Tuesday, February 24, 2015

top ten Tuesday: UMM jazz songs.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: I had the BEST time in college. I was fortunate enough to choose exactly the right college for me, which is fairly remarkable considering I toured exactly three colleges.

Honestly, I didn’t even WANT to tour the University of Minnesota, Morris. I was planning to go to Gustavus Adolphus in St Peter because 1.) what a cool name, and 2.) they had the best food court I had ever seen. Quality reasons, I know.

But I visited UMM anyway, one lovely October day in 2004. My mom (who had wanted me to give UMM a chance all along) and I made the journey to Morris, and as soon as I set foot on the campus, I knew this was the place for me. It was love at first sight.

My tenure at UMM was chock-full of good things. I discovered the joys of art history, worked at the radio station and the newspaper, met my future husband, and made life-long friends.

Those friends and that future husband? All in the UMM jazz band.
I didn’t join jazz band until my sophomore year – after all, I was a clarinet player, and our jazz band didn’t have a clarinet section. I spent my freshman year playing my clarinet in concert band and being jealous of all my friends in jazz band, and I gamely tried my best to learn tenor saxophone over the summer. When school crept around again, I was decent enough to join one of the Cougar jazz bands.

During my time in UMM jazz, the jazz bands were broken into four main groups: Jazz I (super good), Jazz II (good), and Cougar I and II. The Cougar bands were the same, talent-wise: the only difference was that one was led by the jazz director and the other was led by a student director. We affectionately called them the Cougs. The Coug bands were the noncommittal jazz bands – for those of us who weren’t necessarily that good and just wanted to play. (Without having to practice much/at all.)

Those were also the jazz bands that music majors would join if they wanted to try their hand at a different instrument: my friend Nate played trombone in Jazz I and trumpet in Coug I.

Most of my jazz band time was spent in Coug I (save for the single semester Coug I wouldn’t fit into my schedule, and I was relegated to Monday night Coug II). My friends were all in Coug I, and I loved each student director: Nolan my first year, Kevin my second, and James my last. (I wish I could say that having my then-boyfriend-now-husband as a director allowed me special privileges, but it didn’t. Maybe he didn’t appreciate me boo-ing a few of his song choices from the front row.)

Coug I was a fifty-minute class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I sat next to my friend and fellow tenor sax Clara, who was way better than me and bravely took the solos. We moaned and groaned at our least favorite songs and accidentally stole egg shakers.
My friends Sara, Nate, and Donovan were trumpet players, they cheerfully heckled each student director from their place on the risers. Jazz band was the greatest.
We had three concerts a year (October, November, February), three jazz dances (December, February, April), and one Jazz Fest (April). My parents happily came to Morris for each concert, which – we all agreed – were much more fun than the concert band concerts.
It was great fun for me to play, but it was just as much fun for me to listen to the other bands play. Jazz I always performed last, and they were show-stoppers.

So, for this musical top ten Tuesday, I’d like to present my top ten UMM jazz band songs. Five of them I played, five of them I didn’t. I noted the date we played them to the best of my memory/researching some of the old jazz programs James still has saved. So allow me to present my ten favorite UMM jazz songs!


Blues in the Night
November 2006
We played "Blues in the Night" at my second jazz concert of all time. (Alas, I can't remember what I played at my first jazz concert of all time.) I recall being very excited that I could actually play the saxophone part - keep in mind that I had been playing saxophone for a mere five months by this point. You don't have to be impressed, but I'm still going to feel a-ok about it.

Jazz Fest 2007
My first Jazz Fest! It was always fun to go to Jazz Fest, but it was nowhere near as fun as playing in it. 
First Jazz Fest!
We all had our matching t-shirts and matching excitement, and I got to use an egg shaker for the first time. (It wasn't until my final jazz fest that I accidentally stole the egg shaker. It may or may not still be in my saxophone case to this day.)

Coconut Champagne
October 2007
"Coconut Champagne" is by far my favorite song that I played during my jazz years. It was so much fun to play, and it was catchy as hell. The saxophone part was super fun - fun enough that I even WANTED to practice. I NEVER want to practice. That, my friends, is a big deal.

