Friday, September 26, 2014

Fire It Up! (or To Failure - Part 2)

There's another verbal tool that my ageless trainer Michael over at the gym has used on me numerous times.  Aside from, as of late, training my muscles "to Failure"- a phrase for which I've found much use in my daily life beyond training.  He's got another catch phrase which seems equally as universal outside the gym as well as in.

In fact, I've heard him use it from way across the room on other clients many times- me sweating it out on the sadistic abdominal slide machine wringing another few crunches from my sweaty, trembling torso, already feeling as though we've hit "To Failure" about two sets ago.  Some other weary brave middle-aged soul will be leg lifting or bench pressing or squatting or balancing on the ball some fifty yards away from me.  Michael's urgent baritone will float over the incessant pulsing club mix to land in my ears with precisely these three familiar key syllables:

"Fire it up!"  

He says.  "Fire it up!"  To my fellow sufferer on the other side of the gym.  Fire it up!  To me and my aching belly muscles.  Fire it up, Holly!  

Fire. It. Up. 

Fire It Up is usually the phrase which emanates from Michael's mouth right at the moment when you (or more precisely- me), the suffering gym client, have thought you've reached your end.  
You're done with this set.  
You're done with this machine.  
You're done for today. 
You might be done with this whole "work out" thing forever, because in this particular moment you're starting to entertain the notion that you might actually be done breathing.  Or at the very least you're done having your breakfast safely locked INSIDE your stomach.

Done.  You think.  DONE!  I'M DONE!!  

And that's when --

"Fire It Up!"  Makes its move.   And it's weird, because it's an awfully powerful tool.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but when Michael barks the FIU, whatever food that was making its way up my esophagus on its way to splurt itself out upon my tight black spandex pants settles right back into my stomach.  My lungs which a split second ago were unable to process any more of that essential oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange, suddenly remember how to accordian themselves back to life.  And my muscles find some teeny little violently shaky ability to do one... more...two....more...---  three! MORE repetitions.  

And then I really know what "To Failure" feels like.   And you know what?  It feels-- AWESOME.  Because I did it!  Because I fired it up beyond a place where I thought I could.  I lit a cauldron from some deep inner place from beneath the bottom of my belly and from there I gathered strength to keep going.

Now.  There's some obvious broader life uses for this Fire It Up beyond lifting and stretching and pulling dull grey weighted contraptions over and over again with my muscles.  It seems almost didactic to further explain.  And yet- somehow- the simple physical act of having my body Fire It Up from somewhere when I thought there simply was no fuel left is so incredibly empowering.  It informs the mind.  Beyond all those self help books talking about finding your Inner Fire.  Or beyond even listening to the most powerful speaker- your favorite band- or reading bone splittingly gorgeous poetry.  

It feels oddly more like when I'm singing a song.  And it's going really well.  Because that song suddenly becomes something that's inside and outside of me at the same time while I realize that as singer and human and creator, I am merely a channel or a vehicle for the song itself to be birthed.  Because its not mine and I'm not it and we don't belong to each other, we're just intertwined for a moment.  That's life force.  Life force firing it up!


Recently I've noticed this young woman who's now diligently at work every time I saunter in to the gym.  She- like me- is always in the pit with the boys.  There's no dewy half hour on the stationary bike for this girl.  No few easy bicep pulls on the machines in the corner.  No- she's in the middle of it.  Pushing it HARD.  Heavy weights.  Precise motions.  Barbells.  Spotters.  It's impossible not to notice her-- she's beautiful and naturally blonde and beyond toned in a way that for awhile now has seemed otherworldly to me.  So much so that I finally asked Michael, after hearing him bark a few "Fire It Ups" her direction last week, What is she training for?  She must be training for something specific...

"Yep.  Miss World Fitness- 2014."   He said.

I swallowed.

"Ah--"  I squeaked out.  "Well- thank GOD.  Because if she wasn't I was just gonna go home and have to shoot myself in the head."

