Sunday, April 29, 2012

This Week In Pets

You are by now aware of our household pet situation: no more roaches, no more rabbit, no more sea monkeys, one hundred praying mantises. One mouse, down from three.

And then this crossed our path as the boys and I walked home from the bus stop:

A baby bunny. So young its eyes hadn't yet opened, but ambulatory enough to hobble onto our path, stand on its legs, and walk toward us as we talked.

To us, not away from us. Animals just don't do that. Right there in the street I decided we would rescue this thing, and to that end I took off my shirt to carry it home. (I had only stripped down to a tank, yet still, my younger son stopped, looked at me with what I think was disdain, and said, "Really, Mom."

This bunny was very definitely the cutest thing anyone has ever seen.

I learned on the internet that the mama would be coming back to call for her baby in the middle of the night, and that we should return him under the tree near where he approached us. At the time of rescue, a dog ran around nearby; this middle of the night return seemed safer.

The next morning, baby was gone, and we trust there was a joyful midnight reunion. Meanwhile in the narrative of house creatures, the four praying mantises we saved from the 100 were promptly dying. Instructions said to feed them "soft-bodied insects," which are surprisingly difficult to track down. We had found a fly, and anytime an ant picnic convened under the dining room table, I scooped up the festivities and fed the mantises. And yet they were dying. I set them all free outside.

The tally: no sea monkeys, no rabbit, no baby rabbit, no roaches, no mantises.

Which leaves us with one mouse, whose fate is unclear. Just as I stripped down in the street without a second thought, so too an unbidden idea came to me when, a few days ago, a hawk flew overhead.

I wonder what would happen...

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Non-linear Thinking, The Video

Here's me practicing the slip. I'm practicing the slip because I had a lot of trouble getting out of the way of the jabs thrown by Sonya Lamonakis, an undefeated heavyweight, even though she was taking it easy on me. Watch as she prowls the background.

Practicing the slip is a standard drill. Why? Because you know the jab is coming. That's what's typically thrown first; it's a ruler to find the face. Ah, there it is. Now watch for the power hand.

I'm a beginner; it's somewhat to be expected that I couldn't get out of the way. But what was going on in my head when that jab was hitting it, you wouldn't believe.

Start back at when I was a kid and couldn't tie my shoes. Couldn't read a clock. Couldn't ride a bike, 'til embarassing late in adolescence.

I have trouble thinking straight, in a line. I am a nonlinear thinker, as you may have guessed from that last post on Cindy Sherman.

But there's nothing more linear than the line from point A (a fist at my/your chin) to point B (a fist in my/your face). The jab is coming. Probably the right is behind it. And maybe then a hook.

Boxing teaches great humility--you hit (I'm tough!) and you get hit (I suck!) There is no room for ego. Yes, eventually you have to tell yourself you are the greatest, because there's no room for wondering when you're stepping into the ring. But it's a humble process getting there. Boxing has taught me humility.

I'm hoping it also can teach me straight thinking. I've spent my life and my adult career fostering the imagination, and that is not called for in the ring (strategic thinking aside).

Thursday night, I sparred with a girl who hit me with some hard rights. My first solid clocking. But it turns out my jabs were hurting her, and she was moving in fear of what my right hand could do.

The right hand...that I didn't throw. It was too...obvious.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cindy Sherman

In a review of Cindy Sherman's MOMA retrospective, Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker calls it pedantry to presume that "the mysteries of Sherman's art--photographs that are like one-frame movies, which she directs and acts in--demand special explanation."

"You can winkle out social commentary, if you like," he writes, "...but you will have stopped looking."

Perhaps he will allow me to explain and parallel my travels with Sherman's work, having viewed it via leaving my home in the Midwest, where I act as a wife and mother; and having traveled to Manhattan, where I became boxer, tourist, old friend, new friend, audience, passenger.

