Wednesday, December 24, 2014

soon and very soon

May 20, 2010
I am waiting. Not patiently, though there's not a choice, really, when nothing happens. No signs of life, no email, no recognition that I have made a contribution in the world and it is missed. Did I anticipate the end? I always felt like the other shoe would drop some day. But at the same time, I was damn good at this job, it thrilled me, it gave my life meaning. I made a difference.

A touch of drama there, but I was hurt. Ten days before, I had run away from my job as night supervisor of a women's homeless shelter. Run, not walked; the end had come not as I had always suspected it would, some broken glass held to my face, maybe, or an attack around midnight. Instead, a final confrontation with a new supervisor, an anomaly among the stellar staff, made me see that I was not safe there. I was questioned and threatened by the woman who should have had my back. I would not return to my shift. This journal, which I began with the job, ended with this entry, where two things were on my mind: one, who did I let down, and two, where would I go next. Though there was no question that I made the right decision, I was sad that I never said goodbye to the women. "I stop into the library downtown [a draw for the homeless] to see if I can bump into anybody. But usually no one's there."

Next: a career? I keep coming back to the YMCA. No good jobs available as of yet, but I thought that maybe a several month internship would be cheaper than school, and I'd end it with a job. Or should I get an MA in something now while I have nothing better to do?

Ah. Look at that.

Just six months later, I'd begin work at the Y, paid, without any qualifying degrees. After a couple of years, I'd enjoy it enough to add a few certifications and make it official. Today, I'd say I'm doing what I was meant to do, and that no one could ever have told me it would happen this way. The grief I expressed over my work at the shelter was real, but the job, with its elements of danger and high adrenaline, was not sustainable. The "other shoe" reference makes me think I knew this deep down, and yet the kick it gave me was addictive. My work now, as a trainer, is the right balance of challenge and comfortable.

I resurrected this journal on a road trip last week, wanting to get a few thoughts down. Stuck as a bookmark among the pages is my fortune from a restaurant I visited, which reads

Soon life will become more interesting.

Christmas is coming; we are at the end of our season of waiting. All will be revealed in the morning. What's around the corner at any given time? I had no idea that May. I was at a loss. But with hindsight, I can see that Christmas was on its way.

It always is.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Go Ahead, Life: Make My Day

Friday, November 21
Scheers and friends at Stella’s Lounge in downtown Grand Rapids, choosing menu items involving bacon. Bacon fat popcorn, jumbo bacon-stuffed tater tots, bourbon bacon doughnut holes, burger (bacon inside).

Scheer family on living room floor. One opens mouth, decides talking is too much effort.

Saturday, November 22
Amy remains sole victim of bacon hangover. Decides, for maybe first time ever, to do cardio. Boxing, jumping, pushups and mountain climbers. Understands whole “seratonin thing” now.

Monday, November 24
Mr. Barbell, thinking Amy broke up with him, lays on the guilt trip. Leave me alone, says Amy, who is a little sick still and knows to keep things light. Stalling, I mean talking, she spends an entire half hour getting from the front door of the Y to the cardio room, a place she takes clients but where, if she exerts herself, people come running to ask what’s wrong.

Tuesday, November 25
So much time has passed since lifting heavy that Amy knows to swallow her pride. So she rips a page from Muscle & Fitness magazine and tries the “300 workout,” which involves, in this order, 100 pullups, a one-minute bird dog, 100 squats, another bird dog, 100 pushups. This is called “taking it easy.” Later, while soaking in epsom salts, she remembers why she doesn’t usually allow others to prescribe her workout.

Wednesday, November 26
Juice and smoothies day. And yoga! Amy hates yoga. But she is determined to loosen up from yesterday with a library DVD. First 45 minutes, she practices a sacred mantra: I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. Last 15 minutes, she’s all blissed out. Yoga’s really great, after all.

Last year around this time I wrote what I called a “subversive” take on holiday eating, encouraging you to enjoy, within reason, the pleasures we’re given in this life. This year hasn’t changed my focus—refer to bacon, above—but I’d also like to look at how life plays interference, and what we can do.

Maybe because I’m 44, or perhaps due to starting all this late, probably because I’m an introvert with two kids and in need of lots of quiet, personal time—I understand that life gets in the way of our best-laid plans. Plans for just about anything, but let’s talk fitness right now. My clients will apologize on the off hours for their sins of omission, and I usually say, with a wave of the hand, “Eh. Just get back in the gym next time you can.”

Because that’s all we can do. Get back on the wagon if we’ve fallen off.

Consistency is what has take care of me in the long run, allowing me to keep the weight off and occasionally indulge in bacon. Regularly getting into the gym has meant that when I need a week off for being sick, or a holiday meal that can’t be missed, I can afford it, just as a fat bank balance keeps the bills paid.

It’s also why my routine above seems scattered. Jumping? Yoga? Random, perhaps, but it’s me listening to my body and my schedule. Letting life get in the way, in a good way. I used to get guilty quickly. As someone who once weighed 50+ pounds more than I do now, I fall to despair easily; I eat more than usual and think, That’s it. It’s all over. I’ve fallen off the cliff and won’t be able to find my way back. But these cycles have happened enough times that I can now extend the conversation with myself, with some reasoning—you know you sometimes need more food, you know that your weight will drop back in time, you know that rest always does you good—and sometimes with a simple shut up, already.

I could be a pushier trainer, for sure. No one’s complained, and I’ve yet to be hired by a professional athlete, so I’m good for now. Despite this laidback approach, I’m known for helping people reach their goals, as one of you out there, whose bench press I increased by 55 pounds in one week, can attest. I’m all about sustainable health and wellness, and no one-shot deals.

So I don’t apologize. I’m still all for the eating, within reason. I’m still for rest periods and tapering weeks and not killing yourself in the gym. I’m in this for the long haul, and I want that for you, too. So enjoy this holiday season, and when life gets in the way, let it, at least a little. Listen to your body, your schedule, and, eventually, your guilt, and get back to this fitness stuff when you can. Meanwhile, enjoy time with family and friends over a good meal. Wrestle your kids on the living room floor—before they’ve had bacon—for your cardio intervals. Work on being your best inside and outside of the gym, and when you’re ready, I’ll meet you there.

Because after all that rest, I’m ready and raring to go.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What To Say When The Time Comes

Me, fuming, barefoot--the setup was the same.

Second time, I'm in a dress. Or rather a short, flowing brown skirt, avocado blouse strung through with muscled, veined arms swinging.

I beat my chest. I actually beat my chest, but with just the one fist. The left one, nearest my heart and making my point.

Is this what they'll remember?

In a year filled with funerals of loved ones, I get to wondering what my kids would say about me if given the opportunity to summarize. Would the above stories of my confronting neighborhood sins be told, and would they appear in or out of context? As in, "My mom was crazy enough to stop a drug deal barefoot, and ended up holding hands with the perpetrator and crying?" Or, simply, "My mom was crazy"?

Kids, let me help you out here. (Greg, I'm trusting you to report on your package deal with accuracy.)

Children. I have encouraged your creativity, no? And not in the ways the parenting books suggest. Yes, I keep the house stocked with paper, pens and tape. I have allowed you to leave large cardboard creations throughout our living quarters. But I have also fed you New Yorker cartoons. I cultivate those wicked strains of humor running through you two to the point where you, Simon, figured I was playing a joke when I walked around Dad's work party with toilet paper hanging from my pants. You were sure I was being funny, so you didn't tell me. Hint: I am funny. But next time, please: Tell me.

