Sure There Are Others, But These Are Our Favorites
The shopping is done (hopefully), the gifts are wrapped (sort of), the tree is trimmed (nearly), a drink is poured (hot cider, maybe), and the weary are ready to kickback with a movie. Here are five that will not disappoint, Christmas gifts all.
- A Christmas Carol (1951) There is no better adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic, and no better Scrooge than Alastair Sim.
- White Christmas (1954) What can we say except pure joy. Those colors, those dance numbers, those idealized 50s moments; it’s a treat for the season.
- It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) The message here is true and so beautifully expressed: that our lives, that everyone’s life touches others in ways we will never realize … unless our Guardian Angel intervenes.
- A Christmas Story (1983) Warm, nostalgic, and humorous, a tale from the life of one of America’s great raconteurs, Jean Shepherd, who narrates.
- National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989) If laughing’s what you need on Christmas Eve, this one will have you rolling on the floor. There’s nothing like watching Cousin Eddie cleaning out the trailer’s septic tank and hoisting a beer to make Christmas complete.
Merry Christmas to one and all. w/s
Finding Comfort in the Mundane
In a world fraught with big problems, most of which we have little influence, not to mention control, a person might find a bit of peace and self-affirmation in the small stuff of daily life.
And, really, aren’t the little things in life what have the potential to really amaze you? We mean, who would ever find joy in and rhapsodize about something as prosaic as dry cleaning? Well … er … we guess we would.
Shortly after moving to our new place, we did what everybody does; we searched for services. You know, the typical things: doctors, dentists, and the like. And a dry cleaners, of course, for who can live without a good dry cleaner?
One day in the gym, because where else is the best place to learn about your locale than the gym, we found Mike, the dry cleaner vice president, which was after we had commented on Mike the pharmacist’s starched shirt, stiff like in the “old day” when your mother would haul in the wash from hanging outside on a January day. A Cleaner World, informed Pharma Mike. And wouldn’t you know it, dry cleaner Mike was VP of A Cleaner World. So, off I went to A Cleaner World with a pile of clothing.
Why even mention your dry cleaner? Let’s see. You bring your stuff in in the morning—even late morning that’s a whisper away from noo—and they e-mail you at four that your order is ready for pick up. If you happen to be a very busy person, you can simply fill your blue laundry bag and drop it in the slot on your way to work. Their standard is same-day service everyday. They accomplish this little feat by performing all services on premise, as opposed to shipping your stuff off to a central cleaning plant or contracted cleaner. Your stuff comes back in any form you want it, folded and boxed or on hangers. Instead of the typical plastic covering, which they do use, many items, as a matter of course, come back to you in smart plastic bags with snap closures, sweaters especially, with vents to allow the dry cleaning chemicals to dissipate. Sport coats and suits, these come back with forms on the hangers to help jackets keep their shape. In short, they surprise and delight you with the unexpected. Nice.
Dry cleaning is a commodity service, with one provider like the next provider. Proximity usually determines who you use. But in a mobile society, read autos, it’s easy to go an extra mile for a service, if that service is superior. And that’s A Cleaner World’s niche.
Now, this isn’t a plug for them, unless you live in North Carolina or southern Virginia. But they do illustrate the old adage that if you build a better mousetrap, etc. (Incidentally, if you are interested in improving your own washing skills, check out the helpful hints section on their website. Small stuff, sure, but don’t you hate a wrinkled collar fresh from the wash? No, you don’t? And you call yourself an American, wow.) w/c
Chapter 4: NEW YORK, NEW YORK (Part 7 and 8)
The address was on a Post-it, scratched hurriedly, almost indecipherable. It was an address without a name, just 96th Street, NYC. I had slipped it into my purse.
It was a Saturday when I arranged with Carol a twenty-four hour play date for Emily and one for Samantha with another neighbor. Richard, as usual, was working and left the house before eight. I was on the Turnpike by ten, through the tunnel by eleven-thirty, and parked in the Port Authority by noon. Forty-first Street was deserted and I easily caught a cab. I asked the driver to drop me a block east of where Angie and Bobby lived. I didn’t want to chance running into them, for I didn’t really know my purpose. Perhaps I did want to confront Angie, reveal my knowledge of her marriage to a man I loathed, and my discovery of it in spite of her determined deception. Then again, maybe I was there simply because I could not trust Richard; that I suspected him of manufacturing the tale for no other reason than to torment me.
