Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What I Read in 2015

Thirty-two books in 2015, the year I took notes so I wouldn't forget what they were about. Also, the year I turned 45. These events are related.

The First Book I Made Notes On, When I Realized That Already My Memory Was Failing Me
Silence, Thich Nhat Hanh
This book, by a Buddhist monk, made me see Jesus's death in a completely new light. Comparing the crucifixion to self-immolation, he says this: "I shared with Dr. King my understanding that when Jesus died on the cross, he made the choice to die for the benefit of others--not out of despair but out of hope and love, using his body in order to bring change to a desperate situation."

Books I Talked About On My Job Interview At A Bookstore
The types that work at bookstores are very different people who nevertheless fit squarely into these categories: reader and introvert at heart. And yet I wonder if maybe I was the first one to pull out my book journal on the interview and read aloud the mini-reviews I had written for... myself. Like this one:

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
She did not create a new world, but simply the absence of the old one. But how do people live? Think differently? Why did it take them twenty, thirty years to get electricity working again, when many had encountered it before? The plot points wrap up by the end in an interesting way, but it was a long, tedious route getting there, and I'm not sure why I stuck it out. I'm confused as to why this book has become popular; apparently another of her books, Last Night In Montreal, is worth the time.

My Iceland Kick
My Iceland Kick began when I discovered that most of the biggest, strongest men in the world came from there, so I needed to know what was in the water. Then I picked up some of their fiction.
Butterflies in November, Audur Ava Olafsdottir
The Greenhouse, Audur Ava Olafsdottir

The Extent Of My Young Adult Kick
Two words: Rainbow Rowell. A 13-year-old client of mine got me started on her, thankfully. Some of her novels are adult fiction, but to me, they all fell into the same category: great.
eleanor & park, Rainbow Rowell
Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
Fan Girl, Rainbow Rowell
Landline, Rainbow Rowell

Alexander McCall Smith, Naturally
Doesn't matter what happens in his books; what matters is that the books happened. Only one this year, and I'm currently finishing another.
The Novel Habits of Happiness, Alexander McCall Smith

Books By People Trying To Be Alexander McCall Smith
The Taliban Cricket Club, Timeri Murari

Books I Was Meant To Read
Some books are not to be read until certain phases of our lives. I've bought books only to crack them open years later, at what appeared to be the right time. Here are some books I was meant to read this past year, not necessarily because a plot mirrored my life's circumstances or a character reminded me of someone I know, but because they touched a place I couldn't articulate before I found them.
Lila, Marilynne Robinson
Slow Emergencies, Nancy Huston
Sick In The Head, Judd Apatow

An Assortment of Nonfiction
Grace Unfolding, Johanson and Kurtz
Discovering Your Soul Signature, Panache Desai
Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast
What We See When We Read, Peter Mendelsund
Girl In A Band, Kim Gordon
Ties That Bind: Stories of Love and Gratitude from the first 10 years of StoryCorps, Dave Isay
Do No Harm, Henry Marsh
Creativity: The Perfect Crime, Philippe Petit

Books That Were Enjoyable But Not Literary Masterpieces
Midnight In Austenland, Shannon Hale
The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin

Books That Were Literary-ish And I Liked Them
Bark, Lorrie Moore
Faith, Jennifer Haigh
Mislaid, Nell Zink
The Book of Strange New Things, Michael Faber

Books That Were Literary And I Could Have Done Without Them
The Gathering, Anne Enright

Books I Don't Really Remember and Hadn't Taken Notes On
Moods, Yoel Hoffman
Funny Girl, Nick Hornby

Books With The Words "Things," "Fall" and "Apart" in the Title
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron
Disclaimer: I did not actually finish Chodron's book until early 2016, and I look forward to telling you about it next year. But for a long time in October, these books sat together on my end table, consoling each other in their brokenness.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

This Poem From An Inmate Blew Me Away

My last post recounted a trip to Handlon Correctional Facility, where I met with 14 prisoners who had read my book, FRAMES: a picture of death, drugs, and forgiveness.

The discussion was rich but some of them were quiet, so I suggested at the end that anyone who wanted to write down their thoughts about the book should do so.

I never expected this.

The following is a poem one of the men sent to me through the people who run the book club I visited. Even if you haven't read FRAMES, I think you'll catch that the sheer number of details he includes is astounding. The moments that spoke to him appear throughout, and he wraps up with what I know from our discussion had hit him the hardest: that Kevin was told he had done a good job. Everyone needs to hear that, he said, and when they do, they can move on.

Mr. Williams: You, too, have done a good job. One that blows me away.

Catch a recent radio interview with Amy here. Purchase FRAMES here. Visit our facebook page here.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Getting Life

He raised his hand. He looked quite young but had been there 20 years, a juvenile lifer due to a mistake at 17.

