Wednesday, December 18, 2013

let's talk about the Oregon/Amazon Trail.

Today, we’re going to embark on a delightful little blast from the past and talk about the best computer games of all time. I bet you already know what I’m going to say: Oregon Trail and its lesser known but completely awesome sibling Amazon Trail.

Sadly, my first encounter with Oregon Trail was NOT, in fact, in elementary school computer class. I feel like that’s where most kids first play Oregon Trail, but not us. The scene was right for it: we had this big computer lab full of brightly colored iMacs, and we would get to go in there every so often and play games. You could play Number Munchers (BLECH!), write a delightful novel with Storybook Weaver (remember that?), and I’m almost sure there was some sort of game where you destroyed asteroids with lasers. However, Oregon Trail was somehow not part of the repertoire.
Can't imagine why.
Like so much of my pop culture education, my first exposure to Oregon Trail was at my friend Allison’s house. She and her family were always a thousand times more up-to-date than I was. They’d had a computer (with INTERNET! WHOA!) ever since I’d known Allison (starting at age five), while my house didn’t get a computer until I was twelve (and internet was still a few more years off in the distance). So going to Allison’s house was like going to a whole new world full of crazy gadgets that did all sorts of crazy (yet amazing) things. I felt like ET.

Of course, one of the crazy/amazing things we could do on these computers was play games. Allison’s house was well-stocked with computer games, and it was here that I first learned of the glory of the Oregon Trail. Allison also had the Oregon Trail’s lesser known sibling, the Yukon Trail, but everyone knows that the Oregon Trail is far superior.

After I started playing Oregon Trail at Allison’s house, I was hooked. Since we had no computer at our house, I’d have to get my fix elsewhere. That meant it was time to expand my Oregon Trail horizons. I soon discovered (to my great joy) that the Brookings Public Library had Oregon Trail 2. They had this sweet setup where you could sign up for computer time and check out a game to play during that time – one of the many reasons I loved the library. Whenever I had the good fortune to make it to the library (which was whenever I found myself in Brookings – turns out that your parents and grandparents are usually willing to take you to the library when you ask), I’d gather up my newest stack of books and station myself at the computer for a good round of Oregon Trail.
First stop: the store!
You all know the Oregon Trail drill: you gather up your wagon party, buy supplies, and you’re off. You’re bound to encounter calamities along the way: someone dies of dysentery, you drown oxen when you try to ford the river, morale gets so low that your remaining travel companions overturn your leadership, and so on.

All disasters aside, what fun! Not only was Oregon Trail completely awesome, but it was more educational than it led you to believe. Sure, there were maps and historical places along the way with all sorts of informational tidbits. As you traveled through, you could also talk to all the locals and learn all about their experiences – I never did because I had trails to blaze (and I thought they were a tad boring, but that could’ve been just me). But the real education was in those real-life skills (and I use “real-life” loosely because, after all, it’s just a computer game) that you had to figure out along your way. You had better know how many pounds of lard to bring along, and you had to choose the right option when your wagon mate was bitten by a rattlesnake. You had to know when to caulk the wagon and when to pay the bridge toll, and you had better get yourself out to hunt and fish when your food ran low. (Remember the hunting part of the game? It could be MADDENING to sit there and wait for something to cross your path. Plus, I felt bad shooting at some helpless Oregon Trail bear and seeing it crumple to the ground. It’s no wonder I’ve never actually been hunting: I have neither the patience nor the stomach for it – not even in the computer game.) 
In the later editions of the game, you also had to know what kinds of plants were poisonous when you went out to gather them. (And if you accidentally brought home a poisonous plant, you needed to know what you should do to un-poison whatever poor soul had eaten it.)

I always found Oregon Trail to be way more fun when I named my wagon mates after people I knew. I used to name them all after my parents and siblings, but I felt awfully guilty when one (or more) of them (inevitably) died.

On the rare occasion that I made it to the end of the Oregon Trail, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment – even though I had undoubtedly killed off most of my fellow travelers and oxen, lost or broken all my supplies, and was a whole lot worse for the wear myself. All that aside, I was the CHAMPION when I made it through the Oregon Trail in (more or less) one piece. 

While I was never fortunate enough to own Oregon Trail, I did persuade my dad to buy me Amazon Trail. This would’ve been around 1999: I was twelve and in the sixth grade, and we had just gotten our first computer. (I remember it well: it was a black Gateway laptop than ran Windows 98.) Sixth grade was the last year that we were sent home with book orders, and this was the first opportunity I had to buy a computer game (as buying a computer game and having no computer didn’t make a lot of sense). My parents would usually be willing to buy me a book, but this time, I wanted Amazon Trail 3. It was fairly educational, so I felt like I could make a reasonable argument. I went to my dad, and he made me a deal: if I beat him at a hand of blackjack, he’d buy me the game. If I lost, I’d pay for half. I won that hand of blackjack and got Amazon Trail, which remains the only thing I’ve ever won as a result of gambling – but when you consider the only other gambling I’ve done is a scratch card I bought when I was 18, those odds sound a lot better.

Amazon Trail was AWESOME. It was more hands-on than the Oregon Trail I was used to: while in Oregon Trail, you just watched your wagon roll on down the trail, you actually had to steer your canoe down the Amazon.
This is your view for an awful lot of the game.
There were rocks and sandbars to watch out for, so you had to pay a fair amount of attention – otherwise, you’d capsize and lose your stuff/get bitten by a piranha. The stops you made were more interactive, too – you had a list of things that you wanted to collect from the people you met along the way, so it was in your best interest to chat them up.
Sometimes they're famous - see the guy on the left?
He's supposed to be Henry Ford.
(They give you all sorts of weird stuff, and these items come in handy later on as the Amazon Trail is pretty treacherous – at one point, you have to use one of your gifts to poison somebody.)

Like the Oregon Trail, the Amazon Trail had you out finding your own food when your supplies ran low. However, the Amazon Trail took you a few steps further. You not only had to spear your fish (which was awesome), but you had to identify the fish upon catching it. For each different fish you identified, they were checked off in your field guide. The more animals you identified, the more points you got in the end.

