Christmas In Kentucky, Chapter I: The Departure

My (rental) ride

My (rental) ride

Wherein I relive the joys of Saint Paul rush hour, dine at a McDonalds whilst it was still being built, brave the fierce elements, and rediscover a dormant but prodigious talent

Off to Kentucky for Christmas with Mom, sister Mary, bro-in-law Pete, and adorable niece Nolia. I am still carless after the collision, so have rented a sweet little 2013 Ford Focus. This is a live ride. I may not give it back.

The office closed at noon. And after a stop at the radio station holiday potluck, I eventually got on the road by 3 with every intention of reaching Missouri by dusk. I-35E traffic in Saint Paul during Friday afternoon rush hour had different plans, though. I was nearly to Faribault before the interstate stopped resembling a parking lot. Road rage was surprisingly absent, though, which is remarkable.

Image from –  Not the actual Medford McDonalds

In Medford my windows began to frost over, I was hungry, and I needed to pee. So I pulled off the interstate, onto a goddamn roundabout (which I despise), and into a (seemingly) friendly and welcoming McDonalds. Bad choice. Apparently the lighted sign did not indicate a restaurant ready for diners. Although the McStaff was serving food to a crowded line of customers, the McConstruction Workers were still building the place: hanging drywall, installing ceiling lights, prepping the floor for tile. There was one bathroom and the line was understandably immense. Cold weather caused most of the diners to eat in, and we all sat at church-basement folding tables and chairs. I understand their desire to serve holiday travelers, but this was a McMistake.

Continuing on down the interstate, my windows continued to frost over. As I approached Albert Lea (home town to Al Franken and nearly into Iowa), the roads became more slippery. As I crossed the border, they became glazed. I pushed on another forty miles to Clear Lake (best known as the place where Buddy Holly et al died in a 1959 plane crash), drove gingerly onto the exit ramp, and took my rest at the AmericInn.

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I’m disappointed that I didn’t make it into Missouri. But my dad was famous for saying, “Just find out how many miles the road will give you.” Good advice, Dad.

On the plus side: for road trip music I busted out some mix CDs I burned four or five years ago. God damn, but I make some fine mix CDs.

So. Sitting back, chillaxin’, quaffing a Schell’s (coincidentally named) Snowstorm. Their winter seasonal is different each year, and this time around they’ve created a Biére de Garde. Very very nice.

Yes, the holidays have begun. With luck and an early start, Kentucky tomorrow afternoon.

“White Christmas” by The Drifters, animation by Joshua Held.

My nieces Phoebe and Nolia and I used to sing and act out all the parts of this. I strayed from the script when I ad libbed, “Take it, Rudolph,” and it seems to have stuck.

Tweaked slightly and recycled for the new season: I like Thanksgiving better than Christmas.

Go here.

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Desert Island Discs: “Souvenir (1989-1998)” by The Rankins (2003)

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I spent most of September 2010 traveling around Nova Scotia, particularly Cape Breton. Discussed it here and here. This two-CD set was my constant traveling companion, the soundtrack of my journey. I still play it at home and on the radio, as a reminder of one of the best times of my life. Hence a Desert Island Disc.

And yes, it’s another greatest-hits compilation.

From the beginning it was clear the group was about so much more than just music, that there was a tradition to be respected and passed on, but not without ensuring its audience had a damn good time in the process. Young and energetic, The Rankins showed the rest of the country, and much of the world, that Cape Breton music was strong and vital and had a relevant place in the commercial market…The Rankins had a tricky balancing act on their hands, satisfying the folk music fans that bought the first 10,000 or so copies of their first two CDs and helped raise their music industry profile, and meeting the needs of a major label with commercial airplay that enabled them to fill arenas across the country…The Rankins were about tearing down barriers and bringing the music of their home to new listeners. – Stephen Cooke, Halifax Chronicle-Herald

“Souvenir 1989—1998” is a two-disc greatest hits compilation that came out in 2003. It is a great overview of the decade when the Rankin Family rose to prominence in the Canadian pop/folk scene and opened a floodgate of likeminded musicians who brought Celtic influences into the contemporary scene. It is evenly focused on their entire career, and also serves as a memorial to the late John Morris Rankin (1959-2000). Mrs. homercat introduced me to The Rankins and I love them. Just one listen to “You Feel the Same Way Too,” “Borders and Time,” or “The Mull River Shuffle” and you’ll be hooked too. The family is blessed with wonderful voices, particularly the women. The harmony is dense and absolutely pure. The voices are clear and crisp, the lyrics are full of meaning, and the music is just fantastic. The men in the group are excellent instrumentalists and the late John Morris’s fiddle playing is superb in an authentic Gaelic style. Truly one of Canada’s best kept secrets. –

