Friday, December 30, 2011

let's talk about New Year's Eve.

Now that Christmas is over, the next thing on our minds (besides “I CAN’T BELIEVE I SPENT MY ENTIRE CHRISTMAS VACATION EATING COOKIES I AM SO FAT”) is what we’re going to do for New Year’s Eve.

After I turned 21, I noticed a marked difference in everyone’s expectations for New Year’s Eve. When you were underage, you really had no choice but to hang out at someone’s house, so there were no real plans that had to be made. However, after you turn 21, the bar is raised. You’re more or less expected to go out and get super drunk to ring in the new year.

This raises a number of problems in my book. First of all, this is right after Christmas when everyone is incredibly broke from buying presents. You don’t need a huge bar tab to plunge you further into the hole. Secondly, my New Year’s Eves have always been spent in the Midwest, where the new year is most likely to arrive in subzero temperatures with a foot of snow and ice on the ground. The inclement weather can always put a damper on your plans, especially if you were planning to drive someplace. Thirdly, depending on where you live, there might not even BE anybody to celebrate with you.

Before we could drive, my friend Sarah and I alternated New Year’s Eves at each other’s houses. The years spent at my house usually involved watching some kind of goofy movie with my parents: I’m certain we celebrated a few years in the late 90s watching Tommy Boy and Down Periscope. Of course, we’d all sit around the TV and wait for the ball to drop. Sarah and I even would go so far as to make our own confetti.

Whenever it was Sarah’s year to host New Year’s Eve, her parents would take us out to a movie. To celebrate the upcoming year 2000, we went to Watertown and ate at the Drake, which was just unbelievable to my twelve-year-old eyes. The Drake was probably the fanciest restaurant in Watertown at the time, and I felt incredibly important. We spent our time at the Drake watching the year 2000 arrive across the world, and we went to see Anna and the King. The movie was pretty forgettable; I think the excitement of a new millennium was too much for us. We got back to Sarah’s house in time to watch Dick Clark tell us that the 90s were officially over.

The following year, we really went big: Sarah’s parents took us ALL THE WAY TO SIOUX FALLS. That was a huge deal: it was a three-hour round-trip for just the one night, and we were thrilled. We ate at TGI Friday’s, and Sarah and I were enamored with the fancy vodka drinks that we (as thirteen-year-olds) could not have. Sarah and I decided that as soon as we were both 21, we would go to a TGI Friday’s and order one of those fancy blue vodka drinks. (Note: we have yet to do so.)

We planned to go to a movie in Sioux Falls, which was also a big event. The Sioux Falls theatre was way nicer than the Brookings or Watertown theatres to which we were accustomed. And there were so many choices! We had to plan carefully: we wanted to get home before midnight for our annual date with Dick Clark, so our movie should be done by 10, just to be safe. We had gotten there early, and we were sitting in the lobby waiting for our movie of choice (Castaway) to begin seating. There was an announcement that several of the movies would begin seating, including Jim Carrey’s version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. After the message was over, the usher must’ve realized that he made a mistake and announced that The Grinch was seating when it actually wasn’t. He got right back on the intercom and said, “Whoops, hold The Grinch,” which Sarah and I proceeded to repeat all night long (“burger and fries, hold the Grinch!”). We finally made it into Castaway, which Sarah and I thought was hilarious (for all the wrong reasons).
We loved Wilson.
If I didn’t spend New Year’s Eve with my friends, I spent with my parents and neighbors. They also switched between houses, and we spent all of our time either eating or playing board games. Catchphrase, Pit, Pictionary… we played ‘em all. Sometimes, we got so involved in our board games that we missed the ball dropping all together! Someone would look and the clock and say, “Uh… it’s 12.30.” We’d give a quick “happy new year” and get right back to our games.

I’ve had a few less-than-wonderful New Year’s Eves in South Dakota. There was the year that Dad ran over our cat on the way over to our neighbors’ house. Then there was the time my friend Meagan and I came back to my house from a house party (where we, as 19 year-olds, were on our best behavior, believe it or not). I somehow slammed my finger in the trunk of my car, and it immediately got all weird and swollen. My parents were waiting up for us, and they saw my crazy finger. Dad wanted to heat up a needle and poke it to relieve the pressure, but as soon as he got near my finger, I thought I was going to pass out. Why? I have no idea. I’m normally fine with that kind of thing, but I about fell off my chair. Mom and Dad were convinced that I was drunk, but a quick talk with Meagan and some sniffing of my breath (yes, that happened) convinced them otherwise.

As I got older, I started spending more New Year’s Eves in Minnesota. After all, it’s one of those holidays that you’re supposed to spend with your significant other, right? Unfortunately, my significant other (James) was in a band (yes, really) throughout most of college. And they ALWAYS played somewhere on New Year’s Eve.