And I have tried to turn you into respectable human beings. You've sat sandwiched between convicted murderers at Applebees, friends all, and I questioned this decision only when the steak knives came out. Also, as you know, each year of your schooling I have offered a child on the playground money to make fun of you if your zippers were down. He never had to, which was the point entirely.

And did I ever just say, "Take a shower"? No. I handed you deodorant and announced, "How To Win Friends and Influence People." There's a difference. Speak to that.

And maybe there won't be time, but please acknowledge that you confused me with a hunchbacked, muscled creature carrying an ax, as featured on the cover of one of your scary books. You said, "That looks like you, Mom, except for the ax."

Don't talk about this, but I don't have people over often enough. Which is probably why, when Simon was asked on a teen health questionnaire if he had friends, he said, "Pfffft." This is my fault. The introverted genes come from both your father and I, but I could do better at this.

And Theo, I don't need to remind you how I suffered on those field trips. I accepted the migraines and the kicks to the back of the seat as a way to show my love for you. Also, I complained a lot.

That's good for now. There will be more to say soon enough.

Some of it, though, you may want to keep to yourselves.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

How I Increased A Man's Bench by 55 Pounds in 7 Days--and why that matters

"This has got to go," I said, trading Katy Perry for Metallica at the stereo before loading on some plates. The music might be as important as the weight for this man, whom I had only spent an hour with prior, and way last week, so who knew? Motivation is not the same for everyone. But he had mentioned offhand his wish to bench 300 by a milestone birthday, which would occur on Sunday. This was Friday. I was planning to make it happen.

And I did. And I'm proud. But I'm a little embarrassed at how much so.

Some people I bragged to were impressed to the point of disbelief. 55 pounds? Yes, he hadn't ever lifted more than 245. He'd done it five times, but that doesn't necessarily equate to a higher 1RM. It'd be me who'd train those additional motor units to fire. Me who'd know which music to play and what to say.

And I did it. And some people don't care.

I noticed this morning that the pastor, like most, worked backward from his text, making meaning in reverse of Exodus's specific instructions on how to eat goat and what will happen to the firstborn. Here, I've got a similar but easier task: why was what happened worthwhile? How can I convince the uncaring to consider this feat important in the grand scheme of life?

The factors involved were these: a tall man whose muscle has come more from his job than the gym approached me for training. We met, and after hearing his routine and his wishes, I knew he needed to work on brute strength for a time. When 300 came up, I figured, Why not? I'd eventually work bench with him anyway. The mornings I woke up wondering why I was trying to do in a week what takes most trainers months, I told myself that this plan couldn't hurt.

(Insurance for the "couldn't hurt" portion of this plan included backup spotters. Anything over 255 I called in some troops and gave very specific instructions for them to STAY OUT OF MY WAY and DON'T MAKE YOURSELF KNOWN but help me and come near the bar ONLY IF I SAY SO.)

Because I wanted headspace for us both. Him, to prepare for a feat of strength, me, to prepare to help him achieve it. Though most videos of big men lifting include lots of preparatory yelling and chest beating, that doesn't work for everyone. And lots of people assume their role as spotter is to grab that bar at any sign of hesitation. But sensitivity and intuition will sometimes tell you otherwise.

I relied on both throughout this process, from hour 1, when I got him up to 255 with some well-placed advice, which was just as important as what I didn't say. You can't overload people with everything you're thinking, even if it's all reliably helpful. I'm getting old enough now to mostly know when to shut up. I made a suggestion, watched him incorporate it, saw him thrill at its success, saved my next tip for a later date.

We planned to meet again in a week. I prescribed a specific Tuesday workout and lots of rest and food. Eat, I said, then said it again.

The following Friday, he was ready but not well-rested, despite his best efforts. Life gets in the way of our plans, and I was willing to give up this one, but he wanted to try.

"If you think I can do it, I can do it," he said.

I've come to understand that when people trust me too much, they don't listen to what their bodies are trying to say. I'm viewed with the respect usually reserved for a doctor handing down a diagnosis, when really, I'm offering up an idea hoping they'll try it, give me feedback, and we can ditch it or pursue it together as necessary.

I thanked him for his confidence and reiterated what I say all the time to clients, which is this: Listen to your body. Don't be a hero. We began warming up at the bench.

255x3. 275x2. He was already benching 30 pounds above his heaviest weight, and a decision had to be made: go for 300 and possibly miss it, or risk hitting a lower set first that might steal the juice needed for the big one.

Motor units in mind, I decided on this: 285 for one. See how that went, then we can decide. In my thinking, it was just heavy enough to teach him what 300 will require, but wouldn't wear him out.

285x1. Easy. Get some water, massage the muscles. Have that other guy pull out his earbuds again and stand by. Let's do this.

300. He let out a low grunt when the weight settled in at the top. Midway, the bar started heading toward his neck. I guided it back without letting any weight settle, and up it went. 300.

"Happy Birthday," I said.

The steps that led to that moment, if I track them, would never line up with what you'd find in a book. I broke a lot of rules, but something told me it would all work out. Years of study and experience settled in and I knew what to say and do before, after, and in the moment, as well as what to have him work on without me. You'd think I was the one who benched 300, with all the credit I'm taking here. But in many ways, it was a team effort, and one that begged for closer inspection.

Strength is important in the upkeep of the human body, from youth on up. Beyond the physical necessity of maintaining muscle and fighting the natural atrophy process that comes with age, note the fascinating research (in my June posts) on the emotional protection and health a strong body provides.

Plus, it's just really cool that this guy can go around saying he benches 300. (315 is better, because it's a clean, impressive six-plate load, but there's always next week for that.)

The pastor concluded his sermon today by saying that the scripture was "not only meant to let Israel know who Yahweh is, but also to let the whole world know."

Do I need an apologetic of the bench? Not really. But this story teaches me to place a value not only on strength, but also on the intersection of education, experience and intuition. It's a powerful lesson.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Trainers, Be Trained (or, I Might Do A Cartwheel Some Day)

"I don't know if I'm up for this, Bobby. My triceps are fried."
"Good thing we're not using our arms, then, Amy: it's deadlift day."

Flip the speakers, and the exchange could have taken place between me and one of my personal training clients. With them, I'm kind but firm, finding their limits and pushing, pressing or pulling our way past them. Instead, Bobby was pushing mine, zeroing in with his trainer's eye on the gap between my work capacity and insecurities. It would go like this: he'd ask me to do something; I'd say no; he'd say yes you will too; I'd point to an old injury; he'd get in spotting position; I'd make a face; he'd say go; I'd do it. Seven sessions together, and this scenario played out each and every time.

A nice, inspiring end to this story would include success in these moves, but I'm here to say that some of my initial attempts--cartwheels, somersaults--were kind of ugly. And that's the point: I paid someone to help me find my limitations. I know my strengths, which just that: strength. I can pick up something really heavy one time and put it down. Bobby wants to make sure I can do some other stuff--eventually--and do it well.

I came into this profession in my late thirties a brand-new convert, with as much or more enthusiasm than the kids waving their exercise science degrees. Enthusiasm can go a long way, as can all the self-study and work experience I undertook, but it can't cover a missing history of participation in sports and the chance to observe a range of coaches. I'm proud of every hour of personal training I've led, but the more I know, the more I find I don't know.

