Saturday, August 29, 2009

Your Mama Plays with Roaches

Yesterday, on two separate occasions and while holding a three-inch cockroach, I was called a "good mother."

Seems I'm to be admired for providing such pets for my children. And, it must be added, to be feared for losing one of them. Let it be known that our missing hissing giant Madagascar cockroach will not breed with any American friends she may meet in our garage, nor will the roommates she left behind spread "disease juice," as a woman suggested yesterday before leaving her young son in my care. They're just insects, okay? And they're cool.

This got me thinking about my history with odd creatures. Growing up I had a poodle for a pet--dear, departed Snowball--and the occasional gerbil and rabbit. But once I was a full-fledged adult I put myself in the vicinity of some slightly more interesting non-humans.

In Tallahassee, where alligator roadkill was commonplace, I signed up for Reptile Handling, a prerequisite for those who wished to give presentations for the Tallahassee Museum. My specialty was gopher tortoises, but I also learned about and handled snakes and small alligators.

One day, during someone else's presentation, I caught a snake escaping from his cage. Perhaps due to incidents like these, plus all the talk about salmonella, I decided to give up reptile handling once I became pregnant. But I'm proud to say I know the right way to corner a small alligator and grab him so he won't take my finger (all the while trying, not always successfully, to avoid needing the "flip him and make him momentarily unconscious" technique).

Also in Tallahassee I volunteered for a time at an animal rehabilitation center. The center was located on private property in the backwoods of Wakulla County near where the first Tarzan movie was made, and run by a woman trying to save injured opossums from becoming her neighbors' dinner.

Frozen mice for the hawks rested in her freezer, worms wriggled in the frig. A little pot-bellied pig tippy-tapped throughout the house. Hence I always refused food and drink while volunteering, and here too I quit when becoming pregnant. But in the meantime I met a one-eyed horse who loved a three-legged goat, and a baby owl who swayed to the samba. I locked myself into the one-winged pelicans' cage and scrubbed astroturf under their watchful eyes, careful not to disturb the very large spider and web in the corner.

When I birthed a boy who grew to love bugs of all shapes and sizes, I set out to find him a pet that would survive longer than a day in an empty yogurt container punched with air holes. We raised ladybugs and worms, and moved on to the hissing cockroach; Sticky, our first, lived nearly two years. We read books about bugs. I consult my friend Bob Davidson, an entomologist at the Carnegie Museum who has always regaled me with stories about his bug-finding trips (he's got a few named after him), and whose house I've been known to pepper with black plastic ants. He advised me while I wrote an article on an entomologist for Northwestern College--there, too, I learned more about the little creatures that populate our world.

Two cockroaches, then, aren't too big of a deal, especially for a good mom like me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Unless You Was Me, How Could You Judge Me?

unless you was me, how could you judge me?
-rapper Jay-Z in "Blueprint (Momma Loves Me)"

I had been listening to Jay-Z on my way to the women's shelter yesterday in an attempt to pump myself up for what would surely be another rough evening.

Last week, my first time with the women, they put me through the ringer; though I appeared to have passed their test, I couldn't begin to predict what this second day would bring. Try as I might, and even though I had just lifted a bunch of really heavy stuff a bunch of times at the YMCA, I couldn't find my usual bring-it-on attitude. I was more like a doomed and doleful junior high boy caught in an alley: I know you're going to beat the crap out of me, so just get it over with.

But then I walk in there and it's all Hi, Amy and When are we going to start? Shellie, the director, said it again: "They just had to check you out."

I sat down for awhile with some of the women and did what women do: compared the sizes of babies we bore (I won, with Theo at 10lbs 12oz). Off by herself was a woman I'll call MJ--short for Michael Jackson, whom she imitated at random during last week's session--being uncharacteristically quiet and distracted.

I started things up with a joke. "I say 'theatre games,' you say 'oh, no!'"
"Oh, no!"
"Say it like you're angry."
"Oh, no!"
"Say it loud."
"OH NO!"

On we went, through some basic warm-ups, and, thanks to Jay-Z, a segue into characterization. Unless you was me, how could you judge me? His words got the women talking about how we can really know someone if we can't ever walk in their shoes. Through acting we can try, I offered; we can walk as if we were wearing those shoes--stooped, perhaps, or with an easy gait; and we can talk in rapid-fire bullets, or we can meander through slow, poetic ramblings.

