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.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

the scary series: PE.

Welcome to the next installment of my real-life scary stories. My next topic is about something that doesn’t scare everyone, but it sunk dread into my heart every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from kindergarten until 8th grade. That’s right: PE.

As a kid, I loved to run around in the woods behind our house, and I loved to play with the dog and ride my bike. I loved to explore and go on walks, and playgrounds were heaven. You know what I didn’t love? Structured exercise. I didn’t like being told when I couldn’t run and when I couldn’t, and I didn’t like being told what games I had to play. I especially didn’t love the competition – I have always been a competitive person, but only when it’s something that I know I can win. PE was not something I could win. EVER.

Now, don’t get me wrong: as an adult, I realize that PE is an essential part of a school day, especially for the younger kids. They need to get out and run around, and everybody could use some exercise. I’m sure the whole experience was good for me… but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.

I doubt that I started off with such a bad opinion of PE. When you’re in kindergarten, all you do is play “Wide Wide River.” Remember that game? One kid stands in the middle of the gym (or playground), and the rest of the kids yell, “Calla, Calla, may we cross your wide, wide, river?” Then the kid in the middle chooses who can cross: everyone wearing purple, everyone with a ponytail, etc. Then, everybody from the selected group tries to run to the other side of the gym/playground without getting tagged by the kid in the middle. If they get tagged, then they have to start tagging, and they stand in the middle with the original kid. This goes on and on until everybody is in the middle. Game over.

I’m fairly certain that what turned me against PE was all the running. I didn’t mind the games, but the running was just something else. Every day at the beginning of PE, we’d sit in our spots (we had assigned spots on certain lines on the gym floor) and do our warm-ups. We’d do some stretches, some sit-ups, and some push-ups… and then we’d run laps. I’ve always been more of a sprinter, so this sustained running was not up my alley. I would lag way behind, more out of spite than anything else.

In addition to those accursed laps, there was another running activity we did called the Journey. We only did this on days when PE was outside, as the school playground was an essential part of the Journey. You had to take off running from the school doors and make your way through the playground-turned-obstacle course. You weaved through the tire swings, slid down the roller slide, hopscotched over to and then ran through the sandbox, snaked through the jungle gym, and whacked the tetherball a few times before class actually began.

Outdoor PE really wasn’t that bad: after the Journey, we either played flag football (fall), kickball, or softball (spring). The only one of these I was remotely good at was kickball, as it’s about the simplest thing ever. All you have to do is kick a ball and run. No problem. Flag football didn’t especially interest me, and I was (and probably still am) terrible at softball. I blame it on a lack of hand-eye coordination.

Of course, a major part of PE was dodgeball. We played with little foam balls, so there was little to no chance of injury. There was one day of dodgeball where we decided to try playing with the big rubber kickballs, which ended up being the day I got hit in the face and broke my glasses. (Believe it or not, that was the one and only time that I’ve broken my glasses. And yes, I had to go around with tape on them that day.)

We tried a little bit of everything in PE: soccer, jump roping, crab-walking in the wrestling room (yes, really), four-square, you name it. I have never been a big participant in competitive sports, so none of these held my interest (especially basketball, which I STILL don’t understand). However, there was one sport that I truly did enjoy: field hockey. We played hockey about once a year (what a shame!), but I looked forward to hockey day like no other. Believe it or not, I was good at field hockey. I was fast and nimble, and I was a good aim with a puck. I may have missed my calling as a field hockey player.

While I was good at field hockey, I was fairly terrible at everything else. I could usually get away with it because we never spent more than a week here and there with each particular sport… until junior high. From about November to February, the PE classes were split into boys and girls. During that whole time, the boys did nothing but play basketball, and the girls did nothing but play volleyball. I went through the rotation in seventh grade volleyball; I had a jersey and went to the required games. However, when you’re a twelve-year-old girl who doesn’t particularly like something, you’re not going to try all that hard at it. When volleyball season came around the following year, I requested to be the stat keeper. I still had to play in gym class, but instead of playing in the games, I’d keep score instead. Not surprisingly, the volleyball coach had no problem with that.

