Wednesday, January 30, 2013

that one time I tried to cook.

Once upon three years ago, I moved to Minneapolis.
For the first few (“few” = eight) pitiful months I lived in Minneapolis, I couldn’t wine and dine my way through the Twin Cities because of my acute lack of money. I worked two part-time jobs and had one unpaid 20-hour-a-week internship, so my schedule was packed to the brim. A couple of months after my internship ended (and a couple of months of searching unsuccessfully for a full-time job), one of my part-time jobs promoted me to full-time and I was (finally) making more than minimum wage. (!!!) These newly found riches (ha) allowed me to branch out from my diet of eggs and pasta (read: cheap things) and start going to restaurants. Life was good!

A number of my friends and relatives lived in/around Minneapolis as well, so it was always a pleasure to get together with someone (or a group of someones) for dinner. If you’re familiar with the Twin Cities, you know that the dining options are practically endless. Whatever culinary treat your little heart desires, chances are Minneapolis has it for you.
I can almost hear the restaurants calling out to me.
One of my frequent dining companions was a college friend named Haakon, who worked just a few miles away from me. We’d get together every couple of weeks for dinner, and there would always be wine and good conversation.

One spring day, Haakon and I made plans to get together, which brought up the inevitable question: where should we eat? Haakon – ever a fountain of helpful suggestions – said, “Well, why don’t you cook?”

Friends: I don’t cook. I just don’t. It’s not that I’m particularly bad at it… it’s just that I’m lazy and have no interest in trying. I am a breakfast food master (you want good waffles? come to me), and I can make boxed macaroni and cheese like a boss (not to brag, but I’m also really good at boxed cakes), but you won’t find me messing with such scary things as fresh vegetables and raw meat.

I was fortunate enough to snare a husband-to-be who DOES like to cook. James has been known to whip up steaks and shrimp and pastas with homemade sauces (aka, not powder from a packet, which is as far as I’ll venture). I eat like a king (or queen, I guess) whenever James is in charge of cooking, and he once died of happiness because I made him a grilled cheese sandwich. I’m pretty sure James is getting the bum end of the deal in this impending marriage, but he hasn’t figured it out yet, so how about if nobody tells him?

Anyway, back to Haakon and the dinner. I hemmed and hawed and spluttered, but Haakon (himself prone to whipping up delightful meals) insisted. Haakon does not take no for an answer.

I panicked and called James, who was living four-ish hours away in Ellsworth, Minnesota. After a bit of whining about how I never cook for him (why on earth would I since he’s so much better at it?!), James agreed to help me out. He suggested chicken with mustard cream sauce: a meal he’d made for me a number of times, and it was consistently delicious. James gave me the recipe and assured me that I’d be fine.

I had something like three days to prepare this meal, and I spent all three days either a.) complaining about it to anyone who would listen, b.) fretting that I was going to embarrass myself with a terrible meal, or c.) hoping to God that I didn’t accidentally give Haakon food poisoning. I made about a zillion trips to the grocery store (including a special outing for a meat thermometer) until it was time for me to actually cook something.

The chicken – according to James and probably everyone else who has ever cooked anything – was apparently simple:

four boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
two tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine (chardonnay)
1/2 cup heavy cream
two tablespoons dijon mustard
one teaspoon dried basil

1.) Sprinkle chicken breasts with salt and pepper.
2.) In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat.
3.) Add chicken; sautee until cooked through (10-12 minutes), turning once.
4.) Transfer to a plate and keep warm.
5.) Pour wine into the hot skillet; cook - stirring until reduced by half (about one minute).
6.) Whisk in cream, mustard, and basil; cook - whisking until thickened (about two minutes).
7.) Pour any accumulated chicken juices from the plate into the sauce.
8.) Right before serving, drizzle cream sauce over chicken.

But for a novice like me, I didn’t want to take any chances. Everything else was packaged: Crescent rolls, instant mashed potatoes (surprisingly tasty!), and a salad kit. One made-from-scratch thing was more than enough for me.