The other way to identify animals from your field guide was to make your way into the jungle. There were three jungle scenes that you could stumble upon depending on your location on the river, and each housed different animals. The animals moved and ran/flew around, and your job was to take a picture of them and correctly identify them. This picture would be added to your photo album, and more photos meant more points. Edible plants were similar to the fish: you would gather them while you were in the jungle, and identifying them got you more points.
Just look at all the stuff there is to identify!
Unlike on the Oregon Trail – which led you right along the path –you ran the risk of getting lost on the Amazon Trail. Every now and again, you’d come to a fork in the river, and if you chose the wrong one, there was a good chance that you’d be cannibalized. (You could tell because the background music would switch to something ominous.) Once you learned to recognize the warning music, you’d just turn yourself around. When the music was normal again, you knew that you weren’t going to be eaten… FOR NOW.

It had been many years since I’d played Oregon Trail… until James scored me an old copy of Oregon Trail 5 from Goodwill. Miraculously, it worked on my Windows Vista computer (I know what you’re thinking: Windows Vista? get with the times), and I found that it was a lot less thrilling than it was when I was a kid. I ended up getting a lot angrier at the game than I had before – I yelled at the game when my wagon capsized in the river; I yelled at the game when no one would trade for a box of bullets; I yelled at the game when I died of starvation. Maybe some things are better left in the past.

I remember Amazon Trail as being totally awesome, so I probably shouldn’t tarnish my memories by playing the game again and getting really pissed off at it (which is practically a guarantee). However, now that I’ve written this article, the desire to play it again has become overwhelming. I came THIS CLOSE to buying the game on (where else?) Amazon, but I had to talk myself out of it. After all, chances are pretty good that it won’t work on my computer, and that would be a waste of ten dollars. I’m also pretty sure that my original copy of Amazon Trail 3 is floating around my parents’ house somewhere, so I’ll just have to wait patiently until I can dig through the treasure trove of old computer games.

In the meantime, I’ll subsist on my fond Amazon Trail memories… and if I get really desperate, there’s Oregon Trail 5 to play. If you hear cursing and the phrase “broken wagon wheel,” it’s just me. I’ll get over it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

top ten Tuesday: songs from the Current.

Remember how I have a serious thing for NPR?

We’re going to delve a little deeper into my love of NPR – specifically, MPR: Minnesota Public Radio. I told you about how I didn’t discover MPR news radio until I moved to South Dakota and spent the first month of my new job driving an hour each way. However, MPR news wasn’t my first rendezvous with the MPR family. It all started with the Current.

I moved to Minneapolis in January 2010: fresh from New Orleans, I had taken a spring semester internship at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. James was finishing up his final semester of school, which meant that he was student teaching. His placement was in Buffalo, MN, so we found a place to live that was approximately halfway between Buffalo and Minneapolis: the friendly suburb of Plymouth. We lived in a teeny studio apartment that was once someone’s garage, but that’s a story for another time.

My morning commute was about twenty minutes – long enough to require radio entertainment. I located the Current on my very first day of commuting, and I don’t think I changed the station during the entire time I lived in the Cities. What I had found was pure gold: a station that played a mix of everything from local musicians to obscure 70s rock to a shameless “No Apologies” segment at 4 o’clock (which could be anything from Meatloaf to N*Sync to Peter Frampton). And what made it even better? It was public radio, so that meant the absence of those obnoxious radio commercials (seriously, why are radio commercials so much more annoying than television commercials?). No commercials + guaranteed to hear David Bowie at least once per day = new favorite radio station.

During the first eight months of my stint in Minneapolis, my time with the Current was limited to whenever I was in the car. However, a promotion at my job meant a move to an office where it was permissible – even encouraged! – to have the radio on all day. It was already set to the Current when I got there, and it remained set to the Current… except for the brief time where a ditzy blonde girl changed it to Top 40 before we all got there in the morning. Not that I have anything against Top 40, but there’s only so much Katy Perry you can stand. We changed the station back as soon as she left the room, and she eventually got the hint and just started listening to Pandora.

That meant that I could have at least eight hours a day of the Current – what joy! During the day, they had all sorts of fun programming: the 930 coffee break where the hosts would suggest a topic and wait for suggestions from the listeners (they’d ask for songs about zombies, or songs that are duets, or songs featuring banjos, etc), the “My Three Songs” segment at noon (where the host would choose a listener-submitted set of three songs submitted), and the aforementioned “No Apologies” track at 4 o’clock – and sure enough, the host never apologized.

Since the Current played pretty much whatever they wanted, I was introduced a whole bunch of brand new (to me) music. During my time with the Current, and I really filled out my iTunes collection. Sure, like all radio stations, the Current did overplay songs, and they placed a great deal of emphasis on local artists that I thought were “meh” at best (I’m looking at YOU, Jeremy Messersmith). On the whole, though, the Current opened up all sorts of musical doors for me. And all without commercials.

My music from the Current has carried me through countless roadtrips, and it’s given me plenty of hipster cred with my friends (which can be good or bad). It was awfully hard to choose my ten favorite songs from the Current, but I did it. My friends, these are the top ten songs introduced to me by the Current.

Mumford and Sons – “The Cave”
I had no idea who Mumford and Sons were until the day that the Current started playing them. “The Cave” was the very first song of theirs that I remember hearing, and it was just one of those songs that I immediately fell in love with. I think I can blame that on the banjo playing. But really, Marcus Mumford (the lead singer) puts so much feeling into his voice when he sings this song (when he sings anything, really), that you can’t help but get angry/sad/hipstery with him. Plus, you can hear his English accent when he sings, which means bonus points. (Side note: I liked Mumford and Sons a whole lot better before I knew what they looked like… especially Marcus Mumford. He looks like Hitler if Hitler had been a greasy hipster. Even so, I can’t help but love them.)

Cloud Cult – “Take Your Medicine”
Cloud Cult is a rare example of a local band that I actually enjoy. Unlike Mumford and Sons – who I would’ve heard eventually, as they are now HUGE – without the Current, I very easily could’ve gone my whole life without hearing Cloud Cult. “Take Your Medicine” is a bit on the angry side, but it’s got some fantastic instrumentation and a very enthusiastic lead singer. No complaints here.

