Sunday, May 3, 2015

Top Ten Grey Shades of Exercise

I have one thing to tell you, and it's this: Life is not black and white.

This week saw declaration upon declaration from good-intentioned individuals, and I am bloody from raising my sword to each.

I'm not supposed to lift heavy.
I shouldn't do exercises that use my neck.
Tart cherry juice makes you sleep better.
This machine isn't good for you.
This equipment will make me a better runner.
I'm supposed to work my core.
This is the best exercise for your core.

Yes. Maybe. But. Can I say something?

Grey is worth looking for. Not just with this exercise stuff, by the way. But we'll start there.

Your doctor is watching out for your neck, and you should listen; she's a doctor. I'm a personal trainer; I, too, have neck problems. My neck appears older than the rest of me, and no one can explain why. My doctor asked, "Did you, like, fall out of a window?" Not that I can recall.

I'm a personal trainer, and your doctor is a doctor, for crying out loud. (This bears repeating.) If something is off limits, it's off limits. But if I could sit down with your doctor, I'd ask about the grey. I'd ask, Hey, this person with the neck? He's got issues. We need to strengthen his neck to help him out, right? And most exercises use the neck, right? You've got him frightened. You've got me nervous. Is there some middle ground here?

I think she'd listen to me.

But back to you, and the stuff you read somewhere, maybe in the checkout line or in your facebook feed. Those top ten worst machines or best exercises. Thanks for telling me about them, but now let's talk grey.

I'm a personal trainer; I'm also a writer, a human being, and someone who knows a little about a lot of things. Many times I have been hired as a writer to say something about a topic. Did I make stuff up? No. But I came up with new ways of saying what perhaps was old news. That's what writers do, for the most part. So when I hear that an article has decried the hip abduction machine or praised the plank, I take this info with a grain of salt. Yes, there's truth there. Yes, tart cherry juice is said to suppress the bladder's urges and let you rest more. But hey, are you prediabetic? Better to get up and pee than send your blood sugar to the sky.

Writers make mountains out of molehills, sometimes, stretching the truth to be a little dramatic and catch your attention. Maybe I'm doing that here, but that's because I care about you, not because of any paycheck. (I should really monetize this blog someday.)

The truth is out there, but it's shaded in grey. What's your "wheat belly" telling you about the latest diet you tried? And that plank: does it bore you? Then you probably don't do it, which cuts a whole lot into its effectiveness.

You know what else?

Going gluten-free makes me bloat. Drinking red wine helps me lose weight (it helps with dietary fat absorption). Cookies also help me lose weight, if I haven't been taking in enough calories otherwise for muscle recovery. Dumbbells bother my elbows. Pushups are bad for me, because of my neck. The Turkish get up, touted as the most complete and overall beneficial exercise because it is, hurts my neck. High reps and low weight hurt my neck more than heavy weight and low reps, which were prescribed by my physical therapist, who actually knows quite a bit about exercise. But he's not me. He doesn't live in my body, and only I know the effects that these bad for you/good for you foods/moves have.

There's a study in Secrets From the Eating Lab, by Tracl Mann, tracking twins who are overfed by 1000 calories per day.  Some gained nine pounds, some 29. "The same number of calories led some people to gain three times as much weight as other people," even those from the same gene pool. Another study she mentions details how difficult it is to get people to gain fat and keep it.

So how, my friends, can a magazine article tell you what to eat?

It is natural to want answers and solutions. Not just the quick fixes, but solid explanations for what ails us. I want to know how to live with my neck. When I feel bad, I play detective: what happened this time? And what made it better? Sure, maybe I lifted too heavy, but didn't it start to hurt after a different exercise?

It is also natural to trust experts. We need them, because much as we all want to play doctor/dietitician/political theorist, we're not that, and there's not enough time in the day to specialize so highly. The world is made up of people who are interested in different things, and that's good and helpful.

But the expert knows his/her thing. The doctor knows what she knows, but she's not a physical therapist. The writer knows what she researched, but not the whole field of study. That's too much to delve into for a self-help article. And too much for a meme.

