Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Year in Books

I read 20 books in 2009. This down from 24 in 2008, 26 in 2007, 32 in 2006, and a whopping 34 in '05. How am I reading less now that my kids are older? Maybe because I'm older and heading to bed earlier, or because I no longer pause in the middle of the day to read for pleasure. Or I'm having trouble finding the good stuff--I started many books this year only to deem them not worth finishing.

Nevertheless, I read some books worth talking about. Standouts include:

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers

I see now that the list is half fiction, half non. Though I write primarily nonfiction, I enjoy--and learn from--all types of writers and styles. If it's good, it's good. I want to be that kind of writer: solidly good. The kind you pause for, rather than fly through, because you know they will reward you. Maybe that will be my New Year's resolution.

Meanwhile, I need some good reading material for '10, especially novels for my bedside. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Sometimes God chooses unlikely routes of communication.

That's what we talked about Monday night at The Open Door, a homeless shelter for women. How the people called by God aren't always obvious choices (see John the Baptist) and the ways chosen by God don't make immediate sense (see Mary: young, single and not wealthy, carrying the Savior of the world in her womb).

John the Baptist was sent to "prepare the way of the Lord," as we heard in a reading. Mary was the way the Lord had chosen, as we saw in a sketch by my friend John Cosper. But why? Why do this? Why should God put on flesh and be born of a woman?

I cast parts for "The Incarnation" from Cloth for the Cradle, and told everyone we'd read the script through once, tune it up, then perform it for ourselves at the end of the night.

We read. We discussed the meaning. I gave direction in record time.

I gathered the two narrators and God, and asked them to pick up the pace. "I thought I was doing a good job of that," said Evelyn, who prides herself--rightly so--on her excellent reading abilities.

"You were," I told her, "but what feels fast to you will be just the right energy for the audience. At the end, though, don't rush it, Keesha. Linger a little with that last image. Pat: Don't overplay God's emotions or they'll turn comic. Mimes: Exaggerate both your actions and your frozen poses. Don't draw attention to yourself when important things are going on upstage, but at the end, take the spotlight." Everyone nodded in agreement.

Though I mostly run exercises with the women, I'm always looking for ways to throw in terminology and teach actual theatre conventions. I held up the long piece of gold lame I had used as a prop during the read-through, grabbed from under my Christmas tree earlier that evening.

"Did you see how the cloth became a symbol of God's attempts at communicating with us--the rainbow, the manna, the Red Sea? And how it turned into the primary form of communication, when I folded it into the form of a swaddled baby?"

The symbolism is important, I pointed out. Right about then, Evelyn starts toward me.

Evelyn has a bottle-blonde crewcut and wears two quilted jackets she never takes off. The pockets--two on each--bulge with her belongings.

"Here," she says, handing me a small, ratty teddy bear with a ribbon on its neck, the kind you wrap around gifts and use a pair of scissors to curl. I'm confused for a moment, thinking she's thanking me with a gift; I don't know Evelyn well, and though she's aggressively good-natured, I see hints that I could send her reeling with a single look. I want to be sure about this teddy.

"The baby," she says. Oh dear, I think, she wants Teddy to be Baby Jesus. Someone within hearing distance yells a nay to that idea, but Evelyn insists. I start to catch on--she thinks it will add substance to the cloth, make it look like there's a real baby inside.

"Like this? Is it okay that the bear isn't visible?" It is. Evelyn is happy with the final product.

I stuff Teddy into the left pocket of my hoodie, shove the cloth under my arm, and hold the script with the other hand. Carly, one of the mimes, has a moment of stage fright, but she agrees to go on. We're ready for the show.

"The Incarnation," I announce.

"Is this where I'm supposed to stand?" Keesha asks.

"Yes. The Incarnation, Take Two. Wait a minute," I say, "One last thing. If you stumble over your words or movements--which you might, seeing that you've only read it once before--carry on with poise. Don't draw attention to yourself or giggle and make jokes--just pick up and carry on. It's a lesson for the stage but it's also a life lesson, am I right?"

Amen, they say.

"The Incarnation, Take Three."

"God looked around and saw the world which he had made a long time ago, and what he saw upset him," read Keesha, nice and clear.

"In one place, preachers were talking about peace, priests were talking about peace, prophets were talking about peace. So much talking, but there was no peace. There was only talking to hide the noises of war." The mimes concluded their preaching and held their pose.

"In another place," read Evelyn, "People were building; building banks and warehouses, building monuments to their own greed..." A mighty orator now, Evelyn was catching her stride. "So much building, while the poor became poorer, and the scales of justice were biased to the rich." The mimes put down their hammers, and Pat--God--sighed on cue.

On through the sketch they went, solidly. God tried various means to communicate with his people, but to no avail. Finally, God said, "I'll send...I'll send...I'll go there myself."

I turned toward the lockers, pulled Teddy from my pocket, and wrapped him safe and sound in luminous gold.

Symbolism is important, yes; but sometimes the meaning isn't quite obvious, or doesn't make immediate sense.

And sometimes there are so many layers you keep finding one after the other, like a present inside a present inside a present.

"So the Word became flesh, tiny and frail flesh," Keesha proclaimed reverently, with care. God carried the golden gift to the mimes, who were Mary and Joseph now. Pat outstretched her hands to complete the final image, an unlikely symbol of God making contact, a nativity for those with no place to lay their heads.

An Open Letter to The Tooth Fairy

Dear Tooth Fairy,

A certain six-year-old expected you to bring the cash last night, and you failed to show.

Just because it's a busy time of year, you haven't wrapped presents yet, there's an article due, a book you're being paid to read, your kids are ingesting large numbers of Spaghettios and the paper boy is looking for a bonus, it doesn't mean you can just forget things like this.

All that laundry, meal-making, and slop to mop near the entryway mean nothing. I don't particularly care, either, that much of your time is spent trekking to the physical therapist, and for what? For her to ruin your knee forever, forcing you to waddle like you're elderly? And why is your left knee, which felt absolutely fine before that first appointment, now aching in a way that the right knee never did? What am I paying those people for, anyway? Seriously. At least I'm not picking up green marbles with my toes like that other woman. These therapists must have a comedy team creating their exercises. Green marbles! they say. A 39-year-old woman with an 80-year-old gait! they say.


Listen, Lady, you're not getting off the hook here.

On December 22, this kid earned the right to sing "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth," but how can he when one is still under his pillow?

You flutter those wings in our direction tonight, or we're through. We'll contract out if we must, to get some real service around here.


Disgruntled in Grand Rapids

Saturday, December 19, 2009

PT and Me

The doctor used the word "athlete," and I turned to look over my shoulder.

"You talkin' to me?" I asked her. "I'm the only one here. You talkin' to me?"

My kindergarten report card forever branded me as a non-athlete ("Amy can't skip," it declared). I was kicked out of ballet and tap as a child, and though I played doubles tennis in high school, it never solved any of my basic coordination issues.

So when my GP--who happens to specialize in sports medicine--called me an "athlete," I was taken aback. My knee problem is a common condition among "athletes."

Two revelations right there: I'm an athlete, and all these various pains and aches I'm getting come with the territory.

I tend to be somewhat of a fatalist. The other day I had writer's block while working on a article that's due soon, and I was convinced it was all over for me--the magic was gone, never to return again. Each time I get some pain or physical problem, the same thing happens: I'm pretty sure I'll never lift weights again.

So it was good to hear that injury is what happens to us "athletes." Not that I want pain or won't try to avoid it, but it helps to know that driving to physical therapy two times a week isn't too unusual.

I spent the first two sessions trying to convince my PT that really, she just needs to let me do my usual exercises at lighter weights, and not all this boring stuff. I've got to sit on a rolling stool and tool around the room by my heels? And this is going to help how?