So we’ve established that I didn’t particularly like PE (save for field hockey). However, there were two things that especially soured PE for me: Presidential Fitness and picking teams.
Boo.
In order to split us into teams, the PE teacher would usually line us up and give us numbers: they could be ones and twos, they could be one through four, but we never really knew how we would be divided up. (He did this so we weren’t always clumping together with our friends). This was the one and only way teams were chosen for years. But one day, the PE teacher chose two team captains and informed them that they were to pick their teams. You guessed it: I was picked last. Every single time we picked teams this way, I was one of the last (if not THE last) to be chosen (unless one of my friends was a team captain and they took pity on me). Even though I was a lousy athlete and knew it, it was still a blow to the ego to be chosen last all the time.

Presidential Fitness came around once a year, and we spent the whole week doing all sorts of fitness tests. The tests themselves weren’t that bad – the bad part was that you did them with everyone watching. You had to do as many sit-ups and push-ups as you could in a minute, stretch as far as you could on a ruler placed at the base of your feet (I could barely reach the ruler) and do as many ten-foot sprints as you could in a minute (these we did two at a time in alphabetical order, and all the kids at the beginning of the alphabet were super athletic – except for me. So I was always paired with someone super fast, and it was a tad bit embarrassing).

Worst of all were the chin-ups. We had to hang from a chin-up bar and do as many chin-ups as we could, and EVERYONE stood around staring at you. I have the upper-body strength of a kitten, so chin-ups were never successful for me. I flailed around a bit and then dangled until my time was up. (I did manage to do one chin-up one time, but that was a fluke). Needless to say, I never won any Presidential Fitness awards.

I muddled through PE with no real light at the end of the tunnel… until fifth grade. What was so different about fifth grade? Band lessons, that’s what. We started band at the beginning of fifth grade, and up through junior high, band lessons were required – and I thanked my lucky stars. They were once a week and fifteen minutes long, and we had to find time within one of our classes to go. I, of course, chose PE time.

Every Monday, I left PE a solid twenty minutes before my band lesson was about to begin. After all, I had to change out of my gym clothes, make my way to the band room, put together my clarinet, find my music, and warm up… and I made sure it took twenty minutes for all that. The band lesson itself was always right on schedule, but I took an additional twenty minutes getting back – after all, you need to disassemble your clarinet, clean out the spit (gross, but essential), put away your music, get back to the gym, and change back into your clothes. If I timed it right, I’d be strolling back into PE around the same time my classmates were being dismissed to the locker room. Mondays were the best.

Except for four months of straight volleyball, PE in junior high was way better than PE in elementary school. Gone were the days of Presidential Fitness and everyone staring you down as you struggled on the chin-up bar. Junior high PE wasn’t much more than kickball and the occasional sprint. PE was on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with study halls on Tuesdays and Thursdays – and it wasn’t hard to talk the gym teacher (who, in junior high, was never the actual gym teacher but one of our regular teachers who happened to have a free period at the end of the day) into another study hall in lieu of PE. It helped that most of my junior high PE class wasn’t terribly sporty, either.

Once you entered high school, PE was no longer a requirement. At the end of eighth grade, I joyfully bid PE farewell. High school allowed you to arrange your own schedule, so the lack of PE meant that I could use my time for something I was more interested in, like art or FACS (yep, Family and Consumer Science – ANYTHING but PE). I also managed to choose a college where there was no PE requirement – there was a performing arts requirement (hellooooo, band!), but nobody was going to make you take gym.

It’s been almost thirteen years since I was last in a PE class, and I still cringe when I think about the chin-up bar and choosing teams. Like so many of my sucky experiences, I have to remind myself that it’s a good thing that they happened. After all, if they hadn’t, then what would I tell you about on this blog?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

the scary series: ghosts.

