My family and I live in the countryside between two small towns: Frazee, and Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Most of our lives happen in Detroit Lakes, so we don’t go to Frazee very often. There’s really only one practical route from our house to Detroit Lakes: U.S. Highway 10. As you enter town, you’re greeted by the most ridiculous set of traffic lights ever installed: Kris Street.
So what makes it ridiculous, you ask? First of all, Kris Street isn’t even a street. It’s a railroad crossing, total length, oh, maybe 75 feet. That’s it. Kris “Street” links Highway 10 and Randolph Road, which runs parallel to the highway on the other side of the train tracks.
This crossing was installed a few years back when Highway 10 underwent a major realignment. The engineers who designed it obviously put safety as their number one concern. Sadly, common sense was a casualty of their actions.
A safe railroad crossing sounds great, but to date I’ve spent approximately 1,348 hours and 19 minutes waiting at the Kris Street light. The lights are set up in such a way that whenever a vehicle is given a green light to cross the tracks, all other traffic on both sides of the tracks stops. The engineers obviously didn’t trust people to yield to oncoming traffic, so they make everyone else stop.
I can understand this, considering the fact that a lot of semi trucks use this crossing (it’s the closest access to the town’s industrial park). But travelers on the highway often sit for several minutes at a time, waiting for a red light.
What’s even more maddening than waiting so long is the fact that usually there are no more than one or two vehicles that zoom across while we sit, drumming our fingers on our steering wheels, telling the lights to “Hurry up and change already!”
To make matters worse, there are many times when the lights turn and there are no vehicles whatsoever crossing the tracks. Argh! I suppose they have it set to automatically go off just in case someone’s trying to cross and the sensors don’t pick them up. I suppose motorcyclists like that, but there aren’t many of them out and about in our subzero January temps as I write this.
Finally, whenever a train is approaching, the crossing stays open for several minutes so any really long trucks can get through (they must be really long trucks!). Then, of course, the crossing closes, and the rest of us can get on our way.
But wait, there’s more! Thanks to a quirk in the programming of the lights, they suddenly turn red for highway travelers just as a train gets to the crossing. The light stays red for no more than one second—you read correctly: one second—before again turning green.
Recently, I had the opportunity to completely run that dumb red light. It felt so good. Fight the system! I’ve made up my mind that I’m not stopping for a one second red light in which no crossing traffic will be approaching. My observations tell me I’m not alone.
I know that people where I live tend to be bad drivers (I think I’ll write about that next!), but Kris Street is ridiculous. Please, highway engineers, program some common sense back into that crossing!
Now that everyone knows how I feel about Christmas music, I’ll now punish you with my Top 10 list of non-cheesy Christmas albums!
10. “Striking 12” by Groovelily. Okay, so this isn’t technically a Christmas album, but it is a holiday album, specifically New Year’s. This band is a theatrical/pop/rock trio (for lack of a better term), consisting of electric violin, keyboards, and drums. All three members share lead vocal chores, to great effect.
This live recording is a modern adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl” that is at times poignant, beautiful, and hilarious. My favorites include the haunting “It’s Coming Down,” which I used to listen to in our apartment in Kiev while watching the snow fall on winter evenings. Very cozy. I also love “Give the Drummer Some” (of course) and “Screwed Up People Make Great Art,” the title of which speaks for itself.
9. “Merry Christmas” by Mariah Carey. I can’t believe I’m putting this on here, but it’s to appease the popsters out there. If you have to listen to an album of pop Christmas music, this is the one. The reverent “Jesus Born on this Day” and “Joy to the World,” which combines the Christmas carol with the “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” song to great effect are the highlights for me.
8. “Heaven and Nature Swing” by Phil Driscoll. In case you don’t know, the best kind of Christmas music is jazzy, and this big band record is chock full of wonderful arrangements by Ralph Carmichael. Phil Driscoll is a singer and trumpet player. He can play trumpet very high and loud, but he’s not a jazz player. Also, thanks to the magic of multi-track recording, Phil is the entire trumpet section, which is weird. Still, it’s a great album, especially the extended jams on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”
7. “A Very Veggie Christmas” by the Veggie Tales crew. I’ve listened to this at least 18,000 times (thanks to my kids) and have every word memorized. It’s kind of like a TV show without visuals. Bob the Tomato is hosting a Christmas party at his house, and we get to listen in. Like most Veggies Tales stuff, it’s very funny and cute. While in Poland last year, we ate as many of the foods as possible from the “Twelve Days of Christmas” (eight Polish Christmas dishes) from this recording. Our favorite was kielbasa.
