20 books & 20 lbs (week 42): Winning and losing, continued

Just when I expected to deal with the consequences of an “eat all the things” week (or two), I end up losing weight two weeks in a row. I’m teetering on the edge…just a half-pound north of finally passing the 10lb weight loss mark. My pants have been looser, which is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice feeling plenty of wiggle room, but it’s also driving me to wear belts – which I loathe.

I also found it extremely strange that the pants I tried on at Kohls (and then bought!) ended up being wicked loose when I took them off the hanger and wore them to work. I’m starting to think that my “one size down” purchase was based on a vanity size. It seems unthinkable that I would’ve dropped a whole two sizes already.

In other words, a goal not yet met is already meeting with some measure of success in the pants/waistline area, where I’m finding the need to tighten my belt…literally!

I’ll keep at it for the remainder of the year and see what happens. Since I’ve been doing very little (or, shall we say, nothing?) lately in the way of real exercise, that’s probably the best place to start. Of course, it’s also one of the hardest, since it requires sacrificing time with the family or with my head on my pillow. Sigh. Work to do, work to do.

Book 15: “The Ginseng Hunter” by Jeff Talarigo

I can’t quite recall how I stumbled across this book. It might’ve been one of the free books left out at the end of summer camp, where boxes upon boxes of remainders and discards were tantalizingly close to the parking space, tempting me just to toss an entire box into my car’s trunk.

This book is a view into a world I can’t even imagine seeing otherwise, the simultaneously simple and complex life of a Chinese ginseng “hunter” who lives on the border between China and North Korea. The unnamed protagonist and his North Korean paramour, an escapee who’s trapped in a life of prostitution, alternate telling the stories of their existence.

His life is about the delicate responsibility of finding and harvesting the precious ginseng roots that provide him his primary source of income, while living in an uneasy alliance with the soldiers who man the border.┬áHer life is one of incredible misfortune – the intense deprivation of life in North Korea, combined with the horrific frustration at her inability to protect her young daughter from the harshness of their reality.

The two stories blend together so seamlessly that you catch your breath at times, realizing that it’s very likely that what he sees is intersecting with the story she is telling…and ultimately there’s no joy in the gray, pragmatic, exploitative world Talarigo describes. There’s clearly beauty, such as in the perfection of a ginseng root carefully extracted so as to garner maximum sale value. But the majority of Talarigo’s tale is about the sadness of the inescapability of it all. No one seems to enjoy their life, and what we might consider the simple pleasures are as exquisite as the greatest extravagance in the West.

“The Ginseng Hunter” is a beautifully drawn tale of sadness and things that never could have been, and I’m terrifically glad it was short. Like the bitterness or bite of a root, sometimes having only the briefest taste is the best possible way to enjoy it.

20 books & 20 lbs (week 40): Disappointment in the homestretch?

My weight loss has stalled out a bit, so that’s a bit annoying. I’m trying not to get too upset, but my appetite has been completely up and down lately. It also doesn’t help that some salty foods have made me feel like I’m retaining Lake Erie; sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint exactly which foods contain the salt that causes the problem…so it’s still something I’m working on.

At this point, without further extra effort, I’m on track to have met about half of my weight goal and about 80% of my reading goal. In other words, I need to step it up. BIG TIME. And I really need to stop reading books that are slogs. What on earth is wrong with me picking these chewy novels?! Then again, if all I did was pick up Dr. Seuss books, it wouldn’t be much of a challenge.

I’m still mentally motivated to continue towards my goals, but I have a general unwillingness to make radical changes to my life that would provide the drastic impacts. Part of that is my stubbornness about needing to have whatever changes I make be things that I can (and want) to continue. I just have to figure out how to get past this without feeling like changes are somehow reducing my quality of life to a point that I find disagreeable. In other words: there’s still plenty of work to do. And speaking of work…


Book 14: “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair

I’ve been meaning to read “The Jungle” for YEARS. As a Political Science student (undergrad), I’d heard of this legendary book that described horrifying working conditions at the turn of the 20th century. Sinclair was a journalist at the time, and apparently he’d done some time working undercover in the meat-packing factories of Chicago for an expose he penned for a Socialist newspaper.

The story focuses on the life and great trials of Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant to came to the USA with his intended bride and her family, in search of opportunity. What they found instead was nigh unto institutionalized slavery, where horrifying working conditions for living and working were a hamster wheel that was completely impossible to escape. Poor immigrants, especially those with limited English skills, were brought into the factories – if they were lucky – and given jobs that worked them relentlessly, from sunrise until well past sunset, with the constant threat of injury and “losing one’s place”.

