The ghosts of Christmas presents

With eight kids, 11 grandkids, and an ever-fluctuating number of in-laws, my parents were on the hook for a lot of gifts over the years. I still remember the enormous piles of Christmas presents “under” the tree each year. This was due in no small part to the efforts of my mom.

This isn’t to say Dad didn’t play his part; it certainly wouldn’t have been possible without his efforts. He was the benefactor; Mom was the organizer. For two weeks before Christmas, the dining room table was converted into a wrapping station. Paper, ribbons, tags, tape, and scissors were strewn about the table’s surface, with various shopping bags underneath — some empty, some still hiding gifts yet to be wrapped.

Every night, she’d sit at that table and wrap diligently, somehow keeping track in her head of which kids still required purchases in order to keep everything even. By Christmas Eve, the pile of wrapped gifts had practically overtaken the tree, surrounding it with an impenetrable wall of color and joy. Here are two old pictures from the same year, showing two sides of the tree:









This is what we came downstairs to every Christmas morning, and it was a little sad to see it all undone in a matter of minutes. I remember one year, we tried to draw out the unwrapping process by having one kid open one gift at a time, while the others watched and grew impatient. That tradition failed to take off, and the next year, we were back to the chaos of a living room full of wrapping paper, noise, and love as everyone dove in at once.

Mom made Christmas great; I’m convinced to this day that no home had better Christmas mornings than we did. And to anyone reading this and mentally uttering a tsk-tsk because they think I should know Christmas isn’t about gifts, I can only say, shut up. I’m hearkening back to my youth, when gifts reigned supreme. No matter how you interpret Christmas, there’s an element of giving in there somewhere, and I’m talking about someone who knew how to give — in material ways and otherwise.

Receiving gifts isn’t nearly as important to me now, but earlier this month, I was reminiscing about some of my favorites from the days when I enjoyed it more. I’d been surfing online, and found a site full of old wish books.

Remember those? The Christmas catalogs that came in the mail from various department stores and outlets, and that somehow always got things wrong, because the first person to grab that catalog was a child, but the toys were almost never the first things to see. Nope, it took minutes of flipping through clothing, fruitcakes, appliances, and other practical things before a kid could strike gold in the Toys and Games section.

As I flipped through more and more of the scanned pages on that site, I remembered more and more of my favorite gifts through the ages. And I decided to post some of them on my Facebook page. It almost started as a joke, with a quip about a ventriloquist dummy, but the feedback was immediate and gratifying enough to make me want to post more. As the season progressed, I was humbled and happy to receive great comments from friends on every morning’s post.

I started on St. Nicholas Day, and as the posts continued, I realized they were a bit of a tribute to my own Santa. She’d really done right be me and my siblings, and I thank her for these memories:


From the 1975 Sears Wish Book. Someone gave me item 1. What kid wouldn’t want a doll called Willie Talk for Christmas? Not only was it an authentically creepy ventriloquist dummy, it had a name that made boys giggle. “Willie Talk” sounds like a chat show for men. “Welcome to Willie Talk, where we talk willies!” Weird, sure, but I wanted one, just the same. And I got it. I also spent hours practicing, saying “D” for “B” and “T” for “P” — but I still moved my lips. Such is life. My career path lay in a different direction.

Picture1The Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle — I think every boy in my class had one. Some of the luckier ones also had the Dragster, the Canyon Rig, and/or the Fast Tracker. Many races took place in driveways, front yards, and school parking lots. Just insert Evel’s vehicle into the groove on the “energizer,” start cranking its arm like crazy, and once the vehicle’s tire(s) were spinning at an adequate speed, stop cranking — Evel would zoom down the ramp of the energizer and engage in whatever race or stunt he was pointed toward. But if you slow down while cranking, he’d take off too soon, and wouldn’t be going at the right speed. The perils of premature ejection….

12308706_10208070501428704_75773427573203587_nThe king daddy of all gifts, G.I. Joe dominated my Christmas and birthday lists for at least three consecutive years. I have such great memories of the Sea Wolf and one of the helicopters, plus a Jeep. I had one of the original Joes, with molded plastic hair, plus some later models, with the fuzzy “realistic” hair (and beard), not to mention Kung Fu grip. The hand on that one was more pliable than others, but it eventually dried up into a hard plastic grip that no longer worked. The same for the squid that attacked the Sea Wolf — they went on many a bath time adventure with me, but the squid stopped being able to attack and cling to the sub when its original rubbery texture turned into hard, stiff plastic. Then they shrank Joe into a mere four-inch action figure, but as any boy can tell you, 12 inches is better than four inches any day.

12366426_10208076201171194_2918527664243703338_nMattel’s overcompensating answer to G.I. Joe, Big Jim liked to strut his stuff. He was made of molded plastic except for one arm made of rubber, so his muscles could flex in that arm. He had a button on his back that made him give a karate chop. The kung fu studio came with a board that broke easily when he chopped it. Jim’s sexuality was questionable, but you know me — I didn’t judge.

Picture2Why didn’t Johnny West make the color pages of the wish books? That collection was seriously cool, with each figure coming in a rustic-looking box to capture the frontier theme, tons of accessories, and a wide range of characters — maybe more than Barbie had. Heroes, villlains, cowboys, Indians, and horses. The buckboard horse had wheels in its hooves, so the entire unit could roll smoothly along the ground. Of course, it was downright creepy to watch the horse sort of hover along like a ghost, but it was still a cool feature. This collection rocked, and I wish I could find a wish book image with everything it offered. I had Johnny and Geronimo, plus the buckboard. Another kid on my street had Sam Cobra, all of the Indians, and Custer. Lucky!

Picture8One of the best gifts I ever received was also one of the most basic — Hot Wheels Cutoff Canyon. It was the shortest race ever, but I ran it time and time again. I might have even let my baby brother race his cars against mine, but I never gave him the privilege of pressing the Fair Start button. The track was attached in a modified figure-eight configuration to a cardboard “canyon” and included a lane switcher near the start of the race, when there was still a good chance of collision. But it also ensured neither car would have the unfair advantage of running on the inner loop. This thing even taught me a little about physics and geometry. And it included a kickin’ supervan. Check out the corny commercial.



Picture5Santa brought me the Bozo Punch-Me when I was really little. It had a nose that squeaked when you hit it. At that age, I didn’t catch the same creepy vibe off clowns that I do now, but on some deep level, it was probably pretty satisfying to punch a clown and hear him squeak. That’s Christmas spirit!



12391305_10208103363410233_3058256739345968140_nThe eight siblings received so many View-Master reels and viewers over the years, I can’t remember who got what for which holiday. But I loved every one of them, especially the projector. They sold a screen, but nobody needed that — a blank wall was perfect. I still remember the sound of that projector, and the smell of the dust burning on the bulb. And there were so. Many. Reels. 3D, illustrated, educational, whatever — unless they were bent or the film was sliding out of the slot, they were all great.


Picture6The cool designs! The one-of-a-kind smell! The fire hazard! The extensive injuries! Ah, the woodburning set….





Picture4They were a little late to the party, but one Christmas, I was still enough into toys to be completely captivated by the Micronauts. Cool figures, vehicles, and playsets with interchangeable parts and weapons that actually fired little projectiles, plus their own back story, these guys had my rapt attention for a little while. They wound up being responsible for the start of an ever-evolving science fiction series that I still carry in my head — maybe some day, I’ll write it down.