I walked around the block. It was a pleasant neighborhood, neat, expensive, gentrified into contrived quaintness. Angie and Bobby’s address was a six-story gray stone that looked as if it dated back to the Twenties. A small garden separated it from the street and a wrought iron fence formalized the boundary between private and public property. A Starbucks was on the corner and it afforded a direct view of their entrance.
I ordered a plain black coffee and sat at the counter that ran along the window. Over the next hour I observed three couples exit. Seeing them released a tension mounting in me. It seemed unlike me and I realized some of Richard’s competitiveness had rubbed off on me. I fretted that Angie and Bobby owned or rented the penthouse. Perhaps it was a bit more than misplaced competitiveness, and maybe it had nothing to do with keeping a step ahead. Maybe, instead, it had everything to do with my fear that Angie and Bobby were a perfect match; in Bobby McFarlane Angie had found the successful and possibly devoted man she’d dreamed of back in Creek Falls. On the stool in Starbucks allowing my overpriced black coffee to grow cold, I suffered pangs of jealousy, and then self-recrimination for begrudging Angie happiness, and then a reluctant appreciation of why she asked Richard not to reveal her marriage to me.
It was around two when I saw them come out. I would have overlooked them, not recognized Bobby, if it hadn’t been for Angie, who, in spite of for her pregnancy, appeared very much as she had in high school. But Bobby, he wasn’t himself. It was like a “Twilight Zone” episode, the one where the old couple try to trade their worn bodies for new models, though in the case of Bobby the exchange is from a grimy runt to an elongated, polished clean, and well dressed—expensively in a sky-blue shirt and black slacks, and gleaming black shoes, shining so brightly in the sunshine I saw them glint from half a block away—image of success. I remember my disbelief; that I must have been in a nightmare.
I sat frozen, my coffee forgotten, the only thing filling my mind and my vision, the improbable couple. Angie walked on Bobby’s right, close to him, gripping his arm with both her hands. He bent into her several times as they ambled toward Starbucks and me. He kissed her, and how repellant the act seemed to me. She spoke to him, smiled, and he kissed her again; and she laughed in response, threw her head back, and laughed as if he actually pleased her. They were yards distant, and a window was between us, too, yet I believed I could hear her from where I sat, as if she had fired her roaring laugh directly at me, and it plunged into me, a flaming arrow of searing sadness.
I slid off the stool to ensure they did not see me and stood to the inside of the front door until they passed. I waited a moment, not much more, until they turned the corner, when I left Starbucks and fell in behind them. They zigzagged over to 5th Avenue, where they hailed a cab. I dashed to the curb and flagged my own cab. I was breathless and a good-humored fare, explaining to the cabby this was something like the movies; I wanted him to follow that cab a few cars ahead of us.
We traveled down 5th for several minutes. They stopped on the park side, across from the Guggenheim, and I asked my driver to pull over at 89th Street. I slowly walked toward where their cab had deposited them. They had the light and crossed to the museum and entered it. There was a bench on my side of the street and I sat down. I admit the sight of Angie and Bobby entering the Guggenheim surprised me. I didn’t know Angie was fond of art, but I credited her with the intelligence to have developed an appreciation. But Bobby, his transformation from a grease-smeared bum, startled me. He had gone from fixing cars to repairing people, and now this. I began to doubt myself, to wonder if I had terribly misjudged him. Perhaps Richard had been right about Bobby when he claimed he was smarter than I imagined, and possessed more ambition, far beyond cars and a predictable existence in Creek Falls. What had I accomplished compared to Bobby? I’d married Richard. My ambition had been to marry Richard and have a family, and, maybe, if I could manage it and Richard would agree, to teach when the girls where in school full-time. And here was the boy I’d detested, who I had banned from my wedding, from whom I had attempted to separate Richard; here he was successful, apparently cultured, married to my best high school friend, who herself was accomplished. How could I have been so wrong? Maybe Angie and Bobby were right inviting only Richard to their place, keeping their marriage and where they lived from me.
It seemed they were in and out of the Guggenheim in minutes, but my watch indicated that two hours had passed. I was startled and a little worried my own mystification and, maybe too, envy so engrossed me I’d lost track of time and location.
We taxied again. We weaved down and across town to Seaport Village. It was a beautiful day, sunny and pleasantly warm. They strolled arm in arm, with me close behind. They circulated through the shops and accumulated bags that Bobby carried. Frequently, he leaned into Angie and whispered to her. She laughed. I knew she laughed because I saw her shoulders shake. Sometimes he kissed her, usually on the cheek, but once he stopped her right in the middle of a gaggle of sightseers and kissed her on the mouth. It wasn’t a peck; he wrapped her in his bag-festooned arms and kissed her with a passion that embarrassed me, and aroused my jealously. How long had it been since Richard kissed me like Bobby kissed Angie? I couldn’t recall. Maybe not since Samantha was born. Maybe not since his work, his drive to achieve, replaced me as the passion of his life.