Rudkus and his family crowd into a house they are barely able to afford and destined to lose, even with all members of the family above the age of infancy trying to find some way to make nickels or more – often at the mercy of the brutal and inhumane packers. Tragedy heaps upon tragedy, leading Rudkus to run away from Packingtown, but even life as a hobo gives only a brief respite. As he bounces between Chicago proper and the meat-packing district, it seems that Rudkus experiences such impossible-to-survive conditions that you want to reach back into the early 1900’s and give the man a warm coat and a hot meal.

Extremely late in his story, Sinclair finds some redemption for his Job – through the auspices of Socialism. Unfortunately, this is where the book finally and utterly falls off the rails. It took me a while to get into “The Jungle”, as it was a bit of a slog for the first 100-150 pages, trying to figure out who Rudkus was and whether I could make it through his experiences in Packingtown without throwing up. (Seriously, this book gets you to wonder if it’s worth it eating ANYTHING you didn’t grow/raise yourself – ugh.) When Rudkus discovers Socialism and finds his soul freed from the oppression heaped upon it by the exploitative capitalist system, you get the sense that life will finally turn his way. Unfortunately, this is where Sinclair decides to put in a pages-long screed against capitalism that sets up Socialism as the only form of civilized humanity.

Now, as someone who’s studied Socialism and Communism (not to mention free-market Capitalism), I’m not going to say that Socialism is a complete train wreck. It certainly has its advantages, as well as its disadvantages. What bothers me is that the book doesn’t give any satisfactory sense of how Rudkus’ story continues or concludes; once it devolves into the political tract, Rudkus becomes merely the ears through which you hear the Socialist sermon. You never know whether he finds any kind of stability in his new life, and that suggests that the entire book is nothing more than a very large wrapper for a political testimony. I found that incredibly disappointing, not just because I was rooting for Rudkus to catch a break but also because Sinclair effectively discards ALL of his characters at the very end, perhaps proving that his view of Socialism is more about the idea itself than the people who support it.

To the extent that it’s a reminder of how far we have come in terms of working conditions (for many, but clearly not all), “The Jungle” is an incredible view into a truly horrifying world. It’s even worse when you think about how the conditions Sinclair described were based on his real observations of the meat-packing plants and how people lived in Chicago at that time. It’s depressing to think that version of the United States ever existed. It also makes you curious, knowing about migrant labor and poverty (not necessarily tied to such labor) still being issues today…how do we solve these problems without coming together? Frankly, these issues are less about the political umbrellas of Socialism or Capitalism and far more about the moral inclination of human beings to treat all other people as though the right to food and shelter are rights and not privileges.

20 books & 20 lbs (week 38): standing pat

I’m starting having trouble counting weeks. I really hope my math is holding up.

At this point, I’ve managed to get through half of my weight loss goal and a little more than half of my reading goal. My weight loss stalled out a little bit, which is impressive considering that I was barely eating for the first half of last week…but, some weeks are like that, I guess. I’m not interested in losing hope, though; I’d like to see if I can rally to lose a few more pounds, even if it means that I won’t make my goal.

I suppose I could really put the pedal to the metal and find some insane way to lose weight – perhaps with one of those crazy cleanses that so many people like to use to remove ~whatever~ from their systems…but since I’m trying to make this weight loss sustainable, I’m chalking those up as just another fad and moving along. I have made it to all three of the Yoga Mondays I’ve had lined up for this session, and I’m really happy about that. It’s nice having yoga back in my life, and I just tend to do better with it when I’m in a class.

As far as books go, I happened upon a copy of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”
while I was fishing through boxes of unwanted old books at our local YMCA a few weeks back, and it’s something I’ve wanted to read for a really long time. Having studied communism quite a bit during my senior year of college (I majored in Political Science), I was curious about Sinclair’s harsh take on the brutal capitalism seen in early Industrial America. So far, I’ve found it a bit of a slog – but I’m not giving up hope. Thus far, it’s been a vivid, depressing, sepia-toned view of life below the poverty line a century ago. That’s pretty much what I expected, so the fact that it’s not exactly an easy read isn’t shocking.

I’m also less than 100 pages in, and that’s the point where a book usually fishes or cuts bait for me; by then I’m usually either warmed up to the author’s style, and can make real progress, or I’m ready to find the author’s house and throw their book right at their nose. I hope to finish this one fairly soon, since it’s NOT a long read and I’d really like to make at least ONE of my goals for the year. Just over three months left to go.

*fingers crossed*