Monday, April 21, 2014

The Ultimate Predator

In Everything Cat: What Kids Really Want To Know About Cats, Marty Crisp writes that "a cat facing illness or death is aware only that he is being threatened. He cannot find the source of the threat, but the instinctual response is to hide." This is the beginning of a response to the question "Why did our old cat disappear forever?"

Crisp adds, "Unfortunately, you can't hide from death."

I considered mentioning this children's book in an intellectual setting last week. At the Festival of Faith and Writing, I moderated a session on the task of writing on trauma and loss, and this cat fact seemed relevant. In what ways do we hide from death? How is loss felt as a threat?

But memoirist Shannon Huffman Polson and National Book Award nominee Andrew Krivak were articulate panelists, and we had plenty to talk about without the mention of cats. Krivak's book The Sojourn had been described by The Washington Post as "packed with violence and death, yet wonderfully serene in its tone," a notion that begged questions on the role of narrative structure and tone in softening, heightening, and occasionally protecting us from the severe aspects of suffering and grief. In a masterful prologue, Krivak builds to a tragedy we know is coming, but he does so gently, with long sentences, plentiful commas, and a mother's last look at her child. The word that ends the section--strikes--is comprised of harsh consonants, and that's the hardest blow Krivak hands us as a writer; he knows that his story is painful enough. Remarkably, the plot point comes from Krivak's personal history: his great-grandmother threw her baby, his grandfather, into a river just before she was hit by a train.

Polson's mother and stepfather were killed in a bear attack, and in telling of a pilgrimage to the site in her book North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey, she uses as counterpoint the story of rehearsing for the Mozart Requiem. For the last chapter, she reconstructs their last day at the camp and titles it Dies Irae, after the section which was finished by Sussmayr because Mozart had died.

There is the tragedy--there is always the tragedy--and there is what we do to manage and communicate its power, whether defeating or redemptive. Both writers saw a salvific role to loss, though Polson struggled. After singing the Requiem under Itzhak Perlman, she felt this way: "I am curiously happy, not unhappy, but I had expected more. I had wanted the heavens to soothe my wounds, and they did not. But I have internalized beauty. I have internalized prayer."

We want our healing to take as large a stage as the high drama of our suffering, but this is not always how it goes. Andrew spoke of what he calls the small act; in an email, he defined it as "a moment, a moment of choice, which happens only when the depth of loss is peered into, however briefly, and there is still visible something that will assuage that loss." He expanded on the idea further in our session, pointing to the grieving family in Raymond Carver's short story, A Small Good Thing, who show grace to an angry baker. It's a moment when a choice is made to reach through the depths, revealing a humanity when it is least deserved or felt.

Because how else does one learn to resist and surrender, if not through the persistence of love? (from Krivak's website) Sometimes the love must be extended by the one wrapped in the throes of loss.

In a session after ours, Krivak stayed on the idea of the small act as present specifically in fiction, and as reflecting faith. After, in the q&a time, a man raised his hand and said something like this: "We work so hard to fight against pain, but I'm a physician, and I can tell you: healing only comes when we embrace the suffering and enter into it."

Some old cats run off not because they want to die alone, but because they think they can outwit the ultimate predator (death) by sneaking away.

Unfortunately, you can't hide from death.

Friday, April 18, 2014

My Inspiration

We met at a Mexican restaurant, her choice but she'd never been there.

"I heard it's good," she said, adjusting her pink hat and rosary necklace. The necklace was the only thing not pink about her, and I'd never seen her like this, with earrings and bright clothes. The last time we were together there was snow, and she wore five pairs of socks. Boots, knit cap, sweatshirt, all dark, drab colors, and just a hint of a smile. Today, Patty was smiling big.

Patty used to be homeless. She stayed at the homeless shelter where I worked, though not when I was there, and we namedrop like old friends. I never knew her boyfriend, who died on the streets, but I can picture her, I must admit, as one of them. And now she's in a category that doesn't have enough members.

She's off the streets. She has an apartment. She's thriving as best as someone with limited resources can.

