Wednesday, January 28, 2015

the struggles of being someone named Calla.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but my first name is kind of weird. It’s Calla – not Kayla, Carla, or Callie. Calla.

Odd names like mine are a dime a dozen today. Parents everywhere are giving their children complicated names – usually with an extra letter y or two. So perhaps these kids will face the same anguish that I did when faced with a rack of personalized pens or ornaments or keychains or what have you.

There was never a Calla.

You know what I’m talking about: those big displays with rows and rows of souvenir-y things with names printed on them. If your name was Jessica or Emily or Steve or Todd, you’d have no trouble finding your name. My parents (Tim and Brenda) and my brother (Mitch) could find their names. However, my sister (Darrah) is most certainly in the same boat as me.

It’s hard to say if I even would’ve wanted any of this personalized stuff if my name was more common and could be easily found. However, I desperately wanted a keychain with my name on it – probably because it was not at all easy to come by. I wanted what I couldn’t have, which was something of a theme throughout my childhood.   

But this was different. The personalized knick-knack industry seemed remarkably unfair to me. Those rows and rows of names were an affront to people like me. Why should we be left out? What happens when I want a snowglobe ornament printed with my name? Nothing, that’s what.  

Growing up, my three best friends were Sarah, Allison, and Meagan. Sarah and Allison could usually find their names – Sarah’s only problem was that “Sarah” was often sold out, and “Sara” wasn’t going to cut it. Allison might be left with “Alison,” but more often than not, both “Allison” and “Alison” were available. Meagan had a harder time – “Megan” was always there, but “Meagan” was often not. You could find “Meghan” more easily than “Meagan.” But you were a lot more likely to find “Meagan” than you were to find “Calla.”

Any personalized items that I had were thanks to special orders placed by my parents. Now, you must remember that this was the mid-to-late 90s: you didn’t just jump on the internet and place an order and you’re done. My family didn’t have internet until the year 2000, and even then, who knows how many years it was before any of us was brave enough to online shop.

No, in order to get a special personalized order placed for their kids with weird names, Mom and Dad had to go right to the source. The first few things I ever had with my name on them were hand-made by my great grandma Bunny: she was the craftiest person I’ve ever known, and she made me pillows and cross-stitch and all sorts of things.

The other personalized item from my very early childhood was a wooden cutout of my name painted with red hearts. I’m not sure who made this or when I got it, but for YEARS, I loved hearts and the color red. So I was apparently old enough to be able to impart that information. My parents knew some woodworkers, so I’m betting my wooden name was a special order from one of them.

When kindergarten rolled around, Mom and Dad presented me with a brand new pencil box. It was red (of course), and it had my NAME on it. I was thoroughly amazed, and that pencil box was my pride and joy for many school years thereafter.

If you grow up with a more common name, chances are that you will run into some fictional character somewhere that shares your name. Alas, that privilege was difficult for me to come by – made even more difficult by the fact that we didn’t have cable. Turns out there was a Princess  Calla in that old Disney cartoon The Gummi Bears, a fact I discovered thanks to my cousin sending me a Gummi Bears book. Princess Calla had blonde hair and blue eyes like I did – clearly, the Gummi Bears people modeled her after me. 
The resemblance is uncanny.
How else would they know to give her a name like Calla?

Mom and Dad noticed how much I liked seeing my name in print, so for Christmas, they ordered a special copy of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with me as the star. The story was the same as regular Rudolph, but a special little girl from Arlington named Calla got to help save Christmas. They even put Claws, our crabby old cat, into the story.

Personalized items were such a rare commodity, and every time I got one, I was blown away. I knew how much extra work had to go into acquiring something with my peculiar name on it, and that made those personalized items all the more special. I still have the keychain my Grandma Sheila brought me from Albuquerque, the duffel bag my parents had made for me in Colorado, the embroidered Arlington Cardinals jacket I got for Christmas one year, and the little glass vial with my name written on a piece of rice that my parents brought back from Las Vegas.

