Friday, December 18, 2015

Confessions of a Christmas Music Lover

I'm a ravenous lover of Christmas music. In September, I start getting antsy for it.

It's a delicate process. As the weather starts to cool, I'll listen to just enough to prevent the shakes, while at the same time trying to prevent a full-on binge, which will lead to burnout before Dec. 10. That happened one year. It wasn't pretty.

I love this album. I know, it's hokey. But, I hit play and it takes me back to my childhood. You know, back when Christmas was fun, and not just a bunch of work.

So, rather than a Top 5 Christmas Album list, I'm going to take you through my Christmas-music obsession progression.

September: As I noted, this is when I start feeling a tug from those old yule songs. As an adult, I realize it's too early. So, here's what I'll do. From time to time, I'll play my entire iTunes library on random, knowing full well that I have a plethora of Christmas tunes in my catalog.

Then, when one comes up, my mind acts surprised. "Oh my, this is a Christmas tune. Well, it's way too early for that sort of thing. But, we might as well listen to this one little song."

October: Essentially, I follow the same protocol as above. However, I'll try to find some Halloween songs to distract me from pursuing my Christmas muse. Even though the protocol is the same as September, this is a critical month. October is when I blew it several years ago. I started binging before Halloween. I thought I could sustain my Christmas fever through Dec. 25. I was wrong.

November: Finally! We're getting close. By Nov. 15, I've given up any pretense of trying to stave off the Christmas-music fever. But, I'll begin listening to Christmas music in a phased approach. Phase I, i.e. mid-November, is the soft stuff. So, that will include things like the Beach Boy's Christmas Album. I'll usually do some classical Christmas tunes during Phase I -- things I can hum to, but don't feel like singing.

December: I like to refer to Dec. 1-15 as Phase II. At this point, we'll start hitting some of the classics. Michael Buble just barely makes his way into this phase. It's mainly the old time greats like Sinatra, Crosby, Martin, a little Vince Guaraldi Trio...that sort of thing. The important point is I've given myself over to Christmas music binge mode.

Phase III begins somewhere around Dec. 15 and continues through Christmas Day. For these ten days, I'm bringing out the hard stuff. Phase III is full-on nostalgia mode. So, these are the Christmas songs I grew up with. Dad actually had these albums on vinyl. And we listened to them on an old turntable.

I recently hopped into Phase III. I've been listening to Kenny and Dolly's Once Upon a Christmas album exclusively for about three days. Unfortunately, I've never seen the made-for-TV movie that was released in conjunction with this album. Judging by how often we heard this album growing up, I'm sure my parents have.

Best. Christmas. Album. Ever.

Phase III will culminate with an Alabama Christmas listening session. I love that album. Again, I have mom and dad to thank for that. Happy Holidays, Tennessee Christmas, Homecoming Christmas, A Candle In the Window...they're all amazing. These tunes warm my soul. Thank you, Alabama.

Post-Dec. 25: There is exactly one song I will listen to that's "holiday-related" after Christmas Day. That song is Same Auld Lang Syne by Dan Folgeberg. The song's sadness speaks to me. My "missed opportunity" is the fact that perhaps I missed out on squeezing in one more Christmas song during my binge. And, I'll have to wait until next year.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Top 5 Random Rolla Things

It's good to visit your hometown every so often. Equal parts nostalgia and amusement help make those visits magical.

Last weekend, Kenan and I made our way to Rolla, Mo. for our 15-year class reunion. During our short stay, some seriously random events happened. I'll share them with you.

5. Bar fight: After a bite to eat at Alex's and a quarter of Rolla High football, we met up with our classmates at Public House in downtown Rolla. From there, we followed as the class went to another downtown establishment. 

I'm not going to mention the name of the pub (it wasn't Public House), but as we walked in two extremely intoxicated young men were saying some not so nice things to each other. Someone yelled, "They're gonna fight!" Then they went outside.

This sort of thing is amusing when you're in your 20s. At 33, my first thought was, "I really don't want to get shot or stabbed. My wife would be so mad." 

4. Shooting range: Before heading back on Saturday, we joined friend and fellow class of 2000 grad, Todd, for a session at a backwoods shooting range in the Newburg area. Judging by Todd's gun collection, I'm convinced he's working on a career as a Hollywood weapons outfitter.

Agent Smith, I mean, Todd, takes aim with a .50 caliber Desert Eagle. 

And, yet, thanks to Todd's fascination with exotic weaponry, we were able to sling some lead downrange from guns that most people have never even seen in person. A .50 caliber Desert Eagle, a 44 magnum Raging Bull, a .45 ACP KRISS Vector...pure tough-guy coolness.