If the commentary comes only when one stops looking, so too does the real learning. I find myself thinking more about Sherman now than when I stood before her self-manipulations in the flesh. And I was a better boxer the few times I turned off my mind. When I stopped. When I relaxed. When I stopped trying so hard.

But a boxer. Am I that? I made myself one. Sherman, in her photographs, becomes whatever she wants, both lovely and grotesque.

Schjeldahl: "Sherman hammers ceaselessly at the delusion that personal identity is anything but a jury-rigged, rickety vessel, tossed on waves of hormones and neurotransmitters, and camouflaged with sociable habits and fashions."

I made myself a boxer. Even then, this persona rocked on the waves: sparring with Alicia Ashley, I was tall and quick; with Sonya Lamonakis, of the 201+lb weight class, I was low, hunched, a heavier hitter. The videos reveal two distinct styles. I'm new; I'm playing and responding. But which way is most  fitting?

Travel removes you from your daily ways. Try on new habits, and yet there's nothing to do but follow yourself from your home to your hotel and back.

But present yourself as grotesque, and there is nothing more to fear. Sherman's recent series of society dames is cruel to them, and at the same time hand power to her: the photographer has chosen to portray the ravages of aging with her own body and has put it on record. Typically in our media-saturated world selected sides of oneself are presented for a constructed persona, and yet Sherman's way emerges as stronger.

I pulled sweaty headgear over my face and wore a black mouthpiece. I got punched and bit my tongue. The end of my tongue is purple. I chose this. I have this power over the 200 pound Sonya, who punched me, because I asked for it.

Sherman conveys "inner states of feeling and surmise that are dramatically out of synch with outer, assumed attitudes." Her people don't understand who they are, but we do; neither clothes nor makeup can alter what's being projected.

And of course beneath all that is Sherman herself.

I knew going to Gleason's I wasn't a woman at ease undressing in locker rooms, and that with five, six hours of training each day, the time for a shower would come.

On the last day, after six rounds of sparring, I wanted the water intensely. I stripped down and stayed in the shower long after I was clean. A fellow boxer could come in at any time to use one of the other two shower heads in the large open area, exposing me as I stood there, without any proof of my participation in the sport, naked. But no one did.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

While I Was Away, He Killed The Pets

Leaving the house for a week alone is no last-minute vacation for a mom. We load the frig, change the beds, pack a few lunches and write copious notes. In my case, I wrote everything from "change the hand towel" to "feed the sea monkeys."

Yeah, that's right, I wrote it down. For Greg. The guy in charge while I was away. Feed the sea monkeys.

You'll recall my earlier posts on the sea monkeys and their happy swirling above my kitchen sink. The occasional staredowns. The continual coupling. They were just powder in a packet back in September of 2011, when I bought them for Theo's eighth birthday; but now, seven months later, we've moved through generations upon generations that even would have trouble tracking.

That is, until I left for New York. I come back, and no sea monkeys.


Oh sure, he claims he fed them according to my directions. That's what he says. Do you believe it? I don't. Because there is no more swirling. There is quiet water.

Instead, I come home to this:

Approximately 100 praying mantises. Granted, I'm the one who bought the egg case from which they hatched. I wanted a hundred praying mantises. There is no creature more badass than the mantis, who can turn its head on its neck as if to say, You talkin' to me? I wanted my own.

But they're no substitute for happy monkeys. In fact, the spiritual name aside, the mantis is without morals. They'll eat each other if hungry enough.

And we all know what the female does after mating.

You don't want to upset the woman. A fair warning to Greg.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Amy Sparring With Important People [Video]

Here's Alicia Ashley, holder of the World Bantamweight title belt, playing with me like a cat with a mouse. 