And what she told me over her burrito and my tacos is that she's never going back. "I'm going to keep moving forward," she said, cutting off a small bite, manageable for missing teeth, with the side of her fork.


"Do you think you can help me, Amy?"

I didn't know but I couldn't say such a thing, as the man was losing hope. He'd seen his doctor and a physical therapist and yet still, the pain was there. Maybe I'd know a few exercises that could help? I thought so, until that first day came and I was meeting with an 89-year-old man and the fear settled in to suggest that maybe, just maybe, I'm out of my league here. I could hurt him in my ignorance. I couldn't live with that, but I also couldn't live with being added to the list of people who didn't help.

"Sure, we can meet."
"It's worth a try, Amy."

And so we took it slowly. I carefully managed the amount of moving we'd do within our time. We got to know each other. And what I came to see is that this older person is just a person, special not because he's older but because he has not given up. He has not accepted his aches and pains as a given. He's moving forward--slowly, carefully, but in the right direction.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Weightlifting Secrets Revealed, or Curls Gone Wildly Wrong

A heavily-muscled man in my department told me his birthday is this Friday, and that he asked for "something heavy." For my birthday, I had asked for Muscle and Fitness magazine, which tells you how to lift something heavy, and apparently I added "not the women's version." Now, each month, I receive a magazine so teeming with testosterone, it's all I can do not to throw it down and beat my chest.

But today, I was again reminded that not everyone feels as I do, especially not women. The usual scenario presented itself at the gym: I'm loading 160 onto a 45-pound bar, and a pair of chattering women are doing chest presses, curls and tricep extensions with five-pound dumbbells. They will leave this room and head to childcare, where they will lift their 30-pound children with one arm, balancing an overstuffed totebag in the other. Never does it cross their mind that they need to pick up more than they're used to carrying in order to get that body they're after. No: women don't pick up heavy weights, unless it's in the form of children, who actually are so squirmy that the weight distribution makes the lifting of them, as opposed to a barbell, heavier.

Now the men, they walk in and do curls, too, albeit heavier, and I've got something to say about that, as well. Both you and the perfumed women are going about this in all the wrong ways.

One of the first things we learn in exercise planning is to work the multi-joint exercises first, but I'd like to take that idea a step further. The theory goes that you do the big stuff first--back squat, bench press, deadlift--before isolating smaller, individual muscles in a curl, extension, or even a crunch.

I'd like to argue that no one should be doing these isolation exercises until they have advanced to a moderately high fitness level.

Thanks to my certification and study in Functional Movement Systems, plus lots of reading up on Dan John, I now look at the body in terms of patterns, not parts. Can you squat? How's your hip hinge? Push and pull strong? Once you've solidified your form in these bigger moves, training your body to move athletically and as a unit, then you may isolate. You don't clean your car by polishing the bumper over and over, do you? In the same way, please don't highlight little muscles. Your body is a machine that needs all the parts working together, and those little parts are already called on with the bigger moves.

I have backup on this: in a profile on Arnold Schwarzenegger in my birthday magazine, he said that the first gym he went to insisted on powerlifting before bodybuilding. Do heavy big moves, and then you're allowed to sculpt those tris and bis into gorgeous peaks that earn you the right to use a "The" before your name.

There is a place for a good barbell curl or weighted dip, but in a personal training session, an hour goes quickly, and without any bodybuilders as clients, I tend to spend the time shoring up the foundation for bigger and better things. I work bilaterally, for sure, but not too much isolation, unless you're with me a while. I do have a client who came to me post-rehab, and curls were one of the few things he could do back when he started. But now? I've got him deadlifting, benching, at the barbell back squat, and on landmine rows. He's getting stronger, which was the whole point; everyday activities no longer cause him pain, and a few curls now and then are just the ticket.

And if getting stronger is not the intent for the women above? It should be. They don't need to be going as heavy as I do, but they must challenge their bodies, no matter the goal, which is most likely something they call "toning," which isn't even a real thing. Too many unfit women are doing light curls without any back muscles to call on; too many men are doing curls when they should strengthen their deadlift. Double abomination.