This week’s real-life scary is about something scary you’d normally associate with Halloween. We’re talking ghosts.
Not this kind.
When I say real-life, I’m not saying that I’ve had actual encounters with ghosts or that I even think they’re real. However, all it takes is a spooky story and some mysterious noises to trick my dumb brain into thinking there’s something out there. To put it simply: I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them.

That’s not to say that I didn’t once believe in them. Remember how, when I was a kid, I was completely enthralled with the supernatural? I would come home from the library with an armful of books about banshees, chupacabras, aliens, and urban legends. I managed to read all these books and somehow NOT have nightmares – at the time, we lived in a rather small farmhouse, and I figured that there just wasn’t room for anything creepy. As a child, I was never scared of monsters under my bed – instead, I was scared of spiders and of the house burning down (thanks to a traumatizing video I watched at Safety Town).

Ghosts tended to be my topic of choice. There was something very interesting to me about someone’s spirit hanging around on earth. You’d think they would have better things to do.

I read every ghost book I could get my hands on. While I loved a tried-and-true ghost story, my favorites were the books that claimed to be true. My Grandma Lorraine had been an elementary school teacher, so she had a treasure trove of old ghost stories. The library (as always) was an excellent source, and I could occasionally talk my parents into buying me a ghost story book from the book orders they’d hand out at school.

Remember book orders? They were these colorful booklets on thin magazine paper, and you’d have to fill out this long strip of paper on the back and turn it in. Then, you’d wait in eager anticipation for your book to arrive and for your teacher to hand it out. That same strip of paper would be tucked inside, and that’s how you knew it was yours. I always did my best to choose books that I was a.) interested in, and b.) came with a toy. I remember getting rubber aliens, fake blood, and some green slime.

Some of my favorite ghost books came from these book orders. That’s where I was able to get collections of “true” stories: I remember ordering one specifically about haunted schools and another about ghostly pets. The ghost pets really got to me – I’ve always had a soft spot for animals, and the pet ghost stories were all about dogs who died saving their owners lives but came back in spirit to show they were ok, or cats that died but came back as a cat-ghost to comfort their former owner when it was needed. I only read the ghost pet book at home in my room because – without fail – it turned me into a blubbering mess. I bet if I read it again, it still would.

Most of my ghost stories were less comforting and more creepy. They were the kinds that you’d tell around campfires with a flashlight… or that’s what I assume. My only campfires growing up were with my parents or at a church camp, so no ghost stories there. Just jokes (parents) and stories about finding Jesus (church camp).  I did tell scary stories at sleepovers with my cousins and friends, so don’t worry: I didn’t miss out on sleepless nights with friends, scaring the bejeezus out of each other.

My friend Allison lived right in Arlington, and when I would go over to her house for sleepovers, we’d spend a good portion of our night wandering around town and talking about local lore. She would point out the houses that she’d heard were haunted (including a former funeral home and a house in which a murder was committed in the 1800s), and I’d listen with wide eyes.

Allison also informed me that her house was likely haunted. She had seen clocks run backwards and had heard weird noises when no one else was home. I, of course, wanted to experience this ghost for myself, but nothing ever seemed to happen when I was around… except for one night. It was late when we finally decided to go to bed, and it was pitch black. We were both dozing off when suddenly, the room flooded with light. It was a brief flash, but it was as light as day. I thought for a moment that I had simply been dreaming, but after a moment, I heard a cautious “…did you see that?” Allison had also witnessed the burst of light, so it was no dream. Both of us were totally convinced that it was the ghost. In reality, it could’ve been just about anything – car headlights, lightning (even though there was no storm that night… heat lightning, maybe?), but that night, you couldn’t have told us that it was anything but a ghost.