Haakon arrived just in time to find me waving smoke out of the kitchen. No worries: I didn’t burn the place down, nor did I scorch the chicken into oblivion (I called it “blackened”). The meal turned out surprisingly well (aside from the crappy clearance-aisle mini-brownies, but who could’ve seen that coming?). My chicken wasn’t as good as James’s, but luckily for me, Haakon had never tried James’s chicken. Whew. Best of all? Nobody got food poisoning!
I did not make the chicken in this picture,
but it looks an awful lot like the chicken
I did make. Minus the blackening.
With my moderate success at cooking raw meat, you may be wondering if the world of cooking was opened up to me. Did I realize my unfulfilled culinary potential? Have I been cooking complicated yet scrumptious meals ever since? Hell no, I haven’t! That meal just reinforced my belief that cooking kind of sucks and is better left to those who enjoy it. Will I ever learn? I’ll never say never, but don’t hold your breath!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

adventures in Brookings: the Geek Shoppe edition.

As I’ve told you again and again, Brookings was the number one destination of my youth. Dentist appointment? Go to Brookings. Visiting Grandma Lorraine? Go to Brookings. School supplies? Go to Brookings.

Once I got my driver’s license, even more of my time was spent in Brookings. When my friend Allison and I were looking for something to do on a slow Saturday, we’d hop in my crappy car or her crappy car and head southeast. Compared to Arlington, Brookings was chock-full of entertainment choices. Our favorite spot was a store we lovingly called the Geek Shoppe.

The Geek Shoppe has been in its spot in downtown Brookings for as long as I can remember. It’s half pet supply store, half hobby shop: you can buy turtle food and replica Lord of the Rings swords all in one stop.

When you walk in the Geek Shoppe, you’ll immediately notice the smell. It’s a smell unlike any other: a distinctive bouquet of live fish and unshowered high school boys. You’ll get used to it.

The other thing you’ll notice is the sheer volume of stuff. The Geek Shoppe is a one-level store, but it’s split into two parts via a couple of steps. The ground floor, if you will, is packed full of shelving and fishtanks. Back when I used to go to the Geek Shoppe, the whole left side was filled with board games and t-shirts, the middle had shelves full of pet supplies, and the right was part fish, part cash register, and part ads for free cockatiels. If you were to go up the steps to the raised area, you’d find the replica weapons, books/comic books, and a table full of teenagers playing Dungeons and Dragons.

At this point, you’re probably wondering if I am a closet Dungeons and Dragons player, or if I collect comic books and keep my glasses held together with tape. But no: I’ve never bought a comic book, and I don’t even know what the goal of Dungeons and Dragons is. So if I don’t care about any of that stuff, what drew me to the Geek Shoppe? Two things: the fish and the owner.

The Geek Shoppe had the best fish. While their tanks were scummy, the fish inside were all sorts of crazy shapes and colors. There were tiny crabs and neon snails that could also come home with you. I never bought a fish at the Geek Shoppe, but Allison sure did: she named them Napoleon and Spartacus, and they lived long goldfish lives.

The pride and joy of the Geek Shoppe was a three-foot-long pacu (vegetarian piranha) named Milo. 
This is not Milo himself, but this is the same look he'd
give you if you stopped by his tank.
Milo would blink at you plaintively if you stopped by his enormous tank, and if you came at the right time of day, the owner would let you feed Milo his bananas and blueberries. Allison and I first started going to the Geek Shoppe in the very early 2000s, and Milo was a fixture. Sadly, just this summer, my cousins and I stopped in the Geek Shoppe for old times’ sake and noticed that Milo’s tank sat empty. My cousin Monica – never afraid to ask questions – approached the owner and asked where Milo was. Of course, poor Milo had gone to the big fishtank in the sky.