Teddybears featuring Iggy Pop – “Punkrocker”
Iggy Pop is known for all sorts of disgusting things (look up him up on Wikipedia if you’re curious, but you’re not going to hear it from me), but let’s forget about that for a minute and focus on how AWESOME “Punkrocker” is. When you listen to it – especially in your car, as it is about a guy driving down the street – you can’t help but feel like a punk rocker yourself. (Or what I assume a punk rocker feels like. If anyone knows, it’s Iggy Pop.) This song (along with “Bizarre Love Triangle” and “Golden Years”) was one of the three songs I requested as a “My Three Songs” set on my 24th birthday, and wouldn’t you know, Barb Abney (the host) picked me! We were all listening at work, and she not only wished me a happy 24th birthday, but she pronounced my name correctly! NO ONE pronounces my name correctly! Barb Abney totally made my birthday that year – it’s been almost two and a half years, and I’m still happy about it!

Arcade Fire – “Modern Man”
I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Arcade Fire, as I find them to be generally whiny. However, “Modern Man” is light on the whine and heavy on the catchiness, so it makes the cut. Fun fact: the beat of “Modern Man” lines up almost exactly with how fast I walk. Therefore, it’s an iPod staple.

New Order – “Bizarre Love Triangle”
This song is a fine example of the Current playing a little bit of everything: “Bizarre Love Triangle” isn’t new by any means, but it’s a song from the 80s that I hadn’t heard before. It got me with its catchy electronic beat, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Listen to it and just try to tell me that you don’t want to dance. You won’t be able to resist.

Talking Heads – “Once in a Lifetime”
The Talking Heads are WEIRD – but good weird. They wouldn’t be the same without all the weird. Watch the “Once in a Lifetime” video for a good example. This was actually voted the best music video of all time. I was skeptical at first, but after a couple more watches, it grew on me. Now I can’t listen to “Once in a Lifetime” without picturing David Byrne’s crazy dance.

Temper Trap – “Sweet Disposition”
I feel as though “epic” is an overused word – not because people spend time talking about it in the literary sense (Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey = epics), but because nowadays (yes, I just said nowadays and am suddenly 50 years older), “epic” is synonymous with “awesome.” Example: I watched all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer last week. It was epic. (I didn’t actually do this, but you get the idea.) Anyway, I tend to shy away from using “epic” in everyday speech unless it’s totally necessary. With this song? Totally necessary. The drums and the bass make it epic. Yes, even with the lead singer’s falsetto.

Magnetic Fields – “You Must Be Out of Your Mind”
Stephin Merritt, the lead singer of the Magnetic Fields, has this beautiful deep voice. The song is not too happy – it’s a rebuttal to his ex, who wants him back – but you almost forget while you’re listening to his voice. Throw in some clever lyrics ("you can't go round just saying stuff because it's pretty/and I no longer drink enough to think you're witty") and quirky instrumentation, and we’ve got a winner.

Tapes n Tapes – “Badaboom”
“Badaboom” is one of those songs that you can’t help but turn up. This one never failed to perk me up while I was working on timesheets at my job in Minneapolis – the Current always came through for me during the afternoon slump.

David Bowie – “Golden Years”
Have I mentioned that I love David Bowie? Lucky for me, the Current does too. Hardly a day went by that didn’t include a bit of Bowie on the Current, and you’d hear no complaints from me. While picking a favorite David Bowie song is like picking a favorite child (I’d imagine), if you made me choose, I’d choose “Golden Years.” I’m not too big on assigning slogans to my life, but the first line of the song has been a bit of a motto for me ever since I first heard it: “don’t let me hear you say life’s taking you nowhere.”  And you know what? You’ll never hear me say life’s taking me nowhere. 
I don't want to disappoint David Bowie.

There we have it: ten wonderful songs that I first heard on the Current. Since relocating from the cities, I don’t get to listen to the Current as much as I used to – most of my radio listening is done in the car, and unfortunately, a St Paul radio signal is a tad too far to pick up. The Current does stream online, so I just need to get better at remembering to actually stream it. In the meantime, I have all these old favorites to keep me company – and there are way more where these came from. Three cheers for the Current!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

an open letter to Sioux Falls drivers.

Dear Sioux Falls drivers,

Now that the weather has taken a turn for the slippery and snowy, we really need to talk.

Before moving to Sioux Falls, I wasn’t an angry driver. I never got road rage. Sure, I got frustrated when rush hour traffic slowed down to a crawl, but who doesn’t? While driving, I had never experienced all-consuming, soul-crushing fury… until I moved to Sioux Falls.

As a teenager, I drove to Sioux Falls from time to time, but I never really noticed the bad drivers. I was in Sioux Falls for such a short stretch each time that it never registered with me. But let me tell you: when you live here and have to drive around here every day, you notice.

Sioux Falls drivers, the first thing I must ask is this: what is with your aversion to turn signals? I cannot go a single day without seeing at least half a dozen cars turn without signaling. Mind you, this is not a simple “that guy didn’t put on his turn signal when he was turning right and it’s just a minor annoyance” kind of thing (even though I see that all the time. ALL THE TIME). This is more of a “WTF WHY IS THIS DRIVER DRIFTING INTO MY LANE I’M GOING TO DIE” kind of thing. When you Sioux Falls drivers want to change lanes, you tend not to put on your turn signal to show the drivers around you what you’re doing; oh no. You either a.) just start drifting to the other lane and assume that people will move out of the way, or you b.) stop in the middle of the road and sit there until you can get in, leaving other drivers to wonder just what is going on.

And that’s another thing: drifting. Sioux Falls drivers, why do you think it’s ok just to drift in between lanes and through parking lots like you do? Your mirrors are there for a reason, my friends. I can’t count the number of times I’ve almost been run into because somebody was too lazy to check their mirrors to see that there was, in fact, A CAR RIGHT WHERE THEY ARE DRIFTING. My horn gets a lot of good use around here, let me tell you.

Maybe the concept of multiple lanes is what gets to you. You not only drift, but you seem to be totally clueless about merging etiquette. Haven’t you ever heard of zippering? When a lane is ending and must merge with another lane (like an on-ramp to the interstate), you zipper in: every other car, like the teeth of a zipper. It’s not complicated, but it’s not something I have ever seen while driving in Sioux Falls.