TRX, kettlebells and Olympic lifts are additional ways to train kinesthetic awareness of the body while continuing to build strength; each requires pretty near perfect technique, or you'll fall on your face/drop a kettlebell on your head/fall under a barbell. But there's nothing like any of these three for making you feel like one giant muscle. I like to spend a season in strength, followed by a season of what I think of as "movement"--swinging a bell or a barbell over the head and figuring out how the rest of the body should behave.

But either way, back to the basics, please, everybody, or I'll swat you with the supplement ads, which, given their sheer number, are about as heavy as the dumbbell in your hand.

Monday, March 3, 2014


While my grandfather laid still in the funeral parlor, some years back, what bothered me most was not that a man I knew all my life was dead, but that the loudest man in the room was quiet.

Arguably there is a part missing inside me, one that triggers deep attachment, but this is how I've always been: the dramatic is missed more than the familiar, initially, the known taking its time to lodge inside and register its loss. Today I learned of the death of an intense man I knew just well enough to miss. He's been gone a couple months now, which doesn't seem possible.

I had just been reading about a woman whose sister was given three months to live, and who died three months later, nearly to the day. I took on the age old question: what would I do if I knew how much time was left? We pose such hypotheses thinking we'll start doing the thing now, just in case. But I wouldn't; not without that license. And so life churns on, indefinitely until it does not.

I looked up the man's obituary online, and found that others felt as I did: touched by what they recognized was a unique soul. Back to the question: how can we let such people know how we feel before the news comes? This man needed to hear more of what was said too late, I know this.

What can we say, while we can, and what should we do, while there's time?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What People Are Saying About FRAMES

"I found myself inhaling the pages of this book, surprised by the suspense and humanness of it all. Redemption hovers everywhere, not a sentimental redemption but a raw and real redemption. This book is well worth reading.”
Jerry Sittser, Professor of Theology, Whitworth University and author of A Grace Disguised and A Grace Revealed

Information on how to purchase FRAMES: a picture of death, drugs and forgiveness coming soon, right here. Email me at amy AT gregscheer DOT com to get on the mailing list.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Book

I wasn’t ready for this book when it first came to me. I had sat for hours and hours listening to a man talk about his wife's death and the only thought I had was if I wrote this book, it would be cheese. And I couldn't do cheese.

Kevin had been assigned to me. I'd been writing for his college's alumni magazine for years but was feeling swamped with other work, so I respectfully passed on this young widow's story. But the boss would not accept that answer, and offered me a raise I couldn't refuse. I called Kevin, we talked for an hour, I wrote an article. At the end of the process he offered up this: a feeling he'd had to do something more with his story, and would I be interested? We agreed to meet over a weekend and record the unabridged tale.

Mornings and afternoons, we'd sit and talk, recording his story in two, three hour intervals. I knew that Marilyn had died when a car crashed into hers at a toll station, but Kevin hadn't yet walked me through the time from the phone call to the hospital, where he'd sit alone with her body and say, "I'm sorry." And telling his toddler that Mommy's gone. Meeting the man who killed her. Hard, very hard to hear. And as a writer, difficult: this was a truly heartbreaking story, and yet those are the hardest to write well. 

Later that same weekend, I sat on the bed with my notes, planning out how I’d let Kevin down. And right about when I’d convinced myself to step away from this project, I was hit with the conviction not only that I needed to do this, but how to do this: I’d let Kevin, and the others, tell the story. Cheese would only come if I reworded things myself, so I wouldn’t even try. I'd always loved reading oral history, and yet the format of, say, Studs Terkel books always tired me out--one person tells their side, then the next, then the next. Instead of following that tradition, I would weave the firsthand accounts together to create the narrative, creating a poetic feel that better resembled a novel than a memoir.

For seven years, I organized and wrote when I could. I met with Rick, the driver who killed Marilyn. Kevin lent me Marilyn's journals. I watched the DVD of the funeral service. 

The scope of the project demanded uninterrupted work, which my schedule couldn’t always permit. I would pick it up and grow overwhelmed by what was asked of me, and yet each time I resumed, everything would flow. Piece by piece, the process would move forward.