The PT, in response, spent the first two sessions explaining to me how cartilage works, how the kind under my right knee isn't working, and how these little silly exercises will make everything all better.

Day four, and I'm starting to agree. After lots of aches and ibuprofen, I'm feeling slightly the teensiest bit better. I'm learning a lot, too; PTs come at all the stuff I'm interested in from a different angle, which helps me understand the mechanics of the body. Everything needs to work together; for example, I learned I need a stronger butt to help my knee. Who would have guessed? All the parts form a whole, and I need to get all of them functioning at their best.

So pardon me, but right now I've got to go extend my leg ten times in a row. That's what us athletes do.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Preparations

Christmas falls on a Friday. The two Mondays prior, I'm using a Christmas theme in my theatre sessions with the women at the homeless shelter; meanwhile, I'm studying up a little on the Christian liturgical season of Advent.

The focus of Advent is on waiting. It's a theme seen throughout the Christmas story--Mary is expecting a child, Jews are waiting for the Messiah--and it appears in the rest of the Bible, as well, with Christians looking forward to Jesus coming again. It's a time of tension: an anticipation of something good, and an acknowledgment that preparation and suffering must precede any birth.

A standard Advent reading is Luke 3, which introduces us to the adult John the Baptist. He's a crazy man dressed in camel's hair and eating locusts, but God chose him to "prepare the way for the Lord's coming."

By the time of the events in Luke, John had already been preaching that people needed to get baptized to be spared God's wrath, and a crowd had gathered to do just that. For some reason, however, John gets pretty annoyed that people are doing what he suggested.

"You brood of snakes!" he calls them. "Prove by the way you live that you have repented of your sins and turned to God." It's like he knows these people pretty well, and he knows they're not being sincere. They're here for the blue light salvation special, and they'll trample anyone in the way. Or perhaps they're a little more passive, showing up for church because that's what they're supposed to do; John could intuit all this, it seems.

The people were rightly confused by his greeting. Right after warning them the judgment is near at hand, the people ask, "What should we do?"

And here's where it gets interesting.

John replies, "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry."

That's your first preparation for the Lord's coming--for Christmas--he says: Share with those who have less than you. Really? It's like when Jesus was asked which was the greatest commandment, and he said, "Love one another." Really? That's it? John added a few extra bits of advice on avoiding the "never-ending fire," but every one was a variation on the theme of sharing.

I thought of John the Baptist yesterday while stopped behind a truck at a light. I had opportunity to study the truck's bumper sticker, which at first glance appeared to be a leftover from the Obama campaign.

Alongside the recognizable flag logo, against a blue background, were these words: "Everyone deserves what you worked so hard for." Ah, sarcasm.

John said, "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry."

He didn't say, "If you worked really hard for your shirts and food, by all means please keep them to yourself."

"Everyone deserves," the bumpersticker began. Yesterday, Simon got off the bus and wondered aloud why I didn't give him a lunch. He deserved to open his backpack and find a lunch there, he thought, when in reality he needed to do his part to help his scattered mother remember the lunch she had indeed packed but left in the frig. Deserving comes with a little responsibility, yes, but either way, what Simon really deserved was to eat, which he did (thanks to hot lunch debit cards). Simon deserves at least one shirt, too, and yes, I'll say it, he deserves not to have his parents financially devastated if he gets sick.

Everyone deserves.

I might use the John the Baptist story this coming Monday with the homeless women. I'm curious to hear what people whose possessions fit in a locker will do with his Christmas checklist.

Because we all should be getting ready for Christmas. Every last one of us.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Photo of the Day

Even snowtroopers need a break from the holiday hubbub.

photo credit: Simon, age 9

Monday, December 7, 2009


The other day at the library, my son pointed out the cover of this book and said, "That looks like you, Mom, except for the hat and ax."

Surely he was referring to the large muscular frame and my tendency to wear green, not the humpback nor intent to kill.

I chose to take it as a compliment. It's all in how you see things, right?

I was thinking about perspective today in the weight room. Lately I've been plotting my retirement from competitive weightlifting, if you could call it that when you've only been in one competition and no one else was in your weight class. I have all sorts of excuses. My shoulder! My knee! Allergy shots make me weak! I don't want to eat enough calories to lift heavier weights, because I don't want to buy another new wardrobe!

Mostly I was just sore--literally and figuratively--because I'd been working hard for months and seeing slow results. I don't have the capacity to go higher, I told myself. Give it up now.

But then I switched over to what we call the Ohio State program. It's one of those pyramid structures in which the weight increases as the reps decrease, until you reach a peak in the middle at 95% of your one-rep max (If I had a nickel for every time I went here...); then the weight decreases and the reps increase, and you rep out at the end.

I benched 2 reps of 110 at the middle, and 12+ at 85 at the end, which means that next week, I can move up to the 120 level. I'll probably sit at the 120 level for awhile, and get all sore again because I'm not improving, but that's where perspective comes in: on this day last year, according to my workout journal, I was at the 105 level, and I only hit 100 one time. Heck--a couple weeks before that, I could barely squeak out 95 once. When you're at my stage of the game, ten, fifteen pounds is a big deal, even over a year's time.

Progress is slow, but it comes. Hold your axes! Good things come to those who wait.

Friday, December 4, 2009

'Twas Lost But Now Is Found

And is also dead. Our missing hissing cockroach, Dora the Explorer, journeyed to the far reaches of our garage this summer and was found on this wintry day by Greg, who is finally getting around to organizing that God-forsaken area.

Dora leaves behind roommates Chubby and Lipstick, who will miss her dearly--unless Dora is actually Lipstick, in which case Chubby and Dora are very extremely sad.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Facing Mortality

Nov 21

Nov 26-29
Began work on book about death.

Nov 27
Doctor's appointment.

Nov 30
Doctor's appointment.

Dec 1

Dec 2
Allergy shots. Began Philip Roth novel.

Dec 3
Doctor's appointment for youngest son. Flu shot.
Blogged before something else can happen.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanksgiving Prayer

To enter The Open Door, an overnight shelter for women, you stand in a covered entry way and press a button. A man across the street is yelling curses, but you know he'll stay a silhouette in his usual doorway, too drunk and old to act on his threats. Through the intercom you're asked your name, and when you open your mouth to answer, a strong wave of urine stings your throat and nostrils. You look down and see splashes on the wall near your feet.

You say your name, and with the buzzer you open the heavy door. After passing through you press it closed behind you. The scent of urine lingers as you walk up the first of two flights of steps, but soon you're on the third floor where everything is well-kept and clean. There's flowery lotion, the soapy smell of recent showers, the warmth of running dryers.

In this place, this past Monday, I led theatre games. Three days before Thanksgiving. I had no doubt that the women there are deeply grateful for many things, most especially the services of this shelter; they've often said as much. Last week, Kay told me she is extra thankful this year because after 37 years of clinging to painkillers and drink, she's recovered, has reconciled with her son and will spend the holiday with "real people" ("you know, real people like you," she said to me).

I happened to see Kay later that week in Panera with her family. She hugged me and looked so happy and nicely dressed. And then I saw her leaving the restaurant with them, and took note that on this 45 degree day, she was the only one without a coat.

Thanksgiving, I decided, would best be approached through a back door.

In Just Like Heaven, an illustrated book by "Mutts" comic creator Patrick McDonnell, Mooch the cat takes a snooze under his favorite tree. A fog settles in, and Mooch awakens wondering where he is. Heaven? Could it be? He walks around town seeing it with fresh eyes. Even the dog who always gives him trouble surely should be handled differently in heaven, thinks Mooch; in response to the dog's bark, the cat offers a hug. Mooch ends his exploration of heaven back at his favorite tree, and settles in to nap again. Upon awakening in the same spot, he marvels at the memory of the wonderful place where he had traveled.

