A Flame in a Manger

 

Note:  Merry Christmas.  A re-post of a perennial favorite.

***

For years my parents had been christening our one-acre front lawn with a set of those plastic Nativity figurines frequently seen huddled together during the holiday season.  When I was younger, the novelty of having a complete set—two lambs and a camel along with the full cast of characters including a shepherd—was enough to keep me feeling special.  As I got older I comforted myself that, because ours were vintage, displayed in a tasteful hay bale barn, and illuminated from above with a floodlight rather than garishly from within, my family had narrowly escaped being hopelessly tacky;  we instead rested firmly in the camp of whimsical nostalgia.  Regardless of the taste level, the annual appearance of the gang on the front lawn was something that provided a sense of continuity and, no matter the chaos going on inside, a sense that a certain Christmas serenity still reigned.

manger scene 1

I must have been photographing this particular moment, as only mom, dad, Katie, Louise and Pete are pictured.

manger scene 2

Louise with vintage (read–really old and chipped) Mary and Jesus.

It was my senior year of college that everything changed.  There were only a few days left of the term, and I slogged through finals with the promise that a comfortable, familiar Christmas on County A awaited me in a few short days.  Mom and I were wrapping up our once-weekly call that Sunday night when she offhandedly mentioned,

“Oh, and the Manger Scene burned down the other night.”

Coming as it did, across the phone line to my dorm room a couple hours’ drive away, my mother’s comment seemed even more incongruous.  True, we certainly did edit our traditional Sunday evening calls down to a skeletal minimum.  On my part, this was to spare her the details of the questionable choices that I was making during my last year of undergrad—a decision that she was more than happy to go along with.  This approach formed the crux of her parenting after age 12:  don’t ask any questions that you don’t want to know the answer to.  On her part, the lack of foreshadowing and leaving out of key details was more routine.  She never has been very good at foreshadowing things.  Dropped in your lap like an unexpected, squirming baby, her pronouncements were often without context and, similarly, without clear instructions on where to proceed next.  Luckily, it took very little to get her going, relating the story that now exists as a legend.

Apparently they’d gotten the manger scene set up a few days before.  It was a typical weekday night, and they were settled down in the family room for the evening.  A bright floodlight swept across the back of the family room as a sheriff’s vehicle swung into the gravel driveway.  They immediately assumed that this had something to do with the family’s newest driver, my sister Louise, who had already had one hit and run incident to her credit since getting her license in September.  (Fear not, the victim was the bumper of another car in the parking lot at dance).  They hustled to the kitchen door and stepped into the crisp, semi darkness of a winter night on the Wisconsin prairie.  The only light came from the manger scene, the dusk to dawn light having been ritually unscrewed to provide center-stage billing to the front lawn tableau.  The light seemed a bit brighter than usual however.  And and it was throwing off heat.  And crackling.

The nativity scene was completely engulfed in flames

The sheriff’s deputy exited his vehicle, glancing perplexedly from the Biblical inferno to my dad in his then-uniform grey hooded Janesville Fire Department sweatshirt.  Oh, have I forgotten to mention that he was the Janesville Fire Marshal at the time?  Must have slipped my mind.  The young deputy glanced nervously between the two and asked the only logical question:

“Sir, are you aware that you Christmas scene is on fire?”

An interesting question.  Perhaps my parents just were tired of that particular decoration and couldn’t see taking a trip to the dump.  Trash burning was not uncommon in the township, and who needs a burn barrel when you have a snow-covered front lawn as a fire ring?

His mind already reeling ahead to the implications of this very public display of the fire dangers inherent in Christmas light displays, dad wearily asked while rubbing at his furrowed brow, “Sheesh, please tell me that this hasn’t been called in.”  He was answered by the crackle of the deputy’s radio coming to life.  Oh, it had been called in.  And heavily discussed by all on duty firefighters that evening.  Dad told the deputy that he had things under control, no a hose truck wasn’t needed, and PLEASE don’t say any more than you need to about this on the radio.

