. I don’t often have luck with clothes at JCPenney, but our relationship has been steadily improving. JCPenney will issue these “$10 off a purchase of $25” coupons, which are nice, but the REAL excitement comes when they send out the rare “$10 off a purchase of $10” coupon. That’s how I got these pants: I was in desperate need of a pair of plain old black dress pants, and JCPenney happened to have this coupon. Ta-da: cheap black dress pants.
shirt – Goodwill St Paul – $2.99
skirt – Forever21 – $15.80
booties – Dollhouse – $15 ($10 off + $15 Paypal survey money)
TOTAL = $33.79

This shirt is yet another score from the St Paul Goodwill. Oddly, most of the really good stuff I find at the St Paul Goodwill originated at Target – and this shirt is no exception. I must’ve missed it at Target the first time around. And I’m sure I couldn’t have gotten it at Target for $2.99. The maxi skirt came from Forever21, which is my go-to source for trends that I want to try out but not spend much money on. Hence: maxi skirt. The booties came from the days when I was still toiling away, taking online surveys for a pittance. It took me ages to save up enough points to trade them in for $15 in PayPal credit. Add that to a $10 off coupon, and that's how I only paid $15 for these booties. Yes, I'm calling them booties. That's what they are called. And we're all just going to have to deal with it.

cardigan – Trendz – $10.50
trousers – Maurices – $3.74 (75% and $5 off)
shoes – Goodwill Brookings – $4
bird bracelet – Michaels – $6.50 for supplies
TOTAL = $24.74

I talk about Country Peddler an awful lot, but Brookings does have another consignment store downtown: Trendz. Trendz used to be just a few stores down from Country Peddler, and it was pretty grubby. Most of their stuff looked like it belonged at Goodwill, and half of the store dedicated to children’s consignment (all of which was covered in a layer of grime). Not too long ago, Trendz packed up and moved to a different building at the edge of downtown, and the store is worlds better. Everything is cleaner and nicer, and even the children’s consignment area looks downright welcoming. I hadn’t gone into the old Trendz in years, so I went into the new Trendz on a whim – and was pleasantly surprised. While Country Peddler is still my consignment store of choice, it’s nice to have another option downtown.


There we are: ten more outfits from my cheap outfit cache. This time, I only used items from 18 different stores (and two gifts). In all my other blog posts, the number of different stores has exceeded twenty – I even got up to 24 in my last blog post. I was a little disappointed with myself at first – 18 just didn’t seem like that many. But then I looked over my outfits, and by golly, I think this is the best set of outfits I’ve ever done. Quality over quantity, my friends.

This particular cheap outfit blog is a little different in that it is really pants-heavy. Most of the cheap outfit blogs tend to have more dresses or more shorts, but I just happened to find a lot of good deals on pants. Good pants deals don’t often come my way, so I have to say that I’m a little proud of myself. Feel free to be impressed.

That’s all for the latest chapter of the cheap outfits. I’m always on the lookout for great deals, so stay tuned for installment number seven!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

top ten Tuesday: UMM concert band songs.

Remember when I waxed nostalgic about UMM jazz band and how it was the greatest college experience ever?

Well, it was.

But it probably wouldn’t have happened had I not joined the UMM concert band first.
Can you find me?
I had played clarinet starting in the fifth grade and had continued through high school. It was fun, but I had no plans to carry on in college. I would certainly have better things to do than play an instrument for fun.

At least, that was my plan until I sat down with the course catalog to plan my very first semester of classes. You know that feeling you get when you really don’t want to do something, but you know you really should? That’s how I felt when I realized that absolutely none of my classes conflicted with concert band rehearsal. It was a big commitment: 330 – 5pm EVERY SINGLE DAY. For one lousy credit. Against my better judgment, I signed up. I would be lying if I told you that my dad, a trumpet player, wasn’t utterly delighted.

