We thought the Flexible Flyer sled was gone forever. True, it remained in memory, but we thought the Flexible Flyer was a victim of indifferent history, tossed on the pyre of worthless junk like the Rosebud sled that closes “Citizen Kane.” But fortunately we were wrong! The Flexible Flyer in the cellar is no longer lonely — Flexible Flyers are being made and sold today
The S.L. Allen Company of Philadelphia patented the Flexible Flyer in 1889. It was revolutionary, because you could actually steer the sled. Prior to that, sleds were built like small sleighs — they had immovable runners. But the Flexible Flyer was flexible; the front section of each runner could be aimed left or right by pulling on a wood crosspiece that was pivoted at its center and attached to the front part of the runners. Soon the Flexible Flyer was the most popular sled in the United States. The next improvement came in the late thirties or forties when the straight back end of each runner was twisted up and around until it faced forward and was bolted safely to the underside of a wooden rail. Prior to that improvement, the back end of the sled was simply lethal. Fortunately, thick winter clothing prevented most kids from getting impaled.
The Flexible Flyer sled gradually disappeared from sight in the 1960s when the S. L. Allen Company was sold. Just about then the two-steel-runner sled began to be replaced, first by aluminum saucers, which were lighter and maybe safer than sleds though they had no steering ability, and then by sheets of sturdy, bright colored plastic that were much cheaper and even safer than metal saucers — and they went down a snowy slope faster. That’s pretty much what you’ll find on the snowy slopes today. Sure, kids fall off and even when they don’t they bump into each other, but the chances of their getting badly hurt are minimal compared to what it used to be like on those old fashioned sleds.
Today we learned from NPR’s “Only A Game” that the Flexible Flyer is back. The company that ended up owning S. L. Allen Company’s patent went bust and sold the Flexible Flyer rights to an old, old sled making rival of the S. L. Allen Company, namely the Paris Manufacturing Company, now known as Paricon. (The business started in South Paris, Maine – not France.) The excellent and informative Flexible Flyer article at “Only A Game” is by Doug Tribou. The Flexible Flyer sled in the photo above comes from our childhood, which was a long, long time ago.
We have a nice post about eggnog that we made about a year ago. (We made the post about a year ago. We make the eggnog fresh every year. ) We’ll take you to it if you click here.
For Christmas this year we’ve chosen the nativity scene painted by Correggio around 1529. A group of angels overhead has been been cut from this cropped version of the painting. (They are badly composed and unnecessary; we don’t miss them.) It’s sometimes called Adoration of the Shepherds, because those are shepherds on the left. Almost hidden in the right background is the figure of Joseph — a person often relegated to the margin in paintings of this family. At the time it was painted, the work was valued primarily for what it portrayed and somewhat less for its technique. Nowadays, the work is probably admired more for its structure and craft than for the event it captures. The scene is realistic, no one has a halo and the shepherds are real people. Furthermore, Mary’s face expresses her love for her child, not religious worship as in so many painting which nowadays strike us artificially pious. Everyone in this otherwise completely realistic and earthly scene is illuminated by the almost blinding radiance emanating from the child; indeed, the woman on the left holds up her hand as if to shield her eyes. Correggio’s painting makes visual the words that infant will later use to describe himself — “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Correggio’s work reminds us that in this season of darkness and we need all the light we can get, no matter if it’s 1529 or 2012.
This is a photograph of Mister Rogers being greeted by a child. Recently it’s been reproduced all over the web and in newspapers and magazines, so if you’ve already seen it you probably know that it was taken by Jim Judkis in 1978. We don’t know who the child is. Many children, now in their forties and fifties, remember Fred Rogers — Mister Rogers as he was known to the kids who watched his TV show. Fred Rogers had a wonderful way of connecting with children, as anyone who watched him can tell you. He was extraordinarily friendly and open to children, not jazzy but calm and not at all intrusive. Sometimes we forget when we were that small and adults so very, very big. Fred Rogers never forgot— notice how he’s dropped down to greet that little boy — and above all he had a way of making children feel secure. After the recent slaughter of twenty children in Newtown, Connecticut, Mister Rogers’ words of comfort to children came to mind again.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
The photographer had this to say about the photo — “This boy immediately went right up to him and held out his hands to touch him, and he said ‘Mister Rogers!’ In total awe. Total awe. And that was the moment of the photo.”I think it shows the pure attraction, the love … it’s like he’s seeing God, touching God.”
