Thursday, July 30, 2009

Right Now. Now. And Now.

This week, I've been interviewing people for an article I'm writing on adoption.

I'm hearing about the sorrow of infertility. Getting the call. Meeting a baby for the first time.

All sort of amazing moments are happening all the time.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When Failure is a Good Thing

Now's probably a good enough time to define the "lifting to fail" part of the blog's subtitle, especially since I'm a little sore from doing just that (lifting, not defining).

Strength training jargon turns at least two words on their heads, giving them opposite connotations from how they're used in regular speech:

To fail is good.
To become efficient is bad.

When muscles become efficient at performing a particular exercise, they get a little bored. They've achieved the challenge before them, and now they're like teenagers in an afternoon biology class with eyes at half-mast--nothing short of dancing bears will convince them to do some work. Every six weeks or so, you need to wake up those bored biceps with a new routine.



Let's say that after benching the bar eight times pretty well, you can barely rack it on lift #9. You're fairly obsessive compulsive--you really, really want to do a set of 10 and not 9--but even you know not to be stupid; if you try for one more, someone's going to have to rescue you from under something really, really heavy. You've lifted to fail.

You told your muscles you mean business, and next week, when you try it again, they're going to be like, Oh great, this is the thing where I've got to do that thing again (muscles don't have a very good vocabulary). And they'll probably perform a little better than they did before.

People have all sorts of theories on how often you should do this, or if at all. I'm no doctor or exercise professional, so I won't go into all that. I just really like the concept of:

(1) pushing your limits, which brings about
(2) the best you've ever done, but still you have to
(3) fail--end on a low note--to realize how good you did.

Interestingly, if you take a nice long rest after you've lifted to fail--say, three minutes--and try it again, that thing that you couldn't possibly lift one more time--well, you'll be able to lift it again.

And here's something especially cool.

If, after you've "failed," after you've done your absolute best and can't go on, you have someone help you do one more rep, you'll achieve even more muscle goodness than if you had just been by yourself.

Think about that.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sleepers Awake

The day I visited Degage Ministries to pitch my idea for a theatre class, most everybody was sleeping.

The grill had just closed and the next program hadn't yet started; some folks were milling about on the second floor doing laundry and chores or checking mail, but here, on the main floor, it seemed that most people were slumped over tables snoozing. A lot of men, it seemed, which would make sense given that Degage provides overnight shelter for women only.

Today, though, the place was bustling. People were friendly and talkative, a card game was in full swing in the corner, and only a few people were taking naps. When the reminder came over the microphone that "Theatre Games" would be starting in a few minutes, that's when I heard it:

"Oh no."

I've had my share of bad theatre classes, so I know that "oh no" feeling. There was the semester of Acting 2 that was spent solely in the text of "Green Eggs and Ham"; I don't think I need to go on. And although in college I was always drawn to the weird stuff--Theatre of the Absurd, Poor Theatre--I still managed to spend the next 15 years doing regular stuff instead: stage managing at professional venues, teaching in a middle school, and the like. These types of theatre are quite valid and wonderful in their own right, but something about the usual performance stuff didn't sit right with me, and I nearly gave up the field entirely when I had kids.

And then, about 3 years ago, I read Games for Actors and Non-Actors, a book I had picked up maybe 10 years before. And the angels started to sing.

Theatre of the Oppressed takes theatre out of the hands of professionals and gives it to the people. In this "rehearsal for reality," people can begin to figure out what kind of change they need in their lives and cultures and how to bring that about. TO has been used all over the world for nearly 40 years with no sign of stopping, even though the remarkable man who started it all, Augusto Boal, died this past May. I'm fortunate to have studied with him twice, and with his son, Julian, who has taken over for his father.

I'm quite evangelical about TO, so it will come up often in this blog. It does what it purports to do, and in a very non-intimidating way. Its lack of emphasis on performance--some of the branches of TO, that is--makes it perfect for work with marginalized populations. That's why, when I heard the "oh no" at Degage, I grabbed the microphone.