On college move-in day in August 2005, my entire family came along. I, of course, was that special kind of nervous excited where you’re thrilled to be there but are also trying desperately not to throw up. After unloading my belongings into my stifling-hot dorm room, my family and I trooped over to the fine arts building. I had to sign up for a concert band audition, so I weaved through the hallways to find the sign-up sheet. My family stayed behind to poke around, and when I returned, I found them happily chatting up a red-haired trumpet-playing fellow freshman named James.
That guy!
Concert band was never more delightful than it was that first year. Our director was John Ross, an enthusiastic guy who wasn’t afraid to throw in a crowd-pleaser or two for each concert. (You’ll notice that most of the favorites on this list come from that 2005-2006 season.) It was during this year that I got to know the music majors and really became friends with that trumpet player named James. The concert band went on a band retreat in early September, which I thought was the best thing ever. (The band retreat is a story all its own.) 
This is from the fall 2006 band retreat. Yes, this totally happened.
We also had a special performance in Minneapolis that year – we loaded up Greyhound buses and arranged home-stays, and it was FUN.

But then again, everything is fun when you’re a freshman.

We got a new director when I was a sophomore. He was from Germany and wanted to play pieces that were a lot more serious than those that John Ross had us play. That was fine, but it wasn’t really my thing. These pieces were all modern and dissonant, and I almost felt bad asking my parents to come to concerts when I knew that the pieces weren’t going to be that fun to listen to. Nor were they all that much fun to play. Sophisticated I am not.

At the same time, my class schedule was beginning to get more demanding. I had settled on a major (English) and a minor (art history – which would eventually turn into a second major), and I needed to arrange my classes just so in order to fit them all in. I was up to twenty credits even before jazz band and concert band. With its demanding five-day-a-week, ninety-minute-per-day schedule, concert band just wasn’t working for me. I dropped it at the end of the fall semester of my sophomore year.

Honestly, it was really nice not having to worry about running to concert band every single afternoon and not getting done with class until 5. Most classes ended around 3, and it was an absolute delight to have that extra time in the afternoon. I was still in jazz band, so it’s not like I had abandoned music completely.

When I was a junior, I became the Arts and Entertainment editor for the college newspaper. As you may have guessed, this required me to write about arts events – like concert band. (I should mention that our director did not like us to be called “concert band” as he thought that was too low-brow. As soon as he took over, we became the symphonic winds.)

The director was always willing to sit down with me and give me a few quotes for my upcoming articles. Whenever I interviewed him, he ended each session by asking me when I was going to rejoin the band. I would hem and haw and tell him that my schedule was too packed – which it was, but I also wasn’t too inclined to go back to the grueling rehearsal schedule.

Even so, I eventually caved. I rejoined the symphonic winds in the spring semester of my junior year and stuck it out to the end: with the caveat that I would only attend rehearsals on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
Mostly so I could dress in concert blacks and take pictures like this.
In the end, I clocked in with six semesters of concert band and about a zillion concerts. 
My family at my first concert...

...and my family at my last concert. We've come full circle!
As to be expected, some pieces stuck with me from those six semesters and zillion concerts. Allow me to present part two of my UMM music top tens: my top ten concert band pieces!

Shenandoah – Ticheli
freshman year
The concert band season kicks off each fall with the homecoming concert, held in concordance with UMM homecoming (obviously). Shenandoah was one of the very first pieces I played at my very first UMM concert. It was lovely and melodic and forgive my nostalgic sentiment, but I got swept away in the swelling whole notes. Never before had I performed in a concert with such a talented ensemble – remember, I was coming from a teeny high school band in rural South Dakota. Shenandoah was the tip of the musical iceberg for me. My parents came to this first concert (and all other concerts, save one), and how proud I was for them to see me sitting onstage in my concert blacks, playing this glorious piece. Of course, the lustre of concert band did indeed wear off, but Shenandoah was part of a time in my life when everything was new and bright and shiny.

Festive Overture – Shostakovich
freshman year
UMM concert band was my first exposure to many great composers – Shostakovich being one of them. Festive Overture was so lively and full of fanfare that you couldn’t not enjoy it. (Yes, that’s a double negative. Yes, meant to do that.)