Enter Bobby. I've been eating humble pie for a couple of weeks now, and it's made me think that every trainer should try this at least once. Anyone in any field, really; stepping under someone's tutelage can go a long way. But please... humble. Don't be "the trainer'; drop your pro role and play the student. Bobby and the others know I work at another gym, but I rarely play this side. I did, however, mention my deadlift PR when asked, and this was forever held against me. Think a class of four women and one man, and guess who had to lift the same weight as the man?

And if you haven't guessed yet from all the gymnastics, let me make clear that I'm at a CrossFit gym. Did you flinch? Hater, be humble: drop your preconceptions on this exercise phenomenon and see what you can learn. I found myself dipping on rings, standing on my hands, and doing more deadlifts in seven minutes than I'd usually do in a hour. If you're at a solid gym, as I am, you've got something to learn. Those CrossFit injuries you read about come when people--or staff--aren't training smart. I am; Bobby makes sure of this.

...respect your skill set. All those nice comments aside, CrossFit programming demands quite a vast array of skills. I can stand on my hands, but walk? Cartwheel? Not yet, and maybe not ever. But I'm there to try, and later, to pick and choose which new skills I want to work on. I have no plans to compete in their games, so I will work on what's important and what I have time for. Planches are on the list, as you'll see in a minute. And I know I need to work on endurance and conditioning, which happens by default when I show up. But I don't need to be laid out for six weeks with an injury, so sometimes, despite that first paragraph, a no is a no.

And finally...

...step into your client's shoes. Found along the path of humility is a sense of what I ask of my clients. Those times when I bless them with a nuanced assessment of their mobility issues? They thought this: "I suck." I know this because I've now been there. Bobby knows I want all the facts, though, so he gives them to me; but with the general public, I realize, I need to keep things positive and challenging, minus the helplessness that can come with realizing, say, your right foot likes to turn out every time you squat deep. Point is, by being a student for a time, I can become a better teacher.

I'll head back to the gym later this week for another sweatfest and dose of reality. Meanwhile, in keeping with the humble theme, I present one of my many recent fails. But look out, straddle planche: some day, after much effort, you're mine.

Monday, July 14, 2014

End of June Project

Some of you have said that my June Project, now complete, inspired other creative ideas on how to teach the discipline of showing up.

That's the point. Of this blog. (To get you thinking.) But it's really wonderful when I actually hear about these things rather that y'all just stalking around.

And it was really great to watch this idea succeed right here at my house. Spoiler alert: both kids are still keeping up with their projects, though it's now July and no schedule is enforced. Simon is reading and blogging away, and you really should stop over there, comment, and make his day. Theo continues to write, though, true to his nature, a hundred new ideas have sidestepped him. That's okay; the drawings he's producing are worth the segue. I put my reading on somatic psychotherapy to the side for a time, though I did manage to strike up an email conversation with the author of the book I studied. Later, I found out that this is a pretty big deal, as she's well-known in the field. It pays to be naive and curious.

The June Project was three weeks of showing up for a half hour each day to work on a project of our choosing. We needed a ceremonial finish to such good and solid work, so on June 29, we gathered in the living room and made presentations to each other. Possibly we wore pajamas, though I'd like to think I tried to make this event seem worthy of clothes. Simon and I took turns describing our projects and what we learned, and Theo read an excerpt from his writing. (Somehow I managed to tear up while reporting on the amazing things I had learned.) I then took the opportunity to review what I hoped everyone had learned by doing: that sometimes showing up means staring out the window or picking your nose for a bit; that sometimes you have to throw away a day or two's worth of work, but you need to clear that out of you before the good stuff could break through. And finally, that perseverance pays off, and is even a little addicting. Thank you, June Project, for rewarding your apprentices.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Pump Class, Advanced

Extended bolus, square waves, IOB... today's pump class was a vocabulary lesson, somewhat of a review and yet revelatory, too, as we've been with pump for just over a month. Life with the t:slim is comfortable enough for Theo to program in a meal with one hand--the other holding down the page of a book he's caught up in--and yet breathtakingly stunning on a regular basis, like the saturated red of a sunset on Lake Michigan. The decimal points astound me daily; the pump, unlike injections, can deliver .0X units of insulin. Previously, meals needed to be rounded up with a goldfish cracker, say, or half an ounce of milk, to meet the insulin pen's half to whole unit requirements, along with scores of mathematical equations. Now, no longer: whatever Theo will eat, the pump will count up, divide and deliver. At any time. And whatever amount he needs to bring down a high, the pump will give, when we ask it to. Like this morning, when I was determined to sleep in: I armed Simon with granola bars, measurements for milk, and permission to approve the pump's calculation to bring down a 172. At 9am, this had fully kicked in, and I, rested for once, could begin breakfast. (In the past, I would have had to get up at the first sign of a low or a high.)

Thank you, Jesus, for the pump.

Our pump class today on advanced features was attended by pump users with varying experiences, from our five weeks to one young man's eight years. A woman attended with her daughter; both have type 1. The room was full of beeping people, I noticed at one point--we're used to regular messages from our little machine, and now here were apparatuses everywhere, making themselves known. The woman and her daughter tested their blood glucose levels as a team. We followed the powerpoint and asked questions. The teacher is a diabetes educator I feel an intimacy with, as she has coached me through complex questions and hard times. She is just the right balance of dry and caring that I need; she's my favorite.

The teen girl behind us was the most talkative, ending most of her serious inquiries with a nervous giggle. Good for her, though, that she's thinking through the effects of her soccer practice, fighting ketones, seeing the trends. At one point when I was writing a note, Theo had raised a hand, and the educator called on him by name without fanfare, though he was the only kid to make his presence known.

"Is it okay to sleep on the infusion site, and the pump?" he asked. God, what a great question, and one that only he knew to ask. She answered affirmatively, noting that kinks could occur, but would make themselves known.

As the class wrapped up, the class became comfortable with speaking up in a way they hadn't before.

The teen girl asked a question.

"Um, yeah, I was wondering? I watch Survivor kind of shows, and I was wondering, like, would I even survive something like that? I mean, it would be really cool, but I would probably, like, die, right?!?!"

Some laughed along with her; to me, the room started spinning. Was this how Theo would be introduced to what the school labels as his disability? That "without the mediating factor of insulin," he would die? it's what gets us special attention at school, but the wording in our 504 plan offers no subtlety.

"Probably you'd only last a short while on a protein-based diet," the educator said, kindly.

"I could scrounge for some berries!" the girl giggled.

Theo looked down. I know this look. He's processing something big, and he doesn't want to talk about it. I didn't ask. Rather, I opened the door in the car: "Any questions?" We marveled at the parallel universe feel of being in a room full of diabetics. It's a bit disconcerting, though I can't exactly figure out why. We drove away and to the grocery store, where they offer free cookies at the bakery counter. 21g, we guessed; Theo entered the numbers, and took a bite.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

June Project: Day 11: Body Awareness

Identifying traumatic triggers is one of the great challenges of trauma therapy. Stimuli from the environment can inadvertently set off a traumatic reaction in a client. Often the client is left with the reaction but has no idea what caused it. Tracing the reaction back to the source, the trigger, can be an important task. To that end, body awareness can be a useful assistant.

---from The Body Remembers, by Babette Rothschild.

In a chapter titled "The Body As Resource," Rothschild tells of a client with chronic hip pain, which had come on a year after her husband's death. Their time together in therapy typically focused on the woman's grief, but one day, in attempt to address the pain, Rothschild employed techniques to develop body awareness. As the woman focussed on her hip pain, her heart rate soared, and she became fearful and anxious. Rothschild asked her to sit with her emotions for a bit, notice them, and as she did so her right foot pressed solidly into the floor.

