Tuesday, May 27, 2014

top ten Tuesday: David Bowie songs.

Around Valentine’s Day, I told you all about how much I love Simon and Garfunkel. They are my favorite musical group of all time, and they have been for more than a decade. But who is my second favorite?


I started listening to David Bowie not too long after I discovered Simon and Garfunkel, but my love for Simon and Garfunkel eclipsed everything else… for YEARS. So anything NOT Simon and Garfunkel got pushed to the sidelines. When I realized that there was other music out there besides Simon and Garfunkel, I revisited David Bowie – and we’ve been inseparable ever since.

One of the (many) things I love about David Bowies is that he is so bizarre. (Two words: Ziggy Stardust.) But he’s an extraordinarily talented musician, and during his extensive career, he’s dipped into a little bit of everything. That being said, I firmly believe that there’s a David Bowie song out there for everyone.

Case in point: James. For the longest time, he insisted that he didn’t like David Bowie, but he wouldn’t even give David Bowie a chance. One car ride not so long ago, I offered (read: demanded) to give James an Intro to David Bowie lesson. I played him about twenty David Bowie songs, and by the end of it, James grudgingly admitted that he was impressed with David Bowie’s musicianship. James slipped into music teacher mode and started talking about adventurous chords or something like that, but he’d finally given David Bowie his seal of approval.

So for this top ten Tuesday, I’d like to humbly present my top ten David Bowie songs. Just like the top ten Simon and Garfunkel songs, I had a tough time narrowing my David Bowie songs to just ten. But here they are!


“Changes” is one of those songs that I heard long before I had much of an idea who David Bowie was. I’m sure you’ve heard it before – it’s quoted at the beginning of The Breakfast Club, for crying out loud. I was fourteen when my parents got a computer with a CD burner, and “Changes” was one of the first songs I ever burned. Obviously, “Changes” and I go way back.

Golden Years
When I was living in Minneapolis, I listened to nothing but the Current – it’s a branch of Minnesota Public Radio, and they play a little bit of everything. I first heard “Golden Years” on the Current and loved it. (Who doesn’t love Funk David Bowie?) The Current had a feature every day at noon called “My Three Songs”: listeners would submit blocks of three songs, and the host (Barb Abney) would play one block every day. I know I’ve talked about this about a thousand times, but for my 24th birthday, I requested a “My Three Songs” set of “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order, “Punkrocker” by Teddy Bears and Iggy Pop, and “Golden Years” – all three of which were songs I’d first heard on the Current. And wouldn’t you know, Barb Abney played those three songs on my 24th birthday. It was AWESOME.

Modern Love

One of the things I love about David Bowie is that he’s not afraid to use some truly awesome instrumentation. “Modern Love” is full of trumpets and saxophones, and it just makes you want to dance. “Modern Love” was key in getting James to finally appreciate David Bowie: James had a hard time saying no to anyone that sticks a bunch of trumpet players in their pop music.

Let’s Dance
“Let’s Dance” has got a lot of the same great instrumentation of “Modern Love,” but it doesn’t have the same dance-party energy. It’s even a bit romantic (or, you know, as close to romantic as David Bowie gets): “because my love for you/would break my heart in two/if you should fall into my arms/and tremble like a flower.” But with lyrics like “put on your red shoes and dance the blues,” what’s not to love?

Space Oddity
In high school, my friend Allison was the one who helped fuel my newfound love for David Bowie. She started me off slowly: I wasn’t ready for the Ziggy Stardust years yet, so she got me hooked on David Bowie’s very early stuff. Listening to it now is kind of ridiculous – David Bowie barely sounds like himself – save for a few gems, like “Space Oddity.” It was one of David Bowie’s earliest hits, and it’s got a great (albeit eerie) story line: it’s about space, after all. If you’re not too familiar with David Bowie, “Space Oddity” is a great place to get started. “Space Oddity” came along before David Bowie started with his distinctive Bowie singing voice, and “Space Oddity” is all about the story and the lyrics.

“Kooks” is downright adorable. It’s about David Bowie’s son Zowie (yes, Zowie Bowie – he now goes by Duncan Jones, and I don’t suppose I can blame him) and how he’s got weird parents who will do their best for him. It’s not often that David Bowie goes off-the-wall goofy in one of his songs, but he does it for “Kooks,” and the result is awfully charming.

