Sunday, December 20, 2009

Belly up to the Bar

Yesterday afternoon, we had a snow storm, one of those huge Northeast monsters that stops everyone in their tracks. This was the big one, the blizzard my older son's science teacher has been predicting for weeks. At least the snowflakes had the good grace to accumulate late in the day.

It snowed so hard that we couldn't get to a bar mitzvah in Philadelphia. Still, my older son's best friend managed to make it here from a party an hour away. My mother drove over and together, we drank coffee and addressed envelopes while my younger son stamped them, enabling my older son to almost finish the thank you notes for his bar mitzvah gifts. I made two batches of chocolate cookies. Nobody whined. Yes, our dog ate cookie batter and vomited her dinner up twice on the kitchen floor, and my best friend from college's dog peed on the family room rug. But our neighbors invited us over last minute for roast chicken and potatoes, my younger son and my neighbor's younger son went sledding in the dark, and we all played Apples to Apples, drank wine and and went to sleep happy.

All in all it was a slow, cozy day that drifted gently into a lovely, snowy evening.

This morning, however, I woke up in a very black mood. My kids are home from school for two weeks. I have about a zillion bills to pay and a gazillion medical claims to submit. Yes, we're going away for a few days, but at the moment, all that means is I have to pack us all up, cancel the newspapers, take the dog to her dog minder and buy my older son snow-boots. Tomorrow, we will be driving North for two hours, where the four of us will be staying in one room together for four days. My husband cheerfully describes the sleeping arrangements as "like camping." I know I will be locking the door to the bathroom so I can read The Liar's Club in peace.

The house was asleep this morning when I went downstairs to read my book. These would be the last few minutes I would have alone until, um, 2010. I read a while, then wandered into the kitchen, made a pot of coffee, looked out the window at the beautiful earth blanketed in snow, made pancakes, unloaded the dishwasher and reloaded it. My younger son and my husband materialized and retreated to the basement to "play" tennis on the Wii. My 13-year old and his friend slept on. I took out the duffel bags. started to pack, and watched the piles in our drawers dwindle.

That's when I realized: We were coming home Christmas Eve, which meant I would be the one doing the laundry Christmas day.

Yes, I know there are women who share domestic responsibilities with their husbands and children, or happily do it themselves without complaint. I am not one of those women. I share our house's work with our housekeeper. She makes more cleaning houses than I do teaching college students. She is a wonderful woman and I love her almost as much as I love my own mother. Last week, she gave me a dozen roses for my birthday. My husband is a great guy and he did shovel the front walk this morning but getting him to do anything in the house that doesn't involve electronics is basically impossible. Our housekeeper is off for the week and not coming back for ten days.

Bottom line: The bliss of doing laundry, emptying the dishwasher, preparing meals, and head-banging falls on me for the foreseeable future. (My husband just walked in and said something sweet so I guess I should take this opportunity to point out that he and my sons will do laundry/ empty the dishwasher/make their own mac 'n cheese under duress, but nagging them to do this stuff is such a drag. Quietly resenting them is much easier.)

Back to the coming week: I would be with my family 24/7. Yes, we would be ice-skating, snow-shoeing, tubing and maybe cross-country skiing. We would be staying at a hotel so somebody else would be making the meals and cleaning them up (Hallelujah!). But I was likely to have no time alone, and this was likely to drive me bonkers.

And I would be coming home to at least four loads of laundry. Maybe five.

Then I remembered: The Bar Method! (

Some women drink wine when they get stressed. Others eat too much or too little. Some gulp coffee and exercise too much. Others cook/clean/organize closets obsessively. I have been capable of all of the above. My father died almost five years ago and once I got done mourning him, I found that the fastest way to clear my head was to give up the other stuff and just write and run. But sometimes the relentless, daily, ordinary grind of child-rearing and housekeeping duties gets the better of me. On those days, the best thing to do is to just get out of my goddamned house.

If anyone was going offer up a safe place to go in the middle of a snow storm, it was the tiny group of women who teach the Bar Method in the next county.

The few, the strong, the proud. The Bar Method uses a ballet bar to help you tighten your stomach muscles. It is based on the teachings of Lotte Berk, an injured ballet dancer and Holocaust survivor who developed a form of exercise that strengthens your core, literally and figuratively.

I dialed the number.
Someone answered.
"You're there!" I squealed.
"We're here." The woman on the other end of the phone laughed.
"Can I make a reservation for the 11:30?" I asked.
"There is no 11:30 today," she said. "You can come for the 10:30."
I looked at my watch. It was 9:45. The 10:30 was an advanced class. I usually take the beginner class. I wasn't sure I could handle it. Plus, my driveway was not plowed and my car, which was parked under a pine tree, was covered with snow.
"I don't think I can make it by 10:30," I said. "My driveway's not plowed."
"Well, try," the woman said.
The only bad thing about the Bar Method is that if you reserve ahead of time and you don't show up for class, they charge you anyway.
"Does that mean if I don't make it, you won't charge me?" I asked.
"Nope," she said cheerfully.