Sioux Falls drivers, you also seem not to know how to park your cars like normal people. Exhibit A:
Actual photo from a WalMart parking lot.
I see this over and over and OVER. You also really like to be THAT GUY and block up an entire row of a parking lot because you THOUGHT you saw that lady with the parking spot close to the door get in her car, and you’ll be damned if you lose that parking place to someone else. Never mind that in the time you waited and backed up traffic, you could’ve been parked about five spaces back and been in the store already.

Yes, Sioux Falls drivers, you take your sweet time. Speed limits on roads make little difference to you: if the sign says 35, you’re going to go 27. If you’re in the left turn lane and see a green arrow, you may cruise pokily through the intersection, leaving no time for the drivers behind you to get through… or you may ignore the arrow altogether because you’re not sure what it is.

Look, I realize that if you are South Dakota natives, you probably didn’t have the best driver’s education. I know: mine was terrible, but that’s a story for another time. But it doesn’t take driver’s ed to know that you’re not supposed to be totally oblivious to the drivers around you. And don’t even get me started on bike riders. (Ok, since you asked: don’t ride your bike on Sioux Falls streets, because you WILL get run over.)

Sioux Falls drivers, it’s not just me who feels this way. I’ve talked to all sorts of visitors to Sioux Falls, as well as fellow transplants. We all agree that you have a long way to go. We are all tired of driving around Sioux Falls, having to be hyper-alert because you’re not paying any attention. Plus, I’m sick of screaming expletives at the top of my lungs. Honestly, I’ve lived in three major metropolitan areas: Denver, New Orleans, and Minneapolis. Driving in those places was nowhere near as difficult as driving in Sioux Falls. Drivers in these cities actually check their mirrors, and – miracle of miracles – use their turn signals. I never had any issues with the zipper merge in these cities, nor did I get burning road rage when I drove in them. Honestly, Sioux Falls, if these huge cities can make driving easy, what’s your excuse?

Get it together.



Wednesday, November 27, 2013

let's talk about Hardees.

Everybody has their favorite fast food restaurant. Sure, they’re not the highest quality in the world, but when you’re looking for something quick and cheap, where else do you turn? Of course, not all fast food is created equal. Sadly, I’ve done my fair share of fast food research, and in my humble opinion, the best is (drumroll?) Hardees.

Now, let me qualify “fast food.” I’m referring to places like Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, and the like. Qdoba, Noodles & Company, Panera, etc are a different breed, so just forget about them. We’re going to be talking Hardees.

In my (numerous) stories about Brookings, I’ve told you about how my siblings and I constantly badgered my poor grandparents into taking us to McDonalds for Happy Meals. While I did enjoy a good chicken nugget from time to time, it was the toys (and definitely not the food) that kept us coming back to McDonalds.

In those days, our Brookings fast food options were limited to McDonalds, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Taco John’s, Subway, and Hardees. Grandma Lorraine and Grandpa Harvey preferred Hardees out of all these options, so we’d throw them a bone once in a while and go to Hardees. The older I got and the less Happy Meal toys mattered to me, the more I appreciated Hardees. Their curly fries and hot ham and cheese sandwiches were right up my alley, and Hardees never made me feel as gross as McDonald’s did – you know the feeling.

Hardees became a regular in our fast food rotation, but not just in Brookings: one of my earliest memories of my Grandpa Darwin, weirdly enough, involves the Watertown Hardees. I was awfully young (three? four?), and I was in Watertown with Dad and Grandpa. Dad had a truck to pick up in Watertown, so Grandpa had driven us there. Dad was going to take the truck home, and Grandpa said, “Do you want to ride home with your dad, or do you want to come to Hardees and have breakfast with me?” Needless to say, Dad drove home alone.

Like we do with so many things, I completely took Hardees for granted. I assumed it would always be there, ready to serve me up a delicious hot ham and cheese sandwich. But then came the day that it wasn’t. When I was a junior in high school (circa 2003), a small restaurant chain called Z’kota (don’t ask me) bought the Hardees in Brookings, Sioux Falls, and Watertown – basically, the only three places I ever went where there was Hardees potential.
Z’Kota was mediocre at best, and I resigned myself to having to look for Hardees in weird places.

The first Hardees I came across during that dark post-Z’kota takeover era was the one in Milbank, SD. Milbank doesn’t have much going for it… except Hardees. In October 2004, Mom and I drove to Morris, MN to visit a dinky little college in the middle of nowhere (and the rest is history). Our route took us through Milbank, which had the first Hardees I had seen in almost a year. It must’ve been destiny.

Not that I was a huge traveler in high school, but I could only find Hardees in two other places: Pierre and Moorhead. Both trips to Hardees were bright spots in otherwise lackluster trips. I was in Pierre - which is a godforsaken place, and I advise against making a trip there unless you absolutely must – for state oral interp. (I was so cool in high school.) We did not get a superior rating, so we drowned our sorrows at the Pierre Hardees. As for Moorhead, Dad and I were there in February 2005 on a college tour of Concordia. At the end of the tour, Dad and I located – joy of joys! – a Hardees, and over curly fries, he asked me what I thought of Concordia. “Didn’t like it,” I said firmly. “Good,” Dad said. “I didn’t like it either, but I wanted to hear it from you first.” My bone with Concordia was that it seemed way too uptight: there was a 10 o’clock curfew, for crying out loud. I never had a curfew in high school – why would I want to have one in college?

I ended up going to college at the U of M Morris, where there were no curfews, no limits on visitors, and where floors in the dorms were co-ed. Concordia would’ve been scandalized. Of course, I would periodically make the trip from Morris to Arlington, and each and every time, I’d stop at Hardees.

When I graduated from Morris, there was absolutely no reason to go through Milbank any more. I wasn’t sure when I’d get to Hardees again, but it wasn’t on the top of my “things to be concerned about” list: I was a bit more interested in, you know, getting a job.

After college, I bounced around from Denver to New Orleans to the Minneapolis area. It wasn’t until I was moving from a Minneapolis suburb to Minneapolis itself that I accidentally stumbled across a Hardees. It was June 2010, and James and I were exhausted from a day of moving and unpacking. We were driving to St Paul for some reason when all of the sudden, I glimpsed that old familiar logo on the other side of the interstate. “JAMES!” I yelled. “HARDEES!” We wound our way back to find the Hardees – it was in one of those little weird suburbs that you don’t’ even know is a suburb smushed in between Minneapolis and St Paul. It was a pretty skeezy Hardees, so we only ate there once or twice – but it was a Hardees nonetheless.