As the deputy pulled away into the quiet night, dad wearily pulled on his barn boots and walked over to the fire.  He unplugged what proved to the be the inciting culprit:  a 50+ year old extension cord festooned at various points along its length with electrical tape.  Using a piece of scrap lumber he knocked the haybales apart, attempting to dissipate the the now roaring blaze.  Haybales really can go to town, once they get started.  They burned for several hours and smoldered into the night, long after my parents went to bed.  In the morning all that remained was a charred circle in the center of the lawn, melted plastic lumps marking the former positions of the holy family and their retinue.  Unfortunately it didn’t snow again for several weeks.  County A is a fairly heavily traveled road, and between the the dispatch radio and the road’s usual traffic, word of the incident spread quickly.  I think that dad took the ribbing in stride, and several poems commemorating the incident were delivered to the house, all set to familiar Christmas tunes.  The best was clearly “A Flame In a Manger.”

I didn’t quite believe my mother until I saw the evidence for myself.  And for those of you who have heard the story before, perhaps you didn’t believe it either.  But while dad put out the flames, mom had the foresight to document the proceedings for posterity.  Thanks mom!

Flame in a Manger

The next Christmas, mom went out and got a new set of figures at the Farm and Fleet, but things were never really the same.  The manger scene’s magical allure was diminished somehow.  One good thing, though, they didn’t need to purchase new wise men.  You see, the year of fire brother Patrick–he would have been around 8 at the time– had added some theatrical flair to the proceedings and was having the magi approach from the east, set to arrive on Epiphany, 12 days after Christmas.  Every morning he trudged across the acre-wide lawn in his boots and hauled the three statues several feet closer to the scene.  At the time of the fire, they were still far enough to the east to have been saved.  It took a couple of days for him to give up on the project, and for awhile the three plastic wise men were seen to be slowly approaching the burned patch of lawn little by little, inching their way through the blowing prairie winds toward the greasy plastic disc on the lawn of my childhood home.

 

Thoughts during cool down

 

 

barre district

Barre studio–where every class ends with some attention to the ol’ pelvic floor.  

I’ve been going to barre class for almost a year now.  I usually make 3 to 4 classes a week. It’s not doing anything to help with my gut and double chin, but I’m definitely feeling stronger in my legs and butt, so that’s something.  At the end of every class, we sit in a butterfly stretch and are encouraged to work on our pelvic floor, or “lady parts” depending on who the instructor is. I always am amused at these times, because about half of the population of any given class is early 20-somethings.  Barre is quite trendy after all.  I can only imagine the bemused confusion that they must experience when being instructed to work on their pelvic floor.  After all, I’m sure their’s are just fine, thank you very much.

And before I had kids, I didn’t give my lady parts any thought whatsoever either. They were just there, all springy and taught before being forever shredded by childbirth.
After that, suddenly the idea of understanding how to do kegels became very important. I had an abstract notion of what kegels were.  After all, I had attended medical school and memorized the musculature of the female pelvic floor.  Because that’s all it is, you know.  A bunch of muscles that appear to have been cobbled together by someone who usually relies on duct tape and WD-40 for repairs.  I’d post a picture, but I don’t want to get flagged.  I learned my lesson that time I was studying at the public library and realized that the middle school kids were walking by my open anatomy book with a little too much frequency.

jane fonda

Jane Fonda as she appeared on the cover of mom’s exercise LP

In addition to med school, I’ve attended lady exercise classes of some for or another since I was about 15.  I used to go to evening aerobics at the Y with my mother, back when people still wore leotards. And she always kind of laughed at the fact that she couldn’t jump off the ground with both feet or she’d wet her pants. Weird. Before that, mom used to do Jane Fonda at home.  She had an LP version with a happy Jane on the front.  She also had the word “kegels” spelled out in individual letters on the dashboard, right over the steering column of the old blue van.  I suppose that was to remind her to do them when driving. I enjoyed encouraging any friends who were along for a ride to ask my mom about them.

reebok step

The step, vintage about 1994

When I went to college, my friend Bobbi Jo and I would go to step aerobics a few nights a week.  They weren’t particularly popular classes, but there were always a few upperclassmen there along with Bobbi and me.  These young women were all pretty thin and fit, and Bobbi and I comforted ourselves with the knowledge that they may appreciate those narrow hips now, but just wait until childbirth.  In retrospect, their hips were all so impossibly narrow that they likely were forced to deliver via C-sections, and now still have relatively intact pelvic floors and can ignore butterfly stretch time too.  Little did we know…

I think about those moments now when I’m at barre class sitting in my butterfly stretch, when the the young women in class are probably just meditating or letting their minds wander, while I attempt to will my pelvic floor into some kind of submission, trying not to laugh or sneeze too hard in the meantime.

