Wednesday, June 26, 2013

childhood obsessions: Happy Meal toys.

As a child of the 80s, I grew up in the heyday of the Happy Meal. McDonald’s began offering Happy Meals in 1979 (thanks for the fact, Wikipedia!), and they’ve been a pain in the ass for mothers everywhere ever since.

My mother was no exception. She responded unfavorably to whining and begging (though God knows we tried), so Happy Meals were a rare treat. Plus, like most young kids, we had too much damn stuff – the last thing we needed was another cheap plastic toy. That meant that getting a Happy Meal depended almost entirely upon the generosity of our grandparents.

Spending the day in Brookings with Grandma Lorraine and Grandpa Harvey was a HUGE treat, reserved mainly for the summertime. Mom would drop us off before she went to work, and our grandparents would haul us to swimming lessons – the only major obligation of the day. From there, the town was there for the taking. Grandma and Grandpa catered to our every whim, chauffeuring us around in their Buick Park Avenue (which I would later inherit. Remember that story?). We country kids got to experience (what we thought was) city life: we went to Walmart, the Brookings mall, the library, and the park. We got to watch cable TV and have SDSU ice cream in the afternoons.

Lunch was very nearly the most exciting part of our days in Brookings. Since we lived in the country (ten miles from the nearest restaurant, thirty from the nearest chain restaurant), eating out was a rare treat for us. Grandpa and Grandma graciously let us choose where to eat, and every single freaking time, we chose fast food. At the time, Brookings had a pretty decent fast food selection: McDonald’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Taco John’s, KFC, Hardee’s, and Subway were all up for grabs. (Brookings’ fast food options have expanded since then: now they have Qdoba, Arby’s, and Culver’s, too.) But did we ever choose anything besides McDonald’s and Burger King? No. No, we did not.

Believe it or not, we didn’t choose McDonald’s and Burger King because we liked to food. We were in it for the toys and the toys alone. If you recall from a recent story, I had a serious thing for Barbie dolls. Whenever McDonald’s had their Barbie/Hot Wheel Happy Meals, I was chomping at the bit to get my hands on one of them.
Or all of them.
I wish I knew how many tiny plastic McDonald’s Barbies I amassed over several years of dedicated Happy Meal-ing… actually, maybe I don’t want to know. Anyway, it was a lot. From a Dutch Barbie to zillions of bridal Barbies to an 80s Barbie on a bike, I had quite a collection.

Like I said, we didn’t go for the food, but McDonald’s was the clear winner when it came to lunch fare. For the first twelve years of my life, the only thing I’d ever had off the McDonald’s menu was the chicken nuggets. Burger King’s chicken paled in comparison to McDonald’s, and their fries? Don’t even get me started. But sometimes, sacrifices had to be made: when Burger King had Lion King toys and McDonald’s didn’t, my loyalty quickly changed.

While my Grandpa Harvey and Grandma Lorraine took us to fast food restaurants most often, my friend Allison and her parents were a close second. Whenever I spent the night at her house, her dad would drive us to Brookings for supper. You have McDonald’s people, and you have Burger King people: it’s a lot like Coke people and Pepsi people. Allison and her family were Burger King people, so that’s how I got my Lion King toy. I desperately wanted the plastic Nala with glow-in-the-dark eyes, but Scar was the toy I got.
Yep, this is my actual Scar toy.
Yes, I do tend to hang onto things.
I brought that little plastic lion to school every day, where I kept him in my desk until it was time for recess. I still have that Scar figurine somewhere, along with glow-in-the-dark Nala (my friend Sarah had gotten it in her Burger King meal, and since she already had one, she graciously passed her spare onto me).
This is not my Nala toy, but I can
always count on Google Images to
dig me up a good picture.
My fast food toy collection came almost exclusively from McDonald’s and Burger King (with the occasional toy from Dairy Queen). When we used to go camping, I would divide my toys between plastic ice cream buckets labeled “McDonald’s” and “Burger King” and tow the whole menagerie to the campground with me. Like you needed more evidence that I was a weird kid.

Those Happy Meal days couldn’t last forever. McDonald’s started throwing those Teenie Beanie Babies into their Happy Meals in 1996 (thanks again, Wikipedia!), and by that time, my enthusiasm for Happy Meals was starting to wane. But I stuck it out just a little longer for those tiny bean-filled toys.
These Teenie Beanie Babies have come for your soul.
I liked Beanie Babies, but I didn’t crave them with the rabidity of some of my contemporaries. I’d buy one or two with my allowance and ask for them for Christmas, but I certainly didn’t lose sleep over them. I didn’t pursue Beanie Baby Happy Meals with the fervor of my Lion King and Barbie Happy Meal days… I was getting too old for that crap.

