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."

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Top 5 NES Games

The 1987 Christmas was a magical one. At 5 years old, I unwrapped my first video game console -- the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Many a sleepover was spent huddled around the NES. Our lungs gradually developed to Olympic swimmer status as we underwent the time-honored ritual of blowing into cartridges countless times. Those were the days.

Just in case you forgot what NES graphics looked like, here's a screenshot from Ikari Warriors. Two dudes in the jungle, sans shirts, but pro headbands, rockin' and rollin' with their machine guns -- pure bliss.
Before we get started, I need to issue a few disclaimers. First, this list is limited to games I actually owned. This is my personal top 5, not an all-inclusive list. 

So, you won't see Super Mario 3 on this list. I didn't own it, and didn't really get into the Mario franchise until Super Mario World was released on the Super Nintendo. 

Next, you won't see any RPGs on this list. I didn't start to enjoy that genre until "action" became a significant part of RPGs. Mass Effect was the first RPG I thoroughly enjoyed. The turn-based system common for NES games was much too slow for my young attention span. 

For a little warm-up, I'm going to list my favorite two-player games. 

Ikari Warriors: This top-down shooter gave you control of a knock-off Rambo character (see above). And, you could drive tanks. Pure sweetness.

Jackal: Two Jeeps, guns and grenades. 'Nuff said.

Major League Baseball: Kenan and I would play this game for hours. You could bean batters and they would make an awesome "Ooompf" sound. Plus, you could steal. There was some secret where you could throw a sinker. Most times, you'd just end up throwing a slow-moving meat ball. Also, Ozzie Smith was on the cover.

Now, onto the top 5. 

5. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest: This side-scrolling quest was one of the first to introduce the concept of character upgrades. You felt so cool when you got that thorn whip. The flame whip was beastly. I guess in a sense, this was a sort of action RPG.

I love how you'd be adverturing and suddenly the screen would darken. That was a sign that $hi* was about to get real. All the extra tough baddies would come out and the music would change. Pure adrenaline. I still remember being confused by the phrase "The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night."

4. Contra: Played traditionally, with three lives and three continues, this game was nearly impossible. I never beat it that way. Rather, I'd enter the Konami code and see how few lives I could lose before beating the game.

Also, two words "spread gun." That thing was money. This was another great two-player game. Though, I hated how you could kill off the other guy buy jumping too quickly on certain levels.

3. Ninja Gaiden: Here's another super difficult NES classic. It was made even tougher by glitchy enemy respawns. I never beat it, but my dad was a ninja master. I think he got pretty darn close a couple times.

Look at that freaking awesome box art. I'd bet the art by itself sold 85% of the copies.
Remember how you could mis-time a jump, but Ryu would just barely grab the bottom of the ledge? Unfortunately, this amazingly-agile ninja couldn't just climb up a ledge. You had to jump off, and then quickly re-grab the ledge. If you were good enough, you could work your way up. Most of the times, though, you just fell to your death.

2. Mike Tyson's Punch Out: Yep, I had the original version that actually had Iron Mike on the cover. Later on, Nintendo removed him from the game.

This was a game of timing and patterns. Once you got it down, you felt like a brutal boxing warrior, eliminating opponents with extreme prejudice. It also had a cool code system where you could restart at the bottom of the highest circuit you'd obtained. FYI: I never beat Mike. I don't know that I actually saw anyone ever do so. Did you?

1. Legend of Zelda: For me, this is the pinnacle of NES gaming. The music was awesome, the puzzles were tough, and the item/area unlock system was so cool. I could never remember where to find that dang Magic Sword. Every playthrough, I'd wake up the entire graveyard trying to find the right tombstone.
I found my gold Zelda cartridge in my parent's basement last Christmas. It brought back such joyous memories.
My favorite boss has to be Dodongo. Remember, he was the big dinosaur/lizard thing? You had to feed him bombs. He'd swallow them and cough. After about three, he'd take a dirt nap. The most annoying enemy was the Like Like. He'd steal your shield, which would make fighting those knights a nightmare. Speaking of which, remember that screen in level 8? You'd walk in and the framerate would take a nosedive because it was full of about 15 knights.

Those are my top 5 NES games. Leave me a comment and tell me which ones are on your list.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Top 5 Rolla Restaurants

If you're looking for the finest French cuisine, Rolla is not the place for you. But, it does have its share of hometown favorites.

These are the places local folks like to eat. So, if you're on I-44 looking for a place to grab some grub, venture a little further into my hometown and give one of these places a try.

