Thursday, January 1, 2015

Books Read in 2014

No real rhyme or reason here, though some clear categories did arise. I start many more books than I finish. I need more time to finish books. I want to find more books worth finishing. Suggestions? Please. You can see from this list what I tend toward.


Frank Lloyd Wright kick
The kick started with a spontaneous purchase at a thrift store, and evolved into a passion of sorts. By the end of the year, I'd visited three of his houses and claimed his principles as resolutions for the new year. I'm in the middle of three other books about him right now.

Loving Frank, Nancy Horan
Taliesin Diary: A Year With Frank Lloyd Wright, Priscilla Henken
The Women, T. Coraghessan Boyle
Building Taliesin , Ron McCready


Thinking Material
Each in its own way.

Wave, Sonali Deraniyagala.
The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 swept away Deraniyagala's husband and two young sons in a matter of minutes. One moment they're in a hotel room; the next, flushed through the city in a torrent. In December I met with a friend who lives in Japan and had helped rebuild after the 2011 wave there. I asked if he worries, if life is especially precious. He said, You just can't think about it.

Living With A Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth About Everything, Barbara Ehrenreich.
Ehrenreich's premise always draws me in--investigating the poor in her Nickel and Dimed, and pinning down the unexplainable here. But her tone turns me off. Her smarts are attractive, but her personality, which cuts through, is not. I wish this weren't the case.

North of Hope, Shannon Huffman Polson
The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak
A Long Retreat, Andrew Krivak
Books I wouldn't have picked up if I hadn't been asked to moderate a panel with the writers on the topic of grief and writing, at the Festival of Faith and Writing, held here at Calvin College. Their insights soaked into my skin, as I wrote here.

The First Phone Call From Heaven, Mitch Albom
I tend to stereotype Albom as a feel-good writer--nothing wrong with that--but this book stuck with me for its exploration of how the simple act of believing can change your circumstances. The validity of the object of your faith does not necessarily matter. Hmmm.

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice On Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed
I assume Strayed is building off her popularity with Wild, and I'm glad. Here she's compiled her writing from The Rumpus as the advice columnist Dear Sugar. Adult material, to be sure, but her insights come from deep understanding and personal experience and are worth hearing out.

The Liar's Wife, Mary Gordon
Bean Trees , Road Kingsolver
The Tortilla Curtain, T. Coraghessan Boyle
These writers paint character and place like few others--place, to me, meaning a vivid atmosphere of feeling and meaning.


Mindless Fluff I Enjoyed
That's not totally fair--these aren't Harlequin romances--but this category, to me, includes books I didn't have to think too hard to enjoy. Not quite candy, but not meat, either. There's a place for such things.

Tapestry of Fortunes, Elizabeth Berg
I See You Everywhere, Julia Glass
Austenland, Shannon Hale
Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me: The Pursuit of Happiness, One Celebrity at a Time, Rachel Bertsche


Dave Eggers Medley
Dave Eggers wrote me a postcard, yes he did. Even without that, I'd be a fan. I stare at his sentences to try to find the magic, but each one is so simple; the power lies instead in the complete coming together, which is devastatingly masterful.

The Circle
What Is The What (second reading)
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?


Alexander McCall Smith (of course)
If he's got a new one, I'm there, except for that 44 Scotland Street series. It's like a new album by a favorite artist; maybe you don't like all the songs, but you're sure as heck going to buy and listen.

The Forever Girl
The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon
The Handsome Man's Deluxe Cafe


Random
Vacation, Deb Olin Unforth
I know a guy who has to finish any book he starts, and will complain to me about Moby Dick as if he had no choice but to suffer through. I don't do that. But sometimes I will finish books that barely keep me. This was one, but it was so strange I had to see where it went.

One More Thing, BJ Novak
He's funny. I respect his many talents as writer and actor.

Raven Girl, Audrey Niffenegger
I really like her, so I picked up this haunting modern fairytale, which became a ballet at the Royal Opera House.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

soon and very soon

May 20, 2010
I am waiting. Not patiently, though there's not a choice, really, when nothing happens. No signs of life, no email, no recognition that I have made a contribution in the world and it is missed. Did I anticipate the end? I always felt like the other shoe would drop some day. But at the same time, I was damn good at this job, it thrilled me, it gave my life meaning. I made a difference.

