Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bench Press, The Story (Part 1)

The week leading up to the competition was rough.

I started a new job. I counted every calorie. I woke up every morning and asked my arm, "Everything okay? No tendonitis today? How about carpal tunnel?"

The nerves threatened to do me in, and when I arrived at the YMCA on Saturday, I saw clues everywhere that maybe this wasn't the place for me.

On a typical day at the Y, you'll see all types of people, all shapes, sizes, and ages. A toddler, hair still wet from swim lessons, will stand defiantly and block your way through the front door. A friendly elderly man is ahead of you at the front desk, checking in. A slightly overweight new mom sweats her way through lunges in the room you pass on the way to the lockers.

Saturday, things looked a little different.

Men without necks: everywhere.
Tattoos and shaved heads: everywhere.
Men whose chest diameter surpassed their total height: all over the place.

I approached the desk to sign in, and the staff member tried in vain to find the T-shirt that came with my pre-registration. "Hers is over there," yelled a trainer. "It's the only 'small.'"

Maybe Amy doesn't belong here.

Not everyone there would easily be suspected of a secret powerlifting life; muscle size does not always equal strength, and some folks looked downright ordinary. There was one guy who came up to my chin--just a little taller than my 9-year-old son--who benched over 500 pounds. (Mesomorphs have all the advantage; were my arms eight inches long, I'd probably be benching 500 pounds, too.)

There was one other woman in my age and weight class, but I didn't realize this because I spent the better part of the competition thinking she was chubby. What fat arms, I thought. No way is she in the 132-148 pound weight class with me.

Turns out that fat was actually solid muscle. We're talking huge triceps, huge traps. We're talking beast.

And we're talking 142 pounds. Uh oh.

(to be continued)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Friday, March 26, 2010

'Twas The Night Before Competition

On the eve of my second bench press competition, I'm thinking about ways my training this year differs from last time around.

Taking Care. Last year I loaded up on Hemp Protein in the two weeks before the competition and, in pictures, I'm a glowing green. This year I have no dairy allergy to contend with, so I went straight for whey protein isolate, the best protein source for muscles.

After workouts, I'd drink a shake while applying ice to any inflamed areas. When the ice pack warmed, I'd massage all angry muscle fibers until they calmed down. And I really, really tried to remember to stretch. These efforts were important, especially as I moved towards higher weights this year.

Ignoring My Trainer. My trainer is a large man who parks his 1972 red corvette legally in a handicapped spot near the entrance to the gym. Not one for subtleties, he tries his full bag of tricks on me and never notices it doesn't help.

"My grandma could lift more than that," he'll tell me, and I fail to vow to best grandma's strength. "Push the damn bar through the ceiling," he'll say, but I already have my own visualization technique. "Get mean," he'll say, but then I catch sight of his belly hanging over me when he gives me a lift-off, and I giggle.

He's helpful, there's no doubt about it, but this year, I learned to not simply follow advice and play the A student. Instead, I've tried to listen to my body, to know when to avoid a certain exercise, or know when to rest even if it's not on the schedule.

Sometimes I'll think I'm taking my trainer's advice, like while I'm benching and he yells things like "Explode!" but a replay of the action would show that the bar is slowly, steadily rising higher. At this level, I can't exactly explode with 130 pounds over my head. Which leads me to Point #3.

Slow and Steady Does It. The sport of bench pressing might seem pretty straightforward, but lots of things are going on all at once.

First off, there are rules to follow. The bar must touch the chest; the head and buttocks must stay in contact with the bench; feet cannot lift off the floor; hands a certain width apart; the bar should not move downward while traveling upwards; no re-racking until the judge calls it.

Within that structure, there is room for discrepancies in technique, and minor shifts that could affect your success. How fast do you bring the bar down? How many--and which--muscles do you activate, and when? The five seconds or so are loaded with decisions, and they go by quickly.

There's a comfort that only comes with time, and I've noticed it this year while benching. I don't have to think as much now; the right rhythm is usually there, for the most part.

Superstitious About Superstitions. On a day when I was sure that if I wore a certain shirt I'd lift my personal best, I decided to throw all superstitions out the window. I wore a different shirt. I sniffed the Vicks Inhaler after the drink of water instead of before. I wrapped my wrists a little looser. Superstitions need to be separated out from legitimate routines or equipment, of course--I've got a little mental thing I do on the bench after all the necessary wiggling to get in place, and I won't give either of those up. But I knew I needed to walk away from unnecessary fears and just do what I've been training to do.