6. “Timeless Christmas” by Denver & the Mile High Orchestra. This is a mini-big band led by another singing trumpet player. I really like this band when they’re swinging, but they can’t seem to decide whether to be jazzy or to be a rock band with horns. Anyway, there are some wonderful versions of Christmas classics (including the second-best version ever of “Little Drummer Boy” ever—the best is in my #1) along with some great originals.
5. “A Christmas Festival” by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. My family had a record of this when I was growing up, and it reminds me of my childhood. I remember the cover had Mr. Fiedler dressed as Santa and holding a large sack of toys that I thought looked pretty cool. This is classy stuff!
4. “Christmastime” by Michael W. Smith. This one’s for Kendra, but I have to admit, as another “poppy” Christmas album, this is pretty good. He’s got a wide variety of material, and it has kind of a timeless quality, as opposed to flavor-of-the-month-type stuff.
3. “Chestnuts Roastin’” by Nat “King” Cole. This set of songs has been released under various names over the years, but this is the version I have. We also had a record of this growing up (under a different name), and I can picture my mom decorating the living room with this playing, so there’s a real sentimental value here. And of course, it’s the definitive version of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” that you’ve all heard a million times.
2. “When My Heart Finds Christmas” by Harry Connick, Jr. So far HC has released three Christmas albums, but this is the first and (in my opinion) best. It has some of the hippest swinging tunes you’ll hear on a Christmas record, along with some reverent orchestral stuff and, of course, New Orleans-inspired jams. Harry wrote several tunes, all of which are good enough to be added to the Christmas canon.
The album ends with Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” which HC does perfectly. The problem with this song is that in the show where it originally appeared, it was sung in early spring, and the singer was hoping for a long-term relationship. Just some useless trivial for you.
1. “Oy to the World!” by the Klezmonauts. If the very idea of a Klezmer Christmas album isn’t funny enough for you, then you have no sense of humor. In case you don’t know, Klezmer is Jewish music (think “Fiddler on the Roof”). About ten years ago Kendra and I were driving around the Twin Cities doing Christmas shopping, and the Klexmonauts’ version of “Jingle Bells” came on the radio. We contacted the jazz station to ask who it was, because we were laughing out loud. Imagine that tune in a minor key, complete with a lady singing in German and a violin that at one point quotes “Rhapsody in Blue” and you might get a bit of a picture of this album.
Earlier I mentioned “Little Drummer Boy,” and this features a Klezmer/rock/surf version with some killer drum breaks. It’s a very short album, which is okay, because as cool and fun as it is, the songs all start to sound the same in short order. At any rate, this is the hippest Christmas album of all time.
There you have it! I have to give honorable mention to Natalie Cole, the Vince Guaraldi Trio (Charlie Brown), Bing Crosby, and the Concordia College Percussion Ensemble, all of whom have awesome Christmas recordings. We also own “A Toolbox Christmas,” which utilizes tools musically, which is kinda cool. Sadly, we also have “The Jingle Cats,” which consists of meows recorded in various pitches and played back to the melody of Christmas carols. It’s as horrendous as it sounds. The perfect gift for your enemies this Christmas!
Excuse me while I go listen to these (except for the Jingle Cats), and Merry Christmas!
Those of you who know me are familiar with my attitude regarding Christmas music out of season. One of my greatest pet peeves is listening to (or worse yet, being forcing to sing) Christmas music when it’s not Christmas season. Many a soul has watched with glee as I come unhinged as the result of someone singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” in September.
Why is it such a big deal? What do I have against Christmas music? The answers are, 1) it really isn’t a big deal, but I thought it would be fun to write about it, and 2) I don’t have anything against Christmas music. The fact is, I love it. That’s precisely why I don’t like hearing it out of season.
In our home, I insist on no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. That also goes for Christmas decorations. My reason is simple: I do enjoy all that Christmas-y stuff, but I don’t want to be tired of it by the time December 25 rolls around. Do you know that the “Twelve Days of Christmas” begin on December 25?
Yet in today’s America, the stores start putting out Christmas stuff in October, and on December 26, discarded trees already start littering boulevards. After two straight months of Christmas everything, people can’t wait to move on, and that’s sad.