Actors try, as best they can, to take on the essence of another person. This is empathy at its core, and empathy is what makes the world go round.

I pulled out a picture of wrestler Triple H and asked everybody to stand like him.

A few took on the pose. MJ let out a fierce growl.

"I'm assuming you're not like this in real life," I said to her.

Everybody, including MJ, nodded that indeed, she was.

"Let's try for some real acting, then." I brought her up in front of the others and showed her a photo of a pensive Ethiopian woman holding a baby. MJ looked a bit disappointed that she'd need to be serious, and I admit I expected her to add a certain flair to draw attention to herself rather than be true to the exercise.

But then she took a moment, gathered her composure, relaxed her face, and completely took on the spirit of the woman in the picture. In acting, this is called "being committed." For what would not be the last time that evening, I offered that perhaps she should be teaching this class, not me.

We continued through other exercises; MJ was a spot-on fashion model, and I dissected her performance so others could see the genius as well. I asked a woman playing "chain smoker" to become a chain smoker entering church, where she couldn't light up. How would that affect her characterization if she couldn't do the thing that was core to her character? She became fidgety, began biting her nails. I invited her and the others to participate, in character, in my "talk show."

"Welcome! I'm excited about our show today. We've got musical guest Jay-Z performing later on in the hour, but first, let's give it up for these special guests right here!"

Each guest was asked to tell what they did with the million dollars each of them happened to win. The prison warden bought a house in the country, because she had grown up on a farm. The snobby girl was moving to a European villa. Jennifer--one woman decided to play the woman sitting next to her--bought out McDonald's.

I milked the show until my Bored-O-Meter went into the red (there's a woman who, at the slightest drop in energy in the room, will stand up and walk off as if she's been offended. I'm never quite sure how she gets back into her seat in time for the next boring moment). I wrapped things up in my talk show host voice, saying "Thank you all, tune in next time," etc., as the actors left to take their seats. MJ walked up and stood next to me.

"Oh, did you want to be on the talk show?" I asked her.

"No. I'm Jay-Z," she said, and proceeded to rap.

I slowly made my way off to the side as she rapped and rhymed her way through a few lines. It all sounded pretty solid, so I figured this must be some song I don't know.

We're all clapping along, enjoying the performance, and then I hear the words "win a million dollars."

She's rapping on the spot about what we just did.

Ten, twelve lines of rhyming perfection ending with the message that if you don't share what you have, if you "keep it all for you," the true riches "won't come back to your crew." The place burst into applause.

We concluded the evening with Body Prayer. A pregnant woman formed her hands into a roof above her head as her request; we all did it with her. It snapped us out of the make-believe, made us face the reality that each of us still wore the same shoes as before--and when you've walked the streets all day, those shoes barely fit over your swollen, tired feet.

But part of the reality in front of us was the pride on MJ's face, the buoyancy of her mood.

Unless you was her, you may never know how good that feels.

Will Act For Food

Carol, Degage's administrative assistant, says that homeless people need to see you're going to keep showing up before they trust you. "Lots of people haven't been there for them in the past."

No one wanted to join in my theatre games yesterday morning at the shelter. Before I left I stopped by Jesse and Ricardo's table, where they were eating pancakes--had they not been, they told me, they'd have joined me again this week. Jesse, as I mentioned before, is young and somewhat sly; Ricardo is older, gentle, warm as the deep brown of his eyes and braids. He was born in Puerto Rico and he eats breakfast at a homeless shelter; that's all I know for sure.

How much can you really get to know people in a transient population? A staff worker at Degage said that on the day of her interview a fistfight broke out in the dining room and she went right home and cried, vowing to never take the job. I can guess at what helped her change her mind, but on the other hand, there are days when even the walk from my car to the shelter makes me question what I'm doing there. Why I think these people need my theatre, and why I think I'm doing a helpful thing.

Maybe because Ricardo looked genuinely disappointed to hear that I wouldn't be back for morning sessions until after Labor Day. And also because when it's good, it's very very good.

Degage has a great dignity index--patrons can sign up for meaningful work and earn points toward the purchase of food and services. The staff and I bounced around the possibility of offering vouchers to participants as is done in other programs. With theatre games, the idea was to reward those who showed up 4 out of 6 times, say, but that plan quickly showed itself to be too optimistic. Later, someone suggested you give food coupons to anyone who agrees to participate.

Sure, I said, and then it hit me: People would be acting for food. They'd be doing what I ask only because, like circus dogs, they'll jump through any hoop for a biscuit.