Picture3I have only the vaguest of memories of this game, but I know it was a blast. I’m not even sure it was mine, but Santa brought it to one of the Bain kids, and therefore it belonged to all of us. Snoopy and the Red Baron, shooting marbles at each other — could it get any better? Only if you listened to “Snoopy’s Christmas” by the Royal Guardsmen while playing it.

12391201_10208128733564471_1575343281334010620_nSo many Lite-Brite products graced chez Bain over the years, from the original 1967 version that some of the kids received, to the cubes and flat versions given to various grandkids. Then there were the refill packs, which started as a few generic pictures but expanded to have themes from movies, TV shows, toy lines, and other things kids wanted to “draw” with light. I remember recycling the used sheets — on the second or third run, you could still somewhat read the color code on the tag of paper that was barely hanging onto the hole that had already been made, but it became futile from there. Then there were the blank sheets; I was never creative enough to come up with my own designs. (I had the same curse with plain Lego bricks; if they didn’t come with instructions, they were useless in my hands.) I still remember the feel of a completed Lite-Brite drawing — the smooth pegs, barely radiating the heat from the lightbulb behind them — as well as the smell of a new sheet and the look of the finished drawing when I plugged in the unit in a dark room. A classic!

12376523_10208135404971252_3293049090947658152_nSimple to operate, difficult to master, and fun to own. Pull the T-Stick as hard as possible to get that single wheel spinning like mad, put the vehicle down, and watch it take off! Kenner ruled the 70s with their SSP Racers, releasing dozens of attainable models and following up with variations like the Speed Screamers and Smash-Up Derby. There was even an inexplicable Star Wars panel van in 1977. These things were constant throughout the better part of a decade, and the single cars fit perfectly into Christmas stockings. I can still hear the sound of one wheel running.

993861_10208142374745492_6881874551631179998_nVertibird was one of the first toys that made kids say, “Awesome!” Two levers controlled the pitch, throttle, and altitude of a little helicopter attached by cable to a central spindle. You knew you were cool once you had mastered the infinitely adjustable levers enough to make the helicopter hover in one place rather than moving in a circle. It seemed really high-tech in the early 70s, and yes, it was awesome. Santa brought the police set one year, and the Coast Guard ship another year. Both were endless fun. The helicopter had a little hook attached, and each set came with lightweight accessories that it could pick up and “rescue.” That’s pretty much it — fly around in circles and pick up a couple of pieces — but that was enough. Kids could (and did) play with it for hours, stopping only when the batteries ran out of juice.

12360377_10208149629846865_5833073088716032445_n“Be a Champion in the Bout of the Century!” That was the promise on the box lid of this game. That might not have been entirely accurate, especially with these bouts lasting about a minute, and there could be a lot of one-minute bouts in an entire century. But this gem delivered on excitement. Up to four contestants could play, each winding their top on a piece of string attached to a key, which was inserted in the side of the arena. After a mutually agreed-upon countdown, all players would pull their keys as hard as possible, starting their tops spinning into the arena. These things looked like some sort of mean little animals, skipping around with a furious kinetic energy that fueled the contestants’ excitement. They would collide and careen off in different directions, knocking each other down and sometimes jumping right out of the arena (in which case, that top’s player lost) to add to that feeling of not knowing what the heck they were going to do next. The last top standing was the winner, and the next battle would start. Some battles took less time than it took to actually wind the strings and get ready, but no matter — this one was fun to play, anyway. Some tops had names; my favorite was Dizzy Dan. This game came out in 1968, so it must have belonged to an older sibling, but I have good memories of playing this with them once I was old enough to get a good spin on. It’s such an elementary concept, coupled with what had to be low manufacturing cost, but for some reason, this game didn’t last. You just don’t see it in the stores anymore. That probably means someone, somewhere was hurt while playing it, and the game became history.

Picture9Mattel scored big with their electronic football game in 1977, and they might just have changed the world forever. Ours was the first generation to lose themselves in a handheld device, walking along without seeing where we were going, because we were too busy staring at our hands. Little red blips with tinny electronic sound effects — one of which made it into Supertramp’s “The Logical Song” in what was probably another first for pop culture. This game literally rocked.



Picture7Now for the other “electric football” game. I think this was a gift to my older brother, but it might have belonged to our older brother George. Regardless, it’s a classic. Line up the players with their little strands of plastic under them, flip the switch, and a small motor begins to vibrate the metal “field,” sending the 22 players off in every direction. I never figured out quite how to determine whether the quarterback had thrown the ball that was permanently affixed to his hand, who had received it, and whether they had made a first down, but it didn’t matter — this thing was big and loud, and it had cool pictures of the helmets of the then-16 teams in the NFL. Also, there was a risk factor — big metal plates with electricity humming through them! What could possibly go wrong? It turns out, it didn’t take long for this game to develop a short (probably for the better, allowing all of the Bain boys to survive). That didn’t stop us, though; we figured out all we had to do was repeatedly tap the field with our fingers to convey the same level of non-precise vibrations to scatter the players again.

1236369_10208175087603293_4022958360083479645_nRock ‘Em-Sock ‘Em Robots appeared under the tree one year, and as simple as it is, it’s been one for the ages. Not much footwork to the boxers; they were pretty much in each others’ faces by design, and not able to move too far from that. Each boxer has two buttons — one for a right uppercut, one for a left. It was just a matter of pounding each others’ chin until one block was knocked off — and you hear that unforgettable “Raaaahhg” sound of the metal “neck” unzipping. It always took a couple of tries to reset — push down the first time, and the head only pops back up again. Push again until it locks into place, then resume block-knocking. Because nothing says “Christmas” like two robots trying to behead each other.

12376050_10208184436197002_4837283799725305671_nOne night in early December during the late 70s, Dad came home late from work, toting this as an early Christmas gift. I didn’t know what it was, exactly, or what it was supposed to do, but I would find out that evening, and immediately be lost to the rest of the family. I spent the next few weeks engrossed, thinking about it during school hours and toying with it at night. Of course the TRS-80 Model I is archaic by today’s standards — 4KB of RAM (not GB, not even MB, but KB), memory-mapped keyboard about three inches thick, a cassette drive for loading software, low-res graphics comprised of rectangular dots that required a worksheet to map out, and no operating system to speak of (it just opened in a BASIC compiler) — but man, what a technological wonder it was at the time! I played kick-ass text games, gladly shelled out $20 or $25 every time a new cassette came out with a game with “graphics,” and learned logic and programming. The future had come to the Bain household, and my future had forever changed. Thanks, Mom and Dad! Now, for all of you, here’s a slightly edited version of the first program I wrote from scratch:

10 CLS
20 PRINT “Merry Christmas!”
30 GOTO 20


There were many others, but I’ve run out of days before Christmas. If you want to find more, Retroland has a great list of toys to get your nostalgia going, or you can scroll through catalogs at the wish book site I discovered.

I leave you with one last page, the cover of Sears’ Wish Book from 1985, and with the sincere hope that your Christmas may be filled with the joy seen on the face of the child depicted on it:


Merry Christmas, everyone, and thanks for everything, Mom. (And Dad.)