"It wasn't long before she took a huge breath and began to sob, 'I drove as fast as I could. I floored the accelerator. It was an old car and I just couldn't get it to go faster!'"

The woman's husband had had a heart attack in the car she was driving, and she had been unable to get him to the hospital before he died. The memory showed itself in her gas pedal foot, which ultimately caused her chronic pain.

The body remembers, indeed. But does it also look for its own solutions?

I'd like to flip Rothschild's technique around to ask if we can find other signals to show what the body remembers, or needs. To use myself as an example, I take note of what kind of physical outlet I'm looking for, and when. My exercise preferences lend themselves to the heavy and violent, but I'll save boxing for another post. Weightlifting: I like it. I simply like to pick up heavy things and put them down, as the joke puts it. But there are some days when I need something else. It's a very specific sensory need, and as it happened to come around this week--it doesn't too often--I figured I'd analyze it.

Two of the basic functional movements the body performs include the "push" and the "pull." In brief, push requires the chest and triceps, while pulling asks more of the back and biceps.

I have noticed that this specific feeling I get requires the push. Now, you can achieve the push through any chest exercise, really--bench press, dips, pushups--but those rarely cut it for me, because there is only so much weight I can hold on to and lift. That should be enough--lifting as heavy as I can--but it's not. Somehow, I need to feel the sensation of pushing against something large and virtually unmoveable. Think a car. I have done this, in these times--hauled the family into the car to push it. The other day, when this wasn't possible, I rigged a machine in my Y and pushed more weight than I should have been able to.

Theo had been sitting in the hallway with a blood sugar low. "Theo," I said when I emerged from the room, "I just used a machine in a way that was not intended."

"Did you pick the whole thing up, Mom?" he asked. He's a stinker.

I have to guess that just as memories can surface in the body in specific ways, memories--or needs--ask the body to perform in certain ways, too. My need for "push" is so specific that I have to believe it's telling me something. Am I trying to move a metaphorical obstacle, large and heavy, out of my way? I don't know. But reading Rothschild's work, I have to believe that when the body speaks, it's telling us something.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

June Project: Day 10: Stress Response

Now I have a name for what I did when a knife was held to my face, and when a man thrashed at my rental car and no one else was around: dissociation.

"It is possible that dissociation is the mind's attempt to flee when flight is not possible," writes Babette Rothschild in The Body Remembers, which, you'll remember, is a book I'm studying throughout the month of June. Fight, flight, or freeze are the autonomic nervous system's responses to perceived threat. Whereas those bunnies I mentioned in an earlier post run when the dogs walk by, the mind, during dissociation, finds its own method of getting away.

The process of dissociation involves a partial or total separation of aspects of the traumatic experience... One person might become anesthetized and feel no pain. Another might cut off feeling emotions. Someone else might lose consciousness or feel as if he had become disembodied. (page 65 in The Body Remembers)

Taken to an extreme, this separation can result in identity disorder. But perhaps worst of all, dissociation can reappear after the traumatic incident, compounding the already debilitating effects of anxiety. Rothschild believes the symptoms of PTSD can likely be traced back to some form of dissociation.

It's the P in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that's the most disturbing, then. The person has experienced effects such as dissociation during the traumatic incident, and then continues in an unsustainable state of hyperarousal. There is no actual fear stimulus, and yet this constant state of anxiety makes everything seem a threat. Sadly, because their built-in warning systems aren't functioning properly, "it is typical for those with PTSD to repeatedly fall prey to dangerous situations" (page 62).

Back to the knife and the rental car: I shut down. I became calm, and where my male friend ran when he saw the knife, I stayed. In both cases, though I wouldn't recommend this to others, I saw it through and was able to diffuse the situation.

But reading about trauma brings back another memory where my stress response surprised me. You could say that the situation was a safe one, and yet certain aspects triggered memories and, also, fear. The details are personal, but I will describe my response, which was first to plot out an escape route. Think Sherlock Holmes narrating each detail of what he sees: my mind went to each door, and to where my children were, and then, Holmes-like, plotted a route to grab them and get out. This took maybe three seconds.

But then my tongue went numb, so my flight response, I guess, was paralyzed. I sat with my flight plan ready but unable to be executed. I thought it was all the weirdest thing until I started reading Rothschild's books.

Had I completely frozen, which is a real response, one way to recover is to just move a finger, according to Rothschild. Just telling your body that you can actually move helps get it on its way. Body awareness is a big part of recovery, and I'll get into that more tomorrow.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Posture (June Project, Day 6)

And today, the somatic nervous system (SomNS) in brief, again with a focus on psychotherapist Babette Rothschild's writing in order to understand the connections between trauma and exercise. Think of this as the notes I take for myself--an amateur study of one woman's life's work. There's so much more to these concepts than I can flesh out here, but I want to try to grasp the scope of the theories before diving into the part I'm interested in most. (See "june project" label for previous entries.)

"The autonomic nervous system... directs blood flow away from viscera and skin to the muscles for the duration of fight, flight, and freezing responses. The somatic nervous system directs the musculature to carry out that response." page 53 of The Body Remembers.

Rothschild points out that the SomNS operates via neural impulses, making any contraction of muscle an active state. "Relaxation, usually thought of as an active process, 'Hey, just relax,' is actually a passive state." (page 51)

And isn't nothing always the hardest to do? I've always pitied people going cold turkey on cigarettes or substances, because they have no work to be done--rather, the absence of a thing. Their goal is to not do something, with a sense of accomplishment coming from accomplishing nothing. Whew.

To jump, then, to another fascinating bit in her books,: the connection between the SomNS and what Rothschild calls "The mechanism by which traumatic events can be remembered implicitly through the encoding of posture and movement."

Posture. I've undertaken informal studies of this myself, of actors and homeless people acting. Why, if we can become someone else, do we not? Why not act more confident than we are? At least a smidgeon?

"Because it would be exhausting," said a friend of mine, an actor in NYC. But Rothschild has done some fascinating work in this area.

While laying out the idea that increased muscle strength helps clients with PTSD, she speculates that part of the success of this technique may include a protective mechanism. "More tone across your chest or back can help you to feel more protection--armor--between yourself and others," she writes in 8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery.

She goes on to tell of a client who would suffer extreme stress at family events that involved a buffet table. The mere act of turning her back to the rest of the room caused such anxiety that she'd hardly eat.

Rothschild experimented: Could she try throwing those shoulders back and standing in a confident stance? This helped, but having her chest exposed didn't. How about shoulder blades together but shoulders curved forward, bracing her chest? It was a stiff and strange posture, both admitted, but it worked. She could make her way through family gatherings without anxiety, though still a bit stiff.

In an article called "Applying the Brakes," Rothschild recalls the phrase "weak in the knees," which speaks to an actual fear response. When a client of hers felt this condition come on, R had her press her feet into the floor. (Reading this, I'm kicking myself for not thinking of this technique for my 89-year-old client. Isometric exercises can be terribly effective, and I've had capable adults "push" the wall or against their own knees to create the same effect.) Once the client felt the strength in her knees, she calmed down. Following a state of hyperarousal due to a rush of stress hormones, her hippocampus could relax and function properly, allowing her to clear her head and make better use of the rest of the therapy session.

