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 Jesus! Jesus shines a light into the darkness. The batteries 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?