A touch of drama there, but I was hurt. Ten days before, I had run away from my job as night supervisor of a women's homeless shelter. Run, not walked; the end had come not as I had always suspected it would, some broken glass held to my face, maybe, or an attack around midnight. Instead, a final confrontation with a new supervisor, an anomaly among the stellar staff, made me see that I was not safe there. I was questioned and threatened by the woman who should have had my back. I would not return to my shift. This journal, which I began with the job, ended with this entry, where two things were on my mind: one, who did I let down, and two, where would I go next. Though there was no question that I made the right decision, I was sad that I never said goodbye to the women. "I stop into the library downtown [a draw for the homeless] to see if I can bump into anybody. But usually no one's there."

Next: a career? I keep coming back to the YMCA. No good jobs available as of yet, but I thought that maybe a several month internship would be cheaper than school, and I'd end it with a job. Or should I get an MA in something now while I have nothing better to do?

Ah. Look at that.

Just six months later, I'd begin work at the Y, paid, without any qualifying degrees. After a couple of years, I'd enjoy it enough to add a few certifications and make it official. Today, I'd say I'm doing what I was meant to do, and that no one could ever have told me it would happen this way. The grief I expressed over my work at the shelter was real, but the job, with its elements of danger and high adrenaline, was not sustainable. The "other shoe" reference makes me think I knew this deep down, and yet the kick it gave me was addictive. My work now, as a trainer, is the right balance of challenge and comfortable.

I resurrected this journal on a road trip last week, wanting to get a few thoughts down. Stuck as a bookmark among the pages is my fortune from a restaurant I visited, which reads

Soon life will become more interesting.

Christmas is coming; we are at the end of our season of waiting. All will be revealed in the morning. What's around the corner at any given time? I had no idea that May. I was at a loss. But with hindsight, I can see that Christmas was on its way.

It always is.






Monday, December 1, 2014

Go Ahead, Life: Make My Day


Friday, November 21
5:30pm
Scheers and friends at Stella’s Lounge in downtown Grand Rapids, choosing menu items involving bacon. Bacon fat popcorn, jumbo bacon-stuffed tater tots, bourbon bacon doughnut holes, burger (bacon inside).

8:30pm
Scheer family on living room floor. One opens mouth, decides talking is too much effort.

Saturday, November 22
Amy remains sole victim of bacon hangover. Decides, for maybe first time ever, to do cardio. Boxing, jumping, pushups and mountain climbers. Understands whole “seratonin thing” now.

Monday, November 24
Mr. Barbell, thinking Amy broke up with him, lays on the guilt trip. Leave me alone, says Amy, who is a little sick still and knows to keep things light. Stalling, I mean talking, she spends an entire half hour getting from the front door of the Y to the cardio room, a place she takes clients but where, if she exerts herself, people come running to ask what’s wrong.

Tuesday, November 25
So much time has passed since lifting heavy that Amy knows to swallow her pride. So she rips a page from Muscle & Fitness magazine and tries the “300 workout,” which involves, in this order, 100 pullups, a one-minute bird dog, 100 squats, another bird dog, 100 pushups. This is called “taking it easy.” Later, while soaking in epsom salts, she remembers why she doesn’t usually allow others to prescribe her workout.

Wednesday, November 26
Juice and smoothies day. And yoga! Amy hates yoga. But she is determined to loosen up from yesterday with a library DVD. First 45 minutes, she practices a sacred mantra: I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. Last 15 minutes, she’s all blissed out. Yoga’s really great, after all.


Last year around this time I wrote what I called a “subversive” take on holiday eating, encouraging you to enjoy, within reason, the pleasures we’re given in this life. This year hasn’t changed my focus—refer to bacon, above—but I’d also like to look at how life plays interference, and what we can do.

Maybe because I’m 44, or perhaps due to starting all this late, probably because I’m an introvert with two kids and in need of lots of quiet, personal time—I understand that life gets in the way of our best-laid plans. Plans for just about anything, but let’s talk fitness right now. My clients will apologize on the off hours for their sins of omission, and I usually say, with a wave of the hand, “Eh. Just get back in the gym next time you can.”

Because that’s all we can do. Get back on the wagon if we’ve fallen off.

Consistency is what has take care of me in the long run, allowing me to keep the weight off and occasionally indulge in bacon. Regularly getting into the gym has meant that when I need a week off for being sick, or a holiday meal that can’t be missed, I can afford it, just as a fat bank balance keeps the bills paid.

It’s also why my routine above seems scattered. Jumping? Yoga? Random, perhaps, but it’s me listening to my body and my schedule. Letting life get in the way, in a good way. I used to get guilty quickly. As someone who once weighed 50+ pounds more than I do now, I fall to despair easily; I eat more than usual and think, That’s it. It’s all over. I’ve fallen off the cliff and won’t be able to find my way back. But these cycles have happened enough times that I can now extend the conversation with myself, with some reasoning—you know you sometimes need more food, you know that your weight will drop back in time, you know that rest always does you good—and sometimes with a simple shut up, already.