Because I come in here feeling pretty decent about my damn middle-aged self lately.  About the 10 pounds less that I now weigh.  About the slightly more toned triceps and abdominals and backs of the thighs.  I feel a little bit closer to that 20-something body I remember taking so much for granted back in the swing of the lurid psychedelic-hazed 90's.  So, then to emerge into my place of Re-Awakening Spirit and to witness this creature of perfection, can sometimes be a bit of a downer.  When what you want to do is gaze rather approvingly at your own reflection in the endless walls of gym mirrors and not see Her 20 feet away from you - 6 reps longer, 50 pounds harder, immovable heart shaped ass better, making your small improvements appear crushingly invisible.

So thank god she's working her guts out for SOMETHING.  Something actual and specific and real. Not just to make me feel inferior.

Funny thing is- once I found that out about Her, rather than making me feel worse about myself, the opposite thing happened.  She became yet another source of gym inspiration for me.  As I started to quietly pay a bit more attention to Her workout, and to Michael's coaching of Her, I realized that there wasn't actually THAT much of a difference between us.  Well-- at least not on paper.   

She too is constantly being reminded to Fire It Up! ( Of course, she has more opportunity to hear that seeing as Michael informed me she's there three times a DAY for a few HOURS at a time, and I'm excited to make it to the gym three times a week for 45 minutes, if that.)  She, like me, also scrunches her adorable little freckle-sprayed nose up into a crazy inverted slinky shape when, like me,  she's close To Failure on her leg lifts.  She, like me, is also concentrating like the world depended on it when balancing 75 pounds on her back while doing set after set of perfect leg squats.  (I do quite imperfect squats with no barbells balanced atop my not-so perfectly toned shoulders, just for the record.  Nor leg lunges.  Not yet.) 

In other words,  though,  I've seen Her a lot lately, and, like me- this girl has purpose and goals and this girl SWEATS for them.


As some of my readership may know, I am about to birth a new album out into the world.  An album that has taken me the better part of two years to get close to finished. This record is certainly not the end-all, is not anywhere near the "Pretenders-like" set of songs I am forced to tout it as, for promotional PR purposes.  But I am proud of it.  It is a band record, with a clean, early 80's sound and it has kick-ass drums and bass lines and my voice, alongside the usual soulful tonality,  sounds sassy and angry here and there. To date, I don't think I've been able to successfully accomplish that very alive, thriving piece of my personality in any of my previous recordings.

Plus, I produced this one.  Alongside my two engineers who each recorded and mixed about half of the material- I helmed this ship.  A first for the Holly.

So it's a big deal for me.  

And I'm now desperately in need of a little portable Trainer Michael on my shoulder at many points in my day outside of the gym.  I'm so in need of a more consistent "Fire It UP!" in my ear over and over.  A reminder that at those (way too frequent) times I feel I've hit sort of rock bottom in terms of having no energy to mo' mojo to keep doing the parts of record making that I so don't love, namely the promoting of the thing...  that's when I need my Michael.  

That's when I need my sweaty torso to just screw courage to the sticking point and tell my brain how to make that fucking phone call to the club booker.  Rehearse that song one more time.  Call that guitar player again. Schedule that rehearsal.  Compose that mass email to send to all your fans telling them when and where... Edit that web page. Tweet that tweet.  Record that new demo.  Promote that FB page post.

And by the way, go to the grocery store because we're out of toilet paper and you better put the potatoes in NOW or dinner won't be until 8:30 and you have to make Back To School Night and don't forget Truman needs to finish that last worksheet for tutoring tomorrow and you need to help Josephine find that book that she thinks she left at her friend's house and the dogs haven't been walked since yesterday afternoon and the kitchen's a mess.... and on and on and so on and....


My new mantra.  I hope maybe yours too.  It is true that in the grand scheme of things- in the Big Picture, as it therapist is constantly reminding me "There's nothing to do.  There's nowhere to go."  Meaning, stop driving yourself crazy with the consistent neurotic voice on repeat that you're never doing enough or being enough or good enough, blah blah.