The band is called Funky Gumbo, and it consists of one middle-aged drummer who lives near Morris and continually recruits young college students to fill in the rest of the instruments. James was their trumpet player for a handful of years, and I faithfully went to quite a few of their gigs right after James and I started dating. It was fun with the other Gumbo girlfriends were along, but it totally sucked when they weren’t. I soon grew tired of hearing “Mustang Sally” over and over and OVER, and I started bringing homework to gigs. The Funky Gumbo honeymoon was definitely over.
My first New Year's Eve with Funky Gumbo. I look
happy because I didn't know I'd be stuck with
Funky Gumbo for YEARS to come.
“Funky Gumbo ruins everything” became a common phrase during college. They played on most weekends, and they played on Valentine’s Day. Any time there was something fun to do, Funky Gumbo was playing. Case in point: New Year’s Eve. I spent two New Year’s Eves at Funky Gumbo gigs. The first year (when it was almost 2008) was fine because there were other people from Morris to keep me company. The second year (almost 2009), James’s brother Jesse and our friend Nate agreed to come with me. It was in a different location than it was the year before, and James promised it would be a blast. When Nate, Jesse, and I walked in the ballroom at 9 o’clock, we were the youngest people there by at least four decades. We confronted James, who just shrugged and said, “I THOUGHT it would be fun!” We ended up driving to the next town over, eating at Perkins, and coming back in time for midnight fireworks over the frozen lake (which actually was pretty cool).
Three of the four people in this picture just had Perkins.
Hint: they're the ones with big smiles.
My first (and to date, ONLY) New Year’s Eve spent in a bar was to ring in 2010. I had just returned from my unpaid internship in New Orleans and was about to dive headfirst into another unpaid internship in Minneapolis, so I couldn’t afford to do much that year. I drove to Morris to see a few of my friends who hadn’t yet graduated. James, of course, was playing with Funky Gumbo in the same ballroom as last year. Nate and Jesse were present for this New Year’s, as well, and James tried his very best to convince us to come and hear Funky Gumbo. We politely declined, making our lack of confidence in Funky Gumbo well known. Instead, we spent the evening in “downtown” Morris, and it was fantastic. Poor James came back from Funky Gumbo and heard about all the fun we had, and that was his last New Year’s Eve with Funky Gumbo.
It was my first New Year's with hats, too!
So now that 2012 is quickly approaching, it’s time to scrape together a New Year’s Eve plan. Now that I live in Sioux Falls, I’ve got a whole new set of opportunities. At the same time, it’s Sioux Falls, so I’m not sure how much it has to offer. Whatever I end up doing, I’m ready for 2012. I don’t feel like I accomplished too much in 2011: the only major event was getting a new job and moving back to South Dakota. I have a feeling that 2012 is going to be much more exciting. After all, I’ll be turning 25 in 2012, so it’s time to get down to business. Bring on the new year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

let's talk about snow.

Winter is a harsh reality of life in the Midwest. It takes up about half of the year, and it sucks. Everything is grey and nasty, and you freeze your tail off. Ugh.

However, this winter has been incredibly surprising. It has snowed ONE TIME. Yes: one time. That snow didn’t even stick around; it had melted by the next day. We usually have a layer of snow on the ground by Halloween (that remains until March), so this is incredibly unusual. I’ve had to scrape my car windshield a few mornings, but my snow shovel and snow boots have remained in my trunk. The temperatures have even remained above 0˚, which I am LOVING.
This was our yard on Christmas Day 2010. Nothing
unusual for Christmas in the Midwest.
This is Christmas Day 2011. Yes, my parents are riding a
motorcycle. On December 25th. In South Dakota. WHAT.
Of course, we are rarely this lucky. Last year, I lived in Minneapolis, and we got a record amount of snow that winter. Go figure. I lived in an apartment building near downtown, but there was no off-street parking. I knew this when I signed the lease, but I figured that I’d be able to deal with it. Let me tell you: that was the longest winter of my life.

We started getting snow in early November, so the first thing I had to do was figure out the snow emergency routes near my apartment. When they called a snow emergency, you had until 9pm that night to move your car off the snow emergency routes. Two out of the three streets available for parking near my building were snow emergency routes. You were not allowed to have your car on the emergency routes from 9pm until 8am the next morning, when you could move them back. However, you had to be ready: at 8am, they would plow the even side of the non-snow emergency route. Then, at 8am on the third day, they’d plow the odd side. You really had to be on your toes to make sure your car didn’t end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Otherwise, you’d suffer a fate worse than death: TOWING.

The biggest snowstorm we had last year was in early December. James had come to visit that weekend, and he arrived right before the snow did. It started snowing on Saturday and didn’t stop. Of course, the city declared a snow emergency, so James and I trekked outside to dig out our cars. When we got outside, we could barely see our cars: they were buried up to their mirrors in snow. We were going to work on getting James’s car out first, but of course, we had no shovels. We walked to the Walgreen’s just a couple of blocks away and bought their last one. Luckily, there was an Ace Hardware close by, so we bought the second shovel there. Neither of us had snow pants, and my snow boots were buried in my trunk under a foot of snow. I’m not sure how long it took us to dig James’s car out, but as soon as we did, it just got stuck again. The plows hadn’t been through yet, and the only vehicles that had any hope of getting through were the ones with four-wheel drive. James’s car is a little Ford Escort with a lot of pep, but it just wasn’t heavy enough. We finally got it off the main road with some pushing and more shoveling, but then the question arose: where to park it?

We had to find a non-snow emergency road to park the cars, but those parking places were few and far between. Plus, those side roads were in even worse shape than the main roads, so there wasn’t much chance of getting through. James and I decided that he would take his car and look for parking while I worked on digging my car out of its snow bank.

Up to this point, I hadn’t even seen my mess my car was in. I had parked in a different street than James, but the street I parked on was also a snow emergency route. When I saw what my car looked like, my jaw dropped. 
I seriously considered just saying to hell with it and letting the city tow the car. It would’ve been a whole lot easier, that’s for sure. Ultimately, I decided to get it together and start shoveling. After all, my arms could use a good workout. Plus, I didn’t even want to guess what the towing fee would’ve been, but I knew it would’ve been out of my price range (my price range being $20 or so).

I had only been digging around my car for about twenty minutes when one of my neighbors (who I’d never met) offered to help. He had a bigger shovel, so between the two of us, we made fast work of it. My car also does not have four-wheel drive, but it is a sedan (as opposed to James’s coupe), so I slammed my foot on the gas and barreled out of the snow. I had never been prouder of my Mercury Sable. Now, the hard part: parking. I had to find parking on the odd side of the street: at 8am, you would no longer be allowed to park on the even side, and I didn’t want to be outside at 6am digging my car out of yet another pile of snow.

I found the last parking spot on the odd side of the street, and I really lucked out: it was only a block away from my apartment. It took a few tries to get myself into the parking place: I kept getting stuck in the way in, and I couldn’t very well leave the car sitting with its tail sticking out into the street. Finally, it was as close to the curb as it was going to get. I knew I’d have a fair amount of digging to do when it came time to go to work on Monday, but I was exhausted and ready to be done with the whole mess.

