My Top Five Choir Songs

Being in choir was the best part of my high school experience. I remember my first day, a nervous freshman who couldn’t read music and was terrified of her own breathy, shaky voice, learning a simple melody that our teacher had us sing in a round and being in awe at the gorgeous sound a simple combination of voices could make. I remember my first concert, being completely enchanted by the upperclassmen and select choirs-specifically concert choir and chamber choir-and wanting so, so badly to be a part of that.  I remember working my butt off for the next few years, taking private voice lessons and practicing at home, slowly discovering that I was capable of being loud, of making a beautiful sound. I remember how ecstatic I was to see my hard work pay off my senior year, when I made it into concert choir, chamber choir, and the chorus of two theater productions.

I don’t sing much anymore (besides shout-singing along to my car radio or drunkenly rocking out to “Baby, One More Time” at karaoke with my coworkers) but I’ll always cherish the memories I have of being in choir. There’s something extraordinary about it-that feeling of being wrapped up in music when your voice intertwines with twenty or thirty or three hundred others, completely enveloped in song. It’s amazing to hear what kind of magic is created when different voices combine in different ways, and the songs listed below are prime examples of that.

1. “Water Night,” Eric Whitacre

Most choir students are familiar with Grammy-winning composer Eric Whitacre because he is a musical badass. Recognized worldwide, Whitacre is well-known for composing music using a method called pandiatonicism: a musical technique that, as defined by creator Nicolas Slominsky, “sanctions the simultaneous use of any or all seven tones of the diatonic scale, with the bass determining the harmony.” This can be heard in one of his more popular songs,”Water Night.” The combination of the surreal lyrics (a translation of Octavio Paz’s poem “Agua Nocturna”), powerful dynamics, and Whitacre’s composition style creates a stunning, unworldly quality that gives me chills every time I hear it.

2. Past Life Melodies,” Sarah Hopkins

This is one of the weirdest choral pieces I have ever been lucky enough to perform. It’s so eerie and alien-like; I’ve never heard another song quite like it. The last part of it sounds less like a song and more like nearly three minutes of sound effects from a sci-fi movie (if you don’t have the patience to listen to the whole song, skip to around 4:35 to hear what I’m talking about). It really makes you appreciate what the human voice is capable of, thanks to composer Sarah Hopkins incorporation of overtone singing, where the voices’ overtones (frequencies higher than the fundamental frequency of sound) create the melody. It’s one of the strangest songs I’ve ever heard, and it’s so damn cool.

3. “Hope for Resolution,” Paul Caldwell & Sean Ivory

This song is much more traditional-sounding compared to the first two on this list, but it’s just as breathtaking. Composers Paul Caldwell and Sean ivory wrote the song in 1994 as a tribute to the end of Apartheid in South Africa, and the combination of the classic hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” and anti-Apartheid liberation song “Thula Sizwe” honors the occasion brilliantly. It starts out with the first verse of “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” sung in unison, usually by a children’s choir, then blossoms into these gorgeous, angelic harmonies sung in a round as the rest of the choir joins in. Then the song shifts to “Thula Sizwe,” quietly intense at first, but building quickly as it is sung in tandem with “Of the Father’s Love Begotten.” By the end, the song has expanded into this glorious vocal celebration, exploding in a final, joyous “oh!” It’s incredible, and I never get tired of hearing it.

4. “Omnia Sol,”   Z. Randall Stroope

We sang this at my high school graduation, and I can’t imagine a better song for such an occasion. The second half of the chorus is text from Carmina Burana, with the first line (“omnia sol temperat/absens in remota”) translating to “The sun warms everything, even when I am away,” which seems like the perfect sentiment for a group of students embarking on a new part of their lives. Like “Hope for Resolution,” the harmonies here are exceptionally beautiful; every note is packed with emotion. And the part near 3:45, when the key changes and the Latin lyrics are overlaid with the English ones, is basically the musical equivalent of the clouds opening up to let the sunlight shine through.

5. “Carols Around (And Around),” arr. Paul. J. Nygard

I know a Christmas carol medley seems a little out of place in this list. There are plenty of arrangements of well-known Christmas songs out there, and this one isn’t a particularly innovative version (not that it isn’t pretty). I can’t even find a great example of it on YouTube. My reason for including it is purely sentimental: it’s the song my high school performs every year at the holiday concert, when alumni are invited on stage to sing with the current students, and I’m so grateful that they provide that opportunity. I’m so happy that, once a year, I can be back on the stage, squished between the other alumni in attendance, and for a few minutes relive that feeling of my heart expanding and filling me completely, overflowing in song, my voice rising to meet the nearly two hundred others filling the auditorium. Because I miss it so much, and the chance to be a part of it again, as brief as it might be, is invaluable.

Tequila and Cheese (And More Questionable Food Decisions)

I’m not a big tequila fan. I like margaritas, but only because they’re sugary enough to mostly cover up the taste of the alcohol. My aversion is definitely a psychological issue; I overindulged on tequila shots when I was newly-twenty-one, so now tequila tastes like junior year of college and bad decisions.