Again, I can't see why the average person in a state of stress can't try these posture techniques. I knew I had picked the right person to study when I read in Rothschild's introduction to 8 Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery that her "professional goal is to become obsolete." In her work, Rothschild insists that her clients understand what helps them, so they can call on these tools when needed. I approach my clients in exactly the same way; education is as much a part of an hour with me as exercise. Make no mistake: they get a workout. But my goal is to have them reach a point when they no longer need me, or can break away for a time.

Always learning. Try the posture technique. See what happens, and let me know.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

June Project: Day 5: The Nervous System and Bunnies

It is fitting, perhaps, that today's foray into the workings of the nervous system was interrupted repeatedly with jolts out of the chair. "Bunny!" "Chipmunk!" "Two chipmunks!" Our yard is a veritable zoo, which never ceases to overwhelm us with its cute factor. Even the slimy frog that visits my kitchen window is soooooooo CUTE. But anyway: these times are lessons on how to stay motivated on day 5 of a monthlong project, even when you're not really feeling it.

My study of muscle tension as therapy in Babette Rothschild's work needs to begin with nervous system response, even though I keep flipping to the really fascinating stuff in the book that finally arrived from the UK.

Okay, can't resist. Here's one to tie you over (from page 5 of The Body Remembers):

A woman whose 3-year-old daughter had died four years prior was recalling, in a therapy session, a medical visit that had been particularly challenging. The details eluded her, but as she spoke, Rothschild noticed the woman's head jerking subtly to the right. The woman was unaware of the movement, and R suggested she allow it to develop. "Slowly the movement became bigger, becoming an obvious turn of the head to the right. When her head made its full turn, Carla began to cry."

And then she remembered. At the medical visit in question, an x-ray of her daughter had been displayed to the right, but the woman couldn't bring herself to look at it. The x-ray, and the visit, had made clear that the daughter wouldn't live.

As the title says, The Body Remembers.

This reminds me of the first year following Theo's diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. Each Friday, when I'd visit the school to refill supplies, I'd have to fight back tears. I could say these came out of nowhere, in a sense, because at home, I handled supplies all day long; but of course, the response was deeply-rooted in a type of grief. There were other times, too, when this grief would hit, yet the regular attendance of tears each Friday caught me off guard every time.

Trauma of any sort can manifest itself in physical symptoms, with some of the most dramatic including the freeze response, where a part of the body can go numb, or get stiff and "stuck." Though the trauma may have originated in what feels like an emotional problem--verbal abuse, the death of a loved one--these deep feelings find their way through bodily processes.

We'll focus on just one today: the autonomic nervous system (ANS). When the limbic system of the brain detects a threat, it engages the endocrine system and the ANS in the work of preparing to fight, flee, or, if neither of those can be accomplished, freeze.

"PTSD is characterized, in part, by chronic ANS hyperarousal. The system is always stressed.... When SNS arousal is constantly high, adding a news stress shoots it up even higher... This difficulty is familiar to many with PTSD who wonder why they cannot handle daily stress like everyone else or like they used to be able to." (page 50)

Explains a lot, doesn't it? Of course, this is just an armchair summary of complex processes, but I think it can serve to articulate the situation of people under chronic stress. (And even those bunnies in the yard, who exhibit a type of freeze response when unable to flee.) In future posts, I'll get to what interests me most, which is what Rothschild suggests to be done about it: work those muscles.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Brain Drain: Stopped

A recent article in a local paper instructs us parents to "stop the brain drain!" and "keep kids' brains engaged until school starts again." To that end, the writer suggests such non-parallel tips as "Read" and "Educational apps."

First one: done, done, and done some more. My kids read, and I've grown weary of explaining why this is not a good thing Any benefit to their brains is outweighed by the decrease in lifespan caused by sitting all day, if I'd let them.

Another good tendency gone bad in same kids is the abandonment of a fine idea after a short burst of effort. Maybe most kids are like this, but I can only speak to the brilliance of mine, who, if they'd follow through, would be president by now, or at least a relatively unknown yet respected indie filmmaker.

Knowing my children, then, and wanting to "stop the brain drain!", I suggested we undertake together what would become known as The June Project. We'd each choose a challenge to work on daily--something that couldn't potentially be finished by June 11. I gave the example of the guy who undertook a yearlong photo-a-day challenge back when you couldn't see right away what the photo would look like; he would have to wait or hope for the best moment of each day to capture. This kind of thing makes you appreciate the diligence and discipline that all good ideas require, and was just what my little guys needed.

So after ruling out some finishable ideas, we came up with these:

  • Theo (age 10): write a story. I read the beginning, which reminded me yet again that the kid has a gift. He has an innate sense of the rhythm of words, and this is something that comes only with voracious reading (yes, I know), and even then, not always. I love seeing him huddle over his little desk.
  • Simon (age 13): read the 754-page Team of Rivals. Definitely not finishable by the end of June, though Simon will often willingly work past our allotted time. I started a blog for him so that he'd also have to summarize what he read. I'm quite amazed at the retention going on. The kid reads constantly, but he's not the kind of A student you figure is storing all the info. But he is, and he can summarize it in a fun way. Go see, and leave a comment to totally make his day:
  • Me (age 43): study the topic of muscle tension and trauma therapy. See my previous post for details.
Each day this month, we set aside at least 30 minutes to work on these ideas. Some of that, for me at least, involves staring out the window; even then, I trust we'll all learn, or remember, that part of success at anything is just showing up. What's best, though, is seeing the creative afterglow. Even though they know I bought a little prize for each of them for the end of June, this sense of accomplishment is almost reward enough.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tension Relieves Tension: The June Project

Two memories: one, twenty minutes into meditation at a Buddhist temple, thinking, "Jesus, my legs hurt," and two, seeing stars during a session of Christian contemplative prayer. Pulsing, color-changing stars, so fascinating that I knew I was about to either go unconscious or fall over; I opened my eyes and there was the teacher, sitting up but fast asleep.

Meditation, prayer, relaxation--each person holds their own interpretation, but typically, these would involve quiet and calm. If I say I'm stressed, you say take a day off and sit by the lake. If I'm stressed and want to exercise, you say yoga. Indeed, these activities contain qualities that would soothe the maddest of souls; I've always thought that the primary reason people come out of a yoga session feeling wonderful is not due to the downward dog, but to the deep breathing. Who takes the time to breathe fully during a busy day?

But as my memories indicate, I've never been good at traditional calming down. There's an element of attention deficit here, for sure, as evidenced by my behavior during a recent performance of St. Matthew Passion, which will forever threaten to end my marriage. ("I don't need to defend Bach," said my weary husband.) But look at the activities I've chosen as hobbies--boxing, powerlifting--which make you stop and say hmmm. I do a good deal of sitting in a chair looking out the window, but to truly reset myself, I pick up heavy things and put them down.

So when I picked up Babette Rothschild's 8 Keys To Safe Trauma Recovery by chance--the library had set it out as an unpopular pick, about to be thrown out, and I was preparing to moderate a session on writing about trauma--one chapter caught my attention.

Called simply "Get Moving," this section purposed to detail the positive benefits of exercise for trauma recovery. Usually I'd bypass these sections, because as a personal trainer I've heard it all before; it's preaching to the choir for me to read about boosting serotonin, self-confidence, and healthier blood levels. Exercise is all it's cracked up to be, everyone knows as much--trick is, the theories only apply if you actually do it.