Honorable Mention: Before we dig into my top 5 Rolla Restaurants, I have to give an honorable mention to Alex's Pizza Palace. I love Alex's, just not as much as the other pizza joint that made my top 5 list. It's not a ding on Alex's, just an indication of how much I love the other place.

Alex's has great ambiance. Growing up, they had a cool table-top arcade game in the front of the restaurant. They're very group- and kid-friendly. Also, they have an extensive menu that includes Greek fare you can't get anywhere else in Rolla.

What to order: I prefer the house special pizza, which features beef instead of sausage. Their cheese balls are also excellent. And, get a Greek salad.

5. Matt's Steakhouse: Before Matt's, there was the 10th Street Dinner House. It was popular. So popular, they built a larger building located along I-44. The popularity is well-deserved. The steaks are amazing, as are the burgers. The unlimited salad and breadsticks is the Olive Garden concept done better. Also, they used to have an excellent broccoli salad. I don't see it on the menu, but that thing was amazing.

What to order: I'm partial to the good-old fashioned cheeseburger at Matt's. Though, my mom loves the steak tips, which are sauteed with bell peppers, mushrooms and onions, then topped with provolone cheese.

4. A Slice of Pie: If you live in Rolla and you don't know about A Slice of Pie, extend your arms, push that rock with all of your might and kindly slide out from under it. In browsing their website, I see they officially became a business in 1986. I didn't realize I pre-dated the Slice by four years. Crazy.

Here's the thing. If you're ever tasked with bringing a dessert to a family function, you can't go wrong with one of these pies. In fact, people will probably thank you for bringing A Slice of Pie, rather than saddling them with another dump cake.

What to order: Most pie lovers will tell you to get the apple or coconut cream. Those are solid choices. But, my favorite is the Tollhouse. It's like the biggest, most delicious chocolate chip cookie you've ever eaten. Lastly, if you really want to test your sweetness limit, go for the French silk.

3. Maid-Rite: One thing I love about Maid-Rite (and correct me if this has changed) -- everything is a la carte. It's very old fashioned. There are no value meals. They write your order on a ticket and tear off the voucher at the bottom.

Also, the burgers are unlike anything I've come across since. The ground beef is loose, sort of like a sloppy joe without the sauce. They're amazing. I'm not even sure why. Maybe it's their secret seasoning. Or, perhaps it's some sort of Rolla mysticism. I don't know. Veterans know that once you unwrap a Maid-Rite, you give it a solid squish to flatten it out and keep the meat together for easier consumption. (Disclaimer: I realize that Maid-Rite is a chain. But, it's a very small chain.)

What to order: Cheese-Rite with mayo, pickle and onion, a side of fries and a Heath bar concrete. Or, you can change up the ice cream and go with a hot fudge sundae in a to-go cup (so you can mix the fudge in more easily).

2. Lucky House: For years, the building at 1119 Kingshighway was a revolving door. Restaurants would come and go, never staying for more than a year. That changed in the mid-1990s when Lucky House moved in.

Lucky House serves Chinese food of the style that you find in Springfield, Mo. Here's what I mean. For most Chinese restaurants, with cashew chicken (or chicken with cashew nuts) the chicken is lightly fried, but not battered, and served with a vegetables. Lucky House batters and deep fries their chicken, and the only vegetable you'll find is a sprinkle of diced green onion over the top. It's awesome.

What to order: Cashew chicken with double fried rice, skip the spring roll. You can go all-white meat if you want. I don't. Their chicken fried rice is good too. It's heavy on garlic though. You've been warned.

1. Pryor's Fresh Pizza: For me, this is the pinnacle of pizza the entire world. From the outside, it's not much. The proverbial hole in the wall. Dine in and you'll be served on stainless steel plates that look like they have knife marks from the 1800s. (I just noticed via their Facebook page, they actually sold a handful of these plates, which technically date back to the 1960s.)

Pryor's does not deliver. They don't do fancy salads. They don't do calzones. They just do really freaking good pizza.

The pizza is thin crust. And, it's greasy. They cut it in squares. I think they have two big secrets. First is the dough. I'm not sure what they do, but it's amazing. The second is the oven. It has to be as old as the plates. Somehow, the combination of the two produces a perfect crust along with an excellent amount of grease. It's a culinary delight.

What to order: Specifically, their beef pizza is the best. My second choice is their pepperoni. My grandparents love their onion pizza.