As I grew older, my interest in ghosts waned, but it never completely disappeared. Even as I entered the “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’m afraid of them” mindset, I was always up for a good ghost story – how you swear you saw an ethereal figure strolling across your lawn, or how doors slam in your house when there’s no one home. Bring ‘em on – I love those stories.

That is, unless I have to stay in the ghost house after you tell me your ghost stories.

Many years ago, when I first started dating James, he and I went to visit his parents. His parents’ house was a few hours away from our college, so we planned to spend the night. On the way there, James started telling me stories about how he was pretty sure that his parents’ house was haunted. Apparently, every member of his family has reported hearing strange noises in the middle of the night, and both James one of his brothers say that they’ve heard empty beds creaking in their spare room. A couple of them have even seen a shadowy figure wandering about and/or sitting in their rocking chair.

So I’m learning about all this as I’m going to spend the night there. I don’t think I slept at all that night, as I was too busy listening for ghosts. I could’ve sworn I heard ghostly clattering in the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning, but James informed me that it was probably his dad. Whew. No ghosts.

Whenever I stayed with James’s parents, the ghost stories were always in the back of my mind. Aside from those first few nights, I didn’t spend much time listening for them – our weekends visiting James’s family were always jam-packed, so I was usually too tired to care if there were ghosts or not.

The ghosts were brought up again one night this summer. James and two of his brothers regaled me with some fresh ghost stories, which scared me anew… right around bedtime. I was dead tired, but I was awfully reluctant to go to bed. I curled up under the covers and did my best to convince myself that the noises I heard were just standard house noises. I never saw anything shadowy, nor did I hear anyone/anything sit down on the empty bed next to me, so maybe the ghost took the night off.

So anyway, that’s how I feel about ghosts. I do my best to be logical and not believe in them, but – thanks to my rather active imagination – it’s not too hard to trick me into a night of buried-under-the-covers-jumping-at-any-sound with some first-hand ghost stories about wherever I’m staying that night. But don’t get me wrong: even though those stories scare the living crap out of me, I can’t get enough of them. I’ll always listen to your ghost stories – just don’t expect me to sleep that night.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

happy anniversary!

Hey guys!

Can you believe that it was two years ago today that I started this blog? Two years: that’s a lot of stories. Who would’ve thought that I would’ve had two years’ worth of things to tell you? Ok, maybe not all of my stories have been worth telling, but I told them just the same. And I still have plenty of stories to go. I know you were worried.

Yes, it was two years ago today that I was enjoying my first ever paid holiday. I had started my job in state government just a few weeks beforehand, and in doing so, I had traded my beloved Minneapolis for Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I had moved into my new apartment just a few days beforehand, but there was no internet service there – that meant I spent part of said holiday at a Caribou, slurping a latte and catching up on my internet-ing. That was the day I impulsively started a blog.

My very first blog post was about how I had just moved from Minneapolis to a town that I equated with home. I was nervous about what life back in South Dakota would be like; had I made a huge mistake?

Thankfully, my introspective first blog post didn’t set the tone for the rest of them. The last thing I wanted was a whiny blog about how it’s tough trying to find your way in the world and woe is me. I also didn’t want it to be an account of my day-to-day life: today was a good day at work. I went grocery shopping, and then I made pancakes for dinner. My day-to-day life is not terribly interesting… I know I wouldn’t want to read about what I did that day, so why would anyone else?

Though my everyday life is pretty normal, I have managed to accrue some pretty weird experiences over the years (especially after my three-month stay in New Orleans). After telling these stories, I’ve had more than one person tell me that I really need to write a book about all this strange stuff that I’ve done. Well, a blog might be the next best thing.

So here’s how we ended up with my blog as it is today. We’ve got a whole lot of stories from my 26 ½ years of life, and I’m sure I won’t stop collecting crazy stories any time soon. And the Top Ten Tuesdays? You can blame those on my love of list-making.

