Friday, January 28, 2011


Sloths sleep most of the day. They eat what's within reach, mostly, and because pickings are slim when you're upside down in a tree, they conserve energy rather than go hunt down more grub. After digesting this vegetation, they wait for a rainstorm to disguise the release of waste products, as any attention by predators would leave them and their limited muscle mass helpless. If a week has gone by dry, they slowly make their way down the tree and dispose of about two pounds of feces, about a fifth of their body weight. Then, they make their way back up to sleep off the journey.

Today I helped research and sew a sloth for a shoebox diorama. Yesterday, I received a rejection letter for an essay on zeal. This rejection was passionate, let me tell you. Full of zest. Good thing it was from a Christian publication, or they might have just outrightly said, "You suck. Give it up now."

One of the criticisms at my attempt to address zeal was that saying we ought to have fervor just makes the reader feel guilty. "Does nothing to help us actually gain it."

And I ask you: How do I make you feel zeal?

If I knew the answer, I'd write a bestseller and rouse the world. But I can only lead the horses to water. I can't make them drink anymore than I can make you fall in love. All I can do is point you toward examples.

Like this one: According to The National Zoo's website, sloths know how to bring a little passion to the table when it's called for.
Most individual sloths are solitary creatures, so when a female is ready to mate, she lets out a high-pitched scream in the middle of the night to attract a mate. Within a few hours, any males in the area slowly move in her direction. If two males arrive at the same time, they each grasp a tree branch with their back legs and swing one or both front legs at one another. The males continue their upside-down wrestling match until one gives up and leaves. *
Now, I know better than to suggest you find inspiration in the sloth; I don't want you to feel guilty. But if a creature who sleeps 18 hours a day can find it in himself to wrestle upside down for a little love, well, hell. He deserves a mention.

*this didn't make it into the diorama

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Thursday nights, my ten-year old son does tae kwon do, and I go to boxing.

Simon quotes his teacher as saying, "You learn these moves so you never have to use them." I questioned that line of thinking, being the one who pays for the class. Practice something for nothing? Come on.

At this point I should quote a martial arts authority on the spirit of the warrior and preserving peace and all that, but as I said, I've got boxing tonight, and that's what's on my mind.

In boxing, you hit and get hit. You try not to get hit, but in order to hit, you have to come within range of your opponent, and you will get hit. If you stay away, you'll never accumulate the points needed to win. You practice both offense and defense--how to punch, and how to parry a punch. You have to enter the fight, bring the fight in, and do your best to dominate.

When Simon read the family Christmas letter I wrote last month, he turned bright red. I was sure this was due to my mentioning his hygiene as lacking at this age, but no: he couldn't believe I used the words tae kwon do. This is the equivalent, he's been told, of tapping a bully on the shoulder, or taping "kick me" to his back.

Whereas boxing is more along the lines of pushing through the swinging door of the local watering hole with guns drawn.

George Foreman said recently that boxing changes a kids' character for the good: "They stop being followers and they become leaders. You don't have to be heavyweight champion of the world, but it instills in you something about leadership."

I'm sure this is true. But I prefer that I be the one entering fights, and my son learns defense. Next stop is figuring out why I prefer to fight, period. But for now, there's dinner to be had and gloves to be packed.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Spare Change

In a recent column, Leonard Pitts writes about Ted Williams, the homeless former announcer who had several days of fame when his golden voice was discovered.

After a few days of goodwill and celebrity status, Williams was detained for a violent argument with his daughter. Soon after, he enters rehab. Pitts is not surprised. He writes,

You don’t get to where Ted Williams got in his life unless you have some serious, as they say, issues — questions of character, dependency and emotional health. It is naive to believe those things can be fixed — for Williams or anyone who faces similar challenges — in a single lightning strike of overnight sensation.

The viewing audience hoped that Williams had been saved from his former life, his slate wiped clean by Jimmy Fallon and hosts of The Today Show. But reality is different from reality TV: what Williams needed was to go slow and steady.

This theory of approaching change slowly is reflected in popular diets: cheat days are built in, allowing one to delay cravings and, to be honest, stay human. We all need balance, and this includes the occasional chocolate truffle.