I don't think I can have that on my conscience. I'm going to keep stewing on some other ideas that don't require as much gumption as does traveling to the third floor for theatre. And in the meanwhile, I’m going to keep showing up.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What Would Michael Jackson Do?

Is it possible that I've managed to mention Michael Jackson three times in a blog that's just one month old?

What will Michael Jackson do? No, not that one--the one who showed up last week for my theatre games at a homeless shelter. It's a woman who's got the moves down, and who would periodically gyrate suggestively throughout the course of the evening, most often during games in which the other participants--me included--needed to mimic her. She was funny and fun, but of the kind that brings about nervous laughter. Like, she added some spice, but I had my heart set on broth and noodles.

As another woman from the shelter had told me, when hearing that we'd be doing acting exercises, "You don't want these women expressing themselves."

I don't totally agree, but at the same time I understand that I'm not a therapist, and that estimates say 70% of the people at the shelter have a mental illness. I have to figure out how to do what I do without bringing anyone to the point of strong emotion. I avoid games with a lot of eye contact or touching, for one. And though we'll try out some feelings like "anger," I quickly move things right along to "frustrated."

Today, as I plan for my sessions, I've got MJ on my mind. I'll be avoiding that exercise where I end up doing the hip thrust alongside her, to be sure. But beyond that, I want to find ways to let her enjoy herself without getting too out of hand or too disruptive to the others. To move past the moonwalk and find her own dance.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Physical Therapy and My Right Shoulder

The diagnosis: tendonitis in the long head bicep tendon; tearing in the anterior deltoid; tightening in the right pectoral. Heading to the gym tonight anyway. So there.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Morning and Evening of the Fourth Day, Part 2

Degage at night is a different place.

Only the women's shelter is open, and all the homeless men who would be inside during the day are out on the sidewalks. Loud arguments are going on. There's singing. People I talked with in the morning are drunk or high this time of night.

Last week I met with Shellie, the director of The Open Door, and talked with the women who stay there about doing theatre games at night. When do we start? they asked. After having had trouble convincing folks in the morning to join me during my sessions, this enthusiasm was welcomed. I eagerly planned out which games I'd do with these women.

Monday night is "meeting." Sometimes there's a speaker; this week, there was me. No one can take showers during meeting. They can't mess around in their lockers. They don't have to participate, but they can't do anything else; in other words, they're not allowed to go to bed until I finish.

It's understandable, then, that these 25 or so women were belligerent from minute one. It had been a terribly muggy day, and they had been battling the elements since 6:00 a.m., when The Open Door closed its doors, until evening when they opened them again. As Brenda told me earlier, "We've got to walk the streets all day. By night, we're tired."

I asked everyone to come and stand with me in the large open space. Two women joined me; no one else could be persuaded. I began a game, but the audience so greatly outnumbered these two volunteers that I feared I was putting them on the spot. I tried a few ideas that would include people who wanted to stay in their seats, which got the ball rolling a little. The next time I asked people to stand with me, four women joined; my empathy was leaving me, however, and I pointed to a poster that announced my morning session at Degage and asked for someone to read the quote on it.

"Every human being is an artist and in the moment of creation, we are at our most sane, most healthy, and most fulfilled. Robert Alexander."

"Do you believe that?" I asked. One woman said yes.

"So do I. That's why I'm here."

(Much to my surprise, I'm becoming a motivational speaker. The crowd remained hostile, however.)

About then I thought I'd try a Theatre of the Oppressed exercise (Emily's Morph) that might just rile them up in a bad way, or it might get them talking. What did I have to lose? It got them talking--whew--about who we follow and why we make decisions. I finished early by doing Body Prayer, an exercise I've been tinkering with and that I described in a previous post. It's a time of vulnerability, but many women took part, even some who had been shooting me hostile looks throughout the evening.

I can hardly pinpoint all the dynamics going on in the room. First, all women. A hierarchy within the women, between old-timers and newbies. The hot day. A white girl trying to make them do stuff. Showers being withheld. A woman who, periodically and unprompted, would perform a dead-on impression of Michael Jackson.

Tanya and Brenda, who had been in my morning group, didn't participate, but they acted as my anchors while I was put through the ringer. I stood my ground pretty well--ranged from cheerleading to pleading ("Look, no one made me come here")--but mostly stood firm.

