Showing posts from 2009

The Year in Books

I read 20 books in 2009. This down from 24 in 2008, 26 in 2007, 32 in 2006, and a whopping 34 in '05. How am I reading less now that my kids are older? Maybe because I'm older and heading to bed earlier, or because I no longer pause in the middle of the day to read for pleasure. Or I'm having trouble finding the good stuff--I started many books this year only to deem them not worth finishing. Nevertheless, I read some books worth talking about. Standouts include: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman Zeitoun by Dave Eggers I see now that the list is half fiction, half non. Though I write primarily nonfiction, I enjoy--and learn from--all types of writers and styles. If it's good, it's good. I want to be that kind of writer: solidly good. The kind you pause for, rather than fly through, because y

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

Sometimes God chooses unlikely routes of communication. That's what we talked about Monday night at The Open Door, a homeless shelter for women. How the people called by God aren't always obvious choices (see John the Baptist) and the ways chosen by God don't make immediate sense (see Mary: young, single and not wealthy, carrying the Savior of the world in her womb). John the Baptist was sent to "prepare the way of the Lord," as we heard in a reading. Mary was the way the Lord had chosen, as we saw in a sketch by my friend John Cosper . But why? Why do this? Why should God put on flesh and be born of a woman? I cast parts for "The Incarnation" from Cloth for the Cradle , and told everyone we'd read the script through once, tune it up, then perform it for ourselves at the end of the night. We read. We discussed the meaning. I gave direction in record time. I gathered the two narrators and God, and asked them to pick up the pace. "I thought I was

An Open Letter to The Tooth Fairy

Dear Tooth Fairy, A certain six-year-old expected you to bring the cash last night, and you failed to show. Just because it's a busy time of year, you haven't wrapped presents yet, there's an article due, a book you're being paid to read, your kids are ingesting large numbers of Spaghettios and the paper boy is looking for a bonus, it doesn't mean you can just forget things like this. All that laundry, meal-making, and slop to mop near the entryway mean nothing. I don't particularly care, either, that much of your time is spent trekking to the physical therapist, and for what? For her to ruin your knee forever, forcing you to waddle like you're elderly? And why is your left knee, which felt absolutely fine before that first appointment, now aching in a way that the right knee never did? What am I paying those people for, anyway? Seriously. At least I'm not picking up green marbles with my toes like that other woman. These therapists must have a comedy te

PT and Me

The doctor used the word "athlete," and I turned to look over my shoulder. " You talkin' to me? " I asked her. "I'm the only one here. You talkin' to me?" My kindergarten report card forever branded me as a non-athlete ("Amy can't skip," it declared). I was kicked out of ballet and tap as a child, and though I played doubles tennis in high school, it never solved any of my basic coordination issues. So when my GP--who happens to specialize in sports medicine--called me an "athlete," I was taken aback. My knee problem is a common condition among "athletes." Two revelations right there: I'm an athlete, and all these various pains and aches I'm getting come with the territory. I tend to be somewhat of a fatalist. The other day I had writer's block while working on a article that's due soon, and I was convinced it was all over for me--the magic was gone, never to return again. Each time I get some p

Christmas Preparations

Christmas falls on a Friday. The two Mondays prior, I'm using a Christmas theme in my theatre sessions with the women at the homeless shelter; meanwhile, I'm studying up a little on the Christian liturgical season of Advent. The focus of Advent is on waiting. It's a theme seen throughout the Christmas story--Mary is expecting a child, Jews are waiting for the Messiah--and it appears in the rest of the Bible, as well, with Christians looking forward to Jesus coming again. It's a time of tension: an anticipation of something good, and an acknowledgment that preparation and suffering must precede any birth. A standard Advent reading is Luke 3, which introduces us to the adult John the Baptist. He's a crazy man dressed in camel's hair and eating locusts, but God chose him to "prepare the way for the Lord's coming." By the time of the events in Luke, John had already been preaching that people needed to get baptized to be spared God's wrath, and a c

Photo of the Day

Even snowtroopers need a break from the holiday hubbub. photo credit: Simon, age 9


The other day at the library, my son pointed out the cover of this book and said, "That looks like you, Mom, except for the hat and ax." Surely he was referring to the large muscular frame and my tendency to wear green, not the humpback nor intent to kill. I chose to take it as a compliment. It's all in how you see things, right? I was thinking about perspective today in the weight room. Lately I've been plotting my retirement from competitive weightlifting, if you could call it that when you've only been in one competition and no one else was in your weight class. I have all sorts of excuses. My shoulder! My knee! Allergy shots make me weak! I don't want to eat enough calories to lift heavier weights, because I don't want to buy another new wardrobe! Mostly I was just sore--literally and figuratively--because I'd been working hard for months and seeing slow results. I don't have the capacity to go higher, I told myself. Give it up now. But then I

'Twas Lost But Now Is Found

And is also dead. Our missing hissing cockroach , Dora the Explorer, journeyed to the far reaches of our garage this summer and was found on this wintry day by Greg, who is finally getting around to organizing that God-forsaken area. Dora leaves behind roommates Chubby and Lipstick, who will miss her dearly--unless Dora is actually Lipstick, in which case Chubby and Dora are very extremely sad.

Facing Mortality

Nov 21 Birthday. Nov 26-29 Began work on book about death. Nov 27 Doctor's appointment. Nov 30 Doctor's appointment. Dec 1 MRI. Dec 2 Allergy shots. Began Philip Roth novel. Dec 3 Doctor's appointment for youngest son. Flu shot. Blogged before something else can happen.

Thanksgiving Prayer

To enter The Open Door, an overnight shelter for women, you stand in a covered entry way and press a button. A man across the street is yelling curses, but you know he'll stay a silhouette in his usual doorway, too drunk and old to act on his threats. Through the intercom you're asked your name, and when you open your mouth to answer, a strong wave of urine stings your throat and nostrils. You look down and see splashes on the wall near your feet. You say your name, and with the buzzer you open the heavy door. After passing through you press it closed behind you. The scent of urine lingers as you walk up the first of two flights of steps, but soon you're on the third floor where everything is well-kept and clean. There's flowery lotion, the soapy smell of recent showers, the warmth of running dryers. In this place, this past Monday, I led theatre games. Three days before Thanksgiving. I had no doubt that the women there are deeply grateful for many things, most especial

The Writer's Almanac for November 21, 2009

Just helping Garrison Keillor out today. It's the birthday of writer, weightlifter, and theatre instructor Amy Scheer (1970). Scheer was raised in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, where, as a young girl, she won an Andy Gibb puzzle for her drawing of Miss Piggy at a local park. Her first attempt at writing was halted after the first page, as so much effort was given to producing the book's title-- The Missing Canoe --she felt satisfied enough to abandon the rest of the project entirely. In 1993 she married the composer Greg Scheer, who later wrote the book The Art of Worship (2006). They have two boys--Simon and Theo--whom they did not name after The Chipmunks though they were aware it was happening. Theo calls his mother a "wri-tist" who "plays with people who don't have houses." Shortly before her 38th birthday, Scheer began strength training in earnest, and entered her first bench press competition on April 25 of this year. She benched 110 pounds and won

Bulk, Baby, Bulk

Theo with The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding by Arnold Schwarzenegger Seems I've been "cutting" when I should have been "bulking." You, too? Happens to the best of us. Bring on the chips, I say. Let the bulking begin.

My Magnum Opus

While attempting to channel The New Yorker , I wrote the cover story on adoption for the latest issue of The Classic , the magazine of Northwestern College. This is my largest feature yet, and I'm very proud of it. The layout and the photos in the print version are quite gorgeous.

Ain't Writin' Funny

Did you read that last post? Notice how it moves from comic to serious? I had fully intended to write a fully funny piece on the broad range of groups I find myself in. Starting with the personality test and moving into the murder story (both found in yesterday's post), I'd then address my regular presence on a bodybuilding forum, where members have handles like "GetnHuge" and include the diameter of their biceps in their signature. Woulda been funny, I tell ya, minus the murder part. And then I started writing it. Simply showing up and sitting down to write helps me figure out what it is I'm thinking about. I had avoided blogging for years thinking I'd not be able to finely polish my thoughts enough to share them publicly. But I'm being rewarded personally by doing so, and I find myself awed anew at the creative process. I sit down to write one thing, and out comes another, usually better idea. That's art. I recommend it highly.

The Company You Keep

Back when we lived in Tallahassee, I attended one of those Ladies' Day Out events that churches like to hold. From among scenes that surely involved scones and scrapbooking, I remember just one activity: we ladies were administered a personality test, after which we gathered in four groups according to our test results and now clearly-defined dispositions. Roughly 80% of the women filled one of the four circles--the one for extroverted, nurturing types. Most of the others sat in two of the remaining groups. In the final circle sat a friend and I--the only opinionated introverts, apparently. We joked about how special we were, ha ha, until she took a second look at her test results. "Oh," she said, glancing toward another group. "I'm actually supposed to be over there." She walked off to join the others, leaving a circle of Amy. Alone. Yep. I don't always fit in. Not often. With women, especially. So it was with great surprise I noticed, three months into

Mr. Rogers Was Right

Since 1985, English musician and musicologist Clive Wearing has had what neurologist Oliver Sacks calls "the most devastating case of amnesia ever recorded": a memory span of mere seconds. Along with the present his past has slipped away as well, including the memory of meeting his wife, Deborah, and falling in love with her. Yet emotional memory provides Clive with a basis to remember Deborah at a fundamental level, as Sacks writes in "The Abyss" ( The New Yorker , September 24, 2007): For many years he failed to recognize Deborah if she chanced to walk past, and even now he cannot say what she looks like unless he is actually looking at her. Her appearance, her voice, her scent, the way they behave with each other, and the intensity of their emotions and interactions--all this confirms her identity, and his own. To Clive, his wife was more than the sum of her parts, and was, in fact, unrecognizable in parts; but taken wholly, she was Deborah. The essence of the wo

I Laughed, I Cried, It Was Better Than Catharsis

When I teach at the BuildaBridge Institute for Arts in Transformation in Bryn Mawr, PA, I'm sent to work in shelters with at-risk teens, while the adults registered for the institute observe, participate, and debrief with me after. I use this description of the work in my handouts: Bodies and voices become instruments for change as participants explore societal concerns in a deeply personal way. We’ll call what we do “sociodrama,” though in truth we’ll borrow from a variety of excellent techniques to make a safe, enjoyable space for improvisation and image-making. Participants will try on roles and appreciate multiple viewpoints on issues as they "rehearse for reality," to borrow a phrase from Theater of the Oppressed founder Augusto Boal. Each session will aim to be complete in itself—a necessary goal when dealing with transitional populations—though subsequent days will build on what has been previously accomplished. The simplest way to distinguish between sociodr


I'd like to think it was my drama curriculum, but my wild rice chicken salad probably should get some credit. Greg had invited Dr. J. Nathan Corbitt, author of Sound of the Harvest and Taking it to the Streets: using the arts to transform your community , to speak at Northwestern College back when we lived in Orange City, Iowa. He then asked Nathan over for lunch--the wild rice salad and bran muffins--and a few months later, I was teaching theatre to a handful of adults at the Campolo School for Social Change, for Corbitt's organization BuildaBridge. Over the next several years this annual institute grew, and I was privileged to teach at several homeless shelters in the Philadelphia area. These Monday nights I write about, my weekly teaching of theatre in a shelter here in Grand Rapids? Probably never would have happened were it not for BuildaBridge. BuildaBridge takes the arts to the tough places of Philadelphia; I can testify personally to the impact they have made. They'

Club Freedom (of Speech)

I've defended the antics of David Blaine, and, at 13, the effects of The Empire Strikes Back . I've rallied against TV shopping carts, hatemongers, and Michelle Malkin. Sorry to be redundant. I've... written lots of letters to editors. I love this medium; I love that my grandfather, with his grade school education, was prolific on the editorial page of The Beaver County Times . And I especially appreciate that the playing field is leveled: journalist writes for newspaper, average citizen's opinion is printed in same paper. But when my most recent letter appeared in the online edition of The Grand Rapids Press , the "Post A Comment" section made the occasion of publication a little more interesting than usual. Where I had taken time to make my point cleverly and succinctly within The Press's word count; submit it; return a phone call verifying I lived where I said I did; and hope the letter was good enough to be printed, anyone who registered on the site c

The Hours

Monday's session with the women at the shelter warrants not an essay this week but a sketch, instead. They'll pay you for a whole hour, she said, niggers can’t get hard. Hey honey, can I have a ride? But I was already leaning close to the intercom, announcing who I am and my purpose there. With the buzz I left her on the street. I asked the women upstairs Why all the commotion tonight, Why the extra bodies about. The nice weather, they said, rolling out their sleeping mats. For the one face I don’t know, whose eyes stay on the floor, I started my speech. If you believe in the story of Jesus, I said, You believe God took on a body. Put on skin and bones. He didn’t have to do that. There's something special about these bodies we’ve been given. She looked up at me. I led our exercises. This took forty-five minutes, an hour. I left. Down the steps and out, I passed the woman again, and drove by a band of men now encircling her, casting lots for her


And my current choice of reading material? "Huge in a Hurry."

A Call to Arms

I like the weight room because it's full of men. There are obvious reasons for my preference, and practical concerns, as well. For starters, men mostly mind their own business. They sweat, grunt and throw heavy weights to the floor, all off by their lonesome. You can mostly ignore them and continue with your workout uninterrupted unless they're throwing the heavy weights close to your head, or unless they're treating you like a helpless maiden, asking you if you need their expert assistance even though you were just rowing 140lbs, which was on a double pulley system but still . Not that I have any experience with this. But women, see, when they do deign to appear in the weight room, are not so easily ignored. For one, many are chatty. They don't know the rule about not talking while working out unless someone gives you a clear signal they want to know you better. These women will tell you about their basement flooding, their kid with the flu, the pros and cons of Fluffy

When Groups Play

Heaped onto the buffet of my interests and vocations is a job in television. For Calvin College's interview show Inner Compass, you'll find me researching topics, writing questions, powdering bald heads and styling flyaway hairs. I've run sound and recently begun editing video, as well. My hand was heavy in many aspects of this episode , "When Groups Play: Flash Mobs and Urban Experiments," from its genesis to the final edit. At around 1:10 there's a video package I produced and for which I slept with the composer to get some good music. My (and the composer's) son Simon, in jungle hat, is interviewed in the package; parts of the rest of my family appear, as well.

Reality Check

Denise was addicted for twenty years to one drug. Now in recovery, she works part-time for a staffing agency. This past Monday, and perhaps on other nights, too, she slept in a homeless shelter. But do not think of her as “down,” she says. “That’s what people get wrong, you see,” she says. “I had my low days, for sure, but there were good days, too. All was not bad.” She was speaking of her years as an addict, but her self-assured stance made clear she wanted me to know she would not let her current circumstances pull her under, either. Thank goodness our burdens mercifully slough away on occasion. When I’m with the women at this overnight shelter on Monday evenings, they’re tired from walking miles to a job interview or traveling back and forth between missions that provide food and assistance. But they’re also enjoying the opportunity to relax, they’re massaging lotion onto their arms after a refreshing shower, and I almost forget why they’re there. Always, ther

Thinking About Art

My family and I finished up our ArtPrize tour with a special trip to see Young Kim's salt & earth , an installation of portraits comprised entirely of salt and clay. I saw it, I heard how he did it (think silkscreening), yet I can still hardly believe it's possible. Transitory art, photography of the moment. These portraits of local people, already deteriorating from humidity and vandalism, will be swept away in a few days. The enjoyment of the piece is fleeting, as are the lives represented there, and those viewing them. Our local paper has done a nice job of covering ArtPrize and acquainting the unfamiliar with how to experience these creations. The tips offered in today's edition were particularly helpful as a guide to voting by tonight's final deadline. In my words: -Go with your gut. Does a piece move you? -Look for evidence of skill. How well is it crafted? -Search for significance. What's the larger meaning? These "local experts" thankfully pu


ArtPrize wraps up this week. Voting has narrowed now to the top ten finalists, including the portrait above made entirely of pushpins. My vote goes to Tracy Van Duinen's mosaic , which fortunately will stay in town after the competition is said and done. But I also loved the 100,000 airplanes soaring from the tops of downtown buildings; the red ball squished into a new place daily; people made of packing tape. For two weeks, art was everywhere and for everyone. Again I ask you: How cool is Grand Rapids?