And yet, I had a nearly full bottle of Jose Cuervo sitting on top of my fridge for about a month.  I decided to make boozy Popsicles for a book club meeting last month (aw, yeah, my friends and I get crazy when we discuss Mark Twain, yo) and I settled on a recipe for tequila sunrise pops, because I figured it would be hard to screw up tequila, orange juice, and grenadine. Unfortunately, I didn’t think about how long alcohol takes to freeze, so by the time my friends arrived they were more like tequila sunrise slushies. I also added way too much tequila to the tiny Popsicle molds, so by the time they did freeze, they were more like tequila shot ice cubes with a hint of orange juice.

Fortunately, Holly was up for another round of “let’s put a bunch of [insert alcohol here] into stuff and see what happens!” True, the Fireball experiment  hadn’t been completely successful (just thinking about those cupcakes makes me queasy), but cooking with tequila sounded a lot more promising than cooking with cinnamon whiskey, and we found a lot of great recipes. However, grocery shopping in a Minnesota suburb provides limited options on finding specialty ingredients like champagne mangoes or GranQueso or fontina cheesse. When Holly asked the deli worker at Cub what a good substitute for either cheese was, his reply was “That sounds Mexican. Is that Mexican?” and proceeded to give her detailed instructions on how to find the shredded cheese aisle.  Despite our limitations, we were able to be resourceful with what we had, and we totally knocked it out of the park on all of the recipes.

1. Tequila-infused mango and avocado salsa

The main reason I chose this one was because it involved no actual cooking, just chopping and mixing produce. I was a little worried about how it would taste, because the first instructions were to coat the chunks of mango in a bowl of tequila and let it soak for an hour, and it smelled like a frat house when I first mixed it. However, once the fruit had absorbed the alcohol and was combined with the avocado, jalapeno, and cilantro (I left out the red onion because it’s gross and this was my recipe, so there) it tasted phenomenal. The sweetness from the mango really cut down on the alcohol taste, but the tequila flavor still blended really well with the jalapeno and cilantro. From what I read, the only difference between regular mangoes and champagne or honey mangoes is that the latter are sweeter, but the regular mangoes and agave nectar provided plenty of sweetness to the mix, so I don’t think the substitution made a huge difference. It was magnificent, and I’m planning on making this for every social gathering I ever go to now. You’re welcome, family and friends.

Untitled

2. Apricot tequila glazed drumsticks

This recipe has only a few ingredients, but it’s super tasty. The tequila flavor is pretty much cooked out of the glaze, but the chili and apricot flavors are amazing together. Holly chopped the chilies by hand because she forgot that she had an actual chopper, so we would occasionally bite into a bigger chunk and get a spicy punch in the mouth, but the apricot cooled it off quickly.

wings

3. 3-cheese and tequila mac and cheese

Tequila and cheese don’t sound like two things that should go together, but mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food and is pretty hard to screw up, so we figured it was worth a try. The recipe actually called for poblano pepper-infused tequila, which, of course, the local liquor store didn’t have (and I’m not sure why it exists anyway, considering poblano peppers don’t have a super distinctive flavor) but Holly made do by juicing a poblano pepper with a garlic press and mixing it into the tequila. Because Cub had neither fontina nor GranQueso, we used Italian blend and Mexican blend shredded cheeses, because each at least contained both kinds of cheese (among others, so this was probably more like 8-cheese mac and cheese, which is a beautiful, beautiful thing). The original recipe was entertaining thanks to descriptions like “luscious cheese concoction,”, although some of the instructions were a little unusual (how do you accurately gauge how hot “piping hot” milk should be? Why can’t you just say “stir vigorously” instead of “stir like mad!” or “whisk, whisk whisk!”?). The result was exquisite; the dish was gooey, creamy, and had a nice kick from the tequila, sharp cheese combination, and cayenne pepper. It’s a pretty involved recipe, but I don’t think I can go back to Kraft macaroni again after this.

mac n cheese

4. Pink Lung (grapefruit beer and tequila)

This was Holly’s original creation: a combination of Illusive Traveler grapefruit beer and a shot of tequila. I was hesitant to try it, because I don’t like grapefruit, I’m not crazy about beer, and the mere scent of tequila reminds me of hangovers and regret, but Holly was pretty enthusiastic about it, so despite the unnerving name (seriously, naming a drink after an internal organ is not appetizing) I gave it a shot, and I was pleasantly surprised. It was refreshing and summery but had a nice warmth from the tequila.

pink lung

5. Strawberry sriracha margaritas

This one would have been a lot better if I had actually measured out some of the ingredients. Unfortunately, by this point I was confident that I was basically Martha Stewart and could just eyeball it when adding the sriracha to the strawberry/tequila/agave nectar mixture. The first few sips were amazing; strawberries and sriracha are surprisingly delicious together. After that, though, the heat from the sauce started overwhelming the strawberry flavor. It wasn’t bad; it was just weird. The recipe also called for Cointreau (orange liqueur), which I skipped because I didn’t want to buy something I would only end up using a splash of in one recipe and then never use again, but it might have helped balance the sweet and spicy flavors.

margaritas

Overall, this was a huge success. I had low expectations, considering tequila is my least favorite type of alcohol, but I would try all of these recipes again.  I’m pretty sure we’re going to make this a regular thing too, and try new recipes each month, so if you have any suggestions on what kind of liquor we should use next, let me know!