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Carol ears

Christmas is a little tougher and a little sadder this year following the loss of my mother two months ago, but I’m also enjoying some nostalgia I’ve recently uncovered. This was unequivocally her time of year, and that meant it was our time of year. She made the entire season a wonder and a joy. Some of my favorite memories are of sitting in the living room with her and my grandmother after the sun had gone down, with all the lights out save the Christmas tree, a few candles, and an illuminated snowman village, just staring at those few lights while listening to Christmas music.

sleighridejinglebells_SX1716003That was sublime, and in recent years, I’ve remembered some of the albums we used to listen to. Mom and Nanny preferred the more somber, traditional carols, but I and some of the other siblings enjoyed the Caroleers. Does anyone else remember these folks? They recorded several Christmas albums in the 60s and 70s, and Mom naturally had picked up all of them for her many kids over the years.

santaclauscoming_caroleers518I remembered four of them: Sleigh Ride/Jingle Bells; Santa Claus is Coming to Town; Frosty the Snowman; and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. They included classics plus original compositions like Christmas Mountain; 10 Thousand Santa Clauses (But Not One Gift for Me); Who’s That Up on the Roof?; A Ride on Santa’s Sleigh; The Christmas Tree That Ran Away; Gonna Hang up my Stocking and Fill it Full of Dreams; The Weatherman’s Christmas Prayer; The Day Before the Night Before Christmas; Sleigh Ride/Jingle Bells; Mama Santa’s Surprise; There’s a Hole in My Christmas Stocking; The Little Elf; and Icicles, Holly, Red Berries, and Snow.

If any of those titles spark a memory, then you probably knew the same joy I did. Granted, you didn’t have “The Radio,” so your joy might not have been quite as complete. IMG_3592This was a large piece of what looked like antique furniture that sat in our living room, although, I recently found out from my dad that he and Mom had bought in in the early 50s, so it was only about 20 years old when I first started to really regard it.

The Radio was an old GE entertainment unit that looked like a cabinet, with two small side-by-side doors on top, and two larger side-by-side doors on bottom.

IMG_3598The top right door opened to the actual radio, one old enough to have two FM bands as well as AM and shortwave, and two FM bands, along with the controls for audio source and volume.

IMG_3597The top left door was actually a drawer, which housed a turntable old enough to have four speeds: 33 1/3; 45; 78; and the already-forgotten-at-that-time 16 2/3 rpm. It also had a record changer, and I used to love stacking all four Caroleers LP records on it and watching it drop each new one after the previous one had finished playing.

IMG_3601The bottom left door opened to an LP record storage compartment, which was packed so tightly that I could barely yank out whatever record I wanted to play at the time. But I managed, and it was always worth the effort.

The bottom right door was a faux door. It housed the unit’s one and only speaker behind it — no stereo here, thank you very much — and of course it couldn’t be opened. That didn’t stop me from trying to open it time and again as a very young child, or from fantasizing about what was hidden behind it when I couldn’t get it open.

That was The Radio, and it was glorious. We would stack the Christmas records up and listen to them all night long, every night. Those were usually the times reserved for Mom’s and Nanny’s favorites, but as I intimated, the kids managed to sneak in a Caroleers album from time to time. Otherwise, the weekends were reserved for the kids’ favorites; I spent many pre-Christmas Saturday afternoons sitting in front of The Radio, listening to the Caroleers sing while I stared at the artwork on their album covers and wondered things like, Is “the day before the night before Christmas” December 23rd, or is it actually the daylight hours of December 24th?

2079016Their songs were saccharin and goofy, but they resonated with kids. Any adult listening to one without the benefit of a nostalgic connection to them, would write them off as silly kids’ music. But those of us who grew up with them? We can still appreciate them. (I wonder if my kids will one day feel that way about The Wiggles.)

For years, I searched for CDs of those old Diplomat records, but never found anything. The old vinyl ones from my childhood are either lost or scratched beyond the ability to produce a sound worth converting to digital, so I looked in vain for replacements. Early last January, I discovered that someone, somewhere, had been able to salvage some of the songs from their old copies — there were some for sale on iTunes! I immediately downloaded them with a gift card I’d received for Christmas, organized them into a playlist, and looked forward to listening to them this Christmas season. Then I forgot about them.

In October, I spent two weeks in Virginia — the first one waiting at my ailing mother’s bedside with my dad and siblings, the second one planning, holding, and recovering from her funeral. That’s a story for another day, but after I returned home to my family, I spent a bit of time just going through the motions of daily life.

I wasn’t looking forward to the holidays, but one post-Thanksgiving day during my commute, I thought I’d give some Christmas music a try, and I pulled up the multiple Christmas playlists I’ve created over the years. Lo and behold, there was one called “Christmas Caroleers,” and the memories came back in a deluge. frostysnowman_SX1714005So did the tears once I started it, and the songs sent me from I-40 to my parents’ old living room floor. Here were many of my old friends, reminding me of my childhood, my mother, and the joy she and her children shared every December.

I’ve since listened to that playlist more than a grown man should, and I’ve played it for my sons. It’s a little young for the 14-year-old, but the 10-year-old has developed enough of an appreciation for The Caroleers to request certain songs by name when he’s riding in my car. That’s been another joy — passing the appreciation on to a new generation. He might not have The Radio or the LP covers to stare at raptly, but he has the music. Maybe one day, years from now, he’ll suddenly have a desire to listen to some of those old songs he used to listen to with Dad, and he’ll wonder if they exist in whatever format music has taken by then. I hope he finds them, and I hope they bring him as much joy as they’ve brought to me.

And maybe he’ll be able to finally answer the question: When, exactly, is the day before the night before Christmas?



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The law of diminishing retinas

Last Tuesday night, as I was backing out of a parking space, I turned my head to the right to look behind me and spotted a meteor cutting a brilliant line through the sky. Which was weird, because there was no sky in my field of view.

I put the car in park to consider this, then shrugged it off and looked over my shoulder again, to continue backing up. The same meteor fell, off to the right in my peripheral vision. As I turned my head to face forward again, a suspicious theory crossed my mind. Knowing that two data points do not a trend make, I tested the theory with another about-face. Same result.

Pretty neat trick, to be able to control the heavens with a turn of my head. I chalked it up to a growing exhaustion and enjoyed it all the way home, making meteors fall on every tree, building, or plot unfortunate enough to attract my attention as I drove. I went to bed soon after I got home, forgetting the meteor shower in a bid for badly needed sleep.

Wednesday morning, I woke up even more tired then I’d felt on Tuesday night. It was a three- or four-snooze-button morning, but I finally sat up on the edge of the bed, stretched, and stood up. And nearly collapsed as the room spun around me.

I sat down and waited out the dizzy spell, then got ready for work as usual. The morning passed without incident, but I started having more dizzy spells at the office, and left early. I managed to keep the car from spinning on the way home, but when I looked at the sky, I noticed a lot more floaters than I usually have.

I’m talking about those little, amoeba-like shadows that people see inside their eyes; I’ve had them as long as I can remember, and used to think of them as cataracts. It turns out they’re called “floaters,” and I had a lot more than the four or five that I usually see. There were thousands of them. Any time I looked at a blank canvas of sorts – a large area of a single light color, like the sky or a wall – I saw thousands of tiny circles, lined up in a grid. It was like one of my floaters had exploded, and splattered itself across my entire field of vision.