I completed a full draft in October 2012, thanks to a push from Dave Eggers's 826michigan's Great Write-Off. A few trusted readers provided input, and last month I completed the final manuscript. Right now it's in production, as we're planning to self-publish through CreateSpace. Soon I'll be able to announce its release date. Too, the book is in the hands of two very respected writers who I hope will provide endorsements.

Seven years in the making, and yet I make no apologies. I was not ready for this book when it came to me. As I matured, the book matured--not because of me, but as if it was waiting for me to be ready. Even when I thought I was ready—in October, 2012—I had only just begun. The final rewrite was a heady one as I restructured sections for even more impact.

It’s hard to find a better word than overwhelming to describe reading Marilyn’s journals. A budding therapist, Marilyn felt life deeply and wrote much of it down. And then the pages go blank. All that life, those worries and prayers: to silence. The stark, empty page shattered me, perhaps even more so because I identified with so many of her fears, which weren’t written for my eyes. This privileged look into a life that ends so abruptly brought real gravity to an already somber project. 

And though I tried a couple times to "sell" the book, never has it turned me into a desperate writer. I'm very confident that the book speaks for itself, though a handful of publishers have disagreed. The book sits on the line between being too religious for some and not enough for others, but that's okay; life is rarely black and white, and I am comfortable in the gray. The book provides its own kind of messy redemption, and the world needs more of that.

I am grateful for the place this book has held in my life, and can hardly believe that soon, I'll be able to share that experience. Watch here for information on how to purchase the book, or email me at amy AT gregscheer DOT com to add your email to my mailing list.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

I Lifted 60,000 Pounds Today

This morning, I dropped in at a new gym I've been enjoying only to discover it was One Thousand Reps Day: any exercise(s) you want, ten reps at the top of each minute. For 100 minutes.

And so I completed 500 deadlifts and about 450 Bulgarian bag halos (when the halos became taxing, I threw in some overhead presses). The math works out to more than 60,000 pounds, and yet I came out of this thinking not so much about my strength, but my endurance. The mental kind even more than the muscle. I've never had much of either, and though I never hit the wall today, I had to fight the demons of comfort, persistent as my children, asking me to please, please, promptly halt the suffering.

At 200 reps, the challenge seemed an impossibility. At 500 there was celebrating but a long road ahead. 700, more folks left. The music was turned down, the fans off, only the door open to the snow outside cooling down the room. We lifted to the bell and to the sound of our own bodies. Lose Yourself came on, and the music was turned back up:

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go

Losing ourselves, by 800, became the point. This was not a feat of strength but a test. What were we made of? We began to discuss this in half-minute intervals between lifts. The greater life lesson energized us, provided a distraction. And then one rest period, I remember, no one said a word. No crack about how sore we'd be tomorrow, nothing. The bell rang and we picked up the bars once again.

Around 970, the stress increased exponentially. I've always been like this--tell me there's ten seconds left, and I'll give up on the spot. My hands had developed such calluses that I could only deadlift with a finger hook--immensely more difficult, but the pain from a bearing down with a full grip was worse.

Nothing fancy to the big finish, just more of the same until we were done. And then we were. The three of us who had remained to the end congratulated each other, put away our bars, and left. I drove off as if from a church, still held in the contemplative spirit of what I'd just done. I'd had a similar experience previously at this gym, when once again I didn't know what I was in for, and showed up to be asked to perform three-minute kettlebell snatches with one arm. And then on to the other arm, for three minutes. You pause when you need to, but beyond this aspect of endurance I had never experienced anything quite like this. We were all facing a mirror, and I was in the front row. We'd lift without talking. You concentrate on form but mostly, if you're in the zone, you lose yourself in the moment. People all around you, lost as well. But the important thing is we were lost together.

And how am I doing now, seven hours later? If I stop moving, I can no longer move, but if I keep the parts revved up, I feel like one big muscle. I am not entirely sure I'll be able to get out of bed tomorrow morning with ease, but I will either push through the difficulty, or take an extra few minutes in bed to think. My body will remind me of both lessons I learned today.