"I have questions for you, Ms. Scheer," he said, glancing down at his paper. He sat tall, an earnest man with intelligence.

How did you choose this story. How did the story make you grow as a person. Which character did you most identify with, and why.

This was the Life Change Book Club at a Level 2 prison in west Michigan. Here was Kenyatta who had prepared for my visit; Marcus, too. And others among the 14, who fidgeted through my introduction with their papers, so eager to say what they had written down that they asked what I had already just answered.

"They're calling me a 'speaker' tonight," I said, "but I'm just a person who had this book happen to her," I told them. I had passed through a barbed-wire fence wearing a device with a red emergency button that had been tested after I attached it to my belt. I had been frisked, and so unaccustomed to this had to be told where to put my arms. I was just a person, sure, but I was a person sitting in a prison with 14 men who had read my book, who quoted it back to me, and asked me about sentences I forgot were there.

I would hope I matured some while writing my book, which is about forgiveness and love and second chances, and I said as much to answer Kenyatta's question. "But let me turn that back at everybody," I added. "How did reading the book help you?

I realized that my crime affected lots of people, not just my victim. The family members, the emergency workers. The people who read the newspaper article: I'm worried they will be troubled, too.

The therapist told Kevin he did a good job, and that's what he needed to hear. He said, "You did everything right." People need to hear they're doing a good job.

I saw that forgiveness is a process. You took us through that; it's not quick. Rick said he didn't know if he could have done that, offer forgiveness. He sat across from Kevin with his wife and saw that Kevin was alone, and didn't think he could forgive someone like Kevin forgave him.

"Life is not tidy," I said. "It doesn't wrap up neatly with a bow. Maybe it didn't feel in the book like Rick changed enough. But he recognized he had been given a second chance, and we end the book knowing he's grateful. Real life has more of that kind of thing than straight-up happy endings."

I was talking too much, but they leaned in--as I did, careful not to bump the red button with my elbow. For I was not in danger. This--our discussion--was not the second chance Rick had received, but it was a living thing in a flourescent-lit room. Life surrounded by wire, burning inside those doing endless time. By now the men whose eyes had scanned the floor were with me. I knew they responded to my book and to the fact that a criminal was set free, but who cares, really? It's just a book, not a 12-step program.

Can books really make a difference? I asked. Because I wasn't sure.

"I can't go anywhere," Mark said, "but through books, I do. I travel places when I read. I've done a lot of drugs, but this is the best trip I've been on."

"I was right there in your book," Kenyatta said. "I blew the weed, I hid it in my pocket. I walked through that church with Kelly. Kelly was a strong woman. I know this was real life, but she was my favorite character. A strong woman, how she could leave those pictures up there, walk when she knew people were watching her."

"I was Rick. I was Kevin. These were instrumental moments for me."

We wrapped up before it was over; the men were so used to being shuttled out of a room at a moment's notice, they wanted to be sure to have an official end. A man there for killing his wife closed us in prayer. Another who hadn't spoken yet that night said, "Can I ask a selfish request that I know everybody's thinking. Could you sign our books?"

I always turn awkward when asked for my autograph, so I've taken to writing "all the best!" or "thanks for your support" on the title page, then signing my name.

I wrote my usual on Marcus's copy and handed it to him. "Could you make it more personal?" he asked, handing it back. "'To Marcus,' right there?"

Mark stood in front of me. "Mark with a c or a k?" I asked. He looked surprised. "A k," he said. "Thanks so much for asking."

The quiet man came up to me with his book opened to a page in the middle. I started to flip back to the title page when he stopped me.

"No--sorry--could you sign it right there, please?"

He found the page again, which has just one phrase:

Thy will be done

"To Andre." "All the best, Amy Scheer." Thy will be done.

Dwayne, the group's resident poet, read a piece he had written for Martin Luther King Day. He wanted to give the paper to me, but I could only leave with the book I brought, and which had been logged onto a form, which was then copied in triplicate.

The officers couldn't know I left with so much more than I had walking in.

FRAMES is available at Schuler Books & Music, Amazon.com, and on the shelves of Hearts and Minds bookstore. Visit our facebook page, too.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The ABCs of My YMCA

Maybe not all the letters, but more than the mere four the Village People cover. Here's an homage to some people and moments of a building that's about to go away.

A is for a happenstance, a coincidence, a collision of stars. 
"I want to join the Y!" I told my husband eight years ago.

"Why?" he asked.

"I don't know, but I do."