Zero to sixty

speedometer

Man, I had a hard time with the girls on Sunday.  They were at their moody worst on the way to church, and the drama continued as we went into church.  The 8-year-old was being incredibly sensitive and reactionary, melting down over each perceived (or real) slight or indignation from her sister.  And that 12-year-old sister was providing plenty of slights and indignations.  On the sly, I asked for an extra extra “moments of silence to quiet our minds and hearts” that morning.  I got ’em, and the girls got donuts, so somehow we’d reset before heading home.  But, man oh man, it was tough.

I remember, sort of, what it felt like to be 12.  I remember that bubbling, burning sense of rage that would come of of nowhere and be directed usually at my parents. I remember being convinced that my parents were absolutely, without questions, two of the stupidest people to ever walk the earth.  I remember my mood plummeting to abysmal lows, ending in florid sobs on my bed, the kind that ended with those hiccuping, choking gasps.  And I remember that getting to the point of those hiccuping gasps somehow felt good.  I remember falling into fits of laughter so extreme that they’d make me weep, breathless.  I remember that quite often all of these things would happen within the space of any hour.

I’ve christened this preteen to teenage phenomenon Going From Zero To Sixty.  Those unpredictable, uncontrollable emotional shifts.  And boy has the 12-year-old been going from zero to sixty lately. And although I remember feeling that way and can empathize to an extent, I now feel a great deal more empathy toward my own parents, especially my mother.  The sleepless parenting of an infant was tough, but dare I say, this is tougher.  It’s tough to absorb and roll with all of the waves of emotion and not be tempted to answer back in kind. Good Lord, sometimes I want to collapse in florid sobs, but there’s dinner to get on the table!  I haven’t cussed at her yet, but I’m completely confident that it’s just a matter of time, and I want to save up that shocking first time for a moment when I really need to make an impact. 

Moms who’ve been through it reassure me that this is normal, that this too will pass, but that these next few years are going to be tough. Factoring in the 8-year-old, it’ll be a good 10 years before I’m done being jerked around and pummeled by Zero To Sixty moments.  This is why I’ve subscribed to a wine of the month club .  This is why I do yoga on unlimited passes.  And this is why I’m writing this. I know it drives them nuts to hear me kibitz on parenting.  But good lord, can I get an Amen?

Point of Clarification

A funny thing happened at barre class the other day.  I’ve been trying to go every day of the week as part of a challenge involving a sticker chart.  I’m surprised how much a publicly placed sticker reward chart still works on me at 42 years old.  Anyway, I’ve been going to classes that I don’t normally attend.  I had a new teacher and she seemed so familiar to me, I kept trying to figure out where our paths had crossed in the past.  She taught class the following morning as well, and I went through this with her. Where have I seen you before? Could it be yoga? What about kids’ ballet class? Finally she just looks at me and says, “you know, I taught class yesterday, right?  You saw me yesterday.”  I cracked up and let her know that, yes, I remembered her from the previous day.  Oh my God, I’m so glad she sought clarification, because what if she really thought that I didn’t remember her from a day ago? She would have been silently concerned that I was extraordinarily unobservant or else had dementia.

movie theater seat

How many times have people assumed that I said or thought something weird and not sought clarification?  How many people are hauling around these odd ideas about me that aren’t true? How many people have written me off because I said something that needed clarification?  How many people have I written off for lack of clarification?  I remember a mom that I used to sit by at the Swimtastic every Saturday morning, and we’d chat. Early on in the acquaintanceship she was sharing her concern about going to movie theaters she worried about knives in the seats.  Was there some news item about knife-spiked movie seats that I missed? I quickly adjusted my thinking to assign an abnormal level of paranoia to this woman.  Every week for the next couple of years we’d chat, and I’d silently be adding a grain of salt to her stories, assuming she was a crazy knife worrier.  It was only years later that I realized that she must have said “lice” and I’d misunderstood her entirely. Because, you know, knife in a movie seat is something that someone would say, apparently. I can only claim chronic sleep deprivation for that misunderstanding.