Remember this is my second ever experience with sparring. Which is why it ends in comic surrender.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tis Unnatural

Let it be said that for most of us, it is not a natural act to punch someone in the head. Previously, I would laugh at stories of women boxers who apologize after a punch, but yesterday, at Gleason's, I found a similar way of thinking turning around in my head. "I hope she's not mad at me for that one" or "Why did I punch her shoulder? She needs it for her pro boxing career." Even my first punches were play, aiming just short of the nose, as you do when someone demonstrates a move in front of you with no protection, which was nearly the extent of my experience. So when Sonya's head came into view (often, but not always, because she let it), it took me a few tries before I understood I could have at it. As Sonya would later put it, "We ain't bakin' cakes here." By the time I got to my two rounds with Alicia Ashley, the unnatural instinct should have been made natural, but some of the old ways returned, probably because Alicia, a current world title belt, has a way of looking mortally offended when someone lands a punch. She turns a lot of that off with us newbies, and of course I had been graced with many of her wide, beautiful smiles by then. And yet: deep down, I didn't want to make her mad or hit her as hard as I did Sonya, who has a hundred pounds on her. (Most of this thinking is moot, as "Slick" moves too fast for most punches.) / Yet unnatural as some of this still is, when I woke this morning and realized I wouldn't be boxing today, it just didn't feel...right. / Also unnatural is pro wrestling, which was being rehearsed most of the six hours I trained yesterday. Gleason's has a dedicated wrestling ring, and in it, several large men were throwing each other and landing on their backs from great heights, making a sound so loud everyone in the busy gym stopped, and yet by the end of the hour these thunderous claps were simply part of the ambience of the place. What wasn't so easy to get used to was the way they'd also rehearse "pain"; some guy would get thrown to the ground by his hair and stomped on, and when finally released would curl up in a fetal position, in severe agony. You'd be five seconds from calling the ambulance when he'd get up nonchalantly and get back to business. I never got used to that.

So My Tongue Is Purple

It is not usual, I presume, for a boxer's second ever sparring session to happen with an undefeated heavyweight, especially when the boxer weighs in at 140 pounds. And yet she made it four rounds, of course with the heavyweight holding back, ending with one less contact lens and a bruised tongue. Special thanks to Sonya Lamonakis, who proved her nickname "The Scholar" with colorful, and sometimes painful, lessons. Videos to come.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Friday's Alright For Fighting

Apparently, Gleason's gym cam was aimed in the wrong direction this morning, so if you tuned in to gofightlive, you missed us women boxing. Hopefully, though, you stuck around for the other offerings on the channel, such as "Top MMA News" and the "iNeed A Smackdown" wrestling show. I made it onto yet another camera later in the day, some promo for some band. The old school headphones they had me wear worked well with my Adidas windbreaker. Otherwise, it's been drills, drills, and more drills, which is exactly what I came for. Learning the relaxed style of Alicia "Slick" Ashley, one of our trainers and the current bantamweight world champion, is tricky for us uptight types, but there's no trading the experience of learning it right from her, or watching the video of the championship bout with her at your side, narrating. And the great Jackie Atkins, my sister in arms. Michelle Obama, you got nothin' on us.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

My Fifteen Minutes (actually, about an hour)

Boxing is a somewhat solitary pursuit: you hit the bags alone, you shadowbox by yourself in the mirror. At a famous gym like Gleason's, you do your own thing and the limelight is everywhere, from pictures of famous pros on the wall to a television camera following you around. An artist sits ringside and sketches you. I've never had so much attention in my life. And it continues tomorrow: you can watch part of my clinic Friday from 11am to about noon at Click on Gleason's Gym Cam and be a part of the action! Oh, and today I was christened by trainer Jackie Atkins with my first boxing moniker: "Lean and Mean." It's a keeper.

come with me

It's quiet, and there are no dishes to be done, no laundry to carry. Vacation! Some folks lie on the beach, take in a show. Me, I'm looking for violence. Will you come with me? The boxing clinic starts just a few hours from now. I'll post here when I can, though my iPad skills are limited. Come along!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Below The Neck: Learning Happens Here

I ran into a former boss the other day. (If you're a faithful reader here, you know I have my fair share of former bosses. Amiable relationships all. I think.) For her television interview show, I would research topics and develop questions for the host, occasionally directing a promo or helping out with hair.