B is for Bob.
Bob has been lending me books for years now. He knows what I like and which BBC series will hook me. Here is what I know about Bob:

1. His name is Bob.

Bob Doe lets me keep his stuff for weeks, months, doesn't worry. When I wrote a book, Bob was one of only a handful of people I lent it to, and certainly the only person whom I wouldn't actually be able to track down. I didn't see him for a long spell after that, and when I did, he was smiling. He had since bought six books and given them out to friends. This made me feel good, because here's the other thing I know about Bob:

2. He has good taste.

B is for all the other Bobs, too. 
If I want to say hello to a male member of the Y and don't remember his name, I call him "Bob." The success rate of this strategy is remarkably high.

B is for the boxing class I taught for a couple of years. 
Notably the one wherein a man stood in the hallway throwing up, and a woman tapped me on the shoulder and said, "This is Zumba, right?"

C is for the client who, when I introduced an exercise as "weird but effective," said, "I feel the same way about you."

G is for the giant hairy guy who waded through a weight room full of people and asked me for a spot.
He sat down with two 100lb dumbbells. "Just push on my elbows if I need help."

I is for the 82-year-old Italian man who said, when I asked how an exercise felt, "Like a sexy blonde is squeezing my back."

J is for Judy.
Judy has Alzheimer's disease. Judy told me this on the day she was diagnosed, back when she still knew where she was and didn't need anyone to walk her to class. Because that's what people did, of their own accord: they would come find her. They would take her to the room. They would make sure she found her ride home. Judy had been a singer. Last week, there were flowers on the front desk counter and a card from Judy's children thanking us for caring for their mother.

L is for the Locker Room Ladies. 
The Locker Room Ladies counseled me, when I turned 40, to accept the changes in my body. The Locker Room Ladies stopped me after my son was in the hospital to ask how he was; they had been praying. The Locker Room Ladies, always in various stages of undress, leave nothing undone.

M is for a man I met once.
Enforcing the rules, I asked him how old his boy was. I hadn't yet learned not to preface this question with the actual guidelines--his kid needed to be 15 for the weight room--and without blinking he said, "15." His wife came around later, and somehow it came up that the boy was just shy of his 13th birthday. The man and I looked at each other. I didn't give him up; his shame was hurting him. He was in the building a couple of hours when he approached me with a pained look.

"I am so, so sorry I lied to you," he said, his shoulders folded forward.
"I forgive you," I said.
We looked at each other. The weight had been lifted.

M is for Mary. 
After a career as a nurse, Mary hid in her house for years, struggling with depression and morbid obesity. She ordered her days according to television programs. When her doctor suggested she begin exercising, she drove to the Y, sat in the parking lot, and drove back home. Another day she parked, got out of the car, and used her cane to get to the bench just outside the front door. She caught her breath and went back home.

Then came the day she made it through the front doors. And the day when she marked 100 pounds lost. Since then, there are still days when it's difficult for her to stay motivated enough to show up. But when she comes back, the Locker Room Ladies ask where she's been, offer a recipe, drive her home. She helps out with kiddie swim lessons. She tells her story to help generate money for the Y's scholarship fund. Mary is a joy and she gives back way more than she received.

M is for Mr. Body, Mind and Soul. 
He wants to hire me as a trainer, he said, to take care of his body, mind and soul. This is his bench press, squat, and vertical jump, and here is his past three years' worth of body fat percentages. He's not ready for me right now, but he wanted to tell me, so I could prepare. He smiles knowingly now when I walk by. So do I.

R is for Robert. 
You already know Robert. Everybody does. Thank you, Robert, for playing pastor, teacher, coach, friend, and confidante. Thank you for talking to the younger guys who need a little encouragement. Thank you for a smile we can count on.

W is for the Word of the Day. 
I'm asked for one on my shift by a certain journalist type, and now, when I read, I hang on to the interesting ones for him.

W is for the woman I talk to twice a week. 
I don't know her name, and it's too late to ask. But we're beyond names, I think, and that's a profound thing.

Z is for a zigzagged path through an old building which will soon be no more. 
The Southeast YMCA spelled home for so many of us, a tight-knit community sweating alongside each other in a small, decaying facility. I found myself there.

Z marks the end. But this place, for me, was just the beginning.

Friday, October 30, 2015

On The Other End Of Interviews

I've interviewed hundreds of interesting people over the years, and now, to be on the other end of the questions, is enlightening. The story of my book is intact--how it came about, the inside scoop--and yet I'll get a comment or question occasionally that interrupts my stump speech and gets me to think.

One woman, when hearing that I had a theatre major, immediately connected the structure of my book with that of a play. Of course!

Another journalist spent the first part of the interview speaking of a past divorce and how the book brought some of that back. I, the interviewee, sat and listened.