Our friend Jo Page, fiction writer, essayist and journalist, is also a Lutheran pastor. She’s more informed than many of us when it comes to the liturgical calendar, and in this Christmas season she’s written about the beautiful —and, as she notes, strange —celebration of of St. Lucy’s Day. Perhaps you’ve seen the procession of St. Lucy Day, at least in photographs. In fact, it’s extraordinarily beautiful; nowadays the young women wear crowns of electric candles, but not so long ago those were real candles — the youth, the beauty and the danger were all there together. Here’s Jo in her own words:
On Dec. 13th, St. Lucy’s Day, in many Scandinavian countries and in Lutheran communities in the United States, young girls wearing crowns of candles and bearing plates of saffron buns—to represent St. Lucy’s gouged-out eyes—come before their families to sing “Santa Lucia.” Originally this was a Neapolitan sailor’s song, but the words to the Scandinavian versions plea for the return of light and for the release from winter’s darkness.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the weirdest things about the observation of St. Lucy’s Day concerns the legend of the saint and how then how this 4th-century Sicilian saint came to be venerated by Lutherans, who tend not to put much stock in saints.
St. Lucy was a 4th-century Christian martyr during Emperor Diocletian’s widespread persecution of Christians. St. Lucy’s crime was that she had consecrated her virginity to God and wanted her dowry to be distributed to the poor.
Well, when her pagan fiancé found this out, along with her refusal to marry him, he did the stand-up guy thing and denounced her to the Roman authorities. After she refused to burn a sacrifice of the Emperor’s image (this was done to show fealty to the Roman authorities and to reject Christianity), it was determined that a fitting punishment would be to stick her in a brothel where she wouldn’t be able to protect her virginity.
The legend says that when the guards came to take her away they found her so filled with the spirit of God that she was as stiff as a board and too heavy to move even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. In some traditions St. Lucy is tortured by having her eyes gouged out with a fork. In another legend, her fiancé comments on the beauty of her eyes and she gouges them out herself, declaring, “Now let me live to God”.
(This explains why she is seen in paintings bearing her eyes upon a plate and also why she is the patron saint of the blind and those with vision problems. It also explains the grisly custom of having saffron buns represent her eyes. Does put a damper on the appetite.)
Whether or not she was actually burned on a funeral pyre is unclear, but many martyrs under the Emperor Diocletian were. And in St. Lucy’s story, she continues to confess her faith in God’s love while burning to death. Even a spear thrust through her throat could not silence her.
So how does a 4th-century Sicilian martyr become the poster child for the mid-December tradition of putting candles into a crown and having a procession of girls in white robes with red ribbons come in singing a lilting Italian song that had originally been written to request favorable winds while sailing around the bay of Naples?
Well, it’s not clear.
But the lyrics to the Scandinavian versions all share in common the plea for the return of light amid winter darkness:
The night goes with weighty step
round yard and hearth,
round the earth, the sun departs
leaving the woods brooding
There in our dark house,
appears with lighted candles
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia.
It is, indeed, a strange and beautiful tradition, but more than its strangeness is how it speaks to that common need for light to return and to outlive the darkness, not merely of winter and of night, but the darknesses we find in our lives. When Christina Rosetti wrote “In the bleak mid-winter, long ago/Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone,” I think she was talking about a lot more than just the climate. She was talking about existential isolation and the hope—the need?—for redemption, which for her came with her faith.
In the Santa Lucia processions, almost pagan in their evocations of nature and the spirit of St. Lucy, I think we find that same deep yearning for restoration, for light and for renewal. Because the storied St. Lucy, bearing her eyes on a plate, represents a vision for more than what our eyes, in this darkness, can see.
December has its merry and bright times — evergreen trees with sparkling lights and glittering ornaments, the festive foods, the plum pudding, spicy cakes, and eggnog. All along the roof the eves are hung with fairy lights pretending to be icicles, and there are candles in every window. But December is also the month with the shortest days and longest nights. The dark encroaches. Marilyn Robertson’s poem, “The Pink Cloud of Evening,” has something to say about that.
Sometimes I feel I could live forever —
Like right now, listening to a Norwegian choir on the radio
and watching the last pink cloud of evening
drift over the neighbor’s field.
My ancestors came from Norway.
But they’re long dead — and I’ll die one day, too,
no matter how many clouds and choirs there are.
I ought to quit calling death the Grim Reaper.