Those are my top picks. There are several restaurants that have since closed their doors, like Johnny's and Laposada, that would have made this list. I'm working on a separate posting that's an ode to these fallen eateries. Speaking of which, I've got room for a couple more. My memory isn't what it used to be. If you have an idea for awesome Rolla restaurant that's since been shuttered, let me know in the comment section. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Top 5 Signs You Grew Up in Rolla, Mo

Growing up in Rolla, Mo. was a blast.

There are certain aspects of "the middle of everywhere" that only former residents will recognize. It's sort of the secret language that only Rolla's teenage residents speak. Well, at least they did in my day. Here are the top 5 signs that you indeed grew up in Rolla (pronounced 'rah lah' for the uninitiated).

You have to try Pryor's beef pizza. It is by far my favorite pizza on the planet.

5. Cruisin': One of the rites of passage in Rolla is turning 16 and obtaining your driver's license. Once you get said license, you have to make a 'cruisin' loop.' While I was never much of a cruiser, the loop is known by every teenage driver. You literally just drive a loop, which includes Kingshighway and Pine Street and looks more like a cursive "L" on a map. Along the way, you see friends and honk and wave. Yep, it's as lame as it sounds. Still, you have to do it at least once.

4. Field parties: Another rite of passage in Rolla is the field party. I think this is pretty standard in small towns across the Midwest. In my time, we'd find a creek, park some cars, cue the music and make a bonfire. Good times. I still remember one such party when the music died. No problem. A classmate saved the day with a Pontiac LeMans that was packing four 8-inch sub-woofers in the trunk.

3. Halloween rituals: At some point in your high school career, you and a group of friends will make a pilgrimage to two spooky places in the Rolla area -- Cry Baby Holler and Goatman's Grave. Typically, only a couple people in each clique would know the exact location of these spots. They'd also claim to know the creepy story behind the places. You'd get all freaked out on the drive. Most occasions were uneventful. However, every once in a while another group of teens would be hiding in the woods and give you a proper scare. By the way, does anyone know if the "wizard tree" still exists?

2. Pizza duel: Any self-respecting resident knows there are only two pizza places in Rolla -- Pryor's and Alex's. Most folks favor one over the other. Growing up, I had the best of both worlds. My friends loved Alex's, while my family was hooked on Pryor's. For the record, my stomach belongs to Pryor's. Their beef pizza is the best. Yet, if you ask Wes and Kenan, they'll recommend the shrimp and Canadian bacon at Alex's.

1. Maid-Rite: In the summer, after a baseball or softball game, you had to go to Maid-Rite. It's a basic rule of living in Rolla. At Maid-Rite, you will order one of their infamous Cheese-Rites. It's sort of a sloppy joe without the sauce. The ground beef is not made into a patty. It's loose. After tossing a couple of those grease bombs down, you should order a concrete. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.

Those are my top 5 Rolla experiences. Did I miss any? For the record, I'll pen another blog on my top 5 Rolla restaurants. Lucky House will definitely make the cut.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Top 5 Easter Candies

Easter Sunday has come and gone. Yet, the candy is still hanging around...begging to be eaten, so it can wreak havoc on my attempts at weight loss.

Look at those Dove bunnies, begging to have their heads eaten off. Just the rabbits are about 7,360 calories. And, that's not even counting all the milk you'd have to drink to balance out the chocolate.

Yesterday, I popped about five Dove eggs. They were "walk-by" instances -- as in, I'm just walking by, "Oh, look a delicious piece of candy. Better eat one."

Without further ado, here are the top 5 Easter candies. (I probably should have published this last week, but now all this stuff is on sale. You can thank me later.)

You won't see any Peeps or Cadbury eggs on this list. I don't care for people passing off fancy marshmallows as candy. And the Cadbury egg is a little ball of nasty.

5. Butterfinger Nest Eggs: My mom used to always buy these for us. A lot of folks would go for the Hershey's eggs. My mom would go with Butterfinger Nest Eggs. They were better. The Butterfinger concrete was my favorite ice cream until I found the Heath Bar concrete.

4. Snicker eggs: I love a good Snickers bar, but the egg is a real treat. I think it's the thinness of it. It makes the ratio of chocolate to filling higher.

3. Robin Eggs: I actually just realized these are mini Whoppers. Whatever they are, they're freaking delicious. I remember pouring them into my mouth from the little carton when I was a kid.

2. Reese's Egg: Here's another candy where the shape makes all the difference. Reese's Cups are good. But, Reese's Eggs are heavenly. For me, it's the absence of the rough, crinkly edges, which are replaced by the smooth lines of the egg. I enjoy smashing it on the roof of my mouth. Nom nom nom.