But where was James this whole time? As I made my way back to my apartment, I saw a figure trudging through the snow from the opposite direction. It was James, who had to park all the way downtown in a parking garage. From my apartment, the walk to downtown parking garages took 20 minutes on a GOOD day. We were both soaked and frozen, and we were fairly certain we were going to die a miserable hypothermic death. Luckily, when we bought the shovel at Walgreen’s, we also bought wine, so we could at least count on mugs of moscato to cheer us up!

 To date, last winter has been the most annoying one. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t had other obnoxious experiences with snow. There was the year that I was a senior in college, and it was finals week for the fall semester. Every year during winter finals, the college would give us a free pancake dinner. Nate, James, and I WANTED those pancakes. The school was easily within walking distance of my house (everything in Morris was within walking distance), but we decided that we could just as well dig James’s car out of the snow before the pancakes so we wouldn’t have to do it later. My car was parked right behind James’s, but he didn’t live there, so his was a priority to get out. It took FOREVER, and I think we broke a couple of the shovels in the process. We eventually tasted sweet, sweet success, and we got our pancakes. All was right with the world.

That is, until the next morning. I looked out the kitchen window to see how much work it would be to dig out my car… only to find that my car had vanished. So had my roommate Sara’s car. Turns out that Morris declared a snow emergency and all cars had to be off the streets… but none of us knew it. They had announced it on TV, but we weren’t watching TV – we were diligently studying for finals! There was also an announcement on the radio, but we didn’t have the radio on. I’ve heard that there was an email, but most of the people I knew (including Sara and me) didn’t get the email. We were screwed.

I had a final to take that morning, so I had no choice but to deal with the car when I got home. Sara’s finals weren’t until later that afternoon, so she braved the impound lot. When I got home from finals, I heard a horror story. First of all, the charge to get your car back was $90: cash only. That may not sound like a lot to you, but to college students right before Christmas time, it’s a fortune. Plus, who in college ever had cash?! Sara’s car had also acquired two flat tires. I was terrified.

Luckily, I could get the cash, and not in a shady back-alley prostitution kind of way. I had just gotten my check from the coffee shop where I worked, and for a nominal fee, the local grocery store would cash a local paycheck. My check was something like $102, so I made it just under the wire. I dragged myself to the impound lot, forked over most of my worldly wealth, and took my little car home with me.

Let me tell you, that winter (2008 – 2009) was TOUGH. Sara, Nate, and I (we were all roommates) all came back from winter break a little early that year. Our first order of business was to shovel out our spots in the back alley so we would NEVER get towed EVER again. We bundled up in our boots, winter coats, hats, and scarves and dove right it. 
We even shoveled in unison.
We only had two shovels, so we’d take turns: two roommates would shovel while the third gave direction/took goofy photographs. Then, we’d switch. I swear we were out there all night, but it was probably only an hour or so. 

We finally succeeded in making space for all three of our cars, only to be faced with another daunting task: the sidewalk. We found a music stand in the garage, and that immediately became a substitute shovel. 
Thanks, UMM Music!
When all this was over, we were all very proud of ourselves and most likely celebrated by going to the bar.

But the tales of that winter are not yet over! March 2009 marked the first (and only) snow day of my college career.  It was a Tuesday, and it was pretty snowy, but nothing we hardened Midwesterners hadn’t seen before. Sara, Nate, and I all had jazz band together at 1 o’clock. Jazz band was led by James: we were the non-committal jazz band that was led by a student each year. We had JUST gotten our instruments together when the announcement was made: classes were canceled for the rest of the day. James, whip-cracker that he is, wanted to make us stay since we already had our instruments out, but we were out the door faster than you could say “frostbite.” And how did we celebrate? By going to Morris’s classiest establishment, the Old Number One! Yes, a bar. At 1.30 on a Tuesday. But when you’ve got a surprise day off and the bar is two blocks away from your house, what excuse is there NOT to go?!
Nate and Sara brave the Minnesotan tundra.
I haven’t been through any other winters quite as memorable as those two, thankfully. There was the year that I put my car in the ditch on the way to a carefully scheduled eye doctor’s appointment, almost causing us to miss our flight to Arizona. And there was the time I got stranded at my friend Allison’s house, and we played a six-hour Monopoly game with her dad (which he won by acquiring all the crappy properties, earning him the title of “Slum Lord”). Oh! And who could forget the big snow storm of January 1994 that prevented everybody from coming to my brother’s first birthday party (though he didn’t seem to care).

As much as we whine about winter and snow, I think we secretly relish it. It’s a way for Midwesterns to prove how tough they are. If we can survive in -40˚ windchills with three feet of snow on the ground, then by golly, we can do anything! When I lived in New Orleans, few things thrilled me more than seeing the disbelieving faces of my friends when I would tell them about a winter in the Midwest. As I explained what ice fishing was, they said, “You mean… you can WALK on the ice?” When I told them that not only can you walk on the ice, you can DRIVE on it, I’m pretty sure they thought I was making it all up.

Yes, even though winter gives us bragging rights, no one’s really complaining about the freakish temperatures (it’s been above 30˚ most days, for crying out loud!) and the lack of snow and ice. You can rest assured, though, that when winter finally does show up – and it always does – we’ll be ready with our shovels and stories about how this blizzard is NOTHING compared to that big one of ’97.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

a Santa Claus story.


Like most parents, mine told me all about Santa Claus. This jolly man in a red suit lived at the North Pole, and he was watching me all year long to make sure that I was good (creepy, yes, but I didn’t think so at the time). If I was nice to my brother and sister and didn’t complain when I had to do my chores, Santa would come to our house on Christmas Eve and fill my stocking.
Hung by the non-existent chimney with care!
Every Christmas Eve, my parents put on quite a show for us kids. We set out the cookies and milk, and we even threw in a few carrots for the reindeer. We placed our letters to Santa right next to the cookies so we knew he’d find them. Unlike most kids, we didn’t send letters to Santa via postal mail. We knew that Santa was magic (DUH), so he would read our letters when he got to our house, and he’d be able to miraculously conjure up whatever it was that we’d asked for. Only if we were good, of course.
Santa leaves each of us an ornament every year. They are
always totally awesome.
On Christmas morning, we’d scramble down the stairs to see if Santa has been there, and he always had. Our stockings were filled, the cookies were gone, and there were footprints on the carpet. Yes: footprints. We didn’t have a chimney at our house, so Santa obviously came in the front door. He left “magic” footprints on the carpet – they were magic because they were white and powdery like snow, but they didn’t melt.