Carnival del Soul
February 2008
As you've probably noticed, all of my favorite songs are super catchy. "Carnival del Soul" is not only catchy, but short and sweet: the recording I have of the UMM Jazz Band clocks in at just over two minutes. It's got a great beat and speeds right along, and you can't say that about all jazz.

jazz dances, 2008 - 2009
As I was making this list, I noticed that songs from James's days as the jazz director didn't make the cut. "Didn't you pick anything good?" I asked him. "I wanted to, but you guys had already played the good stuff!" he said. So under James's direction, we played the good stuff at the jazz dances. I loved playing "Birdland," and you have to admit that it just makes you want to dance.


The First Circle
November 2006
Jazz I was made up of the best and the brightest: the super-talented musicians who could take anything thrown at them. "The First Circle" was a song that Jazz I played one concert just to show us how just exactly how talented they were. "The First Circle" was full of crazy time signatures that changed all the time, and James says it was super complicated and he tried to explain why but he ended up getting really technical and convoluted, so let's just leave it at this: it was hard and sounded really cool. The end.

Village Dance
October 2007
While "Coconut Champagne" is my favorite song that I've played in jazz band, "Village Dance" is my favorite song from any of the jazz concerts and dances, period. I asked James (who played in all of these songs but one) what I should say about "Village Dance," and he gave me the following bullshit:

"The low brass is explosive!"
"The sound is voluptuous!"
"It's like a power ballad... but not a ballad."

When James played this song that year, he had just learned how to circular breathe: you push air through your horn with your mouth while still breathing air in through your nose. It creates the illusion that you never stop for air, and it's really cool if you execute it correctly. James tried out circular breathing during his solo in "Village Dance," and it worked like a charm. The crowd went wild.

Jalapeno Dreams
February 2008
When Jazz I played something really cool, they always played it right at the end. No surprise, "Jalapeno Dreams" was one such piece. There are a lot of songs on this list vying for the title of catchiest, but I wonder if "Jalapeno Dreams" couldn't take the title. I'm listening to it as I'm typing, and I'm involuntarily bobbing my head - and out of the corner of my eye, I see James doing the same thing. James, the resident jazz expert, wants you to know that they played it at 200 beats per minute: aka very VERY fast. He also thinks you should know that it features each section individually. You're getting quite the music lesson today.

St Thomas
jazz combo
Yet another magnificently catchy jazz standard. There have been times I've had "St Thomas" stuck in my head for days on end. And you know what? I was ok with it. At the UMM jazz concerts, the four big jazz bands played, but sprinkled among them were combos. The combos had anywhere from three to nine people, and they played one song apiece. One combo played "St Thomas," which I'd never heard before. Changed my life.

The Bunny Hop
jazz dances
At the jazz dances, Jazz I played last and got all the best dance songs like "In the Mood" and "Sing Sing Sing." And of course, "The Bunny Hop." What made it memorable was that the musicians would come out on the dance floor and play their instruments... while doing the actual Bunny Hop. (If you didn't watch the Lawrence Welk video, do it right now. That's the Bunny Hop, and it's even more fantastic when Lawrence Welk does it.) That truly takes talent.


There you have it: my top ten UMM jazz songs. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a sudden urge to go and play my saxophone.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

let's talk about Beanie Babies.

I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but I, too, was a part of the Beanie Baby craze of the mid-to-late 90s.

Don’t worry: I wasn’t in it for the money. (I was eight. No eight-year-old is in ANYTHING for the money.) I just thought they were super cute.

I wasn’t even aware that Beanie Babies were THE must-have toy until long after everyone else. (Story of my life. I’m fairly terrible at adopting trends.) My cousins from Colorado had Beanie Babies, so I was first introduced to Beanie Babies on a trip to visit said cousins. They had piles of Beanie Babies in their rooms, and I thought the Beanie Babies were cute and cuddly and oh look they come with names and birthdays and why don’t I own them ALL?