So, after years of pestering any willing adult to take me to McDonald’s and choosing my meals based only on the toy inside, my Happy Meal days were over. However, my little Happy Meal toys are still floating around somewhere… most likely in the recesses of my parents’ attic. Should Mom and Dad ever make good on their threat to make me take all the stuff I still have at their house, I’m in serious trouble. I blame it on too many damn Happy Meal toys. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

top ten Tuesday: ten songs I first heard thanks to American Eagle Outfitters.

So you’ve heard me refer to my tenure at a mall clothing store (especially when I told you about the perils of working on Black Friday). That clothing store was American Eagle Outfitters. I maybe don’t seem like the American Eagle type (as Goodwill and Target are generally where I buy most of my clothes), but I worked there from July 2009 until October 2010. This was during the height of my unpaid internships, and I was able to transfer from place to place. While I was interning, I worked in stores near Denver, New Orleans, and Minneapolis. Without American Eagle, I definitely would’ve starved.

While I’m grateful to American Eagle for helping me put food on the table, working there had a hidden benefit: the music. There was always a soundtrack playing, and while a lot of it was pretty typical, the American Eagle soundtrack people threw in a few gems. Each American Eagle store had some TV monitors; sometimes they’d show the music videos, and sometimes they’d just show stock footage of beautiful American Eagle-clad people running around on a beach somewhere. The music videos would list the song titles and artists, but the beach footage would not. I’d carry around some scratch paper and a pen to jot down lyrics of any song I heard and liked, and I would just have to look the song up when I got home. American Eagle got a new soundtrack every so often, so I heard quite a bit of music during my time there – and I still love some of it today. So for this top ten Tuesday, I’d like to present to you the top ten songs I first heard thanks to American Eagle!

MGMT – “Kids”
This was one of the very first songs I heard at American Eagle. It was one of those rare songs that you absolutely love the very first time you hear it. And the music video? WEIRD. I’ve had a great many bonding experiences with my friends over this song, and they all go like this: “Do you like MGMT?” “YEAH!” “Do you know ‘Kids’?” “YEAH!!” “Let’s listen to it!” “YEAH!!!” (then: dance party.)

Faces on Film – “Famous Last Words”
(the song in question starts at about 2.19)
“Famous Last Words” was part of the pre-Christmas soundtrack when I worked at the American Eagle in a suburb of New Orleans. I remember because I first heard this song as I was struggling to hang up some garlands and almost died in the process (tall ladder + poor balance = disaster). It took me the longest time to locate a copy of this song – the best I could find was a low-quality YouTube video – but once I did, I was as happy as a clam.

Metric – “Help, I’m Alive”
“Help, I’m Alive” immediately followed “Famous Last Words” on the Christmas soundtrack. The Christmas soundtrack wasn’t great: those two of a very small handful of songs I liked out of three-ish hours of music. I remember Louie Armstrong’s “Cool Yule” playing right after “Help, I’m Alive,” which was 100% perfect for Christmas in New Orleans.

Matt and Kim – “Daylight”
I’ve heard a few other songs by Matt and Kim, but nothing stuck with me quite as well as “Daylight.” Maybe it’s the super spunky keyboard intro, and maybe it’s the carefree lyrics. Listen for yourself, and maybe you can help me decide.

Animal Collective – “Summertime Clothes”
“Summertime Clothes” was right on the heels of “Kids” on that very first American Eagle CD, and how appropriate that it was July and I was wearing my own summertime clothes. American Eagle played this video on their monitors, and it was really easy to get distracted by all the crazy colors (especially when you were doing something totally uninteresting, like re-folding tshirts). Clearly, my attention span leaves something to be desired.

Matisyahu – “We Will Walk”
You guys. MATISYAHU. I had never heard of him before the American Eagle in New Orleans played him on their October soundtrack. Whenever “We Will Walk” popped up in the soundtrack rotation, you couldn’t help but walk around with a bit of a strut as you’re putting jeans away. Well, maybe YOU could help it, but I certainly couldn’t.

Passion Pit – “The Reeling”
Unbeknownst to me at the time, “The Reeling” was the beginning of a long and lovely relationship between Passion Pit and me. Admittedly, it took some time for me to really appreciate “The Reeling;” the screeching falsetto doesn’t immediately appeal to everyone. It wasn’t until I heard “Sleepyhead” and immediately LOVED it that I revisited “The Reeling” and found out that it was pretty great, too.

