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.

Sticking Points

Some major gains were had Monday night at the YMCA and at Degage. Experiences at the one often inform those at the other, as I mentioned recently, and Monday was no exception.

At the YMCA I beat my own record of reps at the higher weights, which was a welcome event after weeks of seeing no obvious progress. Better still, this success came at moments when I met up with my sticking points and was finally able to push on through.

Sticking points are just that: places where you get stuck and can't get the bar past that point, usually when you're repping out. Strength has something to do with it, as does technique, but they're a bugger either way. Aside from the times when I'm out of power and can't get the thing off my chest, my sticking point usually happens midway up--I'm strong enough to hold the bar there until I'm rescued, but I can't do much else.

A remedy for sticking points involves setting yourself up at a Smith machine or other cage that can hold the bar where you want it. I've set it at the midway point, loaded the bar to 130 or so, and slammed that thing hard until suddenly realizing that I've been growling in public and probably should stop. The idea is that next time you're doing a complete lift at lesser weight, you won't hit an impasse.

Monday, after several reps at higher weights, I hit my sticking point;
said, through clenched teeth, DON'T. TOUCH. IT. to Greg, my spotter;
got my back muscles in gear and
pushed that baby up.

The whole thing seemed to take a really long time, like I had decided to nap while holding lots of weight above my chest. But it also felt almost effortless once I knew how to get the right muscles activated. I'll reap those rewards for some time, because that type of intensity will certainly increase my strength and train my muscles to wake up at just the right times.

At the homeless shelter, too, I hit an impasse and pushed through. I'll tell you about it soon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Monday's Challenges

I really just hate benching 65 pounds.

In order to lift your heaviest, you need to warm up at a lower weight. 65, 75 is enough to wake my muscles but not sap any strength needed for the remaining sets, but the bar is bouncy at this weight, flying up and down with a little spring in its step, and I get more nervous with each rep. Did I struggle a little there? At sixty-five? Should I hang my hat now and forget about 115?

When I move up to sets at 90, 95, all the necessary muscles come into play, even the upper back and quads. The bar feels solid coming down and going back up, like wading through water. 3 sets of 5 reps at 9o feels good. On the decline bench, where your head is much lower than your knees, I can do twice as many reps at 90, and that's really fun. Greg, who spots me, has a slightly different take on the situation, as he's getting the spray from me huffing my way through 3 sets of 10 reps at 90. But as far as I'm concerned, it's a ball of fun.

But load the bar to 100 or more on the flat bench, and I can't enjoy things so much. The brain must shift to autodrive--as I was once coached to do, I need to "stop thinking and push the damn bar through the ceiling." They're real self-esteem snatchers, these sets, but on that week when you do one more rep than the weeks before, it's all worth it.

On Mondays, after bench pressing and other chest and shoulder work, I leave the YMCA and head to a homeless shelter to run a late evening theatre class with the women who stay overnight. This, too, is a weighty challenge for me; click on "theatre with the homeless" at the right there and you'll see the difficulties I face. It's tough, but I go in knowing I can survive anything for an hour, just as my pride can withstand knowing a heavy bar beat me this week.

Somehow, having both challenges on the same evening is helpful.

If I do well on the bench Monday night, I'm happy and confident walking into the shelter. (It's hard not to feel self-assured when, with pecs pumped, your chest proudly enters a room before the rest of you--an experience I'm not familiar with otherwise.) To stand in front of 20, 30 women who have walked the streets all day and ask them to make silly faces or tell me a true story takes a combination of guts, mojo and unflappable poise, I'm finding; I would have been chewed up and spit out by now if things were otherwise.

But if I don't make any obvious gains during my workout Monday evening, I'm reminded that I do have limitations, that certain situations are out of my control, and that the only thing I can do is walk into that shelter and give it my best shot. Some nights at the shelter feel like 65 pounds: the air in the room is suspiciously comfortable, I become too self-aware, and events run a little thin. A woman I paired myself up with during an exercise a few weeks ago told me, "I think I'm going to pee myself," and I'm like, "That's cool, we can stop now, no problem"--not exactly the deep profound moment I'm aiming for. The 90+ pound nights, like this one, all my theatre muscles are flexed and I'm ready for action. I went home that night sore but with nothing broken.

No one's making me lift 100 pounds, and it was my idea to teach this theatre class. Both of these Monday efforts strain my psyche and test my strength--and will continue to do so in new and different ways as the weight goes up at the Y, and at the shelter, where the dynamics change virtually every week. In both situations, my goal is to improve the lives of all involved, including myself. Making big muscles helps others? It's true. A few years ago, I found myself telling a fellow participant in a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop that I wouldn't be there had I never joined the Y. There's a connection.

