Do not do.


We are almost there. Five weeks left of graduate school. This week the dumpster fire flared. Thursday I came home and sat on the porch and did nothing.

For at least 90 seconds, I sat quietly without the expectation I should be doing something else. It’s been two years since I was able to come home and not have some impending obligation. Even time taken “off,” isn’t anything but shoving assignments to the side of the desk for the night. There has been no “off.” Those 90 seconds were exhilarating until the running to-do list sensed the open space and “off” ended. It was just as well. In the next hour, the clutch would go out on the car while my son was out picking up his birthday pizza and arrangements for transport of dead car, live son, and paid-for-pizza would need to be made.

In this interview, John McGinley talks about people who share their dumpster fires, he says they are being like the Peanuts character, Pigpen. When we talk about our dumpster fires, we think we are excusing poor behavior or communicating how busy and important we are. Nah, we just sound ridiculous. Some people walk into a room spreading what he termed “Elvis Dust”. Elvis Dust is that aura of preparation and appropriateness some people wear like a perfectly tailored coat. There is something defensive in wandering the world like Pigpen. No one expects anything of Pigpen, he isn’t threatening, no one cares, no one notices.

The bulk of my work for the semester is done. There are two large projects left to finish up or push to a intermediate rest point. The trouble is letting go of this oppressive sense of busy-ness whose time has passed. The dumpster fire doesn’t exist anymore. There is no good reason life doesn’t resemble life in the gym, no good reason to not have those moments of “off”. The trouble is with me and my aversion to letting go. It’s time to suck it up, finish this off and move on. This is a termination issue and terminations aren’t my strong suit. By maintaining the dumpster fire talk and running to-do list, I maintain the illusion graduate school lasts forever.

In five weeks, it’s over. Licensure. Employment. Nap. Evenings. Play.


Don’t think, Do.

I never should have stepped on the scale. Sure, I was probably the only woman at the fitness center who whooped with excitement because I was up 10 pounds. However, now outcome measures are on my mind again. The spring semester has been a dumpster fire. I knew it would be a dumpster fire and vowed to not watch what I ate because there was no way in Hell I could keep up with Any More Things, especially things that trigger feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame. No measuring anything, no watching anything. Nada. I pretty happy lifting three times a week, playing around with being sore, and tending to the dumpster fire.

Then, out of curiosity, the scale. The number didn’t matter, right? Just step on. Just once. It won’t hurt. Dammit to Hell, it may as well have been an apple offered to me by an old woman in the forest. Up ten (10) pounds. Whoa. Seriously? The program was working? Hypertrophy is a real thing. My clothes were fitting better, so this stuff wasn’t fat. Next time in the garage, I realized the last time I wore this t-shirt, it was tight to my skin. Now it’s hanging. I started wondering about fat loss again in an unhelpful, unstructured way. The reason the hypertrophy program worked was I didn’t think about it. Show up, lift stuff, talk too much, go home, soak. Repeat. My coach did his job. The program works. Thinking is what got me into this mess. Don’t think. Do. Let him do his job.

The program changed two weeks ago. Out of hypertrophy and on to strength because of the powerlifting meet in Atlanta in June. Because of strange Spring Break schedules, we lifted Mon-Tue-Wed and played around doing each lift each day, with variations and different loading schemes. It’s not social work, outside my scope of practice, don’t ask me for specifics, we’re playing around trying to figure out how to nudge my body into doing its thing. Thursday I woke up feeling perfect. Straight up perfect. A little sore here, some extra awareness there, but perfect. This is how I want to wake up every day and I’m sad because no lifting until next Monday.

This is the Spotify playlist I lifted to on Wednesday. It’s not a traditional gym-rat, bass-heavy, drive a woman through her last rep kind of playlist. It’s full of love and grief and joy and passion. When I had athletes, it was important to me they understand their own path to peak performance. Everyone has a different optimal arousal level. Self-awareness, folks. Because this is my fucking blog and I can drop the f-bomb and have my hair be blue, the link to Vaynerchuk again –

I do my best work laughing. Not thinking. Unproductive thinking is a performance killer.

This one makes me thoughtful.

Eminem. I don’t even know. It’s Eminem.

I have never loved a darker blue, than the darkness I have known in you…

Sleep. Lift. Eat mostly veggies to appetite when hungry. Sleep. Bring it down. It was so hard Thursday to resist grasping at that feeling. It had been a long time. I will feel that way again. No need to grasp. Do, just do.

Graduation Pressures

Graduation is soon. One classmate keeps a running count of the days remaining. “Not many” is all I can mumble.

“What are you graduating with?” [random encounter with a normal human]

“A Masters in Social Work.”