The best part (besides seeing what was in the stockings) was reading the letters Santa would leave for us. I faithfully wrote Santa letters each year, and each year, Santa would write a little note back to me. He’d always say that he hoped I had a great Christmas and to be sure and be good over the next year. These letters would ultimately be Santa’s undoing.

I started to get a little suspicious of Santa Claus when I was six or so. That Christmas, I had a super-short haircut and glasses, and I thought I looked ridiculous. My friend Sarah had long, glorious hair, and I was so jealous of her. I was also about the only kid in first grade who had to wear glasses. That year, I wrote Santa a letter asking him to make my hair grow long and to give me perfect vision. Since Santa could do anything, I was sure that I would wake up on Christmas morning with 20/20 vision and hair down to my ankles.

On Christmas morning, I was almost scared to open my eyes. Would I be able to see clearly? Did Santa eliminate my need for glasses?? I slowly opened one eye. Still a little fuzzy, but maybe that was because I was just waking up. I opened the other eye. No better. I was starting to get concerned. Well, if Santa didn’t give me good eyes, he HAD to have given me long hair. I got out of bed and looked in the mirror: same old short hair. I was stunned. Santa had failed me.

I ran downstairs to read the letter I knew would be waiting for me. I was anxious to see what excuse Santa would give me for not granting my request. Santa wrote that he really liked my haircut and glasses, and that I was perfect just the way I was. They were very kind words, but stubborn little child that I was, I wasn’t about to let that make me feel better.

The very next Christmas marked the end of Santa Claus for me. I was in second grade, and the thing I wanted more than anything was a Kitty Kitty Kitten. It’s a little stuffed kitten with some kind of marble in its head. The inside of the head is lined with something bumpy, so when you roll the kitten’s head, the marble rattles around and makes a noise like a purring cat. Oh, how I wanted one! My parents didn’t have to fish for information: I made it extremely well known that I would DIE if I didn’t get a Kitty Kitty Kitten for Christmas.
I was SO JEALOUS of that girl.
When I was a kid, we had a specific schedule for our multiple Christmases. On the 23rd, we would have Christmas with just the five of us. Christmas Eve was with my mom’s side of the family, and Christmas Day was spent with my dad’s. If I was going to get a Kitty Kitty Kitten, it would either come on the 23rd or 24th. Why? Because my mom has always been the head-honcho present buyer, and if she and Dad didn’t get it for me, I was counting on my mom telling her mom that I wanted this little stuffed cat. I could hardly wait until Christmas.

Christmas with my immediate family came and went. I got some completely awesome stuff, don’t get me wrong: this may have been the year of Veterinarian Barbie. 
Sweet pants.
Same thing happened on Christmas Eve: great presents, but no Kitty Kitty Kitten. I was getting nervous. At this point, Santa was my last hope.

Sure enough, he did. On Christmas morning, what did I find peeking out of my stocking but the face of a little stuffed calico kitten! I was delighted. The kitten purred when I shook it, and it was so very very soft. Happy and full of Christmas spirit, I opened up the letter Santa had left me. As soon as my eyes hit the page, I froze: THE LETTER WAS IN MY MOM’S HANDWRITING.

All of the sudden, it hit me. Santa was my parents. My parents were Santa. Of course! How else would Santa know exactly what it was that we wanted, and how on earth would he have known if we were naughty or nice? That explained how Santa managed to make it to every house in the world in one single night: every house had its very own Santa! I had wondered for the longest time why Santa would leave ALL the presents under the tree at some of my friends’ houses, but at others (like mine) Santa’s jurisdiction was the stockings. It all made perfect sense.

Other little events over the years immediately began to add up. Mom (as I found out) was in charge of all the stockings except her own. That was Dad’s job: one that he shirked on occasion. One morning, we awoke to find all of the stockings bulging with goodies… except for Mom’s. Dad, realizing what had happened, quickly covered his mistake. “Santa told me to keep your present cold,” he said, strolling to the fridge and handing my mother a Dr Pepper. I’m pretty sure Dad got rocks in his stocking the next year.

My parents really had done an excellent job with Santa Claus. I later found out that the “magic” footprints were created by taking one of my dad’s work boots and dipping the sole in powdered sugar. The letters from Santa Claus were written by my dad, whose handwriting is pretty standard. My mom, on the other hand, has extremely recognizable handwriting, so when she was the one to write back to me, Santa’s cover was blown.

I was only seven years old at the time, and I briefly considered busting my parents right then and there. But then I stopped and thought about how much fun I had believing in Santa Claus and what a thrill it was to go to bed and have faith in the crazy idea that a bearded man in a red suit was going to deliver presents on Christmas Eve. I couldn’t spoil that for my sister and brother, who were four and almost two and wouldn’t believe me anyway. Honestly, I didn’t want to spoil it for my parents, either. They must’ve really enjoyed it if they went so far to create bootprints with powdered sugar.

So I kept my mouth shut. I rejoiced in the generosity of Santa Claus along with my siblings, and we had yet another wonderful Christmas.
This is what that Kitty Kitty Kitten
looks like today (17 years later).
That kitten got LOTS of love!
I didn’t figure out how to tell my parents that I knew their secret until I lost my next tooth. Those puzzle pieces came together, too: my parents were also the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny. Of course. That night, I left my tooth under my pillow: business as usual. But this time, I left a little note: “Hi Mom. Thanks for the money.”

The next day, Mom sat me down and tried to save the fantasy, saying that the Tooth Fairy “told” her that I thought she (the Tooth Fairy) wasn’t real. I looked her square in the eye and said, “Mom. It’s ok. The letter from Santa Claus was in your handwriting.” She realized the jig was up. I assured her that I had no intention of telling Darrah and Mitch, so keep it up with the powdered sugar footprints.