When she asked what's new, I brought up the boxing clinic, which, in some circles, can be awkward. People don't know what to make of boxing: athletes know it's just another sport; TV watchers mistake it for MMA; intellectuals are mystified. Some folks are impressed, the occasional guy a little too much so.

So I framed it as a learning experience, which is exactly the truth: I'm headed to Gleason's to learn and play.

"I can just see you," she said. "Scribbling furiously in your notebook."

I stopped. Well, sure, I planned to bring a little book to record some thoughts. But certainly not in the moment. For one, my writing hand will be gloved a majority of the time. For another, there won't exactly be a desk around, and if I have a pile of belongings anywhere, it will be comprised of a water bottle and a towel for the sweat.

This learning is to be done with the body, not so much the head. Muscle memory. And man, am I looking forward to it.

In many ways, the job I did for her perfectly suited my personality, which I can only describe as journalistic in nature. I like to tackle new topics. I can get a sense of a thing fairly quickly and come at it in a unique way. But once I've mastered a basic working knowledge, I'm ready to move on to topic #2.

Mastery, in this context, is limited, of course, but extensive enough for me to produce an article or hold my own in a discussion. Throw all these different topics and fields of study into the blender of my mind, and the mixture that results is an awe at how the world works, and the people in it.

Initially, I applied this approach to boxing, and it helped move me to a certain level. But there's no real boxing equivalent to holding a casual discussion, in which you could fake your way through when necessary; it's do or do not, as the little green man says, to varying degrees of success.

And so I look forward to coming at a thing in a new way. Learning boxing has been a unique educational experience from the start, from the first days of accepting constant critique, and understanding that the boxing gym's method is such a good one, if humbling. It's constant refining.

Every once in a while, though, you get it right. During drills last night, the coach admired my jab and announced, "Amy, I got nothin' to say."

I knew it in my bones already; no words were necessary.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

My Boxing Training (Not Yours)

With a chicken sausage half-eaten on a plate and another sizzling in the pan, at nine o'clock last night I said to my husband, from the kitchen, "My opponent's probably doing sit-ups right now, and here I am on my third course."

Two weeks from today I just might compete in boxing for the first time, at the fabled Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, New York. And even if I don't, there's a guaranteed three straight days of boxing training ahead of me that demands some preparation.

Having recently, and tentatively, emerged from a cocoon of injuries into recovery, my initial plan had been simply this: Don't get hurt. You bought a plane ticket, you paid for the clinic, now just lay low. Wear sensible shoes from now to La Guardia.

But of course that won't do. Inactivity itself leads to muscle stiffness, and of course I couldn't risk losing any ground in my fitness level. Plan 2, then, involved attempting what I felt could accomplish each day, all the while making sure all bases were covered over the course of the week.

This worked, but only because I've become very intuitive in my training over the past several months. If I had plans to bike today but my hamstrings are too tight, I change the plan to include stretching and light leg work. Reasonable sounding as this is, in the past I would have forged ahead and then found myself surprised when injured and out for a few days.

Sometimes you have to push through, but most days it's wise to respond to the body's signals. As Gray Cook says in his excellent Athletic Body In Balance,

[The body] is one big sensory organism that makes fine adjustments as it receives information. When the body does not function optimally, when muscles are tight or weak, or when joints are stiff or unstable, this information gets distorted so that automatic reactions are distorted. This can hurt performance, increase fatigue, and expose the body to unnecessary stress.

To supplement my intuitive workouts, then, I've identified areas of weakness or instability I plan to address before the trip. Did you note the name of the post? I hesitate to recommend this for everyone, as the plan is geared solely to my body, and yet surely there is some value in these exercises for all boxers or those in combat sports to consider (along with the usual disclaimer that I'm not responsible for you hurting yourself).

Along with basic full-body strength/core training, and of course actual boxing, I'm hitting the areas listed below. Here's a sampling of exercises for each.