En pointe

At the end of last school year Natalie’s ballet teacher, Miss Lori, told her that she was ready to go en pointe.  That is, she had reached sufficient musculoskeletal maturity to beginning dancing on her toes.  Natalie had been enrolled in the beginner pointe class for several months, although in regular shoes. Before that she took several years of pre-pointe classes in addition to her regular ballet classes.  Prior to Miss Lori’s announcement I had no real idea of her progress, especially when it came to subtleties in strength and flexibility. She had long since outpaced my dance knowledge base.  So I was surprised and proud when I heard the news. It was a great lesson in hard work and dedication over time having a tangible payoff. There wasn’t anything magic to the formula. She showed up, worked hard, and made progress.  And now she was ready for the coveted pointe shoes!

pointe shoe

Ummm…looks like fun?

 

I learned that buying one’s first pair of pointe shoes isn’t something that can be done online, or even casually at the studio where other types of dance shoes are normally purchased.  It is a lengthy process of trial and error to find the right shoe, something liker Ollivander’s wand shop. Only instead of a magically gifted wizard, there are knowledgeable employees.  Students from Next Step Dance Studio are fitted at Ballera in Brookfield.

ollivanders

Ollivander’s

ballera.jpg

Ballera

Natalie, along with two of her classmates, were scheduled along with their ballet teacher, Miss Lori.  Unfortunately on the day, Miss Lori was sick and couldn’t come along to approve the final selection. However, we’d already had to delay due to schedules, and she was confident in their fitting and sent the girls with their parents to be fitted.

three-girls.jpg

Scarlett, Abby, & Natalie

When we arrived, I was surprised at the number of girls being fitted for pointe shoes!  I learned that the shop’s work is seasonal, with a big rush during September to mid-October, coinciding with the beginning of a new dance year.  Natalie’s friend, Scarlett, had already been fitted, and she hung around to browse the leotards while her friends went through the process. The store keeps a detailed binder on all dancers who they’ve fitted, as well as information on the general requirements for the dancers’ studios.  NSDS prefers several American-made brands, which is nice as they are slightly less expensive than some of the European models. Rachel, the young woman fitting Natalie, measured her feet, examined them, and began pulling likely models.

Natalie was fitted with a toe pad that dancers wear under the shoes, and was advised as to what a good fit would feel like.  Long story short: it would be more tolerably uncomfortable than a less well fitting shoe. Sometimes dancers need additional supports for their toes like lambs’ wool or toe spacers, but Natalie’s feet were standard enough to require only the basics.  Rachel pulled out the first pair, nestled in a box. They were so shiny and pristine, the toes as yet unscuffed. Unlike pointe shoes that you might see on ballerinas or in pictures, they are sold without ribbons. She slipped her feet into the first pair and Rachel had her perform several maneuvers.  Then she held her hands and assisted her en pointe. It must have felt so weird the first time!

pointe shoe fitting 2

Discussing how the ribbon-less shoes should feel

pointe shoe fitting

Trying the first pair

Rachel wasn’t happy with the fit of the very first pair of shoes, and she pulled out a pair of Capezios.  She went through the same maneuvers, and Rachel just sat back and said “Wow. We’ll try on more, but I really think that these are the ones!”  And her prediction was correct. She had Natalie try on about five more pairs, but they kept going back to the Capezios.  Lucky Natalie. Her other friend, Abby, took over an hour to be fitted, due to her unique feet–size 10 ½ narrow!  She ended up needing a Russian-made pair, and her fitter thanked her for providing a fun challenge.

en pointeWith the winning pair established, Rachel led her to a small barre in front of a mirror and go up en pointe to see herself, for one last inspection.  She then had her go into sous-sus for me to get a picture. Natalie reluctantly took her shoes off, and I reminded her that she couldn’t wear them around until Miss Lori had a chance to approve them in class on Monday.  I was instructed on how to sew on ribbons and elastic, and Natalie was instructed on care of the shoes. The toes are made firm through layers of cardboard and glue, kind of like papier-mache, but with the final product being like a block of wood.  Her shoes would need to dry thoroughly after every use. To help with this we bought a small mesh bag to store them, and when we got home she made two sachets out of rice and old tights to put in the toes. We’ll see how the fastidious care lasts on the rush of leaving the dance studio after several hours of class.  