Fireball and Tomato Juice (And Other Questionable Food Decisions)

Holly has been my best friend since ninth grade. We formed a bond while we were waiting for our moms to pick us up after auditioning for the fall musical (and embarrassing ourselves spectacularly) when she complimented my t-shirt (camouflage with the caption “Ha! Now you can’t see me!” printed across the chest) and we commiserated over how horribly we’d performed during the audition. Nearly twelve years later, she’s still one of my favorite people; Holly is one of the brightest, funniest, most creative people I know, and she’s always been there for me, no matter how trivial my problems might be.

bff

In addition to being a generally wonderful human being, Holly is also my fine arts buddy; we do classy things like take a road trip to Chicago to see The Globe’s international tour of Hamlet or try escargot at a fancy French restaurant before going to the opening night of Fanciulla del West at the Minnesota Opera.

And sometimes we do not-so-classy things like adding fireball to a bunch of stuff to see what it tastes like.

I promise this isn’t as stupid as it sounds.

The plan stemmed from a growing need to get rid of a bottle of Fireball Holly left in my freezer on Halloween (we combined it with root beer, and the result tastes like liquid Red Hots; a candy-flavored drink seemed like an appropriate choice for the holiday). And yes, I am an amazing friend for not drinking any of it for eight months.

As it turns out, Fireball’s website has an extensive list of recipes (most of which have the word “balls” in them, which appeals to my twelve-year-old sense of humor), and a lot of them involve combinations I never would have thought of.  In the end, we each chose two recipes: one cocktail and one food. I only had two guidelines for the cocktails: they had to be ones we hadn’t tried before, and they had to be ones that didn’t involve other types of alcohol; as delicious as some of the ones on the website sounded, I really didn’t want to buy a huge bottle of butterscotch schnapps or pumpkin liqueur or some other obscure ingredient that would just end up sitting in the back of my fridge forever after using it for one drink.  All of the recipes we tried besides the cupcakes were from Fireball’s official website, although we tweaked them a bit. In some cases, doing that worked out really well; in others, we probably should have experimented a little more.

THE FOOD

1. Fireball barbecue sauce

I figured this one would be hard to screw up, which appealed to me because I never cook and wanted something easy. The recipe on the site was technically for baked barbecue chicken, but because it was hot as balls outside that day and we were already using the oven for Holly’s recipe and I didn’t want my apartment to feel like Hell, I decided to just mix it in a crockpot with frozen meatballs. The result: they were delicious. You couldn’t really taste the Fireball that much; the sauce was kind of sweet, but that was probably just the brown sugar. Holly noted that the syrupy-ness from the Fireball was kind of detectable, but it wasn’t overpowering. I would definitely make this again.

meatballs

2. Fireball cupcakes 

Technically, this recipe didn’t call for Fireball, they’re just called Girl on Fire cupcakes (after The Hunger Games success), but because they came up in a Google search for Fireball recipes, we rolled with it, replacing the water in the batter with the cinnamon whiskey. We also added a little Fireball to the frosting as well, hoping to increase the cinnamon flavor. Unfortunately, the cinnamon flavor was cooked out of the cupcakes, leaving behind only a rotten whiskey taste, so it was more like somewhat bland cupcakes with an ass-flavored aftertaste. They didn’t even look as cool as the ones in the recipe (although that might have to do with the fact that the original baker used a professional frosting tube and we just cut a hole in the corner of a plastic bag…hey, we get points for resourcefulness!). We used boxed yellow cake mix, which is what the recipe called for, but we think we would have had more success if we had made the batter from scratch….and just added cinnamon rather than Fireball. Conclusion: Fireball-THEMED cupcakes have the potential to be awesome, but actual Fireball cupcakes taste like sugary poop.

cupcakes

THE COCKTAILS

1. Fireball and Iced Tea

I thought this one would be my favorite because I love cinnamon tea. I figured it would just taste like cinnamon iced tea with a bit of a kick. However, we underestimated the strength of Fireball, and despite using the amounts of iced tea and whiskey listed in the official recipe, it just tasted like a big glass of watered-down Fireball. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t something I would be able to drink a lot of; it took us a while to finish the one drink, just because the Fireball was so overwhelming. Next time: more iced tea, less Fireball.

iced tea

2. Fireball Bloody Mary

This was the one I was the most nervous for; seriously, what weirdo over at Fireball headquarters was like “You know what would taste great together? Tomato juice and cinnamon.” Even the site’s name for it, “Bloody Balls,” is disgusting. But I really wanted to try an unusual recipe, so we risked it. At first, it lived up to my expectation that it would be gross; it just tasted like sugary tomato juice. Then, Holly had a stroke of genius and added a good squirt of sriracha to it…and it was SO. DAMN. GOOD. The spiciness of the sriracha helped combine the sweetness of the Fireball and the savory-ness of the Bloody Mary mix into this unique, amazing flavor.

bloody mary

BONUS SHOT RECIPE!

