This is the 4th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
The joy of today is that I went to the gym and survived something called METCON3.
Until this summer, I hadn’t had a gym membership for 12 years.* I didn’t want or need one, because at some point in my early thirties, I discovered the joy of working out at home. It all started because the evil blonde sprite that trained Madonna for awhile put out a series of exercise DVDs, and it turned out that if I did those ghastly exercises faithfully at least four times a week, they would slim my shoulders and raise my butt. I’m serious. There was my butt, minding its own business, hanging out at one level and then I’d do the DVDs for a couple weeks and my butt would be raised up to the next level. With those DVDs, I had a next-level butt — and I didn’t have to leave the house to get it. I didn’t have to pack a gym bag or share a locker room with clammy strangers. I didn’t have to smell rubber flooring and, after I got the DVDs, it was free.
But there were lots of changes in the past year and one of the changes is that I joined a gym. My DVDs were worn out and I was getting real tired of the evil sprite. Besides, the closest gym in our neighborhood is an Equinox, and this was tempting.
Gyms and health clubs are a lot like coffee. At the base level, you’ve got your Sankas, your Folgers. These are affordable, serviceable brands that will supply your caffeine … but that’s about it. Then you’ve got your Dunkin’ Donuts-level coffee, which costs more, but it tastes a lot better and the cup has a logo on it. After that, you’ve got your Starbucks, and we all know that at a Starbucks, you have options. You can ask for alternative milks and usually get them. There are seasonal flavors and ceramic mugs available for purchase. The baristas write your name on your cup. It’s great.
It’s great until you get coffee at a place like Intelligentsia here in Chicago, or at a La Columbe, from Philly, or at Vivace in Seattle. Once you get a flat white or an Americano at a place like that, where they’re roasting the beans in the back and the baristas don’t make coffee so much as tend to it, and your beverage is so good you finally understand those coffee jerks who go on and on about “acidity” and “balance” and “tone” in a cup of damn coffee. Once you’ve tasted that kind of coffee from that sort of place — and paid a pretty penny for it, to be sure! — it’s kind of hard to go back to Sanka.
Equinox is the fancy kind of coffee. There are trainers there and they are all hot. There’s a sauna (also hot.) There are lots of fluffy towels and there is someone who folds them. To check in, you open the Equinox app on your phone and present the bar code to the person at the front desk. No big deal, except that above the bar code in big letters is your first name, so that when the (hot) front desk person scans you in, they’re able to say:
“Have a great workout, Mary!”
It’s weird but you’d like it, too. Equinox has a long list of desirable qualities, but what I like best are the classes. There are lots of classes you can take all throughout the week: spinning, barre, aquatics, yoga, and a variety of HIIT classes. “HITT” stands for “High Intensity Interval Training” and if you think any workout called “HITT” sounds like it would be aggressive and painful, you’d be right. Every class is different, but basically, you jump up and down, then you do push-ups, then you lift weights, then you want to cry, then you get back up and you jump up and down, then you lift weights, etc., etc., until you are released or literally dead.
METCON3 is a HIIT class. “MET” is short for “METABOLIC” and “CON” is short for “CONDITIONING” and — sorry for all that YELLING just now — the “3” is there because you do 10 different exercises (e.g., jumping up and down, lifting weights, crying, etc.) three times. Class is 50 minutes. Everyone has two fluffy towels at the start of class; at the end, we have sopping wet rags because of the sweat and the crying, which I think I mentioned.
METCON3 is as brutal — and effective — as it sounds. This week, I took that damned class three times. The joy of today is that I survived it. If there were a METCON4, my butt might just consider moving up to the next level.
* (That’s not counting yoga studios.)
This is the 3rd installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
I don’t feel embarrassed too often. I try to keep things in perspective, see, and you should too, if you want to live your life without experiencing “embarrassing” situations. The truth is, you can’t ever be truly, mortally embarrassed by something when being mortal is already humiliating.
So you had spinach between your front two teeth at the bar. You looked dumb and you totally blew it, no doubt about that. But an “Oh my God” moment is nothing in light of the fact that your taut, nubile body will eventually wither and sag and end up a tidy pile of brittle sticks. A ghastly prospect, indeed, and isn’t every man a prospector when he mines the mortal coil?
Perhaps you tooted at dinner.