One year ago today, I wrote about all the great things that had happened from October 2011 to October 2012, including three very important things that likely would not have happened if I had remained in Minneapolis: a new car, a job at the library, and a proposal from James.

So why couldn’t any of this happen in Minneapolis? The new car came about because I was making more and spending less in Sioux Falls: no income tax, cheaper rent. Therefore, I could afford a car. I suppose I could’ve bought a less awesome car in Minneapolis, but it was a Ford Fusion for me! The library job couldn’t have happened in Minneapolis for an obvious reason: it was a job at the Sioux Falls library. Could I have gotten a job at the Minneapolis library? Maybe. But in all the time I lived there, there was never an opening, so I never got the chance to find out. Finally, why wouldn’t James have proposed to me if I still lived in Minneapolis? I bet he eventually would’ve, but it would’ve taken a little longer. The whole long-distance relationship thing really sucks, and by me moving closer to him (he teaches in Ellsworth, MN, which is an hour-ish away from Sioux Falls), it was a whole lot easier to envision a solid future together.

And here we are: another year has gone by. October 2012 – October 2013 has been monumentally eventful, most notably: James and I got married and bought a house.
 
Whoo hoo!

Plus, I got a promotion at work… and did I mention that all that happened in the span of about a week? BEST WEEK EVER.

And we totally got a cat!
So life is good, and it’s made even better because you guys want to read my stories. I hope you know how glad I am that you’re out there and how fun it is to be able to share my bizarre experiences/thoughts with you. Here’s to another year of goofy stories and ponderings – I hope you’re looking forward to it as much as I am!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

the scary series: unemployment.

Welcome to part two of my real-life scary month! Since it’s October, I thought that I’d spend the month writing about real-life scary things. This week’s topic? Unemployment. It’s terrifying.

I graduated college in spring 2009 – remember what the economy was like then? I wasn’t too worried, though. I had just graduated with English and Art History degrees, so my plan was to head to Denver for the summer for an unpaid internship at the museum. The internship was only 20 hours a week, which would leave me plenty of time for a part-time job. And getting a part-time job would be easy as pie… right?

Except for brief periods during the school year in high school (and my very first semester in college), I’d had a job since I was 14. I worked at an ice cream shop for two summers, a church camp for four summers, another ice cream shop for two summers and one partial school year (and the summers overlapped with my church camp job), the county courthouse for two summers in college and one winter break, two on-campus jobs for almost all of college, and my final college year spent working at the courthouse. Add in a few odd jobs here and there (babysitting, writing for the paper, etc), and I was rarely without a source of income. Sure, I was poor, but I wasn’t sweating it.

I arrived in Denver at the end of May, ready and raring to go. I was staying with my aunt and uncle for the summer, so I figured that as long as I had a place to live, the rest would fall into place. My mom, brother, and sister caravanned down with me to spend a few days in Denver. During those first few days, I wandered around the Colorado suburb where my aunt and uncle lived, sticking my nose in each and every business and asking if they were looking for help. Many of them weren’t, but I filled out a good handful of applications.

One of the perks to living in small towns for most of your life is that it usually doesn’t take long for you to hear back about a job. I was handed my first job at the ice cream place (we were eating there, and the owner asked how old I was – I would be 14 the following summer, and since we were such good customers, he hired me for the next summer), and my job at the other ice cream place was given to me just because one of the current employees said I’d be good at it. At the coffee shop, I sat down for a two minute interview and was offered a job on the spot. As far as the other jobs, I had gotten a call about them just a few days after the interview.

Turns out it doesn’t work that way in the rest of the world. I continued applying for jobs, but after about a week of not hearing anything from anyone, I was getting a tad discouraged. I know a week wasn’t really that much time, but I had assumed that I’d be employed within my first few days. How na├»ve I was.

