Wednesday, July 31, 2013

books about money, death, and saints; thoughts on exercise; some news

Since last posting, the books:

Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman. This was my Early Reviewers book for the month, and tells the story of one heir to a massive copper mining fortune. Huguette Clark lived to be 105 and spent the last twenty years of her life (she died in 2011) in the Beth Israel hospital in New York City, though her health did not require hospitalization and she had three enormous homes around the country. The first half of this book, all about her family and the vast amounts of money they used to build and furnish their houses, was fun if slightly grotesque. But the second half, about her stay in the hospital and the fact that the hospital staff and administration behaved so incredibly unethically towards her that I can't believe they weren't shut down - that was tough reading. Beth Israel, along with every other medical facility in the country, has ostensibly strict policies around not accepting gifts from patients, but all of Clark's nurses and doctors were walking out of her room with checks for thousands of dollars on a daily basis, and when the administration learned of this its reaction was to try to shake her down for huge donations to the hospital proper. Her nurse eventually ended up with over $30 million in gifts (including seven houses) and $15 million more in a highly-contested will (the only witnesses were all beneficiaries). Dedman interviews this nurse at great length and she is pretty much the worst person alive. She didn't abuse or neglect her patient, but she also sees nothing wrong with the fact that she accepted a Stradivarius worth $1.2 million for a son who had stopped playing the violin years earlier. Oh, or let her patient buy seven houses for her. Clark's lawyer and accountant were also basically horrible people, and the accountant was under investigation when the book went to press.

Dedman, weirdly, spends the last chapter of the book mocking and condemning the relatives who are challenging the will, after using the preceding ten chapters to thoroughly disgust the reader with the amorality of those people who are benefiting from said will. I think his point is that Clark had the right to give her money away to whomever she wanted, but it's a jarring change of tone from the rest of the book, and reads like someone was making him reluctantly change a previous draft. And as someone who works in a medical setting, I would rebut that Clark had a right to leave her money to whomever she wanted. People who were providing her care in roles which explicitly meant they were not allowed to accept any money offered while she was alive... well, there should have been one damn HR person at Beth Israel willing to step forward on this, is all I can say.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust. Speak of depressing. Faust examines how Americans defined and dealt with death when suddenly confronted with it on a vaster scale than anyone had previously conceived. It's a fascinating and very well-written book, and I recommend it highly.

On the Road with Francis of Assisi: A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond, by Linda Bird Francke. This was a biography of St. Francis told through the author's travels / pilgrimage to the important places in his life. Francke's heart was clearly in the right place, but the result is a really boring list of places which start blurring together almost immediately. And her emphasis is on Francis' constant physical suffering, and precisely how he suffered in each place, rather than the joy in the natural world that I personally take to be his message. 

Heartshot, by Steven F. Havill. The first in his mystery series about a fictional county in southern New Mexico. It wasn't good, at all, but since I've read many later ones in the series, I know they get better. This is why I generally don't begin mystery series with the first book, but somewhere in the middle, and then can backtrack if I like the one I read. The first one is almost always rough enough that if I'd started there I wouldn't have read any more. This was definitely a reminder of why I do that.

Since last posting, life in general:

I've started running. For values of "running" which mean "shuffling at most a mile and a half because it is 85 degrees and 900% humidity; why did I decide to take up this hobby in summer again?", but hey. I haven't been running since college days, which were a) the grim years between the Walkman and the iPod, so that you could not take music on your runs, and b) some of the most self-loathing years I had, and that's saying something. So every day I'd go out and stumble through the woods on campus, not noticing anything about the beauty of the place, getting immediately bored, judging myself a lazy pig for wanting to stop, and terrified that I'd come across someone I knew, both because I don't run pretty (if it's over sixty degrees my face turns the deep, weathered red of the brick on an elderly fire station), and because then they would know that I cared. And that I had to try, and work, at something, as opposed to being naturally perfect. God forbid.

Years of walking large animals which poop in public has cured me of much of that shame, and one day about six weeks ago I had such a restless and frustrating day at work that when I got home, without even thinking about it, I laced up my shoes and collected Bingley and went for a very short run. It felt good. I decided to see if it still felt good after a month of doing it. And I think I'll be sticking with it.

Exercise is always a slippery slope for someone recovering from disordered eating and body hatred. For me, exercise functions primarily as a substitute addiction: when I first stopped drinking, I had to find some way to fill the three hours between my arrival home from work and Claudio's. Those were the dangerous hours. So five to six became exercise time, although at first the exercise was light yoga and I could barely handle that. (Six to seven-thirty was dinner prep, eating, clean-up, showering, and journaling. Seven-thirty was "The Simpsons". I knew if I made it to "The Simpsons" I'd be okay for the night.)