 

 

Finally, we rang up.  I asked the cashier for a picture, and she obliged.  I wanted to document the fact that these shoes are not cheap.  Luckily Natalie fit well in an American brand. The shoes and storage bag ended up costing in the neighborhood of $100.  A quick online search suggests that I will be buying more pairs on the order of months versus years.

cashier.jpg

Obliging cashier

 

In the end, the cost of the shoes and the years of dance are more than worth it for our family.  Natalie has learned discipline and the reward of hard work through dance. She has made lifelong friends, and I always know that an hour spent at the studio is an hour well spent.  I look forward to watching this next stage of development in her dance life.

Gobsmacked

blasey ford

I just finished watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testify.  I was intermittently proud, sympathetic, enraged, and devastated.  I don’t know if I’ll watch Kavanaugh.  Probably.  But here’s some thoughts, in no particular order, that I need to get out there.

Groups of laughing teenage boys are the scariest thing on earth.

Dr. Blasey-Ford said that the most memorable part of her assault was the laughter.  Even if you haven’t suffered sexual assault, I’d be surprised if most women can’t describes events of humiliation at the hands of laughing groups of teenage boys.  Building up their social capital at the expense of women.  It’s gross.   And then those guys get to grow up and cash in on that social capital and forget all about it while we get to develop eating disorders and seek healing through therapy.  Did you catch it?  In an interview afterward, Senator Graham suggested that she should have been doing just that, telling her story to a therapist rather than them.

The criminal justice metaphor doesn’t apply

Just because you want something–a job, a TV show, a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court–doesn’t mean that the only thing standing in your way is a guilty verdict in a criminal trial.  Stop saying things like innocent until proven guilty.  This is a job interview.  If I was interviewing someone for any other job–nanny, CEO, Jiffy Lube employe– the whiff of stink that Kavanaugh leaves in his wake would immediately disqualify that person.  Would you hire this guy to be your nanny?  Would you leave your daughter alone with Trump?  Come on.

They’re going to infantilize the hell out of her

“We should be nice to her.”  That was Grassley’s closing comment before excusing the witness. They’ll say that it doesn’t matter if we believe her or not, poor confused little dear.  We are to pity her, being manipulated by those mean old attorneys and Democrats.  Baloney.

I want better

I’d like those people awarded with the keys to the country to be smarter than me, to be more self-sacrificing than me, to be more noble than I am.  To have never been an egregious, laughing, teenage sycophant.

Dream Big

My 8-year-old has been obsessed with America’s Got Talent.  We were happy that the Asian card trick guy, Shin Lim, won.  He was both of our top choices.  Go watch that link, I still get chills.  I also especially like how he always looks a liiiiiiittle bit constipated during his act.  Keeps Jimmy in business.

She is also now determined to be on AGT some day. She’s currently torn between trying to actually HAVE a super award winning talent, or developing a weird talent that will get her on an early show and then  eliminated.  I pointed out that the former route would involved a lot of practicing and experience performing in front of people. Some of these people might include her class or her school. Well that didn’t sound too good, so she’s currently thinking a lot about how many animal sounds she might be able to realistically master in the next couple of years.  She figures that’s good for an early round.  

Now when I was little?   I wanted to be on Star Search.  And, I’m embarrassed to admit it, I really wanted to be one of the Spokesmodels that Ed McMahon ogled.  They had to have “beauty, poise, and the ability to speak effectively.” Each model had a pre-taped package of them modeling three outfits in fuzzily lit settings, and then the camera cut to them in real life, walking across the stage to Ed and throwing to commercial.  I’ve gone back to check, and the modeling seemed to involve a lot of touching of one’s hair, enormous earrings, enormous-er hair, hose matched to shoe color, and wind machines.  They were also incredibly trashy in a daytime soap opera kind of a way, and I’m not sure how I was allowed to watch these given that I couldn’t watch Three’s Company.

spokesmodel

I know that some people have gone on to actual careers after Star Search–Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Dave Chapelle.  There’s a whole list on Wikipedia. I never heard of any of the season winners of the Spokesmodel competition. But there, buried at the bottom, Sharon Stone actually competed as a Spokesmodel on one episode!  So I don’t know, my daughter might have the right idea–better to just be a flash in the pan on one of these shows that actually win the whole thing.

I still have a little bit of a crush on constipated Shin Lim, though.