I started keeping a notebook of where I applied and when I did it – this kept me from doubling up on applications (after a while, it’s easy to forget where you’ve applied and where you haven’t) and, after a bit, allowed me to give these employers a courteous call and inquire about the status of my application. My Denver days were divided into a mere five activities: interning, riding the bus, eating, sleeping, and applying for jobs.

I applied anywhere and everywhere. I walked in and asked for applications, I applied online, I answered Craigslist ads. I needed a job, and I needed it badly. What little money I had was quickly running out – turns out that even when you’re unemployed, you still need to find ways to pay for food and gas (or, in my case, bus passes). I was fortunate enough not to have to worry about coming up with rent, but there were still plenty that I needed to pay for.

While the majority of my applications didn’t amount to anything, I did find myself with a few interviews. I interviewed for a job as a hostess, a job as a waitress, and a job as a barista. I even took an alphabetizing quiz for a job as a shelver in the Denver Public Library (I got a perfect score). Much to my mounting dismay, none of those interviews resulted in employment. I also had an interview at Forever 21 (yep, you heard me), and I assumed the interview was at the same Forever 21 at which I had applied. Silly me. I arrived for my interview and was informed that it was at a different Forever 21… one hour away. There was no way I was making it there on time, and they wouldn’t reschedule, so that was that. And the problem was TOTALLY on their end: there were at least four other interviewees there that had gone to the wrong store. We couldn’t have all been that dumb, could we? Don’t answer that.

I was reaching the end of my first month in Denver, and there was no employment in sight. I was awfully discouraged. It sucks not having enough money to explore your new city (which I desperately wanted to do), and it sucks even more when nobody wants to hire you. No one likes rejection, and continues rejection really starts to wear on you.

When I wasn’t applying for jobs, I did my best to still experience Denver while spending as little money as possible. I rode the free streetcar up and down the 16th street mall. I sat on benches and did a whole lot of people watching. I sat by the river in Golden and read my library books. I took pictures. 
Pictures with cool views.
Every now and again, I splurged on a three dollar coffee drink so I could sit at the tables in the Starbucks section of the downtown Barnes and Noble and read a book – all the other tables were always full, and you could only sit at Starbucks if you bought something. I would make my coffee drink last as long as possible, and I would read a book from cover to cover. It’s amazing how fast your night goes.

My salvation came in the form of a fireworks stand. I haunted the employment section of Denver Craigslist, and a temporary job selling fireworks was just one of many that I’d applied for over the past month. I got a call for an interview and went to it with high hopes – and finally, FINALLY, I was offered a job. The job was only for about two weeks, but any money was better than no money at all.

Within the next day or so, I also got a call for an interview at American Eagle Outfitters. Since my job at the fireworks store would be over on July 4, I happily accepted the interview – if you remember from my Michael Jackson story, this interview was a group interview conducted in the food court on the day Michael Jackson died, so there were all sorts of distractions.

My job at the fireworks stand was short-lived, but it was hard work. I was either ringing up fireworks purchases or roaming the aisles, restocking and answering questions. I got to be quite the fireworks connoisseur by the end of my time there. The store was always busy, and a lot of our time was spent calming down angry Colorado residents who were peeved that they couldn’t buy the gigantic fireworks (as Colorado was under a ban on mortar fireworks) but their out-of-state friends could. I worked twelve hour days and would come back with my hands and face covered in black powder. I was tired, but happy: after all, I had a job.

The fireworks stand shut down after July 4th, and I was once again in the realm of the unemployed. I took a week off from my newly restarted job search and rode with my aunt and uncle back to South Dakota – it was the Brookings Summer Arts Festival (which I have NEVER missed), and my sister was leaving for basic training. Two very good reasons to go to South Dakota.
Proud family!
While I was enjoying my South Dakota vacation (and realizing how much you miss what you don’t have), I got a phone call from American Eagle offering me a job. I would start as soon as I got back from Denver. Hallelujah!