Kenan decided to do a cool-guy move and flop the cylinder shut with one hand. We laughed at him, and then he laughed at himself. 

3. John Deere theft: At some point on Friday evening, we came across a group of drunks walking around downtown. One made a fascinating spectacle of trying to open the door of a John Deere backhoe that was parked in a lot as part of an ongoing construction project.

"Oh man, they locked it!" he exclaimed. Yes, shocking that they'd lock a $200,000+ piece of construction equipment. And, yet, if they hadn't, how long until the Rolla Police Department noticed a drunken man cruising down Pine Street in a backhoe? Someone did that man a tremendous favor by locking the cab. Judging by his "Ditch Witch" hat, I'm certain he would have made good on his drunken boast of boosting the backhoe.

2. Shirtless shenanigans: So, at the same place we nearly witnessed a fight, just 15 minutes later a young man pulled off his shirt and belly flopped on a table, where he commenced to drink (through a straw) a cup of something. As he lay there, someone smacked his backside, whereupon he started humping the table.

Since when is this a thing? And by that, I mean since when have young people started flopping on tables in an elaborate show of drinking a mixed drink via a straw? It seems neither manly nor impressive. Just weird.

1. 50 packets of sauce: Once Kenan and I wrapped up our night, we, like a lot of other people, headed for the Taco Bell drive through. At the window, they asked if we wanted sauce. Kenan said, yeah, a lot of mild sauce. The lady responded, "What numerical value would correspond with 'a lot' of sauce?"

Who says something like that? Without missing a beat, Kenan said, "50." And, without missing another beat, the lady proceeded to count out 50 mild sauce packets and place them in a separate bag. Who does that?!! 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Choosing a Post-Rams-in-StL Team -- My Top 5 Options

We can whine, moan and curse Stan Kroenke all we want, but it's time to face facts. The St. Louis Rams are moving west, probably in 2017. So, that leaves just one question: who will you root for after they move?

They're going to move, people. It's best we start picking a contingency team now.

I've been asking myself this question off and on for a couple months now. I've never had a die-hard affiliation for an NFL team. I love the St. Louis Cardinals, but the Rams were a Los Angeles team when I was growing up. Unfortunately, "The Greatest Show on Turf" didn't get its hooks into me.

What I'm trying to say is I'm an extremely fair-weather football fan. Sorry, but that's the cold hard truth. Though, cut me a little slack. I'm a Blues fan.

That said, who better to reason through a Top 5 contender for your StL-based NFL affection? (A lot of people, probably.) Also, I calculated the distance from Edward Jones Dome to the listed-team's stadium. So, it's a 647-mile drive from Ed Jones Dome to AT&T Stadium, i.e. Jerry Jones mecca.

So, without further ado, which team's logo will adorn my next hat purchase?

5. Dallas Cowboys (distance from St. Louis: 647 miles)

Ahhh...America's team. The Cowboys are like the Yankees of the NFL. Everyone roots for them, but no one has a good reason for doing so. "Oh, my great grandpa was a Cowboys fan." Who cares? You've never even been to Texas.

That said, I have to come clean. I placed a foot on the Cowboys bandwagon during the Jimmy Johnson era in the 1990s. I had a Cowboys starter jacket.

When the Cardinals football team left in 1988, I'm sure a lot of St. Louisans became Cowboy fans overnight. For these fans, I say good luck. One of my biggest hang-ups with the Cowboys is Jerry "Freaking" Jones. I cannot stand his meddlesome ways with regard to personnel. Also, I recently read Rolling Stone's article on Dez Bryant, and it rekindled my hatred of Jerry Jones. If you're a Cowboys fan and you don't know who David Wells is, you should look into that.

4. Tennessee Titans (306 miles)

I honestly don't know a lot about the Titans. I know they used to be the Oilers. They moved to Nashville. They suck...

Seriously though, I'm having a hard time coming up with memorable Titan moments. I'm not the only one apparently. I remember when Warren Moon played for the Oilers. Also, isn't Marcus Mariota supposed to be pretty good?

3. Kansas City Chiefs (241 miles)

One of my uncles is a Chiefs fans. (I have another uncle who is a notorious die-hard Cowboys fan.) Unfortunately, I've never paid much attention to them. I'll chalk that up to them being in the AFC West. The memory that stands out for me with the Chiefs is when Steve DeBerg played with his finger taped up like a freaking gordita that one year. Anyone else remember that?

Remember when Steve DeBerg played with a broken finger? That was pretty cool. 