But.  Some things ARE actually worth doing.  Even if they're not huge things like starting companies and launching charities and birthing babies and winning awards and changing the world.  

Maybe these little things that bring us To Failure.... that challenge the very notion of our own capacity and what we're capable of...THESE are the things that are worth doing.  To whatever end.  God knows I am NEVER EVER EVER EVER going to be running for anything like Miss World Fitness 2014.  Holy Shit.  Nor am I ever going to run for the Senate, most likely.  I'd be shocked if I made it to some sort of local PTA position....

But what I will continue to strive to do- as I try over and over again to Fire It Up from the deepest core of myself- is to challenge my own sense of the possible.  

Maybe right now I don't exactly believe I could ever be as influential or life affirming with my music as the likes of the greats like Chrissie Hynde, or Cyndi Lauper, or Martha or Patti or Annie or any of the powerful rock divas of our era.  

But then again, what do I know?   A few months ago, I couldn't conceive of being anywhere near a size 6 again.

And I've only just begun to bench press.

Fire it up, Hol.  Let's GO

Thursday, September 25, 2014

To Failure - Part 1

I thought all I wanted to do was drop 10 pounds.   Maybe 12.

After all, I could not even begin to fathom how these loathsome things had crept upon my frame in the last 8 or 9 months.  And yet- they apparently had-- if I was to trust something as lame and catty as my SCALE.   Well, and to be honest- my pants.  My pants never had appeared to have it in for me, as did my fatuous bathroom scale, and so I did tend to believe them more readily.  And my pants were very clear on the matter of me having gained weight.  They obviously didn't like me anymore.  They did not make me feel hot and sexy as they had at times in our mutual past- rather they chose to sort of splat themselves upon me, sharply cutting in and awkwardly jutting out in weird places they never had before.  Groaning and seam splitting as I walked down the stairs.  Or god forbid, chose to sit down in a chair.  They were not happy at all, the pants.

See, it was roughly early April.  And after finally listening to my miserable pants, and having stepped on a scale for the first time in 8 or 9 months, I had just finished the following two weeks in raging denial.  First, I forced my doctor's hand into giving me a test not only for low Thyroid (which can cause lethargy, depression, inexplicable weight gain...etc)  but I made her write a scrip for the holiest of Thyroid issues.  She had me tested for Hashimoto's disease.  Which is basically a rare autoimmune disorder that causes your body to attack the thyroid and therefore deplete itself of its ability to produce hormones in balance.   See I was CONVINCED this twelve-ish pounds that had (so suddenly!) appeared upon my body had to be some sort of hormone disorder throwing my metabolism all out of whack.  Because god knows, I wasn't doing anything differently.  (So I thought. )  I wasn't OVEREATING. (So I decided.)  Hells bells, I wasn't even DRINKING any more than usual! (So I convinced myself.)

Well the truth will set you free, as my third Thyroid and first and only Hashimoto's blood tests eventually did for me.  They stated most factually and inarguably that I did not have anything close to a Thyroid issue.  In fact, exactly the opposite was true.  My numbers were GREAT.  Staggeringly AMAZING.  I was exactly where I needed to be Thyroid wise.  Sigh.

So, next, I turned my laser vision on to GLUTEN.  My next step in the drop-those-12-pounds-that-god-knows-how-they-landed-upon-me-in-the-first-place campaign.  Now,  I had already started cutting out gluten in my diet- because that's one thing that almost all healthcare professionals agree will help mitigate Thyroid symptoms.  So having already cut some of my very favorite foods from my diet successfully for a few weeks since I had been convinced I was Hypo-thyroid, I decided to sally forth.  Seeing as I liked some of the other results.  No, I had not lost any weight per se, but that surely was to occur anytime soon-- as everyone told me it would.  Oh my god- said my friends.  Said the paid info-mercials. Said anyone anywhere I perused about the internet vis a vis gluten intolerance. Stop eating gluten and the pounds will just MELT off!! (btw- any one who tells you pounds will "melt" off your frame- you need to stop speaking to immediately. Thay ain't no sech thang baybee.)

