Thursday, April 29, 2010

To everything there is a season

Maybe it's not a good idea to quit your job at a homeless shelter and drive home, insert Soderbergh's Che Part 2 into your DVD player and rewatch the final scene, where Che is fatally shot for his efforts to help the poor in Bolivia. And maybe it's not a good idea to watch the scene that happens just before, when a guard asks Che who he believes in if not in God. "Mankind," he answers.

Or maybe that's just what's needed. I'm not sure quite yet.

I did good work at the shelter. A coworker was spot on when she said this:

You sweet but you strong. You love the women, but at the same time you give the impression they better hope you left your other side at home.

And now the form of that work has come to an end. The poor we will always have with us, and other projects are in the queue. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


a paper on my desk that reads

boy on a plane

memorize poetry

police report

the belly fat cure

intention vs effect

open other room in hotel

woman seen from behind: me

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Early Retirement

Shaky, pale, and recently released from wrist and elbow wraps, I answered my husband's questions after my last lift of the bench press competition.

Consider this video an official announcement: I'm retiring.

Did I ever tell you about the time I sang in an a cappella quartet and couldn't find my note? Rehearsals, I was spot on. Came time to perform, the pitch escaped me. Didn't help that the conductor transposed the whole thing up a key at the last minute--that aside, I couldn't perform under pressure.

Still can't. I've never been a performer--that is, making everything perfect in a single shot. For example--oh, I don't know, say pushing a heavy bar off your chest. Spending three seconds hoping your diet, training, allergies and tendonitis cooperate and allow you to do the thing you've been doing in private for six months. While everyone watches. Including a butt and chest judge.

Just for instance.

Later on the day of the competition, I went to work at the shelter. From the hours of 8:00pm to midnight, I negotiated with a drunk woman, headed off a fight in the bathroom, and steered a woman away from suicide.

That kind of pressure I can handle: show up and make good with whatever comes my way. None of this one-chance-at-success business. Sure, I benched 125 in the end, but the pressure nearly did me in.

I'll miss some of my bench press training. Floor presses with 50-pound dumbbells. Being called "Fluffy" and, alternately, "Beast," by my trainer.

But I won't stop lifting heavy. And I should admit that shortly after this video was filmed, I struck up a conversation with a woman who runs a somewhat clandestine, underground powerlifting gym that turns out some serious lifters, including the woman who bested me by 5 pounds. The talk ended with her writing a phone number in my workout log, on the last page.

Having run out of pages, I shelved that log and her number for now. This week, I started a new tablet with new, still heavy workouts, which also include a trip to another gym for my favorite BodyCombat class.

"So it is no more, because it was my last year of competition, and I would like to announce officially that I am retiring."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Art for All

Jan walked into my office, moved aside some papers, sat on the desk and said, "I almost died last week."

Jan is homeless. She's a smoker, and the oxygen level in her blood reached near fatal numbers last Tuesday. Poor nutrition and a night shift job contributed to the situation, and she's been coughing horrendously for weeks now. The doctor took one look at her test results and told her it didn't make sense that she's alive.

What's it like to hear that? I asked her. She shook her head.

I'm grateful, she said. I want to help people.

I asked if she'd like to share her story later that evening with the other women staying at the shelter.

Jan hesitated. No, she said, not yet. I've been thinking about it all day. I'll probably write a poem.

Save it for the poem, I said.

Poems come out of me, too, when I'm faced with situations that require delicate handling. I don't know Jan's history with writing, but I'm glad she turns to it to see her through.

Because art is for all.

A colleague of mine in Philadelphia told me she likes to set up shop outside of exclusive arts festivals with her loom. Encouraging random passers-by to weave as they will, she ends each day with a tapestry made almost entirely by people who previously knew nothing about the textile arts--people who would have never shelled out the festival's big registration fee.

Augusto Boal, founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, which I lead at the shelter, spent his life making sure the arts are accessible to all. His strongest statement on the matter was probably this one:

I believe that all the truly revolutionary theatrical groups should transfer to the people the means of production in the theater so that the people themselves may utilize them. The theater is a weapon, and it is the people who should wield it.

This quote comes right after his complaint that spectators often "leave their brains with their hats upon entering the theater," which is why he began to call his audiences "spect-actors" instead, encouraging them to participate in the action, to "rehearse for reality."

I could hand Jan a really meaningful poem on death, and she'd probably get a lot out of it, but right now what she needs is to sit and wrestle with death and a pen.

The end result might not be suitable for publication; I'm not arguing that amateur work should nudge aside that of professionals, at least not necessarily. But art is for all and any to take part. Art for art's sake is good, and art as a means for change, as a tool, is equally valid.