I see they won a Super Bowl (1969). Growing up, I remember they were pretty bad. It seemed like they were turning things around two years ago. But, as Deadspin cleverly points out, Andy Reid put a stop to that. Also, did you see their game against the Broncos this week? Good grief. (Make sure you click that Deadspin link. There's an awesome GIF of Andy Reid as the Kool-Aid Man. Thanks, Kenan.)

2. Chicago Bears (299 miles)

I actually called myself a Bears fan at one point in my life. We were living in Decatur, IL, which if you don't know is the birthplace of the Decatur Staleys who would eventually become the Bears. Plus, the 2010 season really helped spur my new-found allegiance. The Bears played in the NFC Championship game, losing to the Packers. I thought it was the beginning of an upward trend in Bears history. Unfortunately it was the high-water mark.

The Bears are definitely not suffering from a shortage of fans. However, Jay Cutler gives me serious pause when considering Da Bears. I cannot stand the QB. He's an absolute drain on the team. Plus, he and his wife are anti-vaxxers. Do yourself a favor and Google anti-vaccine meme. My favorite is from Captain Picard -- "Why the F#$% would anyone take medical advice from Jenny McCarthy?" Indeed.

1. Indianapolis Colts (244 miles)

I think this is going to be the team I root for once the Rams say adios. And, the choice all comes down to Andrew Luck. I've read several articles about him being the real deal. That excites me. (See above for my disdain regarding Jay Cutler.)

The Colts are also in a fairly solid upswing. They've been to the playoffs four of the last five years (being in the AFC South helps).

...wait a minute. As I sit here pondering a conclusion, I realize that the Colts' colors are very similar to the Cowboys. Also, the simple logo on a solid background is familiar. Aikman vs Luck. Crap! I'm just jumping onto another bandwagon with a "good-guy" QB.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Top 5 Fast Casual Burger Joints

Somewhere along the way, Americans started demanding more out of their hamburgers. But, they didn't want to overdo it. It's just a burger after all.

Enter the "fast casual" concept to the rescue. With this trend, you can get a burger better than your traditional McDonald's fare. But, you don't have to get all uppity about it.

Without further ado, here are my top five fast casual burgers.

5. Fatburger: I ate at Fatburger once. It was not at two in the morning. However, it was darn good. We were on vacation in Arizona. We probably would've eaten there more had we not tried In-N-Out.

4. Five Guys: It seems like Five Guys is the Midwest standard for fast casual burger joints. And, for good reason, their burgers are good. The fries are good too. Plus, they seem to be leading the charge when it comes to installing those create-your-own-drink soda labs from Coke. Diet Cherry Vanilla Lime Coke with a splash of Sprite? Don't mind if I do.

3. Shake Shack: We had the pleasure of eating at Shake Shack for the first time in New York City. Top-notch burgers! The taste reminded me of when mom would pan fry a hamburger for lunch. But, the buns are much better. And, you can choose from a variety of toppings. Mom only had pickles, cheese and Miracle Whip. Ugh...nasty Miracle Whip. Stop trying to pass it off as mayonnaise, mom!

Shake Shack makes a terrific burger. The fresh-baked bun and quality veggies are top shelf. I wish there was one in the St. Louis area.

2. In-N-Out Burger: I LOVE In-N-Out Burger. I love it so much, I was recently in Phoenix for a few days. In those three days, I ate at In-N-Out three times. The beef patties are excellent. But, the fresh vegetables really elevate this burger to the next level. Oh, and the secret sauce is amazing.

Mmmm....In-N-Out (in my best Homer Simpson voice). They also peel and cut potatoes in the kitchen just minutes before they enter the fryer. So, yeah, they're fresh. Also, their menu is so freaking simple. Single or double patty? Fries? Soda? Here's your number.
1. Meatheads: Meatheads, what? It's a small burger chain that's based primarily in the Chicago area. The closest location to St. Louis is in Bloomington. If you're nearby, you've got to try it. The burgers are phenomenal. And, the choice of toppings is mind-boggling. Sauteed mushrooms is on the free topping list! They also have a burger with an egg on it. Put that on your dietary bucket list. You've got to have a burger with a fried egg on it at some point in your life. Lastly, they also have one of those magic Coke machines.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Top 5 Fireworks of My Childhood

Many moons ago, I, along with two of my cousins, had the best Fourth of July ever.

We were spending the week at my cousin’s ranch/farm. We had a huge sack of firecrackers. There were countless piles of cow dung in the field. In a matter of minutes, a new game was invented.
Need proof we live in the greatest country on earth? Go buy a huge roll of these and give them to a young teenager.

Step one: take a firecracker and place it in the cow patty as if it were a birthday cake. Step two: light the firecracker. Step three: run. If you got hit with poop in the ensuing carnage, you lose.