Inspired by the Bloody Mary success, Holly tried to recreate a shot she had tried at The Shout House in Minneapolis called an Atomic Fireball, named after the candy, which apparently the shot is supposed to taste like. The shot at the bar combined Fireball and Tabasco, but because the only hot sauce I had in my kitchen was sriracha, we had to make due with that. Lesson learned: sriracha and Fireball is not the same as Tabasco and Fireball, and it definitely doesn’t taste like candy. It does scorch your throat going down, so that’s fun.

atomic fireball

Overall, it was a successful experiment. True, some of the recipes weren’t anything I would ever willingly ingest again, but I had so much fun spending the evening with my bestie. Seriously, I’m so lucky to have this girl in my life. We go together like Fireball and tomato juice….and the sriracha is our bond of friendship…okay, this simile is becoming more of a mess than the cupcakes, so I’m going to stop now.

The Bat Cave

My first apartment was a dump. It was a grimy basement-level unit in an old house that had been renovated into three apartments. The whole place smelled mildewy, made worse by the mid-August humidity. The carpet was thin, dirty, and scratchy, seeming more suited to a used car than a home. The asshole who had my bedroom before me had apparently superglued a poster of Eminem to the closet door and only succeeded in scraping off part of it before moving out, leaving chunks of the rapper’s face stuck to the wood. It was disgusting.

But, my friend Amanda and I agreed when we’d signed the lease, it was a step up from dorm life. We figured it would be nice to have to share a bathroom with only one girl instead of twenty, not deal with malfunctioning fire alarms at 2 A.M.,  and stop having to sneak our way around the whole “dry campus” rule by hiding vodka in plastic water  bottles in mini-fridges. Besides, the place was only two blocks away from campus, had free on-site laundry, and most importantly (especially for two college seniors racking up tens of thousands of dollars in student loans), the rent was cheap. We were willing to overlook the negative aspects.

I had a couple multi-legged pest scares within a few days of moving in; I nearly destroyed the bathroom trying to drown a massive spider that crawled out of the shower drain, and I had a terrifying showdown in the living room with a centipede as long and thick as my middle finger, finally defeating it with my thousand-pound Shakespeare anthology (and people say English Lit is a useless major!). Amanda bought a can of insect repellent to spray around the perimeter of the apartment, which seemed to keep out any other creepy-crawlies, leading me to believe we were now safe from any vermin invaders. I never considered the possibility of an aerial attack.

I went to bed late my first Saturday in the new place, but I was having trouble falling asleep thanks to a mysterious scratching noise. At first I dismissed it as a fan blowing a loose corner of one of my posters against the wall, but the sound wasn’t consistent enough for that to be the explanation. I was a little nervous to turn on the light and investigate- I had watched a horror movie earlier in the evening and was half-convinced that if I turned the light on I would see some deranged, homicidal redneck tearing through my window screen- but curiosity won over my wild imagination. I clicked on my lamp, put on my glasses, and looked around.

At first I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. Nothing was being blown around by my fan. There was no knife-wielding maniac at my window. Then I realized the noise was coming from the little circular heating vent in the middle of the ceiling. I stared up at it, perplexed, as a small, furry, grey-brown head poked out of it.

A mouse, I thought. I was startled, but not afraid- until the “mouse” unfolded a pair of dark, leathery wings.

Oh, SHIT.

For about a second, I stared in horror as the bat flapped around the low ceiling of my bedroom. Then I started screaming. I have no idea what I hoped to accomplish-I guess I thought Amanda would hear me and come to my rescue (or at least I’d have someone to panic with)-but apparently she couldn’t hear me on the other side of the apartment. So I did what any rational adult would do: I called my parents. At 2 A.M. Even though they lived about a hundred miles away.

“I’m sorry, sweetie, but I don’t know what we can do,” my mom said, sounding half exasperated and half sympathetic after I had tearfully explained what was going on. “Grab a broom or something and try to chase it out.” I had pretty much resigned myself to the idea that my bedroom belonged to the bat now and I would just have to sleep in the living room for the rest of the year, but I knew my mom was right. I wrapped myself up in my comforter for protection, took a deep, shaky breath, and ran to the door.

As soon as I threw it open, the bat fluttered out and started flapping around the kitchen and I hurried to the apartment entrance. We actually had two front doors: one that led to a little entrance area where the laundry was, and another that led outside. I propped open the first door with a card table, but I couldn’t find anything to hold open the second door. I knew I was going to need backup, so I finally tiptoed into Amanda’s room. “Amanda!” I whispered (although I’m not sure why I felt the need to be quiet; I guess I was worried the bat would hear us plotting against him). “There’s a bat in the apartment!”

