NYC Week Thirteen: The fight to stay fit

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

It’s a battle I’ve been losing.

Sure, I ran 1.4 miles today in 10:38. Sure, I followed it up with sprints and crunches and pushups. Sure, I got my heart rate up and didn’t feel awful. But I am not where I was three months ago, when I was working on getting to a pull-up, doing weighted squats, deadlifts, going hard for an hour at least three, if not four or five, times a week.

I felt my muscles begin to atrophy months ago, when I was here in the dead of winter with snow piled on the ground and no gym membership or free weights to get me moving indoors. Transition periods are always tough for me; the things I love — music, creative work (i.e. arts and crafts), Bible time, physical activity — typically fall to the wayside, even though doing those things keeps me healthy and functional.

Yesterday, I decided, with the arrival of May and nice weather (even when it’s raining), excuses for not working out are no longer an option. So in the evening (after a pre-afternoon workout with my housemate, choir practice, and grocery shopping), I sat down on my bed with the one permanent marker I brought to the City and a paper bag I’d brought home from work (the only blank paper I currently have). After unfolding the bag and flattening it out, I cut off a piece, brought a desk drawer over to use as a platform, and drew lines across the paper, dividing the space into a graph of the days of the week and the hours of the day, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Then, I filled in my known schedule — internship, work, church, choir — and started eyeing empty space for working out.

I realized, in this process, that working out isn’t the only thing I’ve neglected over the past three months: I haven’t made a single thing since I came here. Cutting up that paper bag and writing on it is the closest I’ve gotten to a craft. I’ve saved things — brochures, clippings from newspapers, programs — but I haven’t even attempted a collage, because . . . I don’t have glue.

Arts and crafts are a natural pasttime for me. My family sees potential where others see trash. It’s part of living cheaply, and it’s also just part of who we are. My mom collects postage stamps and uses them for decoupage on homemade boxes. My little brother makes stuffed animals and dolls out of random pieces of fabric. I used to make bags out of hole-y jeans and, just last summer, made an apron out of two pieces of discarded clothing. Scissors, glue, needle, thread — that’s really all that’s necessary for any of this and, yet, I haven’t made a single thing. I haven’t even touched the knitting I brought with me.

And that’s not all: Yesterday, after choir practice, I sat down at the piano to try and play a song I’m singing with another girl for special music. My fingers were stiff and clumsy — nowhere near where they were in January, after finishing a semester of piano lessons that had me playing Chopin, Bach, and Beethoven. I realized: I haven’t played piano since I was at Taylor, and now I feel like a true novice.

Weaker, weaker, weaker . . . that’s how I feel in all of these areas — even writing, unfortunately. The only place I feel stronger is my faith, and that’s because I’ve actually been reading my Bible on a regular basis. But all of these other areas, they’re important, too. They’re part of me as a multi-interest individual who thrives on new experiences, learning, growing. They keep me in tune to the possibilities around me and aware of the potential in random inanimate objects, as well as people. They improve my brain function, rhythm, coordination. And they keep me healthy, confident, and strong.

Looking at my paper bag schedule for this week, I’m realizing it’s not just working out I need to work on. It’s also creativity, piano, and wordsmith-ing.

The battle I’ve been losing isn’t over, yet. There’s still a chance I can turn things around, regain some core strength, pick up the pace, have something to show for these four months other than bitten nails, worn-out jeans, and poor posture. This week — and the rest leading up to May 24 (my college commencement) — that’s the goal. Improvement.

 

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church.

Monday: Internship. Work. Worked out again with TMIRCE. This time, it was their track workout, which I was hoping would be more up my alley. Turned out, they still run the track for distance: we did long intervals adding up to three miles. It killed me.

Squats TMIRCE

(Note: My squat stance is a bit wide, but it was literally the only way my exhausted legs could pull off the motion. That’s how out of shape I am.)

Tuesday: Work.

Wednesday: Internship. Work. Choir. Church.

Thursday: Work.

Friday: Work.

Saturday: Worked out with my housemate. Choir practice. Grocery shopping. Paper bag scheduling.

NYC Week Eight: Wake-up run, or Running with strangers

Read last week’s post here or view all other New York City posts.

Can we scrap the rest of this week and just look at today? Because today, I feel alive.

Not that the rest of this week was worthless — it wasn’t. I worked, read the Bible (1 Samuel 1-13), interviewed an FDNY historian, found out I’m still in the running for a yearlong media fellowship, joined the contributor list of a publication I read regularly, and started reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame (which I love so far, by the way). But today . . .