So, only a month and a half into my stay in Denver, I had secured part-time employment that would last longer than two weeks. I was FINALLY making money – though it was only minimum wage, it made a world of difference. It meant that I could scrimp and save and go to the big production of RENT in downtown Denver. It meant that I could make the trip to visit my relatives in Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. 
They are wonderful!
It meant that I could afford to buy my cousins brats when they took me to a Rockies game. My financial situation was still precarious, but at least now, I was moving in the right direction.

The next year of my life was fraught with underemployment as I moved from Denver to New Orleans to Minneapolis, but Denver was the only time during which I was 100% unemployed. I know I didn’t experience the REALLY terrifying kind of unemployment where you have a mortgage to pay and a family to feed, but my unemployment was still no walk in the park. It sucked, and it was scary, but it sure taught me to appreciate having a job.

That’s it for this week’s real-life scary story! Come back next week for more of Scary October… if you can handle it!

(I’m sure you can.)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

the scary series: Morris neighbors.

You guys, it’s October: my favorite month. I love it because of the crisp fall weather, the lovely autumn colors, the crunchy leaves, and – most importantly – Halloween. I’ve written all about how much I love Halloween, so you probably don’t need to hear all that again. This year, I’d like to do something a little different: I’m going to dedicate my October blog stories to scary things. But not scary things like vampires and monsters: scary things as in real life scary things. And I’m going to kick of my scary month with a story about my neighbors in Morris.

To may have heard me talk about my college living situation from time to time, but please allow me to refresh your memory. During my junior and senior years, I lived in a junky house on East Third. It was pea green and had a basement full of mold: your typical college house.

There were seven bedrooms in this teeny house: three upstairs, three in the basement, and one on the main floor. There were five of us who lived there from fall 2007 to spring 2008, and six again in fall 2008 (one replaced a graduating senior, and one filled an empty basement room). In spring 2009, our number had dwindled to three, but friends: that was the best semester EVER. (More on that another day.)

The majority of my scary neighbor stories take place from fall 2007 to fall 2008. Now, upon moving into this house, we all knew enough not to expect a palace. This house was no palace (to put it kindly). I mentioned the moldy basement (my parents feared for my health and bought me an air purifier), and the bathrooms were a horror story – there were three of them, one of which had a toilet that refused to come clean. Just refused. So while our house was kind of a dump, all the rest of our neighborhood wasn’t that great either, so you didn’t notice how dumpy our house was… at least from the outside.
This is the only picture I could find of our house, and even
it black and white, you can totally tell it's a college house.
Turns out that with a junky house sometimes come junky neighbors. Most of the houses nearby were college houses, but we certainly didn’t live in a bad part of town. I’m sure Morris had a bad part, but I couldn’t for the life of you tell you where it is. We only knew of the east side (where we lived and where the college was), downtown, and the mysterious west side (where there wasn’t much besides houses, so we rarely ventured there).

Our immediate neighbors were Violet on the left and the libertarians on the right. Next to the libertarians lived the Cracks, and they were the scariest of all.

Violet was about three years old, and she lived next door with (presumably) her sister, mother, and father (who may or may not be named Jesse). Violet’s family hated our guts simply because we were college students and we were next door. We were relatively pleasant neighbors – we didn’t go over with pie or anything, but we kept our yard mowed and our party noise to a reasonable level. But Jesse and whatever-her-name-was would scowl at us whenever we met on the sidewalk.

Violet was a strange little girl with a lazy eye and a penchant for shrieking. This is the only reason we knew her name was Violet – she would scream, and her parents would shout “VIOLET! SHUT UP!” Violet’s screeching woke us up nearly every morning, which is not the best start to the day.

We adopted a black lab named Buddy during spring 2009, and we had him on a lead on the backyard from time to time. 
LOOK AT THAT FACE!
Buddy, like all dogs, would occasionally bark at squirrels and other things that you might see in a backyard. One day, we came home to find a passive-aggressive note stuck to our front door: our dog was barking, and could we please shut him up as it was interfering with nap time. We considered sending them a note of our own: we’ll keep our dog quiet if you do the same for your daughter – she interfered with OUR naptime, too.