I was too shocked to test this at the time, but it turns out all of them were in my right eye – the same one that had been creating meteors the previous night. But I didn’t think to determine this; rather, all I could think was, Yikes.

I took a long nap as soon as I got home, and when I woke up, I was still seeing a grid full of floaters on the ceiling. I tried not to worry about it, again chalking it up to how tired I still was. I’d been going full-throttle for a long time, and looking at an uptick in commitments over the coming month. My schedule had bested me, and I dragged myself through the rest of the evening thinking I’d probably die of exhaustion long before the amoebas in my eyes could kill me. So I went to bed early again.

When I woke up Thursday morning, it took longer than usual for my eyes to focus. I rubbed them and splashed water on them, the way I usually do when I have too much sleep in them. But my right eye just wouldn’t clear. I helped get Kim and the boys out the door, sent a message to my team that I wasn’t feeling any better, and crashed on the couch for a little while. When I woke up, my vision was even blurrier.

This time, I tested them – the left eye was fine, but I couldn’t see anything clearly with the right one. Just a big, blurry spot – like looking through textured glass. I couldn’t find an insurance card for my vision plan, though, so I tried not to think about it. Which makes no sense, because to do my job, I had to read and write a lot of things on a computer screen; that makes it kinda hard to forget I can’t freakin’ see.

But I’m the king of denial, and I persevered. When Kim got home Thursday night, I told her I think I might have a problem. I told her what was going on, and she said I would need to find my vision plan info or come up with the money, but I’d better get my eyes to a doctor’s office the next day. I started Googling, and when I saw that flashing lights and blurred vision might indicate a retinal detachment that could lead to permanent blindness, I agreed.

Friday morning, I started an IM with my manager, who helped me find the info I needed for my vision plan. I called an optometrist just up the street, but they told me they didn’t have any appointments available. Did I mention I’m going blind?! I thought-screamed into the phone in my head. It must have worked, because they offered to find me an appointment at another office, about 20 minutes away. I figured it was worth the risk of not being able to see the road, and took the appointment.

One thing you need to understand clearly here, is I am insanely squeamish about my eyes. I can’t do contacts or eye drops, I can’t stand looking into eyepieces, and that stupid air-puff test is absolute torture for me. I wear glasses, so I have to go in at least every two years for an exam, but I usually plead with them not to dilate my pupils.

But this time, I figured I had to just suck it up. I let the assistant fight to hold my eyes open and squeeze the dilating drops in, but I didn’t like it one bit. And I blinked a few times in anticipation of the air puff, but she managed to get it on the third or fourth attempt in each eye. And I stared at the stupid blinking red light while they took color photographs of the backs of my eyes. I even fought the urge to cry as the doctor asked me repeatedly, “Which looks clearer? One…or two? One…or two? One…or two?” How the hell should I know? NOTHING looks clear right now!

In the end, the basic optometrist couldn’t help me. He said there was a bunch of vitreous floating in my right eye, which was not only keeping me from seeing out – it was keeping him from seeing in. Vitreous is a gel-like substance in the eye, and sometimes a piece can break away from where it’s supposed to be, floating freely in there and casting shadows on the retina – that’s what floaters are. But this newest piece caused a little alarm on the part of my optometrist – something that caused a lot of alarm on the part of me – so he’d ordered photography in an effort to ensure my retina hadn’t been damaged when the vitreous tore free.

Sound gross? It gets worse. The real reason he was concerned about retinal damage was, the vitreous had left a trail of blood. The big glob of blur in my right eye? Blood. Inside. My. Eyeball.

He got me an immediate appointment with a retina specialist, and sent me on my way – but not before confirming that I didn’t want to stick around and pick out a new pair of glasses now that my prescription had changed. Umm, no, I think I’ll wait until I can actually see, period, before I worry about seeing better.

I got to the retina specialist’s office, and the real fun began. First, I had to sit and fill out a bunch of paperwork that I couldn’t read – which is fine, because I couldn’t write, either. You’d be surprised how much you rely on your vision to be able to write legibly, but at least there’s a tactile element to it to give a hint or two that you’re on the right track. I’ve since discovered, it’s even worse to attempt texting while half-blind. There are no clues as to what you’ve just typed.

Anyway, I had to sit and try to read and write while an elderly couple sat across from me, discussing insurance payments and mortgage rates in those loud voices that the elderly reserve for one another. Once they figured out their insurance quandary and determined that the couple currently on HGTV would, indeed, be getting their money’s worth in their selection (they went with the house from the third showing – the wife didn’t like the siding in the back, but at least it had a decent yard), they quieted down a little. When the assistant called the woman to the exam room, the man quieted down even more – until he started farting, apparently too deaf to realize I could hear him. What the hell, dude? Like my eyes aren’t already watering enough?

But soon it was my turn. The assistant took me to an examination room and told me she needed to get my blood pressure. I started rolling up my sleeve and she just smiled, shook her head, and held up a contraption that looked like a handle with a long, yellow, pointed thing on the end of it. Then the point was moving toward my left eye. She lucked out with that one – got it in there before I could react, while I was still thinking, Wait, does she mean she needs a reading from my eye? Sort of like the first time a pet-owner puts their cat in the bathtub. They only get away with that once; the next time, Kitty knows what to expect and how to react.

She tried five times to stick that damned yellow thing in my right eye. They need to let it touch the eyeball for a split second in order to get a reading, but that’s a split second too long. I kept squinking – squirming and blinking – and finally she huffed, “That’s okay, I’ll just mark down that I couldn’t get a reading. He has other ways to get it.” That last part sounded like a threat, so I told her to try it one more time, steeled myself as best I could and OHMYGODSHE’STOUCHINGMYEYEBALL and it was done.

Next, she had to dilate my pupils – even though they’d just been dilated. I warned her I’m squeamish about my eyes, and she handed me a tissue. Then she squeezed a couple drops of a numbing agent into my eyes, followed by the actual dilating solution. I’m not sure why they needed my eyes to be numb, but the optometrist hadn’t needed it. I suppose I should have been thankful the optometrist had left out a set of drops. I see them heading for my eyes and I just blink and cover. That’s where the tissue comes in handy, as the drops are deflected down my cheeks toward my mouth. I wonder if my tongue would have been numbed if I hadn’t stopped the drops?

She led me to what they called “the dark room” – a small, cozy room with a dingle dim lamp, no artwork to stare at, and a couple of couches – one with the elderly lady sitting on it. I thought about telling her what her husband had been doing in the waiting room, but she probably was well aware. Besides, she seemed sad and scared, and probably didn’t want to talk to anyone. Or maybe that’s me I’m remembering.

I closed my eyes and listened out for any warning that she had the same digestion issues as her husband, then enjoyed the solitude after another assistant came and retrieved her. When one came for me a few minutes later, she asked, “How are you doing?” in an impossibly cheerful voice, as if I weren’t sitting there experiencing the darkness behind my closed eyes and wondering if I’d soon have to get used to seeing the same thing with them open.

She led me to a room with another device, one where I had to stare into two mounted eyepieces while a bright light moved across them, burning its memory into my retinas. I have no idea what it was doing; it wasn’t the special camera I’d been sent there for, because that was in the room where she took me next. She told me to sit in the chair and test my comfort level with my chin in a strap and my forehead against a barrier as I stared into the camera; she said this was important, because I’d have to sit very still for 5-7 minutes while she took the pictures. Why don’t you just kill me, instead? That might make it easier on you. I can’t even sit still while I’m sleeping, and that’s when I *don’t* have my head shoved against a medieval torture device.