I could be a pushier trainer, for sure. No one’s complained, and I’ve yet to be hired by a professional athlete, so I’m good for now. Despite this laidback approach, I’m known for helping people reach their goals, as one of you out there, whose bench press I increased by 55 pounds in one week, can attest. I’m all about sustainable health and wellness, and no one-shot deals.

So I don’t apologize. I’m still all for the eating, within reason. I’m still for rest periods and tapering weeks and not killing yourself in the gym. I’m in this for the long haul, and I want that for you, too. So enjoy this holiday season, and when life gets in the way, let it, at least a little. Listen to your body, your schedule, and, eventually, your guilt, and get back to this fitness stuff when you can. Meanwhile, enjoy time with family and friends over a good meal. Wrestle your kids on the living room floor—before they’ve had bacon—for your cardio intervals. Work on being your best inside and outside of the gym, and when you’re ready, I’ll meet you there.


Because after all that rest, I’m ready and raring to go.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What To Say When The Time Comes

Me, fuming, barefoot--the setup was the same.

Second time, I'm in a dress. Or rather a short, flowing brown skirt, avocado blouse strung through with muscled, veined arms swinging.

I beat my chest. I actually beat my chest, but with just the one fist. The left one, nearest my heart and making my point.

Is this what they'll remember?

In a year filled with funerals of loved ones, I get to wondering what my kids would say about me if given the opportunity to summarize. Would the above stories of my confronting neighborhood sins be told, and would they appear in or out of context? As in, "My mom was crazy enough to stop a drug deal barefoot, and ended up holding hands with the perpetrator and crying?" Or, simply, "My mom was crazy"?

Kids, let me help you out here. (Greg, I'm trusting you to report on your package deal with accuracy.)

Children. I have encouraged your creativity, no? And not in the ways the parenting books suggest. Yes, I keep the house stocked with paper, pens and tape. I have allowed you to leave large cardboard creations throughout our living quarters. But I have also fed you New Yorker cartoons. I cultivate those wicked strains of humor running through you two to the point where you, Simon, figured I was playing a joke when I walked around Dad's work party with toilet paper hanging from my pants. You were sure I was being funny, so you didn't tell me. Hint: I am funny. But next time, please: Tell me.

And I have tried to turn you into respectable human beings. You've sat sandwiched between convicted murderers at Applebees, friends all, and I questioned this decision only when the steak knives came out. Also, as you know, each year of your schooling I have offered a child on the playground money to make fun of you if your zippers were down. He never had to, which was the point entirely.

And did I ever just say, "Take a shower"? No. I handed you deodorant and announced, "How To Win Friends and Influence People." There's a difference. Speak to that.

And maybe there won't be time, but please acknowledge that you confused me with a hunchbacked, muscled creature carrying an ax, as featured on the cover of one of your scary books. You said, "That looks like you, Mom, except for the ax."

Don't talk about this, but I don't have people over often enough. Which is probably why, when Simon was asked on a teen health questionnaire if he had friends, he said, "Pfffft." This is my fault. The introverted genes come from both your father and I, but I could do better at this.

And Theo, I don't need to remind you how I suffered on those field trips. I accepted the migraines and the kicks to the back of the seat as a way to show my love for you. Also, I complained a lot.

That's good for now. There will be more to say soon enough.

Some of it, though, you may want to keep to yourselves.








Sunday, September 7, 2014

How I Increased A Man's Bench by 55 Pounds in 7 Days--and why that matters

"This has got to go," I said, trading Katy Perry for Metallica at the stereo before loading on some plates. The music might be as important as the weight for this man, whom I had only spent an hour with prior, and way last week, so who knew? Motivation is not the same for everyone. But he had mentioned offhand his wish to bench 300 by a milestone birthday, which would occur on Sunday. This was Friday. I was planning to make it happen.

And I did. And I'm proud. But I'm a little embarrassed at how much so.

Some people I bragged to were impressed to the point of disbelief. 55 pounds? Yes, he hadn't ever lifted more than 245. He'd done it five times, but that doesn't necessarily equate to a higher 1RM. It'd be me who'd train those additional motor units to fire. Me who'd know which music to play and what to say.

And I did it. And some people don't care.