Amanda sat up. “What?” she asked blearily.

“There’s a BAT in the apartment! Can you help me get him out?”

“Oh. Oh, no. I’m terrified of bats,” Amanda informed me. I struggled to maintain my composure and not snap that I didn’t exactly want to keep one as a pet either, but I couldn’t get rid of it on my own, when Amanda offered to call her frat boy friend Matt to come over and help. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea that we needed rescuing from a small, furry animal, but I was tired and frustrated and wasn’t having any success on my own, so fifteen minutes later I was holding the front door open while Matt chased the bat around our living room, wildly brandishing a broom at it. I lost sight of it for a moment but Matt insisted that he thought he saw it fly out. We carefully inspected the apartment and didn’t find him. I banged on the heating vent in my room to make sure it hadn’t retreated to his original hiding place but nothing flew out. We seemed safe, but I still spent the rest of the night on the lumpy futon in the living room anyway, watching reruns of Three’s Company and googling facts about bat bites, like how bats’ teeth are so tiny and sharp you might not feel it or find a mark if they bite you, and how rabies symptoms can show up years after you become infected. The landlord is going to get a very angry call in a few hours, I thought grumpily, tossing and turning on the thin mattress and cheap metal frame.

The next day a maintenance guy from my housing office came out to see if the bat was still there and find where it got in. He said the bat was most likely gone, because it would still be flying around if it was still in the apartment (which seemed like strange logic considering bats are nocturnal, but I didn’t question it). He found a gap in the wall of the furnace room that led to the chimney and we assumed that was how it had gotten in. He sealed it up, said he’d come back the next day to put a rubber stopper on the bottom of the furnace room door just to be safe, and left. I thought that was the end of it. Silly me.

I heard flapping around around two the next morning. I reluctantly turned on my light, not wanting to see what I knew would be there. Sure enough, the nasty thing was hanging on the wall next to my door; or more accurately, he was hanging on a block of wood on the wall by my door. The wood was there when I moved in, and I assumed it was covering a hole, but apparently it didn’t cover all of it. I tried to scare the bat out of my room with a broom and he squeezed into a quarter inch gap above the block of wood. I hit the block of wood, trying to scare it out so I could get it out the front door, but it wouldn’t fly out.

The rest of the morning was spent sleeping in the back seat of Amanda’s car.

The same maintenance guy came back the next day, and he managed to scare the bat out for good and properly seal up the hole in my wall, but I never slept well the rest of the year; even months later, my eyes would snap open at the slightest noise in the middle of the night, and I would lie awake worrying that I had been bitten in my sleep or when the bat was dive-bombing around my room and I would one day start hallucinating or foaming at the mouth or experience any of the other rabies symptoms I’d read about on Web MD.

I used to love bats. I thought they were so cute. They were my favorite part of the nocturnal exhibit at the zoo. My sister and I even used to pretend we were bats when we were little and used our bunk bed as a bat cave (yeah, I was a weird kid, don’t judge). That image has been shattered, all thanks to Bluff City Property’s inability to patch up a hole in a wall.

Mid West Music Fest 2015 and Other Winona Shenanigans

I miss my college town of Winona, Minnesota SO much. It’s in a  beautiful part of the state; the little river city is surrounded by these big, gorgeous bluffs and it’s like you’re being hugged by nature. The downtown area is adorable and old-fashioned and is full of great cafes and bars and restaurants. And, despite its reputation for being a tiny college town, it always has something going on: the Great River Shakespeare Festival in the summer, Frozen River Film Festival in the winter, and Mid West Music Fest in the spring- which is where my friend Alisha and I spent a weekend volunteering (when we weren’t eating or pumping ourselves full of caffeine at some of our favorite places). Before I get into the details of the weekend, I have to thank our wonderful friend Katie for letting us crash at her apartment despite her being out of town for the weekend. We were sad not to get to spend time with her and her girls (a pitbull named Jasmine and a shih tzu named Minnie), but we really appreciate her hospitality.

A little background: Mid West Music Fest is a relatively new event, founded in 2010 by former AmeriCorps volunteer Sam Brown, who modeled the festival on Salem, Oregon’s Cherry City Music Fest. The first festival brought over 70 musical acts from the area to the community for a 2-day event in July. In 2011, MWMF was moved to April  to correspond with the school year, since college students make up a large portion of the population in Winona. Since the festival’s inception, MWMF has grown into a 3-day music festival with over 100 acts, as well as several related events and collaborations.

The first show Alisha and I hit up was General B and the Wiz at Broken World Records. We’d seen them perform at last year’s MWMF and couldn’t pass up seeing them again. The Minneapolis-based indie-blues/self-described “psych rock” band put on a phenomenal show as usual. They have this fun 70’s vibe without sounding campy, are obscenely talented musicians, and seriously know how to work a crowd; all of the members have incredible stage presence.We left around 9, during the last song, because Alisha and I are 25-and26-year-old octogenarians who need to be in bed by 10 PM.