Over the years much has changed, obviously, but I am still somewhat fixated on the time frame (part of me wants to stop right where I am in the workout when the clock strikes six, even if I have no time constraints on my evening), and on having this be part of every day. The trick, at which I do not always succeed, is remembering that exercising is something I do because I feel better for it, and not because if I don't I will wake up the next morning having gained thirty pounds and lost all my muscle tone, which is what I will have deserved for being a lazy slug. Exercise needs to be the carrot, not the stick, and it's hard to keep that in mind when you are coming from a place of body image problems (and perfectionism: not having a perfect body used to mean, unequivocally, that I am a bad person who has failed).

I understand why many women who have recovered from eating disorders do not exercise. I didn't understand it, at first: I found myself thinking, "How can you not want to be healthy? How can you not want to be strong and defined?" But as I get older and my body reacts to age in normal ways (lately I had to confront the fact that no matter how much I work out, I will have thirty-six-year-old arms, and that is the youngest my arms will ever be from this point on), it makes more and more sense. The risk, which is ever-present in my life, is that the voice in your head which used to scream at you for consuming the calories your body needed to live will return, screaming at you for not working out, or only running for half an hour, or for eating two helpings of dinner though you only did yoga and not aerobics. You are disgusting. You have no self-control. No one will ever want you. 

I understand the desire to avoid anything which might give that voice an opening. And some days I do regret that exercise has taken the role in my life that it has. While I genuinely look forward to working out at the end of a hard, desk-bound day, there is also the constant temptation to put it in the scales opposite what I eat, and not allow myself to adjust those scales based on time constraints, or temperature, or illness. I think I started exercising again three days after my lumpectomy. The Friday a few weeks ago when it was, literally, one hundred degrees in the Boston area, I didn't exercise, but I kind of hated myself for it (worth noting: I don't have air conditioning in my house). Tomorrow I will be spending my evening with the dogs at the vet (just routine vaccinations), and there's a voice, awfully close to the old evil one, nagging me to either get up an hour early to exercise in the morning or be restrictive with my food consumption throughout the day.

It's a little voice, thankfully. And I take some pleasure in telling it it's not the boss of me. I am virtually positive that I will do neither of the things the voice is nagging me to do (I certainly won't restrict my food intake, because I can't be hungry without losing my mind). But I do hate that that voice is still there.

Oddly enough, I think running will be good for crushing that voice. Because it's about what my body can do, not how it looks. In just six weeks of running every other day, my thighs have gotten noticeably bigger; when I first realized this I was horrified, as my thighs have always been an area of deep shame and self-consciousness for me. And I considered, for a few seconds, giving up running. And then I said, "Hell no! I am really, really enjoying it!" This is good. This is very good.

In other news, for those of you who have read this far:

The good: Berowne is going to move in with me in November. I am so happy about this that I barely know what to do with myself. Other than clean some more. Oh lord, SO MUCH CLEANING has to happen before this can work out. The basement is six years' worth of apathy: the great unwritten horror story of our time.

The sad: one of my parents' dogs has been diagnosed with bone cancer. They had the option of amputation of the leg and chemotherapy, but he's quite elderly already and that operation would be pretty traumatic. So my parents made the decision I would have made: to manage the pain while they can and then say good-bye. The vet estimates about two more months. He's going to get so much love and snuggling, and steak, while he's still here, and that is as it should be. He's a very good dog, and has had a very good life since my parents rescued him and his brother from the shelter. 

I think the long, happy life of this big drooly rescue dog would mean more to St. Francis than any pilgrimage. May his passage be gentle.   

Monday, July 22, 2013

steampunk, international mysteries, royalty, and dog days

The Iron Duke, by Maljean Brook. Steampunk romance with zombies. I really liked Brook's world-building, but the romance aspect of this was tediously old-school, with far too much talk of how the hero is some sort of six-foot-seven shoulders-too-wide-for-doorways giant and the heroine is this tiny waif one-third his size (this talk includes details that, frankly, should make their sex extraordinarily painful for the heroine if not anatomically impossible). And I've noticed something about romances written in the last ten years: balls. The romance novels I read as a teenager featured, of course, many throbbing members and lustful shafts, but I don't remember the guy's balls ever really being mentioned. In the new ones it's all about the balls, and their mass, to an extent that is worthy of Hemingway writing about bulls. And Brook has a faux-British slang going on in her world, the end result of which is that our hero's balls are referred to as "cods". As in, "she hefted his weighty cods".  Well, of course she did. I know when I'm in bed with a man I go straight for the weighty cods.