Several years later, when I was old enough to still have some money left over from my summer job, I decided to take over filling Mom’s stocking. I wanted Mom to get more in her stocking than the occasional can of Dr Pepper, so it was my turn to step up to the plate as Santa Claus.

I kept my mouth shut about it for a couple of years: Mom and Dad knew, of course, but Darrah and Mitch assumed that Santa had just gotten better at filling Mom’s stocking. When I was sixteen, I took my siblings Christmas shopping. Darrah was thirteen and Mitch was about to turn eleven, so I figured I was safe when I said, “Let me know if you see anything good for Mom’s stocking.” To this day, I still don’t know if Darrah was being serious when she said, “YOU fill Mom’s stocking?!” I confirmed that I did, suddenly wondering if I had ruined Darrah’s childhood. “But,” she said incredulously, “what about the footprints?” I stuttered out something about the footprints being magic, hoping that I didn’t screw everything up. Maybe she was just trying to put on a show for Mitch, who was totally unfazed by all of it. (I asked him later that night what he thought about Santa, and Mitch confirmed that he knew it was Mom and Dad.) I’m assuming that Darrah knew as well, but all the same, I REALLY hope I wasn’t the one to wreck it for her.

So that’s how I found out about Santa Claus. I wasn’t at all disappointed: I felt like I had been let in on some secret club. If (God forbid) I ever have children, you can bet that I’ll be filling their stockings and making magic footprints out of powdered sugar. I’ll probably make a few changes to Mom and Dad’s method, though. I’m pretty sure "Santa" would rather have a glass of wine waiting for him than milk and cookies, but that’s just me.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Eve + musical instruments.

If it’s not clear by now, I come from a family of nerds. Not “nerd” in the Dungeons and Dragons, greasy hair, and living in the basement sense (though we have been known to own pocket protectors). I’m talking in the friendlier, less off-putting sense.

I’m mainly referring to our status as a family of musicians. Again, not really in the traditional sense: no one’s in a band or trying to make their living off of it or anything. We’re musicians in the “we only do it because we enjoy it” way. My dad plays trumpet in a brass quintet, my mom directed Sunday School choir for years, I play clarinet (NERD) and tenor saxophone, my sister and brother play the trumpet (and have several years of piano lessons under their belts). It’s definitely safe to say that we’re musically inclined.
Mitch curbs the nerd factor with the addition of a faux-hawk.

 My father is the driving force in all of this, as anybody who familiar with us surely knows. Dad was always the one getting after us to practice our horns, and he was always willing to get out his trumpet and show us how to play something that we couldn’t quite master. Dad was a trumpet player all through high school, but he didn’t too do much with it after he graduated. It wasn’t until his kids started band that he really started playing again. He put together a brass quintet: they’ve got two trumpets, a French Horn, a euphonium, and a tuba.
The trumpets in action!
The brass quintet has been a HUGE hit around our area. They play at church services, anniversaries, birthday parties, funerals... any event a small town has, they can handle. Dad has gotten approached multiple times by a happy little old lady who requests for them to play at HER funeral.

In my opinion, the brass quintet sounds the best at Christmas. Every year for Christmas Eve, there is a candlelight service at church. It’s the largest service of the year; one of the few times our little Lutheran church is filled to near capacity. The brass quintet always sounds their best for Christmas Eve. They play a few times throughout the service, but the crowd favorite is when they play Handel’s Halleluiah Chorus. The sound of the brass fills the church, resounding high up in the rafters. It’s truly amazing, and if you’ve never heard a brass quintet in a church, I highly recommend you do so.

The brass quintet isn’t the only music for the candlelight service: that’s where the rest of us come in! As one may expect at a Christmas Eve service, there’s a fair amount of caroling. Each and every year, my siblings and I bring along our instruments and accompany the carols. It’s such a simple thing, but it’s so much fun. It’s gotten more fun now that I play the tenor saxophone. For years, we were three trumpets and a clarinet playing along, and we all had to play the same part. (Why? Because clarinets and trumpets are in the same key, of course!) Luckily, there were usually two B-flat parts, so we could at least split ourselves between them. “But wait,” say the musically educated among us. “Why would playing the tenor saxophone be more fun? It’s also a B-flat instrument!” Right you are. However, there was a special B-flat line for tenor saxophones, so I got to have that part all to myself. Besides, even though my clarinet will always hold a special place in my heart, tenor saxophones sound oh so much better.
See how much I love the saxophone?
Mitch is not in favor of the clarinet.
For the past few years, it’s been just my family and the brass quintet playing our instruments. However, there was a time when my friends Bob (percussion) and Sarah (clarinet) would bring their instruments and play along, as well. That was such fun, mostly because I got to sit by my friends in church. Not that there’s anything wrong with sitting by my family, but you can always count on your friends to roll their eyes along with you if something goofy happens in the service (which you can usually count on).
Sarah, Bob, and I on Christmas Eve, 2005.
Bob is less than pleased to be surrounded
by clarinet players.
I mentioned that it’s called the candlelight service, but the whole service isn’t done by candlelight. There’s a small portion of the service where we sing carols by candlelight, and while the effect is neat, I know from personal experience how dangerous it can be. When you first arrive at the service, you pick up a candle and a plastic holder from one of the ushers. You just hang onto it until it’s time for candlelight caroling, which is towards the end of the service. The ushers come and light the candle of the person sitting on the end of each pew, and they in turn light the person next to them, etc. Sounds just fine, and it usually is, unless you get some rambunctious kid who ends up setting his hair on fire (which, as far as I know, has yet to happen).

The real problem is when you’re trying to play your instrument and hold a candle at the same time. The brass quintet didn’t have this issue; they sat in a special section up front where the lights were still on. The rest of us occupied the choir loft, and those lights were quite dim if not off altogether. How were we supposed to see the music? Of course, we never thought to buy stand lights, and even if we did, that would take some of the fun out of it. We would usually select one person to sit out and hold the candle: we played two verses per song, so we took turns sitting out. There was one time when my friend Sarah and I thought it might work just to prop the candle gently on the music stand so we could all play. You know what happened? Scorched music, that’s what happened. We didn’t try that again.