We didn’t have to be at our volunteer venue until 4:30 on Saturday, so the majority of the day was devoted to food and coffee and catching up with a couple people.  We started our morning at Bloedow’s Bakery, which has the best doughnuts in Minnesota (seriously, WCCO voted them the best in 2012) so Alisha could get a box for her family. Sadly, I didn’t get anything because everyone in the crowded shop kept budging in front of me and I’m the least assertive person ever so eventually I was like “It’s cool, I don’t need a doughnut” and we left. It ended up not being a problem though, because I ended up eating my weight in omelet at Winona’s Family Restaurant. We initially went there to say hi to Alisha’s cousin who works there, and while at first it just seemed like a local Perkins knockoff, we were pretty quickly impressed. They were great about accommodating Alisha’s bajillion dietary restrictions, and the massive ABC (avocado/bacon/cheese) omelet I ordered had huge chunks of fresh avocado in it rather than pasty pre-made guacamole, which was awesome. Not that I have anything against guacamole-I would probably eat my own hand if it were covered in guacamole- but having fresh avocado was a nice surprise. Alisha’s only complaint was that they never asked if we wanted a refill on coffee; they’d just swoop in like diner ninjas and fill our cups before we could say anything. I didn’t mind, because I wanted to be more awake for the shows later than we had been the night before and was totally cool with starting my day with four cups of coffee, but Alisha was a little frustrated.

The next few hours were all about caffeine. We met our friend Sam at Acoustic Cafe, where I got a cafe miel (coffee+honey+cinnamon=liquid heaven). I didn’t spend much time at Acoustic when I was in school, which I regret, because it’s a great place-cozy without feeling crowded, with a variety of delicious drinks on their menu. Then we decided to follow up our coffee with more coffee at Mugby Junction, a chain coffee shop (although maybe “chain” is inaccurate, since it’s only located in Winona and the only other locations are a drive-thru and an express shop in one of the WSU academic buildings) where I briefly considered getting something non-caffeinated, since I had been mainlining coffee since about 10 AM, but opted for my college favorite, the satin mocha (mocha with white chocolate instead of milk chocolate). By the time we got to our venue I was definitely more awake. And jittery. And I really had to pee.

Our venue was Wesley Methodist Church, which seemed like a weird location for the rap/rock/electronic acts playing there, but it ended up being perfect. Something about the combination of electric guitars and stained glass windows was just so bad-ass (…am I going to Hell for describing a church as “bad-ass”? Oh, well). There were four acts during our volunteer slot, but two stood out: Whale House and Koo Koo Kanga Roo. Whale House is an alt rock band from Eau Claire, and while all of the musicians in the group are incredibly talented, the singer especially impressed me; he had such a sweet, bright tone to his voice that still carried so much power. And then there was Koo Koo Kanga Roo….oh, boy. I looked them up on YouTube a few days before the festival, and with songs like “Cat Party” and “Fanny Pack,”  I wasn’t sure if they were a group for little kids, similar to The Wiggles, or if they were just super hipster and I wasn’t getting the irony. Turns out the answer is kind of yes to both. According to their site, they’re “a kids’ band for adults too.” They’re an interactive dance party duo from Minneapolis who plays a variety of gigs, from church basements and preschools to state fairs and even Vans Warped Tour this year. They’re ridiculously creative, their energy is infectious, and they appeal to a range of music fans. Hopefully they’ll be back next year, because they were definitely the highlight of our volunteer time.

We wrapped up the night at Ed’s (No Name) Bar, one of my favorite places downtown due to its eclectic style, frequent live music (not just during MWMF), and signature drink: tinto de verano, a Spanish cocktail similar to sangria, made with red wine and lemon soda. Sitting in a back booth with my friends, straining to hear the conversation over the music and people watching as fest-goers passed by on the sidewalk outside, I felt weirdly homesick for Winona, even though I haven’t lived there in about four years. The Twin Cities are great, and it’s not like they don’t have music festivals or other cool events, but there’s something special about Winona. It’s such a unique, tight-knit community. Leaving is it is hard, but at least I’ll always have an excuse to go back.

MWMF

Geek Chic

There was one week in high school-I think it was eleventh or twelfth grade- when I tried to sit alone and read during my lunch period. None of my friends were in my lunch period that term, and while there were classmates I got along with well enough whom I would have felt comfortable sitting with, I decided I would rather spend the twenty minutes of free time I had during the school day to read the Melville short story my favorite English teacher had recommended or the latest installment in the Australian fantasy series a friend had gotten me hooked on. The problem was that people didn’t realize my lunchtime loner status was voluntary. Every single time, someone from a nearby crowded table would inevitably come over and invite me to join them, sympathetically insisting, “You don’t have to sit alone!” And because I didn’t want to seem rude or antisocial, I would reluctantly shut my book and move to their table. It’s definitely a testament to my high school that so many students went out of their way to reach out to some poor, seemingly-friendless dork they didn’t even know, but at the time it was a little frustrating.