So now let’s talk about the aforementioned owner of the Geek Shoppe. Allison and I didn’t learn his name for many years, so we always called him “Mr Geek.” Mr Geek was the epitome of a hobby shop owner: he had a calculator watch, for crying out loud. But let me tell you: he was the friendliest guy. He would overhear Allison’s and my conversations and would giggle from behind the counter. We were a different breed, after all: he was used to the not-at-all-chatty Dungeonmasters who occupied the back half of his store.

During our sophomore year, Allison and I had a science teacher who kept an aquarium in her classroom. For reasons unknown, all of our teacher’s fish had kicked the bucket. As we stared into the Geek Shoppe’s fishtanks, Allison noticed some suckerfish. "Weren't the fish that just died suckerfish?” she said. “We should get some for our teacher because she's dead... I mean, the fish are dead, not her." Mr Geek about busted a gut. Our conversation turned to Oscars: “Didn't our old science teacher have an Oscar?” I wondered aloud. Mr. Geek, ever the fountain of knowledge, said, "If he was orange and black and had a big mouth, he was an Oscar." 
In case you were curious.
I added, "His name was Oscar the Oscar. Very creative.” If memory serves me correctly, this comment actually had Mr Geek doubled over the counter. Our comments weren’t really that funny, but for the humor-starved, we were hilarious.

Looking back, I do feel kind of bad that I never really bought anything at the Geek Shoppe. I know I bought some kind of sculpture for Allison’s fishtank, and I may have bought some kind of weird peach soda. Shamefully, just last April, I missed a golden opportunity to patronize the Geek Shoppe. It was the night before my 25th birthday, and James and I had gone to Brookings to have early birthday Pizza King with my parents. As we were walking back to our car, I spotted a giant stuffed dinosaur in the window of a doll/dress shop. It was AWESOME and I HAD TO HAVE IT. Of course, the store was closed, but we called the next day and bought it over the phone. Yes: I bought myself a stuffed T-rex for my 25th birthday.
My mom was willing to pick it up for me after she got done with work. The store closed before Mom would be able to get there, so the shop owner – Mr Geek’s mother! – sent it to the Geek Shoppe right across the street. Mom went to pick the dinosaur up there, and Mr Geek had one just like it in his store! That’s what I get for not shopping around.

Should you ever be in Brookings and in need of some dragon figurines – or simply to kill time – I’d highly recommend you stop by the Geek Shoppe. It’s an experience like no other, I assure you. Say hi to the fish for me.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

school bus stories.

I grew up in the country: not “boondocks cut off from all communication have to make my own clothes out of deer hide” country, but “gravel roads fifteen miles from a grocery store start driving tractors when you’re six” country. Like anywhere, it had its pros and its cons: I loved having a giant (or, what seemed giant at the time) backyard forest to play in, and I loved exploring the sloughs and catching salamanders. The cons were relatively minor: I was much more likely to get ticks, and my chores sometimes involved picking rocks out of fields. There was one con, though, that overshadowed them all: the school bus.
Though it is a stock photo, this bus has South Dakota plates.
Really adds to the story, wouldn't you say?
In the early years of my academic career, riding the bus was actually kind of fun. If you’re five years old and your parents deem you responsible enough to ride the bus by yourself, it’s a pretty big deal. I remember my very first day of school: my mom offered to give me a ride, but I said no: big, important kindergarteners (like me) rode the bus. I’m sure she was impressed.

It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off. Turns out the school bus is smelly, loud, and a terribly bouncy ride (thankfully, I’ve never been one for carsickness). From kindergarten until the time we moved (eighth grade), our bus driver was our next door neighbor. What sounds awfully convenient ended up being a total curse: after the bus driver’s own kids, my siblings and I were the first ones on in the morning and the last ones off at night. Our ride was usually not more than an hour each way, but an hour on a school bus is an awfully long hour.

