Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hooked on endorphins

...or, Thank God for Bodypump

For the last four or five months I've been taking Bodypump class faithfully twice a week, Saturday morning at 9:00 and Wednesday morning (groan...) at 6:00. I also try to go to the gym a day or two between classes to exercise a bit, even if it's much less of a workout.

If anyone had told me even a year ago that I'd be working out with weights, I'd have said, "Yeah, sure." But I'm really amazed at how much I love the class. According to the instructor, Bodypump was developed by trainers in New Zealand. During the 10 musical tracks, you use barbells to work each major muscle group, with a few push-ups and crunches thrown in for good measure.

There's a supply of bars, clips, and plates (1, 2.5, 5, and 10 kg) available in the room. I started very modestly, tentatively, with a total of just 5 lb (2.5 kg) on the bar, as I had never used weights before. You increase and decrease the weights throughout the session, packing on heavier plates when working the larger muscle groups. Over the course of the weeks and months, you gradually increase your overall weight by small increments. The idea isn't to build huge muscles, just lean ones. At this point, I'm using a total of 22 lb (10 kg) when working the larger muscle groups.

And exercise with weights is very good for osteoporosis too.

The class must really kick up my metabolism rate. On Saturdays after Bodypump, I'm ravenously hungry the entire day as I run around doing my usual errands and chores. I find I'm less hungry on Wednesdays, probably because I spend the day at my mostly sedentary job. But on both days I can detect a dramatic upswing in my mood. I just feel better about myself and have a more positive outlook in general. For instance, a colleague sent me some resentful, negative emails yesterday. It slowly got me down, until by evening I was feeling pretty demoralized. Had yesterday been a Bodypump day, not only would I have laughed her off, but I might even have thought of some funny riposte to get her off my back. Such is the power of those endorphins released by vigorous exercise!

So, in addition to caffeine, I'm now happily hooked on endorphins too.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Train Ride to Yesterday

OK, no sense trying to hide it. I’m cranky in the morning until I get my first cup of coffee. I’m not sure if this is a uniquely 20th/21st-century malady or if it was known to medical science somewhat earlier.To aggravate matters, I started taking a medication about a year ago that requires me to wait what seems like an interminable length of time before absorbing my first dose of caffeine.

Usually I drive to work. I listen to music and stay clear of innocent bystanders until I've gotten the caffeine in my blood stream up to a minimum level. On days like today, however when my son needs the car, I take the train. My husband drops me off at the station in barely enough time to buy my ticket, and then I try my luck at getting my day's first cup of coffee at the espresso bar next door.

The 6:57am clientele

What little space there is near the service counter is obstructed by a gaggle of giggling young women and guys of various ages. They’re having too much fun for this time of the morning. They order double espressos or mint-mocha-lattes-with-an-extra-shot-of-espresso-and-skim-milk, and other beverages that take a lot of time to prepare...bagel and egg sandwiches too – toasted, of course. The convivial proprietor –-an essential quality if you’re going to make your living running a coffee bar (or any kind of bar)— chats and jokes with them. Meanwhile, a diminutive, middle-aged woman with a backpack stands there, desperate to order just a simple cup of coffee before her train departs. Needless to say, many a time I've boarded the R5 javaless. Fortune smiled this morning, however, and I was able to make my purchase and fix my 16 ounces in time.

The view from the train window

It's spring and the trees have sprouted delicate, yellow-green leaves. Others are decked out in stellar white blossoms. What are they doing in the picture with a sterile train track embedded in gray stones that extends into infinity? The scene at the window reminds me of those television commercials where the product glows in Technicolor against a monochrome background….

A song comes into my head, an old one that Peter, Paul and Mary used to sing…

This train don’t carry no gamblers, this train.
This train don't carry no gamblers, this train.

This train don't carry no gamblers,
no crap shooters, no midnight ramblers,
This train don't carry no ga
mblers, this train.

This train, don't carry no jokers, well, this train.

This train, don't carry no jokers, well, this train.
This train, don't carry no jokers, no high-tone women, no cigar smokers,
This train, don't carry no jokers, well, this train.

It’s an old African American spiritual -- or is it a Woody Guthry song? I'll have to look that one up.
Anyway, I’m transported back to the 70's and so intent on listening to PP&M that I almost miss my stop....

This train, done carried my mother,
My mother, my father, my sister and my brother,

This train, done carried my mother, well this train.

This train, she's bound for glory,

If you want to get to heaven then you've got to be holy, well
This train, she's bound for glory, well, this train.