My first Beanie Baby came from my Grandma Lorraine and Grandpa Harvey. Back when the Brookings mall housed Cover to Cover, we’d go there on occasion to browse the books or to look at the fun giftware they sold. Eventually, Cover to Cover started carrying Beanie Babies. One Easter, my brother, sister, and I all got a Beanie Baby from Grandma and Grandpa. I don’t recall dropping great big hints about Beanie Babies to my grandparents, so they must’ve caught onto the trend.

My first Beanie Baby was a black and white dog named Spot.
(In my extensive research for this story – also known as Wikipedia – I found out that Spot was one of nine original Beanie Babies released in 1993.) At the time, we had a real dog named Spot (who was unspotted), so I’m sure this was the inspiration behind this particular Beanie Baby. Spot came with a little tag clipped to his ear that informed me of his name and birth date. (If my memory serves me correctly, Spot had the same birthday as my dad: January 3. It was meant to be.)

During Beanie Baby 101 at my cousins’ house in Colorado, I was informed that the absolute most important number one Beanie Baby owning rule is to make sure that those tags are NEVER removed from your Beanie Babies. That tag is how you know that you have a 100% authentic Beanie Baby, and without that tag, the value will plummet. From the day I got my first Beanie Baby, I was borderline obsessive: not one of my tags was ever removed, and I even bought those stupid heart-shaped plastic tag protectors for my favorite Beanie Babies’ tags. How ridiculous.

Spot was just the first of many Beanie Babies yet to come. My second Beanie Baby came from my Great Aunt Ruth and Great Uncle Orin: the grandparents of the cousins with all the Beanie Babies. They gave me a little white unicorn, and I spent years convinced that my unicorn was much more valuable than any other unicorns: my unicorn had a brown horn while all the other unicorns had iridescent sparkly horns. My unicorn was special.
(Note: I have never actually cared enough to look this up – if my brown-horned unicorn is somehow more special than the iridescent-horned unicorn. I still don’t care enough to look it up.)

The older I got, the more Beanie Babies I wanted. After all, new Beanie Babies were being released all the time, with each generation cuter than the last. And I was on a never-ending search for a Beanie Baby that shared my birthday. (Note: I never found one on my own, but with my aforementioned extensive research – Wikipedia – I learned that Quackers the Duck has the same birthday as me.)

Every Christmas and birthday list contained a special Beanie Baby section. I had dogs (a terrier, a pug, a dachshund), cats (a calico, a Siamese, a cougar), birds (a flamingo, a penguin, an ostrich, a cardinal, a hummingbird), various bears, a star spangled elephant (back when I thought I’d grow up to be a Republican – thankfully, I grew out of THAT), a butterfly, a walrus, a jellyfish, a rhino… it was a whole menagerie.
Did you know that there was even such a thing as a
Beanie Baby jellyfish?
On occasion, I’d save up enough allowance to buy a Beanie Baby at an arts festival. I could never afford to buy one in a store, but there was usually a bit of room for negotiating if the vendor had a booth in a flea market or something. I bought the coolest Beanie Baby dragon at Prairie Village Days in Madison – it had red crinkly wings and was this cool textured brown color. 
I’d like to say that I spent ten dollars on it, which was a fortune in 1996 Calla dollars. The other Beanie Baby I clearly remembered buying at such an event was the commemorative Princess Diana bear. 
Why I felt inclined to buy this particular Beanie Baby, I do not know. It was very pretty with its deep purple color and embroidered rose, but I was ten when Princess Diana died and don’t recall feeling any sort of special attachment to her. What I do remember is that the vendor wouldn’t take any less than twelve dollars for this Beanie Baby. Since I had spent so much on it, the Princess Diana bear merited one of my plastic tag protectors.

