Sunday, August 31, 2014

After Spandex

I'm no more adept at exercise now than when this was published by the Milwaukee Journal Magazine 23 years ago. Unfortunately.

I was in trouble. Electronic music crashed off the walls while fiercely determined women charged into place. Never had I seen so much Spandex. And bodies, bodies everywhere, in neon flashes and waves and zebra stripes, with matching ankle weights.

I was feeling awfully dowdy in my husband's baggy gray sweat suit.

When my friend Kelly invited me to this fitness class, I had a feeling it was a mistake. In high school, gym classes and gang showers had scarred me for life. Clearly some girls thrilled to the sight of softballs and tumbling mats, but I was never among them. I was the one forever slinking to the end of the line, praying never to be summoned to climb the rope dangling from the ceiling.

Foolishly, I thought an adult exercise class would be worlds removed from the cement-block gymnasium that so long ago had stolen my self-confidence and frizzed my hair each Tuesday and Thursday at 9:10 a.m.


The evening instructor, Juta, a no-nonsense Germanic woman resplendent in black and silver, flew across the front of the room, arms pummeling the air.

"Kelly!" I shrieked, dashing to my left, "I feel like I'm auditioning for the Rockettes!"

"I know. It's great!" she said, beaming as she nimbly executed jazz squares and tried not to notice my stumbling feet.

Suddenly Kelly and I knew why she had always been picked to be captain of whatever team sport was on the gym teacher's agenda, and why I had always been the last chosen.

And here I was--surrounded by women who had always fit in. They had been student council officers in high school, and now they were executives, directors, consultants. They had been born competent. They had been born able to do push-ups.

I was out of my league. I could see it in their sneering sweatbands. They knew I couldn't even get elected as a student council alternate.

I decided to try a morning class. Surely housewives would be a less aggressive bunch and more casually attired.


Once again the look was beyond me. They were into cute. Their leotards were pink, lavender, yellow. They had matching warm-ups appliqued with ducks and bunnies. I knew they had all shopped together for these ensembles, probably lunching on salads.

Yes, in high school they had been cheerleaders or pep-club members, straining through rhythm-keeping hands and feet to have access to the glory on the playing field.

These were the perfectly petite girls who had skipped naked through those gang showers while I struggled to vanish behind a skimpy white towel.

Admittedly, the choreography in this class was less tricky. We hopped around to early Beatles' music. But despite the less aggressive movement, there was an energetic flip to each step that would never come naturally to my joints. Theirs was a perky spring developed over years of jumping and twirling before a cheering audience, always hoping to catch the eye of the quarterback.

In my plain sweats on the last row, I was quickly spotted for what I had been: a National Honor Society member, school newspaper editor, gym-class klutz--someone who had faithfully turned in her homework on time, someone who only went to prom once.

They had no intention of returning my weary smile.

I checked the exercise class lists again. Only one more choice was left: "Forever Young." I joined it the following day.

No flash. No squealing. No loud music frightens us into submission. No one preens in designer outfits. When we get tired, we stop. And we smile a lot.

Our instructor, who must be 30 years my senior, can touch her toes 100 times in rapid succession without bending her knees.

When I start wobbling, she winks at me encouragingly.

No one much cares what happened in high school. And no one has ever heard of Spandex.

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Rickrack, Metaphorically Speaking

When I grew up, all seventh-grade girls took Home Economics. No questions asked.

Yes, we were encouraged to attend college, but not for any sense of personal ambition. The assumption was that we would all marry but might need a profession to fall back on in case the husband died young and we became sole support for the children. College was Plan B.

Housewifing was every girl's main duty. We had domestic skills to master.

So one day Miss Uhl explained the important task of sewing aprons because we needed to wear them for the cooking unit. My mother, a self-taught seamstress, crafted beautiful clothes that could have hung in department store windows. She put the song in a Singer sewing machine. My pleated apron, Mom explained, would be black and white gingham, sporting a pocket (to hold a hankie or tissue) with appliqued red apple and green leaf.

A row of red rickrack would grace the hem.

That rickrack was the death of me.

Outfitted with my heart-shaped wristband pin cushion (which inexplicably I still have), designed by my mother to fulfill an earlier class assignment, I was prepared. I'd been laying out patterns for doll clothes under her eagle eye for years. I was a wizard at threading a machine, and I knew about sewing in reverse to catch the last stitches. I understood that speed did not lead to accuracy. I embraced the magic of clipping seams and pressing them open, despite the extra step.

Other girls finished quickly, unconcerned with bunched gathers or wrinkled waistbands or lopsided ties. Finished was all they cared about, but I labored on as if I were seeking the approval of Coco Chanel. Well, I kind of was. My mother would know the difference between a slipshod effort and brilliant precision.

Finally Miss Uhl told me to finish mine over the weekend because we started the cooking unit next Tuesday. If I didn't have an apron, I'd have to sit it out and be marked down accordingly. Preparing capable wives was serious business back then. Of course, she'd never looked at my project to see why it was taking me so long. The poor woman oversaw a room lined with thirty machines that had to be kept humming from 8 am to 3 pm five days a week--a suburban sweat shop of giddy girls. She was too worried about gum chewing and note passing, the kind of distractions that could lead to needle-pierced fingers. I was the least of her concerns.

My mother was distraught upon learning I was the last to finish. "How is that possible? Let me see what you've done," she said, leaning against the kitchen counter. I held up my apron with its dangling trim. She crossed the room to examine it.

She smiled. "Oh, honey," she said. "Look what you're doing."

You have to think about rickrack to understand this. Do you know how it angles right and then makes a sharp left? Only to turn a quick right again? And how it continues doing this for the entire length?  Do you know about sewing machines? How you have to pick up the lever for the foot under the needle to release the fabric and pivot it slightly for each of these turns and then lower it and stitch again and stop and lift...?

No wonder it was taking forever.

"You're making this harder than it has to be," my mother said softly. And she showed me the trick to rickrack.

You sew right down the center. One straight line of stitches holds it in place.

I amazed my parents regularly where practical matters were concerned. My dad once wisely said, about a history project that was running away with me, that I couldn't see the forest for the trees. Rickrack was yet another example of how adept I was at getting in my own way, at perceiving roadblocks that were figments of my imagination. I wish I could say I'd learned that lesson once and for all, but that wouldn't be true.

The good news, however, is that I'm quicker now to see those random oaks and sharp turns that overwhelm me. I understand my internal compass is capable of spinning east and west simultaneously. I know that north, right down the center, is hard for me to find.

That's a start at least.

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