But then I read this section:

Muscle tension is an underrated ally. While relaxation can be valuable at times, without muscle tension you would be unable to stand, walk, sit, or hold this book in your hands... Though most people would assume relaxation is the state that helps trauma recovery most, a good portion of traumatized individuals do not do well with relaxation. In a relaxed state, they may actually become more anxious or even panicked.

Rothschild goes on to describe several cases in which the client attempted relaxation techniques but remained paralyzed by anxiety (one woman's symptoms actually worsened). Once she got them lifting weights or even assuming a steadier posture, their lives turned around. "When they were physically stronger," she writes, "they became emotionally stronger, as well."

The mind-body connection has always fascinated me, especially in my theatre practice. Seeing homeless men, in character, stand tall and confident always made me wonder if posture and strength was a key to self-esteem and, in turn, to their own success. Reading The World's Strongest Librarian by Josh Hangarne, who manages his Tourette Syndrome with kettlebells and heavy lifting, showed yet another winning model.

The examples are endless, but for now, I'd like to delve into this subject through Rothschild's work. Her book The Body Remembers should be arriving here soon, and just in time: my kids and I are embarking on what we call The June Project, in which we take a half hour each day to pursue a goal.

This is mine: to understand how muscle tension can relieve emotional tension. How tension can help us relax--my own little self-assigned dissertation, as it were. Come along on this journey and leave all your worries behind.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Ultimate Predator

In Everything Cat: What Kids Really Want To Know About Cats, Marty Crisp writes that "a cat facing illness or death is aware only that he is being threatened. He cannot find the source of the threat, but the instinctual response is to hide." This is the beginning of a response to the question "Why did our old cat disappear forever?"

Crisp adds, "Unfortunately, you can't hide from death."

I considered mentioning this children's book in an intellectual setting last week. At the Festival of Faith and Writing, I moderated a session on the task of writing on trauma and loss, and this cat fact seemed relevant. In what ways do we hide from death? How is loss felt as a threat?

But memoirist Shannon Huffman Polson and National Book Award nominee Andrew Krivak were articulate panelists, and we had plenty to talk about without the mention of cats. Krivak's book The Sojourn had been described by The Washington Post as "packed with violence and death, yet wonderfully serene in its tone," a notion that begged questions on the role of narrative structure and tone in softening, heightening, and occasionally protecting us from the severe aspects of suffering and grief. In a masterful prologue, Krivak builds to a tragedy we know is coming, but he does so gently, with long sentences, plentiful commas, and a mother's last look at her child. The word that ends the section--strikes--is comprised of harsh consonants, and that's the hardest blow Krivak hands us as a writer; he knows that his story is painful enough. Remarkably, the plot point comes from Krivak's personal history: his great-grandmother threw her baby, his grandfather, into a river just before she was hit by a train.

Polson's mother and stepfather were killed in a bear attack, and in telling of a pilgrimage to the site in her book North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey, she uses as counterpoint the story of rehearsing for the Mozart Requiem. For the last chapter, she reconstructs their last day at the camp and titles it Dies Irae, after the section which was finished by Sussmayr because Mozart had died.

There is the tragedy--there is always the tragedy--and there is what we do to manage and communicate its power, whether defeating or redemptive. Both writers saw a salvific role to loss, though Polson struggled. After singing the Requiem under Itzhak Perlman, she felt this way: "I am curiously happy, not unhappy, but I had expected more. I had wanted the heavens to soothe my wounds, and they did not. But I have internalized beauty. I have internalized prayer."

We want our healing to take as large a stage as the high drama of our suffering, but this is not always how it goes. Andrew spoke of what he calls the small act; in an email, he defined it as "a moment, a moment of choice, which happens only when the depth of loss is peered into, however briefly, and there is still visible something that will assuage that loss." He expanded on the idea further in our session, pointing to the grieving family in Raymond Carver's short story, A Small Good Thing, who show grace to an angry baker. It's a moment when a choice is made to reach through the depths, revealing a humanity when it is least deserved or felt.

Because how else does one learn to resist and surrender, if not through the persistence of love? (from Krivak's website) Sometimes the love must be extended by the one wrapped in the throes of loss.

In a session after ours, Krivak stayed on the idea of the small act as present specifically in fiction, and as reflecting faith. After, in the q&a time, a man raised his hand and said something like this: "We work so hard to fight against pain, but I'm a physician, and I can tell you: healing only comes when we embrace the suffering and enter into it."

Some old cats run off not because they want to die alone, but because they think they can outwit the ultimate predator (death) by sneaking away.

Unfortunately, you can't hide from death.

Friday, April 18, 2014

My Inspiration

We met at a Mexican restaurant, her choice but she'd never been there.

"I heard it's good," she said, adjusting her pink hat and rosary necklace. The necklace was the only thing not pink about her, and I'd never seen her like this, with earrings and bright clothes. The last time we were together there was snow, and she wore five pairs of socks. Boots, knit cap, sweatshirt, all dark, drab colors, and just a hint of a smile. Today, Patty was smiling big.

Patty used to be homeless. She stayed at the homeless shelter where I worked, though not when I was there, and we namedrop like old friends. I never knew her boyfriend, who died on the streets, but I can picture her, I must admit, as one of them. And now she's in a category that doesn't have enough members.

She's off the streets. She has an apartment. She's thriving as best as someone with limited resources can.

And what she told me over her burrito and my tacos is that she's never going back. "I'm going to keep moving forward," she said, cutting off a small bite, manageable for missing teeth, with the side of her fork.


"Do you think you can help me, Amy?"

I didn't know but I couldn't say such a thing, as the man was losing hope. He'd seen his doctor and a physical therapist and yet still, the pain was there. Maybe I'd know a few exercises that could help? I thought so, until that first day came and I was meeting with an 89-year-old man and the fear settled in to suggest that maybe, just maybe, I'm out of my league here. I could hurt him in my ignorance. I couldn't live with that, but I also couldn't live with being added to the list of people who didn't help.

"Sure, we can meet."
"It's worth a try, Amy."

And so we took it slowly. I carefully managed the amount of moving we'd do within our time. We got to know each other. And what I came to see is that this older person is just a person, special not because he's older but because he has not given up. He has not accepted his aches and pains as a given. He's moving forward--slowly, carefully, but in the right direction.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Weightlifting Secrets Revealed, or Curls Gone Wildly Wrong

A heavily-muscled man in my department told me his birthday is this Friday, and that he asked for "something heavy." For my birthday, I had asked for Muscle and Fitness magazine, which tells you how to lift something heavy, and apparently I added "not the women's version." Now, each month, I receive a magazine so teeming with testosterone, it's all I can do not to throw it down and beat my chest.

But today, I was again reminded that not everyone feels as I do, especially not women. The usual scenario presented itself at the gym: I'm loading 160 onto a 45-pound bar, and a pair of chattering women are doing chest presses, curls and tricep extensions with five-pound dumbbells. They will leave this room and head to childcare, where they will lift their 30-pound children with one arm, balancing an overstuffed totebag in the other. Never does it cross their mind that they need to pick up more than they're used to carrying in order to get that body they're after. No: women don't pick up heavy weights, unless it's in the form of children, who actually are so squirmy that the weight distribution makes the lifting of them, as opposed to a barbell, heavier.

Now the men, they walk in and do curls, too, albeit heavier, and I've got something to say about that, as well. Both you and the perfumed women are going about this in all the wrong ways.