Next to my desk here is a green tub from Target filled with about 30 pounds of raw rice, not including the handful spilled on the floor beside. With it I build my forearm and grip strength. For boxing? Yes. My two tennis elbows (and the excellent Dr. Ross) taught me that I need to train all of my arm muscles to activate when lifting a jug of milk, or doing a pull-up, or tightening my fist at the moment of a punch's impact. When I don't, the strain of the job travels elsewhere and causes injury.

The constant pivoting required in boxing asks that your ankles be mobile, and that your feet be strong--able, in a sense, to "grip" the floor and ground you against imbalance.

A few ways I work on this:

rotations. Plant your toes on the ground, heel up; rotate in a circle one way, then the other. (See Z-health for additional excellent mobility exercises.)
lying wall squats. Lie on the floor near a wall, with your bum to the wall, and your feet on it, knees bent as in a squat position. Go deep into a position where you're deeper than you could if standing (for me, the butt is away from the wall a bit). Don't stress the ankles, but feel them working. It's a great way to "isolate" the ankles without your body weight bearing down as would happen in the standing version.
one-leg balance. Yep, that's it; simple and effective. Barefoot. Move your arms if it's too easy. Can you hold for 2 minutes? Try one-leg step-ups, too, with or without dumbbells.
heel walk, toe walk. Walk around the room on your toes. Now on your heels. Fun, huh?
heel drop. Stand on the last step of a staircase, hold on, and drop your heels down in a controlled fashion.
pencil pick-up. Pick up a pen with your toes. I'm only to a highlighter--are your feet stronger than mine? Yeah? You think so, do you?

It's tough enough to punch and be punched, but adding to boxing's challenges is the simple feat of holding up your arms for two or three minutes. Endurance must be built. Light weights do the job; I especially like following this guy here. You can also shadowbox with weights, but be sure not to go heavy; two or three pound dumbbells get heavy very quickly.

Where your shoulders need endurance, your cardiovascular system needs anaerobic training. Boxers are known for their roadwork, which certainly helps keep the system effective. But the sport is more like sprinting than doing miles, in the end; over the course of two or three minutes, the athlete must perform small bursts of activity at a heart rate that could not be sustained for the entire round. Flurry, flurry, catch your breath. Flurry, flurry. The heart and lungs must be trained thusly, and there are all manner of scientific breakdowns out there pinpointing the different systems involved (here's a great one). For me, it suffices to work in intervals.

Choose a cardio activity, such as running, biking, or rowing. Find a sprint length you can sustain while going all out (but below your max heart rate), probably 15-30 seconds. Warm up; perform a sprint; and recover for double the length of the sprint. Repeat 4 times. This trains you at to work at the anaerobic level, and also to recover from it.

Complicating this theory is chicken sausage. But I have no further advice there.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

BuildaBridge Institute

When Gina told me she was too “bad” to be released from the shelter for at-risk girls where she lives, I had to ask: “Are you bad, or do you do bad things?”

She slammed her thin frame into the video bowling game before her. “Both.” Gutter ball.

This was our first day together in a theatre workshop, and I didn’t know her well. Was she one of the young mothers here, or one of the teens for whom the shelter was purgatory—a last stop before jail?

Over the next three days, Gina threw herself into the acting exercises, the heated discussions of current events, and the times we mixed the two. On our last day together, our class joined the other art groups for an informal closing celebration. My girls fought their nerves and showed highlights from our time together, anything from a mime of brushing their teeth to creating a symbolic sculpture of bodies ravaged by racist words. After the celebration concluded, I walked over to Gina.

“You’re not a bad person,” I told her. “You’re not.”

“I know that now,” she said. Strike, all pins down.

This is what theatre can do.

I'll be teaching theatre again at BuildaBridge Insitutite this June in Philadelphia, and you should go. Scenes such as the above are a privilege to participate in, and an inspiration for continuing the good work back in your own community. Other arts are represented, as well; check out their helpful online flyer here.