Years later, I’m repeating my “nerding in public” habit, and, hilariously enough, it’s at a bar named after my high school’s mascot: Wildcats. The whole place is decked out in the school colors of royal blue and kelly green, its wood-paneled walls plastered with framed photos of sports teams from years past. With all the EHS nostalgia decor, it’s basically like being back in the school cafeteria but with more booze and, surprisingly, fewer interruptions. While a few bar patrons might briefly approach me to ask me what I’m reading (or just to say hi), most people leave me alone with George R.R. Martin or Chuck Palahniuk or Stephen King (which generally helps me fend off the occasional obnoxious frat boy type or overly-friendly old man who doesn’t get the hint that I don’t feel like flirting; it’s easy to shut down any creeps who ask “Hey, cutie, what’s that book about?” by simply answering “MURDER” without looking up from the page).

I know it seems weird to want to be left alone when I voluntarily go to a crowded neighborhood bar. I’m not sure I can adequately explain why I go there rather than just stay at home and read there. Sometimes it’s just because I get a little stir-crazy in my apartment and need a change of scenery. Sometimes it’s because I’m having an amazing hair day and want to go out and have people see how fantastic I look but none of my friends are available to go out with me. Before I moved into my own place, I’d go there on nights when my roommate had a date over and I didn’t want to sit in the living room like an awkward third wheel or shut myself up in my room for hours. More than any of that, though, is that I feel comfortable at Wildcats.  It’s the perfect place to curl up in a tall-backed booth with a good book and a strong drink. The atmosphere is warm and laid back, but it’s lively enough to provide some much-needed background noise. Everyone who works there, from the bartenders to the wait staff, are incredibly friendly and watch out for me on the rare instances when anyone does try to bother me. I’m actually more comfortable spending hours reading at Wildcats than I am at the library.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t just go to this bar to read. I’ve made some really good friends there. I’ve celebrated minor holidays and job promotions with custom-made shots created by Aaron, the sweetest bartender in the world. I’ve embarrassed myself spectacularly singing old school Britney Spears songs at karaoke. But while I can go to any hole-in-the-wall bar to grab drinks with friends or humiliate myself with a microphone, Wildcats is the only one where I feel just as comfortable on my own with my nose in a book as I do in a group of friends. I’ve tried doing it at other bars, but they’ve either been so big that I can’t ignore everything going on around me, or so small that I can’t find a corner to hide in. Wildcats is perfect for my strange, publicly-introverted ways.

I moved recently, so unfortunately I’m not within walking distance of Wildcats anymore, which means I don’t go there as frequently as I used to, but it’s still my favorite bar in Eagan.  I’m always going to appreciate that they not only tolerate my geeky tendencies, but respect them.

Grabbing the Bull by the Horns

A couple weeks ago, I joined my friend Leslie on a road trip to Indiana. Not exactly an exotic destination, but our musician friend Dan and his friend Jimmy were playing a couple shows there-Leslie, who’s also Dan’s manager, had booked them and didn’t want to go down alone- and I figured it was a good opportunity for me to kick off my goal of taking more risks this year. Not that driving down to a small town in another Midwestern state is especially risky, but hey, baby steps. It would also be fun hanging out with Leslie more; she’s almost as big of a nerd as I am in some ways, so we get along really well.

Prior to Leslie picking me up on Friday morning, I knew virtually nothing about Indiana. I knew it was where Parks and Recreation’s fictional town of Pawnee was set. I was pretty sure there was some big NASCAR thing that happened there. Past that, I was clueless. Once we took off, though, Leslie shared a fun piece of Indiana trivia with me: Gary, Indiana has the most serial killers per capita in the U.S. It’s also just outside of Valparaiso, the little town where we’d be staying. Well, I wanted risks. Avoiding getting stabbed and having my body dumped in a rock quarry definitely fell under the risk category.

The eight-ish hour drive went by surprisingly quickly despite not being particularly scenic (unless you count the comically absurd amount of cheese and adult video/toy store signs we passed in Wisconsin) and having to stop at tolls every ten minutes in Illinois (that state is a greedy sonofabitch), but we were still relieved to finally see the sign proclaiming “Welcome to Indiana: Crossroads of America!” (although having a state motto that basically translates to “Indiana: you have to drive through us to get somewhere better!” doesn’t seem like good advertisement). We crashed at the hotel for a few hours before getting ready for that night’s show- or rather, Leslie got us both ready, because she’s also a hair stylist and makeup artist/miracle worker with hot rollers and eye shadow. As someone whose idea of “fancy” is putting in my contacts and not wearing my hair in a ponytail, I appreciated the magic she worked on my hair and face, as well as her patience with my dumb questions (“So what do I do with the mousse? Just rub it in?” “Do I put the eyeliner under my eyes too?”).  She was basically my fairy godmother, but instead of going to a royal ball we were going to a dive bar in Michigan City, Indiana. At least we knew the music would be good.