One of the first things we learn in exercise planning is to work the multi-joint exercises first, but I'd like to take that idea a step further. The theory goes that you do the big stuff first--back squat, bench press, deadlift--before isolating smaller, individual muscles in a curl, extension, or even a crunch.

I'd like to argue that no one should be doing these isolation exercises until they have advanced to a moderately high fitness level.

Thanks to my certification and study in Functional Movement Systems, plus lots of reading up on Dan John, I now look at the body in terms of patterns, not parts. Can you squat? How's your hip hinge? Push and pull strong? Once you've solidified your form in these bigger moves, training your body to move athletically and as a unit, then you may isolate. You don't clean your car by polishing the bumper over and over, do you? In the same way, please don't highlight little muscles. Your body is a machine that needs all the parts working together, and those little parts are already called on with the bigger moves.

I have backup on this: in a profile on Arnold Schwarzenegger in my birthday magazine, he said that the first gym he went to insisted on powerlifting before bodybuilding. Do heavy big moves, and then you're allowed to sculpt those tris and bis into gorgeous peaks that earn you the right to use a "The" before your name.

There is a place for a good barbell curl or weighted dip, but in a personal training session, an hour goes quickly, and without any bodybuilders as clients, I tend to spend the time shoring up the foundation for bigger and better things. I work bilaterally, for sure, but not too much isolation, unless you're with me a while. I do have a client who came to me post-rehab, and curls were one of the few things he could do back when he started. But now? I've got him deadlifting, benching, at the barbell back squat, and on landmine rows. He's getting stronger, which was the whole point; everyday activities no longer cause him pain, and a few curls now and then are just the ticket.

And if getting stronger is not the intent for the women above? It should be. They don't need to be going as heavy as I do, but they must challenge their bodies, no matter the goal, which is most likely something they call "toning," which isn't even a real thing. Too many unfit women are doing light curls without any back muscles to call on; too many men are doing curls when they should strengthen their deadlift. Double abomination.

TRX, kettlebells and Olympic lifts are additional ways to train kinesthetic awareness of the body while continuing to build strength; each requires pretty near perfect technique, or you'll fall on your face/drop a kettlebell on your head/fall under a barbell. But there's nothing like any of these three for making you feel like one giant muscle. I like to spend a season in strength, followed by a season of what I think of as "movement"--swinging a bell or a barbell over the head and figuring out how the rest of the body should behave.

But either way, back to the basics, please, everybody, or I'll swat you with the supplement ads, which, given their sheer number, are about as heavy as the dumbbell in your hand.

Monday, March 3, 2014


While my grandfather laid still in the funeral parlor, some years back, what bothered me most was not that a man I knew all my life was dead, but that the loudest man in the room was quiet.

Arguably there is a part missing inside me, one that triggers deep attachment, but this is how I've always been: the dramatic is missed more than the familiar, initially, the known taking its time to lodge inside and register its loss. Today I learned of the death of an intense man I knew just well enough to miss. He's been gone a couple months now, which doesn't seem possible.

I had just been reading about a woman whose sister was given three months to live, and who died three months later, nearly to the day. I took on the age old question: what would I do if I knew how much time was left? We pose such hypotheses thinking we'll start doing the thing now, just in case. But I wouldn't; not without that license. And so life churns on, indefinitely until it does not.

I looked up the man's obituary online, and found that others felt as I did: touched by what they recognized was a unique soul. Back to the question: how can we let such people know how we feel before the news comes? This man needed to hear more of what was said too late, I know this.

What can we say, while we can, and what should we do, while there's time?

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What People Are Saying About FRAMES

"I found myself inhaling the pages of this book, surprised by the suspense and humanness of it all. Redemption hovers everywhere, not a sentimental redemption but a raw and real redemption. This book is well worth reading.”
Jerry Sittser, Professor of Theology, Whitworth University and author of A Grace Disguised and A Grace Revealed

Information on how to purchase FRAMES: a picture of death, drugs and forgiveness coming soon, right here. Email me at amy AT gregscheer DOT com to get on the mailing list.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

My Book

I wasn’t ready for this book when it first came to me. I had sat for hours and hours listening to a man talk about his wife's death and the only thought I had was if I wrote this book, it would be cheese. And I couldn't do cheese.

Kevin had been assigned to me. I'd been writing for his college's alumni magazine for years but was feeling swamped with other work, so I respectfully passed on this young widow's story. But the boss would not accept that answer, and offered me a raise I couldn't refuse. I called Kevin, we talked for an hour, I wrote an article. At the end of the process he offered up this: a feeling he'd had to do something more with his story, and would I be interested? We agreed to meet over a weekend and record the unabridged tale.

Mornings and afternoons, we'd sit and talk, recording his story in two, three hour intervals. I knew that Marilyn had died when a car crashed into hers at a toll station, but Kevin hadn't yet walked me through the time from the phone call to the hospital, where he'd sit alone with her body and say, "I'm sorry." And telling his toddler that Mommy's gone. Meeting the man who killed her. Hard, very hard to hear. And as a writer, difficult: this was a truly heartbreaking story, and yet those are the hardest to write well. 

Later that same weekend, I sat on the bed with my notes, planning out how I’d let Kevin down. And right about when I’d convinced myself to step away from this project, I was hit with the conviction not only that I needed to do this, but how to do this: I’d let Kevin, and the others, tell the story. Cheese would only come if I reworded things myself, so I wouldn’t even try. I'd always loved reading oral history, and yet the format of, say, Studs Terkel books always tired me out--one person tells their side, then the next, then the next. Instead of following that tradition, I would weave the firsthand accounts together to create the narrative, creating a poetic feel that better resembled a novel than a memoir.

For seven years, I organized and wrote when I could. I met with Rick, the driver who killed Marilyn. Kevin lent me Marilyn's journals. I watched the DVD of the funeral service. 

The scope of the project demanded uninterrupted work, which my schedule couldn’t always permit. I would pick it up and grow overwhelmed by what was asked of me, and yet each time I resumed, everything would flow. Piece by piece, the process would move forward.

I completed a full draft in October 2012, thanks to a push from Dave Eggers's 826michigan's Great Write-Off. A few trusted readers provided input, and last month I completed the final manuscript. Right now it's in production, as we're planning to self-publish through CreateSpace. Soon I'll be able to announce its release date. Too, the book is in the hands of two very respected writers who I hope will provide endorsements.

Seven years in the making, and yet I make no apologies. I was not ready for this book when it came to me. As I matured, the book matured--not because of me, but as if it was waiting for me to be ready. Even when I thought I was ready—in October, 2012—I had only just begun. The final rewrite was a heady one as I restructured sections for even more impact.

It’s hard to find a better word than overwhelming to describe reading Marilyn’s journals. A budding therapist, Marilyn felt life deeply and wrote much of it down. And then the pages go blank. All that life, those worries and prayers: to silence. The stark, empty page shattered me, perhaps even more so because I identified with so many of her fears, which weren’t written for my eyes. This privileged look into a life that ends so abruptly brought real gravity to an already somber project. 

And though I tried a couple times to "sell" the book, never has it turned me into a desperate writer. I'm very confident that the book speaks for itself, though a handful of publishers have disagreed. The book sits on the line between being too religious for some and not enough for others, but that's okay; life is rarely black and white, and I am comfortable in the gray. The book provides its own kind of messy redemption, and the world needs more of that.