With the advent of the online shopping, it’s nowhere near as difficult to get something personalized as it once was. I can hop on Etsy and order something with my name on it in no time at all. But that’s not really the point. The point is that I never got to stumble across my name on a ready-made knick knack in a store. Except for ONCE. I was at the Minnesota State Fair with my friend Lacee (who also had trouble finding her name in such situations), and as we strolled through some of the crafty booths in one of the giant buildings, we stopped at a display full of little ceramic hearts. Now, this display consisted of several tables put together, and it spanned for at least fifteen feet. (If you think I’m exaggerating, you have clearly never been to the Minnesota State Fair.) These little ceramic hearts were each painted with a name, and because of the sheer volume, Lacee and I both started looking for our names. After all, when you’ve got that many little ceramic hearts, it doesn’t hurt to look for the weird names. And wouldn’t you know it? There was a Lacee AND a Calla. This was the first and only time I’ve ever found my name. Did I buy the ceramic heart that said Calla? Nope. I was a poor college student at the fair, and every spare cent had to go towards greasy food and gas to get home. Sigh.

Because of that one experience – that one glimmer of hope at the State Fair – I still look for my name in souvenir shops selling those damn key chains and flashlights and whatnot. Even though chances are good that I’m not going to find it, now that I’ve found it once, I can’t seem to help wanting to find it again. And who knows? Maybe someday I will.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

ode to SmartWool.

My entire family is obsessed with SmartWool.

SmartWool socks.

As you know, I love a good sock – I don’t think I’ve owned a plain pair of socks for almost twenty years – but SmartWool socks are not just socks.

They’re magic.

And they’ve ruined me for all other socks.

SmartWool has been around for a long time, but it didn’t cross my family’s radar until 2012. My cousin is a Marine, and he was stationed in Afghanistan at the time. Dad would sent my cousin care packages from time to time, and he would ask for a list of things my cousin wanted or needed. My cousin requested a particular brand of socks: SmartWool. He said they were the best socks you could ever hope to have.

So off Dad went to find these mythical socks. He found them at Fergen’s: a clothing store in Brookings. Dad bought out the stock… only to find out that he’d gotten the wrong kind of SmartWool. SmartWool, as it turns out, comes in a zillion varieties depending on your activity: running, hunting, snowboarding, skiing. Dad had gotten the “lifestyle” variety, and my cousin was looking for the hiking socks.

Dad ordered a bunch of SmartWool hiking socks online, and on a whim, ordered a pair for himself. After all, he wanted to see what was so great about these socks. As soon as he put his SmartWool socks on, Dad was hooked. My brother Mitch got a pair, my mom got a pair, and James was given some of the original lifestyle variety. They all preached the gospel of SmartWool.

As a non-SmartWool owner, I was out of the loop. I was not sure what the big deal was – they seemed like any other sock, only ten times as expensive. What did SmartWool socks do that other socks couldn’t?

In Christmas 2013, I finally found out. I got a pair of SmartWool socks in my Christmas stocking: beautiful colorful stripes, the lifestyle variety. I put these socks on, and I was in heaven. The glory of SmartWool is hard to describe, but once I was wearing these socks, it felt like my feet had been missing out all these years. The socks are wool, but they’re not itchy. They’re sturdy, but comfortable. They’re lean, but warm. In short, they’re magic.

I joined my family in their passion for SmartWool. I made detours in sporting goods stores to explore the sock section. I visited North Face stores just for their SmartWool section: they had the best end-of-season clearance. (And since I am one of the few who wears size small in SmartWool, there are always leftover size smalls for me.) I looked on the internet for past-season deals on SmartWool.

Now, in addition to being categorized by activity, SmartWool socks also come in varying levels of cushion. (The lifestyle socks tend to be light cushion so that they can fit into any shoe.) You can get anywhere between ultra light cushion for running and ultra thick cushion for mountaineering. (I once spent a good five minutes in the sock department at Scheels just squeezing the ultra thick cushioned SmartWool socks. They are truly amazing.)