But that's a blog post for another day--maybe a Tuesday.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Five Inches Are Better Than Four

Each of us can point to moments in our lives when our senses are awakened, when the world comes into focus in a new way. The majesty of a sunset stirs our longings for the greater good. A passage in a book articulates something we've always known but couldn't put into words. When we experience these precious moments, something deep and meaningful inspires our very souls.

Mine happened at a strip joint.

I was driving by The Velvet Touch when I saw the sign: AMATEUR NIGHT TUESDAY. By gum, I said to myself: I could be a stripper. Of all the things I had thought to do with my life--writer? editor? director? urban planner?--I hadn't considered synchronizing my undressing with music, because God hadn't give me the right goods. There were other considerations, too, of course--I mean, I can't really walk well in heels--but now all that was tossed to the side like so many clothes, and the doors to my future flew wide open. We're told in this country that we can be anything we want to be, and now, by golly, I knew it to be true.

The stripping revelation--which remained simply that--was followed by a similar experience when I recently learned about the sport of Figure Competitions. Figure is like bodybuilding minus the steroids and cartwheels; you're aiming for low body fat and big, natural muscles. While checking it out online, I saw that I stood a chance against the women who compete, and ended up buying tickets to an event at the end of this month to see what the sport is all about.

Meanwhile, a few concerns:

Fear of being orange: Tans are essential under the hot stage lights. A tanning booth, creams and sprays are the only ways to truly get dark.

Fear of tripping: Wendy Page says that four inch heels just won't do--gotta be five. Does Dansko--my orthopedic brand of choice--make 5-inch heels?

Fear of bikinis: "Your suit should cover only what is necessary," says Page. One photo showed a woman applying glue to the edges of her bikini. 'Nuff said.

Fear of makeup: I was at The Body Shop the other day buying face cleanser and the saleswoman asked me "how I was doing with mascara."

"I don't wear mascara."
"You don't?"
"My eyelashes are black already."
"We sell clear mascara."
I didn't know how to answer that one.

Fear of disappearing entirely: Somewhere along the road to ten percent body fat, a "cup size or two" falls by the wayside, says Page. I know that sports are demanding, but can they demand something that doesn't already exist?

Figure is indeed a sport and no bikini contest; if you've still got doubts, check out a previous post in which I talk about why the pursuit of muscle can be as noble a cause as many others out there.

Figure Coach Terry Stokes says of the training and dieting leading up to a figure competition, "The journey you are about to undertake is going to be one of the most difficult you will ever embark on, IF NOT THE MOST DIFFICULT. It is one of hard work, determination and a single-mindedness bordering on obsession……. and often lonely."

Greg said, "You couldn't eat chips for, like, six months."

All fears aside, that might very well be the most difficult thing I'll ever do.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Poll

Which do you find more frightening?

(a) the hissing cockroach in the previous post

(b) a remote-controlled tarantula

(c) a party with 6 kids wearing 3-D glasses

Roach Rescue

...............Holy hissing roaches, Batman!

Cockroach #1 disappeared while playing in a LEGO fort; yesterday, #2 nearly became a permanent part of the Bat Cave. Special thanks to Greg and his work deconstructing the Bat Steps, which made just enough room for me to get in there and execute the final stage of the rescue. This reminds me of the "dead mouse in the washing machine" incident of our early married days, except no one threw up this time.

No roaches were harmed in the filming of
this rescue.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Up Against the Wall

To move a car you must push a wall.

According to trainer Lori Incledon, a great StrongWoman exercise to help you work up to moving cars is simply to push as hard as you can against a wall.

I tried this the other day and hurt myself. I'm always hurting myself, but when I do it trying something ridiculous I just want to give myself a good kick in the pants, which would hurt even more.

No one's going to move a wall. Well, maybe this guy could, but the rest of us would just be huffing and puffing. After trying to move a wall, though, a car is nothing. At least I assume so, but I haven't tried it yet, because I hurt myself. Remember?

This week I've got a bum knee, an inflamed bicep tendon, and a fickle lower back. I can't do much about any of these except hope they get better, because I'm like a schoolgirl in love when it comes to weightlifting. Maybe it's mixing metaphors to say it, but right now these injuries are my walls. They test my patience, endurance, and self-esteem. I worry that one day I'll have to face the fact that these particular walls are closing in on me, that I've reached my physical limits, and that weightlifting can only be for fun, not for sport. And that I need to convince Greg to let me go out for Figure. And learn to walk in heels.

Until then, I'll keep trying--to push walls, move cars, wear heels, all of the above. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

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