Second Suite in F – Holst
freshman year
Every so often, our director would decide to put together a wind ensemble. He’d choose a piece and would then assign only one musician per part – so there would likely be only three clarinets (first clarinet, second clarinet, third clarinet), three trumpets, three trombones, and so on. Holst’s Second Suite in F was one such wind ensemble piece, and I was one of the three clarinets. (Side note: While I was excited to be a part of this wind ensemble, I quickly learned that it was far more desirable NOT to be in the ensemble. The non-wind-ensemble band members got out of rehearsal early.) I loved this suite, and it was one of the few pieces (specifically, the fourth moment) that actually made me WANT to practice. No easy feat.

Country Gardens – Grainger
freshman year
I apologize that I don’t have grand stories for all of these entries – a few of them are included simply because I liked them. (See: Festive Overture.) Country Gardens is one of those pieces. It was so bouncy and delightful that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself while playing it. If you listen to it, you’ll know precisely what I mean.

Sparkle – Perrine
freshman year
This piece brings back so many memories. I have an entire blog story dedicated to it already, but here’s the short version: Sparkle was written by a UMM alum, and we were performing its world premiere. John Ross had marketed this as a “multimedia performance”: as we performed the piece, there would be interpretive dancers in the aisles, artists onstage painting as they listened to the music, and a projector screen showing images of sparkly things. As they entered the concert hall, audience members were given pieces of paper and pencils. Right before we began the piece, John Ross requested that the audience compose a poem based on how Sparkle made them feel. My dad was in the audience that day, and he did just that. When the piece finished, John Ross asked the audience to share what they’d written – and Dad was the first (and very nearly only) person to stand up. His poem went: “Five of us came from SD/to see my daughter, Calla B/She really makes her father beam/Now, if only the Twins had a team.” Not exactly what our director had been looking for, but Dad’s poem was a huge hit with my fellow musicians. Some of them still talk about it to this day.

Rhapsody in Blue – Gershwin
freshman year
The UMM concert band had a great deal of very talented musicians, and we would showcase said musicians from time to time. Rhapsody in Blue featured a phenomenal piano player, and the rest of the band functioned as her background musicians. She was so good that it was nearly impossible to focus on my sheet music. Rhapsody in Blue is one of my favorite pieces to this day – I even wrote my final paper for a music history class on that very piece. (I got an A.)

Carmina Burana – Orff
freshman year
We collaborated with the UMM choir to perform Carmina Burana in the Morris high school performing arts venue (which was way nicer than the college’s). This was sort of a wind ensemble situation: only one musician per part. I’m not sure how I wound up in Carmina Burana, but I am sure glad I did. There’s nothing like hearing “O Fortuna” live – especially when you’re the one playing it. Our uniforms for the concert, though, were fairly ridiculous. Concert musicians almost always dress in all black, but we were given brightly colored Carmina Burana t-shirts to wear for the occasion.
As absurd as we looked, I still have my shirt somewhere.

Hounds of Spring – Reed
senior year
I don’t necessarily remember the exact dates for many of my concerts, but I do remember this one: it was October 31, 2008, and it was part of the UMM Festival of Bands. The Festival of Bands was a multi-day affair in which area high school bands performed at the college and took master classes. The UMM concert band performed, as well, and I was SO ANGRY that we were required to play on Halloween. Halloween is my all-time favorite holiday, and this was my last Halloween in college – and it landed on a Friday, no less. The stars had aligned for the best Halloween ever, but here I was, stuck playing my dumb clarinet at a dumb concert. As soon as we were done playing, I flew out of the rehearsal hall and made a beeline for sweet freedom. Truth be told, I didn’t even remember that we’d played Hounds of Spring until I saw one of James’s old programs. But I love Hounds of Spring, so there you go.