I apologize for that entire paragraph. 

This Body of Death, by Elizabeth George. This is another Inspector Lynley book; they had really started irritating me but in this one Lynley's obnoxious aristocrat wife is dead, so I thought it might be bearable. Alas, it was irritating. I finished it because I wanted to know the solution to the mystery, but the characters drove me up the wall. The main female character (and Lynley's new love interest) is a strong career-driven woman, so of course she must have a shameful weakness, and George chooses to make it alcoholism. Alcoholism which is so far gone that this woman drinks heavily during the day, at her job; and yet is still beautiful and put-together and competent and only Lynley with his profound deductive skills guesses that she's drinking. Um, Ms. George? That is NOT the way it works. If you are at the point of downing vodka in the work bathroom several times a day, there are going to have been visible signs of the problem long before that.

Jar City, by Arnaldur Indridason. Icelandic mystery. Very grim and grey but I didn't hate it.

Gods and Beasts, by Denise Mina. Not the strongest of hers that I have read, but I do love her little character vignettes.

Midnight at Marble Arch, by Anne Perry. This was a standard late-series Perry (i.e., formulaic and brief but still with a decent sense of setting), only notable because it ends with a scene in which two villains are holding a woman hostage; the hero bursts in; one villain shoots the other, who is holding the woman, and then the hero stabs the remaining villain through the eyeball with a letter opener. Then the hero asks the woman, "Are you all right?" and she says, perfectly calmly, "I am fine," and, like, glides across the room into his arms. I cannot help but think what she actually would have done would be more like:

HOLY SHIT you stabbed a man in the EYEBALL INTO HIS BRAIN my letter opener is IN THAT DUDE'S BRAIN and that other guy just got SHOT ALL OVER ME there is BLOOD ALL OVER MY ROOM there are VIOLENTLY DEAD PEOPLE IN MY DRAWING ROOM and the EYEBALL oh my GOD *wobbles / staggers / vomits*.

Maybe that's just me.

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings, by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie. My Early Reviewers book. Cute little chapters about princesses who led armies, had affairs, went mad, etc. It's written very informally but the style worked for me. Would make good bathroom reading. 


In other news, I had a lovely dog-centric weekend with Berowne. We went out to breakfast at a place that allows dogs on the patio (and at one point every table on said patio had at least one dog at it), then set up their tie-outs in the yard and brushed Darcy and threw a ball for Bingley and then Berowne found a kiddie pool somewhere and set it up for Darcy, who was delighted with this development. Later in the day we went out for ice cream to a place that is also dog-friendly and even sells frozen yogurt for dogs. So much excitement! On the drive home yesterday, Darcy fell asleep so soundly that I kept putting my hand in front of his nose to make sure he was still breathing.

I'd say how lucky I am to have found a man who loves my dogs almost as much as I do, but a) how could you not love them and b) if he didn't love them, he and I wouldn't have lasted a year already.

Yes, it has been a year since we met! Imagine that. A year of being loved by the sweetest, kindest, funniest, most attractive man I've ever known. I can only imagine what he gets out of the relationship: access to the dogs, I imagine. Makes sense to me.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

not so vile a sin as self-neglecting

I re-emerge, readers! I have been reading long books and surviving summer.

On the reading front:

Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey. It is just marvelous, as (with one exception) I have found Carey's work to be. Based loosely on de Tocqueville's travels in and writings about America, it's about two men, one the son of French aristocrats and the other an older Englishman who has had to live by his wits for decades, and their journeys in Europe and America. It's so, so well written and fun and touching and incredibly intelligent, and everyone should read it. (Don't read My Life As a Fake. That's the one exception in my experience of Carey's books.)

The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer. Full disclosure: I did not finish this book. I figured I should read it, since it's so famous and important and I did read Shot in the Heart a while back, so I've got the Gary Gilmore background. But I did not know just how huge the Mailer is, and though for two weeks I tried my best, and skipped the chapters which are Gilmore's letters to his girlfriend, because "in Gary Gilmore's nasty racist violent head" is not a place I care to spend any time, when the library loan expired I still had thirty percent of the book to go, because I simply couldn't read it for sustained periods of time. The hatred that this man felt, and the poverty and hopelessness of his community, ground me down. I'm sure that Mailer intended as much, and that's why he goes into so much detail, but after the sixth instance of a woman who got married at fifteen and had four kids by the time she was twenty, I was pretty much exhausted. So I let that last thirty percent go. I do know how it ends, after all.