I prefer to wait until after Thanksgiving, so that when Christmas comes I still enjoy hearing those songs and looking at my tree. Since we have an artificial tree, we have the luxury of leaving it up as long as we want, which at this point in our lives is stretching past mid-January. It’s depressing to take down that cozy tree and lights, knowing that there are still months of bleak winter weather ahead.
But back to the music. I love music, which is another reason why Christmas music annoys me. What I mean is, everyone and their brother feels the need to record a Christmas album. People who spend the rest of the year living like there is no God suddenly start singing about Jesus, and generally get full of holiday cheer and sentimentality.
The sad truth is that most new Christmas albums are cheesy pop drivel, sung by today’s hottest pop and country “artists.” What does the average Christmas album contribute to our civilization? Do we really need to hear Justin Bieber croon about chestnuts roasting or Taylor Swift babble about the magic of the season? Do we really need another version of “Little Drummer Boy”?
Add to this the fact that some radio stations actually brag that they play all Christmas music during this time of year, as if that’s a good thing. I avoid those stations like the plague. Why don’t we have radio stations that play only patriotic music around the Fourth of July or Easter music around Easter? Or maybe just a station that proclaims it’ll only play about twenty-five different random songs covered by several thousand singers?
I propose a law that would put limits on Christmas music. Once a store or radio station hits their quota for the day, no more holiday cheer. Of course, what crazy people do in the privacy of their own home is their business. The penalty for violating this law would be the forced listening to of a handful of non-Christmas songs that have indeed been covered by a zillion artists, such as “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Carry On Wayward Son,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
There would also be a quota on how many times a certain song can be recorded. There would be strict limits on the helplessly overdone songs. Sacred examples are “Joy to the World,” “Angels We Have Heard On High,” and “Silent Night.” Secular examples would be “Jingle Bells” (including quoting the melody at the end of other songs), “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas.”
Finally, there would be strict enforcement of the proper singing of songs. In particular, the melody of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” would be sung correctly. People now sing the notes of “everywhere” (as in “over the hills and everywhere”) wrong! It should only be sung that way the last time through! Argh! Somebody stop me!
So there you have it. I apologize if I have diminished your holiday cheer. Join me next time when I break the news to you that there is indeed no Santa Claus.
One of the greatest thrills of my childhood (besides pickles, olives and lefse—see last post) was the experience of the Snow Day. Few things can compare to the excitement of hearing Andy Lia of KDLM radio announce “No school today in Detroit Lakes.” While one might want to return to bed for more sleep, the excitement was so great that sleep would never come. It didn’t take long to don our snow gear and head outside for some fun.
I remember my mom telling the story of some boys in her grade who played a prank where one of them pretended to be the superintendent and called the radio station, informing them that school was cancelled. The radio station believed them and announced it! I guess they were caught and punished, but as a kid I admired them and wished I could do that.
When I became a teacher I again got to experience the joy of snow days. I taught two years in Burnsville, Minnesota, which is a suburb of the Twin Cities. Snow days were exceptionally rare in the “metro” area, so any late start or early dismissal was an occasion for pandemonium. One day when the weather was bad, the kids were all a-buzz at the possibility of getting out of school early.
When the principal finally came on the intercom to announce that school was releasing early, my room was empty before he’d spoken two sentences. He continued on for a minute, apparently oblivious to the fact that the building was almost empty by the time he finished his speech about an orderly dismissal.
Even as a teacher, I reveled at the possibility of a day off. Never mind the fact that at some later date that day will need to be made up, most likely when the weather is nice and everyone would rather be outside. Carpe Diem!
I think the desire for an unexpected day off is human nature. Future consequences don’t seem to matter when compared to the prospect of a day without work/school, etc. I also think this helps explain the tendency people have to overreact to weather forecasts.
If the weatherman says there’s a possibility for snow that may accumulate at a depth of 3-5 inches, people’s natural tendency to overreact turns it into a huge blizzard with a foot of snow and hurricane-force winds. When the same weatherman says light flurries may start in mid-afternoon, you can rest assured that numerous evening activities will be cancelled, whether it’s snowing by 7:00 p.m. or not.
My dad is very good at warning me about this weather and saying, “Too bad you have to go to work in this. You’ll probably have to stay there tonight, because you don’t want to drive home in that kind of weather!” Of course, he also laments one having to leave the house if it’s raining on a summer day. “Wish you didn’t have to go out in this junky weather!”