Symphony 4 – Maslanka
senior year
This is, hands down, my favorite piece from my years of UMM concert band. It clocks in at more than twenty minutes, and every single minute is absolutely thrilling. I have a recording of UMM playing this piece, and it gives me goosebumps each and every time. In this recording, James plays a piccolo trumpet solo, which I find absolutely delightful. I am at a loss as to how best to describe this piece to you – at the risk of sounding trite, I will say that words just don’t do it justice. We played this for a December concert, and it made up the entire second half of said concert. My parents and James’s parents were both going to come to hear this phenomenal piece, but as it is wont to do, the weather simply didn’t cooperate. A large and nasty blizzard prevented a good portion of our audience from reaching us that night, but the show went on just the same. And thankfully so – I have never been more excited to be a part of a symphony.
Here we are, immediately following our Maslanka performance.
See how pleased (and exhausted) we are?
Star Wars – Williams
senior year
Every now and then, we’d have a concert just for the fun of it. The semester before I rejoined concert band, they played the score from The Lord of the Rings. It went over quite well, so during my last semester, we performed the music from the original Star Wars trilogy. At the same time, there was a projector screen playing clips from the movies that corresponded to our place in the score. At this point in my life, I had – believe it or not – NEVER seen Star Wars. I knew the gist of it, but I had not watched the classic trilogy. I was unfortunate enough to be on the side of the stage that was facing the screen, so I had a hard time paying attention to my music. I was a little bit enthralled with that projector screen, especially when I saw what was under Darth Vader’s helmet. The concert hall was stuffed to the gills for this concert. Historically, UMM concert band performances had trouble gathering an audience, but not Star Wars. They actually had to turn people away and shoo people out of the aisles – likely a first for the concert band. Such is the power of Star Wars.


There we are: ten pieces that I love dearly from my tenure in concert band. Between these ten pieces and the ten from UMM jazz, I’ve got twenty songs’ worth of great college memories. How great is that?

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

let's talk about McDonald's breakfast.

I have a weakness for McDonald’s breakfast.

Believe me when I tell you that there are very few things at McDonald’s that I want to eat. Their fries? Sure. A McDouble? Once in a while. But I will gladly stay away from everything else on the menu.

Except for their breakfast.

For years, fast food breakfast meant that something exciting was going to happen. If I was going to spend the day with my grandparents in Watertown, our first stop would be McDonald’s or Hardee’s breakfast. If I was going on a road trip with my family, McDonald’s breakfast would always kick it off.

When it comes to fast food, I tend to find one or two things that I like and stick with them. As you well know, fast food is a series of hits and misses – I have found that the misses outnumber the hits. Therefore, if I like the ham and cheese sandwich at Hardee’s, I will probably order just that for the rest of time.

McDonald’s breakfast was no exception. With the exception of the single time I tried a McGriddle (never again), I would always order a sausage egg McMuffin. I wasn’t too fond of the gelatinous egg patty, but who is? McDonald’s eggs are WEIRD: perfectly circular with the consistency of rubber and never completely cooked through. However, I was willing to suffer through it for the sake of eating the sausage. I did go through a brief period when would ask for a folded egg (like they have on the McGriddles) instead, as the folded eggs were at least thoroughly cooked. My folded egg phase didn’t last long because it was a.) too much hassle, and b.) not very tasty either.

It didn’t occur to me until many years later that I could just order a sausage McMuffin and skip the egg altogether.

Life really got grand when I began to enjoy espresso drinks. Before the advent of McCafe, I ordered milk to go with my McMuffin. Like everything McDonald’s offers, the McMuffins are quite salty. One little kid-sized bottle of milk just didn’t cut it. So I moved on to McCafe. The McCafe drinks can be a hit or a miss, depending on whether or not the staff knows what they’re doing. I’ve had a few drinks where they forget to put the coffee in altogether.

If you decide to venture into the world of McCafe, be aware that it’s no Caribou or Starbucks. That said, stay away from the flavored lattes and frappes: they’re so sweet that my teeth hurt just thinking about them. Your best bet is a plain old mocha. They’re hard to screw up, and somehow, McDonald’s manages not to overdo it on the chocolate syrup. (However, they do tend to smear chocolate syrup all over the sides of the cup, so beware.)