It was through my clearance SmartWool adventures that I entered the world of medium cushion PhD SmartWool. They advertise their PhD socks as being extra amazing, and I must say, they ARE. I found two pairs of medium cushion PhD running socks (size small) on super-clearance at the North Face store in Minneapolis – one pair in February, one pair in April. And let me tell you: wearing those socks is like walking on pillows. They are incredible. That’s my SmartWool sweet spot.

SmartWool has become a new Christmas tradition. Everyone gets SmartWool in their Christmas stockings, and everyone winds up wearing their new SmartWool the next day. Finding SmartWool in the Christmas stocking results in happy cries of “SmartWool!” No one is ever disappointed.

SmartWool socks run in the neighborhood of $20, and it’s hard to believe that a cheapskate like me would pay that much for a single pair of socks. First of all, I don’t: clearance, my friends. But even clearance SmartWool isn’t what you’d call cheap: I found a pair of SmartWool (medium cushion!) for $13.77 at Scheels the other day, and that is a GREAT deal in SmartWool terms. Secondly, I justify it this way. If I found a lovely sweater for $13.77, that would be an outstanding deal, right? And I’d buy it, right? But how often would I wear that sweater? Once or twice a month? My SmartWool socks are on a steady rotation, and I most definitely get my $13.77 worth. Plus, wearing a pair of SmartWool socks has made me happier than wearing any sweater I’ve ever bought.

Who would’ve thought that socks could bring us so much joy?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

ten outfits under $35, part III.

Guess what? It’s another cheap outfit blog!

I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had putting these together. I really enjoy the challenge of finding an outfit that not only looks good, but is easy on the old wallet.

(While I love putting together and writing about the outfits, taking the pictures is the WORST. I always think I look like a complete dork, and I don't have any poses - obviously, because I always end up with my hand on my hip and a big dopey grin. James, my ever-suffering photographer, gets tired of me saying "what should I do with my hands? what does ANYONE do with their hands??!" Plus, there are only so many places to pose in and around our house.)

This is my third blog post where the outfits are $35 or less. You can find the other two here and here. I’ve also done blog posts where the outfits were $30 or less (here) and $40 or less (here).

$35 is where I’ll stay. I’ve told you this before, but here’s why: outfits under $40 were too easy, and I enjoy a good challenge. Outfits under $30 were doable, but it was tough to add fun things, like accessories. The $35 limit allows me to make a complete outfit (accessories and all) while still requiring me to think creatively about my items and their accompanying prices.

As always, I’d better go over my rules: I won’t post an outfit on this blog that I wouldn’t wear as an actual outfit. These outfits are not something I just threw together for the sake of it being cheap – I think they look good, and anything you see here is something that I would gladly wear out in public. I will not reuse any clothing item from past blog posts: the exception being shoes. (Since you’ve seen most of these shoes before, I’ll also try to refrain from telling you about them. If they’re new to the blog, then all bets are off.) The only gifts (aka, free) items I will include will be jewelry – so not something that could make or break the outfit. No foundation garments – tank tops, socks, etc – as part of my total. Prices are almost always exact, but some are from memory – and those are probably within fifty cents. Finally, I included outfits from as many different places as I could. After all, variety is the spice of life.

With all that out of the way, please enjoy the fifth (!!!) installment of my top ten cheap outfits!!

zipper cardigan – Plato’s Closet – $12
jeans – Plato’s Closet – FREE! (org $14, used credit)
t-shirt – Old Navy – $3.97 (clearance)
octopus necklace – Hobby Lobby – $5 for supplies
flats – JCPenney – $13
TOTAL: $33.97

Plato’s Closet and I have a complicated relationship. I like that they give you cash for your clothes, but I don’t like that it’s something like 20% of what they’ll sell it for – a pittance. I like that they have lots of options, but I don’t like how crowded the place is. Also, their employees tend to be on the snotty side. So Plato’s Closet is not one of my favorites, but every once in a while, I’ll decide that I want to go there. And shopping at Plato’s Closet most definitely requires the right do-or-die attitude. Both this cardigan and these jeans came from Plato’s Closet – I had sold a few things, so I used that money to get the jeans. So I’m calling them free. I have a thing for decorative zippers right now, so clearly, this cardigan had to come home with me. Old Navy is my go-to place for plain v-necks, and let me tell you, you can build endless outfits around them. Finally, my necklace. It is an octopus that I put together using supplies from Hobby Lobby. Awesome? Awesome.