I sought out Beanie Babies not just in the regular size, but in the Teeny size and jumbo size, as well. I had one big Beanie Baby: it was a super-soft penguin that I bought when my Colorado cousin and I did chores for Ruth and Orin (her grandparents, my great aunt and uncle) so that we could each earn enough money to buy a stuffed animal from the Index in downtown Brookings. (Fun fact: that penguin was also twelve dollars, which made me question why I the purple Diana bear – significantly smaller and not nearly as soft – was the same price.)

The Teeny Beanies came in Happy Meals, and lucky for me, I hadn’t quite aged out of the Happy Meal bracket. If I couldn’t get the Teeny Beanie I wanted via a Happy Meal, I found that these were quite affordable at craft shows and flea markets. (The key was to look for one in its original plastic McDonalds packaging. Then you knew you had a good one.) I had a whole other zoo of Teeny Beanies: a red bull, more penguins, a lobster. But three sizes of Beanie Baby weren’t enough for me: oh no. At a craft show in Arlington, I bought teeny tiny clay renderings of the penguin Beanie Baby and the Princess Diana bear Beanie Baby – they even had teeny tiny red tags. While not official Beanie Babies (after all, they were melted-looking things that were crafted by some ambitious South Dakotan), I still considered them part of my collection.

It was inevitable that I would grow out of Beanie Babies, and sure enough, I did. I got rid of a bunch of them – not by selling them and making a fortune (ha!), but by donating them to Goodwill or the church rummage sale. I kept a few of the especially cute ones, like the dragon and the flamingo and the teeny lobster. (Who can resist a teeny lobster?) 
Not me.
And there is a leopard Beanie Baby that rides around in my car – I saw it sitting sad and alone at a Sioux Falls Goodwill and for some reason could not leave without it. James bought it for me, and it is awfully cute. This second-hand leopard never did have its red Beanie Baby tag, and as it turns out, that doesn’t matter at all. I just don’t know its name and birthday.
(Extensive research note: Wikipedia tells me that the leopard’s name is Freckles and its birthday is June 3, 1996. We can all breathe a sigh of relief now that the mystery is solved.) 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

ode to my All-Stars.

Dear All-Stars,

How time flies.

It seems like just yesterday that I brought you home. It was December 2008, and I was home from college for winter break – my final winter break, as it was my senior year. I had gone to Sioux Falls to spend my hard-earned Christmas money. I had wanted a pair of black Converse All-Stars for a while, and this seemed like the day to commit. I strolled into JCPenney, and in a few short minutes, I was the proud owner of a brand-new pair of Converse All-Stars.

All-Stars, you were the perfect shoes. As soon as I put you on, I wondered what took me so long to buy you. Where had you been all my life? Never before had I loved a pair of sneakers so much.
Converses' first picture.
I wore you almost every day during that last semester of college. That was a busy semester for me, and I needed you. I wore you to work at the Common Cup Coffeehouse at 6am on Mondays and Fridays, and I wore you to my 8am art history class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. (An 8am class is a college student’s worst nightmare, and I had managed to avoid them until my last semester.) Without you, dear All-Stars, I never would’ve been on time for either one. All-Stars, I didn’t want to pay for a campus parking pass, so you got me back and forth to class each day – be it on foot or by bicycle. By the time I graduated, you were dingy and dirty and looked as well-loved as you were.
A fellow Converse enthusiast.
But our adventures were far from over. After college, I embarked upon internships in art museums in Denver, New Orleans, and Minneapolis. These internships were all unpaid, so my entertainment was limited to things that were free. And you know what is free, All-Stars? Walking. And you can’t go walking without a good pair of sneakers.
You also can't ride the bus next to discarded hair extensions without a good pair of sneakers.
All-Stars, you took me everywhere. We walked around Denver together, enjoying summer in the mountains. In New Orleans, we spent countless hours exploring the French Quarter, Magazine Street, and Lake Ponchartrain.
I made friends with a French Quarter trombonist in
my Converses.
Downtown Minneapolis was not too far from my apartment, so I’d put on my All-Stars and stroll to the Nicollet Mall. 
Over my lunch break at work, my All-Stars and I took countless trips to Lake Calhoun. Rain or shine, All-Stars, we were out discovering new things about the places we lived.
Like fun graffiti...
...or rock formations...
...or giant interactive sculptures...
...or swing sets...
...or waterfalls...
...or apple orchards.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though, All-Stars. Not all of our time together was spent walking around and absorbing the beauty of those three cities. No, a lot of it was hard work. In Denver, New Orleans, and Minneapolis, I was working at least two minimum wage jobs in addition to my internships. After all, I still had to eat.I worked at American Eagle in all three cities, plus a fireworks store in Denver, Michael’s in New Orleans, and three Craigslist jobs in Minneapolis. All of those jobs required a lot of time on my feet, and there were many days that I was going right from one job to another. All-Stars, I wouldn’t have been able to log all hours without you.