The National Weather Service hasn’t exactly helped lessen the hype with the new practice of actually naming winter storms, a la hurricanes. Is that really necessary?
People also tend to exaggerate temperatures, at least around here. I occasionally hear someone refer to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit (which is the same as -40 Celsius) as typical, though it hasn’t been that cold in this part of Minnesota since about 1996. The fact is, we usually only have a small handful of nights a year where the temperature dips below -20.
One more thing that bears mention is the practice of radio stations to announce something like “Frazee school and buses two hours late.” Never once have I heard an announcement like “Pelican Rapids schools are two hours late, but buses are on time. Bundle up, because the school is locked,” or “Lake Park/Audubon school is on time, but buses are two hours late. You’d better not be tardy!” It just seems like a waste of breath to say it like they do.
Admittedly, I find myself easily sucked in to the bad-weather excitement, even though it rarely gets as bad as it sounds. After so many disappointments, you’d think I’d learn to start taking those forecasts with a grain of salt (no road salt pun intended).
By the time I woke up, there was already the faint aroma of cooking turkey. Mom, clad in her apron, had been up for hours. The turkey sat stewing in the special turkey roaster, which spent the other 364 days of the year sitting under the west window in the bathroom. This was the roaster’s one day to shed its typical role of towel-drier and actually do that for which is was made.
Thanksgiving Day morning was always crisp and sunny in my memories. There was usually a thin layer of snow brightening up the dull browns of autumn and promising the thick blanket that was soon to come. Our black-and-white TV set was on, broadcasting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
My parents had already set up the extra card table (the one with the flowery cardboard surface and green metal legs), extending the kitchen table to make room for our guests: my maternal grandmother and aunt (“Grandma ‘n Auntie”). Of course, both tables were covered with tablecloths, so they looked nice for the big day.
There were name tags made from construction paper and bearing the crayon-colored images of turkeys that told us where to sit, since on this big day most of us had different places from our usual spots. The excitement rivaled that of Christmas for this little blonde-haired boy.
As dinnertime approached, the bowls of dill pickles and green olives were put out. Thus began one of the most-revered traditions in the Mohn household: Each of us five kids tried to sneak as many as possible of both items, with Mom scolding and shooing us away.
Compared to the pickles and olives, the rest of the meal just wasn’t as exciting. Don’t get me wrong—it was delicious, but the prospect of seemingly unlimited pickles and olives was thrilling almost beyond words. We ate the foods most Americans usually eat for Thanksgiving Dinner, with the Scandinavian delicacy of lefse thrown in for good measure (probably the third most exciting food on the menu).
After the meal, Mom continued working as she slaved over our dirty dishes, although this was one of the rare days when she actually got to use the dishwasher (Dad said it used too much water, so it was reserved for Sunday afternoons and holidays). Dad retired to his easy chair to watch football, while us kids put on our warm clothes and struck out for Abbey Lake to go skating. It was about a half-mile walk to the lake through fields and woods (depending on the route taken). If there was enough snow, my big brother, Danny, would pull a trailer behind the snowmobile, upon which we’d hitch a ride. Otherwise, we walked.
Upon arriving at the lake, we’d sit on frozen, half-submerged logs on the ice and put on skates that had assumed the temperature of the ice during the commute to the lake. If there was snow, there’d be shoveling to do (Danny did most of that) before we could get in any skating. We’d eventually get a hockey game going, the soft sponge puck making the game safer, even if it did make stick-handling almost impossible.
After a good workout, during which nobody’s feet actually warmed up, we’d retire to the log, pull off our half-frozen skates and strike out for home, the weak late-November sun giving the landscape that atmosphere that still reminds me of those days.
We’d return to find the dishes done (thanks, Mom!), have some pumpkin pie and ginger ale, and watch football until supper, when we’d enjoy turkey buns with mustard, potato chips, and more pickles, olives and lefse. It seemed like there was usually some special movie on TV that we’d watch while enjoying yet more of the fruit of Mom’s labors.
That night we went to sleep, happy, satisfied, and glad we didn’t have to get up for school the next day. There was also that tinge of regret, as we realized we’d eaten up all the pickles, olives and lefse, and would be left with endless turkey leftovers for days to come.
Looking back, I can find ample reason to give thanks to God for Thanksgiving itself, and the wonderful memories I have.
I've included some old blogs along with the new. Should you ever find yourself suffering from insomnia, this is the place for you! That's as poetic as I get...