So question everything. Read, try, observe. Be your own lab rat. Welcome advice and throw it out if, after careful thought, you see it doesn't work for you. Find what does.

Watch for grey.

Every last shade.

Friday, May 1, 2015

This Body, Broken For You

originally posted April 2, 2012

--Where you been?

--Injured. And I lost my confidence.
--Come back.

The gym is my church. I sweat alongside folks I wouldn't know otherwise, two or three times every week. At the Y, I egg another rep out of Lee on the bench press, and Sonya brings me an Indian spice I've been hunting. At the boxing gym, Shaun tells me his dream of opening a business. Our shared goals foster community.

But if the gym is church, my sanctuary is found at the fights, in the folding chair of a darkened auditorium.

Injuries had kept me out of the boxing gym for months, but when I opened the paper a few weeks back and saw the ad for Golden Gloves, I headed out. Last club show I had entered through the door for fighters and coaches, but this time, I bought a ticket and sat alone. As I watched, occasionally talking with the older man next to me (a former boxer, it's always a former boxer), I recognized familiar voices shouting in the crowd. Shari's sitting over there, I could tell; Shaun's on the bleachers to my left.

Eventually I sent a text, and, when I could pull away from the chatty old boxer, we had a reunion at the snack bar. Hugs. Where you beens. And, more importantly, Come back.

Over the past three weekends, I've caught up with these people I know only through the dance called boxing. The nights are long, and to break up the four hours I talk, sometimes make a new friend, lean against the back wall, or find a half empty row to sit alone and think. Despite the noise, despite the clinging smoke, and even with two guys swinging at each other, this is a posture of meditation for me. I'm watching the fights, evaluating technique, but I'm also not watching them, and instead sitting with my thoughts.

Among which are these: The length of my recovery back to boxing has humbled me. I am grateful for what I can do, and what I could do is behind me. I'm smarter now, if not as strong. And I'm content with the here and now.

Friday night a coach greeted me at the wall and invited me back behind the curtain with the coaches. You can't see the action from back there, but boxers are warming up on mitts, and those in queue are being built up with a litany of call and response:

Nobody said it's gonna be easy.
--Uh uh.
It is what it is.
--That's right.
You got what it takes.

I am of a different color and race than most of the people behind this curtain, and yet somehow, we fit together, and being with them has brought me back to life. A young man interrupts my thoughts, raises his taped hands to my shoulders and asks,

--Amy, where you been?
--Injured. And then I lost my confidence.
--Work it out in the gym. Come back.

The music played, and he walked to the ring with Shaun at his back. He played hard, and won. His return was greeted with accolades, fist bumps and hugs; his sweat dampened my cheek. This was an intimacy earned by showing up so many weeks of the past year, even when it was tough to do so. Or maybe it was simply a moment of grace, given freely, by water and by blood.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Off the Stage, Off the Page

"Over there," the large man said, pointing to the side of the stage. "And tell the guy in the ponytail to stop showing his butt to the crowd. You should always load from the side."

I had asked where to report for my role as plate loader, a position I volunteered for without having had any relevant experience. This was the Arnold Weightlifting Championships, and these were the Olympic lifts: the clean and jerk, the snatch. Bars were flying overhead, and walking in, the most I knew was the ideal position for my behind. I snuck around to the back of the crowd, quickly switched into the free t-shirt, and muscled my way to the stage.

Ponytail man was the first to greet me. "See the screen up there? We match the color and order of the plates to what the judges put up. Sometimes they change it in the middle of our loading, so you have to keep your eyes trained on the screen." He interrupted himself to make a quick trip onstage; as it hadn't seemed right to inaugurate our relationship with discussion of his rear end, I was glad to see he had self-corrected. Oh, and the plates. Yes, I could see what he was saying, though blue looked a lot like gray and white didn't look like white at all.

"If there's blood, roll the bar over to the front and tell the judges," another guy told me, whispering in the blue light spilling off the stage. They were folding me into their process with no question, though I was the only woman there, aside from the first aid lady. But blood and blue/gray and now... the collar. The competition collars, which hold the plates onto the bar, were unlike any I'd ever seen. There was a wrench thingy and a spinning thingy, and both of these had to be thingyed into the correct--and opposite--directions before the next person would be throwing the bar over his or her head. It needed to be right. And I had about ten seconds to learn.