I read Just Like Heaven to the women and invited them to think about this idea of perspective. How, sometimes, perspective is the only aspect of our circumstances that we can change. Curses can be seen as blessings with the right eyes, or at least as having a couple of blessings built in. I then read a quote I had found while researching my next story assignment on students with disabilities. A young woman with cerebral palsy had said, "God has given me this opportunity to be different in this way, and I accept it with honor and grace."

Jessie said that being homeless has been a very low point for her, but she knows that when she gets back on her feet, she'll be different.

"I'll be grateful for what I have. I won't take things for granted," she said.

"Jessie, what do you think about words like that young woman used?," I asked, not quite sure about them myself. "Do you ever think, 'God has given me this opportunity to be homeless'?"

"No," she said, firmly. "It's almost like she's blaming God when she says that--well, not blaming, but saying that he could have stopped it if he wanted to. But God didn't make me homeless; I did."

Does God cause or allow our difficulties? That's a big theological question. Only one thing was sure for these women: homelessness is just around the corner, no matter who you are. "If you told me three months ago that I'd be here right now," said one woman, whose children are staying with their grandmother, "I'd never have believed you."

I asked them to make a human sculpture representing Jessie's mixed blessing of homelessness. Carrie was on the floor, hands reaching out for help; Donna stood nearby hugging herself in gratitude; Jessie, at her back, folded her hands in thankful prayer.

A new woman, quite young, seemed to be very taken with this image. "What were you doing there?" she asked. "I mean, I know it was about gratitude, but...but..."

"But 'why' were we doing it?" I asked. "Why didn't we just talk about it?"


I told her how I believe our bodies inform our thinking just as words do, and by doing this for Jessie, we understand her in a new way. Jessie chimed in her agreement, and then in a few simple words said it best.

She summed up why I'm there every week doing the only thing I can think to do about the urine, the coat, the curses.

"This," Jessie said, gesturing to our makeshift stage, where sleeping mats were now unfolding, "is how we pray."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Writer's Almanac for November 21, 2009

Just helping Garrison Keillor out today.

It's the birthday of writer, weightlifter, and theatre instructor Amy Scheer (1970). Scheer was raised in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, where, as a young girl, she won an Andy Gibb puzzle for her drawing of Miss Piggy at a local park. Her first attempt at writing was halted after the first page, as so much effort was given to producing the book's title--The Missing Canoe--she felt satisfied enough to abandon the rest of the project entirely.

In 1993 she married the composer Greg Scheer, who later wrote the book The Art of Worship (2006). They have two boys--Simon and Theo--whom they did not name after The Chipmunks though they were aware it was happening. Theo calls his mother a "wri-tist" who "plays with people who don't have houses."

Shortly before her 38th birthday, Scheer began strength training in earnest, and entered her first bench press competition on April 25 of this year. She benched 110 pounds and won her first trophy. At the next competition in February of 2010, Scheer will go for 120.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Bulk, Baby, Bulk

Theo with The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding by Arnold Schwarzenegger

Seems I've been "cutting" when I should have been "bulking."

You, too? Happens to the best of us. Bring on the chips, I say. Let the bulking begin.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Magnum Opus

While attempting to channel The New Yorker, I wrote the cover story on adoption for the latest issue of The Classic, the magazine of Northwestern College. This is my largest feature yet, and I'm very proud of it. The layout and the photos in the print version are quite gorgeous.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ain't Writin' Funny

Did you read that last post? Notice how it moves from comic to serious?

I had fully intended to write a fully funny piece on the broad range of groups I find myself in. Starting with the personality test and moving into the murder story (both found in yesterday's post), I'd then address my regular presence on a bodybuilding forum, where members have handles like "GetnHuge" and include the diameter of their biceps in their signature.

Woulda been funny, I tell ya, minus the murder part. And then I started writing it.

Simply showing up and sitting down to write helps me figure out what it is I'm thinking about. I had avoided blogging for years thinking I'd not be able to finely polish my thoughts enough to share them publicly. But I'm being rewarded personally by doing so, and I find myself awed anew at the creative process. I sit down to write one thing, and out comes another, usually better idea.

That's art. I recommend it highly.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Company You Keep

Back when we lived in Tallahassee, I attended one of those Ladies' Day Out events that churches like to hold. From among scenes that surely involved scones and scrapbooking, I remember just one activity: we ladies were administered a personality test, after which we gathered in four groups according to our test results and now clearly-defined dispositions.

Roughly 80% of the women filled one of the four circles--the one for extroverted, nurturing types. Most of the others sat in two of the remaining groups.

In the final circle sat a friend and I--the only opinionated introverts, apparently. We joked about how special we were, ha ha, until she took a second look at her test results.

"Oh," she said, glancing toward another group. "I'm actually supposed to be over there." She walked off to join the others, leaving a circle of Amy. Alone.

Yep. I don't always fit in.

Not often. With women, especially.

So it was with great surprise I noticed, three months into leading theatre sessions at a women's shelter, that I had chosen to spend time with women. And that we get along. And that no one's inviting me to candle parties.

Our lives and circumstances differ greatly, of course. Last week I arrived on the scene of Nat lying spread-eagle on the floor demonstrating how, the day before, a woman they all knew had been found, murdered. This week, a woman was suspended mid-conversation with me for not taking a shower, among other violations. Taking a shower is rule #1 at the shelter because, as the director puts it, many of the women have been hopping in and out of cars all night, and the shelter will stink if they don't clean themselves.

Yes, very different circumstances. Yet these homeless women are on my mind as often as the other important people in my life. I spend hours each week preparing for or debriefing from my time with them. But when I leave them I go home, where no one kicks me out for neglecting to take a shower.

Can sincere relationships exist across lines of privilege and power? Can friends live on such unequal terms?

When we first moved to Grand Rapids, we lived in a rental community for three years, as our house in Iowa took a long time to sell and we couldn't afford a new one. For a time while living there, I found myself arguing against owning property (okay, doing theatre under a framed Manifesto in the East Village had something to do with it, too). There I saw that only by living up close and personal, in the same circumstances, was I able to relate to, be trusted by, and help my neighbors.

All of us together faced discrimination by school zoning, because, as one official told me, renters are typically unreliable. Few of us could afford to purchase a house, and could commiserate over hearing each others' business through the walls. We shared joys, as well--a swimming pool, someone to shovel the walkway, free emergency repairs in the wee hours of the night.

But the living became difficult. This transient population lived by a different set of rules than we do, and we found ourselves among the only responsible adults on the block for a multitude of children. I gave out the band-aids. Greg saved the toddler playing in the drainhole in the middle of the parking lot. I cleaned blood off a girl who had been punched while waiting for the bus to school. We were glad to do it, but we burned out. The basketballs bouncing off the side of our building and therefore living room, the constant doorbell ringing, our three-year-old son getting punched on the patio when stepping out for fresh air--we couldn't continue like that.

And so we moved to the suburbs. Bought us some property. Life is more peaceful here, and we can find the rest we need in order to go out and serve others. Having scaled the walls of the private property issue and come down the other side, I'm confident that this choice is best for us, as long as I make an effort to be with those who can't have the life I do.

The poor we will always have with us, yes, but as Shane Claiborne says in The Irresistible Revolution, that's not Jesus telling us to take class structure for granted. It's him saying we are to have the poor with us. Be among them. He was in the home of an outcast leper when he said this.

But among and amidst never feels like enough to me. I hate knowing that I have more power and privilege than people I'd like to call friends. I like the women at the shelter. We enjoy our time together, and in many ways I fit in there better than I ever did with the Floridians.

More to the point, this isn't mere acceptance but a give and take kind of good.

When I was leaving the shelter on Monday night, I heard singing.