After I finished, women began coming up to me and thanking me. Not all of them, mind you, but a surprising handful were sincerely thanking me for coming to be with them. It was like the cartoon with the sheepdog and the wolf who cause trouble for each other all day long, only to punch their time cards at the beginning and end of their work hours and agreeably wish each other well. "Mornin', Sam," "Oh, good mornin', Ralph."

Shellie, the director, confirmed my suspicion that I was being tested. "They just needed to check you out," she said. "You come back next week." I went home beaten up but high on the knowledge that I had passed the test.

At home, my life began parsing itself out in stills, as it sometimes does when I cross between these very disparate worlds. I reached in the cabinet for some Ritz, and snap! There was a picture of Amy's cracker shelf. I have a cracker shelf! I checked on my sleeping children, and frozen momentarily in time was a picture of clean, well-fed boys with nary a care.

I've been brought up in the school of never turning the marginalized into metaphors, never seeing work in a homeless shelter as a story for Chicken Soup for the Soul. But the fact remains that these women have things pretty rough, whereas my greatest trial last evening was having to use a white wine glass for my bottle of red. They were rolling their mats out onto the floor right about when I was climbing into a soft, warm bed.

To paraphrase Rumi, out beyond having and having not there is a field--or perhaps a sidewalk--and I hope to meet these women there.

Morning and Evening of the Fourth Day, Part 1

Something about dropping lots of weight down onto your ribcage makes you think you can handle anything that comes your way. There are days when you lift your top weight with no problem. There are days when it hovers down over your chest and someone needs to rescue you. And then there are days when you get it to somewhere in between, you call on your sleeping back muscles, you push with your quads, you growl, you spit, and, well, there's nothing more you can do.

Last night at Degage, the homeless shelter where I've been teaching theatre, I drew on all my resources but got the bar only halfway up. First, let me tell you about the morning.

Last week only Sarah had shown up; and again this week, she made a specific effort to come, even riding her bike because she was out of bus passes. Two other women and three men joined--none of them repeats from the previous three weeks--and things went well. The room was stuffy but the people agreeable, and I led them in a mix of both standard theatre exercises and traditional Theatre of the Oppressed games.

The great thing about TO games is that they do what they propose to do. With other acting games you may or may not really get the point, even despite your enthusiastic participation--you may play catch with an invisible ball and work to keep the weight, size, and shape of the ball consistent, or you might just appease whomever is in charge by pretending to make a good catch.

But TO games, well, once you're in, they start working on you.

With the morning group, I led them in a game called Columbian Hypnosis. You keep your face level with the palm of your partner's hand, which stays in motion. You move together deliberately, fluidly, not too fast.

The game made Tanya angry.

Tanya's been bothered lately by the way everyone assumes that if you're homeless, you're an addict. It's not true! she told me. Test me! Sometimes life just doesn't go the way you want it to. When she was asked to follow someone else's lead, then, she got mad. She was tired of somebody else telling her what to do and who to be.

Even though you knew Brenda wasn't out to get you? Yes.

And what about when you took your turn as leader? I didn't feel right telling others what to do.

As you can imagine, this led to a lot of discussion. Ricardo suggested that instead of seeing it as a power play, perhaps this was like a relationship--sometimes one or the other takes charge for awhile. Others said their partners were good leaders--easy to follow, trustworthy.

I told Tanya that though my intent was not to upset her, what she was feeling was exactly the sort of thing that was supposed to happen: we'd do theatre, and it would get us talking about life.

After the session, I was making sure Tanya was in a good place--she was--when Jesse approached me.

"That was really cool," he said. I looked at him. Young guy, a bit mischievous, but on some level you trust him. Still...

"You messin' with me?" I asked him.

"No, that was really different. It was awesome. Thank you," he said, and walked away.

It was a good morning.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Day 3

Day 3 at Degage, the homeless shelter where I've started teaching a weekly theatre class.

Day 1: 2 participants.
Day 2: 6 participants.
Day 3: 1.

When there's decent weather, folks mill about on the corner outside the building. I saw Don there on my way in and asked if he'd join me again this week. "10:30?" "Yep." "Alright."

Inside I saw DeShonte, also a participant last week.

"You coming?"
"I'm too lazy."
"You had fun last week!"
"I did, I did, but it takes energy. I'm lazy. I'm hyper, too, but I run around here all day and let off steam."

Josh, how about you? "No thanks." Don? Where'd he go?