Before I go any further, it would probably make sense to talk a little bit about Dan and Jimmy, since they’re the main reason we drove to the middle of nowhere/potential set of a Rob Zombie movie. Dan Hamrick is an Indiana native/honorary Minnesotan/Nashville transplant with a voice simultaneously soft and intense and impressive guitar skills. His  songs contain straightforward but heartfelt lyrics; “This is my Family” is especially touching (and seeing his family dance to it in Valpo on Saturday night definitely choked me up a bit), and “Flowers Because It’s Tuesday” has given me even more unrealistic expectations for guys. His partner in crime for the Indiana shows, Jimmy Charles, is also a Nashville-based musician (originally from Maryland): an up-and-coming country artist with a slightly raspy but strong voice and admirable guitar abilities. His song “Superman,” written to raise cancer awareness, is beautiful and heartbreaking and is not something you should listen to at work because the lyrics might make you cry a little at your desk. Besides their talent and creativity, Dan and Jimmy are both genuinely sweet guys who always make a real connection with their audience, which isn’t something you get from a lot of performers. I would definitely recommend checking them out, and I’ll include links to their Facebook fan pages at the end of this post.

Once we arrived at the bar where the show was, we learned something else about Indiana: it’s legal to smoke in bars there- and a LOT of people take advantage of that freedom.  The smell of cigarette smoke usually doesn’t bother me, but when the majority of the people around you are smoking in a small, enclosed space, it gets pretty suffocating. By the time we left that night, our clothes reeked like a redneck bonfire. I was also a little worried about how flammable my hair was; with people lighting up inches away from me, and my hair saturated with three different kinds of product, the possibility of my entire head going up in flames seemed realistic.

But there was one thing in the bar that really drew my attention-a risk greater than secondhand smoke or running into some Jeffrey Dahmer impersonator: a huge mechanical bull in the back left corner of the bar. I had known before arriving that it would be there-Dan had mentioned it in a Facebook post advertising the show- and immediately decided “I SHOULD TOTALLY DO THAT. I’m not remotely athletic, and coordination isn’t one of my strong points, but how hard could it be?” Of course, being the massive nerd that I am, I thoroughly researched (well, googled) any useful tips on riding a mechanical bull without getting a concussion or breaking your neck. It all seemed pretty straightforward: Move your legs forward and squeeze with your lower body. Keep your upper body relaxed. Lean back when the bull head moves forward and lean forward when the bull moves upward. Easy enough.

Still, my confidence faltered a bit when one music set, two whiskey cokes, one water moccasin shot, and a a game of pool with a local douchebag later, Leslie and I nervously approached the girl who ran the bull. “I bruise like a peach,” Leslie informed the girl. “Will I be okay riding this?” The girl considered it for a few seconds, then told us that the last time she rode the bull, she ended up with massive bruises covering her inner thighs. “So you might have to let your man know what’s up with that,” she joked.

That made up Leslie’s mind, but I still signed the waiver with a slightly shaking hand and climbed into the bull pen (sort of like a big, uncovered moon bounce). I had been so concerned about how I would stay on the bull that I hadn’t considered how tricky it would be actually getting on it. The girl in charge suggested getting a good starting bounce on the inflatable floor, which made it a little easier, but I still didn’t look remotely cool dragging myself up. Once I was on, I shifted anxiously on the bull’s back, trying to make sure I was balanced, and gripped the short rope handle at the base of the neck. “Ready?” the girl asked. I nodded, trying to look less scared than I felt. The bull jerked to life, and I immediately forgot every tip I had read. I lasted for about three seconds of being whipped around before I panicked, let go of the rope, and slid off the bull, surprisingly landing on my feet.  I started to climb out of the bull pen, thinking I had sufficiently embarrassed myself for the weekend, but Leslie and the girl in charge encouraged me to try one more time, so I once again clambered awkwardly onto the bull. I lasted a little longer the second time-maybe five seconds-before rolling off with a yelp and landing harmlessly, though much less gracefully, on the puffy surface. My face was flushed, my perfectly curled hair was mussed, and I hadn’t even stayed on long enough to brag about, but I was still grinning ear-to-ear when I left the bull pen. I felt like a total badass.

The rest of the weekend was enjoyable-I had so much fun hanging out with Leslie and getting to know her better, and it was great seeing Dan and Jimmy- but the highlight of the trip for me was riding that bull, as brief as it might have been, because it was something I never would have thought of doing before this trip. It’s funny that it took a trip to the middle of nowhere, U.S.A. to get the opportunity, but I’m grateful for it, and it was the perfect kickoff to what I’m hoping will be a year full of even more exciting possibilities.

Dan’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dan-Hamrick/314900768647605
Jimmy’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/jimmycharlesfans