Life on Mars?
According to Wikipedia (yes, Wikipedia), BBC Radio once referred to “Life on Mars?” as a “cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dali painting,” and I can’t think of a better way to describe it. It’s got surreal lyrics (hence the Dali reference) and a beautiful piano part. “Life on Mars?” was one of my early favorites, and I love it just as much now as I did then.

Ziggy Stardust
You can’t talk about David Bowie without talking about Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy Stardust was David Bowie’s glam persona, and Ziggy Stardust cemented David Bowie as a rock legend. The song of the same title gives you an overview of Ziggy Stardust’s backstory, and you can almost see the glitter.

Young Americans
I have to say, I love soul David Bowie. “Young Americans” is a bit on the cynical side, but it’s catchy and full of saxophones. I get “Young Americans” stuck in my head more than any other David Bowie song, and – oddly enough – I hear it in more stores than any other David Bowie song. (When I first started working at American Eagle, “Young Americans” was on the in-store back-to-school soundtrack.)

Under Pressure
With the powers of David Bowie and Queen combined, you get a song so amazing that no written description can ever do it justice… and that song is “Under Pressure.” “Under Pressure” is one of those songs that I will ALWAYS stop to listen to, and you can’t help but feel totally awesome just because you’re listening to it. And that bass line? OH, that bass line. (If you say one thing about Vanilla Ice, I’m going to punch you in the face.) David Bowie and Queen are two musical powerhouses with styles all their own, but when you put them together, you get “Under Pressure,” which is magic.


Those, my friends, are my top ten David Bowie songs. Honestly, I had a harder time writing about my ten favorite Bowie songs than I did my ten favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs. It could be because I was never as obsessed with David Bowie (or anyone/thing) as I was with Simon and Garfunkel. It could be that I spent more time listening to Simon and Garfunkel with friends than I did David Bowie – my love for David Bowie truly blossomed thanks to the Current, when I’d hear Bowie songs in the car or at work. Or it could be that I’m simply at a loss to describe these songs and do them justice. While Simon and Garfunkel were all about beautiful harmonies and haunting lyrics, David Bowie is all about experimentation. Simon and Garfunkel songs tend to be pretty recognizable as Simon and Garfunkel, but if you’re not too familiar with David Bowie, you may not realize that it’s him right away – his style evolved so frequently, which is one of the things I love about his music. So if you don’t care for my Bowie choices, never fear – there are about a bazillion more David Bowie songs out there, and you should have no problem finding some of your very own.
Don't let David Bowie down.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

the license plate game.

Ah, summer: the season of road trips.

I love a good road trip. You pack your car full of good snacks, good music, and good people, and off you go.

My road trips have taken me all over the place: from Minneapolis to New Orleans to Canada, as long as you have a (mostly) working vehicle, the possibilities are endless.

Everybody has a different road trip style (yes, I just said “road trip style”), and my road trip style could best be called “engaged.” I like to stop at the tourist traps and eat at the greasy diners along the way. Most of all, I like to play the license plate game.

Now, what is the license plate game? The first thing you should know is that it’s awesome. It is simple, but simply delightful. You and your road trip friends see how many different license plates you can find. That’s it.

However, the license plate game can’t be played on just any road trip. It’s best played on road trips that are at least five hours long and go through either a.) major metropolitan areas, or b.) major tourist attractions. For example, even though James and I road trip to Minneapolis all the time, we have never played the license plate game because it would be SO DISAPPOINTING. The road to Minneapolis only goes through farmland, so we’d probably only see Minnesota license places… and maybe Iowa and Wisconsin if we’re lucky.

The best license plate games are the ones played on long-haul multi-state road trips, like when James and I drove to Canada, or when Dad and I drove from New Orleans back to South Dakota. The license plate game is best played with company for a number of reasons: you have extra sets of eyes, you have someone to keep track of what plates you’ve seen (so you don’t have to try and take notes while you’re driving), and you have someone to share your excitement with when you find an unusual plate. (Maine, I’m looking at you.) When I drove myself from South Dakota to New Orleans, I tried to play the license plate game by myself, but it just wasn’t the same.