dress – Forever 21 – $27.80
flower necklace – gift
flats – Y’s Buys – $3
TOTAL: $30.80

I’ve told you before that I am too old for Forever 21: except for accessories. (And even then, it’s touch and go.) However, I bought this dress BEFORE I was too old for Forever 21 and BEFORE the store itself started selling nothing but crop tops and harem pants. I bought this dress in early 2011: I still lived in Minneapolis and the Mall of America was just a hop, skip, and a jump away. Maxi dresses were a fresh trend, and I wanted to try it out – but I didn’t want to look a.) pregnant or b.) like a sister wife. If you’re looking to try out a new trend on the cheap, Forever 21 is your place. I tried this dress on, liked it, and that was that. It opened the door for many other maxi dresses – which are as comfy as pajamas, and you feel like you’re getting away with something.

dress – Mikarose – $29.99 
sandals – JCPenney – $3 
necklace – gift (Botanical Garden)
TOTAL: $32.99

Hey, look! Another decorative zipper! This dress came from an online store called Mikarose, which is totally run by Mormons. They specialize in “modest” dresses – not like FLDS modest, but dresses that aren’t too low cut or too short. Maybe I’m a Mormon at heart, but that’s exactly how I like my dresses. Plus, the dress has pockets. You know how much I love dresses with pockets. The necklace was a gift from my sister Darrah – the first time we visited her in Arizona was May 2010, and we went to the Desert Botanical Gardens and died of heat. The necklace came from their gift shop – authentic Arizona turquoise!

shirt – Storyville – $12 (flash sale)
shorts – Younkers – $14.99
sandals – Gap Outlet – $7-ish
TOTAL = $33.99

Last summer, Younkers was having this gigantic online sale where you could get shorts and summer clothes for almost nothing. Younkers is not my favorite place to shop – while they have nice shoes and purses, their clothes are either too old or way too young for me. I’m in Younkers no man’s land. However, during the online sale, I did find this one pair of Levi shorts – and I’ve been wearing them like crazy ever since. The NOLA tank top comes from Storyville – a t-shirt shop with locations only in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. However, they do have an online store, and every so often, they have a flash sale. They’ll pick a handful of shirts and sell them for $12 for a few days. I live for Storyville flash sales.

shirt – Goodwill St Paul – $2 (half off day)
skirt – hand-me-down from Grandma
necklace – Mikarose – $9.99
wedges – Target – $19.99
TOTAL: $31.98

This skirt belonged to my grandma in the 1950s. How cool is that? It’s perfectly classy, and it even has fun little pleats. It is made of wool, so it is not an all-season skirt, but that means I’m all the more excited to wear it when fall rolls around. The necklace is from the Mormon store – turns out that they not only have modest dresses, but fancy necklaces! The shoes came from Target – they’re a tad bit impractical, but since when has that stopped me? When I worked at the interpreting agency in Minneapolis (which is a story for another time), they would give you a $20 Target gift card on your birthday. Awesome. I bought these shoes for $29.99 using that gift card, so it was only $10 out of my own pocket. Wouldn’t you know it, they go on sale for $19.99 the very next week. Luckily, I hadn’t worn the shoes yet, so I brought them back and asked for a price adjustment. Target said no, so I returned them… and rebought them at the lower price the same day. Don’t mess with ME, Target. Now, this outfit marks something rather unusual in all my cheap outfit blog posts: it is the ONLY ONE with a yet-unseen item from Goodwill. (Another post has Goodwill shoes, but you've seen those before.) It’s been a while since I’ve had a Goodwill haul, so I’m running low on items to show you. But I do have a lovely striped shirt, so I guess we’ll take quality over quantity this time.