The Killers – “Human”
The American Eagle soundtrack people would occasionally toss in a few old familiar songs by old familiar artists – David Bowie and the Who appeared from time to time, which was totally fine with me. On the whole, most of the artists on these soundtracks were new to me. But not the Killers. I had loved them way back in high school, but since I didn’t spend much time listening to the radio while I lived in Denver and New Orleans, I didn’t know that they were releasing new singles (I wasn’t a very dedicated fan). That’s how I heard “Human” AND “Spaceman,” plus a whiny single from their lead singer. What a musical education.

The Big Pink – “Dominoes”
Most of my favorite American Eagle songs came from my days in Denver and New Orleans, but this is one of the rare songs from the Minneapolis American Eagle – which is really weird, considering I spent a mere month and a half in Denver and four months in New Orleans compared to ten months in Minneapolis. Anyway, “Dominoes” is from Minneapolis. It’s one of those songs that’s significantly louder than most songs, so if you’re not expecting it and have your iPod turned up too high, you’re in for a mild heart attack.

Hot Chip – “Ready For the Floor”
My first American Eagle soundtrack was, hands down, the best. “Ready For the Floor” was on that soundtrack, as well as “Kids,” “Summertime Clothes,” “Daylight,” and “The Reeling.” Fully half of my top ten list came from the same American Eagle mid-summer soundtrack. I had never heard of Hot Chip before working at American Eagle, but they’re now a staple in my iTunes. Plus, the video throws in references to Batman (think Tim Burton, Michael Keaton, and Jack Nicholson). Oh, Hot Chip. You know the way to my heart.


So there you are. The top ten songs I first heard thanks to American Eagle. The constant soundtrack was a love/hate kind of thing: I loved getting to listen to music all day, but after working ten six-hour shifts in a row, you’re ready to gouge your eardrums out if you hear Vampire Weekend one more damn time. So it’s probably better that there’s no library soundtrack… I’d hate to think what that would be, anyway.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

childhood obsessions: Candyland.

Surprise surprise, here’s another story about something I was obsessed with when I was a kid. This time, we’re talking Candyland.

I am indeed referring to the board game. Candyland is the first board game I can remember playing (if you don’t count Mickey Mouse Yahtzee and animal dominoes). For those of you who have no experience with Candyland, first of all, you don’t know what you’ve been missing. Second of all, allow me to explain the game.

Here's a board for reference. You can thank me later.
The object of Candyland is to be the first one to make it through the mythical world called (bet you didn’t see this coming) Candyland. Your goal is to beat all your friends to the end of the road: the King’s Candy Castle. Of course, there’s a cheesy back story to go with it: evil Lord Licorice somehow hid King Kandy and his Candy Castle, and now all of Candyland is sad.
What a dick.
So it's up to YOU to find the castle and make Candyland all happy and sugary again!

Of course, there are a number of obstacles between you and the Candy Castle. You could have the misfortune of getting lost in the Lollipop Woods, stuck in the Molasses Swamp, or tangled in the Gooey Gumdrops. If that should happen, you must languish there until you draw a card of the corresponding color to the area where you got stuck.

But how do you get from place to place in Candyland? Pure luck. The Candyland road is made up of little colorful squares, and you advance by drawing a card out of the pile. Each card has either a single colored square, a double colored square, or a little character card. If you draw a red card, you simply advance to the next red square. If you draw a double red card, you get to advance TWO red squares ahead.

(Fun fact: as I was tracking down pictures for this story, I came across a mathematical analysis of Candyland. Turns out that you can win in just four turns if you draw correctly: Queen Frostine, double purple, double purple, and purple. The things you can learn on the internet!)

The character cards can be a blessing or a curse. There are six special little Candyland characters, and they appear in this order on the board: Plumpy, Mr Mint, Jolly, Grandma Nutt, Princess Lolly, and Queen Frostine. So let’s say you’re just getting started in the game and you draw the Queen Frostine card. Score, right? She’s almost at the end! However, there’s always the danger that you can be two squares away from winning the game, and one wrong draw can send you back to the sugar plum gardens at the very beginning.
I wish I could tell you how much time I spent playing Candyland as a kid. The playing pieces were shaped like little gingerbread men, and I was always the red one. 
So cute!
I desperately hoped I’d get the Queen Frostine card on the first go. Being the good sport that I was, I would pout if someone else got Queen Frostine. Princess Lolly was ok in my book, but Queen Frostine was far and above my favorite Candyland character. 
Plus, she had ice cream.
I would actually carry the Queen Frostine card around with me – forgive me for stating the obvious, but I was the WEIRDEST kid. That card got pretty banged up, so it was usually pretty easy for me to pick it out of the pile of other cards – those remained clean, as they hadn’t been dragged around in my grubby little hands.