1. Dove milk chocolate bunny: Ah, this is the supreme Easter candy. A lot of cheaper chocolate bunnies are full of air. Not the Dove. It's pure chocolate goodness. My favorite is eating the head. There's something so satisfying about biting off those ears and then eating it down to the neck. By the way, if you eat the entire thing, that's 920 calories. Probably explains why we have eight of these beauties just sitting around, waiting for a diet cheat day.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Top 5 Sing-Along Songs -- Oldies Edition

I drive quite a bit for my job. There comes a time in every road trip where you have to blast some tunes and sing along. It's the only time I can convince myself that I could in fact carry a tune in a wheelbarrow (that's a Dan Flint saying).

This is how I imagine myself as I sing along to the King's tunes.
I have a multitude of playlists depending on the mood. Thanks to Spotify, finding and categorizing music is easy. Here are my top 5 sing-along songs - oldies edition.
  1. I Want You Back - Jackson 5: Thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy, this song is seeing a resurgence in popularity. I've been listening to this tune long before baby Groot danced his little twig heart out during the credits.
  2. Jailhouse Rock - Elvis Presley: Any oldies list has to have an Elvis song on it. This is one of my favorites. And, did you know there's a video from the movie? Maybe I should watch some Elvis movies. Or not (that's a link to an Eddie Murphy Delirious clip, definitely NSFW).
  3. You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' - The Righteous Brothers: Again, a movie, Top Gun, sent this song into the popularity stratosphere. Yet, I remember hearing this song countless times as dad made pancakes in the morning before school. If his Righteous Brothers CD had been a cassette, it would have been worn out after a couple months. Also, who can't resist jumping in the second you hear "Baby, baby, I'd get down on my knees for you"?
  4. Beast of Burden - The Rolling Stones: I love this song. It's a classic Jagger performance. I didn't really get into the Stones until they released their two-disc Forty Licks collection. Thank goodness I finally took the chance to see what I'd been missing.
  5. Please Mr. Postman - The Beatles: This tune has been performed by numerous groups. The Beatles' performance is one of my favorite. I once heard they would save it to very last when performing because it was rough on Lennon's vocal chords. The song was originally performed by the Marvelettes. FYI: according to Wikipedia, Marvin Gaye is on the drums in their version.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Top 5 Reasons I'm a Die-Hard iPhone Fan

In 2011, I jumped on the smartphone bandwagon. The final straw was driving three hours to a meeting that was cancelled via email. That year, the wife and I signed a two-year agreement with Sprint. Mistakes were made.

This time around, Tiffany opted for the iPhone 6 Plus in Gold. I got mine in classic Space Gray.

The first mistake was choosing Sprint as our carrier. Traveling to a variety of rural areas across Illinois, I realized that Sprint's network isn't on par with Verizon or AT&T.

The next mistake was our choice in smartphones. I went with an HTC EVO 4G. Tiffany chose the first iteration of Samsung's Galaxy S series. (It was technically the Epic 4G.) Both of those phones worked...for about a year. Then battery life took a serious nose dive. The operating system didn't receive any more updates. And, the hardware began to fail in an epic manner.

I hated to admit it, but my dad was right when he recommended the iPhone 4. In 2013, we signed a 2-year deal with Verizon and went with the iPhone 5. This month, we re-upped with Verizon and chose the iPhone 6 Plus. Here are the top five reasons why I'll always carry an iPhone.

1. It works: This was actually my dad's initial sales pitch in 2011. "They just work." Armed with an Android phone, I was keen on telling him everything his phone couldn't do. Around month 18, I had already endured two factory resets. There was something to be said for a phone that just works.

I spent two years with the iPhone 5. In that time, I never had to factory reset it. In fact, I probably rebooted it less than 10 times in 24 months as a result of a frozen screen. For comparison's sake, by year two with the HTC, I had purchased an extra battery and external charger to make it through the day. My operating system was so bogged down, I couldn't even get a speed dial widget to work properly.

Here's a quick size comparison of Apple devices. From left: iPhone 5, iPhone 6 Plus and iPad Air.

2. iOS updates: About once a year Apple will release a significant update to iOS. When they went from iOS 6 to iOS 7, it was like getting a new phone. Many will complain about iOS being less customizable than Android. Fine by me. In my experience, all that customization usually ended up in a slow user experience.

Also, do you know when you get iOS updates? Like the moment Apple releases them. Don't get me started on the 6+ months it takes to get an Android update.