Breaking Through the Blockade

At a church we used to attend, a well-meaning fellow often led children's sermons during the regular service. Paying no mind to the fact that young children are incapable of following metaphors, he'd grab an object, any object, and wring out all the symbolism it could spare, and more: "This flashlight Jesus! Jesus shines a light into the darkness. The batteries I mean, our daily Bible reading. (Children begin looking about, waving to parents.) Reading our Bibles daily gives us the power to shine Jesus into the dark. But you have to hit the ON switch, right? (A little girl stands, and holds up her dress.) Switching the flashlight ON is like..anybody know? (little girl showing panties, into microphone: "I have a Barbie purse.") Hey, that's great. Does it have sequins? That would shine a light, too, huh? So the switch is...the Holy Spirit. And God is holding the flashlight, like how you hold your Barbie purse! The flashlight represen

Oh Blessed Hisses

So a local church is offering a Blessing of the Pets in its parking lot this Sunday. The event celebrates the feast of St. Francis, who had a special communion with the natural world. Father Len Sudlik says the saint "viewed God's creation and all living creatures living in harmony." I wonder how harmonious it would be if we presented our giant hissing cockroaches for a little blessing. Theo thinks if we take a camera, we might finally get on "America's Funniest Home Videos." Meanwhile, it's too cold for these Africans in our garage, and they've moved inside. Wanna visit?

Celebrating the Body

I spent Saturday night staring at a bunch of half-naked men By the end of Saturday night I jumped rows to get a better view of a guy's amazing...uh, lats Where to begin? While driving to see my first bodybuilding competition yesterday evening, I passed a Hooters and started to worry. What if the people who buy tickets to such events are there simply to ogle, and what if the events themselves exist for the ogling? Once the bikini division had sashayed away, the figure competitors waddled off in their five-inch heels, and the fitness models revealed their amazing wax jobs completed their cartwheels, the bodybuilders came on stage and I understood what was going on. A celebration of the body. Permission to linger over these well-oiled (yes) machines, carriers --and, often, cause--of our hopes, dreams, and insecurities. Like beautiful ballet...danced to Metallica. Beauty arrives in this context when genetics meets discipline. Nearly any healthy person with somewhat symmetrical form c

Everything's Art 2

A man spending 2 weeks atop a giant easel in the name of peace. A Live Statue. A room covered in pink icing. We're loving ArtPrize.

Everything's Coming Up Art

Theo and I took in well over a hundred pieces of art today thanks to ArtPrize . Over a thousand artists are competing here in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the world's largest art cash prizes, which total $449,000. 159 venues within a three-mile radius of downtown Grand Rapids feature a wide range of art. Murals, a 75-foot doll, a giant red ball squished into different locations daily. 100,000 paper airplanes flown from the tops of buildings. A guy spending a few days atop a crane. That's art, people. In fact, everything was looking like art by the time we were done. How cool is Grand Rapids?

Meeting Ourselves

Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves. --James Joyce, Ulysses As I planned this week's theatre games for the women at the overnight shelter, two thoughts dominated the process.

This is Getting Better All the Time

Because my article on the bodybuilding website is new, it temporarily has a link from the homepage. My essay on the Russian writer Tolstoy is featured below an ad for HEMO-RAGE , which claims to be "one of the meanest, strongest and cruelest pre-workout detonator this planet has ever seen." Its creators "went down to the laboratory and cooked up one of the most vicious blends of raging energy inducing, strength signaling, blood volume expanding, pump activating, extreme focus enhancing, fat detonating and muscle building compounds imaginable." They needed "extra insurance to be able to bring this explosive concoction to you. " HEMO-RAGE sounds a little too much like hemorrhage to me, but if you, gentle reader, are interested in purchasing it, please first note the warning : "NOT FOR USE BY WIMPS. NOT TO BE USED BY ANYONE UNDER THE AGE OF 21 OR THE UNDEDICATED AND/OR WEAK-HEARTED."

Taking Tolstoy to the Muscled Masses

A bodybuilding website has published my essay on Tolstoy and weightlifting here . As you approach the middle of the article, glance at the ad to the left for QuickMass, cookies & cream flavor, and help me figure out what body part is featured there. I'm thinking it's an arm, but there's a belly button-looking thing, too. I just don't know. I guess even experienced fitness writers like myself (it's been an hour, after all) have a lot to learn.