When I play the license plate game, it’s not a competition. Everyone involved works together to complete one master list of states and provinces. You could make it into a competition if you wanted: believe me, we’ve thought about it. Everyone could have their own list, and the person who actually sees the license plate has dibs on that state. So if I see a Hawaii plate, I get to mark Hawaii off my list – and you have to see another Hawaii plate to mark it off your list. Whoever has the most states at the end of the road trip wins.  However, that seems a little unfair to the driver of the car. After all, you’d probably want them to focus more on driving than what the license plate is on the car in the rear view mirror.

I don’t remember when we first started playing the license plate game, but we used to pile in the family car and drive to Colorado each summer, so I’m assuming it was during one of those summers that we started playing. Over the years, the license plate game has evolved into a finely tuned machine with strict rules.

We start off by making an alphabetical list of all 50 states, plus the Canadian provinces. (I like to do it by memory, so I time how long it takes me to come up with all 50 states - about five minutes, in case you're curious.) We check them off as we go, and this makes it much easier to keep track of what we’ve seen and what we haven’t seen. The license plate on the car you’re in does not count: you have to see another car with that license plate for you to mark it off your list. (Example: I was recently in Phoenix visiting my sister, who has SD plates on her car. We couldn’t mark South Dakota plates off our list until we saw someone else with South Dakota plates – and, thanks to all the snowbirds, it didn’t take long before we did!) Also, license plates on semi-trucks and trailers don’t count unless they are regular looking license plates with pictures and all (not those special black-and-white trailer plates).

Finally, you have to decide when the game will begin and end. When James and I went to Canada, we had a separate game for the way up and while we were there, and we started fresh when we headed home. While traipsing around in Arizona this May, we kept the same game going the entire time.

The license plate game has taken me all over the country. I’ve played the license plate game from South Dakota to Colorado, Minnesota to Canada, Phoenix to Las Vegas, New Orleans to South Dakota, New Orleans to San Antonio, Arlington to Rapid City, and not to mention all around San Antonio, Winnipeg, Phoenix, and more. There was a time period (May – December 2009) when I played the license plate game so much (two round-trips from SD to Denver and a round-trip from New Orleans to SD = six license plate games) that I learned to recognize license plates by color alone. (Fun fact: I can still do it.)

I should’ve been keeping track of our license plate game totals over all these years. While we have never completed a list, we’ve come damn close. During this last trip to Phoenix, our grand total was 41: including three from Canada, one from Mexico, plus Alaska and Hawaii.
Go ahead. Be impressed.
Here’s an insider’s tip: you can find license plate gold mines in the parking lots of tourist attractions. When Dad and I were driving from New Orleans to South Dakota, we stopped at Graceland – but before we even went in, we made a round through the parking lot and checked off a ton of license plates. (We made a second round when we were leaving and checked off a bunch more.) James and I have done the same thing at Wall Drug (I think we found something like 20 license plates there, which is both awesome and completely ridiculous that so many people wanted to visit WALL DRUG) and Mount Rushmore, and while in Phoenix, we may or may not have cruised the parking lot at Montezuma’s Castle… and the one at Salt River tubing.

The license plate game is a GREAT way to pass time on long road trips – plus, I can’t explain the pure joy you feel in the fourth day of the game when you find that elusive Rhode Island plate. (Which we have yet to find, but that’s beside the point.) So the next time you find yourself settling in for a nice long road trip, I’d highly recommend the license plate game. Who knows? Maybe you’ll even find that sneaky Rhode Island plate.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

guilty pleasures: Sex and the City.

I have something to admit to you, and you’re not going to like it.

I love Sex and the City.

I know, I know.

Sex and the City is often brainless, always materialistic, and the characters are the neediest pack of women to ever cross my television screen, but I JUST LOVE IT.

My introduction to Sex and the City occurred in college. Until then, I was blissfully unaware of the show – sure, I’d heard of it, but I had no idea what it was about and had no desire to learn. This was well after the show had been syndicated, and TBS was showing reruns practically non-stop. One of my college roommates would turn on the TV for homework background noise, and Sex and the City was almost always on. It was a good choice for homework night: not something you really had to pay attention to, but enough to keep you vaguely amused while writing your paper on Shakespeare.