Like the fear of writing too much when I should be getting my head in the game, especially the day before the competition.


Maybe it's time to wrap this up.

Tune in tomorrow to find out what Amy lifted--and, not that it matters, what she wore.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

At the Outdoor Sculpture Garden

The wasp crosses Eve’s breast, testing leg-stick on Rodin’s bronze fingerprints,
and the woman concerns herself only with this:
the raising of arms and a knee, forever, the burden
eased by a protrusion of alloy beneath her left foot.
These limbs, wielded by Eve against all she now knows, cradle the wasp's nest.
Banished, nature finds a way to her;
and you come to look,
after the apple, and before
she is stung.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Not Your Mother's Job Training

How to monitor activity on 12 security cameras.

What to do if someone is face down on the pavement.

Who to call when a woman has handprints around her neck.

I can't say I've ever had job training like yesterday's session at the homeless shelter. Tonight is my first shift alone, and I have a feeling I'm in for some surprises. Wish me luck--and safety, and good instincts, and grace and love toward all I meet.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Number 23

Last night at The Open Door, a woman mimed sealing an envelope. The woman next to her silently nodded her understanding, resealed another envelope, and passed it on. Three more women earnestly handled this invisible object, and when asked later, each was sure she had been rolling a joint. Hilarity broke the silence.

Also at The Open Door, a young woman wore a splint on her arm. She had been assaulted, she said, her hand twisted at such an extreme angle that the ligaments and tendons tore completely. Doctors had to reattach her hand.

The sounds of Al Green played on a CD player later in the evening, and other women, sitting and standing, swayed to his smooth rhythms. Just a few feet away, in the hall, a teenager threatened to call the cops on her mother, who had just been playing air guitar in a pantomime. She broke my phone, the daughter cried. She spent the rent money on beer. I can't do this anymore.

Last night marked the 23rd time I led theatre games with the women. I began volunteering last August; later this week, I'll become an official staff member. I'll be with the women on weekends, handling late-shift intake, the pre-bedtime routines, and all the surprises that make each day there unique. (When I asked for time off around my bench press competition, the executive director said, "Bench press? I guess God is really preparing you for this job!" I was afraid to ask for further clarification.)

Theatre games will be on hold until I get my bearings, and until they find someone to handle the door for that hour. I announced all this to the women at the end of yesterday evening and was met with kindness. They thanked me for "making them think," as one woman put it. And they threatened to kidnap me so I'd stay past the weekends.

"One word," said Jessie, who's been with me since the beginning. "Welcome."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In The Second Year, The Shock Remains

I accept any and all financial obligations for any injuries suffered by me in said event.

I attest and verify that I am physically fit and have been sufficiently trained for the completion of this event.

In this, my second year filling out this form, the shock--and panic--of writing "Amy" under "Bench Press" has not lessened. Not a bit.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What You Don't Know

I made a point of stopping today to talk with a man who, on Sundays, posts himself on a corner between two churches. Hoping to catch the before-and-after-prayers traffic, he carries a cardboard sign that reads, "HOMELESS - Please Help."

His name is John. I brought along a brochure for the shelter where I teach theatre, as I wanted to be sure he knew about their services. Turns out he's been there off and on--they gave him the shoes on his feet, he pointed out--but the shelter's gathering room is too noisy for him. He gets claustrophobic, he says, so when he needs something, like the shoes, he calls and arranges for a private meeting.

John could avail himself of more help, then, but even the availing is a struggle. It's something to consider: mental illness most likely caused John's homelessness, and is also preventing him from climbing back out.

I hear this kind of thing often: that access to resources and desire to change aren't always enough to help someone out of homelessness. For example, no one in Grand Rapids has any excuse to go hungry, as there are eight free meals to be had on any given weekday at various locations downtown. But the scene there, often raucous, can be a trigger to return to old ways. A very respectable woman told me that just being present in such a situation makes her want a joint, which in turn causes her to offer--or accept a request for--her services to men in order to pay for said joint.

Imagine making a choice between having food and avoiding temptation. The woman I talked to chooses the latter, and spends five hungry hours in the library, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. every day.

This is the stuff that alters perceptions, and it happens to me regularly while at the shelter. Seeing a woman come "home" from her minimum-wage job to sleep at the shelter, or watching a 57-year-old alcoholic dance with marvelous instinct, and with technique that simply can't be taught, will do that to you.

In recent theatre sessions, the women and I have looked at how society sees the homeless. I call this work "What You Don't Know."