I noticed this morning that the pastor, like most, worked backward from his text, making meaning in reverse of Exodus's specific instructions on how to eat goat and what will happen to the firstborn. Here, I've got a similar but easier task: why was what happened worthwhile? How can I convince the uncaring to consider this feat important in the grand scheme of life?

The factors involved were these: a tall man whose muscle has come more from his job than the gym approached me for training. We met, and after hearing his routine and his wishes, I knew he needed to work on brute strength for a time. When 300 came up, I figured, Why not? I'd eventually work bench with him anyway. The mornings I woke up wondering why I was trying to do in a week what takes most trainers months, I told myself that this plan couldn't hurt.

(Insurance for the "couldn't hurt" portion of this plan included backup spotters. Anything over 255 I called in some troops and gave very specific instructions for them to STAY OUT OF MY WAY and DON'T MAKE YOURSELF KNOWN but help me and come near the bar ONLY IF I SAY SO.)

Because I wanted headspace for us both. Him, to prepare for a feat of strength, me, to prepare to help him achieve it. Though most videos of big men lifting include lots of preparatory yelling and chest beating, that doesn't work for everyone. And lots of people assume their role as spotter is to grab that bar at any sign of hesitation. But sensitivity and intuition will sometimes tell you otherwise.

I relied on both throughout this process, from hour 1, when I got him up to 255 with some well-placed advice, which was just as important as what I didn't say. You can't overload people with everything you're thinking, even if it's all reliably helpful. I'm getting old enough now to mostly know when to shut up. I made a suggestion, watched him incorporate it, saw him thrill at its success, saved my next tip for a later date.

We planned to meet again in a week. I prescribed a specific Tuesday workout and lots of rest and food. Eat, I said, then said it again.

The following Friday, he was ready but not well-rested, despite his best efforts. Life gets in the way of our plans, and I was willing to give up this one, but he wanted to try.

"If you think I can do it, I can do it," he said.

I've come to understand that when people trust me too much, they don't listen to what their bodies are trying to say. I'm viewed with the respect usually reserved for a doctor handing down a diagnosis, when really, I'm offering up an idea hoping they'll try it, give me feedback, and we can ditch it or pursue it together as necessary.

I thanked him for his confidence and reiterated what I say all the time to clients, which is this: Listen to your body. Don't be a hero. We began warming up at the bench.

255x3. 275x2. He was already benching 30 pounds above his heaviest weight, and a decision had to be made: go for 300 and possibly miss it, or risk hitting a lower set first that might steal the juice needed for the big one.

Motor units in mind, I decided on this: 285 for one. See how that went, then we can decide. In my thinking, it was just heavy enough to teach him what 300 will require, but wouldn't wear him out.

285x1. Easy. Get some water, massage the muscles. Have that other guy pull out his earbuds again and stand by. Let's do this.

300. He let out a low grunt when the weight settled in at the top. Midway, the bar started heading toward his neck. I guided it back without letting any weight settle, and up it went. 300.

"Happy Birthday," I said.

The steps that led to that moment, if I track them, would never line up with what you'd find in a book. I broke a lot of rules, but something told me it would all work out. Years of study and experience settled in and I knew what to say and do before, after, and in the moment, as well as what to have him work on without me. You'd think I was the one who benched 300, with all the credit I'm taking here. But in many ways, it was a team effort, and one that begged for closer inspection.

Strength is important in the upkeep of the human body, from youth on up. Beyond the physical necessity of maintaining muscle and fighting the natural atrophy process that comes with age, note the fascinating research (in my June posts) on the emotional protection and health a strong body provides.

Plus, it's just really cool that this guy can go around saying he benches 300. (315 is better, because it's a clean, impressive six-plate load, but there's always next week for that.)

The pastor concluded his sermon today by saying that the scripture was "not only meant to let Israel know who Yahweh is, but also to let the whole world know."

Do I need an apologetic of the bench? Not really. But this story teaches me to place a value not only on strength, but also on the intersection of education, experience and intuition. It's a powerful lesson.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Trainers, Be Trained (or, I Might Do A Cartwheel Some Day)

"I don't know if I'm up for this, Bobby. My triceps are fried."
"Good thing we're not using our arms, then, Amy: it's deadlift day."

Flip the speakers, and the exchange could have taken place between me and one of my personal training clients. With them, I'm kind but firm, finding their limits and pushing, pressing or pulling our way past them. Instead, Bobby was pushing mine, zeroing in with his trainer's eye on the gap between my work capacity and insecurities. It would go like this: he'd ask me to do something; I'd say no; he'd say yes you will too; I'd point to an old injury; he'd get in spotting position; I'd make a face; he'd say go; I'd do it. Seven sessions together, and this scenario played out each and every time.