I started off only half-watching, but the more I watched, the more entertaining it became. The reruns were never in order – wait, when did Miranda have a baby? when did Charlotte marry the bald guy? – but I found myself wanting to watch the progression from beginning to end.

So I started watching the show online. I’d watch an episode here or there – they were only thirty minutes long, so it was easy to sneak a couple in between classes. Before I knew it, I caught up in the never ending drama of Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha. Sure, I got frustrated with them (Carrie cheating on Aiden with Mr Big? SLEAZY.) and tired of their antics (don’t even get me started on Samantha), but I stick it out until the bitter end.

And I (mostly) loved it. But why? These women’s lives were completely different than mine was – or will ever be. I could relate to so little of what they were doing – as opposed to the friends in the show, my friends and I had more to talk about than men.

Allow me to bring up the Bechdel test: the Bechdel test demands that there are at least two women in a work of fiction who talk to each other about something else besides men. While there are four starring women in this show, they rarely talk about topics other than men. Sure, they’ll maybe chat about some fabulous and unaffordable shoes, but the conversation always turns back to men. Bechdel test = FAILED.

(Fun fact: in one episode, Miranda actually flips out on her friends because all they do is talk about men. By the end of the episode, they’re all friends again… and talking about men.)

So I definitely didn’t watch Sex and the City for its intellectual properties. It was, for the most part, a light and fluffy comedy full of dirty words. Serious stuff didn’t happen too often, but they’d throw something in every now and again – cancer, infertility, divorce, unplanned pregnancy. And that was what kept me coming back.

Honestly, I enjoyed seeing what was going to happen to the characters, even if the odds of something like that happening to me were ten zillion to one – after all, they all somehow end up super rich.

And there was definitely some attraction in seeing them do the things that I could never do. Carrie spent money like there was absolutely no tomorrow. While I would love to live in New York and just buy whatever I felt like, I know it’s not feasible. She did make references to maxed-out credit cards, but thanks to a windfall from a friend and a surprise book deal, her money issues suddenly evaporated.

That’s another thing: Carrie made her living as a writer. Everyone knows how extraordinarily difficult it is to actually make writing your career, but Carrie seemed to spend more time shopping and eating out and sleeping around than she ever did working on her career. (Which was a sex column, so I guess you could call sleeping around “field research.”)

Obviously, I love to write – I wouldn’t have kept up this blog for almost three years (!!!) if I didn’t. Sex and the City made a writer’s life look super glamorous (and EASY!), and you apparently got buckets of money for shoes. Fact: blog writing is nothing like that at all.

The movie came out between my junior and senior years of college, and I was SO EXCITED. I went with a couple of friends, and we even made sure to wear dresses for the occasion. (As poor college students, wearing dresses to a movie as a big deal.) I would rate the first movie as a solid “meh.” As I should’ve expected, the entire movie was Carrie talking Mr Big. (Spoiler: he leaves her at the altar, but of course she takes him back.) So… meh. On the bright side, the movie had a really neat version of “Auld Lang Syne,” so there’s that!

Even though I knew it was going to be just terrible, I still went ahead and watched the second movie. And it was not just terrible, but TERRIBLE. The movie was just like “look at how rich we are, SO SO rich, but somehow our lives are miserable! My husband put a TV in the bedroom! I have a nanny and a rich husband and no job, but my life is REALLY REALLY HARD! Boo hoo!!!”

So that was tiresome.

Here’s what I’ll do: I’m just going to pretend that the movies don’t exist and that the whole thing ended with the series finale. Done and done.

Even though Sex and the City and I do have our differences, I have this inexplicable soft spot for that dumb show. Towards the end of college and shortly thereafter, I slowly bought the seasons of Sex and the City as my income (and sales at Target) would allow. Just like in college, I’ll turn it on for background noise when I’m doing something else: I’ve seen it all before, so I don’t really need to pay attention – it’s just fun to have around.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

my husband the teacher.