Much to my parents’ great happiness (as they were sick of playing Candyland with me), I eventually outgrew Candyland and Queen Frostine. I moved onto bigger and better games – games that did actually require a bit of skill. (Like Scattergories! But that’s a story for another time.) I outgrew, yes, but I didn’t forget. Several years ago, Mom decided to decorate the upstairs game room with board games: she was going to glue the pieces to the games and nail them to the walls. Mom found most of the games at garage sales, but she asked if she could use my old game for her project. I told her that she certainly could, but jokingly said that she might have to get me a new one. Guess who got Candyland for Christmas that year?

It’s been years since I’ve played Candyland, but my copy of the game is sitting in the cupboard. Maybe I need to play it just for old times’ sake. It probably won’t be quite as thrilling as it was when I was five, but it will certainly stir up some good memories. And maybe this time, I’ll try not to be such a sore loser if someone else gets the Queen Frostine card. No guarantees, though.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

summer jobs, part III: the Dairy Mart.

Last summer, I regaled you with stories of my first two summer jobs: Twisters and the Methodist camp. However, those were not the only summer jobs I held while in high school. (Those were just the crappiest, so I told you about them first.)

The summer between my junior and senior year of high school was spent working at the Methodist camp and lamenting to my friends about how much it sucked. My friend Meagan worked at the local ice cream shop: The Dairy Mart. Since I had two whole summers of experience at Twisters, Meagan offered to put in a good word for me.

There were definite benefits to a job at the Dairy Mart: first and foremost, it meant a cut in my availability, therefore less time I could spend working at the Methodist Camp. Second, I could work with Meagan, which would be completely awesome. Third, the Dairy Mart stayed open into October, giving me a source of income for an extra couple of months. And finally: tips, baby!

So Meagan told Julie – the owner of the Dairy Mart and, as it turns out, one of the best bosses I’ve ever had – about me and my previous ice cream experience, and I was hired without Julie ever having laid eyes on me. She called me up, told me I had the job, and gave me my first shift. That, my friends, is the beauty of a small town.

The Dairy Mart was a small building on the edge of town. It was covered in cow spots, and the inside sported a checkered floor and orange benches. There were cow figurines all over the place, and there was even a cow statue outside (that people – big and small – loved to ride).

I began my job in the middle of August, and the Dairy Mart was ALWAYS busy. Summer and ice cream go hand-in-hand, after all. I fit right into my new job (turns out that making ice cream cones is just like riding a bike: you never forget) and had a great time. I learned of all things Dairy Mart: I had their daily specials memorized in no time, and I learned to get there early so I wouldn’t get stuck with one of the crappy black polos (our uniforms were black polos that we changed into when we got to work, and some of them were pretty bad… hence getting there early for a good polo).

Summer was a lot of fun: the days flew by because they were so busy, and the customers were always cheerful since they had spent the day by the pool and were now treating themselves to ice cream. Though working during the summer at the Dairy Mart was great, I must say that working there during the fall was even better. My friend Meagan and I worked the closing shift together at least a couple of times per week because we were the only employees who were willing to work on nights when there were football games. Those nights were fairly slow (everyone was at the football game, of course), so Meagan and I had the run of the place. We would change the radio station to classic rock (otherwise, it was set to country all day – SHIVER), call in a few requests (we had more than one DJ dedicate a song to “the gals at the Dairy Mart”), and do our homework until the odd customer would wander in.

Speaking of odd customers, like every place of business, we had a handful of peculiar patrons. Fred would come in every single day in his teal and white pickup, and we always flipped a coin over who had to wait on him. Fred was crabby, and a terrible tipper. We Dairy Mart waitresses started competing over who could get the best tip out of Fred… no one topped 5%. Fred would always come in for lunch and get the same thing: a Mr Rib with half-cooked fries. If he was feeling really crazy, Fred would come back later in the afternoon for a sundae.