I am grateful for the place this book has held in my life, and can hardly believe that soon, I'll be able to share that experience. Watch here for information on how to purchase the book, or email me at amy AT gregscheer DOT com to add your email to my mailing list.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

I Lifted 60,000 Pounds Today

This morning, I dropped in at a new gym I've been enjoying only to discover it was One Thousand Reps Day: any exercise(s) you want, ten reps at the top of each minute. For 100 minutes.

And so I completed 500 deadlifts and about 450 Bulgarian bag halos (when the halos became taxing, I threw in some overhead presses). The math works out to more than 60,000 pounds, and yet I came out of this thinking not so much about my strength, but my endurance. The mental kind even more than the muscle. I've never had much of either, and though I never hit the wall today, I had to fight the demons of comfort, persistent as my children, asking me to please, please, promptly halt the suffering.

At 200 reps, the challenge seemed an impossibility. At 500 there was celebrating but a long road ahead. 700, more folks left. The music was turned down, the fans off, only the door open to the snow outside cooling down the room. We lifted to the bell and to the sound of our own bodies. Lose Yourself came on, and the music was turned back up:

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go

Losing ourselves, by 800, became the point. This was not a feat of strength but a test. What were we made of? We began to discuss this in half-minute intervals between lifts. The greater life lesson energized us, provided a distraction. And then one rest period, I remember, no one said a word. No crack about how sore we'd be tomorrow, nothing. The bell rang and we picked up the bars once again.

Around 970, the stress increased exponentially. I've always been like this--tell me there's ten seconds left, and I'll give up on the spot. My hands had developed such calluses that I could only deadlift with a finger hook--immensely more difficult, but the pain from a bearing down with a full grip was worse.

Nothing fancy to the big finish, just more of the same until we were done. And then we were. The three of us who had remained to the end congratulated each other, put away our bars, and left. I drove off as if from a church, still held in the contemplative spirit of what I'd just done. I'd had a similar experience previously at this gym, when once again I didn't know what I was in for, and showed up to be asked to perform three-minute kettlebell snatches with one arm. And then on to the other arm, for three minutes. You pause when you need to, but beyond this aspect of endurance I had never experienced anything quite like this. We were all facing a mirror, and I was in the front row. We'd lift without talking. You concentrate on form but mostly, if you're in the zone, you lose yourself in the moment. People all around you, lost as well. But the important thing is we were lost together.

And how am I doing now, seven hours later? If I stop moving, I can no longer move, but if I keep the parts revved up, I feel like one big muscle. I am not entirely sure I'll be able to get out of bed tomorrow morning with ease, but I will either push through the difficulty, or take an extra few minutes in bed to think. My body will remind me of both lessons I learned today.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Personal Training: Lessons Learned

Every once in a while, I finish a personal training session and think, Yes. I've learned a lot. And when I try to pin that wisdom down, I sound just like a self-help book.

But it's all true. Those simple tips you read in magazine sidebars or thin pop psychology books? Try them. They work. I didn't set out to become a guru, but by naturally responding to the job I'm in, these traits are coming along. I used to think I had some of this down, but now I see how young I was; now, at 43, I'm settling in with some of the qualities I needed back in my other jobs, and maybe had a smidgeon of, but now I'm in deep. Sometimes just treading in that water, but often floating with calm.

I love it. Let me try to tell you what others have been saying for years.

Set boundaries. I fired my very first client. Before I could even begin this trade, I had a client--actually, the mother of--who tested every boundary I didn't yet have. In the interest of professionalism, I won't rat her out with the details here. But at nearly every session, I was forced to articulate all aspects of my role as trainer, from how often you can call me to No, I will not train your daughter when she's injured. After three sessions, I told them they'd need to find someone else. I also wrote an encouraging note to the daughter, which I'm sure wasn't passed along. That's the sad part of this story. The good news is that right out of the gate, I learned exactly who I was.

Be confident in your abilities. Even before the client who sent me to psychotherapy, I decided early on that I would be me. I would not try to line up with personal trainer stereotypes, especially as seen on TV. I would not pretend to be ultrapositive. I would not work people into sweat just so that they'd say, Wow, that Amy really kicked my a**. I would do what was best for someone, and I would do it my way. To that end, the scope of my practice is so varied you'd hardly guess I was the same person. The newbie I start from scratch, even though she wants to lose weight, because she isn't ready to have her butt kicked just yet. The experienced weekend warrior gets the full powerlifting workover from me. The 70-year-old man gets no mercy, because I see his potential.

I tell them to please eat heartily this Thanksgiving. I don't applaud the overcounting of calories; I want people to learn balance in life, and not think of me as a new year's resolution.

Because I'm no shortcut. Anybody can work you out--heck, any app can work you out. I'm hear to teach you and walk right alongside.

Give what's best, which isn't always THE best. Let me clarify. I have spent most of my working life in the arts, where creativity is rewarded. Your way must be the most clever, unexpected, and full of imagination. This approach has served me well.

But then I start working with bodies. Every body is different, yes, but nearly every body has the exact same parts. Through my certification in Functional Movement Systems, I have learned about these parts in a new way, yes, but also patterns; every body should aspire toward functionality in a series of basic patterns such as a the squat and hip hinge.

The creativity comes when I determine which ways to work those patterns for an individual, and when I plan out a flow to the hour and to the cumulation of sessions. But in the end, this individual's got the same parts as that one, so I can rest knowing that I don't need to be overly clever. A pushup is a pushup is a pushup. Hindu/divebomber/incline/decline/atomic/wall, it's okay to do what's done before.

Listen. It's okay to do what's done before as long as you listen. Listening (and writing down) provides the information you need to make decisions, but also is exactly what some people are paying for. Before I started, I didn't understand how I was supposed to chat AND teach exercise AND possibly get them a little sweat on. In an hour. Now I see the integration; as clients come more regularly, the relationship develops, and you talk more or less but either way, you given them what you know they need and also what they want. If they want to take time out of the hour to talk about their week, then that's what you do. You get done what needs to get done, but you also stop and listen.

Perhaps this is the most obvious of my points, but it's one I had to learn. It ties into the message above; my tendency is to feel that if I haven't packed your hour with the most creative and interesting exercises of your life, you may be unhappy with spending your money on me. But this has never happened, and thankfully, I keep learning over and over again to listen.

Be confident in your vocation. When I'd tell people I did theatre with homeless people, they'd ooh and ah. When I say I'm a writer, their eyes light up. When I say I'm a personal trainer, one of two things happen--a person will point to or grab a body part (men: knee or low back; women: back of upper arm) and ask my advice, or, if I'm in the company of intellectuals, the eyes will glaze over.

I am in a trade profession now. It is not considered a life of the mind, though I could argue against that point vehemently. It's a trade that shows no sign of slowing in business, and yet to the community I come from, it's a little lesser than.

Nowadays, when people ask what I do, I don't automatically start the list of writer, etc; I say personal trainer and see what they do. If they put me in a box, I accept that as more of a reflection of them than me.

Because lookee here:

“Before working with Amy, I had trained for five months for the Tough Mudder, and my hamstrings were perpetually wrecked. I start working with Amy, my hamstrings are fixed. My shoulder injury: it’s like it never happened.

As soon as I got into my early 30s, I had recurring lower back injuries, but those are pretty much gone.

I was not expecting to see gains as fast as I did.  I noticed a rapid increase in strength. I received a lot of benefits, but if the money had only improved my back like it did, it was worth it. I can throw my kid around now, I can carry large objects--none of these things bother me anymore.”