You tooted at dinner and you were not alone; there were other people having dinner with you. That’s pretty embarrassing, but — and particularly in this case — you’ve got to consider the bigger picture, champ. You can’t be embarrassed by a toot when you consider the mortifying fact that the most special parts of our bodies, the bits that are used for procreation and recreation are located directly next to the part of our bodies that produces — I’m trying to put this delicately — toots. That proximity, that ridiculous … arrangement is ignominious, indeed. Who does that? Who thought that was a good idea? The best cure for embarrassment to accept how absurd everything is already. Recognize that, and you shall fear no sidewalk banana peel.
Speaking of sidewalks, I did something embarrassing the other day.
It was about 8:30 in the morning. I was walking down Michigan Avenue, headed to my office for a day of research, editing, and munching cashew nuts, which I enjoy, and which are better for me than potato chips, which I also enjoy.
It had rained the night before and then the temperature dropped, so the sidewalks were either wet or icy, depending on whether the building managers had salted. The sky was bright and I was feeling pretty good until I noticed something gross. Every 20 feet or so was a modest pile of salmon-colored rock salt dumped out on the sidewalk. The piles were about as large as what you could hold in your two hands cupped together, and they studded the sidewalk for several blocks.
The wet, pink rock salt smears looked exactly — and I do mean exactly — like city barf.
City barf is any barf you see in the city. You see a lot of it in Wrigleyville after a Cubs game. You see it at a lot of bus stops, unfortunately. Sometimes you see it on Michigan Avenue. No matter where it is, seeing city barf gives rise to mixed emotions, at least for me: total revulsion, pity, and an almost Proustian moment when you picture the barfer’s entire evening — nay, their entire life! — leading up to the moment when they barfed, right there on the ground, in front of God and everybody. Mind you, you do not dwell on any of this, it’s a lightning quick cycle: see the barf; have the emotions; never think of it again.
That morning, there was a man walking a few paces ahead of me. I knew he was thinking the same thing about the pink rock salt. I knew it. He was looking at it too, I was sure.
I sped up to pass him, and as I did, I remarked to him, confident that he would respond in the affirmative and the two of us would enjoy a fleeting sense of city kinship as we both walked to our offices — I said,
“It looks like barf, right?? Not a great choice!”
The man looked at me and he looked terrified. Forget kinship. He was confused, grossed out, and clearly alarmed that a seemingly normal-looking woman was loose in the city, conning strangers in broad daylight, throwing them off their game by saying the word “barf” in a sentence.
I gave a little, “Heh, heh, well … ” and just zoomed up the street. I even zipped through a very yellow light so that I wouldn’t get stuck at the crosswalk with him and we’d have to either acknowledge that I had said what I said — which was about vomit, let’s not forget — or we would not acknowledge it at all, which would be worse, at least for me.
Was I embarrassed? I guess. But isn’t it more embarrassing that we throw up in the first place?
This is the 2nd installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Just show up to class.
After many years of being a student in university settings, workshops, various training courses, etc., I really do think that getting your butt in the seat, week after week, is a fail-safe way to successfully get through any kind of schooling. Strive for straight A’s if you like; aim high and still just get B’s; do the bare minimum and land C’s, even D’s — it’s all the same in the end, at least in terms of passing the course. Just remember: “If you come to class, you will pass.” (I’m pretty sure I just made that up.)
Can you get F’s on all your papers and tests and still pass if you show up to class? Maybe. But the added benefit of attending every single class session is that you’ll probably learn enough to not get F’s in the first place.
I think the good attendance of a student is critical for teachers for a few reasons. Keep in mind that I have done my fair share of teaching, but I’ve been a student way, way more, so my thoughts here are speculative.
For one thing, coming to class is a show of respect. A student enrolls in a class. The student takes up a seat in that class, which means someone else cannot have that seat. And the underlying assumption is that the student will attend the class, sit in the seat, listen to the instructor, and participate, whatever that might look like for that particular course.
When a student blows off class (for a reason other than being sick or having an emergency) it sends a message that you, the teacher, aren’t that important, and that the class isn’t worth going to. This isn’t explicit, it’s implied. If it happens a fair amount, the teacher understandably has less patience with the absentee student when she is struggling with a lesson or asks for an extension on a paper, for example.
The other reason being absent from class is the fastest way to lose favor with your teacher is a purely practical one, from your teacher’s standpoint: When you’re gone, she has to work more.