We took turns playing this new game for the better part of the day. When we turned up at the house, my uncle took one look at us and grabbed the garden hose.

This story speaks volumes to the nature of young boys. It also says a lot about the versatility of the simple firecracker. Here are my top five fireworks of all time (for a kid, i.e. no big/expensive stuff).

5. Dancing rosebud: I’m not sure if this is the correct name. I couldn’t find them online. They probably stopped making them because they were a bit dangerous. I’m referring to the thumb-sized cylinders that you would lay on a flat, hard surface with plenty of room. It sounded like a really mad bumble bee and resembled a flower bloom that danced along the ground.

I loved these things because they were so unpredictable. I think dad loved them for the same reason. Every year, he would buy a package of them. He’d light one up by the basketball goal. Mom and the rest of the “audience” would be back by the three-point line. Not a year went by when one of those little buggers didn’t stray further than intended. After mom had her say, everyone would pick up their lawn chairs as dad promised never to buy those stupid things again. (Sure dad)

If everything went right with the lady finger, you got to keep your fingers. That's always a nice bonus.

4. Lady finger: Google image search “lady finger firework” and a photo of someone missing a finger is one of the top hits. And for good reason, before safety fuses, these millipedes of destruction were quite dangerous. (Remember those old gray fuses that would speed up randomly and shave like five seconds off the total time?) Anyhow, when they didn’t blow up in your hand, they were pretty awesome. You could toss them in a coffee can for even more fun.

3. M-180:  I grew up in a post M-80 world. I still remember claims that an M-80 was a “quarter of a stick of dynamite.” According to Wikipedia, we were way off. But still, we were right in that firecrackers used to be a lot bigger than they are today.

Now, these are the biggest “cherry bomb” type firecrackers you can buy. They have a lot of different names. Typically they’ll come encased in plastic and they do give you a much bigger bang than your traditional firecracker. We used to toss them in a pond and watch the water shower up after the muffled boom. Good times.

2. Firecrackers: The lowly firecracker is still one of the best bangs for your buck. We would unravel them from the huge rolls and carry around a 20-ounce cup of them. We’d light and toss until our heart was content. If you really thing about it, they’re a slightly more grown up version of the snap and pops.

Growing up, we'd try to ration out our bottle rockets. There was nothing better than finding a forgotten gross in August.

1. Bottle rockets: What else could be number one? You take the cheap cost of the firecracker and add in propellant. Huge win! As a kid, you knew you’d finally hit the big time when you graduated to bottle rockets. Some cultures use extreme survival tests as the line of demarcation between boyhood and manhood. In ‘Murica, dad pulls out a gross of Black Cats and says, “Here, son. Go have some fun.”

And finally, I’ve got to end with a quote from one of the best movies ever. “You’re gonna stand there, ownin’ a fireworks stand, and tell me you don’t have no whistlin’ bungholes, no spleen splitters, whisker biscuits, honkey lighters, hoosker doos, hoosker don’ts, cherry bombs, nipsy daisers, with or without the scooter stick, or one single whistlin’ kitty chaser?”

Friday, May 29, 2015

Saving Money With Amazon -- My Top 5 Finds

I'm obsessed with Amazon. One-click ordering, with two-day delivery, is oh so satisfying.

I've ordered a lot of really cool things from Amazon. Last November, I snagged a copy of the best Thanksgiving movie ever, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, for a paltry $4.63.

"Those aren't pillows!"$4.63 for this classic? Del Griffith would be proud.

In July 2014, I picked up a pre-assembled Zoeller sump pump for just under $400. It's a high-end model that a basement specialist assured me I couldn't find for less than $800. Uh, hello, did he not think I'd take that as a DIY challenge? And, yes, it's kept everything dry this spring.

The basement specialist wanted about $1,500 to install this setup in my basement. I picked this beauty up on Amazon for $400. It came with terrific instructions and a control module. It was fully assembled.

Make sure you download the Amazon app on your smartphone. A lot of retailers have price-matching policies. So, just by comparing in-store prices with Amazon, you can save some significant money. Case in point: I had to purchase name badge refills for a work event in March. Office Max had 100 badges for $99. Amazon had the same product for $50. I was able to price match Amazon and paid $100 for two 100-pack bundles. Keep in mind that to price match Amazon, most retailers will require the product be Prime eligible. 

Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Amazon finds.

5. Cheapo sunglasses: I've never been willing to part with $100 for a pair of sunglasses. I'm likely to lose them or scratch them. So, I'll usually head over to Walmart and plunk down $20 for a pair of budget shades. This summer, I started thinking $20 was a bit exorbitant. Amazon to the rescue. I now own three pair of shades. Total spent was around $20 for all three.