It seemed too much to me, their attraction to each other. Was it possible two people whom I was certain disliked each other, that a woman I believed I knew, that a man I detested, that these two could meld into the embodiment of the hallowed couple?
My afternoon of surveillance persuaded me it was. Stupid twists of trite sayings whizzed around in my mind: A tiger could change his stripes. Birds of totally different plumage do flock together. Instead of warmth and happiness at the sight, the encouraging good cheer that if this then what more: the end of religious war, or racial hatred, for what wasn’t possible? Instead, I was exhausted, aching, ready to return home, unhappy with my lot, and pining over my predicament.
And then it happened, what I suspected, and, truthfully, what I had hungered for, my subliminal motive for shadowing the two up and down Manhattan—Bobby affirmed the immutability of his character; that his stripes were still black and repugnant, the color and sentiment of his heart. We were in the financial district at the site occupied by the new World Trade Center. There we stood, though not together, but close enough for me to see tears glistening on Angie’s cheek. Bobby did the expected. He enfolded her, gazing on the enshrined site and comforted her, until he looked away, and his eyes latched onto a woman passing behind them. She was tall, lithesome, and beautiful by any measure. She was with a man. He wasn’t nearly as young or attractive as she. She was on his arm, but I could see she was detached, in a world to which she had closed the portal, at least to her companion. Bobby, still clutching Angie, swiveled his head and revealed to me, to anybody who was paying attention, an unmistakable expression of boredom. It could have been the time of day, the endless sightseeing, the hard labor of it all, and the exhaustion it engendered. But he wasn’t tired, simply bored with Angie, for in the second it took the woman to pass, Bobby’s face flashed pleasure, excitement, and desire, and he seemed to pull away from Angie, as if the passing body possessed an irresistible attracting force, a seductive gravity.
The expression struck me, disturbed me, and dissuaded me instantly from reversing my opinion of Bobby McFarlane. It highlighted more, too. It announced Bobby did not love Angie. Why he was with her, what his purpose was, I didn’t know. Love, however, was not it. For, I understood marriage without love, marriage with a man who regarded everything and everybody as better than his wife and home. And in that instant, I was afraid for Angie . . . and for myself.
The crash startles me. It’s loud and reverberates off the hard walls and surfaces of the kitchen. For a frightening second, I can’t place where I am or what is happening, until my foot strikes something. I step back and the something crunches under my foot. I look down and see my largest serving platter, a white, oval stoneware server decorated around the edge with grapes in relief, broken at my feet.”Shit,” I hear myself exclaim. The platter was a bit of the Richard booty I liked. I used it only once, as Richard wasn’t much for having people over; he preferred entertaining in restaurants. It’s better, he said. It saves you work. I’m only thinking of you. I didn’t believe him. I’ve always been a nervous party planner, always worrying whether a dish would turn out, concerned that the house was neat and clean enough, that sort of thing. Richard said your trepidation is aggravating; I am aggravating. Restaurants aren’t aggravating.
I pick up three large pieces and dozens of shards. I consider repairing it, but finally concede it is unsalvageable. I sweep up the smaller shards and toss the shattered platter in the garbage. I check the clock. Plenty of time before Samantha comes home. I resume packing and admonish myself to pay closer attention to what I am doing.
All Grown Up
By Jami Attenberg
If you are an artist, but you can’t create art. If you have sex but can’t get into love and commitment. If you have a family but you can’t acknowledge you love them and wish to be part of their lives. If you know from experience and from your childhood that alcohol and drugs will hurt you but you use them anyway. If you get a good paying job as a designer in advertising and you hate but keep it just because it pays. If you do all these things (and, really, who doesn’t do a few of them?), aren’t you just passing through life? And, if you are anything like Andrea Bern, Jami Attenberg’s sharp witted protagonist, you obsess on these things, on your meandering and stumbling journey to age forty.
It will probably come as no surprise to anybody that the vast majority of reviewers, professional and avid reader types, are women. But this doesn’t mean that All Grown Up is what the trade calls Chic Lit. Readers will not find the typical wacky, iconoclastic woman here (though Andrea certainly seems that way, at first), but rather, someone trying to sort out her life, without much success. She claims to know what’s wrong, but does she? If she does, why doesn’t she fix the wrongs? There is no neat, tied-with-a-bow ending here.