She has to answer an email from you going over what you missed. She has to reply to your email back to her with a question about what you missed — and of course lots of people had questions about the same thing, but she went over it … in class. You might ask for more time to finish a take-home test, say, which means she has to grade all the tests for the people who were in class and then, a week later, she has to return to the task she thought she could be done with (grading the take-home tests) but there you are, handing over your peanut-butter smeared take-home test — come on, you know it’s got peanut butter on it — and now she has to find the answer key and lord knows where that thing went.
If you want to make your teachers happy, go to class. You can come to class in your pajamas. Don’t you dare be on your phone — I can’t deal with people who do that in an educational setting — but texting with your sister in class is better than texting with your sister not in class. And, though I know this sounds crazy, you can even come to class without your homework. You just have to show up.
I’d be utterly miserable if I were in the circus. I’d mope, I’d whine, I’d rail against the injustice of it all — because there are few circuses I would join willingly — and I’d end up taking it out on the other surely miserable creatures in my strange new circus family. This wouldn’t be helpful for me or fair to them, so then I’d feel guilty and feel more miserable but at that point, with all of us having to perform four shows a day, it might not matter.
Nevertheless, everyone would hear about it. That includes the new-in-town, understandably wary poodle trainer; the entire clown corps; the husband and wife acrobat team who works overtime every week knowing full well they absolutely should not do that given their line of work; the bendy girl; the other bendy girl who you pay extra to see (after dark, adults only); and Hugo, the old, old, old, old, old man who does all the costumes, including the tiny hats for the monkeys and my previously worn petticoat and velvet vest.
I’d fling myself into the shabby trailer Hugo uses for his workshop. “Hugo!” I’d cry. “It’s happening!”
Hugo has those wire spectacles with the thick, convex magnifying lenses that make his eyes so big he looks like a cartoon. He doesn’t look up from his sequins because it takes him a long time to move any part of his body. Besides, he’s heard this before.
“What’s the trouble, dear?”
I lie down on the floor for maximum effect. “Hugo, I’m not meant for this life. This classic vaudevillian, 1930s, Follies Bergère-style traveling circus life, I’m just not meant for it.”
“Sounds like you need a biscuit,” Hugo says.
I perk up but don’t show it and then moan again. “No, even a biscuit won’t help … I’m dying.”
“All right,” Hugo says, pulling out a spool of pink thread from a drawer. “I don’t think I have any left, anyway.”
Wait, what?! Hugo’s refreshments are legendary. No one knows where he gets the shiny blue tins of shortbread cookies, but he always seems to have them on hand when you really need one. And the tea he gives you on bad days is made with the same rationed teabags and powdered milk we all get from the circus commissary, but Hugo makes it taste creamier and gets his water hotter, somehow. No one can figure it out.
“Well, maybe it would help to have a bite of a biscuit. If you still have some.” I cough a couple times. “And … I think the sawdust is sticking in my throat. Do you have any, um, tea or anything?
Hugo smiles and gets up. He makes his creaky way over to the hot plate to boil water in a kettle as old as he is. “Yes, you ought to have tea right away. We can’t have you suffocating on sawdust; you go on at 6:30. And I think I do have a few biscuits left somewhere.”
I try to peek at which shelf he reaches into for the cookies but he looks back at me faster than I thought he was physically able to, so I squeeze my eyes shut and roll around like I’ve got a stomach ache even though I don’t. I hear the tin open and the rustle of crinkled cookie papers.
Hugo is bent over pretty far already so it’s easy for him to hand me a biscuit. “Sit up, darling. You don’t want to choke.”
“This circus is going to kill me,” I say, half the cookie in my mouth already. “Maybe today’s the day.”
The tea kettle boils and I get my mug of tea. It’s hot and creamy and tastes like my former life. Hugo, who dresses like Geppetto and smokes exactly two cigarillos every day, sits in his chair and I sit cross-legged on the trailer floor. I’ll have to have the Bearded Lady beat the dust from my skirts before my act. By the way, I’m with the lions on Thursdays and Fridays; Sunday through Tuesday I sell candy and peanuts and tell jokes, and on Wednesdays — my favorite day — I get to ride Trinket. (Trinket is our elephant.)
“Have you ever seen a performance of Cirque du Soliel?” Hugo asks me.
I shake my head. “No, actually. Are they any good?”
“No,” Hugo says. “They’re not real circus people, anyway. Oh, they’ll do some tricks. A few of them are double-jointed like Ricky. But their hearts just aren’t in it. There’s too much money in the thing, no doubt about it. You get too much money in a touring group like that, people don’t need each other. They go off after work and spend their money doing all kinds of who knows what. Here, it’s different. We don’t have much, but we get by. We help each other. And we have a good show.”