"I heard that," I said, joking with the heckler. "And I want you to know that I'm not an actor. I've always been a teacher or a director, so I'll only ask you to do things that I'm comfortable doing. But I'm hoping that, at the same time, we'll all be stretched a little as human beings."

And then I stood there. Sometimes even the best speeches don't do what you want them to do. I wanted everyone to rise to their feet, applaud, and join me in the center of the room.

But what happened next was just as good.

A woman slowly walked over near where I was standing and sat down. After another minute or two, a second woman sat next to her. I asked their names, they stood up, and we began.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Exercise Motivation

My poor child. Pulled away from the potholder he was weaving and forced to ride his bike. This is how he chose to express his frustration.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Latest articles

I had fun interviewing Northwestern College's maintenance department for this article.

And visiting Compassionate Heart Ministry in Zeeland, Mich., to write this one (scroll down to "Recharged").

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Pretend I'm Dead.

I first expanded on the idea of a "Pretend I'm Dead" website while at a graduation party. It was this same party, come to think of it, that I interrupted group conversation with a renowned philosopher to point out that, by golly, the bug in my palm was sashaying side to side like a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars." But in another conversation, and without any insects involved, I mentioned the idea that we should all have a place to hear our own eulogies. The current issue of Newsweek says that Ted Kennedy has been in that unique position since being diagnosed with brain cancer; and all personal opinions and lawsuits aside, surely Michael Jackson would have enjoyed reading some nice press about himself.

Back at the graduation party, I was getting that same look I get from Greg when he sees a book of Sylvia Plath's poetry on my bedside table. The look of someone who's rehearsing the conversation they'll have with the reporter: Yes, there were warning signs.

Death aside, it's a good idea, isn't it? I've tried exploring this idea in essays several times, but then I start talking about The Karate Kid, which is actually related but not enough to be in the same essay, and then I realize I've got about three essay topics going in the one piece, and finally I decide the essay will never be suitable for publication. Hence a blog, where all good ideas go to after they've died.

When Anthony Hopkins was in Pittsburgh to film Silence of the Lambs, which features my former professor getting his face eaten off, he had lunch at The Faculty Club, where I worked. The place was buzzing with the news that the actor was there. I was having a bad day, for who knows what reason, and this made me do something I now regret: I snubbed Sir Anthony.

The design of The Faculty Club hid the men's bathroom from any sensible person finding it easily, and Sir Anthony, like nearly every other man called by Mother Nature while dining there, was standing in the hallway looking around perplexed. I was at the far end of the hallway, at just the right distance to either help him or feign ignorance. I chose the latter, in my mind thinking, "Everybody's falling all over him, but not me. He thinks he so great, yeah, well, the knight can find the bathroom himself. Yeah."

Stupid, I know. And not really anything to feel strong remorse over. But I think about that moment every once in awhile; sometimes I call myself names for missing a chance to talk to the great man, and sometimes I think about the ways people assume that others are aware of their own talents, or have heard praise often enough, and how that's not really true at all.

I remember being introduced by a friend to her friend with something like, "Amy's a writer--a really good writer." I just kind of stared. This person had never told me what she thought of my writing, but she made it seem like her comment was a given. This is why you'll often find me writing to authors I like and telling them why.

BuildaBridge International, an arts organization in Philly that I work for on occasion, makes a point of "blessing" people at the culmination of workshops or events. They make sure that no one leaves without having a nice word said about them--publicly, even.

So do it. Blurt out a compliment to that least-suspecting talented person in your midst. I bet it won't be as obvious as you think.

Well then.


Of all the things I thought I'd never do but have--buy a giant hissing cockroach, enter a bench press competition, read Bill Clinton's "My Life" in its entirety--starting a blog was at the top of the list. Mostly this was due to my disdain for the careful navel gazing that goes on in many blogs, which I feared may be contagious. Also, I worried that relating to a mixed (as opposed to fixed) audience would be difficult. And that the next step was joining a women's book club.

Then I thought, Ah, who cares. Let's do this. I've got stuff to say.

So here we go.