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.   

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