Course, the pounds did not MELT off.  In fact, in those first weeks after discovering I had no Thyroid issues, and yet staying religiously off gluten-  I actually GAINED a few pounds.  I was now up to a whopping 15 I wanted to viciously carve off my thighs and butt and upper arms and stomach. Looking back now I can see that though avoiding gluten is very much still a good thing for my body, substituting high fat or sugar for the gluten is not.  (Sure- I'll have THREE hot dogs since I'm not eating any buns!  For heaven sake- yes!  Bring on that huge ice cream sundae since I had not one teeny inkling of bread or pasta or beer today.  In fact, let's throw in some chocolate sauce AND whipped cream!  No gluten in either of those!)

It had been two months since I had seriously started "dieting" and thinking every day about the scale and the unhappy pants.  I hadn't lost a thing.  I'd gained three pounds.  I was as unhappy and discouraged and pudgy as ever- still avoiding a large portion of my closet.  Still hoping and praying that maybe there was something just plain wrong with my chemistry because this had never happened to me before.  Up until now, I had basically enjoyed life as a thin, relatively in-shape human with a brisk metabolism and a spotty, though overall healthy exercise ethic.  Anytime I'd gained a little. certainly in my twenties I just went running a couple more times than usual that week and bing!  All gone!  In my thirties, I went on a serious diet and serious training program and lost the baby weight from number two in about six weeks total.   And wasn't I still going to the gym now?  And back on a different, but still "serious" diet? Avoiding so many delicious foody foods and not eating Gluten at ALL?

There was a lot of blubbering to my husband about all this nonsense.  There was a lot of feeling incredibly sorry for myself.   And more to the point, there was a lot of hyper-extending this inability to lose weight into a bigger picture.  I was throwing this frustration into the big net that threatens occasionally to scoop up my entire life and psyche into it.  This big net is called something like "Holly Is Powerless To Do Anything."

My dear husband listened to my blubbering.  Again and again.  Held my hand.  Told me he understood and he loved me.  And then he said- Hol.  You need to get off your butt now.  You need to call Michael.

Michael was my trainer at our local gym back in early '08 when I had hit this similar wall (though not nearly in such a biblical way.)  Michael helped bring me back to myself in February of 2008 by teaching me how to truly and actually DIET for the first time.  Meaning- no gimmicks.  No short cuts or pills or juicing or only eating avocados and lemon ....just dieting.  Counting calories.  And working out every day.  So it was math back then.  Less (and better) calories in.  More calories out.  Math.  Every day.  That's it.  That's all there is in the whole Weight Loss Conundrum.  I'd learned it before - and it had worked for me- and I was to learn it again.

Though this time felt different.  This time felt bigger.  More monumental- more endemic of my life as a whole.  I think as I picked up the phone - finally - that pathetic day after the encouraging pat on the back from Jeff and the ensuing two more hours of gnarly mucus-producing self pity in which I engaged.....I think I knew that Michael was going to be my ticket not just to losing some weight this time around, but to something a little bigger.  Something that involved other areas of my life-- like feeling useful and hopeful.  Like feeling I had anything left to offer at all.

Little did I know that was going to come from a crap load of new horrible stomach crunch routines, agonizing leg squats,  and humiliating giant leap lunges across the gym floor.   For days and days to come.


So that's how it all began.  This time around.  Early May- I'm back in the gym I'd still been going to sporadically for six years since my initial successful diet.  My old pal Michael--who does not age one day, not one minute, of his perfectly fueled and hydrated, continually physically engaged life-- next to me at the machines.   Only this time, instead of talking about numbers -- instead of diligently counting my reps to equal up to three perfect sets in tandem on each machine- each side of my body....there's different language here.

And that phrase, as Michael keeps trying it on me over and over again- that phrase is "To Failure."

To exercise To Failure means- he encourages me not to count reps.  He encourages me instead to get my form perfectly perfect on each exercise-- to be anally diligent about this-- because we are targeting the exact areas I would like to take a machete to.  And apparently in order to see results in these areas in some way that doesn't involve a lot of blood and tissue loss with sharp knives, one must be incredibly diligent about the form.  AND in order to see results fastest-  one must bring one's body "to Failure."  (I could wax layman-like about how the targeted stress on your muscle causes some sort of acidic break-down that can be repaired with eating high protein and which causes your muscle to thereby SUCK the surrounding fat from itself in order to replenish... causing something which may look a little bit like melting fat off your body thereby exposing the lean six pack underneath.  yadda yadda. But I'm not sure I really understand it.)

So some sets of excruciating leg lifts on the abs balancer produce 16 or 18 reps (generally the first in the set.)  Whereas others produce 6.  I found I could leg press at 80 pounds - after having done three nauseating sets of squats- 40 on my first set.  And barely make 15 by my third.  So the math became different.

Instead, it all became about pain, really.  Good old fashioned positive pain.  Weary, luggy. grey ache kind of pain- not searing- tear your liver out of position sort of pain. ( To be clear. ) I would leave these first few sessions barely able to stumble the three blocks home from the gym.  Not because I had torn or dislocated anything.  But because I had worked my body "to failure" for the first time ever.  Because I REALLY wanted this.  And I was really willing to do whatever it took to get there.

The first month or so of this kind of training brought about a lot of naps in my life.  A lot of waking up in the morning to aches in muscles I had forgotten I had.  A lot of counting calories and saying no to the bacon the rest of my family hungrily chomped in the morning.  Endless lunches with salads and low calorie soups.  Guiltily pouring only 1 glass of wine for myself at night (because why oh why could I just not forgo it entirely!  Well- that's a whole different blog post.)   And then of course the first hideous five weeks of LOSING NOTHING.  Kicking myself in the ass three to four times a week and seeing no difference on that mother effing son of a birch tree scale.  (Because I was building muscle alongside dropping little bits of fat, so the actual weight differential was nil.)

But then came the beautiful morning when I finally stepped on the scale to realize that TWO whole pounds were gone.  And then in another couple days it was THREE.  Undeniable.  I had already started to feel a little different in my clothing.  My pants were definitely less upset with me.  I was entertaining the notion of trying on some pieces that had been tucked away in my closet for months- perhaps never to be seen again.

But most importantly- I was ecstatic and totally encouraged.  I was riding gorgeous gold tipped waves of endorphins because  I had proven to myself that I could DO something.  Which may sound really odd and a little sad to some of you more accomplished, Type A,  sturdier souls who were born into this world and kinda figured it out pretty quickly.  It might seem sort of pathetic and small that a woman of my age, who has found herself living quite a cush life and is quite grateful for the lovely challenge of being able to parent two souls, and lucky to be able to diddle around on instruments and sing ditties for a (paltry) living... would find such solace, would take such pride in the "melting away" of a couple of pounds off of her body.

But thems the facts.  These first few pounds gone were so huge for me.  So empowering and grounding, that the rest of the initial 10 pounds that I've lost so far, felt like they came off in no time at all after that.  Bringing my muscles to failure- as much or as little as I could do relatively consistently a few times a week- in a few months changed my body.  Not so much that I'm anywhere near being in the running for Fitness Queen of California 2014, but enough that I saw a different me that brought to mind (and closet!) the lithe, ready-for-anything girl I felt like in younger days.  And so changed my outlook.

Now I won't pretend that it's all been wine and roses for me since then.   Hardly.  I'm a complicated human, living in complicated times, with a complicated set of terms I'm constantly trying to negotiate with myself here.  But.  2014 has brought for me the knowledge and self-satisfaction of having done at least one thing that's visibly, measureably made a difference.   Which means maybe I'm not such a huge fuck up after all.  Maybe when I really really put my mind to it-- when I'm willing to ride the ride "To Failure" there's actually success at the end of it somewhere.

But that's for Part 2.

(Thanks for being my readers.  I am so fond of you all for taking the time out of your busy lives to engage in me gazing at life through the lens of my belly button.   I promise the second part soon.)