Levis – Amazon – $17.99
sweater – Target – $8.38
shoes – Plato’s Closet – FREE! (originally $6; used credit)
TOTAL: $26.37

These jeans are the most comfortable jeans I have ever owned. They’re soft and flexible like pajamas, but they’re still definitely jeans. I had never bought jeans on Amazon before, but the price was right, so I gave it a shot. Definite success. This sweater was an end-of-fall clearance find last year, and it’s just as comfy as these jeans. I rarely buy secondhand shoes, but these (along with the black Ys Buys shoes) are a new exception. They were at Plato’s Closet, and I can’t resist a good wedge. I found them while I was waiting for Plato’s Closet to go through a pile of my clothes to buy, and when I went to pay, it turned out that I had more than enough credit to cover the shoes. So I’m calling them free. 

shirt – Old Navy – $5.99
skirt – Forever21 – $10.80
belt – Forever21 – FREE! (came with skirt)
wedges – Goodwill St Paul – $4.99
TOTAL = $21.78

This, friends, is an exceptionally cheap outfit. Yes, my shirt has little cats on it. No, I am not a crazy cat lady: I got this shirt WAY before I got Mona. I know I told you earlier that I’m too old for Forever 21 clothing, and here we are with a second piece of clothing from said store. This skirt falls into the same category as the maxi dress: it’s something I bought almost four years ago, back when a.) I wasn’t too old, and b.) Forever 21 clothes were less ridiculous. It came with the belt, so hooray for that.

maxi dress – Modcloth – $26.99
flats – Target – $7-ish
earrings – Lewis Drug – $.99
TOTAL: $34.98

Hey, another maxi dress! Modcloth has big clearance sales every so often, and that’s when I strike. Their stuff is a tad overpriced at the outset, so I just bide my time until the price drops. Around Christmas, they’re pretty generous with their discounts, so you just have to know when to be watching. Much like the maxi dress from earlier, this dress is like wearing pajamas. You will not hear me complain. And yes, I got my earrings (that are hidden by my hair) at a drug store. Nothing wrong with that.

shirt – Country Peddler – $0 (used $6 credit)
Silver jeans – Maurices – $22.24 (75%off)
sandals – GoJane – $11.84 (20% coupon)
pearl earrings – Etsy – free with wedding bracelet
fleur de lis charm – Hobby Lobby – $.50 (pack of three @ $1.50)
TOTAL = $34.58

Maurices goes a little clearance crazy sometimes, and that’s when I do my best. These jeans were 75% off their clearance price, and it’s almost a miracle that they had my size. When you sell brand-name jeans at a price that low, you’re usually only left with the ridiculous sizes, like 000 extra-long. But luckily for me, they had normal-person sizes, too! The shirt is a lovely Country Peddler find, where I used my store credit to come home with something new. The sandals came from a website called GoJane, where you can almost always find an online coupon. The pearl earrings were tossed in as a freebie when I bought a pearl bracelet for my wedding. Etsy was where I got all sorts of wedding wear – my bracelet, my antique pearl hair comb, and my red slip (to go with my red petticoat). Whoever made the bracelet saw it fit to throw in a pair of earrings for free, and I wear them all the time. Lastly, the fleur de lis charm came from Hobby Lobby as part of a three-pack for $1.50: hence, fifty cents for the individual piece. I had my own chain, so twenty seconds and one pair of needle-nosed pliers later, I had myself a necklace.

dress – Country Peddler – $0 ($32 but used credit)
flats – 6pm – $16.99
belt – Forever21 – $5.80
ampersand earrings – Modcloth – $9.99
TOTAL: $32.78

This dress was a truly great Country Peddler find. It was brand spanking new – it still had the tags attached, and the original price was – get this – $148. It was marked for $32 at Country Peddler, but as always, I used my store credit. I am of the increasingly popular persuasion that something is more desirable if you put a bird on it, and this dress has birds EVERYWHERE. You can’t see my earrings too well in this picture, but you’re going to have to trust me when I tell you that they’re ampersands. I also have quotation mark earrings – what can I say? I have a thing for punctuation.


Well, another cheap outfit post has come to an end. This time, I showed you items from 24 different places: six online clothing/shoe stores, five mall-ish stores, four consignment/thrift stores, two craft stores, one ginormous online retailer, one all-purpose store, one online crafty flea markety store, one outlet store, one drug store, one botanical garden gift shop, my Grandma’s closet, as well as three gifts of indeterminate origin.