I couldn’t fall asleep last night, because of my excitement for today. I’d decided at the last minute to look into running groups, ended up stumbling upon these guys, and decided — because, why not? — to forego sleeping in, take the bus and train into Manhattan, and run with a group of total strangers.

The result:

  • Walking through the 34th Street station on a quiet Saturday morning and hearing a man play Agnus Dei on the pan flute.
  • Three-plus miles of calf-soring goodness with this group of super friendly strangers.

The Most Informal Running Club, Ever

  • Hearing not one, but two musical groups on the trains (one for each) back to Queens, and reading more of Hunchback than I would have had I stayed home.

There’s something about running (or physical exertion, in general) that wakes me up to life, to the fact that I have it, and makes everything that follows — subway musicians, books, conversations, rain on the roof or the street — seem vibrant, interesting, and unique.

There always seems to be a battle for my attention: to write or to exercise; to string words together, bring others understanding and realization, or to work out, push my physical abilities to the limit. I enjoy and highly value both, so I find myself in a servant-of-two-masters sort of situation, where if I’m regularly doing one, I’m typically not consistent with the other.

This week, I remembered myself as an artist. Through Hunchback and the endless online debates about Noah (I recommend this review), I remembered why I love writing and what it is as a writer that makes me tick. Christian artists are not just called to make art for other Christians, I thought repeatedly, ruminating again on my college professor‘s oft-repeated point that, “A Christian carpenter doesn’t only make churches.”

But as I remembered my inner artist, I neglected my fitness, and every day without running or doing a push-up or jumping jack, I grew increasingly lethargic and unexcited about life.

Alarm goes off. I drag myself out of bed, miss the button several times before successfully shutting off the buzzer. Stare at my phone, the time, trying to calculate. Do I have to get up now? Can’t I have ten more minutes? Try to shake it off. Go to the bathroom; burn a whole ten minutes when it should take me two. Back to my room. What do I have to wear? Shoulders drooping, back curling, whole body sluggish, feeling like a load of lead or bricks or both. Breakfast: eggs and tasteless oatmeal, even if I add peanut butter. To the bus, to the subway. On the train: sleep. I feel myself becoming your stereotypical jaded New Yorker: People are those things that get in your way, step on your toes, and have loud conversations or make-out sessions next to you on the train, when all you want to do is sleep.

Sinking toward grumpiness, nothing is as interesting as my pillow — at least in the morning, when I should be most excited about the day and the potential it holds.

Finding life dull and colorless is detrimental to the writer, especially one who wants to write about exciting and colorful parts of life found in ordinary places. But it makes sense that life seems dull and colorless when it’s being lived that way, the writer has three physical positions and no more: laying down to sleep, standing up to work, sitting down to travel, eat, or write.

I believe our bodies were made for more. Not merely vessels carrying our souls from this existence to eternity, our bodies are part of us, given to enjoy by climbing trees, turning cartwheels, doing push-ups, lunges, burpees. And when their potentials are tapped into, our blood pumps faster, our senses sharpen, and we awaken to the world around us. 

For most people, this means elevated spirits, bigger smiles, and more energy. For the writer, this means noticing more color, uniqueness, and excitement everywhere. For me, it means all of the above, plus bigger laughs, better posture, and stronger confidence which cuts down my awkwardness, makes way for more natural, genuine conversations, and renews my excitement for life and writing.

The whole way back to Queens, I was holding back grins. On the train, when a trio of singers started singing a ragtime tune, I let it break from ear to ear, despite the pinched mouth and wrinkled nose of the man sitting across from me. When a kid threw a fit on the 7 train, I couldn’t help but chuckle, while most others grimaced or stared.

What is life if it is not experienced, appreciated, enjoyed? Not anything to write about, that’s for sure. Every story needs conflict, but if conflict has no meaning or resolution, there’s no story. Even on the pages of the tragic Hunchback, you find shards of joy (one that made me laugh early on: “They had been waiting since morning for three things: noon, the Flemish ambassadors and the play. Noon was the only one to arrive on time.”). And if a writer (that is, I) neglects to experience, appreciate, and enjoy life (that is, exercise), her writing will suffer from lack of life.

Smile Big

Bringing you up-to-date:

Sunday: Church.

Monday: Internship.