The Accursed, by Joyce Carol Oates. What a bizarre, intriguing, Lovecraftian mess. I'd never read any Oates before and so didn't know what to expect, but it wasn't this. Woodrow Wilson and Upton Sinclair are just two of the many actual historical figures who populate the story of a "cursed" family in 1905 Princeton, New Jersey. There are vampires and ghosts and alternate universes and a lot of socialism and everything but the socialism is clearly a metaphor for a fear of blackness and miscegenation, which is very Lovecraftian. This book was frustratingly structureless and meandering, and yet I always wanted to know what happened next. I think I may check out more of her stuff.

 On the surviving-summer front:

Berowne and the dogs and I spent several days at our friends' beach house this past week. It had the stressors of being away from my house and surrounded by people, but was also quite charming. I got nastily sunburned the first day, and there were crazy amounts of bugs, but Darcy got to swim in the ocean and we ate lots of delicious grilled food and chatted with many nice people, and it was a good time.

After being around a bunch of adults on vacation, however, I have many thoughts percolating about my belief that the emphasis on work and career creates an excuse for certain behavior: as if we're all supposed to be working sixteen-hour-days, six-day-weeks, for fifty-one weeks a year, and so it's considered normal to cram a year's worth of sleep and substances and childishness into that one week we allow ourselves off, instead of practicing any sort of work-life balance on a daily basis. I find this really sad and unhealthy. I know my lack of ambition is the opposite of admirable for most people - I have yet to tell anyone I don't check my work e-mail from home and get a reaction other than shock, scorn, or a combination of the two - but it's not out of laziness. I was barely out of my first year of sobriety when I moved from one department at my workplace to my current one, and almost immediately it was made clear to me that in this department the way to be respected and get ahead was to work twelve-hour days and check work e-mail at two in the morning, and I made the decision not to do that. It was a considered and deliberate decision. (I am also lazy, but that is irrelevant in this situation.)

And I feel guilty about it. Not in the sense that I am letting people down by not being ambitious (though I probably am), but in the sense of unacknowledged privilege. I feel like I should apologize over and over for having the luxury of a good work-life balance, and never mention that balance without also mentioning how lucky I am and that I know not everyone is. But if I apologize for that balance I'm apologizing for setting boundaries, and no one should have to do that.

I have given myself permission to have that balance. That's not easy, either to do or to justify. I find that people often assume I must be very unimportant at my workplace, or I would never have been allowed to behave thus. As if that permission can only be granted by someone else after they judge your value or lack thereof. I took mine; I wasn't given it. 

There are, of course, people who thrive on a career-centered life. I hate implying that I have made the Right Choice and you haven't. But I also hate the idea, which clings naturally to an emphasis on career, that self-care is lazy and that it's someone else's job to force you into brief spates of it: your boss' job, or your doctor's, or your friends'. That you're not allowed to take a break until you have paid money to rent a house, or traveled to a beach property, and someone has shoved a beer into your hand. The concept is frequently that you can't practice self-care at home, because your home is just an extension of your workplace, the laptop always open. I know people who have to be brought to a place with no wi-fi if you are to have a hope of actually seeing them during their "vacation". 

Sobriety is a trump card in terms of self-care no longer being optional, and unless you are currently an active addict I don't recommend recovery as a form of priority determination, but it does mean I've been doing this for a while. It's like someone who has to take daily medication to be safe. Every day, to be safe, I have to think about myself as a person, a body, a mind, and a spirit. For eight hours a day I am my job title, because I am working and my workplace deserves my attention and energy. But the other hours I am myself. I have to be, because I have to accept her. And so I need to take the time to feel strong and healthy in my body, to quiet my mind or feed it with books, to adore my dogs. Yes, this is all, technically, selfish. I am thinking about myself, and frequently only myself, during my evenings and my weekends. They are sacred and precious hours, and they are necessary. 

I'm not even sure where I'm going with this. Part of being an adult is finding what works for you, and no one else should tell you what to do. If you genuinely love long days at work, and evenings planning the next day, and are genuinely, sufficiently refreshed by one week of concentrated chaos with your friends, then that is awesome. Do what you love. But I'm taking this space to admit to my self-care, as if it were shameful, because part of me believes it is. And I'm quite sure I am not the only person out there who believes that. 

It feels important to admit to this. To say: I believe I have a right to leave work when I'm due to leave, because I want to run in the woods. To say: I deserve my sleep tonight, so that tomorrow I can sit with my coffee at dawn. To say: a book and my couch and my dogs: this is my form of prayer. And that is okay. I do not have to be always repenting and earning and atoning. Neither do you.