Friday, April 29, 2011

Literacy --> Mortality --> Dieting

[NB: This essay was written a few nights ago. It's a little disjointed. My wife told me to edit and rearrange things so that they make more sense, but I'm having trouble with that. It all makes sense when I read it because, well, I wrote it.

About two years ago I posted something on Facebook about how I was sad that I wasn't a very good reader. I got a few suggestions, most of which sounded absolutely wretched as soon as I researched them. The one author that stood out was Joan Didion, some of whose essays I had read and enjoyed. Two years later, about a week ago, I found a couple of her books at a used book store on Franklin in Hollywood. Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The Year of Magical Thinking. Seeing as these were the two most consistently praised Joan Didion books, and they were pretty cheap and both in great condition, I bought them. My wife works at a library and suggested that she could have just picked them up from work. She tells me that she is usually more likely to read a book from the library than one she has purchased; it has a deadline. I'm far more likely to read a book that I've bought because while I buy very few books, I feel like I must read them cover-to-cover to justify the expense.

My plan worked. I flew through Slouching Towards Bethlehem which, along with the last Harry Potter book, is now one of two books I have read in the past five years. I'm not particularly proud of the shallowness of my literary knowledge. Apparently if you want to write, the best thing to do is read. I'm not a great reader and, as you can see, I'm not a very prolific writer. Having finished Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I figured I should try to keep my reading momentum and start reading The Year of Magical Thinking. While Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays, mostly about California in the 1960's, The Year of Magical Thinking is presented as more of a diary, detailing the year-long period of extended grief surrounding the death of Joan Didion's husband, John Gregory Dunne. He died of a sudden and (relatively) unexpected heart attack at dinner, sending his wife into a very understandable grief spiral. The Year of Magical Thinking won the National Book Award, as well as getting nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I'm a little more than halfway through and it's already the best-written book I have ever read, topping an admittedly short list.

The problem with reading a book like this is that now I am convinced that I will drop dead at any moment.

My wife will be left alone. We are currently childless, but that will, I'm sure, change. I'm not afraid to die because it might hurt or because I have a million regrets or because maybe there isn't a Heaven and maybe I won't get there if there is. I'm afraid to die because I love my wife so much. I love the children we don't have. The idea of them dealing with my death ruins me. I remember a few years ago my wife told me that she always wished I would die of something sudden, but not instantaneous. Something that would allow her time to mourn while I was alive, but not for too long. I feel like this is reasonable.

I still don't want to die.

I'm not old. I'll be 26 in 10 days. Everyone always tells me that I'm not old, that they're old. I understand that you're whatever age you are, and that's great. I've never been 26 before, so that's still scary for me. I'm not in great shape. My wife tells me she thinks I'm attractive, which is certainly possible. The problem is I can't really run anymore without nearly having a seizure. I don't play sports anymore. Frankly I was probably healthier when I was 20 and I smoked a pack and a half of Camels a day. At least I rode a bike. My wife and I don't own a car, and occasionally she makes waves about how we need to get one. While I agree on principle, I'm afraid that I'd gain 40 pounds in a month if I didn't have to walk everywhere. One day I'd park a little to far from the entrance to the supermarket and collapse during the walk up to the door.

John Gregory Dunne was 71 when he died. 71 is a pretty good time to go, if such a thing exists. That's a full life for most people. That's enough time to go to school, fall in love, have a career, accomplish a lot. I'd be happy to make it to 71. Still, a heart attack can happen to anyone, they say, at any time. My work pants are fitting a little tighter than they used to. I'm just getting older, right? With age comes expansion. No, I'm gaining weight. I eat like shit. The only “restaurant” within a mile of my apartment is a Taco Bell. The only delivery options are pizza and Chinese food. Not a lot of places are willing to deliver a Cobb salad. (My love of Cobb salads will probably also kill me. So what if it's got bacon and a hard-boiled egg? It's a salad, right? I'll live forever.) I need to get used to cooking my own meals, but if I'm in charge of what I eat, it'll probably just end up being a lifetime of pasta and microwaveable dinners and home-made Egg McMuffins. Those are the three things I'm good at making.

I'm trying to diet. I'm counting calories, a task made much easier by whatever law (municipal? state? federal?) requires restaurants to post caloric values. As it stands I only drink Diet Coke. When I do drink coffee or (increasingly often recently) tea, I never add milk or sugar. I've even started drinking more water. Apparently the healthiest weight for a man my height is about 80 pounds less than I weigh right now. I'd have to lose a limb, but if that's what it takes, I'm willing to give it a shot. I'd rather my wife be married to an amputee than become a widow before age 40. I'm trying really, really hard. It shouldn't be this difficult, though. I even like eating healthy foods. I was able to remain a fairly strict vegetarian for years. I just want my wife to have a healthy husband. I want my kids to have a healthy father. I would at least like to outlive my cat.

This endeavor is, at its base, vanity incarnate. I want to be attractive. I want to be healthy. I want women to find me desirable, even though I'm not available. I want to be a good looking, if venerable, corpse. I want to look better in five years than I do now. I want the second number on my gravestone to be as high as possible. I want to have to buy smaller clothing. I never want to be as fat as I was in my (hidden from view, tucked away in a closet, face down) wedding photos. I don't want to outlive my wife, though, because while I worry for her, I am ultimately selfish. I'm doing this for me. So that I can look in the mirror and at least see an attractive, if not particularly well-read person.

I have not even begun to discuss the health issues that their daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne, battled for that entire year.

I should know by now that I don't read for a reason.