Tuesday: Work. Signed Hunchback out from the library. Talked to my oldest brother over the phone. Got the good news about my media fellowship application status and my addition to a contributor list. Time to go story-hunting.

Wednesday: Internship. Choir practice and church.

Thursday: Work.

Friday: Brief phone interview for internship. Work. Decided to run with a group of random strangers.

Saturday: Ran with a group of random strangers. Talked running with a guy at church before choir practice. Got Italian ice and a meal, courtesy of my landlady (who, by the way, is not in her seventies, as previously stated, but in her sixties. Same for her husband, who she refers to as “hubby”). Set up interviews for a piece I’m going to try to pitch. No details, because that would be counting my eggs before they hatch.

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

This is another piece I wrote for my internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts.

Framed: Questions with Elissa Gore

“Before you start peppering me with questions, can I pepper you with a couple? I like to know who I’m talking to.”

Those were the first words of Elissa Gore, 62, in her interview last week.

The practically-minded landscape artist has an Ivy league education, an extra bedroom in her New York City residence and, for several years after college, made her living as a medical illustrator.

“I pursued medical illustration as a profession that would support my habit as a painter and a way to use the skills I had,” Elissa said. “I loved the idea of being able to use my skills as a visual communicator to help people.”

Elissa shared her background in art, her thoughts on differences between illustrators and painters, and what she believes to be the most important thing for creators to know about art.

SCA: When did you decide to pursue art?

Elissa: When I was in high school. It was the thing that I enjoyed doing the most. We could take art every day, so I did. I headed in that direction. I have an Ivy league education, but every time I decided I was going to major in philosophy, the next semester I’d spend more time in art studios than anywhere else.

SCA: You’re originally from Philadelphia and now you live in New York City, but you paint landscapes. How does that work?

Elissa: I grew up in a semi-rural part of southeastern Pennsylvania. I was born in Philadelphia but I grew up in the country, and I didn’t move to New York until I was 30. I have always spent at least three months out of the year in the country. Now, I am usually in upstate New York, which is why I show in Cooperstown.

SCA: When you’re working on your landscapes, do you work from photographs or memory?

Elissa: I work from everything. I work from observation, as well as photographs, as well as from the studio. . . . During the past five years, my stuff’s been chosen for the Art in Embassies program for the U.S. State Department, so I have paintings overseas in the ambassadors’ residences. I was fortunate enough to have an art gallery in New York with the same person who’s represented me for the past 20 years. I also have been exploring smaller pieces, sometimes in the studio, sometimes outside. . . . In the past three years, I’ve started traveling more to paint directly from observation of the landscape. I’ve been attending plein air events and competitions, mainly on the East Coast within a five-hour drive of where I live.

SCA: What’s plein air?

Elissa: It’s a French term for painting outside from observation. There is a movement in landscape painting to get more people engaged in painting from life. . . . For the past 10 years, I’ve been teaching a landscape painting class at the New York Botanical Garden, where we trot around from one location to another in this 300-acre park in the Bronx. So plein air has been a continuous part of my discipline for many years.

Part of [the challenge of plein air events] is not knowing the locale. I’m going to completely novel places, where I have to hit the ground and figure out the topography and where the light might be good. It’s great. It’s kind of like a sport.

I’ve [also] been working on landscape paintings that are transitional to abstraction. Those are the paintings I’m going to be showing in Cooperstown in July in the three-person show. Those paintings are all oil paintings . . . and they’re all invented . . . from my imagination. If you spend a lot of time observing nature and observing the real world, there’s a great library of observation you can draw from.

At times, there’s a cross-over between my different ways of working. There are times when I’m working outside from observation and I’ll get the palette knife and I’ll be much more interpretive about the way I’m working.

SCA: You say that you are especially attracted to landscapes with earth, air, and water. Can you expand on that?

Elissa: Without water the plants all die, and the same thing with life. The paintings become paintings about the environment. I’m not an illustrator of a conservation message, but the concept is this is the natural world and it’s very beautiful. Let’s keep it the way it is.

There are different ways of looking at the world and organizing our perceptions. I like to say there’s a painter’s frame and there’s an illustrator’s frame, and they both use the same stuff . . . elements of design and composition and color theory—all the elements are the same. But with the illustrator’s frame there’s a concept behind the piece of artwork that tells a story. Not necessarily a narrative, but something specific that it needs to convey. So the place you enter in the image might have very specific details that make the place identifiable. In a painter’s frame, the place might be identifiable, but there isn’t a concept or story. What’s much more dominant are the formal elements of composition and design. The point of the image is to put together something that’s expressive of the emotional observations of the person making the art.

At plein air events, painters are there all working at the same time. At the end in the exhibit, I can see the ways that 30 different painters are applying paint or how they compose, the kind of images they choose. Many of the most successful plein air painters are illustrators professionally.

SCA: What’s most important for people to know about art?

Elissa: As an appreciator of art or a creator of art?

SCA: A creator.

Elissa: The most important thing for them to know is how they feel about their subject. Because the expressive content of a work of art is the driver . . . You have to have a motivation to make something and the motivation is how you feel about the subject of your artwork. No matter whether you’re sculpture or performance art, a drawing or a painting, the first thing you have to know is how you feel.

Elissa Gore‘s joint exhibit with Joanna Murphy and Jody Primoff opened on July 1 on the first floor of the Smithy Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell

Pieced together: Products of Nate Katz’s obsessions

This is the final piece I wrote for my summer internship with the Smithy Center for the Arts, and probably my favorite piece from this summer.

Nate Katz, 23, leans over the table, a strip of Scotch tape stretched between his thumbs. He’s focused on a small stack of paper in front of him, an inventory of some kind with thumbnail images of movie covers in the top half and a list in 14-point font in the bottom half. He’s just updated the list, cut it to size, and now has it lined up with the thumbnails, ready to be made one by the power of Scotch.

Nate’s father, Jeff, stands at the side of the table, talking about Nate’s strip mall portraits which hang in clear glass frames on the surrounding walls. Some are long rows of stores from various Chicago-land suburbs. Others are just 8 1/2 by 11, on Nate’s standard—computer paper—featuring before-and-afters of Dunkin Donuts and Burger King renovations, with floor plans of restrooms sketched out below the colored pencil portraits.

“Is this one real, Nate?” Jeff asks, holding one of the before-and-afters. Through the clear glass of the frame, the back side of the portrait’s paper is visible. Two photos: one of a toilet, one of a sink.

“I don’t know,” Nate replies, glancing up as he tears another strip of tape. “It’s in my mind.”

Creativity—putting pen to paper or hand to keyboard—is one of Nate’s main ways of getting what’s in his mind out. At age three and a half, Nate was diagnosed with Hyperlexia, a form of autism characterized by early advanced reading abilities, excellent visual and auditory memories, but a slow learning of language. Because of this, Nate has a hard time communicating to others what’s going on inside of him.

What others tend to see of him are his obsessions: bathroom fixtures and setups (he puts together booklets titled “The Complete Fixtures of” various townships and maps out floor plans of public restrooms); in grade school, The Simpsons, until he decided no more, for reasons still unknown; and since moving to Cooperstown with his parents and younger brothers in 2003, strip malls from familiar Chicago suburbs that he misses.

These strip malls—drawn in pen, filled in with colored pencil, laminated with Scotch tape, and framed front-and-back in clear glass—currently stretch across the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery’s third floor walls. They are simple, in no way claiming to appear realistic. Yet, they are detailed. Look closely at the Dunkin Donut door handles and the KFC Colonel’s face in miniature. Each piece requires thought and precision, which Nate carefully provides.

Jeff now sets a three-dimensional open-topped cardboard house on the table. The second floor fits the first floor, the three sides of the front bay windows lining up perfectly. Nate made this. A scaled-down model of the Katz’s house in Illinois. The only thing missing is the addition made by the new owners. Nate’s seen it, but only from the outside. To do a proper model, he’d need to see it from the inside, so he could know the floor plan.

The detail on the house’s interior is better than any Lego model would allow: from door and window placement to the red, white, and blue stripes on Nate’s bedroom walls. He recently repainted his Cooperstown bedroom to match.

“There’s a true authenticity to what he’s doing,” Jeff says, as Nate presses the final piece of tape onto his inventory and leaves the room.

Jeff opens a cartoon cookbook that’s sitting on the table. Nate designed it from cover to cover and put it together, joining the pages on their left edges and making the cardboard cover. It’s themed around a cartoon character Nate likes. Nate made it because the cartooners hadn’t.

“He makes things he wishes come real,” Jeff explains, flipping through the pages.

The strip malls?

“They’re just something he loves and he wants drawn.”

Nate’s strip mall portraits are currently on display on the third floor of the Smithy-Pioneer Gallery at 55 Pioneer Street.

– Meredith Sell