Not too long after the miraculous discovery of the Minneapolis Hardees, I learned that Hardees had bought back all its old restaurants from Z’Kota. Hardees was returning to Brookings, Watertown, and Sioux Falls. That was all good and well, but how often was I in any of those towns? Well, wouldn’t you know, I moved to Sioux Falls in September 2011 – and my first job back in Sioux Falls was practically right across the street from a Hardees.

I’ve been living in the Land of Hardees for more than two years now, and honestly, I don’t go there as much as I thought I would. I only get one thing at Hardees – that would be the hot ham and cheese sandwich – and you can only have so many of those.

They are delicious, even though they never look half
as nice as the sandwiches in the ads.
So even though I don’t eat there all that often, it’s nice to know I have the option. When I need something quick and easy, I’m awfully glad that Hardees is around.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

let's talk about salamanders.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved amphibians and reptiles. Maybe it was because I had quite a few Kermit the Frog toys as a kid, or maybe it was because I lived in the country and the springtime frogs were a lot more fun to play with than the lazy farm cats. Maybe it was all the time I spent watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a child. Who knows. In any case, amphibians and reptiles were right up my alley.
Turtle power!
While turtles were always contenders for the top of the list, my favorites were always salamanders. Call me crazy, but I think they are ADORABLE.
Look at that face!
Whenever it rained, we had an abundance of salamanders in the yard. Who knows what first inspired me to pick one up, but salamanders and I have been friends ever since (except for the one that tried to bite me, but “bite” is a pretty strong word… the one that tried to gum me, I guess we can say).

Salamanders loved the paved roads, too. I remember them lounging all over the road as my dad tried to drive us to our babysitter’s house. I say “tried” because he would have to creep along, urged by his children not to run over any salamanders. A couple of times, he even let us out of the pickup so we could scoop up the salamanders and deposit them safely in the ditch.

Like any child who loves a certain creature, I decided that I needed a salamander as a pet. I had a small aquarium from my days as a fish owner (remember how badly I failed at that?), so I set out to find a new resident for my little plastic aquarium.

How well did that work? The catching of the salamander was no problem. I just had to wait for it to rain, and the salamanders would come out in droves. We’d find them relaxing on the concrete, not seeming to care about the family dog (who, in turn, didn’t really care about them). All I had to do was choose my salamander (which usually ended up being the one that thrashed around the least when I picked it up). However, my pet salamanders never lasted longer than a day or two… not because I accidentally killed them, but because I ended up feeling bad for them and in turn set them free. This was mostly thanks to my mother, who would say things like “don’t you think his family misses him? I bet they’re really worried. You should let him go.” Well played, Mom.

My favorite salamander story (what, you don’t have a favorite salamander story?) took place in college. It was my senior year, and I lived in a junky house on Third Street with my friends Sara and Nate. It was early spring, and it was raining as I rode my bike home one evening. Along the way, I spotted a salamander on the sidewalk, so naturally, I picked it up and brought it home to show my roommates. When I walked in the door, I found Sara, Nate, and James all gathered in the living room. I presented my salamander: Sara said, “CUTE!” and immediately came over to hold it, while James and Nate both said, “EWW! GET IT OUT OF HERE!” and relocated to the kitchen.

While my days of trying to keep salamanders as pets are over (which can be blamed in part on James), I will still happily go outside and look for them after a rainfall. You should try it sometime! You might make a new (albeit slimy) friend!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

top ten Tuesday: songs from James's and my wedding.

As I’m sure you remember, James and I got married in July in what has been widely referred to as the BEST WEDDING EVER. (I’m not just blowing my own horn here. People have really said that!) What makes the BEST WEDDING EVER? In our case, it was a combination of three very important things: great people, a great sense of humor, and great music. And we had all three in spades.
All three of which can be found in this picture.
For this particular blog post, I’m going to focus on the final of my three great wedding components: the music. I grew up in a musical family, and I spent a solid twelve years (fifth grade through college graduation) in some kind of musical ensemble. James is a trumpet player and a music teacher. Needless to say, the music in our wedding was incredibly important to us.

You may have figured this out by now, but I’m not a terribly traditional person. I wanted James’s and my wedding to be just what we wanted it to be, especially when it came to the music. No “Here Comes the Bride” for me, thank you!

My dad has been playing in a brass quintet for years now, and luckily, they were more than happy to provide the music for our ceremony. Dad’s quintet is made up of his old band director, two friends, sometimes James, and himself, and he recruited his sister, his brother, and one of our friends from college to all play. That way, Dad could fulfill his official father-of-the-bride duties while ensuring that all the parts were covered. Plus, the more people we had to play, the more music we would have – they could tag-team so no one would get worn out! It was brilliant!

The brass would play for the prelude, processional, special music, recessional, and postlude. At the dance, we had the BEST DJ EVER. Her name was Andrea, and she knew just what to play to keep the crowd engaged. She adhered strictly to my do-not-play list – which really was only one song: “Amazed” by Lonestar – even when our bridal party members Nate and Sara begged for it. (They ended up getting their way: Nate and Sara recited it to us as part of their toast. It was AWESOME.)
"I'm amazed by... YOUUUUU"
This all boils down to the fact that our wedding music was outstanding. There are way too many fantastic songs to mention, but I’ve picked the ten songs with the best wedding-related stories (presented in the order in which they were played). With that rather long-winded introduction, I’d like to present the top ten songs from our wedding!