But if the change you seek has its basis in ethics, it's often recommended you stay as far from the old ways as possible. Recovering addicts, for example, can't go the slow route. One drink and they're hooked again, game over, return to start. Cold turkey is to be preferred over the slow, simmering kind.

I think of my former prisoners: they're immersing themselves in the church culture and trying to stay away from bad influences. Sounds good on paper.

But can this be sustained?

The slow and steady theory can't apply when you've done time for criminal sexual conduct or armed robbery. But does cold turkey work? Does surrounding a bunch of former criminals with kind white people help them steer clear of temptation?

I've witnessed a strong integrity in the men I've met, and have seen the effectiveness of the hard volunteer hours put in by church folk. Yet I know they must struggle, as we all do. They must find a way to stay clean and crime-free while finding an environment that supports their culture and individual personalities.

For many of the men, this translates to finding accountability with other ex-cons, and developing ties to urban churches. As best they can, they're setting up structures to keep them standing upright. I trust this is enough.

In Aristotle's
Politics, he writes of an experiment on patients suffering from mental imbalances. Rather than keep things calm and collected, "a wild and restless music" is played to soothe the "internal trouble of the mind." It works; the patients are restored to health. Augusto Boal, commenting on this experiment in his book Theatre Of The Oppressed, points out that "certain emotions or passions cure analogous, but not identical, emotions or passions."

The cure, in effect, lies in the cause.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What We Do With What's Inside

Former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, in his autobiography Raging Bull, says he was successful in the ring because he didn't care if he was killed.
For eleven years he mistakenly believed he had murdered a man in a robbery, and unconfessed, yet guilty, wanting to be punished, LaMotta threw himself into boxing as much to be hurt as to hurt.
--Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing
When I first transcribed this quote, I typed "waiting" instead of "wanting to be punished." Oh, I thought, his impending criminal conviction depressed him; knowing what was coming, he lost the will to live. But no: boxing was the conviction, each punch the gavel coming down, and death, if it came, would be the cell he'd never leave.

Yesterday, my son told a lie. When called on it, he was immediately repentant, and Greg and I told him we forgave him, people make mistakes, that it was over and done. But all the love we lavished could not erase what clearly tormented him. He buried himself in the couch. Only with repeated drawings out and affirmations of love, a couple hour process, would he stand straight again.

Oates writes, "When LaMotta eventually learned that his victim had not died, however, his zest for boxing waned, and his career began its abrupt decline."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Activist: The Origin Story

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr, Day, a good day to read my essay over at Burnside Writers Collective. In it, I manage to mention King, Mother Teresa, Batman, and the size of my chest. Go see how it's done.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Opposes/Is Hostile To/Interferes With/ Struggles Against

Currently I'm studying anatomy and Greek tragedy--separately, and independently. (To answer your question: Because I'm like that.)

You read the post on Heraclitis, on transformation coming about through war, specifically a fight inside the thing trying to change. Stability is an illusion. An internal opposing faction challenges the status quo until it becomes what it is not. What it is now is, possibly, neutral, and what it becomes is simply different, not necessarily better, or bad. All that is sure is that change is taking place, that the antagonist cannot rest until its efforts are rewarded.

There's an antagonist involved in anatomy, as well. The prime mover in a movement is called the agonist--the one that gets top billing in names of exercises. But almost always there's another muscle involved that serves to slow down the movement, and this is the antagonist. This braking protects the joints from unnecessary and potentially harmful stress. Throw a ball, and your triceps will get your elbow moving. But your bicep--the antagonist--will slow down the extension and protect the elbow from undue impact.

The word antagonist typically has a negative connotation; its definitions include the words opposing, hostile, interferes. But come to the meaning having to do with anatomy, and you find counteracts, which is a little friendlier. And its Greek origins: to struggle against.

Opposition can produce a desired or different result, to the point of making better on the original desired outcome--i.e., I want to throw the ball with all my might, but, thankfully, something's looking out for my elbow. The negative is incorporated into, makes possible, the positive.

I saw this in my former prisoners. They seem determined to use their past mistakes, which live with them always, to live gratefully in the present, even repeating these stories for others in the hope that some good would result. To one man I assigned a line that he had spoken once in an early meeting: "I'll never turn back to my old life." Every time he said it--in rehearsal, in performance--he cried.