And one asked me what I hoped my readers would take from the book. I hesitated. I have been grateful for the wide range of responses, with wide encompassing the way that the journalist could work through his divorce, and a friend who lost her father as a teen saw herself. I can simply begin to tell the tale of the book, and people will cry. But did I plan any of this? No.

I wrote it because I had to. The story asked to be told. And I wrote it in a way that would serve that imperative best, not because I wanted to make people cry. I never wanted to exploit this tragedy; indeed, I was ready to pass on the project for fear that this would happen. And I'd never manipulate my readers.

But I do want you to think. I won't tell you what to think, but I'll put things out there, frame them in such a way that will force you to confront what it is you believe.

Here are how some other writers view my latest project:

recent newspaper article on FRAMES

a church denomination's website

And if you've read the book and want to tell me what you think, please visit and like the FRAMES facebook page.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Temporary Bodyguard

The principal called yesterday.

When your kids are in elementary school, preschool, you know that building. You know the teachers' names, even the ones your kids don't have. Heck, you know the lunch helpers and that one woman on the playground who makes all the kids start the monkey bars from the same end.

But this guy, Principal Somebody, I didn't know him. I heard "principal," "high school," and "Simon," plus a bunch of other words that didn't spell out "your son is fine."

Meanwhile, he said things like, "Simon has been in my office the past 40 minutes," and I did things like commencing the process of cardiac arrest.

A boy in Simon's Culinary Arts class apparently had approached him about stealing the prescription drugs his parents presumably have. Simon deflected the kid's advances and the teacher noticed, so she asked him to explain after class. That led to questioning in the principal's office, some ratting out of others whom Simon has silently observed these past two months since starting his high school career, and a lingering suspicion that things are going to get awkward around the stove.

The approach was textbook, by Simon's recounting, the making of an anti-drug campaign commercial. The kid would pay Simon for bringing him my alleged pills, and would provide pills to replace them and ease suspicion. Because this kid clearly has a collection of various sizes of placebos, and also adults would never notice when something they take every day has shape-shifted.

Simon, who is tall and bursting with curls, drew from his silent reserve of strength and said, Nah. When pushed for his phone number, he said he couldn't remember. If I know my son, he smiled, politely declined the whole affair, and went back to chopping carrots.

We had talked on the phone right after my heart attack, and again once he came home (my recovery period was short). Listening to him, I was proud and said so. I smiled as he talked about being invited to take part in a drug deal, lamenting that I'd never been offered anything more dangerous than a bong. And I said this:

It's okay to lie. Sometimes. Tell the kid you don't own a phone. Tell him you didn't rat him out, or that others got there first. It's okay to stretch the truth for self-preservation, in situations like these.

It's not always the stranger you need to fear. I'd been taught in our YMCA child abuse prevention program that perpetrators often groom their victims, give them a test run. These folks aren't stupid enough to approach just anyone, because that person might squeal. Instead, they spend some time observing and building a friendship before launching the attack. This kid picked the wrong guy, probably thinking that Simon was too nice not to go along with him. He was wrong. Simon said to me, "You know I would never do something like that." And though I certainly hoped that was the case, his words were a real reassurance.

Always do the right thing. Simon had always felt this kid was shifty, and was not surprised at the turn of events. He willingly went along with the school's questioning, telling them everything he knew. I told him I was proud of him. I told him he did the right thing, not just to protect himself and other classmates but also, hopefully, the kid himself. Maybe, if he gets in trouble in his teen years, it will head off an addiction problem down the line. Maybe it won't. Either way, Simon did the right thing.

Doing the right thing doesn't mean all's going to get easy. This boy was not only in Simon's cooking class, but he was also the head chef of their group. Will he be suspended and absent, or did my boy walk into an awkward situation this morning? Will he know Simon spilled the beans? (Other kids fessed up, too.) Will he seek revenge?

Simon and I have had a ritual since his first day of high school. He comes home and says hello, I ask how his day was, he says great, and then I say, "Did you get beat up today?" (He is a passive young person, as was I, until I discovered boxing--and my strength--in my 40s.)

"No." He laughs.

"Shoved into a locker?"

"No." Or sometimes he'll say, "Just for a little while."

The reality is that now, since Simon did the right thing, there might be some consequences. I assured him that the school staff is on this the best they can, and that he's safe on the bus home. If the kid comes here, he has me to deal with.

"I'm your bodyguard," I said, meaning it, but knowing that there's only so much I can do.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

the ebook is here! plus other one-stop shopping links.

Lots of FRAMES links for you today.

CLICK HERE for the KINDLE version.

HERE for the PAPERBACK version.

OVER HERE for the facebook event invite for LOCAL AUTHOR NIGHT (Grand Rapids).

AND ESPECIALLY HERE if you haven't yet "liked" the FRAMES facebook page.

Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry. (Visit the links already.)