Earlier, as part of a fun exercise, I had asked the women to sing their lines as an opera star would. Now, as they gathered the common laundry and headed toward their sleeping bags, they called to each other with high operatic drama, happy laughs punctuating every couple notes. They made me smile, even as I crossed the urine-stained, bolt-locked threshold of The Open Door, and left for home.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Mr. Rogers Was Right

Since 1985, English musician and musicologist Clive Wearing has had what neurologist Oliver Sacks calls "the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded": a memory span of mere seconds. Along with the present his past has slipped away as well, including the memory of meeting his wife, Deborah, and falling in love with her.

Yet emotional memory provides Clive with a basis to remember Deborah at a fundamental level, as Sacks writes in "The Abyss" (The New Yorker, September 24, 2007):
For many years he failed to recognize Deborah if she chanced to walk past, and even now he cannot say what she looks like unless he is actually looking at her. Her appearance, her voice, her scent, the way they behave with each other, and the intensity of their emotions and interactions--all this confirms her identity, and his own.
To Clive, his wife was more than the sum of her parts, and was, in fact, unrecognizable in parts; but taken wholly, she was Deborah. The essence of the woman he loved was something Clive could never forget.

It's a moving story, and it's helpful in getting amateur actors to understand that a simple posture change does not a character make. Yes, you may need to lower your voice, thrust out your jaw, and slouch a little, but if these traits fail to converge into the core of a character, your portrayal will not ring true.

Off the stage, I find the story reassuring.

As a mother about to begin her fortieth year, I think a lot about identity. As a woman down to size 4 from an 18 (Greg says I'm "every woman in the world" to him), I often wonder about what's left when you strip the non-essentials away.

Attending my twentieth high school reunion last year was interesting in this regard, as was my short sojourn on facebook. After 15, 20 years, you are distilled down in the minds of people from your past, and it's surprising what they'll think, say, and expect. That's a book right there, but I'll just say that the Distillation of Amy was mostly positive, leaving me pleased, if somewhat bitter ("If you all liked me so much, why didn't I have more dates?").

On Monday night at the homeless shelter, I noticed three things:
1. nobody laughed at my jokes,
2. my deep thoughts were quickly bypassed,
3. everybody was glad to have me there.

Reconciling these observations took some time, I tell you. I like to think that at some level I'm funny and interesting, and if pressed I'd say these qualities make people want to be around me, if they do at all. Take away a small-busted gal's sense of humor, and what's she got?

But here was a roomful of people who liked me for me.

Much as I like to define myself by my wit, intellect, or deltoids, these women respond to something deeper at the core of who I am. It's humbling both to have your best traits ignored and to be appreciated anyway. Humbling, healthy, and right on.

(here's someone who says it best)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

I Laughed, I Cried, It Was Better Than Catharsis

When I teach at the BuildaBridge Institute for Arts in Transformation in Bryn Mawr, PA, I'm sent to work in shelters with at-risk teens, while the adults registered for the institute observe, participate, and debrief with me after.

I use this description of the work in my handouts:
Bodies and voices become instruments for change as participants explore societal concerns in a deeply personal way. We’ll call what we do “sociodrama,” though in truth we’ll borrow from a variety of excellent techniques to make a safe, enjoyable space for improvisation and image-making. Participants will try on roles and appreciate multiple viewpoints on issues as they "rehearse for reality," to borrow a phrase from Theater of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal. Each session will aim to be complete in itself—a necessary goal when dealing with transitional populations—though subsequent days will build on what has been previously accomplished.
The simplest way to distinguish between sociodrama and Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) is to start with the word catharsis, which is the act of releasing or purging one's emotions. Getting it all out. Ahhhh. It's one of the goals of sociodrama, according to pioneer Patricia Sternberg, along with insight and behavioral practice.

On the other hand, here's Augusto Boal on catharsis:
Forum Theatre [a branch of TO] does not produce catharsis: it produces a stimulant for our desire to change the world. ...Let them create it first in the theatre, in fiction, to be better prepared to create it outside afterwards, for real.
I studied with Boal on two occasions before he died, and I can tell you that he's okay with emotion. If one of his theatre games brought you to tears, that's perfectly natural and fine and good. What he won't do--in my experience--is stop everything to comfort you. For Boal, a Brazilian, tears are a natural expression accompanying our search for change in this world. Channel those tears to find out what needs to be done; don't halt the whole process to wallow.

A few of my fellow classmates would protest what they saw as insensitivity, requesting "containers" and such that they felt needed to be in place before he should be allowed to break us down in such a way. But these protests ignored a basic fact: our teacher was a man who, as a political prisoner, was strung up by his ankles and shocked with an electric charge because of his efforts to improve life for those who needed it most. Boal cared deeply for humanity. (My favorite memory is the last one: I approach him to say thank you after our final day of class, my hand outstretched for a formal shake. He cups my face in both hands and kisses me.)

Forget containers; I agree wholeheartedly with the Brazilian. We should be sensitive, but not waver in our work with every blow of the wind or tear from the eye. Neither should our goal be to make someone cry, though there's a time and place for everything, including catharsis.

On Monday nights when I lead theatre sessions with homeless women, I keep a variety of sociodrama exercises in my bag of tricks. Sometimes they're effective, sometimes they fall flat. My crowd is tough, you must remember; any game I choose immediately passes through the women's mental checkpoints, making sure there's not a hint of manipulation, or, worse, a waste of time when they could be taking a free shower after a day on the streets. Even with solid, time-tested exercises, if I falter slightly in my presentation, I may lose half the crowd, which is often already quite boisterous. I draw on about every skill I have in me, and I need to have many ideas ready at hand--sociodrama, TO, or otherwise.

But last week I worked almost exclusively in sociodrama, and I left feeling like I'd chosen vitamin-enriched cereal over the option of steak. So this week, I returned to Theatre of the Oppressed for what I hoped would be a hearty meal.

I started with the game "Columbian Hypnosis." One person holds her palm level with the face of her partner. She moves her palm slowly and fluidly, wherever she wants, and her partner keeps her face level with and the same distance from the palm.

That's it.

Doesn't sound like much, does it? But this is not your average party game; all sorts of dynamics show themselves.

When I did this game in New York, my partner, a man from the Soviet Union, all but wrestled me to the ground. Somehow "fluid" translated to "volatile," for him, and I couldn't wait to be done.

When I led one of the women on Monday night, ours was a beautiful dance.

Does the leader simply command, or is she sensitive to the needs of her partner? Kim, I noticed, wasn't figuring out how to move downward with me, so I had to adjust my moves to slowly teach her what I wanted. Almost as if she were leading me, though that was my role.

And the participants? What I love about being led in this exercise is a feeling of release, that I need not worry about anything but the hand in front of me. Kim said she didn't even notice me after a while. Angie was dazed and confused when it was over, but in a good way. A few months back when I led this exercise, Tanya had become angry that someone was telling her what to do. This led to a discussion of why that's a problem for her, and how people can abuse power.

The game becomes a platform for discussion of all sorts of life lessons, as many TO games do. Yes, emotion comes to the surface, but we channel it toward learning some basic human skills.

Esther, however, wasn't buying it.

"Maybe it is because I come from another country, but I do not understand this 'wave a hand in front of someone's face.'" She waved her own a bit dramatically and with condescension.

"Maybe you should try it," someone who had tried it said.

"I do not need to try it. I do not need this"--again the waving.

"Look, this releases stress for us. It's been a long day. It's hard out there," another woman said, though she herself had looked pretty skeptical of a few of my requests.

"It's hard for me, too," Esther said.

Kim said, "Esther, remember earlier when music was playing downstairs? You closed your eyes and danced, and forgot everything around you. That's what this is to us."

They kept at this for awhile. I probably should have defended myself a bit more, but here were these women--including those who tend to watch more than participate--verbalizing why I show up week after week. So I stood back and listened.