I'll let the women speak for themselves.

--I never thought I'd be in this position.

--People say, You don't look like you're homeless. What's homeless supposed to look like? Dirty?

--I sit at the bus terminal when it's cold. They've started kicking people out. You're minding your own business, and they put you out.

--Everybody gives money to Haiti; people get help if they're homeless because of an earthquake or tornado. But it doesn't matter how you became homeless. You're homeless, and you need help.

--There are more homeless than you realize, like people who had family to take them in, or gave them money. They'd be on the street otherwise.

--A guy I know hired me to clean his dad's house. He said, "Don't tell my dad you're homeless or he won't like you." Me and the dad got along great! We had a wonderful time. If I had told him... but it would still be me! I would be the same person as the one he liked.

--You're not supposed to judge anybody. Some have more, others have less. You are definitely blessed if you have a home.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


In a New Yorker cartoon by Barbara Smaller, two children play in a sandbox. One says to the other, "It's all learning-is-fun and invented spelling then -- bam! -- second grade."

After a morning spent in my son's kindergarten class, I get the joke.

Let me admit up front that I'm not the ideal parent helper. I have very little patience with children other than my own. I forget to wear the volunteer badge. I wear beads that dangle when I lean over to help the children and which have, on occasion, been temporarily woven into their projects with yarn. My sons hold the following dialogue with me each night before my scheduled turns:

ME: What's the last thing I want to do tomorrow?
OFFSPRING: Help in my class.
ME: Why am I doing it?
OFFSPRING: Because you love us.

I'm not all bad. I always suck it up and smile and offer no clues to my true feelings. Until one day last October.

I'm poised and ready to help, beads reined in by the badge, which I've remembered to fetch. The teacher is giving instructions.

--Okay, kids. When you come to this learning center, you'll draw something related to Halloween, then spell the word on the line underneath. If I draw this, for example, what would we write?
--Very good. (Murmurs something about book spelling with an "h.") Now go ahead and choose a center.

I looked around. GOST? Was anyone else seeing this? No; the only adults in the room were me, who spells ghost with an h, and the teacher, who doesn't. What happened next is easy to guess: 18 children drew ghosts and wrote GOST in shaky letters underneath.

At the teacher conference a week later, I arrived stricken. Yes, yes, my child has a backwards pencil grip; we'll correct that by junior high. But GOST, lady. Please. Talk to me.

This kindly, patient teacher explained "invented spelling" to me. I remained unconvinced for a time, arguing that it's surely contributing to the downfall of society, right up there with LOL and texting. And that much of learning happens visually; we don't want the cameras in these little brains forever framing GOST instead of GHOST.

But then she posed this idea: Invented spelling frees a child to learn to write. Rather than express themselves only with words they're sure they can spell, children will instead write whatever comes to mind, however they can get it down.

"Huh," I said, shifting in the little tiny chair. "Is that so."

I started to see her side. I threw out the occasional but, yet I felt better knowing I wouldn't need to become a spelling activist anytime soon. She offered to write the correct spellings under Theo's attempts, and this satisfied me. I was officially cool with invented spelling, though its outcomes were still yet unproven.

Until yesterday. A very proud Theo comes to me and says, "I wrote a story." Sure enough, he did--a little ditty scrawled in black marker, with words like qigiea and apol and urz. The plot concerned his tooth being wiggly after he bit into an apple. It had a clear beginning, middle, and end. I made all over him for this fine first attempt.

Cnseder me uh FAN of nvnted spllng.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Girl Walks Into A Gym

So I'm walking around in a tank top and my son says to me, "Whoa, Mom, your muscles look like a man's."

He's six; this was a compliment. The boy has no idea that most moms don't bench press 125.

But it got me thinking. Did I have the motto of one of my favorite exercise books--"Lift Like A Man, Look Like A Goddess"--all wrong?

Last night, a pretty young thing walked into the weight room, and the productivity of all the men fell into a steep decline. The man I pay to train me followed her around suggesting exercises and correcting her technique. An 18-year-old, who has told me in the past about his obsession with exercise, halted everything to become her human stopwatch, sparing the helpless maiden a turn of her neck toward the clock to time her own crunches.

She certainly fit in the goddess category much better than I. But after she tried--and failed--to bench the bar, with any number of male spotters hovering over her pectorals, I sat down for my turn and heard my trainer say to her, "This is how it's done."

I'll take that any day. And maybe apply a little lip gloss next time.