The libertarians were a trio who lived in a dilapidated house right next to ours. There were four of them, and two of them were brothers. Now, I don’t have a problem with libertarians as a whole, but these guys were crazy. One of them had a nose ring that made him looked like a bull, and he always wore t-shirts informing us that he had guns and he wasn’t afraid to use them on whoever made him unhappy. The other non-brother was a shady looking guy who was about 5’4” and always slouched. I never heard him say a word, but he always had a creepy grin on his face.

The libertarian brothers were something else. They came from a family of approximately one zillion children (their family was super religious and – surprise – didn’t believe in birth control). Their father was a pastor, and one of the brothers was planning on following in his footsteps. That particular brother – we'll call him Jerkface McGee – was the WORST. The other brother just followed him around like a puppy.

The libertarians more or less kept to themselves… except for the time they infiltrated our house party. It was at the beginning of the 2008 – 2009 school year, and we were throwing a school year kick-off party. The libertarians snaked through the door, and Jerkface McGee immediately started causing trouble. He stood in our kitchen and started talking loudly about how a woman’s place is in the kitchen and how, in his church, women aren’t allowed to speak. I know very well that there are churches like this, but their members usually don’t end up at house parties in a liberal arts college town. His goal was to get us riled up – and he did – but I’m almost positive that he totally believed what he was saying. Jerkface McGee was outnumbered by angry women at that party, and after they were done thoroughly berating him, they herded him out the door. As we were a harmony-loving group, the libertarians were subsequently banned from our other house parties.

Finally, we arrive at the Cracks. We never learned their names, so they were always the Cracks. They lived in a ramshackle house next to the libertarians, and if their house wasn’t a meth house, then I don’t know what is. The windows were boarded up, and those that weren’t had broken glass. The door was halfway off its hinges, and the lawn was scraggly and unkempt.

Speaking of scraggly and unkempt, we come to the Cracks themselves. There were anywhere from two to five of them around at any given time, and they were all nearly identical: long, bedraggled hair, scrawny frames, grey complexions, and fewer teeth than they had fingers. They looked just like the “after” photos on those anti-meth ads.

The Cracks liked to sit on the stoop and smoke cigarettes – but only at night. Nighttime was prime Crack time: that’s when their house would emit a strange red glow, and they’d either sit on the stoop or sit in their dirty living room and leave the front door open. Either way, we could always hear their hoarse cackling.

Being studious young undergrads, we would sometimes come home quite late. Biking was usually our method of transportation, as it was fast and you didn’t have to pay for a parking pass like you would with your car. When I first started biking home at night, I made the rookie mistake of riding right past the Cracks – I didn’t see them sitting there in the dark, so I about had a heart attack when they started shouting at me to come inside their house. Breathlessly, I burst into our house and told my roommates what happened… and as it turns out, the same thing had happened to the rest of them! Be it walking or biking, the Cracks would shout at whoever passed by their house – but only at night.  

Like the libertarians, the Cracks took upon themselves to sneak into one of our house parties. It was a particularly large party – my guess is that it was for Jazz Fest in spring 2008 – and it was reaching the early hours of the morning. The house was jam-packed, but when we started to look around, we noticed a pack of dirty looking skinny guys skulking by the door. “Are those… THE CRACKS?!!” Yes. Yes, they were. We weren’t sure how to get rid of the Cracks, so one of our roommates just announced that the party was over. The Cracks slunk out, never to darken our doorway again.

Fast forward five years. James and I are now homeowners, and we have a whole new set of neighbors. Unlike my Morris years, our Luverne neighbors are perfectly normal people. Man, did we luck out!

Scary neighbors are just the tip of the scary month iceberg. Come back next week for part II of my scary month! Happy October!