Esther remained somewhat unconvinced. I stepped in to assure her that even disagreement is why I'm there, and what TO is designed to facilitate. We squeeze every drop of meaning out of these exercises which work on you in ways you'd never quite expect.

The last TO game I chose to do before closing with a AS game--that is, one of my devising, as one must have a full bag of tricks--is called Emily's Morph. Three people begin by doing a sound and movement of their own choosing, and by the end they are to have morphed into unison without any discussion.

My Soviet partner had told the story of leading this exercise in his country. The participants come to the end and they're all still doing their own thing, no morphing at all. When he asked them what happened, every last one said that as citizens, they were tired of being told what they can and cannot do; they were not about to let their ideas be taken from them.

At the shelter, the first round was quite like the Soviets', but for a different reason: Kim, Angie and Pat had dutifully begun with their little sounds and moves, but Maxine was singing an entire Al Green song. Kind of hard to mash up with that.

AMY: Could you sing maybe just the "love" part?
MAXINE: But Al's my brother!

Maxine is a head taller than me, about thirty pounds lighter, and has one tooth. She might be 40, or she could be 60. Clearly inebriated this evening, Maxine would periodically interrupt to hug me, tell me what I do is beautiful, and show me pictures of herself at a gas station. You can't help but love Maxine.

The group asked to try morphing again, and what happened was a beautiful thing.

In the time span allotted, the group--without talking, just keeping up with their sounds and moves--made some quick decisions.

Angie, who was near Pat, decided to incorporate her moves; Pat caught on and adjusted to her.

Kim was near Maxine, who was still singing the entire Al Green song. Kim quickly realized that if any morphing was to be done, she had to do it. If Maxine was ever going to be included and welcomed into the group, Kim would need to sacrifice her own ideas.

So there's Angie and Pat, doing a little song and dance in unison. And there's Kim and Maxine, singing "Let's Stay Together."

Our life lessons wrapped up with laughter, which felt perfectly natural and fine and good.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


I'd like to think it was my drama curriculum, but my wild rice chicken salad probably should get some credit.

Greg had invited Dr. J. Nathan Corbitt, author of Sound of the Harvest and Taking it to the Streets: using the arts to transform your community, to speak at Northwestern College back when we lived in Orange City, Iowa. He then asked Nathan over for lunch--the wild rice salad and bran muffins--and a few months later, I was teaching theatre to a handful of adults at the Campolo School for Social Change, for Corbitt's organization BuildaBridge.

Over the next several years this annual institute grew, and I was privileged to teach at several homeless shelters in the Philadelphia area.

These Monday nights I write about, my weekly teaching of theatre in a shelter here in Grand Rapids? Probably never would have happened were it not for BuildaBridge.

BuildaBridge takes the arts to the tough places of Philadelphia; I can testify personally to the impact they have made.

They've issued a challenge to collect $10 from as many people as possible.

Consider skipping a few lattes and giving the money to an organization who will use it for the greater good. Learn more about BuildaBridge and donate to them by visiting here.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Club Freedom (of Speech)

I've defended the antics of David Blaine, and, at 13, the effects of The Empire Strikes Back.

I've rallied against TV shopping carts, hatemongers, and Michelle Malkin. Sorry to be redundant.

I've... written lots of letters to editors.

I love this medium; I love that my grandfather, with his grade school education, was prolific on the editorial page of The Beaver County Times. And I especially appreciate that the playing field is leveled: journalist writes for newspaper, average citizen's opinion is printed in same paper.

But when my most recent letter appeared in the online edition of The Grand Rapids Press, the "Post A Comment" section made the occasion of publication a little more interesting than usual.

Where I had taken time to make my point cleverly and succinctly within The Press's word count; submit it; return a phone call verifying I lived where I said I did; and hope the letter was good enough to be printed, anyone who registered on the site could comment immediately. And comment they did. (By the way, the online version says that one John Phipps wrote my letter. Hopefully they'll correct this attribution soon; the paper version was fine.)

My criticism of the conservative columnist Malkin was a cue for some commenters to throw out the usual fighting words of socialism and liberalism. One person wrote that Malkin is "goodlooking," as if beauty might explain, excuse, or otherwise improve on one's opinions.

My carefully-crafted point--that Malkin played the lowest card in a journalist's stack, manipulating readers by distracting them from the heart of an issue, which in this case was the story of a jobless woman with cancer--was all but ignored.

Some people did agree with me; not all commenters accused me of being in the "LIBERAL BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB," as one did. (Little does this person know I'm actually in the club called "I Know How To Turn Off Caps Lock.")

Everyone gets a forum nowadays, what with the dern internet being democratic (actually, socialist; see wikipedia) and all that. Our lunch guests today wrestled with ways to deal with the Rush Limbaughs among us, for whom subtleties are often tossed aside along with civility. I suggested chalking it all up to psychological disorders; others said that sometimes these folks have something to say, even when they package it all wrong.

My husband stayed up late last night working on a novel way to handle the hate.

After writing a letter to the editor for the GR Press recently, Greg was the lucky recipient of a response in the form of a call to his office. Delighting in the fact that the woman's vehemence was captured on voicemail, this composer decided to work through the pain and produce some art.

Bu not all responses make us letter writers despair, thankfully.

After a letter of mine appeared in Newsweek suggesting that red rooibos tea made a comeback thanks to The No. I Ladies' Detective Agency series, I received a call from a local man who just had to know where I shop, as he hadn't been able to find any rooibos since returning from Africa.

And where did I send him?

Remember those TV carts I rallied against for corrupting minors in our grocery store? Proving it's possible to disagree without demonizing, I sent my caller shopping there.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Hours

Monday's session with the women at the shelter warrants not an essay this week but a sketch, instead.

They'll pay you for a whole hour, she said,

niggers can’t get hard. Hey honey, can I have a ride?

But I was already leaning close to the intercom, announcing who I am and my purpose there.

With the buzz I left her on the street. I asked the women upstairs

Why all the commotion tonight,

Why the extra bodies about.

The nice weather, they said, rolling out their sleeping mats. For the one face I don’t know, whose eyes stay on the floor, I started my speech.

If you believe in the story of Jesus, I said,

You believe God took on a body. Put on skin and bones.

He didn’t have to do that. There's something special about these bodies we’ve been given.

She looked up at me. I led our exercises. This took forty-five minutes, an hour.

I left.

Down the steps and out, I passed the woman again,

and drove by a band of men now encircling her, casting lots for her garments.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

A Call to Arms

I like the weight room because it's full of men.

There are obvious reasons for my preference, and practical concerns, as well.

For starters, men mostly mind their own business. They sweat, grunt and throw heavy weights to the floor, all off by their lonesome. You can mostly ignore them and continue with your workout uninterrupted unless they're throwing the heavy weights close to your head, or unless they're treating you like a helpless maiden, asking you if you need their expert assistance even though you were just rowing 140lbs, which was on a double pulley system but still. Not that I have any experience with this.

But women, see, when they do deign to appear in the weight room, are not so easily ignored.

For one, many are chatty. They don't know the rule about not talking while working out unless someone gives you a clear signal they want to know you better. These women will tell you about their basement flooding, their kid with the flu, the pros and cons of Fluffy's new litter box.

Or, ignorant of other basic gym etiquette, they use your stuff without asking.

Last week, I had a bar all loaded up and was resting between sets when this woman walked in, laid her body down on my bench, and proceeded to do crunches. Ten reps, then she'd take a rest. Right there. On my bench. This went on for three sets. Never mind that there were two other free benches at her disposal; Goldilocks here decided my bench was best for napping.

To top it all off, she was wearing earphones, so I couldn't suggest she move without physically pushing her. Not that I felt like doing that or anything.