The institute is especially recommended for these types:


Make sure you check out my girl Lauren at 1:43 of their promo video here. As part of my class, she witnessed the transformative effect drama had on Gina and the rest of the girls.

And here's the info from their press release:

You are cordially invited to the BuildaBridge Institute June 4-10, 2012 in
Philadelphia. For eleven years, we have provided effective education and training for creative artists, community workers, social workers and others in the basic theory, skills and methods for arts in transformation. In a recent study of our 550 participants (since 2002) by Drexel University, over 80% are using the skills they learned at the Institute.

BuildaBridge was founded with a mission to engage the power of art-making for bringing hope and healing to the most vulnerable in the toughest places of the world. Stemming from a trip in 1997 where a group of Eastern University creative artists engaged children who had survived an earthquake in Costa Rica, the BuildaBridge Institute was created to prepare artists for dealing with trauma and effectively teaching cross-culturally. Fifteen years later, BuildaBridge continues to research, apply the principles we have learned in Philadelphia's homeless shelter system and around the world, and train hundreds to improve their service to children, youth and adults in very difficult circumstances of poverty and catastrophe. BuildaBridge Institute is partnered with Eastern University to offer an Arts in Transformation concentration in the M.A. in Urban Studies program.

Monday, April 2, 2012

This Body, Broken For You

--Where you been?

--Injured. And I lost my confidence.

--Come back.

The gym is my church. I sweat alongside folks I wouldn't know otherwise, two or three times every week. At the Y, I egg another rep out of Lee on the bench press, and Sonya brings me an Indian spice I've been hunting. At the boxing gym, Shaun tells me his dream of opening a business. Our shared goals foster community.

But if the gym is church, my sanctuary is found at the fights, in the folding chair of a darkened auditorium.

Injuries had kept me out of the boxing gym for months, but when I opened the paper a few weeks back and saw the ad for Golden Gloves, I headed out. Last club show I had entered through the door for fighters and trainers, but this time, I bought a ticket and sat alone. As I watched, occasionally talking with the older man next to me (a former boxer, it's always a former boxer), I recognized familiar voices shouting in the crowd. Shari's sitting over there, I could tell; Shaun's on the bleachers to my left.

Eventually I sent a text, and, when I could pull away from the chatty old boxer, we had a reunion at the snack bar. Hugs. Where you beens. And, more importantly, Come back.

Over the past three weekends, I've caught up with these people I know only through the dance called boxing. The nights are long, and to break up the four hours I talk, sometimes make a new friend, lean against the back wall, or find a half empty row to sit alone and think. Despite the noise, despite the clinging smoke, and even with two guys swinging at each other, this is a posture of meditation for me. I'm watching the fights, evaluating technique, but I'm also not watching them, and instead sitting with my thoughts.

Among which are these: The length of my recovery back to boxing has humbled me. I am grateful for what I can do, and what I could do is behind me. I'm smarter now, if not as strong. And I'm content with the here and now.

This Friday night a trainer greeted me at the wall and invited me back behind the curtain with the coaches. You can't see the action from back there, but boxers are warming up on mitts, and those in queue are being built up with a litany of call and response:

Nobody said it's gonna be easy.
--Uh uh.
It is what it is.
--That's right.
You got what it takes.

I am of a different color and race than most of the people behind this curtain, and yet somehow, we fit together, and being with them has brought me back to life. A young man interrupts my thoughts, raises his taped hands to my shoulders and asks,

--Amy, where you been?

--Injured. And then I lost my confidence.

--Work it out in the gym. Come back.

The music played, and he walked to the ring with Shaun at his back. He played hard, and won. His return was greeted with accolades, fist bumps and hugs; his sweat dampened my cheek. This was an intimacy earned by showing up so many weeks of the past year, even when it was tough to do so. Or maybe it was simply a moment of grace, given freely, by water and by blood.