The Imperial March
You read that right: we played the Imperial March at our wedding. Let me give you a little background. We got married at First Lutheran Church in Brookings, and we did so for two reasons: the official reason is that this is where my parents got married, and the unofficial reason is because it’s Touchdown Jesus.
Anyway, it turned out that Touchdown Jesus had very strict rules when it came to the ceremony – especially the music. Any music had to be pre-approved by the wedding coordinator, and they were loath to approve anything secular. This wasn’t a huge problem for us because all our music was instrumental – no pesky lyrics to get us in trouble. We submitted the brass’s lineup: Beethoven’s Ninth (Ode to Joy), Nearer My God to Thee, Down by the Riverside, Just a Closer Walk. All good church songs, and we were approved with no problem. However, I’d had this great idea… not just great, but BRILLIANT. Remember how I’d mentioned that one of the most important parts of a great wedding is a sense of humor? This is the perfect example. I wanted to get the wedding off on the right foot; to show our guests that we were there to have fun, celebrate, and not take ourselves too seriously. My idea was this: the bridal party would all walk down the aisle to Canon in D: a lovely wedding standard. BUT! When it came time for Dad to walk me down the aisle, the brass would explode into the Imperial March: the very same theme that introduces Darth Vader. They would then play it off as a mistake and return to Canon in D. I pitched the idea to James (loved it) and Dad (loved it), who in turn pitched it to the brass (loved it) and our pastor (loved it). Pastor Loren agreed to be the one who would call the brass out, which would make it even funnier. As far as getting permission from the church, we all agreed that it would be better to ask forgiveness that permission. What were they going to do – unmarry us?! So we didn’t tell the church. We were almost busted when the brass played a snatch of the Imperial March at the rehearsal, but it flew right over the substitute wedding coordinator’s head. On the day itself, Dad and I stood giggling while we waited to walk down the aisle. We collapsed in a fit of laughter as we heard the brass play those infamous first notes. 
Pastor Loren called out, “Hold on, hold on! Either I’m at the wrong wedding, or we’ve got the wrong music!” He stepped over to the brass and dug around on their stands. “Canon in D, part two!” The brass resumed the canon, and Dad and I were off. Best walk down the aisle EVER.

Olympic Fanfare and Theme
When I was dreaming up this wedding, one of the very first things I set my sights on was the Olympic Fanfare and Theme as our recessional. I’ve LOVED this song ever since we played it in band when I was a junior in high school, and I couldn’t think of a better recessional. James was completely on board, so I asked Dad if the brass would be willing to do it. Of course they were, so he talked to their arranger and got the Olympic Fanfare written up for quintet. I heard the piece soon after they’d gotten it, and while it was nice, it wasn’t what I was looking for. It had none of the fancy thundering stuff that I loved so much. So what then? Dad suggested I talk to my uncle Mike. Mike is Dad’s older brother, and he can do just about anything. He’s very musical; he was in the army band for more than thirty years, and he’s going to grad school for education. Mike was more than happy to arrange the Olympic Fanfare, and he had it done in no time. The brass put it all together, and Dad was so excited to debut it (even though he was the father of the bride, he snuck back to the brass and got to play during the ceremony). When James and I walked down the aisle to the Olympic Fanfare, it was – and I don’t use this word lightly – epic. 
Best wedding recessional EVER.

Chariots of Fire
Now that we’d figured out the ceremony music, we needed to start on the reception. We had our DJ all lined up, and she was ready for whatever we threw at her. First of all, we needed a song for the wedding party’s grand entrance into the reception hall. James and I had a non-traditional wedding party: three girls and two guys on my side, five guys on his. Normally, the attendants walk in the reception hall in girl/guy pairs (as they usually do in the church, but we sent them down single-file). We knew we were going to have them do something silly, so what better way than in a larger group? We divided our attendants into groups of three, three, and four and informed them that they were going to be running in slow motion to “Chariots of Fire.” Luckily for us, all of our attendants were good sports, so they all hammed it up for us – I’ve never seen better slow-motion running in my life. 

Best wedding party grand entrance song EVER.

Ring of Fire
I’m sure it won’t surprise you to hear that I wasn’t about to go for some drippy slow dance for James’s and my first dance. We were swing dancing partners all through college, so it was only fitting that we swing dance for our first dance. I originally proposed “String of Pearls,” but it didn’t take me long to set my sights on “Ring of Fire” instead. James was a little reluctant, but I couldn’t think of a better first dance song: after all, James used to sing that song when he was in Funky Gumbo. Plus, how many people have Johnny Cash as their first dance? Answer: not enough. James relented, and we set to work practicing our moves. We were a little rusty, but it turns out that swing dancing is just like riding a bike. Sure, James dropped me on my head a time or two, but that’s why we practiced on carpet. When the big day arrived, we danced like champions. The flips were perfect, and my dress (which was a second dress, as my wedding dress was too old and long to dance in) was the best swing dancing dress I could’ve imagined.
Very twirly. Even the DJ – who has, no doubt, seen hundreds of first dances – said that we were the best she’d ever seen. So now James and I can officially say that “our” song is “Ring of Fire.” Best first dance EVER.

The Way You Look Tonight
The father/daughter dance wasn’t going to be a slow dance either – and Dad was fine with it. He likes to jitterbug, so I searched about for a good jitterbug-able father/daughter song. Turns out that’s easier said than done. So many father/daughter songs are waaaaaaay too cheesy (think all those country songs about daughters), and an awful lot of the jitterbug-type songs didn’t seem like they fit the occasion. Even though it can be found at every wedding ever, I chose “The Way You Look Tonight” by Frank Sinatra. But I suppose there’s a reason everybody has it at their wedding: it’s sweet, but not overly so, and it’s peppy enough for those of us who don’t like slow dancing. So Dad and I jitterbugged to Frank Sinatra. Best father/daughter dance EVER.

Friends in Low Places

I chose this song for the wedding party dance, and it was a no-brainer. First of all, who doesn’t love Garth Brooks? Second of all, just look at the title: “Friends in Low Places.” What better way to describe our dearest friends and family? When we told the wedding party that “Friends in Low Places” would be their song, we were met with unadulterated joy. It should definitely be noted that we didn’t choreograph any sort of dance with our wedding party; we’re just not like that. When the song started, we just let the dance happen… and it turned into an eleven-person can-can line.

We morphed into a circle, and there was skipping and arm linking, and the joy and love in the air was palpable.
Best wedding party dance EVER.