Lastly, unless you've ever bought a Nexus phone, you've probably never used Android as Google intended it. Samsung, HTC and LG load their phones with so much bloatware it's disgraceful. At least Apple limits it to a handful of apps -- not an entire skin with scrolling Facebook feeds and other crap.

3. Lightning charger: This thing is so under-rated. First and foremost, you cannot plug this in upside down. I LOVE that feature. No more messing around in a dark bedroom trying to figure out which way is up on a micro-USB cable.

Also, this thing transfers music. That's not a huge deal anymore with bluetooth. But, even the old 30-pin connector transferred music. I don't think micro-USB will do that. Correct me if I'm wrong. Have you ever seen a micro-USB sound dock?

4. Accessories: Good golly, iPhones are the king of the accessory realm. My case of choice is the extremely grippy Magpul Field Case. I ordered mine in University of Illinois orange (at least that's what I'm calling it).

If there's an accessory to be made, there will be an iPhone version. Now that the 5S is the lowest tier iPhone available factory new, case makers can capture more than 50% of the market with just three cases.

5. Apple ecosystem: I love how my iPhone syncs with the iPad. I can pick up right where I left off on a web article. The Photo Stream is a nice touch too. I rarely take photos with the iPad, but I can view them via Photo Stream.

Three years ago, I would have said this is a negative. Apple has loosened it's controlling grasp quite a bit in the past couple of years. Sure, they present you quite handily with their options for purchasing music, books and movies. But, you can easily go through other channels. Granted you can't purchase electronic content from Amazon via an app, but you can do it on Safari (or Google Chrome).

And it works really well. The days of needing an app to read a simple web page are over. I don't even have the Amazon app on the iPad. If I want to shop Amazon, I pull up Safari, just like I would on a laptop. Only in rare instances is a web page cumbersome on an iPhone. Heck, the iOS web browsing experience is so refined, I've written half of these blogs on my iPad, via the Blogger site on Safari. That's a testament of awesomeness.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Top 5 Annoying Gym Habits

I love people watching. The airport is a longtime favorite venue. However, the gym is a great second.

Here are my Top 5 annoying gym habits. All of these are based on real-life examples. If you do one of these, don't feel bad -- unless it's number five. Then you should feel really bad about yourself.

1. Gym selfie: I don't know what's worse: the dude who spends five minutes unabashedly flexing in the mirror or the guy you walk in on in the locker room and he quickly puts his phone away like he wasn't taking a selfie. I want to laugh at the first guy. But I don't because he is a 300-lb muscle-bound gorilla. As for the second guy, it's just so awkward. He glances up and quickly pulls the phone down like he was texting someone. You feel so dirty for catching him in the throes of his unbridled narcissism.

2. Gallon o' water: Why do people carry a gallon jug of water around the gym? Most often, the offense is committed by weight lifters. I'm sorry, but even an hour of weight lifting shouldn't require an entire gallon of hydration. Am I missing the point? Does it help reduce cramping? Still, why not store the gallon of water in your locker and carry around a water bottle? That's only four refills on a 32-ounce Nalgene bottle.

Got my supplies for leg month. Better take all this, just in case I'm trapped there.

Even more suspicious, many of these muscle bound nuts leave the gym with water still in the jug!! Why did you cart in 128 ounces of water only to carry 64 back out the door? Is lifting the gallon of water part of the workout?

3. 10 lbs of protein: These are probably the same people with the gallon jug of water. They show up at the gym with their entire 10-pound bottle of muscle powder. Why? Are you worried that you might get snowed in and have to spend the next month lifting? "Better bring the whole thing of whey protein, just in case, bro. Might need to drink like 28 emergency protein shakes."

4. Locker room smells: There's nothing worse than walking into the locker room and smelling the unmistakable scent of a fresh number two. The question is why are folks waiting until they get to the gym to do their business.

Right up there with locker room poo is locker room marijuana smell. It seems some guys like to smoke weed (a lot of weed from the smell of it) and then head to the gym. Unfortunately, they don't shower or change clothes beforehand. So, they show up smelling like a Cheech and Chong movie. The absolute worst is when these two smells combine. It smells like poop with an extra skunk topping.

5. Questionable attire: This one is inexcusable. There are mirrors covering every wall in the gym. Man in the white shorts -- how have you not noticed that your shorts are see through when they get sweaty? And, why are you wearing zebra print underwear?

My personal favorite comes from an older gent who used to frequent the gym. Before leaving his house, he would use a liberal amount of "bald spray." You know, the stuff that's basically spray paint for your head. Then, he would get sweaty and black paint would streak down his head and stain his shirt. How are you not noticing that?!!!