Every once in a while, my friend Sarah would ride the bus. Those days were the greatest: she was the only one of my friends who lived on my bus route, and Sarah usually rode in with her mom (who worked in Arlington). When Sarah rode the bus, I FINALLY had someone to talk to. Without Sarah, I had to try to drown out the screeching of my busmates either by extreme concentration on my chapter books or with my bright yellow faux-Walkman in which I played the Lion King soundtrack tape on repeat. (That was foiled, though, when the bus driver scolded me for my music being too loud. Well, how ELSE am I supposed to hear “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” over the squealing of my fellow elementary schoolers?) Sarah’s bus days were few and far between, so the only thing I really remember about her riding the bus was the time she whacked a sixth grader with my pink Mickey and Minnie Mouse lunchbox. 
YOU GUYS this is totally the lunchbox I had! Google
Images is the best thing ever.
The handle broke and my dad had to replace the missing pink plastic gadget with an old farm screw that didn’t quite go with the princessy theme.

Getting on the bus in the morning was rarely anything to worry about since there was always a parent around to make sure we dragged our lazy selves out of bed on time. Making the bus after school could be a different story. We got out of school at 3.15, and the buses tended to leave at 3.20 if they could. I was usually pretty good at getting to the bus in the milder months, but in winter, it was a challenge – especially when the teacher won’t let you out of the room until your snowpants and boots are on. If I missed the bus, I would retreat to my friend Allison’s house and wait patiently for my mom to pick me up after work. (I missed the bus accidentally-on-purpose on more than one occasion so I could do just that. Mom wasn’t pleased.)

In South Dakota, you can get your learner’s permit at 14 – since most of us have been driving tractors since we were tall enough to reach the pedals, we might as well be driving cars, right? By that time, I was the oldest kid on the bus, and I had been for some time. The kid closest to my age on the bus was my sister Darrah… almost FOUR YEARS younger than me. Riding the bus was the mark of the uncool, and I thought my shiny new learner’s permit (and shiny new-to-me 1987 Buick Park Avenue) would be my salvation. Not so fast, came the word from my parents. If I wanted to drive to school and back every day – about a 30-mile round-trip – I’d better be prepared to pay for the gas. I had worked all summer at Twisters, but of course, I’d squandered every last cent. My only income was my weekly allowance, and that certainly wasn’t going to fill my tank. I was a little worried that I’d NEVER get to use my new driving skills when my parents told me not to fret: I would, in fact, be driving on their dime. I could drive to school on 1.) Wednesdays for confirmation, and 2.) Tuesdays and Thursdays when I needed to take my younger siblings to Brookings for Tae Kwon Do.

For a glorious year and a half, I only rode the bus on Mondays and Fridays (except for that month in ninth grade when my license was suspended, but that’s another story). When I got confirmed in October of my sophomore year, I no longer needed to stay after school for confirmation, so I was back to riding the bus on Wednesdays. Aside from the odd oral interp meet or honor band (what a dork, I know), there was no way out of riding the bus.

For the rest of my sophomore year and all through my junior year, I whined to my parents about how I was the OLDEST kid on the bus and NO HIGH SCHOOLER WITH ANY SELF RESPECT WOULD BE CAUGHT DEAD RIDING THE BUS. My father had no pity: “I rode the bus until I was a senior in high school! When I was in college, all I had was a Schwinn! I RODE MY SCHWINN THROUGH THE SNOW!” Skunked again.

My salvation came in the form of a little blue coupe. In the summer after my junior year, I used my hard-earned Methodist camp money to buy a little Ford ZX2 stick-shift named Susie. 
Not actually Susie, but a snappy stand-in.
Man, do I miss that car.
I also dove headfirst into activities: I was in oral interp, band, choir, the all-school play, National Honor Society, and the one-act play, plus I taught Sunday School and was in advanced biology (which practically required a couple evenings a week set aside for studying terms). Rare was the day when I didn’t have something going on after school. Since Susie was impossibly cheap to drive (four cylinders and a five-speed manual transmission = CHEAP) and my schedule was hectic, I was given the go-ahead to drive to school every day. My school bus days were finally over.