Let's pause there--the bar loaded correctly, no blood yet, Amy offstage questioning colors and collars and panicking just a little. My trip to Columbus, Ohio last weekend had an objective: try something new. And in the first several minutes, I could call that done. After my morning of volunteering, I would wander around the fitness area of the Columbus Expo Center, though that's probably too calm a verb for what looked more like frantic zigzagging between heavily-muscled creatures. Orange ones, too; many men and--were those women?--had spray tanned what they hoped was as symmetrical a body as the festival's namesake, who, yes, would occasionally Terminator his way through the biggest crowd in the history of the festival.

I stopped at the Strongman competitions, which shifted my perspective like plates banging around in a yoke carry. It's humbling to watch women deadlift double what you can once (250x1), but for reps (500x8). And when you watch the 15th man of the day pull 650 ten times, you're like, Yeah, cool, seen it before. Impress me, would you please?

But watching these extreme feats of strength brought more than the wow factor. I learn some by reading, but the knowledge I know best is that gained by doing and observing. There are things I learned by watching the Strongmen that I can't articulate right now, as I took them in by osmosis and they're still deep in the subconscious; but some day, I know, they'll surface in the form of a coaching cue to a client, or a new attempt on my own.

And back to the stage: let's scoot over to the door, duck under the ropes, and head around to the warm up area. That's where I went after determining that five men could load the plates just fine without me. This wasn't rocket science by any means, but I wasn't comfortable learning on the fly and putting someone at risk.

So I made coffee. Refilled Cliff bars. Traveled across the street on an errand through the Hampton. And most importantly, talked to every athlete and coach I could. Careful not to distract from their preparations, I'd chat with those who liked to linger at my table, and ask questions of coaches standing around. When no one came by, I'd watch the athletes practice their form. Step by step they'd walk themselves through their lifts, and I couldn't have asked for a better seat to this thorough tutorial. (Olympic lifts have a very specific technique, and as I don't have access to the proper equipment on a regular basis, my training to this point has been limited mostly to videos, books, and an occasional trip to a friend's garage.)

It got me thinking about how the best learning happens off the page, and in this case, off the stage. I can point to many instances when, at the start of a relationship with a client, I tried the conventional approach expected of a personal trainer. Wanna lose weight? Let's start sweating. That works great for most people, but one client, I noticed, would find excuses not to return. It was only when I threw out what was expected and went with my gut that I got her to come back, and that move will help her hit that goal better than if I stayed in the role of drill sargent. Intuition, based on book learning, wins every time. Even at the Arnold Championships, I would hear coaches, when asked about specific technique like foot placement, say, "Do what feels right for you." Respect for an individual's biomechanics, personality, and state of digestion that day can take both of you pretty far.

I can live without attending the Arnold again--the parking situation alone is enough to keep me away--but I hope to never stop learning. I won't stop volunteering for jobs I know nothing about, and when intuition tells me to move on, you'll find me at the coffee.

After four hours, the original team of loaders was ready to be relieved. They descended on me at the coffee bar, a band of brothers, and with the same urgency that they had delivered the instructions on blood asked if I could take over. With some hesitancy I agreed, and followed them back to the side of the stage.

I sat next to ponytail man, who picked up on my internal dilemma and was gentle. He explained the steps we'd take to get me trained under pressure. First, I'd go up on stage with him a couple of times and watch. Then I'd load by myself while he stood close and made sure I had it right. When we felt I was ready, I'd go on my own.

He stopped and looked at me. By then I had debated technique with Olympians, trash-talked large men, slipped the better protein bars to women who could throw their bodyweight (and more) in bar form overhead. I could learn to work that darn collar, sure, or I could walk through the doors and see what other challenges were to be found. He saw a woman content to move on.

"Nah," he said. "You're good. You go on and have some fun."

I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed out.


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

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
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).

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.