Calla Calla
A while ago, I wrote about “Calla Calla” in my blog about top ten songs with names in the title. This particular song was introduced to me by my friend Allison and her family long long ago, and it contains such lyrical gems as “it’s the day of mating/time for celebrating.” It is, after all, a wedding song. Ever since I first heard it, Allison threatened to play it at my wedding. By the time my wedding rolled around, it had been years since we’d talked of “Calla Calla.” I didn’t know if she remembered, and I wasn’t about to remind her. During the dance, the DJ made an announcement between songs that she had a very special request to play that was delivered to her via flash drive. Yep: it was “Calla Calla.” Only Allison and her family got the joke that night, but it was priceless. It’s not every day you get to polka to a song with your name in it that also includes the phrase “day of mating.” Best surprise song EVER.

Jessie’s Girl
“Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield was a must-play at our wedding. Everybody knows it, it’s catchy, and it was one of my friends’ and my cruising songs in high school (you know you had high school cruising songs). Now, one of James’s brothers is named Jesse.
Here he is!
When “Jessie’s Girl” started playing, we all flocked to the dance floor and spontaneously formed a half-circle around Jesse and belted out the song. Every time we got to the chorus (“you know I wish that I had Jessie’s girl!”), we all jumped up and down and pointed at Jesse, who was as happy as a clam. We had more than one person ask us if that was planned, and I think it’s exponentially more awesome because it wasn’t. Best spontaneous serenade EVER.

Standing Outside the Fire
You know how, for each friend you have, there’s one song in particular that’s YOUR song? “Standing Outside the Fire” belongs to Bob, Sarah, and me. We listened to it practically nonstop through the last two years of high school… and whenever we saw each other during college breaks… well, whenever we saw each other period. When Bob got married, he asked his wedding party to suggest a song or two for the dance, and my pick (along with “Faith” by George Michael – another one of Bob’s, Sarah’s and my songs) was “Standing Outside the Fire.” When that song played at Bob’s wedding, Sarah and I bolted to Bob on the dance floor: we danced and air-bongoed our hearts out. 

Of course, we wanted a repeat at my wedding. Both Sarah and Bob made it very clear to our DJ how important this song was, and she promised to play it. When she did, we found out just how many of our friends love “Standing Outside the Fire.” We all pranced around like idiots and belted the words at the very tops of our lungs. It was simply beautiful. Best tried-and-true friend song EVER.

More Than a Feeling
Alas, all good things must end. James and I chose “More Than a Feeling” as our last song because it is a GREAT song and the perfect way to end your night on a high note (literally and figuratively).  It was almost midnight, but there were tons of people left – all of our college friends and all but two of the wedding party were still there (along with assorted cousins and friends), and they all came to the dance floor for our last dance. We all formed into one gigantic circle and wailed the lyrics, doing our best to hit those stratospheric notes. There’s a certain burst of energy when you know it’s the last song, and we gave it everything we had. As the song came to an end, James and I were shoved to the middle for a gigantic group hug. Best last song EVER.

This list is just a drop in the bucket. There were so many great songs with so many stories: “Hallelujah Chorus” (played right after we were pronounced married – appropriate, huh?), "In Heaven There Is No Beer" (which the brass quintet successfully snuck by the wedding coordinator), “Rainbow Connection” (the one slow song I danced to), “Little Willy” (during with Mitch initiated foot-stomping that I thought would bust through the floor), “Gangnam Style” (with a huge line of excellent dancers), “The Time Warp” (a special request by Allison that also attracted some fantastic dancers), “Thrift Shop” (the DJ announced this as ‘one of the bride’s favorite songs’), “Blurred Lines” (requested by Sarah to be played immediately after “Standing Outside the Fire, and to which the DJ said, ‘I’d never play these back-to-back… except at this wedding’), and “Beer Barrel Polka” (requested by our college friend Lacee for all our UMM friends).

Our dance was more fun than I ever could’ve imagined. We did our best to keep the songs high-energy, and the dance floor was never empty – some of our friends and family never left the dance floor! Instead of couples being paired off, many of the songs we danced to ended up being huge circles: fun and inclusive; no one needed a partner. After all that dancing, my legs ached for a week afterward. A small price to pay for the BEST WEDDING EVER. At the end of the night, our DJ said she’s never had a more fun group of people, and the bartenders said the same. If that’s not an indication of a wedding well done, I don’t know what is.

Great people? Check. Great senses of humor? Check. Great music? CHECK.


Wedding five!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

the scary series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Ok, so I know this doesn’t really fit into my October theme of real-life scary stories, but I’m going to go ahead and pull the “it’s my blog, and I’ll break my self-imposed theme if I feel like it” card. This story is about one of my favorite television shows of all time, and it deals with all sorts of Halloweeny things, so that’s why it still gets to be a part of my October scary month. What is this show? Why, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course!

To those of you who are unfamiliar, two things: 1.) WHAT????!?!?!?!? You have NO IDEA what you’re missing! All seven seasons are on Instant Netflix – what are you waiting for?? and 2.) Allow me to give you an overview: Buffy is the Slayer, and it’s her job to save the world from all sorts of nasty things, from vampires (as the title would suggest) to demons to banished gods to power-crazed witches and whatever else happens to come her way. There is only one Slayer – a Chosen One who possesses the strength to fight all of these creatures. And where do all these creatures come from? Well, Buffy just happens to live on the Hellmouth (which is exactly what it sounds like), so she’s right at the center of all kinds of demony energy.

The series starts out with Buffy as a high schooler, and it follows her through college and beyond. Along the way, she picks up all sorts of interesting characters. Being a Slayer means that you have a Watcher – someone who trains you and basically watches out for you. Buffy’s Watcher is Giles, the school librarian.
Look at all those BOOKS!
She’s also got her dorky sidekicks: Willow (who eventually turns into a superpowered witch) and Xander (who is an all-around good guy, but is basically useless – and he knows it, so it’s a running joke). 
This picture is terribly misleading. Neither Willow
nor Xander is cool and suave like this
photo would have you believe.
Between the four of them, there are all sorts of misadventures – seven seasons’ worth, to be precise.

What exactly makes Buffy so great? For one thing, it’s terribly witty. The characters have a fantastic stockpile of one-liners that perfectly balance whatever serious world-ending thing is going on at the moment. It’s also one of those shows that ties itself together so well. You’ll find something from the first season coming back to bite them in the fourth season, and you’ll remember a minor character from the second season when he shows up in the fifth season (and so on). So you’ve got to pay attention.