About boxing, another subject I like to study, the ancient Greeks said this: "A boxer's victory is gained in blood." Which is saying the same thing, far as I can tell.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Parenting: The Remix

Sometimes, I have to wonder.

Like today, in the library, when I'm browsing the stacks and come across some parenting book with a title like "The Fragility of Childhood." I wondered, and not for the first time, I'm really messing them up, aren't I?

My boys have spent Saturdays watching me stand in line with large tattooed men in order to grunt under a heavy bar. They've attended my plays with real men announcing their real crimes. They listened as I pointed out one of them as a relation to George Foreman, "you know, the guy who fought Ali in Zaire," and knew exactly who I'm talking about.

When I first became a mom ten years ago, I read all the books. But it just so happened that my first son didn't go by the book at all--he talked late, he created his own sign language, he refused roleplay and sorted all his belongings by color and place of origin. At some point, I had to ditch the advice and go with my gut. I regret to say it took me several years--and another child, with another style--to learn this lesson.

But since then, I hit a point every once in awhile when I think that maybe being unique isn't so hot after all. Maybe the tried and true methods are tried and true for a reason. You know how that happens. Usually the parental guilt hits when I'm enjoying myself otherwise. Wait, the brain says, You're having too much fun. Surely there's something you've done wrong?

But I left the library not with a book on childhood, but, instead, on large scale sculptures from the 1960s and 70s. A big, nicely bound art book, chosen for my seven-year-old son. He pored over it after school, then hit the pile of scrap paper. When I asked if he was copying a sculpture he had seen or creating from scratch, he replied, "I'm using a picture I saw and doing a remix."

Meanwhile, I made meatloaf with a side of corn; this homemade, quintessential meal would end with my directive that someone please feed the giant hissing cockroaches in the other room.

Taking what's gotten from books and making it one's own. It's okay to do.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Beneath the Floorboards

In his song John Wayne Gacy, Jr., Sufjan Stevens tells the true story of a serial killer who, during the period of 1972 to 1978, dressed as a clown and raped 33 teenage boys before killing them.

Stevens' response--"oh my God"--is the only thing left to say. But after all that--"he took off all their clothes for them"--he sings this:

But in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards

for the secrets I have hid

Your temptation, vice, sin, whatever you call it: it strangles you. Is it illegal? Does it hurt others? Imagine that you were caught. Think if you made a fatal error in judgment and landed in prison.

Yesterday, five former prisoners performed a play. Their vulnerability was on display, a sign to all of us to stop before we judge. What was their crime? Was it as bad as Gacy's atrocities? Or your secret?

Friday, January 7, 2011

This Sunday

This Sunday at 6pm, a group of ex-prisoners will present a reading at Church of the Servant here in Grand Rapids, MI. Try to make it if you're in town.

I had three meetings with the men. In the first, I asked for their stories. For the second, I wrote a script, which they read and discussed. The last, we went over how to sit, stand, and present the thing. Normally, I'd like more time, but this will come out just fine.

The theme given us was hope. Not something easily defined, but for men who spent anywhere from three to 21 years locked up, it's a feeling they know a little about.

Mentally, I had grouped this work in the same category as my theatre with homeless people. Certainly, these, too, are people who don't typically get to experience the arts firsthand (though there's quite a movement behind bars to stage plays).

But these are men; they don't appear to suffer from the mental instabilities I saw in the women; they've necessarily kicked any substance abuse habit, though they might continue to struggle; they're in a better place than they were not very long ago, and therefore are grateful.

"Sitting on a couch," one man likes to say. "Sitting. On. A. COUCH. Do I need to say more?"

These differences affect me as director in opposing ways. First, I can identify more easily with people who live in homes and are mentally stable; one man and I exchange raw juice recipes every time we meet. And it's significantly easier on me to work with people who want to be there.

But on the other hand, they're men. They've just gotten out of prison. We're meeting in a church. When I direct, I connect with my people to figure out how to coach the best out of them. I'm not sweet, I'm a little rough and quick (especially with only three meetings) in getting the job done.

With the women, I learned to be tough but give words of inspiration when appropriate, which, if I did it right, would be answered with Amen.