(Men aren't off the hook here either, I should mention, because they often lack in the etiquette division, too. Most often it's in the form of leaving 90 pounds worth of plates on a machine, kindly giving the next person an extra workout of lifting them back off and huffing through some curse words.)

But the most common problem with women in the weight room is one that negatively affects only the women themselves. Unless you're the type to be offended by others' ignorance, which I happen to be.

For so many women, their workouts aren't worth the time. First off, they're not in the weight room much because they're sweating away in the cardio room, which by now everyone knows is good for your heart but can't match the time spent with weights when it comes to your love handles.

And when they do make it over to the free weights, they lift what others have referred to as "barbie bells"--little tiny things barely worth the time, weighing little more than their designer dogs in purses they have just told you all about.

Women: Don't do that. Pick up the bigger weights, and learn the good technique that will allow you to lift them well.

Considering my opinions, you'd think I was pretty happy the other day when I saw a woman in her late 60s pick up a ten-pound dumbbell and go through all the standard exercises. She even asked if I was done with a pulley so she could do cable crossover flyes.

You go, Girl. Except...

I started noticing the 10-pounder would travel only about three inches on any given exercise. Chest press: the top three inches. Tricep rows: the three inches closest to her body, where it's easiest to move.

Finally, when she was on the T-bar row doing her three inches, her husband couldn't take it anymore. The conversation went something like this:

HIM: You shouldn't do that. You're not fully extending your arms, you're not really working the muscle.
HER: Oh, shut up.
HIM: I'll say that next time you tell me to put on the turn signal.
HER: Maybe I can't fully extend my arms. Maybe I could only do that once.
HIM: Yeah, well, but...I'm serious. You're not working the muscle that way. It's not worth it.
HER: Maybe you need to mind your own business.

And so on.

She was fairly self-assured, so it was clear she wouldn't listen to anybody. She had her list of exercises and she was going to cross each of them off. That's all that mattered.

Tis better to exercise than to not. But 'tis even better to exercise with heavy weights and proper form. People will tell you not to lock out your elbows, others will say that's what they're built to do...but even so, the husband was right. Make the exercise worth your time. It would have been better for her to only do one rep, as she claimed she would be able to do, if she had proper form (though I bet it would have been too heavy for her to make a fully extended rep at that weight).

I used to practice my bench press by lowering the bar to a few inches above my chest, lifting it back up and calling it a day.

You can lift a lot more weight that way, because when you touch the bar to your chest as you need to do in competition (yes, there's a chest judge--and a butt judge) things become much more difficult. You're drawing on the parts of your pecs and shoulders that aren't as strong because they're not used as much; I have been overheard threatening to stuff my bra and underwear before a competition to shorten the distance the bar must travel. (Dan: Remember my weekly texts back in the day? I now know I wasn't "really" lifting that weight.)

Some people coach amateurs to use this technique to avoid injury. If you're not looking to compete, you can do this and boast you've lifted some really heavy weight, even though the rest of us know better. But you're denying certain muscles a good workout.

It's good to adapt an exercise to your limitations. And three-inch versions (sometimes called "partials") can really work a select muscle, if that's your intent and if you're using a heavy enough weight.

But it's not good to keep doing things incorrectly or inefficiently. Stop it, people.

And don't buy purses for dogs, either; they need exercise, too.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

When Groups Play

Heaped onto the buffet of my interests and vocations is a job in television.

For Calvin College's interview show Inner Compass, you'll find me researching topics, writing questions, powdering bald heads and styling flyaway hairs. I've run sound and recently begun editing video, as well.

My hand was heavy in many aspects of this episode, "When Groups Play: Flash Mobs and Urban Experiments," from its genesis to the final edit. At around 1:10 there's a video package I produced and for which I slept with the composer to get some good music. My (and the composer's) son Simon, in jungle hat, is interviewed in the package; parts of the rest of my family appear, as well.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reality Check

Denise was addicted for twenty years to one drug. Now in recovery, she works part-time for a staffing agency. This past Monday, and perhaps on other nights, too, she slept in a homeless shelter.

But do not think of her as “down,” she says.

“That’s what people get wrong, you see,” she says. “I had my low days, for sure, but there were good days, too. All was not bad.” She was speaking of her years as an addict, but her self-assured stance made clear she wanted me to know she would not let her current circumstances pull her under, either.

Thank goodness our burdens mercifully slough away on occasion.

When I’m with the women at this overnight shelter on Monday evenings, they’re tired from walking miles to a job interview or traveling back and forth between missions that provide food and assistance. But they’re also enjoying the opportunity to relax, they’re massaging lotion onto their arms after a refreshing shower, and I almost forget why they’re there. Always, there is laughter; this week, Kathy showed up in a hat with deer antlers. Sometimes I’ll hear protests that they’re not up to playing theatre games, but the fun always wins out.

In other words, they’re just people.

When we get to talking seriously, these women mention their mothers. That’s what bothers them even now, even when they’re not sure where their next meal is coming from.

They’re just people.

Kim’s mother abandoned her when she was a teenager, resurfacing later to wreak havoc on Kim’s life with her own kids. Kim allowed us to play this scene out; Denise, as her mother, never responded to her daughter’s gestures of kindness, never reciprocated when Kim told her she loves her. She’s dying of cancer, but she can’t let her guard down.

Morphing various Theatre of the Oppressed techniques, I asked that people watching—the others were indeed wrapped up in the scene—offer physical images of how they saw Kim relate to her mother. We saw cowering; reaching out but keeping Mom at arms’ length; extending a hand while using the other to protect her heart. Kim responded to each.

Then I asked if someone wanted to step into the scene as Kim and try a new tactic. Mary protested: “Let Kim try again!”

“She can, but I’d like to see if someone could show us a new way. It’s like offering advice, except you’re doing it rather than talking about it.”

Carly, a soft-spoken woman who wanted to be Queen Elizabeth when she was little, raised her hand. She started the scene just as Kim did, but when Mom didn't respond, she tried something new.

“You act like I’m not even here,” she said.

Mom/Denise: “I don't know what you're talking about.”

“I'm just trying to ask you about your day, to talk to you.”

“I answered you. What more do you want?”

We were already getting somewhere; this was more than she'd given Kim. And then:

"How are you doing, Mom, really?" Carly said. Everyone held their breath.

"I'm...fine. I'm okay."

Mom/Denise, a very responsive actor, broke out of the scene and looked at me. “She got me there,” she said. “I had to respond.”

“Oh, I know,” I said. “We all see it. Keep going.”

They continued the scene. Mom slowly crawled back into her shell after finally responding to her daughter, but the fact she had come out at all was nothing short of a miracle. Everybody had something to say after that, about mothers, kindness, and relationships; in fact, I had to interrupt in order to end on time, to make sure everyone had an opportunity to shower before bed.

While the discussion was hopping, one woman said to me, “What happened to the theatre ‘games’? This is real life!”

Almost. “This is a ‘rehearsal for reality,’” I told her, using the words of Theatre of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal. “We're practicing in here what we need to do out there.”

And what is out there?

Something to be protected from, evidently; when I finished up, Shellie, the director, asked Mary to walk me to my car. Having just led a rehearsal for reality, I now found myself wondering if we should practice for something we’d rather not face at all.

But not every day is bad, right?

Denise works at a staffing agency. Jennifer works at McDonald's. Jessie is waiting to hear about a job, but tonight she is ill, her smiling face sunken.

Jessie was the first person to learn my name back when I started here, and tonight was the first night she wasn't up to participating, as she had fainted earlier and had trouble seeing. She's thinking maybe it's diabetes--"Probably because I only ate twice today," she said.

That's her reality. You could generalize her story as yet another plea for health care reform, for addressing welfare at the systemic level, because that’s indeed what it is.