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Jimmy, Raylene, Heather, Cookie, and John Morris Rankin

The Rankin clan hails from Mabou, a town of 1,300 on the western coast of Cape Breton. A family of 12, they all performed in various groupings, at ceilighs and fairs, across the island for years and years. The youngest five got national attention (in Canada) and signed with EMI in 1989. So they became another incredibly talented band that was huge in Canada, but barely known in the US. See also: Great Big Sea, Blue Rodeo, Sloan, et al.

John Morris Rankin
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The band went on hiatus in 1998, took on side projects, and raised their families. As homercat mentioned above: in 2000 John Morris Rankin, the older brother and virtuosic instrumentalist, was killed in a roadside accident not far from his home in Mabou. The remaining members were in shock to say the least. Since then Jimmy, Cookie, Raylene, and Heather have reunited as a foursome and in smaller groups, and continue to take on solo and other side projects. “Souvenir” chronicles the music made by all five of them together.

The Rankins’ style of tight harmonies, outstanding instrumentation, and Celtic influences has become known in Canada as “East Coast Music.” This is in part because it’s primarily based in Atlantic Canada, the Maritimes and Newfoundland and Labrador with their strong Scottish and Irish populations. Although some Acadian elements have seeped into the music as well. According to wikipedia:

The Maritime Provinces are best known for the strong influence of Scottish and Irish settlers on the sound of the region’s traditional music. This Celtic-derived music is most strongly expressed on Cape Breton Island, which is especially well known for the Scottish influx in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Scottish-style fiddle music, sometimes accompanied by the piano, was popular at the time, and these traditions survive today. In some cases, like Cape Breton Island, Scottish folk traditions are better-maintained than in Scotland itself…New Brunswick has seen a roots revival of their own Acadian traditions, dating back to before the French settlers of the area were expelled to Louisiana and became the Cajuns…While closely related to the three Maritime provinces, Newfoundland and Labrador is culturally and politically separate. However, the two areas share a regional awards show, the East Coast Music Awards, and a common musical heritage.

As I say, this CD set was my traveling buddy throughout Nova Scotia. With a backdrop like that it’s obvious why it has a special place in my collection, but I’m not fickle; I continue to listen now that I’m back home.

John Morris’s contribution was his amazing musicianship on piano, guitar, and fiddle. He rarely took a lead vocal, but the other four made up for it. Cookie (real name, Carol) takes the lead on several numbers, including “Borders And Time.”

Cookie Rankin
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Blue are the ocean waters
Along a lover’s shoreline
You will not be forgotten
But now that you’re gone
The heartache lives on

(Please continue to page two)

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My dog Sampson passed away last evening.

SAMPSON 10/11/98 – 2/15/12
My niece Phoebe, who had Sampson for seven years, took this pic

A very lovable pug, almost 14 years old. Out walking in a place he loved, he lay down and didn’t get up again.

There’s a void in my heart. I miss him. Always did my best for him, and him for me. I will always love him, and we’ll meet again at the rainbow bridge.

“If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.” – Will Rogers

“He is my other eyes that can see above the clouds; my other ears that hear above the winds. He is the part of me that can reach out into the sea. He has told me a thousand times over that I am his reason for being; by the way he rests against my leg; by the way he thumps his tail at my smallest smile; by the way he shows his hurt when I leave without taking him. (I think it makes him sick with worry when he is not along to care for me.) When I am wrong, he is delighted to forgive. When I am angry, he clowns to make me smile. When I am happy, he is joy unbounded. When I am a fool, he ignores it. When I succeed, he brags. Without him, I am only another man. With him, I am all-powerful. He is loyalty itself. He has taught me the meaning of devotion. With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace. He has brought me understanding where before I was ignorant. His head on my knee can heal my human hurts. His presence by my side is protection against my fears of dark and unknown things. He has promised to wait for me… whenever… wherever – in case I need him. And I expect I will – as I always have. He is just my dog.” – Gene Hill

My dad passed away late last night.

I first mentioned him here.

He slipped away gently at about 11:30 pm. Mercifully.

I have never known a better man than my dad. If you ever met him, you would agree.

Godspeed, Dad, and I’ll see you on the other side.