With the men, we figured each other out by the last meeting. I could give orders ("Stop rushing, Paul") and follow up with a joke. But they're still men, and that's a different dynamic.

Too, there's an elephant in the room. Why were they in prison? When you're asking ex-cons about hope, and they're talking about their darkest night in prison, you want to feel empathy, and then you wonder, Yeah, but what did they do?

This elephant made it into the script; I couldn't not put it in there. Someday, I'll write about what happened the first day we read the play. Come see the play if you can--if you can face some heavy thinking on who you judge, who paid their price, what's an adequate price, whose slate is clear, and who might live as you do.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

January's Enthusiasm, continued

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus believed that the only sure thing is that nothing stays the same.

"No man ever steps in the same river twice," he claimed, "for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."

Change is the constant, and anything appearing otherwise is illusion. But this change comes from within, he seemed to say. The catalyst for change is to be found within the thing itself, fighting it all the way for the transformation that must take place.

"War is the mother of all things... all that happens, only happens because there is struggle."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

January's Enthusiasm

Yesterday was the first Monday of the year. Yesterday, the treadmills at the gym were in use. All of them.

We pride ourselves in our small branch with its cozy, friendly ambience. Everybody knows everybody. No crowds, no wait for equipment. Then comes January.

My co-workers just smiled. "It'll be like this 'til beginning of February, maybe the middle," one said. "Then they'll drop like flies."

Part of my new job as a wellness coach is to help identify what keeps people motivated. Find something they like, and maybe they'll come in more often. They'll stay healthy. Good deal all around. This time of year, new year's resolutions kick in, and only time will tell which you put a ring on and which just want to be friends.

I made a call to a 79-year-old new member the other day. "I'm in the pool Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays," she said. "Oh, so you like to swim," I offered.

"Not really," she said, "but I know it's good for me."

Sometimes we grudgingly do what's good for us. Sometimes we know what's good for us but don't do it.

My father was a smoker all his life. While he was in the hospital three years ago, a friend brought in some personal belongings; my dad, in the sterile environment, immediately smelled the old cigarette smoke. "I smell like that?" he wondered to himself, and never smoked again.

Now, my dad had always known that smoking was bad for him. He knew it caused lung cancer, and he knew he'd be in the hospital again for his heart if he didn't quit. But it took this trigger to cure him.

Ideally, you find something you enjoy that will put or keep you on the path to wellness. Along these lines, I'm making some resolutions myself. But first, you: what motivates you to pursue health? Or haven't you found the key yet? Do tell.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Reflections On An Afternoon At the Mall

Small bras, we will soon learn, hang from the top rack at eye level. Sizes increase as they near the floor, and the most pendulous among us must work for their goods, being careful not to topple as the strains of Josh Groban play with clarity. His near constant vibrato is a bee in the ear while one is squatting low, looking for her size, finding those at floor level to be useful as earmuffs, nothing more. Considering the effort made in the finding of the size, it is only fair that the saleswoman should remain courteous when handling the small bra, refraining from an exclamation one would pronounce when encountering a miniature chihuahua, such as, for example (a phrase out of the blue), "It's so cute!"

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Year In Books

22 in 2010. I'm up two books from last year. These must be non-fiction--just 10 of the 22 are novels. In fact, looks like I read only memoir since August. Could this be true? Some fiction in there was stopped and started, for sure, due either to lack of interest or the library calling.

Some favorites from this year:

These books deal in extremes, I see now: a car accident, the holocaust, the afterlife, walking a tightrope, getting punched. Even the sweet-spirited Coop, on chickens and child-rearing, has a heart-rending section on the drowning of a young boy.

Half A Life, by Darin Strauss
The Gloves, by Robert Anasi
The Wheel of Life, by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross
To Reach The Clouds, by Philippe Petit
Coop, by Michael Perry
Night, by Elie Wiesel

Lately I've been noticing that what novelists do is capture what us ordinary folk think but are unable to express. When you read and say, Ah, yes, exactly, and your soul is stirred, you know it's good fiction. From this list, Let the Great World Spin wins out in that category; Engleby makes you think; and Her Fearful Symmetry is an interesting, if odd and flawed, read.

Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks
Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann
Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger