Monday, May 22, 2017

What Meatheads Want You To Know

You're thinking one of two things, we know.

We're all thick necks, us lifters, with no conversation topics at hand other than the circumference of our biceps... in proportion to our heads.

Or you might believe that each of us secretly wants to be you: lithe, flexible, able to scratch our own backs without help from the nearest door jamb.

That would be nice, admittedly.

Probably won't happen any time soon, though.

So let's talk about why our mantra is "pick up heavy things and put them down," and how lifting is our meditation. Pumping iron is, to us, a lot like what yoga--or maybe running, church or talk therapy--is to you: a mindfulness practice. Since the 6th century, when Milo of Croton built his body carrying a growing calf up a hill, we've been grunting our way to Nirvana the only way we know how.


Check in with your body.

Yoga class starts with that, right? Or maybe "meet yourself where you are today?"

We check in, too. Some of us have little tests to see if we're up to lifting, if our nervous system can handle it that day. One-minute arm hang, maybe, or checking our temp and resting heart rate when we wake up. Or just looking at the weight: seem heavier than usual? A true meathead knows there's something that can be done today if the dumbbells gained pounds or if he has an injury. He respects that.


Set an intention.

Most of the time our intention might be phrased as "get it," but that counts: we're dedicating our time and efforts to improving ourselves in some way.

And it's not always about the pump. Strongwoman competitor Elizabeth Carpenter dedicated her recent training to a powerlifting friend and coach named Jules who had passed away in February. Missing this special person reminded Elizabeth of who she was because of him, and honoring Jules's memory doing what he loved makes sure he lives on.

"Jules inspired people to be better than they were the day before, in ways far beyond lifting," Elizabeth says. "He helped me understand how to minister to others by being strong."

Some lifters choose to spend an entire session on mobility or form, knowing that practice, even at light weights, makes perfect. Which reminds me...


Practice mindfulness.

Yogis have got this one down, we admit. What with the hypnotic music, a prayer pose and focus on the exhale, yoga's hard to top when it comes to integrating mind and body. However, us meatheads stand flexed and ready to explain why Slipknot, a lifter's wedge and the valsalva maneuver can turn our attention inward, and not just toward the mirror.

Tyler Santiago is a bodybuilder from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who holds a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He's the guy you notice in the gym, and not just for his backpiece tatts and symmetrical lats; he's also pretty noisy. Not the dropping weights kind of noise, though he's won the honor of having set off the Lunk Alarm in the Judgement Free Zone known as Planet Fitness. Think self-talk: Tyler calls out body parts like they're his next opponent.

"Rear delts only," he'll say out loud. "C'mon!"

Tyler takes less anxiety meds now that he's active, and that's not uncommon; exercise is a proven solution to a range of problems. But here's where it gets tricky: when someone's got anxiety or something like PTSD, standard advice tells them to relax. The logic is there--calm down all those ramped up feelings with gentle exercise, like yoga--but, truth is, it doesn't always work.

"A significant percentage of PTSD clients may become more anxious from relaxation training," writes psychotherapist Babette Rothschild in The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. "In such cases, building or maintaining muscle tension is preferable to relaxation."

Rothschild says that being tense has gotten a bad rap, and that the positive outcomes of muscle tension are all but ignored by those outside of the gym. Building muscle can, for some, contain those strong emotions and manage them.

Here's Rothschild on how to do it:

For this kind of muscle building to be effective, it must be done with body awareness--with attention to body sensations generally and to the muscles being exercised specifically.

And here's Tyler on how he does it:

I'm actually engaged in the lift; I'm not just moving the weight. There's the mind-muscle connection. I lift to center myself.

You go, lats.

The day I got married, I weighed 120 pounds and wore a size 7.  On the day of my divorce twenty-three years later, I was 160 and a size 10. The difference on the scale was mostly muscle, and this was no coincidence. After decades spent knowing no one had my back, I had a strong desire to grow my own.

Bodybuilding forums filled with users named "BigSwole" and "SmeelMyBut" don't help the meathead cause. But we're here to say that what we do is just as mindful and therapeutic as any yoga practice.

Not that we diss you yogis. Here's Sabrina Schutter, who holds a 1443 powerlifting total (that's total pounds moved, by the way, in the squat+bench+deadlift) in the 198 weight class:

As a powerlifter and busy gym owner, I have always struggled to find motivation to do cardio. Yoga has not only given me a way to get my heart rate up but also has given me a mental escape where I don't stress or worry for whatever amount of time I spend on my mat.

Yoga as cardio. Lifting as mindfulness practice. We all do what we need to do. In a true judgment-free zone, you'd see dumbbells heavier than 80 pounds, and downward dog instruction somewhere between the tanning beds and HydroMassage chairs.

To each his own.

Namaste.




Sunday, April 16, 2017

He is not here

A jury of peers interrogated Captain Sully after he saved the lives of an entire plane.

Save five weeks in 1959, God left Mother Teresa for the duration of her fifty-year ministry. ...the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,--Listen and do not hear--the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ...


Trump became president. Prince is gone.

Abraham Lincoln was shot, Martin Luther King, Jr, was shot, the BBC's Mary Watson, a skilled former agent, was taken down by a bitter old hag.


The pattern is there since the start of time and yet it is only now, in my 47th year, I have seen and understood that things that shouldn't happen do.