Or you could see her story as that of an individual, a person born of a woman who may or may not have treated her well. You can wonder what to do in response.

Because not every day is bad. But a laugh and some lotion at a homeless shelter cannot make for a truly good day, and that’s the reality.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Thinking About Art

My family and I finished up our ArtPrize tour with a special trip to see Young Kim's salt & earth, an installation of portraits comprised entirely of salt and clay. I saw it, I heard how he did it (think silkscreening), yet I can still hardly believe it's possible.

Transitory art, photography of the moment. These portraits of local people, already deteriorating from humidity and vandalism, will be swept away in a few days. The enjoyment of the piece is fleeting, as are the lives represented there, and those viewing them.

Our local paper has done a nice job of covering ArtPrize and acquainting the unfamiliar with how to experience these creations. The tips offered in today's edition were particularly helpful as a guide to voting by tonight's final deadline.

In my words:
-Go with your gut. Does a piece move you?
-Look for evidence of skill. How well is it crafted?
-Search for significance. What's the larger meaning?

These "local experts" thankfully put aside their own tastes to help foster public dialogue on art. The presence of ArtPrize throughout the city has wakened right brains everywhere: you've got people thinking past the obvious, wondering what something means, why it's there. That's not just any 73-foot doll leaning on the side of a downtown restaurant--it's a giant symbol of hidden emotional scars. Or it's something else entirely for you.

Oh the debates my kids have had over which piece of art should win the grand prize! How incensed they are that I voted for the Children's Museum mural and not the giant monster in the Grand River! They yell playfully at me before returning to their drawings and collages, to the serious pursuit of their own art.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


ArtPrize wraps up this week. Voting has narrowed now to the top ten finalists, including the portrait above made entirely of pushpins. My vote goes to Tracy Van Duinen's mosaic, which fortunately will stay in town after the competition is said and done.

But I also loved the 100,000 airplanes soaring from the tops of downtown buildings; the red ball squished into a new place daily; people made of packing tape.

For two weeks, art was everywhere and for everyone. Again I ask you: How cool is Grand Rapids?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Breaking Through the Blockade

At a church we used to attend, a well-meaning fellow often led children's sermons during the regular service. Paying no mind to the fact that young children are incapable of following metaphors, he'd grab an object, any object, and wring out all the symbolism it could spare, and more:

"This flashlight here...is Jesus! Jesus shines a light into the darkness. The batteries represent...us. I mean, our daily Bible reading. (Children begin looking about, waving to parents.) Reading our Bibles daily gives us the power to shine Jesus into the dark. But you have to hit the ON switch, right? (A little girl stands, and holds up her dress.) Switching the flashlight ON is like..anybody know? (little girl showing panties, into microphone: "I have a Barbie purse.") Hey, that's great. Does it have sequins? That would shine a light, too, huh? So the switch is...the Holy Spirit. And God is holding the flashlight, like how you hold your Barbie purse! The flashlight represents us. We're flashlights in the hand of God. Yeah."

At the risk of sounding like that guy, I can't help but draw some more connections between weightlifting and life. All I ever really needed to know I learned on the bench, and this blog is the place to flesh some of that out.

Once again I turn to the phenomenon I've noticed in this field of choosing new, and usually opposite, definitions for time-tested words. It's as if muscular people don't read; like they hold books only to show off their biceps. Like the gym is a cave where, in gutteral utterings, language is reinvented.

Today's word is "block," and it's a good thing for weightlifters, bad for writers (it's a neutral term in theatre, which happens to be my other field of study). For me, both a writer and a weightlifter, the block became a breakthrough. Like a light shining in the darkness.

Frederic Delavier in Strength Training Anatomy describes how to create a block before deadlifting:

"Expanding the chest and holding a deep breath fills the lungs, which supports the rib cage and prevents the chest from collapsing forward. Contracting the abdominal muscle group supports the core and increases the intra-abdominal pressure, which prevents the torso from collapsing forward. Finally, arching the low back by contracting the lumbar muscles positions the spinal column in extension."

In other words, blocking calls for all the parts of your body to band together, compress, and act as a unit, thereby protecting them and supporting the stronger parts through a tough task.

I'd been doing things a bit backward, which isn't surprising. I'm somewhat absent-minded in my approach to life--diligent, but flighty. For example, I'll brush my teeth faithfully three times a day, all the while regularly ignoring certain bicuspids entirely and finding myself honestly surprised when they turn out to be cavity-ridden.

During certain exercises, like dumbbell bent-over rows, you need to be sure you're emphasizing the muscles the exercise intends to work. These rows primarily work your back, but biceps are in use, too; it's easy to allow them to do the majority of the lifting and cheat your back out of a good workout.

Prior to my blocking breakthrough, I did a decent job of emphasizing the right muscles. But once I moved to the higher weights, this tactic taken to the extreme simply led to injury.

It's one thing to row with a 20lb dumbbell and try to ignore your biceps; it's another to pick up 35 and do that. With the heavier weights, a block of some sort is necessary. I could do a lot more blocking on the bench, too--I'm lucky to have gotten as far as I have with my present tactic of lowering the bar and just hoping something good happens. On those days when I've puffed up my chest, pinned my shoulder blades and planted my feet, BAM! The blockade breakthrough.

Another way to think about blocking, for me, is to throw your full self into an exercise. Use enough weight to make sure you're working hard, then do exactly that. (Maybe grunt and invent some new definitions while you're at it.) Lately, I'm leaning more toward compound exercises that allow me to activate groups of muscles, like reverse wood chops and this standing pull-down thing I did yesterday at 140lbs that stops just short of kicking my butt. Future plans include pushing a car and axing a tire. It's fun to get all the muscles into play.

And life? I don't apply the block as you might think, not as a protective device against emotional distress. I think of it as a reminder to throw my full self into whatever I'm doing at the time--hanging out with the kids, meeting with someone, working one of my various jobs. It's why I just kicked Theo out of the room with a promise that once I'm finished writing, he'll have my full attention. What some people call being fully "present"; the opposite, perhaps, of multitasking, but also of going through life distracted. Often I just want to turn on one part of my brain and allow the rest of me to remain detached, but I don't know that that's always healthy; the detached part tends to suffer.

Approach life with all guns cocked and loaded, so to speak. Because a gun is like a flashlight, shooting light through the blocked parts of our lives. Just like...Jesus.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Oh Blessed Hisses

So a local church is offering a Blessing of the Pets in its parking lot this Sunday.

The event celebrates the feast of St. Francis, who had a special communion with the natural world. Father Len Sudlik says the saint "viewed God's creation and all living creatures living in harmony."

I wonder how harmonious it would be if we presented our giant hissing cockroaches for a little blessing. Theo thinks if we take a camera, we might finally get on "America's Funniest Home Videos."

Meanwhile, it's too cold for these Africans in our garage, and they've moved inside. Wanna visit?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Celebrating the Body

I spent Saturday night staring at a bunch of half-naked men

By the end of Saturday night I jumped rows to get a better view of a guy's amazing...uh, lats

Where to begin? While driving to see my first bodybuilding competition yesterday evening, I passed a Hooters and started to worry. What if the people who buy tickets to such events are there simply to ogle, and what if the events themselves exist for the ogling? Once the bikini division had sashayed away, the figure competitors waddled off in their five-inch heels, and the fitness models revealed their amazing wax jobs completed their cartwheels, the bodybuilders came on stage and I understood what was going on.

A celebration of the body. Permission to linger over these well-oiled (yes) machines, carriers --and, often, cause--of our hopes, dreams, and insecurities.

Like beautiful ballet...danced to Metallica.