I looked outside. Lots of snow. There was only one person who could get me out of this mess. I dialed his cell phone.
"Hi, Sammy," I said. "Where are you?"
"I'm at your friend's house," Sammy said.
"Which friend?" I asked.
"The one up the street."
"I have an exercise class in half an hour," I said.
Sammy laughed.
"I have to get out of the house," I said. "You know how that that is. If you come right now, I'll give you cookies."

Five minutes later, Sammy and his snow plow arrived. He started to moved my kids' hockey nets off the driveway. I threw some cookies in a zip lock bag, put on my boots, ran outside and tossed the cookies in the front seat of his Jeep.
Sammy glanced in my direction and keep moving the hockey nets off the driveway.
"Do you want a diet Coke?" I asked.
"No," Sammy said. He wasn't as happy to see me as I was to see him.

I raced to my car. The pine tree had left a foot of snow on the front windshield. I wiped that snow off as fast as I have ever done anything in my life. I backed out of my driveway. One of Sammy's helpers drove up in another Jeep.
"Sammy said we had to clean up the walk," the driver said.
"I gotta go!" I said. "Do whatever you want."
I backed out of my driveway and prayed.
The roads were awful, thick and slushy with ice. Of course, I ended up driving behind a snow plow that was busily plowing the street. Eventually, I crawled across the highway.

The Bar Method is in the next town over, which is in a different county. I don't know who is in charge of the snow-plow union there, but this morning, that town looked like another universe. The sun was shining and the roads were so clear, it almost looked as if it hadn't snowed. But it had snowed so I figured most people would not be out and about and for once, parking would not be a problem.

It wasn't. I pulled into a spot and ran up the stairs to the class. In the hallway were other women who had also left their houses and gone to class. We lined up our boots in the hallway like school children and filed in.

This is the beautiful thing about the Bar Method. There is a firm, "suck in your stomach, take no prisoners, karma is a boomerang" attitude. Everyone in the class is a middle-aged woman, or close to it. (I once saw a man in the class but he had the grace to stand in the corner and remain silent.) The place has a lovely, healing, feminine vibe to it. The carpeting in the main room is thick, soft and sand-colored. The locker room is sunny and pleasant. The mirrors in the main room make you look thinner than you probably are. Across the hallway, in case something goes wrong, there is a large psychiatry practice. The bathroom actually smells good. There is a pink orchard, some delicious smelling soap, a lovely white mirror, and a clean sink. The whole place manages to feel soothing, energizing and peaceful, a quiet sisterhood for the abs-obsessed.

Some of the instructors have ridiculously large boobs and teeny-tiny waists. They all have flat stomachs and tight butts. But not all of them are perfect looking. Many look tired. A few look like stressed-out suburban Moms, albeit with great posture. They talk about their kids, their laundry and trying to get their husbands to do stuff. Today one mentioned she was going home to celebrate her eight-year old’s birthday. I overheard her say, “That child saved my life.” None of this chatter takes place during class. The instructors only talk about their lives before or after class, never during.

During class, they say things like,
"Pull your navel into your spine."
"Tuck in."
"Hinge forward."
"Keep your hips square."
"Press your hands up to the bar."
"Put the red ball between your legs and squeeze."
"Time for back dancing."

Occasionally I even know what they're talking about.

I don't want you to think I have great abs because I go to the Bar Method. I don't. I only go once or twice a month, not enough to make a difference to my body. But my mind loves it there. I spend most of my life telling other people what to do: My children, my students, my husband, myself. At the Bar Method, a lovely, nurturing woman tells me what to do and she does it in a very nice way. I think of it as "organized love." If you do a good job, the instructor offers praise. If you suck, she gently moves you into position. Today, we did this thing called "the pretzel." You twist yourself into a pretzel by holding onto the bar with two hands, and then sit down. You fold your left leg in front of you and your right leg behind you. You lift up your right leg very slowly about a million times. Once you've finished that, you do the other leg.

I'm not even sure what muscles the pretzel works. I just know that while you're doing it, all your self-pity melts away.

After class, we nodded at each other and went our separate ways into the snow. I walked down the street and life was good. (Translation: A path had been cleared to the Starbucks around the corner.) I went home, packed up stuff and thanked the weather and the women at the Bar, because without them, I would have spent the morning cleaning the kitchen and resenting the hell out of the people I live with and love.

Happy Holidays. Happy New Year. Happy Snow.

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