A nice, inspiring end to this story would include success in these moves, but I'm here to say that some of my initial attempts--cartwheels, somersaults--were kind of ugly. And that's the point: I paid someone to help me find my limitations. I know my strengths, which are..is... just that: strength. I can pick up something really heavy one time and put it down. Bobby wants to make sure I can do some other stuff--eventually--and do it well.

I came into this profession in my late thirties a brand-new convert, with as much or more enthusiasm than the kids waving their exercise science degrees. Enthusiasm can go a long way, as can all the self-study and work experience I undertook, but it can't cover a missing history of participation in sports and the chance to observe a range of coaches. I'm proud of every hour of personal training I've led, but the more I know, the more I find I don't know.

Enter Bobby. I've been eating humble pie for a couple of weeks now, and it's made me think that every trainer should try this at least once. Anyone in any field, really; stepping under someone's tutelage can go a long way. But please...


...be humble. Don't be "the trainer'; drop your pro role and play the student. Bobby and the others know I work at another gym, but I rarely play this side. I did, however, mention my deadlift PR when asked, and this was forever held against me. Think a class of four women and one man, and guess who had to lift the same weight as the man?

And if you haven't guessed yet from all the gymnastics, let me make clear that I'm at a CrossFit gym. Did you flinch? Hater, be humble: drop your preconceptions on this exercise phenomenon and see what you can learn. I found myself dipping on rings, standing on my hands, and doing more deadlifts in seven minutes than I'd usually do in a hour. If you're at a solid gym, as I am, you've got something to learn. Those CrossFit injuries you read about come when people--or staff--aren't training smart. I am; Bobby makes sure of this.

...respect your skill set. All those nice comments aside, CrossFit programming demands quite a vast array of skills. I can stand on my hands, but walk? Cartwheel? Not yet, and maybe not ever. But I'm there to try, and later, to pick and choose which new skills I want to work on. I have no plans to compete in their games, so I will work on what's important and what I have time for. Planches are on the list, as you'll see in a minute. And I know I need to work on endurance and conditioning, which happens by default when I show up. But I don't need to be laid out for six weeks with an injury, so sometimes, despite that first paragraph, a no is a no.

And finally...

...step into your client's shoes. Found along the path of humility is a sense of what I ask of my clients. Those times when I bless them with a nuanced assessment of their mobility issues? They thought this: "I suck." I know this because I've now been there. Bobby knows I want all the facts, though, so he gives them to me; but with the general public, I realize, I need to keep things positive and challenging, minus the helplessness that can come with realizing, say, your right foot likes to turn out every time you squat deep. Point is, by being a student for a time, I can become a better teacher.


I'll head back to the gym later this week for another sweatfest and dose of reality. Meanwhile, in keeping with the humble theme, I present one of my many recent fails. But look out, straddle planche: some day, after much effort, you're mine.



video




Monday, July 14, 2014

End of June Project

Some of you have said that my June Project, now complete, inspired other creative ideas on how to teach the discipline of showing up.

That's the point. Of this blog. (To get you thinking.) But it's really wonderful when I actually hear about these things rather that y'all just stalking around.

And it was really great to watch this idea succeed right here at my house. Spoiler alert: both kids are still keeping up with their projects, though it's now July and no schedule is enforced. Simon is reading and blogging away, and you really should stop over there, comment, and make his day. Theo continues to write, though, true to his nature, a hundred new ideas have sidestepped him. That's okay; the drawings he's producing are worth the segue. I put my reading on somatic psychotherapy to the side for a time, though I did manage to strike up an email conversation with the author of the book I studied. Later, I found out that this is a pretty big deal, as she's well-known in the field. It pays to be naive and curious.

The June Project was three weeks of showing up for a half hour each day to work on a project of our choosing. We needed a ceremonial finish to such good and solid work, so on June 29, we gathered in the living room and made presentations to each other. Possibly we wore pajamas, though I'd like to think I tried to make this event seem worthy of clothes. Simon and I took turns describing our projects and what we learned, and Theo read an excerpt from his writing. (Somehow I managed to tear up while reporting on the amazing things I had learned.) I then took the opportunity to review what I hoped everyone had learned by doing: that sometimes showing up means staring out the window or picking your nose for a bit; that sometimes you have to throw away a day or two's worth of work, but you need to clear that out of you before the good stuff could break through. And finally, that perseverance pays off, and is even a little addicting. Thank you, June Project, for rewarding your apprentices.