Our other odd regular was named Bruce. He didn’t come in as often as Fred, but once he was there, you knew he wasn’t going anywhere. Bruce would choose a table at the very back and really settle in. He brought a backpack everywhere he went, and he’d unload its contents on the table. There would be a toothbrush, some VHS tapes… you never knew what Bruce would pull out of his bag. Mostly, though, it would be piles and piles of scribbly paper. Bruce would take handfuls of napkins and proceed to write notes all over them until he decided it was time to leave. Bruce rarely ordered anything, but when he did, he paid in a mountain of coins.

By and large, the customers of the Dairy Mart were a pleasant bunch. They lived for the weekly specials and the sherbet flavors. The Dairy Mart made its own sherbet in all sorts of flavors, but the absolute best were the strawberry or raspberry cheesecake sherbet weeks. Those were the weeks I spent my tip money on pints of sherbet.

The Dairy Mart had the sherbet machine, plus the old classics vanilla and chocolate. However, there was another ice cream contraption at the Dairy Mart. It looked like a little control panel that attached to the vanilla ice cream side. It was called Flavor Burst, and it was super weird.
There were ten or so flavors you could choose from, and you would punch the corresponding number before you made the cone. The Flavor Burst machine would swirl some kind of super-bright flavoring syrup along the outside of the vanilla ice cream, and that was that. It was a huge pain in the butt, mostly because the flavors were either leaking or not working at all. The flavors were things like watermelon, bubble gum, and mocha. I was never brave enough to try any of the Flavor Burst flavors, save for green apple: I mixed it up with some caramel and had a caramel apple shake. YUM. (This was only one of many ice cream experiments I concocted while I worked there, but one of the very few in which I used vanilla ice cream – the others being the blueberry and black raspberry shakes. The rest of the time, it’s chocolate or nothing.)

We Dairy Mart employees were lucky enough to get a four dollar food allowance for each shift we worked at the Dairy Mart. Four dollars may not sound like a lot to you, but food at the Dairy Mart wasn’t expensive. Your four dollars could get you a long way. I tended to go for the footlong, small fries, and small Coke… if memory serves me correctly, that rang in at about $3.75. Another favorite was called the senior chicken strip basket: there were two chicken strips instead of four (as in the regular basket), and it was cheaper. The weekly specials were usually under four dollars, so there were plenty of choices.

During my first year there, the Dairy Mart closed for the season on Halloween. Meagan and I worked the night before Halloween, and we got the go-ahead to ditch our black polos and wear a costume to work. I think I’ve said this before, but you can tell a lot about your workplace by the way they treat Halloween.
Meagan worked on Halloween day,
so she got to don the cow suit.
I went back to work at the Dairy Mart during the summer after my freshman year, but that would be my last Dairy Mart summer. The owners of the local grocery store purchased the Dairy Mart that fall: not that they wanted the Dairy Mart. They wanted the land upon which the Dairy Mart sat. In their contract was a clause stating that the Dairy Mart must be kept open for two years after the purchase date. The new owners tore the original Dairy Mart down, built a new one that attached to their new grocery store, and kept it open for exactly two years. Sadly, the Dairy Mart is now a hardware store.

I don’t spend much time in Arlington anymore, but whenever I’m there in the summer, I really miss the Dairy Mart. As soon as the Dairy Mart opened up for the summer (usually in time for my April birthday – score!), we’d all truck over there for the first ice cream cone of the season. My friend Tiffany and I celebrated the completion of our ACTs with Dairy Mart sherbet. I spent countless hours (on and off the clock) with my friends there… writing a horror movie script with Bob, studying for advanced biology with half the class, introducing Hipster Boyfriend to the Dairy Mart that I loved so dearly (predictably, he was unimpressed). And I have to say, not everyone is lucky enough to have a good boss, especially in high school. Julie was fine with us doing our homework when the going was slow, and not everybody provides a meal for their employees. Her husband even helped me break into my car when I locked my keys inside. Not everybody will do that for a lowly soda jerk.

I haven’t worked in food service since college (a coffee shop in Morris – another story for later!), and it’s just as well. Food service jobs kind of make me fat. As I’m writing this, I can’t stop thinking about Dairy Mart sherbet and cheese curds and footlongs. There are definitely some things about food service that I won’t miss (the horrible grease smell comes immediately to mind), but I do miss it a little. Though my food service days ended in Morris, my post-college jobs have all been in customer service… and let me tell you, non food-service customer service is a totally different ball game. On the whole, the Dairy Mart customers were easy to please. After all, if someone set a hot fudge sundae in front of you, how could you NOT be friendly?