She explained how this process would work. “We’re going to take multiple pictures of your retina, but to make it easier to see it, we use a vegetable-based dye that we inject into your…” – and that’s when I damn near passed out in anticipation of the next word – “…arm.” Oh, thank God! “This is called, ‘fluorescein angiography.’ The dye is harmless, but in some cases, it can cause an allergic reaction where we inject it. Also, it’s going to cause discoloration of your urine for 24-48 hours, so don’t be alarmed when you notice your urine is bright orange, like a highlighter.”

She was almost right. It was actually bright yellow – I mean, fluorescent yellow, just like a highlighter. It was amazing. Yet oddly, I’m the only person in the house who really had an appreciation for it over the weekend.

Anyway, she brought out a cushion for my arm, and placed it on the table’s surface, next to the camera. Then she pulled out a vial of a reddish-orange liquid, a tourniquet, and a small catheter with a needle attached to one end. I think you know what happened next. I was fine with it, but I wasn’t expecting her to leave the needle in the whole time. I thought she’d just inject the dye and be done with it, but no – it’s more like an IV drip, where the needle stayed in my vein and the liquid flowed into my arm over the course of the 5-7 minutes that I was expected to sit still as if nothing was happening.

She told me to look into the eyepieces and, moments after injecting the needle into my vein, she looked into the display on the opposite side and said, “Good! The dye’s starting to show up in your retina!” I have a reasonable understanding of science, but that still blows my mind. She stuck something into a vein in the crook of my elbow, and it magically re-appeared at the backs of my eyeballs. I half-expected her to pull the empty vial from my ear.

Then it was time to focus on the center of an LED cross, where presumably the camera lens was located. For what was undoubtedly an expensive, precise piece of medical machinery, this thing had lousy graphics. The cross was made up of a bunch of little red rectangles, about the size of the ones used on TRS-80 screens in 1979. But I did my best to focus on the center, and she told me to blink twice and then to keep my eyes open until she told me to blink again. You probably already know how that went.

“Blink. Blink. Aaand, taking the picture in three…two…one. Oh no, you blinked! We’re going to have to do it again. Now blink. And hold it open for three…two…you blinked again!” I heard a lot of that on Friday afternoon. I had to look into the eyepieces forever, shifting my eyes in eight different directions – up, down, left, right, up-left, down-left, up-right, down-right – as she counted down to frustration every time. But miraculously, we got it done. She congratulated me like she would a child – “Good job!” – and led me to another exam room where she uploaded images of my retinas to a computer screen, along with two graphs of similar shape, but with one being much closer to the X axis than the other – I imagine this one as proving my right eye is deficient, as if the graphs were showing the amount of retina I have remaining in each eye. She left me to these thoughts and told me the doctor would be with me shortly.

He arrived with a third assistant, took a quick look at the computer screen, and declared he was going to have to take a good, hard look at the backs of my eyes. His assistant sat down at the computer and took hold of the mouse, awaiting his instructions as he strapped a seemingly enormous spotlight to his head and reclined my chair until I was lying flat on my back. He then turned off the overhead lights, stood over me, pointed the spotlight into my right eye, held up a strange-looking metallic object that looked like the handle of a spoon, and began to take the aforementioned good, hard look.

“Okay, keep your head facing forward, but turn your eye to the left. Look at this.” He held up the spoon handle. I looked at it and suddenly was blinded by the most intense light I’ve ever seen. I think he had a miniature solar eclipse strapped to his head, and I had just looked directly at it. I squinted.

“Keep your eye open, please.” And suddenly there was a hand on my eye, two of its fingers peeling open my top and bottom eyelids. “Good. Now look over here.” The eclipse again. I tried to blink, but couldn’t. Suddenly I had visions of Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, undergoing the Ludovico Technique. I tore away and blinked.

“Nope. Keep your eye open.” The hand again. And the light. And suddenly, pain. Something was pressing into my eye socket. My God, is he pushing on my eyeball with that spoon handle? What’s going on? Somebody get this maniac away from me!

“Good. You’re doing fine.” No, I’m not! “Sarah, nothing from this angle. Sir, look to your right, please.” More pain. “Sarah, a pinpoint heem. Nasal inferior. Sir, look up. Sarah, a big heem. Temporal superior.” And lots of other words I didn’t understand, interspersed with bursts of pain. After eight eyeball positions, the eclipse disappeared and the pressure let up on my eye socket. The lights came on, and there was Sarah, attempting to draw my floaters in a diagram of my right eye on the computer. I have no idea what program she was using, but the doctor felt she wasn’t using it correctly, grabbed the mouse from her hand, and drew a much bigger splotch than she had drawn in one of the eight sectors. Then he sat down to explain what’s going on with my eye.

“Sarah, give me that eye model.” He showed me a cross-section and gave me the same explanation I’d already heard, about the liquid inside the eye and the vitreous pulling away. The good news, he said, is that he hadn’t seen any tearing or holes in the retina – but that it would be a good idea to come back for two more exams over the next couple of weeks, to make sure it’s not still bleeding, there’s no more pulling away, and I haven’t lost any vision. He warned me to call him if I were to suddenly lose my peripheral vision. As if I’d downplay that.

He said the blood should dissolve and the vitreous thin out over the next month, at which point I should be able to see better. He said nothing about the meteors or the dizziness. I still have no idea whether they were related, or if all three things happened as a result of something else. I’ve been under more stress than usual lately – probably at DANCON 1 or possibly 2, at the very least. Maybe that set off all three things. I’m just relieved to know it’s nothing worse, and I hope the doctor doesn’t find anything worse on the two subsequent visits.

In the meantime, there’s only one thing I can see clearly right now – and that’s more torture in my immediate future.

Posted in Hassles, Health | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Hearty birthday wishes

Matthew, four years ago, I wrote a piece for my Midtown column, ruminating on the emotions I felt about your brother turning ten. I vowed to do the same thing for you, but the scope of my column changed this year, and I regret that I couldn’t share this with a broader audience. But share it, I must.

You came into our lives ten years ago this morning, and while I was overjoyed that you were here, I was also afraid. I had no idea how we were going to afford a second baby, and I was scared for you. I’m sorry if I ever showed that fear to you; please don’t think for a moment that it’s tinged with even a tiny bit of regret, because there’s never been any. And it would seem there’s never been any fear on your part – that’s been a hallmark of your personality.

Mom and I have always been amazed at the strong way you embrace whatever’s next. From one stage to another, adopting one skill and the next, you’ve been an ever-onward type of child. This usually manifests itself in sports, where coaches and spectators have repeatedly told us, “He’s absolutely fearless.”

I don’t know where you get that – maybe from your mother. And I’m certain you don’t get your athletic abilities from either of us. But I like to think maybe you get your corresponding attitude from us, as you’re not the type of fearless that often turns heartless. You’re never a jerk when you play, and you don’t get so competitive as to put winning above all else. Somehow, your courage is tempered in grace, and I’m proud to see that every time.

Need a lift?

“Need a lift?”