Later that same evening, a man called looking for another staff member. When I told him she wasn't available, he asked if he could read me his poem. He reads it to people who will listen, he said, usually his fellow patrons during the shelter's dining room hours.

It's from Genesis, he said. God gave it to me.

He began to read. I'm not much for rhyme, but his warm baritone delivery of the rhyming couplets was soothing. It was quiet by this time in the shelter, with only faint snores heard outside my office.

A few minutes before midnight, he wrapped up his rhyming version of the first book of the Bible, which God had given to someone else to write.

My evening at the shelter began and ended with poetry. As it should.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Bench Press, The Story (Part 2)

Read Part One here.

After my T-shirt was found and before the competition began, I ran into Gideon.

You remember Gideon--no hair, swirly mustache, bencher of 525 pounds. We said our hellos and compared notes from the previous year: I planned to make a 15-pound jump, I said, and he said he wasn't lifting heavy today, maybe he'd only go for 540. Loser. (Your perspective gets skewed at these events--lots of guys would bench over 500 today, and one guy deadlifted 700. It's like when I worked at a fancy crystal shop and the $200 vases appeared quite reasonable.)

He asked if I was nervous. I admitted as much--my constant pacing already told the story--but I felt strong today, and therefore confident. Gideon said he used to be nervous throughout an entire competition, but now he's cool until the moment he sits on the bench and gets his head in the game.

"You can't even talk to me at that point," he said. "I'm somewhere else."

Indeed he was. On his first lift of 500, the genial man's face turned rigid. His eyes were on the ceiling, and he took a few focused breaths. Then he lay himself down and pushed that baby up.

My first lift--at 120--posed no problem either. Second lift would be 125, which I've gotten 7 out of the 10 times I've tried.

Make that 7 out of 11. The day of the competition, on the second of three lifts, I missed it.

Bring on the mind games.

I'm strong today, my injuries are at bay, but I didn't get a number I knew I could get. Now my nerves were neck and neck with my confidence thanks to the pressure: I now had only one more chance to get a weight I knew I could do.

Hindsight tells me the reason I faltered was probably because of my weight, not the bar's. The days I had gotten 125--and one day when I all but successfully benched 130--my body weight had been high. I didn't realize how high, because as I found out when I weighed in at the competition, my scale at home was a full 8 pounds off from the YMCA's. I just barely made it into the 148.75 weight class.

But nerves got the best of me the week leading up to the competition. I'd eat but lose weight. I now see that helped me stay in my class, but it also meant that perhaps I wasn't getting the calories I needed.

I didn't know any of that between my second and third lifts. All I knew was that I was at my strongest on this day, but I failed to get 125. And I wasn't sure what to do differently the next time around.

I thought of Gideon. It couldn't hurt to try whatever it was that he does, I figured, for my third and final lift.

You can watch the final attempt at 125 here. What you won't see is all the pacing I did just prior--Greg filmed me because he says it was funny, but had to edit it down for time. And you can't see my face, but thanks to a YMCA trainer who took moment-by-moment close-up photos, I can report that I was doing some major work, and that everything turned out fine: I successfully benched 125.

I'm glad there's documentation because frankly, it's all a big blur. I thought I was on that bench forever.

Soon after, I decided that forever was long enough.

Stay tuned for Part 3: Why I'm Retiring.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Rising from the Trash

Yesterday, Tracey got married.

She told me this last night when she arrived at the shelter where I am an evening supervisor. She wrote "Brown" instead of "Johnson" on the sign-in sheet, and flashed a copy of the official paper.

"I got married!" she beamed.

Today is Easter.

Hope for Christians, and new life for all who live in climates where spring is most welcome. New life, new birth.

Birth can be messy.

We'd like to think of weddings as white and pure, not as a ceremony between people who spend their honeymoon in separate homeless shelters. A man and a woman who have a four-year-old daughter. A bride who was raped at age 11, became pregnant, and had a son.

But this wedding is a new start for Tracey. As a married couple, she and her husband will be able to secure housing more easily. It's a messy start, yes, but sometimes birth requires that. To celebrate, Tracey opened a few tins of cookies and shared them with everyone. The guests at this makeshift reception conversed over food and drink near the mats they'd sleep on later.

As Tracey relayed the account of how she and her husband met, she caught sight of something.

Easter grass, laying in the trash. Discarded. The plastic ribbon kind that makes a mess everywhere no matter how you try to contain it.

Tracey set down her cookies for a moment and gathered the best strands.

"For my kids," she said, beaming once again. "For their baskets."

Today is Easter. And yesterday, Tracey got married.