I get off this train in a much better mood than when I boarded.
A commute to work by way of yesterday is just what I needed.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

No one will ever mistake me for a real translator

...but it's sure fun trying. Andrée Chedid is one of my favorite French writers. She was born in 1920...So, if my mother were still alive, she and Chedid would be the same age. And this is one of my favorite poems by Chedid, published in a collection entitled Fraternité de la parole (1975).

Monday, April 13, 2009

A Nonviolent Stand

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a production of the play My Name Is Rachel Corrie at the university where I work. It's a one-woman show based on the title character's journals and emails.

In case you've forgotten, or in case you never knew, Rachel Corrie was an undergraduate from Olympia, WA. At the age of 23, Rachel joined the International Solidarity Movement, an organization that advocates nonviolently for Palestinians in the occupied territories, and went to Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, where she lived with a Palestinian family. She taught English to the children, but mostly she was there as an international observer. And what she observed disturbed her. Rachel came to love the family she was staying with very much. On March 16, 2003, Rachel was run over by a bulldozer operated by the Israeli military near the family's house and was killed.

Since then, Rachel has been used for political purposes. She has been worshiped as a martyr and vilified as a terrorist supporter. The first New York production of the play had to be canceled after, among other things, demands were made that this vignette of an activist's brief life be balanced by stories of persons who lost their lives to terrorism. Even at the production I attended, a faculty member was asked to "contextualize" the play before we saw it...why? If members of the audience have chosen either to remain comatose or to listen to only one side of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, is a formal "contextualization" really going to broaden their understanding? I can do my own contextualization, thank you. I think that Rachel's words should be allowed to speak for themselves.

I saw a young woman who could not help but see that there was a bigger world out there beyond Olympia and who struggled to understand if there was a place for her in that big world and, if so, just what that was. The young college student's diary entries ring true. Even though it's now so long ago, I still remember.

Sure, she was attracted to guys, but she refused to let having or not having a boyfriend define who she was. She wanted to do more with her free time than shop at the malls. She read and actually tried to apply the philosophies and ideas of the authors to her everyday life. I remember that too ...

She took a stand that many disagree with, and she knew that. Everyday I see so many young people afraid to take a stand, afraid to get involved or even to express a strong opinion, afraid of displeasing the powers-that-be. We teach them not to take chances, lest they imperil their possibility of getting good grades and eventually a good job. As Rachel reads messages from her parents, I hear the fear in their voices. They had a daughter who dared to do much more than simply disagree with a professor or a boss. As a parent, I can't even begin to imagine how they feared for her safety, yet they let her make her own decisions. Maybe Rachel was right. Maybe she was wrong. But she certainly did not live life on the sidelines.

Nor did she pick up a gun.

Had she lived, would all those brave ideals have faded? Would she have become a rebel-turned-CEO like Jane Fonda, or would her activism have continued to evolve?

Rachel dared to be an active element in an absurd world. For that alone, I count her brave.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Empty Tomb

I arose and am still with you, alleluia.
You have laid your hand upon me, alleluia.
How wonderful is now your knowledge, alleluia, alleluia.
Lord, you have probed me and known me:
You know when I sit and when I stand.

(From the Introit, Mass on Easter Sunday morning)

On this is day you celebrate my triumph over death. During the past week you have retold aloud the story of how my friends deserted me, how no one lifted their voice to protest that I was innocent. You have seen me scourged. You have walked the stations of the cross with me. You were there when they laid me in the tomb.

On this day you celebrate the return of the Light, my return to life.

But I am still in the dungeon, still subjected to scourgings. Thanks to your modern scientia, electric probes now know me. My captors decide when I sit and for how long I stand. Again and again I am laid unconscious and bleeding in the prison-tomb. You still do not lift up your voice to save me. Today, as then, my ordeal is authorized by governments. Their officials deny my presence or my torments, even as they invent new laws to keep me here.

Free me now. Make me rise triumphant from this grave.

I too want to sing alleluia.

--Easter 2006

The scourgings have at last stopped...along with the probings, the stress positions, the sexual abuse.

But the victims have not yet been restored to life. And many of those who have been released from Guantánamo, Bagram, and Abu Ghraib still carry the imprint of their sufferings.

The tomb is not yet empty.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Of Facebook and Sound Bite Friendships

For the rest, what we call friends and friendships are nothing but acquaintanceships and familiarities formed by
some chance or convenience, by means of which our souls are bound to each other. In the friendship I speak of, our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again.