I ought to invite him, or her, over once in a while,
like I used to invite my friends.
Can Carol come over to play, Mrs. Townsend?
Can Dorothy spend the night?
What is it about time anyway—
Whizzing through every place I’ve ever lived
as if it’s doing the hundred-yard dash?
Children are born. And their children, grown.
The little triumphs. The winter rains.
The voices of other children on the hill.
Twilight deepens and I start to dance,
humming a little something from Cole Porter.
Perhaps I’ll live forever after all.
You might want to rethink that, says the dark,
coming in for its solo on the bass,
always so mellow, so sure of where it’s going.
Something didn’t happen in the Senate last week, so you may not have heard about it. What didn’t happen? The US Senate didn’t ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The Convention, including its goals and some of the wording, was modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act. That pioneering legislation was guided through the Senate a couple of decades ago by Republican Senator Bob Dole, Senate majority leader at the time. One of his arms was all but useless due to injuries suffered in World War II. Bob Dole himself, 89-years old and now in a wheelchair, was brought onto the floor of the Senate to bolster support for passage.
Ratification of treaties and conventions of this sort requires a two-thirds majority, but 38 Senators – all Republicans – refused to ratify the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities. The Convention bans discrimination against people with disabilities and promotes their full participation in Society. It’s been signed by 154 nations and ratified by 126 and entered into force in 2008. Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, is typical of those opposing the Convention. “The treaty threatens U.S. sovereignty,” he said.
Our friend Ed Atkeson (best known as a graphic artist, puppeteer, hiker and iceboat racer) sent us a note recently. And that note sums up beautifully why an electronic cyber book , despite its many virtues, cannot replace an actual paper book.
“I just saw an advertisement that showed a mother reading Curious George to her kid on a Kindle. I thought it was sad because for the kid, Curious George wouldn’t exist. I mean, exist as a book, where he could be found and chewed and written on, colored, puzzled over. Curious George wouldn’t exist as marks on paper, and so the whole idea of writing, bookmaking, story making and picture making, that having a printed book laying around the house naturally leads to, wouldn’t exist either. Yeah, sad.”
Another quality that children’s books have that cannot be translated into an electronic reader is difference in size and shape. Kid’s books are often quite large compared to the relatively small printed page that appears behind the translucent surface of the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook. You can’t get down on the floor and spread open an electronic reader and let your imagination roam over two square feet of lavish color illustration. The same is true for adult novels as well, because behind the glassy window of the e-book reader all pages are the same in size, margin, texture and type face. It’s like landing on a planet where everybody has a unique history, but — GOOD GRIEF! — everyone looks exactly like everyone else.
The end of November and the beginning of December is a time of encroaching darkness. (Readers in the Southern Hemisphere can skip this until May of next year.) For reasons we can only guess at, the earth’s axis is tilted 23.4 degrees in respect to the plane of its track around the sun.* These months we in the North are tilted away from the sun, which is why it’s so low above the horizon — and, of course, in that position the sun’s radiant energy strikes us at a shallow angle, giving us reduced heat.
So now is a good time to hug the clothes when you fetch them from the dryer. Simply reach in, gather the wonderful warmth of freshly dried towels and pajamas and socks and what have you, and clasp that heap of warmth to your chest. Now hold them that way as you make your way to the sorting table. If your dryer is in the cellar and you have to climb stairs, hold the stair rail with one hand and the clothes with the other. Just keep going until you dump the still warm clothes on the bed and sort them there. The important thing is to hug that warmth. There’s nothing like it.
Or, if you just came in from the cold and your hands are reddish-blue blocks of ice, wash a few of those dishes that are stacked jumble-wise in the sink. The warm soapy water will melt your digits and you’ll feel better all over. And for dinner, we suggest soup.
*John Milton, the great Puritan poet, ascribed the tilting of the earth’s axis to Adam and Eve’s misbehavior in the Garden of Eden. In his Paradise Lost, the earth’s axis is vertical in relation to the ecliptic plane prior to their eating the Forbidden Fruit, so it’s summer all year round, but after the Fall of Man God tilts it awry. Some cosmologists have speculated that the newly formed earth was hit by a large asteroid that knocked the earth off the vertical and tore a chunk away that became our moon. These two explanations of axial tilt seem equally plausible. In any case, to calculate the diminished effect of the sun in winter, multiply the effect of the sun when directly overhead by the cosine of the sun’s angle above the horizon in winter.