I’ve lived in Luverne for almost two years now, and my consumption of McDonald’s breakfast has drastically increased in that time. After all, my commute to work is four times as long as it was when I lived in Sioux Falls, so I have to eat breakfast that much earlier. If I were to have my pre-Luverne usual breakfast (a glass of Instant Breakfast), it would wear off less than an hour after my workday begins. I needed something with a little more substance, so my breakfasts now tend to involve something with protein that I can microwave and eat in the car.

As much as I would like to eat McDonald’s breakfast every single morning, I restrain myself. I only get McDonald’s breakfast on mornings when I need it most, like when I’m working on a Saturday. I am unfortunate to have a stomach that growls when I’m getting hungry, but McDonald’s breakfast can save me from that particular embarrassment. If I have some kind of meeting or training or will be somewhere quiet around the time my stomach would start growling, I take preventative measures and eat McDonald’s for breakfast. That will keep my stomach quiet until at least noon.

Sadly for me and my propensity for breakfast, the McDonald’s in Luverne is TERRIBLE. They have the slowest drive-through of any fast-food restaurant in existence: if there is one car in the drive-through line ahead of me, I can be reasonably certain that I won’t get out of there for another ten minutes. The person who works at the first drive-through window is one of my least favorite human beings ever. She’s ALWAYS working the drive-through, and when I pull up and place my order, it’s followed by an inevitable “uh… what?” I order my sandwich, and nine times out of ten, she’ll type the wrong thing. (Thank goodness for those display screens.) “So… you want a burrito?” “No, a sausage McMuffin.” “An egg McMuffin?” “A sausage McMuffin.” “A sausage egg McMuffin?” “A SAUSAGE MCMUFFIN.”

And you can imagine the rigmarole when I ask for skim milk in my mocha.

But I’m willing to forgive all that – not because I’m a particularly kind and understanding person, but because McDonald’s is my only option in Luverne. So I will continue suffering through the infernal Luverne drive-through to get my sausage McMuffin. Beggars cannot be choosers, after all, and anything is better than my stomach growling.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

let's talk about online surveys.

When I graduated college and set out for my adventures in unpaid internships, I had no idea how difficult things were going to be. Goodbye easy-to-find job at the coffee shop – hello weeks of fruitless job searches. Goodbye almost-zero gas bill because I could walk or bike to campus every day – hello bus passes because I couldn’t afford downtown parking for my internship. Goodbye three square meals a day – hello eggs and hotdogs.

My first stop was Denver, which is where the harsh reality of post-college life really hit me. Up until this point, part-time jobs had been very easy to come by. I figured I would go to my twenty-hours-a-week unpaid internship and work the rest of the time. Good plan, right? Sure… if I had been able to find a part-time job. I applied all over the place and (after a month of searching) was finally given two-week-long job at a fireworks store. After that job ended, I was hired to work at American Eagle (the clothing store). Those jobs saved my ass.

Unfortunately, my minimum wage earnings from these jobs were barely enough to pay for my bus passes – let alone expenses like my credit card bill and food and toothpaste and such. I was continuing to apply for more part-time work, but no to avail. So what did I do in the meantime?

I signed up for internet surveys.

In my desperation, I turned to Google. I searched for alternative ways to make money: what to do when you are underemployed and no one else will hire you. (I know “alternative” sounds suspicious, but the suggestions were things like “sell your belongings” and “be a crafter.”)

One of the survey results suggested online surveys. According to whatever site that was, some companies would pay you to take surveys about things like advertising and new product ideas. That sounded like the miracle I needed.

I signed up for a handful of survey websites. You earned points for each survey you took, and you could cash in your points for gift cards, PayPal money, a check, or a bunch of other stuff. One of the sites I signed up for would pay you two cents each time you opened one of their special advertising emails. I thought I had a good thing going.

And for a while, I did. I took surveys during every free moment I had, and I started collecting points. As I went along, I figured out that all of these sites had a minimum points balance you had to meet before you could cash out. And getting to that minimum balance took FOREVER. Sure, you could earn 90 points if you took a 20-minute survey… but it took 1000 points to buy a $10 Amazon e-gift card. When I thought about it that way, it didn’t seem so great… but I was poor enough that I did it anyway.