Nowadays, we actually do use stand lights. It does make playing the candlelit carols a lot easier, though the challenge of playing by candlelight was always enjoyable. However, someone (me) still tries to keep the little candle lit while playing… and that always results in candle wax on the saxophone.

Playing our instruments on Christmas Eve has become as much of a tradition as opening stockings on Christmas morning. Sadly, it’s the one time of year that I get to play my saxophone. I suppose I could bring it back to Sioux Falls with me and practice in my apartment, but I think my neighbors would rather I didn’t. But that’s what makes playing on Christmas Eve so special: it’s the one time of the year where I will not only play my saxophone, but I’ll get to play WITH people and FOR people who are extremely appreciative.
Music: it's genetic.
So you can bet I’ll be back in the choir loft again this year, saxophone by my side. And who knows… maybe I’ll even manage to keep my candle under control this year. Christmas is the time for miracles, after all!  

Friday, December 16, 2011

let's talk about the Christmas Hangover.

Everyone has their own Christmas traditions that are near and dear to their hearts. For some, it’s baking Christmas cookies; others look forward to an extra-special homemade meal. For me? The Christmas Hangover.
Pictured: the heart and soul of every Christmas Hangover.
Allow me to clarify: I’m not talking “hangover” in the traditional sense. In my circle, a “hangover” is when my friends would come over and hang out for most (if not all) of the night. Under normal circumstances, this would be referred to as a sleepover. However, we were not sleeping: we were hanging out. Hence, the birth of the Hangover.

The formula for a Christmas Hangover is very simple: friends + food + games + movies + White Elephant presents = Christmas Hangover.
Food for Hangover 2008 = NICK BURGERS.
The very first Christmas Hangover took place in December 2004: my senior year of high school. My friends and I had been having frequent movie nights for the last year or so, but we’d never really planned something “fancy.” My friend Bob and I spearheaded the event: Bob assigned each friend some kind of food item, and I requested that they each bring a White Elephant gift. For those of you who have not had the pleasure of experiencing a White Elephant gift, it’s traditionally something junky (and often hilarious) that you spend no money on whatsoever.

We had a number of people at this first Christmas Hangover: if my memory serves me correctly, there could’ve been as many as ten of us. A few of them were boyfriends of my friends, and they really didn’t enjoy the festivities. Bob had planned an elaborate system of games that we would play in order for one person to be named “The Christmas Survivor.” (Bob was really into reality TV at this time.) Bob and I were the only truly competitive participants, so we were each captain of a team. I wish I remembered all the challenges: certainly elimination through board games, and I’m sure we were put through other Christmas-themed tasks. Either Bob or I ultimately ended up as the Christmas Survivor, but that was either because a.) Bob rigged it, or b.) we were the only ones who cared enough to see it through to the end.

In any case, the Christmas Hangover was a huge hit. I cursed myself for not thinking of it sooner: after all, it was my last Christmas living at home. However, my friends and I decided that we’d do our very best to keep up with them, whatever we ended up doing after high school. Sure enough, almost every year since then, we have managed to have some form of Christmas Hangover.

I really must tell you about our White Elephant presents. Earlier, I explained that it was mostly stuff you just found around the house. Over the years, my friends and I became White Elephant gift champions. All throughout college, that was one of the things I looked forward to most: coming home for winter break and digging through the recesses of my closet to put together the perfect White Elephant gift. Our White Elephant gifts were complex beasts: they generally ended up being a gift back or shoebox full of little goofy things that you pulled out from under your bed. Every now and again, I’d make a stop at the local Goodwill if I needed something extra-special for my White Elephant gift.
Generally, I had plenty of success in my closet.
No Christmas Hangover is complete without a Christmas movie or two. Bob, Sarah, and I were generally in charge of choosing the films. We’ve watched A Christmas Story more than once, and there is usually some version of A Christmas Carol involved: either Mickey or the Muppets. We’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life, and of course, we have a special place in our hearts for the old TV specials: Rudolph, Frosty, and Charlie Brown. I don’t believe we’ve ever watched Home Alone for a Christmas Hangover, which is a little odd. However, I watch it every Christmas with my family, so Home Alone is never completely left out.

And the games! We would raid my family’s game closet, always coming up with something ridiculous. We’ve played Candyland and Taboo; Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary. We also rigged up some kind of Truth or Dare with an actual scoring system. The best game we played, though, was hide-and-seek. You must be wondering what we were thinking: hide-and-seek? In the dead of winter? Yes, my friend: we played it inside. Indoor hide-and-seek is especially challenging, but it was wonderful. We came up with the best places to hide: in the shower, inside the giant fridge in the basement. Behind a door was a simple yet fool-proof place to hide. Clearly, you are never too old for hide-and-seek.
A rousing game of 90s Trivial Pursuit.
The food is delicious, the movies are classic, the White Elephant gifts are hilarious, and the friends are a blast. However, I must say that the absolute highlight of the Christmas Hangover is the photography.

I’ve been big on picture-taking for a LONG time. Before I had a real camera, I used to carry disposable cameras in my bookbag: you never know when you’re going to have to take a picture of something crazy in advanced biology. Everybody has that one friend who always wants to take pictures of everything: I’m that girl. But I’m proud to be that girl: looking back at the pictures we take never fails to put a smile on my face. It’s almost like being able to do it all over again.

Sadly, I couldn’t find my pictures from Christmas Hangovers 2004 and 2005. I know they were fun, though, so you’ll have to use your imagination. But you won’t have to use your imagination for the rest!

Clockwise from the bottom: Calla, Tiff, Meagan, Bob,
Sarah. You'll be seeing these faces often.
This picture is from Christmas Hangover 2006. We wanted to take a cheesy picture of all of us with our heads in a circle. Cuuuute! But we had a problem: no one was around to take the picture for us. So we had to do it ourselves: yes, a quintuple self-portrait. It took something like twenty tries to get everyone’s head at least partially in the picture, but man, did we have a great time!