A dog named Nu-Wood: the story of The Bus People.

My siblings and I grew up outside of Carlton, Minnesota, a small town just south of Duluth. There was a 12-year age range between the six of us, oldest to youngest, so often we would all play together. Our parents would join in the fun; we were (and are still) a playful bunch.3acf75d8f96c3048b829569f437258d2

One Christmas, I think it was 1966, our younger siblings received a gift that would become part of family folklore: a Fisher-Price “Little People” School Bus. For those of you unfamiliar with this, the website offers this description:

In the 1960s, toy company Fisher-Price began producing its popular line of Little People — small figures of people and dogs with cylindrical bodies which fit into specially made vehicles and buildings. The first Little People set was a school bus, with human characters who fit inside circular holes. The original Little People figures were made of wood, with plastic vehicles and buildings; later, the figures would be made of plastic as well. The Little People toys were an instant success, and the school bus was soon followed by more sets.

Later on the young’uns also got the “Little People” house and farm, each with its own set of peeps. Despite that, though, they are known evermore in our family folklore as “The Bus People.”

As mentioned, we all played with them. Sometimes, in fact, even WITH the age-appropriate kids they were meant for.

The Bus People acquired names, backstories, and personalities. Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa… those were obvious.

My sister Shonna named the scowly little boy with the sideways ball cap “Butch,” after the rowdy neighbor kid who lived across the road. Later our brother Mike renamed him “Randy,” after another rowdy neighbor kid. Later still, Fisher-Price reconfigured him with a smile instead of a sneer. I wonder if he inspired the whole sideways/backwards ball cap thing in the 80s and 90s.

This kid was cool too. He became known as “Pan-Head.” Why a pan? I’m sure there’s a story behind that. But still, it’s certainly preferable to “Pot-Head.”

But the little dog became “Nu-Wood.” According to a Fisher-Price collectors’ website (yes, there are several of them. You’re not surprised, are you?) the dog’s official name was “Lucky.” Some dogs are apparently named “Snoopy” based on the name written on the doghouse pictured on the back wall of the Little People house. Ours was named “Nu-Wood,” and he’s still my favorite.

Why Nu-Wood? We think Shonna was the one who named him that. The next town over from Carlton was Cloquet, which housed a factory owned by Wood Conversion Company. Ownership changed hands many times after awhile, but back then Wood Conversion was one of the area’s biggest employers; many of the neighbor kids’ dads and school classmates’ dads worked there.

Nu-Wood logo, ca. 1930s

One of Wood Conversion’s mainstay products was a decorative pressed-wood insulating material called… you guessed it… Nu-Wood. There’s a good reason Nu-Wood isn’t currently a household word. Apparently, it sucked as an insulating material. But the name was mentioned all the time in our neighbors’ homes, and apparently Shonna liked the sound of it.

I wrote Shonna the other day that it still astounds me that, after forty-five years, neither I nor any of our sibs have ever named a dog Nu-Wood. Maybe someday.

My dad is in the hospital.

Seventy-eight years old, a tough American Scotsman, as strong as a horse and as resilient as a rubber band. But as the doctor told us, he reached a tipping point the other day. Started to experience chest pains and shortness of breath. He’s been diagnosed with COPD, asbestosis, and emphysema.

He’s been hospitalized for a week and a half, and we’re not sure how soon he’ll be discharged to home. We do know that he’s always been a fighter and is not going to give up.

His positive attitude is amazing and inspiring. When the doctor told us that he had ruled out mesothelioma, the relief and joy on Dad’s face flooded the room. Despite the other diagnoses.

I have never known a better man than my dad. If you met him, you would say the same. Prayers, healing energy, positive thoughts, white light – whatever you can send his way will be appreciated.

I like Thanksgiving better than Christmas. (Tweaked slightly and recycled.)

There. I said it, and I’m glad.

Apparently I’m not alone. How thankful I am for the magic of the intertubes, where I’ve tumbled onto a great number of like-minded peeps. (Kind of like the little Bee Girl at the end of the “No Rain” video by Blind Melon. But much less cute.)  And Nordstrom stores have the right idea.

From the great blog “Jay To The Bee”:

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Serina Clason wrote this in her excellent blog:

The things I adore about Thanksgiving is the act of being thankful, and being surrounded by those I’m most thankful for. Encouraging us all to be giving, appreciative, and grateful, as well as gracious is what I love about the holiday. It gets pretty hard to find those times where people present those traits openly and without a hidden agenda, with no strings attached.