And oh! the characters! Buffy herself is the stereotypical blonde cheerleader-type (complete with the cheerleadery name) who always dies first in scary movies – and now she’s the one responsible for saving the world. 
See the stake?
Superpowers and vampire slaying aside, Buffy is just a normal girl trying to live a normal life. Like any teenaged girl, Buffy has boy troubles (granted, some of these troubles are with a 200 year old vampire named Angel) and clashes with her mother. As time goes on, Buffy has to deal with more real-world problems, like how to pay the bills. All the while, she must continue slaying vampires and saving the world from a certain doom. Talk about a full plate.

While Buffy makes a good lead, it’s really the supporting characters that make the show. Giles, the librarian/Watcher, was my favorite character from the very start. He was always the first one with a snappy retort, and he was very smart and very British. Plus, Giles loved books and libraries as much (if not more) than I do – add book smarts plus wit plus British accent plus ability to fight demons, and that might explain why I had a crush on Giles. 
Don't judge.
The fantastic and well-written characters secondary characters are in no short supply, but I’ve got my favorites. I love Spike the mostly bad, sometimes good, Billy Idol-ish vampire, Oz the werewolf (Seth Green!), Jonathan and Andrew the nerds… the list could go on and on. 

We do have to spend a minute talking about the vampires. Buffy vampires follow classic vampire rules: holy water and crosses burn them, they can’t go out in the sunlight as it will end them, you kill them by staking them through the heart, they don’t have reflections, etc. Vampires are also naturally bad: unlike a certain set of vampires who tend to sparkle in the sunlight, Buffy vampires do not choose to be good and not kill humans. Buffy vampires are only good when something goes awry – a restored soul, a chip in the brain, and so forth. Even then, there’s always the strong possibility that they’ll turn bad again.

My friend Allison was the one who got me started on Buffy. She had been watching it for years, and she thought it would be right up my alley. This was 2002, and I was 14 years old. Buffy had been on TV since 1997, so reruns were all over the place. There was a two-hour chunk of Buffy reruns every weeknight on USA or FX or something, so I would either a.) make sure I was around to watch them or b.) set a VHS tape (those were the days) to record them. Lucky for me, the Buffy reruns aired in order – and it’s very important that you watch them in order.

(Sidenote: it was during this time of dashing home after school and rewinding the VHS tape that my very own brother Mitch started to sit in on Buffy. He was either nine or ten at the time, and he liked the show so well that he named a cat Buffy in honor of our intrepid heroine.)

It didn’t take long for me to get hooked, and it’s been that way ever since. Buffy ended in 2003, but I was still working on the early seasons, so I had to forgo the big series finale at the time. (SPOILER ALERT: it was just as well, because the finale – let’s be honest, the entire final season – was just disappointing.) However, I have since watched the series from start to finish a time or two… or three… or maybe more.

Even though I’m well-versed in the Buffy universe, the beauty of that show is that every time I watch it, I feel like I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. Every single time, the suspense is there. For example, there’s a particular Buffy season finale that gets me every time. (I’m not going to tell you which one or what happens, just in case you’re new to Buffy and decide to see it yourself.) I have watched this episode time and time again, and I know exactly what’s coming… but every time, it makes me cry. Now, if you are familiar with me and my crying habits, you know it’s pretty rare for a movie or TV show to bring out the waterworks (unless they involve animals, and then all bets are off… I once watched an Animal Planet special on hero dogs – like military dogs and seeing eye dogs – and bawled like a damn baby), but this episode – without fail – does it for me. What can I say? Only a great and powerful show like Buffy can bring out my inner crybaby.

While – in my opinion – all episodes of Buffy (save for the final season – blech) are good episodes, there are a handful that stick out as my very favorites. Around Halloween each year, I like to watch the Halloween episodes from seasons two and four. In the season two episode, Buffy and her friends all turn into whatever they dressed up as for Halloween – Buffy turns into a helpless Victorian woman, Xander into a soldier, and Willow into a ghost. Of course, chaos ensues. 
In season four, Buffy, Willow, and Xander are all in college, and they get trapped in a haunted house where they all must face their greatest fear. It sounds serious, but Buffy always manages the perfect balance between humor and drama.

Allow me to explain the Buffy comedy/drama pairing using three of my favorite episodes: the one in which a curse is put on Sunnydale (the town where Buffy and friends live) and everyone loses the ability to speak, the one in which Willow tries to wipe out her girlfriend’s memory but ends up wiping everyone’s memory instead, and the one in which Sunnydale gets turned into a musical.

In the no-talking episode (it’s called “Hush,” if you’re curious), it is simultaneously chilling and hilarious – these terrifying creatures take away the town’s voices so they can rip out their hearts with no one hearing them scream. 
Hello, nightmares.
At the same time, it’s just comical to try and watch Buffy and the team try and communicate without voices.

In the memory wipe-out episode (“Tabula Rasa”), no one remembers why they know each other (Giles and Spike assume they’re father and son because they both have British accents and can sense their strong dislike for each other), and no one can figure out why these angry creatures (vampires) want to attack them. They all get their memories back in the end, but they aren’t too happy with Willow and feel (understandably) violated.

The musical episode (“Once More With Feeling”) is just brilliant. A demon casts a spell on Sunnydale so that the townsfolk spontaneously break into song, and we found out who has a surprisingly good singing voice (Giles, Tara, Spike), who is mediocre at best (Buffy, Xander, Dawn, Anya), and who is downright terrible (Willow – but she doesn’t sing much, so somebody must’ve known). The songs are on the catchy side, and I’ve been known to listen to that episode’s soundtrack from time to time (or more often, but who’s counting?). Sure, a musical episode of Buffy sounds like fun and games, but the characters don’t have much control over what they blurt out when they start singing. We learn about unrequited love, doubts about an upcoming marriage, relationships ending, and Buffy’s Big Secret (that we have known for a while, but this is when her friends find out). Grim realizations come to the surface, friendships are damaged… but a new romance begins, so it’s not all bad.
Here's the big group number!
So with Halloween just around the corner and winter close behind it, I think you need a new series. Not only will it get you started in the Halloween spirit, but it will keep you entertained through the bitter Midwestern winter.

And if you’ve already watched Buffy? Watch it again.