Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Year in Books

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Sometimes God chooses unlikely routes of communication.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The Incarnation," I announce.

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

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

Amen, they say.

"The Incarnation, Take Three."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Open Letter to The Tooth Fairy

Dear Tooth Fairy,

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

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

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


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

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

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


Disgruntled in Grand Rapids

Saturday, December 19, 2009

PT and Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas Preparations

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

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

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

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

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

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

And here's where it gets interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone deserves.

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

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

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Photo of the Day

Even snowtroopers need a break from the holiday hubbub.

photo credit: Simon, age 9

Monday, December 7, 2009


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

'Twas Lost But Now Is Found

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

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

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Facing Mortality

Nov 21

Nov 26-29
Began work on book about death.

Nov 27
Doctor's appointment.

Nov 30
Doctor's appointment.

Dec 1

Dec 2
Allergy shots. Began Philip Roth novel.

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