“What about Christmas!” you say… When you are constantly bombarded with ads telling you, “Only so many days left – so you better get shopping,” and the stress associated with finding the “Perfect Gift,” it can be really hard not to get caught up in the materialism.

“Writer Keith” has this to say:

At Christmas, if you fall asleep at your family gathering, whispers go around about how you may have had too much eggnog. At Thanksgiving, sleeping isn’t just okay, it’s encouraged!

At Christmas, people bring presents. They’re for certain people. At Thanksgiving, people bring food. It’s for everyone!

At Christmas, once you open presents, the day is pretty much over. At Thanksgiving, we use words like “seconds,” “thirds,” and “leftovers.”

Marshall Jones, Jr. listed ten reasons Thanksgiving is better than Christmas. Here are a few:

It’s easy to add extra people. What if someone extra shows up at a Christmas party? It’s a big scramble to stealthily grab the standby present from the closet. At Thanksgiving, though, there’s always more than enough food to go around, no matter who comes.

Christmas had a lot going for it, especially for me as a Christian. Heck, it has Christ right in its name, it’s based on celebrating His birth, and it racks up some of the highest church attendance of the year. But now with blinking Rudolph in the show, literally, it kind of feels like we’re just taking Christ’s name in vain. I like the less neon holiday better.

You can talk all you want about Thanksgiving being about the pilgrims’ gratefulness to the natives for corn on the cob, but I’m pretty sure their gratitude ran deeper than that. While Christmas as we know it might have some good intentions built in, its roots are a little more suspect. Thanksgiving was awesome from the start.

Instead of asking people what they want or got for Christmas, you get to ask what people are thankful for. And that, by itself, is a reason to be thankful. And love it.

Blogger “Michael” made an observation that goes straight to the heart for me:

Thanksgiving is like an obscure indie band with better music, while Christmas is like Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga: mainstream and done to the lowest common denominator. So I’d give the slightest edge to Thanksgiving (usually milder weather).

Claire Mosley from Mississippi State University nailed it from a student’s point of view:

Most people don’t even give a second thought to Thanksgiving. Underappreciated, this festival is often overlooked in favor of Christmas. Instead of being a stand-alone holiday, the time of Thanksgiving is used as a transitional period from Halloween to Christmas. Depressing, no?

Thanksgiving is truly the most relaxing of the holidays. Think about it: the whole day revolves around consuming colossal portions of casserole and stuffing, before moving on to eating not one, not two, but three full pieces of pecan pie. After that it’s either family bonding time, or family nap time. Either way, there is not a whole lot of activity required unless you are cooking; in which case, have fun deep-frying that turkey for six hours. The rest of us will be inside shoveling down spoonfuls of cranberry sauce.

Thanksgiving is a time to be, well, thankful. It’s easy to lose sight of what the day is really meant for, especially since most people see it as just that random holiday before Christmas. But in reality, it’s a time to reflect on life and concentrate on the people around you, those that care for you. That, and eat an entire plate of Aunt Marge’s green bean casserole. I mean, let’s not get too sentimental here.

And Nickmom posted “Top Nine Ways Thanksgiving Is Better Than Christmas” on her awesome blog. Here are a few:

  • Justin Bieber never made a Thanksgiving record.
  • No one ever cried at church because they didn’t get the right kind of Bratz doll for Thanksgiving, now did they?
  • Thanksgiving involves slightly less outright lying to the children.
  • It’s a guarantee your kids will say “Thanks.”

A former boss of mine used to refer to Thanksgiving as “Christmas without the presents.” Works for me. I’ve never ever had enough money to gift the people I love in the manner they deserve. I know, I know: “It’s not the gift, it’s the thought that counts,” yada yada yada. That right there sums up why I like Thanksgiving better. It’s all about the thought. Oh, and the food.

I celebrated Thanksgiving in Nova Scotia this year. Canadian Thanksgiving is on the second Monday of October, the same as our Columbus Day. That makes more sense to me. The weather’s better, and it’s so much more laid back (kind of like Nova Scotians). According to, it originated in Canada as a purely harvest festival 43 years before the US followed suit. No parades, no “Black Friday” shop-a-palooza, not just the next scheduled stop between Halloween and Christmas. Plenty of football and beer, though.

And the holiday is the source for one of my favorite jokes. “You know why no one gets laid on Thanksgiving? Nobody wants to move all those coats off the bed.”