“Ah.” The normal human’s face looks puzzled before it performs Standard Happy Expression. “Congratulations! What are you going to do?”

“Catch a nap.”

But, seriously. I’m going to start opting out of the US Healthcare system by eating mostly fruits and vegetables and staying away from meat and dairy. I want to be the person I am in the gym. Perhaps less chatty. My coach thinks it isn’t possible for me to be quiet. This is what happens when you give a person, who processes life out loud, emotional space. She chats. I also lift heavy things, take risks and direction, work toward goals, expose vulnerabilities and allow them to be addressed. It’s a pretty sweet life under the bar.

Wisdom from my Dad

There is a set of family aphorisms, distilled from my father’s stories. We are a family of storytellers and complainers, and I still am apt to make a point by telling the story and expecting the listener to distill my meaning and salient points. It’s rude and can be annoying for people in a hurry, so if you’re in a hurry it won’t bother me if you need to leave.

Always take the final. Dad went to Indiana State University a long time ago, when it was still Indiana Teacher’s College and they still required every graduate to demonstrate competence with English composition and spelling. For a variety of reasons, my father didn’t learn to spell until Wheel of Fortune was well into syndication. He had failed this course already a number of times. This semester was the last semester it would be offered. The college was changing curriculum. If he failed again, he would have to graduate under an entirely new catalogue and likely never graduate. He failed every spelling test of the semester, under the syllabus he could not pass the class and he was not alone. There were three other students who were poised to fail and the instructor gathered the young men in her office. She asked each of them in turn, “Are you going to take the final?” and waited for an answer. Dad realized there was a purpose to the question and somehow divined the “No” was not the answer to give. He took the final and was gifted his “D”. He didn’t graduate from ISU, but those are other stories.

Everyone has different objectives, and the people who give you your goals may have their own goals which are directly opposed to yours. Pay attention. After my parents started having children, Dad decided to settle into a career and became a sales rep for an OEM manufacturer. His job was to sell as much product as he could, and he was evaluated and compensated on the number of widgets sold. In order to travel to see clients, he had to purchase airline tickets and rent cars, or purchase gas for his company car. The person who could authorize those expenditures was rewarded for keeping expenses low and would refuse to let Dad leave town to meet with clients. Sometimes, when Dad would make an especially large, long-term contract he would aggravate the person in charge of the plant where the widgets were made, because the sale meant incurring expenses to add a line or a shift of employees. It isn’t personal, they are looking out for their bread-and-butter just like  you.

You can’t park at the front door until you drive to the front door. Dad meant this one literally. In a crowded parking lot, go ahead and drive by the building entrance because there just might be a spot available. Over time, I’ve expanded this one to something more metaphysical about asking for what I need. I can’t have it until I ask for it. People tell me no often, and sometimes they tell me yes.

Right now, my mind feels like a dumpster fire and there’s no way out, except through. The dumpster fire has me looking for small comforts, like chocolate and pizza and a Netflix binge. There are a thousand small things which need my attention and the extra mental burden of eating well and moving more seems like too much, like I permission to NOT attend to something. The trouble with not attending to eating well and moving more is feeling awful after, not in a guilt-ridden-emotional way but physically awful.

Tomorrow I’ll go lift early, get some tea and breakfast, and settle in to the mound of things to be read and written. Somewhere in there, I’ll take a break and call my dad.

The Second Part of the Story

The first part of my story ends “… and so I learned to never let people see me cry. It shows them where they can hurt you.”

The second part of the story is the important part. In Brene Brown’s first TED talk, she speaks of “numbing,” and how numbing negative emotions also numbs positive emotions.

You want to avoid feeling fear? Be prepared to also nix joy. Never letting people see you cry means you also don’t dare let them see you light up, because then they know what they can take away. I still admire the gritty stubbornness about my earlier attitude toward sharing  – there’s nothing you can take away and nothing you can give me that will make me move. It’s frustrating to people who only understand how to manipulate instead of evoke motivation.

Tara Brach calls the hard shell we maintain to smooth our path through an uncertain world full of hurt a “space suit,“. My space suit was built during years of bullying, loneliness, raging self-doubt and self-hatred, with mounds of macaroni and cheese eaten in secret, gallons of alcohol shared with fellow space travelers, layers of bright red lipstick, and a desperation to remain unseen. The space suit projects a false-color version of Self, attracting people who perceive and need our weaknesses to complement their own space suits. The thing we hoped would protect us only makes us more vulnerable.

“… and so I learned to let people see me cry and light up. It’s the only way your people can find you.”

“Did you find your people yet?”

“Not yet.”

It takes practice to find your people. Sometimes they can’t stay. Sometimes they are busy. Sometimes they are rare. Those people who appreciate your authentic Self are worth the risk.