All these guys had a great time last week. Sometimes, though, its hard to force yourself to do what you know is a good thing if it takes a little work. Good thing this blog is about both theatre and exercise, because there are some parallels here.

A few new people expressed interest, forcing me to again face the question I've yet to figure out a quick answer for: What are these theatre games?

Of course I know what I'm doing and why. Theatre is a language through which human beings can engage in active dialogue on what is important to them.--Augusto Boal. I know that once I get you in the room, you'll enjoy yourself, even during the serious bits. But getting you there? Convincing you it will be worth it? And then convincing you to do it again? I'm no salesman. I second-guess what my audience wants to hear; I fear that if I use words like "acting" and "express yourself," I'll scare people off. One guy today told me he took acting in college, so I switched gears: "These are acting games, but many of them will get us talking about important things."

More than once I heard "You don't want these people expressing themselves"--from the mouths of the people themselves.

So why am I showing up week after week? Why do I think that the woman with the tiny new baby and a toddler with a black eye needs me and my theatre? Why do I think I should play games with men who look like they could knife me in a dark alley?

Sometimes I'm like DeShonte: I'd just rather not. I'm an introvert at heart, and I always come back to the question of why I'm in this field and why I have skills that should exclusively belong to extroverts.

I can't completely answer those questions today, except to say that I can't quite get certain pictures out of my mind.

Last week’s glorious airband, for one.

And the young woman in a Philadelphia shelter for at-risk girls who told me on the first day of our workshop that she'd never be released because she was "too bad." On our final day together, after many exercises, many workings-through of big topics like racism, I told her, "You're not bad, Gina. You're not."

"I know that now," she said.

I can't overlook that the one person who did want to play today showed up specifically for theatre, and had been with me on Day 1. “Sorry I didn’t make it last week,” she said.

And that the shelter got calls yesterday asking if there would be games today. That people were starting to feel comfortable with me, introducing themselves, telling me about their lives. I was walking the streets of downtown and calling people by name.

There's something in the air, and I need to stick around, linger on the corner. Wait for what happens next.


Later this evening, I met with the director of The Open Door, the overnight women’s shelter on the third floor of Degage. Back when I had proposed this class to Degage, I always had these women in mind, but we thought we’d try it first during the day, when there are less activities going on.

“I told the women you were coming, that you wouldn’t be leading them tonight, but that you’d tell them a little about what these theatre games are.”

I protested just a little, pretty much word for word what I had written earlier in this blog post. And before I knew it, it was 9:45pm and I was standing in front of 15 women wearing pajamas.

Right away there were some yawns—it was late, after all—so I snapped my synapses to attention. I told them various things we’d try, the ideas behind them, and they were with me, nodding their heads in agreement.

I finished by telling them how I like to end a session.

“You have Bible studies here, right? There’s always that prayer request time where people talk about what’s been bothering them lately, what’s on their minds. Sometimes people talk and talk, and that’s fine; words are good. But I like to ask people to think about a concern they have and find a way to express it without words. Right here”—I gestured to the space behind me, where we do our games in the mornings—“a woman did this.” I cradled my arms and looked down to where a baby’s eyes would be.

“That’s all she needed to do. We could go ask her later, if we wanted, to tell us more about what she’s dealing with. But right then, that’s all she needed to do.” I paused. “Any questions?”

I looked up to find that a fair number of red eyes are looking back at me. And then one woman says, “My only question is…when do we start?”

Saturday, August 8, 2009

3-Pound Weights and My Right Shoulder

I was doing some rehabilitative shoulder exercises with little tiny weights today when BAM! My muscles stood at attention, making me want to throw on a strapless gown and run into the rain. But because I don't actually own such attire, and even though it was indeed raining, I just took a picture. What's a weightlifting blog without muscle shots, right? Indulgent as they may be.

Slow, high reps with lighter weights tend to produce maximum visual appeal. Usually I'm aiming for power, so I'm doing fast, low reps with heavier weights. I still get muscle, of course--it didn't all just show up today--but not always with such quick, obvious results. This is how bodybuilders do their thing, I guess; they pinpoint some little obscure muscle that's being shy and coax it into making an appearance, temporary as that appearance may be (even as I write, my "pump" is fading).

So forget all that worrying about greed in my last weightlifting post; I'm liking what these 3-pounders can do.


A word on posting pictures of one's guns. (Man, that's fun to say. "Guns.")