I have ridden buses in years since – I suffered through several band bus trips in college, including a 20+ ride to New Orleans, and my experiences on the Denver city bus over one summer are a story all their own. For now, let’s hope that my bus-riding days are permanently behind me: I’ve clocked enough time and smelled enough eau-de-public-transportation to last me a lifetime.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

bad hair stories.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that there are some terribly simple things that I have a really difficult time learning how to do. I haven’t been able to master the fine art of whistling, nor have I figured out how to properly parallel park. But this story isn’t about those particular life failures: it’s about how, after almost 26 years, I am still really REALLY bad at my hair.

I’m not bad at it as in I forget to wash it or I have debilitating dandruff. I am bad at in in two ways: 1.) a total inability to make it look nice, and 2.) a number of hair-related mishaps I’ve dealt with over the past couple of decades.

Let me begin with my total hair-styling ineptitude. I have never, EVER, in all my life, been able to do anything with my hair. I can brush it, and I can straighten it, but that’s about where it ends. On the bright side, this made me immune to embarrassing hair trends: I never had stacked bangs, nor could I clip my hair back with zillions of plastic clips shaped like butterflies (remember those?). My friends, I couldn’t even master the ponytail: in elementary school, the only respectable ponytail was one in which your hair was completely slicked back and smooth. It better not have any bumps in it, or you’d have to start over. I couldn’t do it.
I could barely master these bangs, for crying out loud.
Armed with the knowledge of my lack of hair skills, I chose my haircuts accordingly. While I longed for the gorgeous layered haircuts that were big in the mid-90s, I knew that to achieve such style, I’d be forced to spend time with the curling iron. No thanks.

When I was a groomsmaid in my friend Bob’s wedding, we were given free reign with our hair. This pleased most of the groomsmaids – no salon, hooray! – but it struck fear in my hair-stylingly challenged heart. This was my dear friend’s wedding, so I had to look presentable. I toyed with the idea of forking out the money for an up-do at a salon, but let me tell you, those don’t come cheap. I ended up getting up extra early, curling my hair, and hairspraying it into submission. And how did it turn out? I’d rate it a “meh.”
I don’t think it’s all me: my hair is a bit on the uncooperative side. My hair has an issue for every season, so there’s really no reprieve. Springtime rains bring an inordinate amount of frizz. My hair is very thick, so summer heat is pretty rough – and you can totally forget about me making any sort of effort with hair tools that use heat (aka, all of them). Fall, while it is my favorite season, dulls whatever color the sun gave my hair during the summer (more on that later). Wintertime is the absolute worst. I am an excellent conductor of static electricity, so I spent November through March with my hair standing on end. If I had a dollar every time I threatened to cut it all off… well, I’d probably have a lot of dollars.

My nonexistent hair-styling prowess is one thing, but I also have a handful of hair catastrophes under my belt. The first disaster I can remember was in first grade: there was an outbreak of lice, and I was one of the unfortunate victims. I had to take half a day off and get my hair washed with lice shampoo, and I was MAD: not mad because of the lice or the nasty shampoo, but because I had to miss half a day of school. It was toward the end of the school year, and I was on my way to perfect attendance (you got a medal!), but then the lice ruined it all.

The next hair failure was in the seventh grade. I was twelve, and I had braces and round John Lennon glasses: a grade-A nerd. And what did I decide to do? I made it worse with a perm. Glasses plus braces plus crazy hair: it was a dork triumvirate.

I had always wanted curly hair (I was always jealous of my friend Sarah’s curly hair), and a perm seemed like a great idea. I could forever bid farewell to the curling iron, as I’d simply roll out of bed in the morning, perfectly coiffed – or so went my perm fantasy.