I had spent much energy fighting this reality, which is curious because I have a Guest House approach to most of life: allow things to happen, let visitors and new experiences penetrate and meld you, don't think you have more control than you do. Yes, I work in the fitness field and make sure my clients know they will get stronger and feel better under my care and through their own agency, and yet anyone who hires me knows I am intuitive and not pushy. I accomplish what I can within the natural ebb and flow of a body's natural rhythms. I do not promise the world, but often hand a chunk of it over.

And yet I found myself shattered last week at Lincoln's tomb. I am like a child--or a fundamentalist or a innocent, a sociopath or a scientist, in that I expect that a certain A equals a certain B. That having a thinking, witty man in the White House crying over the war ensures he will stay the course.

Lincoln shouldn't have been shot. But Lincoln is dead.

Prince shouldn't have overdosed on fentanyl. Prince is dead. He is not here.

An autistic man I met was burdened after Prince's death; he had come to process and endure each day's sensory onslaught only through the star's music. Prince had died. Unbuttoning his shirt to reveal the large purple symbol on a chain, he told me there would be no more new songs from Prince. The permanence of this reality rendered him vulnerable, and exposed.

There was a period of time following my divorce when every conversation I had with my kids sounded as if we were on a lifeboat in the high seas, ready to sink. It started with Trump: I needed them to know that women aren't objects to be grabbed. And then their father was caught with his married assistant--caught, warned, caught, fired--and I couldn't rest until I knew these two teenaged boys understood that married women are off limits, that positions of power are not to be underestimated, and that above all, if one is capable a high level of deception, something deep inside has broken. Catch that radar early if you ever fear it's off, I told them.

I had to make sure they were equipped to have healthy relationships of their own. 

I had to provide that mirror therapists talk about, to help them see what they were seeing.

I had to tread carefully, to maintain a distance between the act and the actor. I chose my words with care and precision. Addressed the issues and not the agent, and only at intervals. Mirrored what I needed to mirror because this, this was everything that would shape their future and their outlook and their beliefs. I couldn't not talk about it.

There were so many had to's. I was so weary of this.

As I kicked against the goads, I grew hoarse with the sound of my own voice. 

Finally, a new disrespect arrived, one I had to swallow, not mirror, in order to protect them from knowing. Sully saved everybody and was treated like a criminal, and now, I couldn't breathe. My shoulders came forward to protect the breast that had lost its air. Right then, I stopped fighting the reality that is the Buddha's first noble truth: Life is suffering. I acknowledged the trauma that was surfacing in my body, presenting itself as flashbacks and not flight or fight, but freeze.

Later that day I gave my last captain's call. 

I need you to know that I will never avoid any opportunity to prepare you to be adults on your own. And I need you to know that I believe your dad is a good dad. 

With that, I grew quiet. They looked at me, searching for that woman who, with passion, helps them process their world. She must be somewhere behind that new, vacant stare. And she was--is--but she's tired.

Because there are battles I can't ever win. Things that shouldn't happen do.

Without the fighting I feel more vulnerable. If I don't fight, won't injustice always win? Or Lincoln dies no matter if he had sent away his bodyguard or not?

I saw the tomb: Lincoln is dead. As is my grandmother, who had prayed for me every day of my life. I had expected, I suppose, that once she was closer to the source my blessings would grow, but I have felt a growing coldness, instead. She is not there. He is not here.

Nobody's praying for me now and I'm not safe, I told a coworker on a rough day, through tears. She said, very gently, that I could do it, I could pray for myself.

What I didn't say is Mother Teresa is dead, and He is not here.











Sunday, January 15, 2017

Books Read in 2016

Twenty-one books! This is the lowest record yet, and I'll just go ahead and chalk it up to a divorce year, where time was spent reading court orders and custody guidelines and not as many New York Times bestsellers.

Instead of dividing the books into random, invented categories, as I usually do, let's stick with two this year: titles--actual wording of titles--I could apply to my year of divorce, and the others I couldn't. The latter category is smaller than the former, which is why this experiment is so interesting. I mean, come on; I finished "When Things Fall Apart"! By coincidence! Nicholas Sparks could not have planned this better.


Titles I Read That Coincidentally Could Easily Be Applied To Said Divorce, and Require Some Use Of Your Imagination
• When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chodron
• Promise Land, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro
• The Woman Who Walked In Sunshine, Alexander McCall Smith
• The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson
• Bluets, Maggie Nelson
• Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
• Not That Kind of Girl, Lena Dunham
• The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Stephen Adly Gurgis
• Tribe, Sebastian Junger
• The Door, Magda Szabo
• All At Sea, Decca Aitkenhead
• The Magic Finger, Roald Dahl
• How To Be Here, Rob Bell
• Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible, Stan Lee
• Home, Marilyn Robinson

Titles I Can't Readily Stretch Into The "This Relates To My Divorce And Everything That Followed" Category
• Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, Stephen Adly Gurgis
• The Pharos Gate, Nick Bantock
• Esio Trot, Roald Dahl
• My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
• Negroland a memoir, Margo Jefferson
• Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls, David Sedaris


In My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout writes, "You will have only one story. You'll write your one story many ways. Don't ever worry about story. You have only one." After 2016, I did try to write my story, and at the same time found myself in the words of others, which is entirely the purpose and beauty of the art and craft of writing.