That grace doesn’t stop in the sports arena; ever since you were an infant, you exuded – and shared – happiness. You were (and still are) joy incarnate, and I’m thankful for that joy every day. I’ve dreaded this day, because I’ve worried that your bliss is going to slough away with your childhood – but I’ve been wrong. It’s part of you, and I’m proud when I catch glimpses of the man you’re going to become. You’re always quick with a kind word and a snuggle, and there’s great maturity in both of those.

You’re the most loving, caring, helpful, uplifting person I know, and sometimes there’s so much gratitude in my heart for that, it feels like it could burst. It’s no wonder you were born with an “angel kiss” – a hemangioma – on the bridge of your nose, in the shape of a heart. You have blessed us and the rest of the world with profuse love in every encounter since then.

That mark is what you are, Matthew – all heart. Your courage, your grace, your love – all of them show heart. I’d like to keep you young, but I can’t, and it wouldn’t be fair, anyway. A heart like yours must be shared with the world, so eventually we’ll need to send you out into it. But I’m going to enjoy our time together until then.

Welcome to your second decade, and Happy Birthday to you – always.

Posted in Bain's Beat, Family, Parenting, The Kids | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Slammed unc

Psst. Hey, you – the allegedly grown man at the kids’ basketball game tonight. You know who you are – you were sharing your very candid opinions with the refs, the coaches, the players, and the parents all night, as loudly as possible. I have some advice for you. Shut. The hell. Up.

Seriously, dude. Nobody wants to hear your nonsense. That’s why the scorekeepers eventually sent the ref over to ask you to stop. That’s why there’s a policy in the parents’ handouts, forbidding the type of behavior you were showing tonight. And that’s why you should have been ejected during the first quarter.

But you didn’t see it that way. Instead, you become indignant and belligerent. Which is why the community center director eventually had to leave his office, come into the gym, and sit down where he could keep an eye on you. He gave you way too much leeway; by then you’d already insulted the refs, our coaches, our head coach’s wife, and several nine- and ten-year-old boys. Don’t you feel proud?

This was our eighth game, and I’d never seen you at one before, so I naturally assumed you were with the other team. I just couldn’t figure out why you kept yelling at our coaches to “have some confidence in your players!” This was strange, because you seemed hateful enough to enjoy seeing the opposing team not have confidence. But no, to my horror, you were with us. The head coach told me afterward, when I was talking to him about how you’d picked a fight with his wife.

I can only hope the reason you’re not a regular is, you’re not closely related to one of our players. Surely you’re not a dad; if you are, woe be to your son. I’m hoping you’re just a crazy uncle who only comes to town once a year, and whose existence the family spends the rest of the year denying.

It would probably be best for all of us if this were the case, and therefore we’ll never see you at another game. Because after what Matthew told me on the way home, you don’t ever want to see me again. It seems when he was called for travelling, you yelled out something to the effect of, “Stop playing football.”

Dude. Not cool. For so many reasons. First, the travelling infraction was slight. He wasn’t carrying the ball like a football. The refs in this league are super-prone to calling travelling. Everyone knows that; it’s just the way it is, and that’s fine. Yes, he travelled. No, it wasn’t a huge infraction. Second, the call didn’t impact the game at all. Third, it wouldn’t matter if it had. This is a children’s league. No one’s going to lose their life savings or their career over one of these games. Fourth, you’re not the coach. Fifth, you’re not his dad. Sixth, it would be a rude thing to say even if you were his coach or dad. Seventh, he’s NINE, you jerk.

I was pretty mad when he told me about this. He didn’t seem upset so much as annoyed, but he did ask me why you would say something like that. I told him there’s no good reason, that you’re just a horrible example of an adult – and of a human being, for that matter. Then I told him you don’t matter in the least bit, and your opinions shouldn’t, either. I told him you’re probably a frustrated person, more worthy of pity than of scorn.

But I told myself I would remember this. Trust me – you don’t want to address my son that way again.

So, if I’m wrong, and you end up at another of our four remaining games, you really should rein in that unacceptable behavior. I’m far from the only one who noticed, there are less forgiving parents than I, and there’s likely to be a reckoning. Quit hurting people.

You seem to love the game, but trust me – that sort of behavior doesn’t come from being an avid fan. It comes from being an asshat.

Posted in Family, Hassles, Life and How to Live It, Parenting, Sports, The Kids | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The moppet show

Today when we took the boys out for lunch at Sweet Tomatoes, I experienced a spark of genuine Christmas magic.

I had just gotten my umpteenth buffet refill and was heading back to the table when I had to stop and wait for a departing family to cross in front of me at a sort of intersection between aisles. They reminded me of a family of ducks – one adult at the front of the line, one at the rear, and the kids between the two, in perfect descending order by size. The mom had already passed, and I could have made a quick dash before the first son came through the intersection, but that would have violated several of my own rules.

The first is a law of nature – never come between a parent and their child. It’s just common sense. The second is my own personal “Yield” law; I always defer to the other party when there’s a question of right-of-way. The third is kind of tricky, and at least one person has raked me over the coals about it, although it didn’t affect him at all – I try to avoid accidental contact with other people’s children. Maybe my critic thought there’s something wrong with me. There’s not, apart from a sad sort of paranoia.

It’s partially due to having been a Cub Scout leader for more than seven years and having had the training ingrained; partially due to the accusatory nature of society; partially due to fear of false accusation; and partially due to me knowing I’m a big, ugly dude who probably looks pretty threatening to a small child. Comedian Bill Burr explains it in a less awkward way than I can; take a look. That’s how I feel sometimes.

Whatever the reason, I stood pat and let the ducklings pass by at a safe distance. There must have been about five of them, but I was more patient than I normally am about getting my food back to the table and into my belly. Had it been my first trip to the buffet, I might have been chomping at the bit, but as it was, I was content to stand back and watch the parade.

Then I noticed the last child – a tiny moppet of a girl, one I would have assumed to be about five if she hadn’t been the obvious victim of some developmental challenges. There was a bit of her mother in her face, but the look was offset by other factors that made her resemble a sort of wizened old elf. Her face was angular and gaunt, except for her wide-set eyes, which gave the illusion that her head was larger under her long, stringy brown hair. Those eyes had a distant gaze as she walked along with a shuffled gait, barely able to keep up with the sibling in front of her, but grasping the concept that she was expected to try.

The girl appeared to have some sort of chromosomal disorder, although it wasn’t Down syndrome. I’m not as familiar with others, and I’m not a developmental specialist, but chromosomal seemed like a reasonable guess. Also, I’m not trying to be judgmental, to make fun, nor to show any sort of derision/contempt. People who react like that, can rot.

Anyway, something interesting happened as she approached our intersection. Her seemingly blank gaze fell on me, and she reacted in a subtle way – she briefly raised her arm, then let it fall again. She didn’t exactly wave; her small, mittened hand never moved. But it appeared to be an attempt to be friendly, the way some men do that little head nod, minimizing their emotional investment in a greeting, but getting across the essential requirement. From her, though, it seemed huge.