Mental Prep

Over Winter Break I spent time prepping to lift heavy, lift consistently, and raise my game in the gym. I scoured Pinterest for motivating graphics and quotes, pasted them in my planner, thought about how I would feel and when it would suck the most. I sacrificed extra money so my trainer would make sure I worked out three times a week.

My squat is deeper than any human emotion

Every time I step up to the bar on squat day, this is what I say. When we began, my squat couldn’t get to parallel and I had to do sets of box squats even on non-squat days. My stabilizers were some weak-ass muscles. It wasn’t leg strength, just faith and stability. Friday I pleased my coach with a squat, at least to parallel and with some weight.

He makes it easy to be my best self, to show up and take risks, and showing up is more than half of the game.

How can I use that same kind of preparation to raise my game in other areas?

Week 2

This is the end of the second week of the fourth semester. The assignments this time around are a little bigger, a little juicier. The faculty has, as promised, made the hoop smaller and then set it on fire.

I’m going to take a look at several topics of interest. First, complex PTSD, which doesn’t appear in the DSM 5, and its relationship to prescription anxiety medications. Second, the role of agriculture subsidies in the development of “lifestyle” diseases like Type II diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. Third the relationship between health insurance and health care. These are all complicated issues and they deserve thoughtful attention. My little research papers won’t scratch the surface, which brings me to the cheap cynicism all over the internet.

My Facebook feed, news aggregators, and Twitter feed are full of reactionary cynicism. Shallow analysis would be an improvement. Right now my youngest teenager does a better job deconstructing character motivation in Voltron than some of my friends do examining their favorite hot-button issues. A sanctuary program for people who fled El Salvador, initially created because of a natural disaster nearly two decades ago, was thoughtlessly renewed year after year and people who might have returned home now call this place home. What is the right thing to do? Oxford decides to allow mathematicians an extra fifteen minutes on an exit exam because the increased time and unchanged difficulty allow more women to earn firsts. Does the extra time cheapen the accomplishment?

It depends. I’d like to talk about what these things mean, but it seems impossible. We’ve drawn up sides and no one has any facts or analysis. I can’t work with name-calling or Facebook memes anymore. All I want in my feed is cat videos and Newfie puppies.

In the meantime, there’s homework to do. My preconceived notions are about to be challenged and that’s okay.

Most Challenging Client

Is me.

A Facebook group for trainers who work with women recently asked for case studies. Tell us about your most challenging client! Trainers immediately chimed in complaining about ambivalence, people who obviously had time but said they didn’t have time to train or eat well, clients who wouldn’t follow training plans, people who were looking for the next quick fix and trying every gimmick with their social circle, clients with stressful professional and home lives who felt they should be training…

People with feelings are challenging clients.

It is seductive, to believe a trainer can provide a client with education and the client will then immediately realize the error of his ways and eat well, move often, and lift heavy things on schedule.

People with feelings are challenging clients.

Because eating and moving can become disordered without rising to the level of the DSM 5, an apple can be not an apple and a cookie can be death. A walk in the evening air for the pleasure of a clear view of the stars is a distant memory. Everything is logged, everything is exercise, for those of us whose relationship with our bodies is troubled. I fail my body, my body fails me.

What trainers miss with challenging clients is the need to heal that relationship. There’s some education, some knowing, but mostly progress is made with feeling. If I eat better, calm down, get some sleep, go walk outside for fun, and lift heavy things on schedule, we can start re-building this relationship.

Strength in Contradiction

Humans can hold two contradictory thoughts at one time. It can be maddening when you’re working with a client, because it surfaces as ambivalence. It can also be empowering if you can tap into it just right.

I was first introduced to the idea of power in contradiction by the Benedictines, Living with Contradiction, by Esther de Waal. It deserves a re-read, and it took me two passes to understand a glimmer of what she was proposing. For a very approachable introduction, we can turn to Gary Vaynerchuck.

Hustle and patience. Pulling from both sides, because you have to be both things at the same time. What about enough?

I am enough. It’s a mantra of the times, swirling so thick in the zeitgeist you could choke on it. What does it mean, to be enough? Are we done? Do we sit on the porch and drink peach tea and watch traffic go by? We could. However, there is this tension from the opposite side. I am growth and change. In Vaynerspeak, I’m macro-enough and micro-growth-and-change. By accepting my inherent worth, and at the same time accepting the constant change in every cell of my body and the world, I can engage in work without fear.

What might I fear? Failure, the opinion of others, an uncertain future. I am enough, and you are too. It doesn’t matter how it turns out. I’ll do the thing, or learn. Either way, I win. I was enough before I started, and enough when it finished.

By the way, a “B” is a fine grade.


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