I have the incredible good fortune to have an aunt (Barb) who is a stylist, and she agreed to give me a perm. Barb executed said perm perfectly, but after all the chemicals had been rinsed out of my hair, I found out that my perm expectations differed vastly from what a real perm actually looked like.
My perm days were ridiculous. I had to mousse the bejeezus out of it every morning for fear of spending the rest of the day with a fuzzy mess of a perm. Due to the sheer volume of mousse it took to keep my hair under control, my hair was crunchy and so moussed that it looked wet. All day. If I had stood too close to a flame, we may have had another Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial on our hands. Too soon?

Growing out my perm was quite an ordeal, too. I knew that once was enough, so there would be no touch-ups for me. I think it took close to a year for the perm to have completely exited my tresses, and if you’ve ever tried to grow out a perm, you know what a pain it is.
Horrible. Just horrible.
I managed to stay mostly unscathed throughout the rest high school and most of college, mostly because I placed my hair trust in Barb. Thanks to her, I had nice hair for two proms and a wedding, not to mention some enviable lowlights and low-maintenance layers. Sadly, all good things must end.

It was the spring semester of my junior year of college, and I was ready for a change. I headed to downtown Morris (fancy, I know – especially considering downtown Morris doesn’t hold much more than a skeezy mall and a few antique stores). I wanted something above my shoulders with a few layers, pretty simple. My stylist was a totally apathetic, extremely pregnant woman who gave the impression that she’d really rather be somewhere else. She gave me a quick haircut and sent me on my way, not showing me the back of my hair or asking if I liked what I saw. I didn’t think much of it… until I got home and my roommate asked, in a certain “how do I tell her that her haircut sucks?” kind of voice, what I thought of my haircut. Until then, I hadn’t examined the back: it appeared as if she had cut a big chunk out, but not bothered to fix it. The back of my hair looked like a fishtail. GREAT.

By this time, all the Morris salons had closed. My only hope was to drive to Alexandria: at 45 miles away, it was the nearest city with any hope of a salon that stayed open past 5 o’clock. I high-tailed it to make it there by 8.30, only to find that all the salons had closed early (even though they had told me 9pm on the phone! Curses!). Defeated, I went home, slept on my fishtail hair, and got up early the next day to get a haircut at a different Morris salon. When I got there, the stylist said, “What HAPPENED to you?!” Thankfully, she was able to fix it – and my hair has never been shorter.
Don't ask about the faces. It was finals week.
My latest and greatest hair fiasco was only about two years ago. It was October, and I was living in the cities. James had come to visit me for the weekend, and I had the bright idea to dye my hair. The ends of my hair were still sunshiny blond from the summer, while my roots were more ashy. I had never dyed my hair before, but how hard could it be? People did box dyes all the time! All I wanted to do was even out the color, which I assumed would be easy as pie.

I don’t know if it was the cheap hair dye or if I’m just an idiot, but my hair didn’t turn out as planned. Specifically: it was orange. Nasty, brassy, “obviously I just dyed my hair and dyed it poorly” orange. Luckily, it was a Friday night, so I didn’t have to go to work the next day with my hair in this horrible state. Unluckily, it was a Friday night, so almost all of the hair salons we frantically called were booked up for the next day. Mercifully, we found one that wasn’t: Fantastic Sam’s.

I woke up the next morning, wondering if I had dreamed that I’d dyed my hair. Looking in the mirror told me that it was no dream, so off to Fantastic Sam’s we went. When I walked in the door, the colorist knew immediately what I had done: “I see this all the time” were her exact words. I picked out a shade that looked mostly like my natural color, and she dyed away. It came out a little darker than normal and was a definite blow to the old pocketbook, but nobody noticed that my hair was a different color: a success in my book.

Since then, I’ve been able to avoid any major catastrophes, mostly because I’ve avoided any sort of major hair change. I’m getting married in less than seven months, so I’m more or less leaving my hair alone until then: therefore, it’s longer than it’s ever been and driving me nuts. I’ve noticed that quite a few brides chop off their hair post-wedding, so I may have another hair story to tell this summer. Wish me luck in the meantime.