Michel de Montaigne, Of Friendship

I seem to be having an existential moment with regard to all the faces on my Facebook page and wondering in what sense all these people are my "friends." No, no one's an enemy. I just question what the Facebook folks really mean by "friend." I can't say that I can remember the last time I asked one of my real friends a question like "which breakfast cereal are you?"

So...just what is Facebook, especially in its new twitter-like form? A way of telling the world in shorthand what you like, what music you listen to, what cause you espouse? And do all those kind faces really care? Do any of them really want to know what makes me tick? I get scant response to anything I post that I care passionately about.

Recently I was persuaded to become a "fan" of my place of employment, which now has a Facebook page. Next thing you know, I was "friending" co-workers. Am I the only one who draws a distinction between an affable working relationship and a friendship? I answer emails from students and faculty literally night and day, 7 days a week. Am I wrong to want my own niche in cyberspace wherein to meet and talk with people who have more in common with me that what I eat for breakfast...who want to know more about me than some obscure event in my childhood that I unearthed while completing an inane list of 30 questions...who want to read a bit more at length about something that I'm intensely interested in beyond a sound bite?

Michel, qu'en diriez-vous ?

Flash! Madison Avenue invents a new disease: Blog Smog (the condition you get from being at home blogging all day with your mouth closed)
...Dentyne is the cure

Friday, April 3, 2009

"You're worth more than the worst act of your life"

A decided benefit of working at a university is the opportunity to attend cultural events and lectures by provocative and often moving personalities. I've had two such opportunities in the past 10-days. On Tuesday of last week I heard death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean speak, and just last evening I attended a performance of the controversial play My Name is Rachel Corrie.

I don't know what I expected when I went to see Sister Helen. What did you go out to see? A celebrity surrounded by reporters and screaming fans? No, those who are surrounded by reporters and screaming fans are on Entertainment Tonight. Or something like that. I saw a not too tall, sturdy, gray-haired woman, soberly dressed in a business suit. She was standing in front of a table where her two books, Dead Man Walking and The Death of Innocents were for sale. I walked right by the evening's guest speaker, not realizing that she was the one conversing naturally yet earnestly with some students. True, there was a tall young woman standing nearby, apparently Sister Helen's manager or handler or something, shaking her head and remarking to another attendee how hard it was to keep her client on schedule....

Sister was introduced by a former prisoner, a man who had served 20 years --12 of them in solitary confinement-- for a murder he never committed. Finally exonerated, he emerged broken by his long years of incarceration and began touring with Sister Helen as a way to help his spirit heal. In his introduction he talked about how, since the death penalty was given the go-ahead by the Supreme Court in 1977, the condemned had no one to be their voice...until Sister Helen. Then she took the floor.

I was captivated by the rich musicality, the lilting Louisiana cadence of that voice. Sister Helen told of how she grew up as child of white privilege, the daughter of a well-to-do attorney. She became a nun and dedicated herself to the service of the poor, although she did not know any poor people personally and was unlikely ever to meet any in the suburbs. Then, as she put it, one day she woke up. She took the commands of Jesus seriously. Moving to a neighborhood where needy people lived, she began to care for them. One day, an acquaintance walked up to her carrying a clipboard and casually asked if she would like to correspond with a death row inmate. "Sure," she said, never dreaming how that first letter would change her whole life's focus. "God can be pretty sneaky," she remarked.

As a member of a local Amnesty International group, I regularly sign petitions on behalf of prisoners in the U.S. and elsewhere who are facing execution, and I've become acquainted with abolitionists here and abroad. However, Sister Helen's twofold ministry puts her in a category all her own. Stretching out her arms, she illustrated that capital punishment is like the cross, with the families of the murdered on one side and the prisoners condemned to death on the other. She made the difficult spiritual journey through what she frankly called cowardice toward the deep conviction that she could not be faithful to her ministry if she limited it to caring for the prisoners while neglecting to reach out to the families of their victims. She told the heart-rending story of her first encounter with the father of a murder victim. "You have no idea," he told Sister Helen, "what pressure we are under to demand the death sentence. But I'm a kind person..." He did not want to compound the killing of his son by killing the love inside of himself.

"The art of love, " Sister Helen concluded, "is is not letting the love in us die."

Sister spoke for a little over an hour, talking about her work and urging us to take it up also. What will always stay with me are the words of blessed assurance that Sister Helen spoke to that first prisoner who could not believe that God would ever forgive him: "I told him that he was worth more than the worst thing he did in his life.... We are all worth more than the worst act of our life."