I subscribe to the philosophies put forth by Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist in his book Bench Press. Lindqvist had thought of body building as the narcissistic pursuit of a distorted ideal of beauty, as many people do; certainly there are elements of truth to this criticism. A meeting with a young "skinhead" convinced him of the merits of the sport, however.

"I think we should encourage people to say YES to the way their bodies happen to look," Lindqvist said.

"'Are you being consistent, though?' asked the skinhead. 'Think about when you're writing, for example. Are you prepared to say, We should encourage writers to say YES to the way their first drafts happen to look?'"

Just as I coax the best writing I can out of my brain, I try to help the rest of my body reach its potential. And in the same way that I post what I hope is the best of my writing, I posted an image of the best of my arm.

Say it with me: Guns are good.

Friday, August 7, 2009

When The Paint Color Looks Nothing Like The Color In The Little Sample Square...

...but you like it a lot.

Here's our freshly-painted house. I realized after seeing the door and trim in the flesh that my inspiration had come from one of Simon's LEGO Creations. Also that it looks a lot like our grocery store's sign. Oh well--it's still awesome.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Tolstoy and My Right Shoulder

In "How Much Land Does A Man Need?," a short story by Leo Tolstoy, the peasant Pahom comes upon the opportunity to buy some land. He's relieved to be out from under the heavy hand of a landowner who frequently imposed fines when, say, a cow would stray into her oats. His first harvest is good; Pahom is happy. His is special land.

In time, neighboring peasants and their cattle begin to trespass on his land, and Pahom tries to deal with this civilly, but to no avail. He fines the offenders, who begrudge his this and sometimes purposefully send some cows his way. More tension ensues, and Pahom becomes disgruntled. He's thinking a little more land would solve his troubles. He spends three years renting some extra land to sow wheat, saving up some money, and finally is about to cinch a deal to purchase quite a bit more land--1300 acres--for a cheap price (1500 roubles).

Just then, he meets up with a man who tells him about an amazing deal that is to be had far away, in the land of the Bashkirs. The man had just purchased 13,000 acres for 1000 roubles. The chiefs there are simple people, and you can bribe them easily into selling this land for cheap.

Pahom travels there and meets the Bashkirs. They seemed amused at his request, but he can't follow their native tongue well enough to know why. Finally, they offer a proposal:

"We sell it by the day. As much as you can go round on your feet in a day is yours, and the price is 1000 roubles a day."

"But there is one condition: If you don't return on the same day to the spot whence you started, your money is lost."

"All the land you cover will be yours."

They worked out the specifics, and Pahom set out the following day. This was virgin land, gorgeous fertile territory, and every step of the way Pahom found large tracts that he simply couldn't resist marking his way around. He daydreamed of the ox teams he'd buy, the people he'd hire to do the plowing. He would debate with himself as to whether to stop and rest, even when he was very thirsty. At times he knew he'd need to start heading back, but then he'd see another bit of beautiful land. And on and on it went throughout the day.

In time, Pahom's body began giving out on him, but by then he knew that if he stopped, he'd never make it back. The sun was low. He threw away all his belongings save his spade and started to run.

His heart was beating hard. The sun fell lower. He knew he couldn't stop running now, or he'd be thought a fool. But his heart! He knew he wouldn't reach the spot.

Just then, he realized that his starting place was lower on the hillside, and therefore the sun would not have set yet over there. This knowledge pushed him to continue, though he was terribly weak.

The Bashkirs saw him and began to cheer him on.

Pahom fell, his hands reaching forward just far enough to touch the place where he had begun. "Ah, that's a fine fellow!," said the chief. "He has gained much land!"

But--spoiler alert--Pahom was dead.

The Bashkirs "clicked their tongues to show their pity."

Pahom's servant picked up Pahom's spade, dug a grave, and buried his master.

Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.


My shoulder? My shoulder. Part of pushing your limits--addressed in an earlier post on weightlifting--is knowing your limits.

My right shoulder has limits. Sometimes I push these limits, and my shoulder will protest with a crack so loud it wakes my husband in the next room, just before I nearly pass out on the toilet. Sometimes I'm really stupid: I stretch the weak tendons too far, and then I can't do any shoulder work for several weeks. I hear that a snapped tendon takes about 6 months and maybe surgery to heal completely, and would erase all the work I've put in up to this point. How close have I come to that, I wonder?