I’m a one-job gal now and have been for some time. While I can’t wear you every day, All-Stars, I gladly wear you on casual Fridays or weekends.
Especially when my weekends involve climbing
in tractor tires...
...or playing with happy black labs.
All-Stars, you were my first. You opened the door for other All-Stars in varying colors and patterns – I even wore turquoise All-Stars on my wedding day.
But it all started with you, my black All-Stars. Without you, I never would’ve known the glory of the Converse All-Star. And you can bet that I’ll never forget.

All-Stars, you have been with me for almost six years, and we’ve been through a lot together. Through the good and the bad, you’ve been there for me. I’ll always remember all the jobs we’ve worked, all the places we’ve been, and all the streets we’ve explored.
My Converses. My brother's Converses.
You’re faded now, and your soles are worn down. Your edges are cracked, and you don’t keep out the snow and rain like you used to. My dear All-Stars, the time has come for you to retire. After the thousands of miles we’ve put on, you’ve earned a rest. Though it pains me to have to say goodbye, we both know it’s time. I’ll replace you with a pair of new black All-Stars, but they’ll never be as special as you.
Our last great adventure together: a New Orleans
Rest in peace, dear black All-Stars. I’ll never forget you.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

let's talk about toast.

Everyone has an all-time favorite food. It’s hard to narrow it down out of all the amazing things one eats over a lifetime, but when you think about it, there’s probably one food that stands above the rest.

For me? It’s toast.

You may be thinking that toast is an awfully lame favorite food. And you might be right. There are certainly foods I’d pick before toast if offered the two side-by-side: Nick’s hamburgers, Café du Monde beignets, arts festival cheese curds. But toast has been with me the longest. I have been eating toast for most of my life, and I still love it. You can’t say that about just anything.

My earliest toasty memories are from when I couldn’t have been much older than three. Mom and Dad would make me cinnamon and sugar toast – to this day, cinnamon and sugar is one of my favorite toast toppings. As the refined three-year-old that I was, I got a huge kick of trying to get as much cinnamon and sugar on my face as possible.

My grandma Sheila is famous for her homemade cinnamon bread, and she has been for as long as I can remember. She makes loaves and loaves, especially around the holidays, and we were lucky recipients. It’s delicious on its own, but it’s at its best when toasted. This cinnamon bread is smaller than a regular loaf of bread, so you have to be careful not to get the tiny slices stuck in the toaster. But you haven’t lived until you’ve had a piece of Grandma Sheila’s buttered toasted cinnamon bread.

English muffin toasting bread will forever remind me of my grandma Lorraine. Whenever I’d spend the day in Brookings with Grandma Lorraine and Grandpa Harvey, Mom would drop me off early – before she went to work. I’d be ready for breakfast, and Grandma would make me buttered slices of English Muffin toasting bread with red plum jelly. Nobody could butter toast like Grandma Lorraine.

Because of those days with Grandma Lorraine, English muffin toasting bread with butter and red plum jam became my default. I’d come home from school and have toast. I’d get up on a Saturday morning and have toast. Always with red plum jam. It wasn’t until I started listening to Simon and Garfunkel that I switched up my jam routine. In a bizarre song called “Punky’s Delight,” Paul Simon sings about how he “prefers boysenberry more than any ordinary jam.” So of course, I had to try it. I don’t know if it was my deep and abiding love for all things Simon and Garfunkel or if I truly liked it, but boysenberry replaced red plum as the top dog in my jam repertoire.