That about does it for this latest foray into bargain shopping. I’ve got plenty of other thrifty outfits to show you, so keep your eyes open for the next installment of the cheap outfit blog!

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

adventures in Brookings: the Brookings Book Company.

As you know, I fell in love with libraries at a young age. What could be better than free books?

Well, getting to keep the books.

In my young life, I managed to accumulate a pretty respectable library of my own. Between gifts, rummage sales, book fairs, and book orders, my bookshelf was never empty. However, the more you read, the more books you’ll find that you love. The Brookings Public Library and the Arlington school library opened up worlds of books for me, and those were the places where I discovered books I loved enough to want to add to my collection – books that I could read again and again.

Now, as I was rather young, my means of obtaining the books were limited. I had an allowance of three dollars a week, and that won’t get you much at Barnes and Noble. And when you’re ten, it’s not like you can just drive yourself to Sioux Falls for a trip to the bookstore. And Amazon? Not a thing.

Enter: the Brookings Book Company.
I first got to know the Brookings Book Company thanks to my great uncle Burt. Burt was an avid reader, and he was always trading in his old books for new ones. One day, he presented me with a certificate for store credit to a place called the Brookings Book Company. Burt had taken his old books there and was given store credit in return, which he then bestowed upon me. That certificate was like gold. I persuaded someone (probably either my mom or my grandmother) to take me to this mystical place where one could trade old books in for new (or new to me) books. I wish I could remember what I bought that first day, but I do remember how completely delighted I was do have discovered this new and wonderful place.

As I grew older, I went to the Brookings Book Company more and more. (Having a driver’s license really helped.) It was the perfect place to build my book collection or to pick up something new to read. I would come in with lists of books, carefully browsing the shelves for the elusive volume. Burt, who had more than enough books of his own, would always give me his certificates for store credit, which I would happily spend.

Eventually, I started earning store credit of my own. I cleaned house: boxing up old books and hauling them to be sorted at the Brookings Book Company. They did not issue cash for books: only store credit. I would come away with nearly as many books as I’d come in with – thanks to the Brookings Book Company, I acquired everything from classics to Calvin and Hobbes. For a time, they even sold old records – when I got a record player for Christmas, my first post-Christmas stop was the record room at the Brookings Book Company.

Believe it or not, I didn’t go to the Brookings Book Company for books alone. The Brookings Book Company was (and still is!) home to a friendly three-legged cat named Spencer. I would crouch on the floor, browsing the lowest shelves of the nonfiction, and Spencer would curl up beside me. Any book store that has a store cat is aces in my book.

When I went to college, my visits to the Brookings Book Company became few and far between. And I don’t know what college was like for you, but as an English major, I had too much required reading to even let the thought of reading for pleasure cross my mind. I figured that was something to do when I graduated.

Sure enough, after all my papers were written and my degree was in hand, I was loosed from the chains of required reading. However, since I spent the first nine months post-graduation as a nomadic unpaid intern, I didn’t have the money for books – not even used books. (And none of the libraries would give me a card without a permanent address. Sigh.)

Thankfully, with all that behind me, I can afford to buy books again. Since I work in a library and have access to many thousands of books, I only buy books that I truly love. Recently, I’ve been searching for the books I used to read as a kid – and what better place to pick those up than at used book stores?

One day, I brought James – who is NOT a reader – to the Brookings Book Company. He befriended Spencer while I perused the shelves, picking up a few choice books as I went. James was not particularly enamored with the store (after all, it was full of books)… until he stumbled across a box overflowing with trumpet music. Practically leaping with excitement, he asked the owner how much it would be for the whole box – and he happily paid the $20 asking price.

And now James, too, likes to stop at the Brookings Book Company. I’ve made a believer out of him.

So if you’re ever in Brookings and you’re looking for a cozy used book store, allow me to recommend the Brookings Book Company. The shelves are stuffed with books, and you’ll certainly find something to your liking. Say hi to Spencer for me.