Taken aback, I instinctively looked over my shoulder, to see if maybe she recognized someone behind me. But nobody was there. And as I turned my head back to face her, she did it again – just a brief lift of the arm toward me, with no change in her facial expression and no other motion save her shuffle. Still, the second attempt made it clear – she was definitely trying to wave to me. Furthermore, she seemed to have understood the need to confirm that; she recognized that I wasn’t sure she’d been waving to me, so she did it again, just to clue me in. I like to think maybe she’d even felt pity at my inability to understand her distinct communication, the way countless people have probably felt pity toward her throughout her young life.

Of course I immediately reciprocated, lifting my hand, wiggling the fingers in a childish wave, and flashing her a big grin. I hoped to get a smile out of her, but nothing doing. She kept on shuffling, returning her gaze to the distance in front of her instead of on this goofy guy to her left, and her facial expression continued to stay steadfastly blank. Her dad brought up the rear, but I wasn’t able to make eye contact with him to acknowledge what his sweet daughter had just done.

For all I know, it was the only means of non-verbal communication she’s able to use. She might not understand the concept of smiling at a stranger, or waving her hand. If that’s the case, I feel even more honored by her straight-armed acknowledgement. After all, there were other people around, but she chose me. Apart from that moment of two arm motions toward me, she hadn’t broken the formation that was surely a rote comfort to her. And I am touched that she made the effort for me, not once, but twice.

I’ll probably never see that family again, but if I could, I’d thank them for letting their daughter’s light shine. That forever-innocent little girl had a chance encounter with a cynical old curmudgeon – one who was sick and tired of the past week’s cold rain, and feeling more than a bit of post-holiday letdown – and as a result, she gave him an extreme case of the warm-and-fuzzies.

That was, and will remain, the best gift of the entire holiday season.

Posted in Christmas, Family, Life and How to Live It, Parenting | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

The seven-year gift

Said good-bye to an old friend last Thursday night, a steadfast and loyal friend I’ve had available to lift my spirits every holiday season for the past eight of them. It was the annual Christmas Pageant at my sons’ school. Matthew finished his last performance for this season, and will age out when he moves up to fifth grade next year.

Fourth grade was the highest grade in the school for nearly fifty years, so the tradition is that only first- through fourth-graders have a role. Kindergarteners get to watch and anticipate. That’s what Matthew did four years ago, when Christopher was a fourth-grader and getting ready to age out himself. I think that’s when Matthew’s obsession with the wise men started. Even before kindergarten, he loved We Three Kings, and would sing his toddler’s take on the lyrics: “We three kings of oriental. Barren gifts, we travel so far.” My favorite part was the first king: “Bored a king on Bethlehem Day….”

In the School Pageant, those solos (albeit with the proper lyrics) and others (Joseph, Mary, and Gabriel) go to fourth-graders who pass an audition. Other fourth-graders get to read the Gospel interludes; play tone chimes, bells, or triangles; sing in a special small choir; carry torches, the processional cross, the Bible, or the flags; or play the Star. Third-graders are the main choir, singing the bulk of the songs. Second-graders play “little children” (more about that in a bit). First-grade boys play shepherds, and first-grade girls play angels.

Thus has it ever been (more precisely, thus has it been for all 57 years), and thus is it 99 percent likely to ever be. As the rector says when introducing the Pageant, it’s the same Pageant they’ve been performing every year (although to be honest, there have been two small changes that I know of). Even his intro is mostly unchanged; every year, at the Wednesday dress rehearsal and Thursday’s two performances (for most years, anyway), he stands up and says something along the lines of, “We’re proud to present this year’s Christmas Pageant; the children have been working hard since November to make this an extra-special pageant.” (Every year, it’s extra-special; I’ve never seen an ordinary one. “Extra-special” has become the norm, and for that, I’m glad.)

Then he continues, “This is your children’s gift to you. It is also considered a worship service, so we ask that you refrain from the use of all electronic devices, including cameras. You’ll have a chance to take photos afterward, and we will make a professional recording of the Pageant.” (I guess it’s okay for professionals to sin during our services.)

It truly is a gift to us; it’s one of the most uplifting, joyous occasions I know. That’s why I’m going to miss it. I went to both of this year’s performances, as well as the dress rehearsal. But how could I not? Matthew overcame a bad cold at audition time, realized his four-year dream of playing one of the kings, and continued to fight off laryngitis to nail his solos; no parent could have missed such a thing. So my final gift was a doozie.

It’s an experience I recommend to everyone, regardless of their beliefs. The children’s joy is contagious. It’s just too bad they usually perform it to a packed church, and the audience has to be limited to two parents per child – approximately 400 people, give or take a few. But this year, they had a simulcast in the dining hall, plus a live web stream, so others could watch. (Guess that makes three small changes in 57 years.)

Regardless, it’s a moving experience for anyone watching. After the rector’s introduction, a group of fourth-graders in black cassocks and white cottas solemnly and silently enter the chancel from side doors, process to the stairs leading down to the nave, and play a beautiful version of “Silent Night” on tone chimes. It used to be instrumental, but they added vocals this year – more fourth-graders in a sort of mini-choir, singing both traditional and alternate lyrics to the song. At one point, that choir is split into two groups, simultaneously singing different parts of the song in what I believe is called a polyphony. Whatever it’s called, it sounds fantastic.

For a moment after it’s done, the night really is silent while the kids exit as solemnly as they entered, then the huge pipe organ blares out the opening chords of “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” At the front of the nave, to the left of the chancel, the door to a hallway is flung open, and the opening procession begins in song. Fourth graders pour in, carrying the processional cross, the torches, the Bible, and a host of flags. Every one of them is singing at the top of his/her lungs as they process down the left aisle. Behind them come the tone chime players and mini-choir, followed by the third-grade full choir in red cassocks and white cottas. About the time the first red robe appears at the front of the nave, the crucifer and other black-clad fourth-grade acolytes start up the center aisle, having processed into the narthex and reversed direction. Once they reach the front of the nave, they turn right and right again, and continue their procession down the right aisle.

By this time, the volume is rising, and the red-clad third-graders are still processing in through the left door up front. The procession continues to wind through the nave and the narthex, with the fourth-graders coming up the center aisle again. Meanwhile, the third-graders start up the stairs from the narthex to the choir loft, where their voices continue to fill the church with volume and joy. Once the entire third-grade choir is seated in the loft, they’re packed wall-to-wall up there, and it sounds like their only way to make more space is to blow the walls open with song. Then the fourth-graders reach the chancel and the front pews, and the song finishes. The faithful have come; the fideles have adested.

Once the echoes die down, a fourth-grader steps up into the pulpit to give the first reading, from Isaiah 9:2 and 9:6, I think. Allowing for different versions of the Bible, sloppy note-taking, and sloppier memory, I’ll paraphrase it here: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.”

The third-grade choir then sings “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as Mary and Gabriel enter the chancel from the sacristy to the right – Mary in simple garb and barefoot, and Gabriel (always played by a girl) resplendent in huge, feathery wings.

Mary sits in front of the altar and Gabriel stands just behind her as the next reader takes a deep breath for a lot of words from Luke 1:26-28 – “And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said…”

At this point, they go a little artistic, and have Gabriel deliver the line, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” The reading continues with Mary expressing her doubt and Gabriel reassuring her that the Holy Spirit will get it done, and that of her son’s kingdom, there will be no end. It’s kind of a neat lesson, with the reader stopping to let Mary and Gabriel deliver their own lines. This is the only lesson in which any character has spoken dialogue in our Pageant.