Beauty arrives in this context when genetics meets discipline. Nearly any healthy person with somewhat symmetrical form can, with a strong drive, do well at this sport; no particular skills are needed. By celebrating the body at these events, we honor discipline and self-control. It might look like the big bodybuilder polished off one of the smaller, bantam weight competitors for lunch, but really he's been restricting himself to asparagus and chicken breasts for a long, long time, all the while wanting to empty a keg into glassfuls rather than carry it around for a good workout.

Extreme diet x intense workouts = most muscles showing = best body. Beauty is reduced to an equation, for starters. Many of the competitors weren't conventionally-beautiful people, but symmetry and well-defined muscles can aesthetically please to the point of accomplishing beauty, so to speak. I had to wonder how many of them had entered the sport for just this reason--to defy nature by improving on it (this was a natural, drug-tested competition, by the way). Having recently attended my 20th high school reunion, I can understand the inclination.

All that said, the people who tried too hard--were too orange, were looking like they'd explode while holding poses--usually didn't win. Those who were comfortable with themselves on stage--and were well-defined, of course--did well. They were fun to watch, too. In the end, people are more than the sum of their parts, and even bodybuilding competitions seem to recognize that.

This guy had the crowd eating out of his tanned hand. I love how they oohed and aahed with his every move at the beginning and what he does when he turns around

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Everything's Art 2

A man spending 2 weeks atop a giant easel in the name of peace. A Live Statue. A room covered in pink icing. We're loving ArtPrize.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Everything's Coming Up Art

Theo and I took in well over a hundred pieces of art today thanks to ArtPrize. Over a thousand artists are competing here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the world's largest art cash prizes, which total $449,000.

159 venues within a three-mile radius of downtown Grand Rapids feature a wide range of art. Murals, a 75-foot doll, a giant red ball squished into different locations daily. 100,000 paper airplanes flown from the tops of buildings. A guy spending a few days atop a crane.

That's art, people. In fact, everything was looking like art by the time we were done.

How cool is Grand Rapids?

Meeting Ourselves

Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.
--James Joyce, Ulysses

As I planned this week's theatre games for the women at the overnight shelter, two thoughts dominated the process.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

This is Getting Better All the Time

Because my article on the bodybuilding website is new, it temporarily has a link from the homepage.

My essay on the Russian writer Tolstoy is featured below an ad for HEMO-RAGE, which claims to be "one of the meanest, strongest and cruelest pre-workout detonator this planet has ever seen."

Its creators "went down to the laboratory and cooked up one of the most vicious blends of raging energy inducing, strength signaling, blood volume expanding, pump activating, extreme focus enhancing, fat detonating and muscle building compounds imaginable."

They needed "extra insurance to be able to bring this explosive concoction to you."

HEMO-RAGE sounds a little too much like hemorrhage to me, but if you, gentle reader, are interested in purchasing it, please first note the warning


Friday, September 18, 2009

Taking Tolstoy to the Muscled Masses

A bodybuilding website has published my essay on Tolstoy and weightlifting here.

As you approach the middle of the article, glance at the ad to the left for QuickMass, cookies & cream flavor, and help me figure out what body part is featured there. I'm thinking it's an arm, but there's a belly button-looking thing, too. I just don't know. I guess even experienced fitness writers like myself (it's been an hour, after all) have a lot to learn.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Don't Stop Til You Get Enough

On Monday night I arrived armed with a boombox, Michael Jackson cds, and the thought that a dance party would do us all good.

How often do homeless women get to listen to music or let go and dance? MJ, the most gregarious of the bunch, was at the door while I was getting buzzed in. This is for you, I said, gesturing with the boombox. Oh yeah? She left her boyfriend in the cloud of weed and followed me up the stairs.

Once word got out, "The Way You Make Me Feel" was the winning request; often it was just MJ out dancing in front of the others, but most everyone was groovin' a little in their seats and enjoying the show. After, I told them how I keep thinking about Michael Jackson lately. How, along with the rest of the world, I was rediscovering his music and awed again by his dancing. How I was thinking we don't appreciate people enough while they're living. Here we all are, thinking he's a major talent but keeping our distance because he had turned a little creepy--and there he is, doesn't know how much he's appreciated, and all the money in the world can't buy him some shut-eye. And now he's dead. 

Mmmmhmmm, they said, and got to talking until Shanita said, What good is he to us dead? Let him rest in peace. Was she annoyed I'd brought up the subject, or simply making the valid point that the media was overdoing its coverage? MJ took it as the former and talked back. Shanita responded. They got louder, their language fouler. A few others joined the scene.

An impasse. I had a small group wanting to stay on task with me, but no one could be heard over this racket. The games I had planned would not be suitable now. I joked that maybe I should just put on another song and head on out of there; it would have been a legitimate thing to do, given the circumstances.

But then the noise did die down a bit, and I tried a few passes at keeping interest, wanting to please the few who really seemed to want me there. The best results came when I brought out an Improv book and had them choose a number 1-50 that would determine which pose they'd take on and name its connotations.

#48: hands behind the head. To me, this means relaxing on the beach. This group said in unison: Getting arrested.

#27: your palm on top of partner's palm that faces up. Passing something on the street.

We improvised this scene--quickly, as you don't linger while acting illegally, so to speak. I connected these improvisations with the idea that a way to appreciate people while they're still living is through stories--lasssoing, finally, my theme for the day.

By taking turns every couple of sentences, everyone made up a story together. Jessie began: "Once upon a time, there was a woman who was homeless."

Then I asked for true stories. Something that really happened to you, good, bad, or otherwise. One woman spent the morning at the temp agency; she had wanted to be seen today but was instead given an appointment for later this week. Stella told of meeting with a landlord, and how she felt uncomfortable with the questions he asked. Jessie said she had walked a long distance today between job interviews but had some great prospects. She said you'd think that because she doesn't have kids, it would be easier to get back on her feet, with only herself to support. But it's not.

It's tough being homeless, she said. You don't know until it happens to you.

I'd visited these for women six weeks or so now, and this is the first time they talked about being homeless. I had an idea of how to help them explore their feelings further, but just as I started to ask questions, the volume level rose in the rest of the room. The fight was getting out of hand again, and finally Tina, a large African-American woman who was subbing for the director and wearing a shirt with the lyrics of Maino's "Hi Hater," stepped into the room.


A few people did.


Yes, Ma'am, MJ said.


Yes, Ma'am.

THIS WOMAN HERE GAVE UP HER TIME TO SIT WITH YOU AND HELP YOU DO SOMETHING CREATIVE AND YOU NEED TO RESPECT THAT, DO YOU HEAR, she said, pointing to me. I hadn't really needed saving, but I did appreciate the help with volume control.

Yes, Ma'am, everyone said.

She called Shanita to her office, and as they left the place quieted down somewhat. I turned back to my small group and asked some questions about the stories they'd told earlier. A picture began to emerge of homelessness, showing the complexity of the issue for these women.

It's being exhausted, Jessie said, walking all day long. Not being able to trust others, said Pat; they'll use you for what they need to get by. Feeling hopeful, Jessie said, and motivated that you'll come out of this soon.

But also giving up, said another woman. I was hopeful two years ago that things would change, but not anymore.

Faith, said one. Is faith different than hope? I asked. Hope has a little doubt in it, said Kim.

Usually we end our time by forming prayer requests with our bodies, like human sculptures. But this evening, I asked that each person take one of these feelings and express it with her body, and we'd combine all these into a living picture of homelessness.

Exhausted was on the floor. Motivated stood strong nearby, arms raised in triumph. Not Trusting stood off to the side by herself. Hope was perched midway between Exhausted and Motivated; Faith was, well, in the bathroom, or maybe checking on her laundry.

I pointed out the sculpture to the noisy, still-belligerent other half of the room, said goodbye, and started packing to leave.

Amy! MJ called. One more song?

One more song turned into three. I left the homeless shelter at 10:00pm on a Monday night humming "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough," thinking how glad I was that I had stayed.