We always take plenty of pictures with our White Elephant gifts, and I think it was Sarah who received the Abbey Road poster. Every now and again, you’ll get a White Elephant gift that is as good as a REAL gift, and Sarah was thrilled. We, of course, are the Beatles. Notice that Sarah took her shoes off and is holding a cigarette – just like Paul McCartney. You can’t see my glasses, but I’m wearing some lovely round specs that look a lot like John Lennon’s. The sad part is, I wore those glasses with pride for at least three years. Even sadder: it was before I knew who John Lennon was, so I can’t even pretend that I was trying to channel my inner Beatle.
From left: George, Paul, Ringo, John.
Christmas Hangover 2007 was stupendous. Our friend Camber was able to come, so the more the merrier! Bob decided that it should be a semi-formal event, hence the semi-formal clothes. I made (frozen) chicken kiev and (boxed) pasta, and we had a great time. We even took “family” Christmas photos. Lucky for us, my sister was around and was more than glad to be our photographer for the evening.

The whole Hangover family!

That year was a great year for White Elephant gifts. Tiffany was given a book about becoming a woman, and Camber was the lucky recipient of a battery-operated turtle that did the Macarena. And let’s not forgot my sweet Daktronics gear.
Or Sarah's Jazzercise VHS.
Christmas Hangover 2008 was kind of a surprise, as a matter of fact. If you remember from my story about how my family sucks at airplanes, I wasn’t even supposed to be in the state. Our family trip to San Antonio fell through when our weenie plane couldn’t leave while there was fog, so the first thing I did was call my friends and tell them that the Hangover was ON. That year saw an epic game of 90s Trivial Pursuit, of which Tiff and I reigned supreme. We had quite a lot of fun, once again, with White Elephant presents. I really should start wearing those sunglasses on a regular basis.
Sunglasses at night.
Unfortunately, Christmas Hangover 2009 was never to be. 2009 was a weird year for me: I graduated from college, moved to Denver for three months, moved to New Orleans for three months, and then I moved to Minneapolis. My friends and I usually tried to hold our Hangovers within two or three days after Christmas, but that year, it just didn’t work out. I had just a few days before I had to be in Minneapolis to start my internship, and my friends were out of town. Oh well. Missing one hangover since 2004 really isn’t that bad.

Christmas Hangover 2010 actually ended up taking place in January 2011, but it’s all the same. This is the first Hangover that didn’t take place at my parents’ house. It was also the first Hangover after college, so maybe we felt like we needed to be slumming it in the real world! Bob, Sarah, and I dined at Brookings’ finest establishment (Applebee’s) and spent a good deal of our day watching trashy reality TV (You’re Cut Off, anyone?!). We dug through the five-dollar WalMart movies (a favorite pastime) and met my parents for supper at Pizza King. And of course, there were White Elephant gifts.
Sarah's cat Fred thought we were out of our minds.
Finally, Christmas Hangover 2011. We really hit it out of the park on the movie front this year. We watched Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Pluto’s Christmas Tree, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, A Muppet Christmas Carol, and Home Alone 2. It had been years since I had seen Home Alone 2, and Sarah impressed everyone in the room by knowing most (if not all) of the lines. Of course, we weren’t concentrating solely on the movies: there was White Elephant, like always! Sarah got marketing materials and puppy stickers, Bob got cows and more keychains than he could fit on his keys, and I got giant underwear (I’m told it was new) and Twilight. We had a wonderful time, but we always do.

So each and every year, while some children are waiting for Santa Claus, I wait for a Christmas Hangover. No matter whom it’s with or what we do, we always manage to have a good time. And that’s the true meaning of Christmas, right?

Close enough.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

top ten Tuesday: ten Disney songs.

Not too long ago, I wrote about my top ten songs from my top ten musicals. While I was writing that list, I deliberately left out Disney movies. Sure, they’ve got songs, but they’re in a category all their own. But today, they get their own list! These are my top ten songs from ten of my favorite Disney movies. Nostalgia, here we come!

Mary Poppins: “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”

I’ve always loved flying kites. My grandparents used to take me to the park right across from their house outside of Brookings so I could fly my kite. As I grew older, kite-flying was still a favorite pastime. I was given a Lord of the Rings kite for my birthday one year, for crying out loud. That particular kite actually gave me a scar during one particularly windy flying session. Yes, I have a kite battle scar. Jealous? In any case, who can resist a song about flying kites, especially when it’s sung by a crotchety banker who has finally seen the error of his ways? Mary Poppins is a great movie, and it’s full of great songs: there are dancing chimney sweeps, and creepy old men singing about why you should invest your money. But “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” will always be my favorite, and I’m sure it’s because I’ll always be glad to accept the invitation.

The Great Mouse Detective: “Ratigan (The World’s Greatest Criminal Mind)”

I’ve mentioned before that The Great Mouse Detective is easily my favorite Disney movie of all time. But now we need to talk about the song. Unlike a great many Disney movies, The Great Mouse Detective doesn’t spend too much time on big musical numbers. “Ratigan” is one of the few, and it features none other than Ratigan (surprise), who is voiced by Vincent Price. Ratigan is having some kind of party, and his rodent minions sing him this song about how he’s awesome. He just eats it up… that is, until one mouse gets too drunk and calls Ratigan a rat. Sure, Ratigan is a rat, but calling him one is punishable by death. Seriously: the drunk mouse gets fed to a giant cat named Felicia. Disney had its dark days.

Beauty and the Beast: “Gaston”

Who doesn’t love Beauty and the Beast? The story itself is a little dubious: I know the moral is “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but the Beast really isn’t that nice until the very end. So stick with your emotionally abusive boyfriend, he only yells at you because he loves you? Come on, Disney. But questionable lessons aside, it’s a tale of magic and singing household objects. Plus, the heroine is a bookworm. That’s probably the only thing I had (or ever will have) in common with a Disney princess. I love the song “Gaston” because, of course, Gaston is a total idiot. The song is about how great he thinks he is, and it’s actually quite funny. Any song that includes the line “I use antlers in all of my decorating” is a-ok in my book.