4.  G-Shock watch: I purchased my first Casio G-Shock from Kohls. I bought a low-end model and paid around $80 for it. That night, I noticed Amazon had the same watch for $40. My eyes were opened. I promptly returned it and bought a slightly nicer one for $60. The same watch retails at Kohls for $99. 

3. Cree flashlights: These little things are amazing. Cree refers to the type of bulb they use, not the actual brand. You can get them on Amazon for around $5 each. At retailers, they cost a lot more. I purchased the Hausbell brand lights. They're extremely small, but put out a lot of light. And, they only take one AA battery. I've bought four so far. I'll probably buy another half dozen in the next year or so.

2. Tempered glass screen shields: Here's another product that has a tremendous markup if you buy it retail. My parents purchased tempered glass screen shields from AT&T when they bought their phones. They paid about $80 per shield. I picked up two for a total of $20. The thing is, they're super easy to install. Just make sure the screen is clean. Then place it on like a sticker. They claim to offer some drop protection too. The tempered glass is supposed to break, saving the actual screen under it. Lastly, they're a vast improvement over the old plastic shields. These things feel like you're actually touching the phone screen. And, they're extremely clear. 

1. Video game downloads: This is one of the best deals I've ever come across on Amazon. I picked up the latest two installments of Assassin's Creed for Xbox One for $30. That's two full games for less than the cost of one new game. If I'd purchased physical copies in a store, that would have cost me about $90. 

I think these download cards were part of a previous Xbox One bundle that didn't sell as well as anticipated. I've yet to come across a similar deal. Though, I did pick up the recent Tomb Raider game for $20. This was a physical copy. Retail price at the time was around $40. Not as great of a deal, but still that's a good savings. Lastly, if you're an Xbox Gold subscriber, make sure you're buying the cards from Amazon. The retail price if you renew through Xbox is $60 for a year. You can get the cards for around $35.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Top 3 Mom Punishments

One summer in the early 90s, I received a valuable economics lesson.

After an afternoon of swimming, I had to get ready for my little league baseball game. Standing by the pool, my uncle (whom most of you know as Coach Croft) made me a sinister offer. I was completely decked out in my cleats, team jersey and baseball pants. If I jumped in the pool, while wearing my uniform, he would pay me a crisp $5 bill. He even pulled it out of his wallet and showed it to me.

With the grandkids, my mom has turned into a real softie. She spoils them relentlessly. They'll never know how she spent years whipping my sister and me into shape.

It was a lot of money at the time, especially for a kid. I was seriously considering it. Then, I glanced over at my mom. One look, and I knew that there was no way $5 was worth the wrath that I would endure for ruining my uniform and being late.

This top 3 is dedicated to my mom. Throughout the years, she taught me some valuable lessons. To teach these lessons, she came up with some creative punishments to keep me in line. With kids of my own, I can now appreciate these punishments for what they were -- her molding me into a nice young man.

3. Laundry duty: Mom always washed and folded our clothes. But, there were a few rules. You had to put them away after they were folded. Before placing them in the hamper, it was your responsibility to remove anything from the pockets -- gum was the biggie.

At some point in my teenage years, I failed to abide by the pocket rule. Mom washed a stick of gum. Then, she washed another stick or two. I think it was after the third time that things got serious. As she meticulously picked gum out of the dryer, she came up with a brilliant idea. I would do my own laundry for a week.

It worked. I developed a new appreciation for something I'd taken for granted. It also set me up for college. I knew how to sort clothes and dispense fabric softener at the proper moment (we didn't have a timed-release function on our washing machine).

2. Sitting at the studio: I was in high school when this happened. It had to be my sophomore year, because I couldn't drive yet.

After school, on certain days, I would walk to Stephanie's School of Dance, where my mom worked as the secretary. She would finish up, and take 20 minutes to drive me home, and then go back to work.

On one particular day, I got impatient. I said some cranky, teenager things, like "Mom, can we go now?" Mom wasn't having it. For a week, I had to walk down to the studio and wait -- not until she got a break, but for the entire night. I sat and did my my homework or read a book. And, I did it quietly. I knew anymore complaining would tack on another week. Lesson learned.

1. Music grounding: This one happened when I was 16. I had a 1987 Toyota Celica. Dad had helped me install a CD player in the dash. It was a sweet setup.

I can't remember what I did to prompt this punishment, but it must have been bad. Mom grounded me from listening to music in the car. She literally took the faceplate off my CD player. I still remember giving friends a ride and them asking "what happened to your faceplate?" I didn't want to admit I was grounded so I lamely said, "Oh, I lost it."