Let me tell you: those surveys – while time-consuming – were lifesavers. It felt like a downright miracle to get a check in the mail when I was at my poorest. The surveys were mostly about how I felt about a certain advertisement, but every now and again, they sent me a product to test. That was THE BEST: especially when I was too poor to buy things myself. I tested toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner (lots of shampoo and conditioner), body wash, little vials of perfume (TONS of that), razors, deodorant… mostly toiletries. There was a fair amount of food: mostly snack bars, but I was sent a frozen pasta meal packed in dry ice. I even tested sticky notes once. The product tests were awesome because you not only got to keep said product, but they were worth a ton of points. Man, do I miss those product tests.

I was a survey-taker for nearly SIX YEARS: long after I stopped being poor enough to really need it. It was fun to get the odd $20 check here and there, and the surveys gave me something to do on cold winter evenings when I was living alone. I took scads of surveys when I lived alone in Minneapolis, and even more when I moved from living alone in Minneapolis to living alone in Sioux Falls. I earned enough points to cash them in for a dust buster, and that was the year that I funded all of my Christmas shopping with Amazon gift cards from survey taking. No kidding.

Like all good things, my time with the survey companies was doomed to meet its end. The beginning of the end was when the surveys started becoming more difficult to complete. When you were sent a link to a survey, they’d usually ask you some general questions (age, location, what kinds of products you buy) before deciding whether or not you were eligible for their survey. If you were, they’d send you on to the entire survey, and you’d earn your points at the end. If not, they’d kick you out right away and suggest you take more surveys. That was all well and good… until I started noticing that – with more and more frequency – I’d spend nearly twenty minutes taking a survey before I was kicked out and told my opinion wasn’t needed. After I’d given my opinion. Not cool.

It was a lot of little things driving wedges between my survey companies and me. Remember those paid emails? That website enacted a new policy: they’d only send you paid emails if you successfully completed surveys for them, also. The surveys on that website were incredibly difficult to qualify for, and I almost never took them. So much for the paid emails.

The rewards systems began to change as well. They were already a pain in the butt with their minimum balance fees and their incredibly long processing time: it could take six weeks to get a check or PayPal money. Many companies started charging a “processing fee” in order to get you your rewards. The paid email company charged you $3, which was a hell of a lot of paid emails (150, to be exact). One company would give you weird gift cards (like to a restaurant’s website) without a charge, but they’d charge you a $5 fee for the good stuff, like Amazon and PayPal. Finally, yet another website began deducting points from your balance if you didn’t spend them in time – but they still enforced the minimum points balance, so it was nearly impossible for me to earn enough points to spend them before they started expiring.

It wasn’t just the surveys that were changing: it was my life, too. Winters alone in Minneapolis and Sioux Falls are pretty bleak, and honestly, I didn’t have anything better to do than take online surveys. Things changed when I got engaged and James moved in. Suddenly, I had a person to share those bleak winter evenings. Even if James and I were just sitting on the couch together watching Netflix, it beat the hell out of sitting by myself at the kitchen table, answering questions about how a certain advertisement made me feel. Surveys were no longer a good way to spend my time.

Even after I had arrived at that decision, it took me a while to cut the cord. I kept getting survey invitations in my inbox, and I kept deleting them – telling myself I’d take surveys again some other time. When I did half-heartedly click through, I found myself getting instantly annoyed with the questions. Who gives a shit whether or not I find the narrator of this commercial irritating? Why am I doing this? I should be reading a book, or playing with the cat, or doing anything besides taking these stupid surveys.

So I quit. I had already quit all but two survey companies, and I cashed out the last of my points: for a $10 gift certificate to an online-only cookie company (which I will likely never use) and $15 in PayPal money (which I will most definitely use). I haven’t unsubscribed to those survey companies yet – if you request a reward and then unsubscribe before you actually get the reward, the company won’t send you the reward at all. So I’m biding my time until I get my hard-earned rewards. In the meantime, I am simply deleting each survey invitation as soon as it hits my inbox.

And let me tell you: it feels SO good.