The Lion King: “Be Prepared”

We discussed my obsession with The Lion King earlier: the books, clothes, action figures, etcetera. What I didn’t mention was that this was the first soundtrack I ever owned. My parents bought it for me right before a road trip to Colorado, so I spent all twelve hours of the trip listening to the tape on my bright yellow Walkman. There were only five songs on it, so it didn’t take long before I knew all of the words to every song. It took me a few cycles through the tape, but I started to really enjoy Scar’s song. In the movie, the song is accompanied by green flames and leagues of marching Nazi-esque hyenas. You know whatever happens next is going to be big.

Mulan: “I’ll Make a Man Out of You”

Remember how there has been a drag queen theme in many of my previous movie lists? Turns out that I don’t mind drag kings, either. Mulan is a relatively new Disney movie about a girl from China who takes her elderly father’s place in the army. How? By dressing as a man, of course! It’s a great story, and it’s got great music. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” expresses the frustration of the commander at the ragtag group of soldiers he’s been given. And Donny Osmond sings it! Awesome! My friend Sarah and I once made up dance moves for this song. Yes, that’s right: we choreographed “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” We even put on a show for her family, complete with programs. 

Robin Hood: “Not in Nottingham”

We’ve talked about Robin Hood before, too, but it’s worth revisiting. The film stars a sly fox (which is perfect) who robs the rich and gives to the poor. Robin Hood has a heart of gold, and he’s pitted against Prince John, the “phony king of England.” Prince John may be an easy target because of his incompetence, but he’s got an incredible mean streak. When the whole kingdom supports what Robin Hood is doing, Prince John responds by raising their taxes so high that most cannot afford to pay them. That’s how most of the kingdom ends up in debtors' prison, and the narrator sings this heartbreaking song about how bad things are: “Every town has its ups and downs/sometimes ups outnumber the downs/but not in Nottingham.” The song is performed over shots of sad little animals comforting each other and sharing bread crumbs while in shackles. Luckily, it all turns out in the end, but this song really makes you wonder if it will.

The Little Mermaid: “Poor Unfortunate Souls”

Like many little girls growing up in the early 90s, I wished I was a mermaid. Whenever we went to the lake in the summer, I’d pretend that I could just grow a tail and swim with the singing marine creatures down below. (Looking back, I’m not sure how pleasant the marine creatures of Lake Poinsett actually are.) My Great Grandma Shorty even sewed me a mermaid costume for one of my Barbies. Like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid has an unfortunate message: give up whatever you have to in order to snag your man. You can blame Hans Christian Andersen for that, but Ariel DOESN’T get the prince in this tale. I digress. As I grew older, I still loved the movie, but I began to really love “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Ursula is such a slimeball; she bullies Ariel right into signing away her voice with this little song and dance. Honestly, I can’t say I blame her: if some terrifying woman/octopus hybrid was singing this to me and waving her creepy tentacles around, I’d probably sign her contract, too.

The Jungle Book: “I Wanna Be Like You”

The Jungle Book was one off the first Disney VHSs that we owned, and we just loved it. My sister, in particular, loved Baloo, whereas I was a bigger fan of Bagheera. And Shere Khan was such a great villain: smooth and charming, yet diabolical, like all the best bad guys. “I Wanna Be Like You,” though, doesn’t really involve any of those characters. King Louie, ruler of the apes, has kidnapped Mowgli and is trying to gain more control over the jungle by getting Mowgli to spill the secret of fire. Baloo and Bagheera come to the rescue, but not before this fantastic song with all the ridiculous monkeys.

Cinderella: “Cinderelly, Cinderelly”

Cinderella is 100% a Disney classic: one part princess, one part evil stepmother, and many parts singing animals, and you’ve got a winner. Let’s not forget the hilariously inept stepsisters who are not only ugly but downright unpleasant. Cinderella, as we well know, is the pitiable girl who gets forced into manual labor. Thankfully, she has a bunch of singing animals to make her feel better and sew her dresses when she’s not looking. “Cinderelly, Cinderelly,” is the song they sing about how the stepmother and stepsisters never leave Cinderella alone. “Night and day, it’s Cinderelly,” they sing. Poor Cinderella is always being pulled in a million different directions to do the dirty work. I’m sure we’ve all felt this way at one time or another: especially at the office (but maybe that’s just me).

Aladdin: “Prince Ali”

When you’ve got Robin Williams voicing a cartoon genie and a fantastic villain named Jafar, you’ve got a great cartoon. Aladdin, of course, gets three wishes from the genie. He wants to win the heart of Princess Jasmine, but wishing to make someone fall in love with you is on the genie’s “no can do” list. Since Jasmine can only marry a prince, Aladdin wishes himself into one. The genie sings “Prince Ali” to convince the crowds (and the princess, of course) what a great catch Prince Ali/Aladdin is: he’s more handsome than everyone else, he’s richer than everyone else, and he’s got more crazy animals than everyone else. What’s not to love?


So those are my top ten Disney songs from ten of my favorite Disney movies. This was kind of a difficult list to put together (or, as difficult as writing about Disney songs can be). There are so many Disney movies that I love, but the songs in them are either super-lame or nonexistent. For example: Sleeping Beauty is easily one of my favorite Disney movies of all time EVER, but the only song in it is “Once Upon a Dream.” Gag. I also love Peter Pan, but all of those songs are forgettable or super racist. The Sword in the Stone is wonderful, and they do have a couple of songs, but nothing worth noting. 101 Dalmatians is another favorite, and they’ve got the little jingle about Cruella de Vil (“if she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will”), but that’s not quite enough to be a real Disney song. And then there are all the Pixar films, which I won’t even get into.

All other Disney movies aside, these ten all hold a special place in the “childhood memories” portion of my heart, and I’m sure they always will. But now I’ve got the same problem I did when I wrote about the musicals: I have this weird amalgamation of all of those songs stuck in my head. Oh well. I suppose I brought it on myself.