Puffs of smoke curl up into the costumes Hugo stores on hangers above his head. My vest and skirts came from that old stock. The cigarillo smell will never come out. I look over at Hugo, who has always been so kind to me. I hear Trinket bellow from across the grounds; it’s bath time.
This isn’t that bad, I think to myself. If I were in the circus, I guess I’d want it to be like this.
Oh, the things I can’t do.
I can’t be naturally blonde. I can’t change another person. I can go backwards on skates, but I can’t really skate backwards. I cannot meditate. I can’t change the past. I can’t build a balsa wood airplane (or a balsa wood anything) and I can’t keep honey from dripping down the side of the jar. I’ve never been able to wait.
There’s this one thing I do really well, though, and that’s content.
All my life, if there’s a project that requires words, themes, angles, description, rhyme, structure, information, or rhetoric at all, really, I immediately produce a surplus of ideas. Need content developed, designed, or otherwise structured, I will assess what type of content is needed and take pleasure as “it” instantly takes shape. Every time, I snap my fingers and go, “Ooh! I got it!” and I often do. Yes, when other kids in 8th grade English class were lamenting to the teacher that they didn’t know what to write about, my pencil was already halfway down the page.
Does it sound like I’m bragging? I sure am! We live in a brutal world. There are horrible balsa wood airplanes you might be asked to put together and you might love a person who you can’t change, and you might actually want to have your tea in the morning without getting honey on your knuckles, but if you can’t do any of those things, you’ve got to accentuate the positive, latch onto the affirmative, and in my case, that means make content and make it good.
Imagine my agony when I finally felt ready to pick up the ol’ PG some months ago and found something wrong with my fingers. I had just cracked the laptop and was about to begin writing when I realized they were just sort of … hovering over the keyboard. But they couldn’t do anything else without a strong signal from mission control and I’m mission control and I didn’t know what to write.
No, no, I thought to myself; I’m just out of practice. Hang on. I sat back. I cocked my head to the side. I chewed my lip. I bit too hard at one point but all this was normal. A few thoughts did alight on the bean, but nothing got my fingers to work for more than a few listless minutes here and there. The great filing cabinet in my mind remained firmly locked. Denying that this was happening, I’d close my laptop or — far worse — keep it open and watch something outrageous on YouTube.
But it kept happening and I spent several weeks low-key panicking. The mind was willing, but the flesh was weak and it was an uncomfortable and foreign experience. Then one day, I remembered what English teachers use when their students find their usually active, imaginative brains drawing blanks:
Writing prompts. And they work.
My eyebrows raised up into my bangs. I got the prickly heat. I started to breathe through my nostrils. Oh no you don’t, I thought, backing away from the computer, I do not need writing prompts. Writing prompts are for students. They’re for break-out sessions at corporate team-building retreats. Prompts are for people with “writer’s block” but “writer’s block” doesn’t actually exist if you’re … if you’re writing all the time.
And there it was. I’m out of practice with you, darling, because I haven’t been writing you for a good year, now. Maybe it’s just a Tin Man situation and I just need a little oil to get myself moving again.
Well, Dorothy has arrived with her oil can, and Dorothy is something called “Journal Buddies”.
Journal Buddies is a website with thousands of writing prompts for kids. It came up when I was googling around and though there are endless websites with endless writing prompts, for some reason I just liked Journal Buddies. The site was created and is currently maintained by a person named Jill Schoenberg. I liked the list of “51 Exciting Things To Write About In A Journal” on its own, but then I read Jill’s bio page and I have decided she’s better than Dorothy with an oil can. She’s an educator and a publisher and the vibes are good. This was meant to be.
And so, as I cut myself a generous slice of humble pie with a scoop of rum raisin ice cream, topped perhaps with some pecans or something crumbly, it is my sincere pleasure to announce this PaperGirl is present and accounted for. Present and accountable, you might say: I’m doing this list. I won’t commit to taking them in order, but I’m going to write a post for every one of these prompts until I’ve done them all. After that, if I’m not back in the swing of the ol’ PG, we’ve got bigger problems. I’d rather not think about it.
Thank you, Jill Schoenberg, for being my journal buddy. Thanks all of you for being so patient and beautiful. God, I love a list.
Journal Buddies 51 List