I consumed loaves and LOAVES of English muffin toasting bread during my school years, only eating regular toast when we were out of English muffin (horrors!) or when my breakfast order at a restaurant came with plain old white or wheat. However, when I began working at the Dairy Mart as a high school senior, I was introduced to the world of Texas toast. The Dairy Mart would throw in a side of Texas toast with their chicken strip baskets, and this toast was simply delightful. It was impressively thick, and all it needed was butter. When we Dairy Mart employees got hungry on slow nights, you can bet that we headed right for the toaster.

My dad listened to the Bob and Tom radio show from time to time, and our neighbor lent him a collection of Bob and Tom CDs one day. Dad was a bit hesitant to listen to them with the whole family around – if you’ve ever listened to Bob and Tom, you know that they’re not the most family-friendly radio personalities. However, we did catch one of their songs – “Yeah Toast!” When I first heard it, I felt like I had kindred spirits in Bob and Tom. The song goes:

All around the country and coast
People always say, “What do you like most?”
I don’t wanna brag, I don’t wanna boast.
I always tell ‘em I like toast.

Seriously, it could be my theme song.

Keep in mind, all these great toast milestones occurred before I went off to college. My friends, I didn’t truly know what toast was – the absolute grandeur and delicious magic of what toast could be. I lived without knowing… until I went to Don’s.

Don’s is a little café in Morris, Minnesota – where I went to college. I arrived for orientation in August, and one of the first things we (and all incoming freshman) were told was that toast at Don’s was an absolute must. Being the obedient freshman that I was, I gathered up my floormates (who had heard the same thing about this mythical toast) and went to Don’s.

Oh joy. Oh rapture!

I had never had anything like Don’s toast, and I doubt I ever will. They make their own bread and cut it into these incredibly thick slices. It’s toasted, saturated with butter, and delivered piping-hot to your table with your choice of jam. (Strawberry jam on Don’s toast was always my favorite.)
Toast circa 2006.
I couldn’t count how many times I’ve had Don’s toast over the years, but it will never be enough. I’ve gone back to Morris a few times since graduating – mainly so that I can get toast at Don’s. They even sell shirts that say “I got toasted at Don’s!” – a shirt that my sister Darrah got in trouble for wearing when she was still in high school.
That's the one.
If you’re lucky and get to Don’s early enough, you can buy an entire loaf of Don’s bread to take home with you and toast at your leisure. The thing is the size of a newborn and weighs about as much. I’ve missed out on the loaves for the last few times I’ve been to Don’s – as you can imagine, they’re in high demand. That just leaves me to dream of Don’s toast and plot my next pilgrimage. I can never go too long in between Don’s visits.

While it in no way compares to Don’s, the other toast-friendly restaurant that I frequent is Raising Cane’s. It’s a chicken finger restaurant that I first experienced in New Orleans, and it is simply fantastic. The chicken fingers are crispy and never frozen, and the Cane’s sauce is a secret blend of deliciousness. However, the toast is almost – ALMOST – my favorite part of the meal. Raising Cane’s puts their toast right on the grill, and it’s so dense and wonderful with its sesame seeds and crunchy butteriness on the outside. When I lived in New Orleans and was incredibly poor, I would go to Raising Cane’s and order a couple of pieces of toast. And that magical toast would make me forget – just for a moment – how poor I was.

Luckily for me, Raising Cane’s isn’t just in the south. There are a couple of locations in the cities and a couple more in Omaha. Alas, it’s still a three-plus hour drive either way. But I have hooked a number of people on Raising Cane’s – James included – so it’s not hard to convince him to stop there whenever we take a trip.

So that’s why toast is my favorite food. I’ve loved it in so many different forms and in so many different times and places. Toast has carried me through nearly three decades of life (yeesh), and I’m always looking forward to my next serving of toast.

Especially if it’s from Don’s. Oh please let it be from Don’s.