Then Gabriel faces the toughest job of the night – singing the first solo. She sets the tone, as no one has proven to her that it’s possible to sing to 400 people without dying; nope, she has to prove it to all of the other soloists, so she screws up her courage and belts out, “From Heaven High.” You can almost feel the collective sigh of relief from the remaining soloists, even though they’re still nervous. And Gabriel’s relief is palpable.

The next reader presents passages from Luke 2:1 and 2:3-5 – “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…And Joseph went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem…to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.”

Gabriel and Mary exit into the sacristy, and some of the fourth-graders rush to the altar to set up two-dimensional cut-outs of a mule, a cow, and a sheep, while the third-grade choir sings, “Once in Royal David’s City.” The animals have been there all along, leaning with their backs against the railing around the altar, yet somehow this is the first time the audience notices them.

The next reading is from Luke 2:6-7 – “And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Joseph and Mary enter from the sacristy with a baby doll, which they place lovingly in the manger. The third-grade choir sings, “Away in a Manger” and Joseph and Mary alternate solos in, “Joseph, Dearest” while the choir sings the refrain.

Next comes Luke 2:8-14, or as I like to think of it, the Linus passage: “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”

Now is when the Pageant ramps up the cuteness factor by about 100 percent, as the heavenly host enters from the narthex, and every head turns to see. It’s the first-grade girls in white dresses, white tights, and white shoes, with white wings and silver halos, and it’s adorable. They glide up the center aisle two-by-two, eventually coming to rest on the chancel stairs. It’s impossible not to smile as they walk by to the choir’s rendition of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” accompanied by the sound of bells being shaken in time by the fourth-graders. It’s one of the many sweet moments of our Pageant, and as tough as it is not to smile, it’s even tougher not to cry.

Luke 2:15 gives everyone a chance to dab their eyes, with a chuckle coming fast on the reading’s heels: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, ‘Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.’” A playful organ intro precedes the choir singing, “Shepherds Come A-Running” – and run they do. Two by two, the first-grade boys scurry up the aisle from the narthex to the chancel, stopping just in front of the angels, with the last two – the two shortest boys in the grade – getting the honor of carrying stuffed lambs and placing them gently at their feet (although occasionally one will forget, and will simply drop the lamb once he realizes he should no longer be holding it). You know all of the boys love this part, because it’s bound to be the only time a teacher has instructed them to run in Chapel.

The JCP specialThis segment also marks the last change that I’m aware of. The shepherds used to wear their own outfits, as prescribed by the school – a simple cotton bathrobe with a safety-pinned bath towel for a headpiece. It was always comical to see the cacophony of plaid from whatever JCPenney had in its fall offerings each year, but two years ago, two generous first-grade moms sewed matching tan linen robes and headpieces for the entire grade. The next year, there were more first-graders than the previous year, so a dad stepped up to sew the additional brown robes and headpieces. The tan and brown robes are a definite improvement, but I have to admit the anarchist in me also loved the gaudy sale items from Penney. There’s a goofy element to the song, and the goofy costumes complemented it. But we’ll take any help we can get, so in with the new robes, and let the goofy trot up the aisle be the complement to the tune.

The next reading, from Luke 2:16, is a perfect follow-up to the shepherds’ run: “And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” Now the first-graders get to sing, as the shepherds and angels combine for “The Friendly Beasts.”

He brought the heck out of that frankincense.Next come the kings – the part Matthew always wanted, and got. The reading is even from the Gospel for which he was named, Matthew 2:1-2 – “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.’”

This version of “We Three Kings” has a sort of whimsical, to-and-fro organ intro, which is also the interlude between each verse. It starts out, and the star enters the center aisle. No, that’s not me being cocky about Matthew; no one kid was a star, but one played THE star – a fourth-grader dressed all in black, holding a big, golden, glittery star overhead, mounted on a long black pole. The star walks about five pews into the nave, then stops. At last Thursday night’s performance, we were sitting in the fifth pew, so this year’s star stopped right next to us, and we got a close view of the ENORMOUS grin on her face – I swear, no other child could possibly have been that happy to be playing their role that night, and her happiness was infectious. She stood and grinned while the kings began the opening verse as a trio – “We three kings of Orient are…” from the door to the narthex, then started happily up the aisle to her destination – right behind the manger, holding that star up high and bright.

Each king then steps forward to the same spot, gut-checking himself for his solo. The first one carries gold up the aisle, singing as he walks. Then there’s the musical interlude and the sung refrain, “Oh, oh, star of wonder…” while the next king steps into place. This year, it was Matthew, and he sang his heart out as he carried that frankincense up the aisle. Then the interlude and refrain, followed by the third and final king – Mr. Myrrh. Each king stops in front of the manger, kneels to present his gift, and remains there until the end, kneeling with his back to the audience – a physically difficult differentiator for the royal fourth-graders.

a_IMG_1365We then skip the readings for another two songs, and the next segment is a little different from most pageants. If you’re not familiar with our particular canon, you might wonder why there are a bunch of oddly dressed children walking up the aisle as the choir sings, “O Come, Little Children.” This is the collective role relegated to the second-graders, and they represent the children of the world. No, they weren’t mentioned in Scripture, but they’re an interesting way to handle the challenge of having an entire grade otherwise not involved in the Pageant.

Each child chooses a foreign country, and is granted leave to dress as a citizen of that country would dress. Representing a contingency of children of the world, they walk up the aisle two-by-two, and take their place on the chancel steps. I’m happy to report there was no overt racism in this year’s costume selections.

Nothing says Christmas like a boomerang....It’s always exciting to see how the children dress; we typically see kimonos, ponchos, berets, kilts, martial arts gis, furry-hooded coats, and lots of soccer jerseys. It’s all good. When Christopher was in second grade, he wanted to go as a Guatemalan child, which required a little Googling on our part. Matthew went as an Australian child. Again, all good, and all fun. The children of the world take their place, then sing, “What Shall I Give?” before the final reader steps into the pulpit.

The last segment comes from John 1:14 – “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us….” You can feel the excitement mounting as every child from every grade joins in, nearly blasting the roof off as they sing their final number, “He Is Born/Il Est Ne.” Yes, they sing it in English and French, and no, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard about 200 southern kids slaughtering the French dialect: “Eel ay nay, luh duhveen awnfawnt.” At once cringe-worthy and beautiful.

The final note rings out, and everything is silent for a split second before the rector steps forward, turns to face the congregation, and says, “I think they deserve a round of applause, don’t you?” That’s when the place just explodes with proud, happy parents, standing to show their appreciation for another great gift from their kids. There’s not a dry eye in the house at that point, but the rector somehow manages to get control again, and asks everyone to bow their heads for a brief prayer before performers and audience alike sing the recessional. I’m sure you know what it is. We get through all four verses – twice – before the final performer has exited via the narthex doors at the back. That’s a lot of joy to the world.

So there you have it. This is what I’ve been thinking about for seven years/eight seasons. This Pageant has impressed me from the first time I saw it. It tells a terrific version of a wonderful story, and I think it can be uplifting to those who believe and disbelieve that story alike. To have it told by a large group of enthusiastic kids, only intensifies the feeling of awe. I challenge anyone to watch such a Pageant and not be moved. If you want, you can join me next year – I’m sure to be watching the livestream.

Merry Christmas!

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