My husband James is a music teacher, and like most music teachers, he feels fortunate to have a job. He is the only music teacher in the Ellsworth school district – with about 150 kids K-12, it’s the smallest district in Minnesota.

James came to Ellsworth in the fall of 2010 – his first job out of college. James stepped in as the sole music teacher for the entire school, so it was his responsibility to teach K-12 band, choir, and general music. James walked into a music program that had been through teacher after teacher in the last few years. The kids were used to their music teachers only staying for a year or two and moving on. With the town and school being so small, many music teachers saw Ellsworth as a starter job: a good way to start, but nothing they wanted to invest a lot of time into.

As a brand-new teacher coming into a school that was a revolving door for music teachers, James had plenty of work to do. A perpetual optimist, he didn’t see the music program for what it was – he saw it for what it could be.

So began his tireless mission to whip the Ellsworth music department into shape. Most days, James would be the first one at school and the last one to leave, and he would still have hours of work to do after he got home. He implemented quizzes and practice requirements and was met with some resistance. After all, the students had gotten used to music teachers with who didn’t expect much from them. They weren’t too sure what to think of this new guy who wanted them to work hard and create music that they could be proud of.

It took some time, but James’s music students began to accept his way of doing things. They realized that he wanted them to practice because he cared – he cared about the music program and wanted nothing more than to see it succeed.

During his time in Ellsworth, James has tweaked the music program into something that works not just for him, but for his students as well. James adopted a give-and-take attitude when it came to band and choir, which showed his students that he does value their opinion. James decided early on that his students shouldn’t have to sing/play music that only he chooses – he allows them to pick a piece or two, which usually ends up being something popular. James then arranges the piece for band or choir, spending hours to get the perfect arrangement. When his students perform a piece that they’ve chosen, they give it plenty of heart, and you can tell how much they enjoy it.

James is always on the lookout for ideas and technology that will make his program better. To help his students enjoy learning how to play recorders, James enacted a program called Recorder Karate where kids earn karate belts as they improve their recorder skills. James asked for (and received) a Smartboard, as well as more school instruments and cabinets. He spent a week in California receiving training for a program called El Sistema, which will begin in Ellsworth next year. El Sistema is an intensive program that will help kids learn better reading skills through music. James will be committing an extra three hours after school for three days a week next year, but he never thought twice about the substantial time commitment – if it’s something that can help his kids, he’ll be the first in line to sign up.

James’s work does not begin or end end when the school bell rings. He started a student drumline that meets before school, and his mornings and afternoons are booked full with individual lessons. James’s band marches in parades during the summer and plays pep band during the school year – and they man the concession stand at basketball games. Last summer, James’s band went on a trip to Nashville – and because of all the fundraising the band had done, students had to pay almost nothing for the trip. James’s responsibilities are not only music-related: he co-founded the Parent Teacher Organization at his school and is currently the president, and he’s also the students’ choice to emcee prom and homecoming each year.

The amount of work that James puts into his music program is staggering, but he loves every minute. James’s program has finally become his own, and his students know how dedicated he is to helping them learn and appreciate music. And the students have been soaking it all in: James has kids begging for vocal solos at each concert, and his summer lesson schedule is full.

Ellsworth students aren’t the only ones that have noticed James’s devotion: fellow teachers and parents comment on how the Ellsworth music program is better than ever before. James has two concerts per year, and each time, he’s approached by a flood of well-wishers who tell him what a great job he’s doing and how lucky Ellsworth is to have him. When the school year draws to a close each year, parents, teachers, and students alike ask him, “You’re coming back next year… right?” Dedicated and enthusiastic teachers like James can be hard to find in such a small school, and sadly, the Ellsworth School District is used to losing their best teachers in short periods of time. James assures them that yes, he will be back next year – and he’s always met with a big smile.

James is finishing up his fourth year in Ellsworth, and his plans for his program are bigger and better each year. James’s mission in life is to help kids, and he can’t imagine doing anything but teaching. James loves his job more than anyone I’ve ever met – he will come home after work and tell me stories of some musical breakthrough or a kid that got excited about Beethoven, and he just beams. Kids come up to him and tell him that they want to be band directors when they grow up, and to James, there is no higher compliment.

Everyone should have a teacher like James.