Poor thing, you're thinking: She has to avoid chin-ups. But you know what? This is a form of greed, just like Pahom's greed. I tell myself I'm just trying to get strong, just working toward that next bench pressing competition in February. I'm young at the sport and certainly just an amateur, but I'd like to do my best, and up my best lift. But I'm also trying for a little more muscle, a little better body. Greed and pride. Coveting. And probably a few other vices thrown in for good measure.

There are lots of lessons in Tolstoy's tale. I think of it often, and for many different reasons. Probably an essay on weightlifting never made it into the major literary criticism books, but today, I'm thinking Tolstoy has something to say about my shoulder.

There's a fine line between noble goals and subtle greed. And you don't want to die trying to find it.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Day 2

Day 2 at Degage.

Day 2 of anything is tough. Day 1 has to its advantage an element of the unknown, which can bring energy and life to the thing. Day 2 you kind of know what's coming, and you start to entertain the little voices in your head saying, Really now: You think you're cut out for this?

But if I've learned anything from benchpressing, it's that you just have to show up and hope for the best. Nothing good--or bad--will happen if you don't. You've done your homework, and now all that's left is to show up for the test.

Last week, two women joined me for what we're calling "theatre games'; we had trouble convincing anyone else. I planned today's meeting with those women in mind, all the while knowing but not really thinking about the fact that nothing's for sure in a homeless shelter from week to week.

So when six men joined me today, I had a moment of Uh Oh.

I started thinking that maybe large grown homeless men might look at me funny when I ask them to, say, walk through pretend JELL-O.

So I did what anyone else would do in these situations--I brought out the toy boat, toy boat, toy boat. I shared some very large, very imaginary pieces of gum and we all chewed noisily.

And before you knew it, there was a husky, smiling African-American man in jeans and sneakers pirouetting across the floor.

I consider it my calling card that I try everything in my power to make sure the passengers are comfortable on their journey to the land of risks. In my experience, you can't dive right into the overly dramatic or serious stuff. You have to build trust among the group, and in the group's relationship to its facilitator. But I'm not talking party games with no purpose; everything I do is related in some way to the main goals. Even the toy boats. And I make sure that's communicated.

I've got an hour to do all of that.

As on last Monday, I showed up today with my list of what we'd do and in what order. And as on last Monday, at some point I threw it on the ground and listened to the muse.

I had originally hoped to do one of my favorite exercises (Human Sculptures), because it's a nice way to tackle serious issues without needing a therapist in the room. But at some point this morning I realized that the guys were having a ball doing the various things we were doing, and that in the midst of that fun, we were hitting some big topics.

Like when we were letting our lungs lead us around the room (DeShonte's suggestion: I had to run with it), I asked that everyone think of someone they admire and walk like that person. My ballet dancer became Barack Obama. Another man, one who appeared to have a brain injury because his sentences just didn't go together, became Batman, to his great delight. And Pat, who had told me before the meeting about his past life in Baltimore, became a businessman.

"It felt like how I used to feel," he said, a little mournfully.

We talked about how our posture gives clues to our psyche and other people. Not feeling secure today? Try walking like you actually are. That's acting, but it works in real life, too. Earl--tall, lanky Earl--felt cool and in control when he became a boxer, but he doesn't have to be a boxer to feel that way. In the context of the other exercises we did, this wasn't just psycho-gobbledy gook; it made some good, helpful sense.

I treasure moments like these. I fall a little in love with my participants at every workshop I lead. At Degage the moments are extra special because there's a good chance I won't see these same people again. I certainly hope to, but at the same time it would be great if they no longer needed the services of a homeless shelter.

I know it's not all roses. I was reminded of that while I was leaving the building and had to dodge a fight in the making, and step over a used condom.

But that doesn't take away from what happened in the moments before.

We played, we talked. We listened, we laughed.

On a rainy day in a homeless shelter, I swung an imaginary electric guitar around, and Barack Obama and a businessman picked up some other instruments and joined me. DeShonte took the vocals. Earl swayed to the beat in his head, and my man who has trouble forming a sentence danced on our pretend stage with pure joy.

Those who have ears to hear, listen to this beautiful music being made.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

How To Tell Them Apart

Dora is the explorer,

Chubby likes her food,

and Lipstick just wants some beauty rest.

Which should make it perfectly clear which gals Theo is holding.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Meet Dora, Lipstick and Chubby

Theo got one hissing cockroach on his 4th birthday. Today we bought three for birthday #6.