Nor does it mean that it’s a novel men won’t enjoy and maybe learn from. Men, generally, even male novelists, don’t do a lot of baring of the soul of the type you’ll find in this novel (though sometimes they do, as in Chris Bachelder’s very good The Throwback Special), and usually aren’t comfortable with the level of introspection and self-knowledge on exhibition in Andrea. You know, maybe they should be. Maybe reading Attenberg’s novel would be a good experience a type of emotional liberation. And it helps that Attenberg is a terrific writer, terrific with The Middlesteins, and as terrific here with a novel about a woman who knows and doesn’t know herself. wp
Chapter 3: LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA (Part 1)
The sun here rises bright yellow over the mountains and sets as a fireball into the Pacific. It should be the opposite and after more than a year I still find myself adjusting to the cycle with difficulty. I am an Eastern woman. Though I never lived near the ocean—Creek Falls, New York, and Cranbury, New Jersey, are miles from the Atlantic—I imagined the sun rising over the ocean when I lived in the East.
I’m sitting on a concrete bench, swinging my legs, breathing deeply of the Pacific, its briny fragrance rolling up the palisade, mingling with the icicle flowers blooming on the slope at my feet. I’m smiling. I am content. Freedom contents me. Richard is at work. Samantha and Emily are in school. And I have stolen away for a solitary hour to lounge among the sightseers at Point Loma in the shadow of Juan Cabrillo.
The Pacific breeze is cool, almost chilly. I am wearing a jacket. I pull it tight and shiver just a bit. Sightseers strolling around in short-sleeve shirts and shorts and sandals gawk at me. They’re thinking what I did when Richard first brought me and the girls here: She should live in New Jersey, in New York, then she’d know what cold is; wearing a jacket in this beautiful weather, the most perfect in the entire country, how the blood thins in these warm climates, how indolence alters you.
I snicker recalling the parking lot at the Safeway, pushing my cart across the blackest, cleanest unblemished pavement I’d ever seen, wearing a summer dress in April and feeling pleasant, comfortable, on vacation, adoring the sensation; and surrounded by women covered head to toe, many in jackets, a couple in parkas, parkas with hoods pulled up and over their heads! What odd people, I thought; it was like early June, warmth mixed with hints of coolness that refreshed, not winter cold that tortured you endlessly. If only they lived in New Jersey or New York.
Observing the tourists marvel at my attire is part of the enjoyment of Point Loma, and I snicker again, for at least in the respect of cold and hot I have transformed into a native.
After a while, I rise and walk down the hill along the path into the lot and to my car. I promise myself to treat us—I mean Samantha and Emily—to the Point more often, especially on those days when it is unbearably hot in Rancho Bernardo. On those murderous days I can drive to the Point, from bright, merciless sun and heat into wet fog and coolness, travel back from blazing summer to spring in a matter of miles and minutes.
I drive slowly down Memorial Drive, passing through Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, gazing over the white crosses, thousands of white crosses on both sides of me, white crosses set in lush green grounds that drift to the edges of the palisades. These thousands of crosses sit atop gun emplacements leftover from World War II, and I wonder who all these people under the white crosses were, every single one dead before his or her time, sacrificed for me and Samantha and Emily, and, grudgingly, Richard. My chest feels wet and I my eyes well. Richard introduced us to the Point, to the monument, the old lighthouse, the whale watching station, to the view of the Pacific, the city and the naval base on North Island; but he never mentioned the cemetery. The first time I passed through it with him at the wheel I welled and tears leaked down my cheeks, and Samantha saw them from the back seat, and she leaned forward; she touched my arm with her warm hand, for Samantha’s hands are always warm and soothing, conduits for the comfort she contains and, like a miniature Nightingale, shares; she asked, “Why are you crying?” I answered, “For them, for their lives, for all the sad families.” “Christ,” Richard said, “that was years ago. This was supposed to be a happy day.” I reached a hand to Samantha and with it rubbed hers, and with the same hand I wiped away the tears. “Your father’s right girls,” I said, “I’m just being a sentimental dope.” I didn’t believe it; I don’t believe it; I hoped, and hope, Samantha knows.
I am in Pacific Beach before I realize it. Often I find myself miles down the road not recalling how I arrived there, checking my rearview mirror for any carnage I may have caused. I’m drifting more these days. The girls are in school. I have hours to myself and nothing to fill them with. I sit in my house pondering how to occupy myself.
My cell chirps and I let it. Challenged by lapses, I see no reason to add to my potential for disaster by juggling a phone, steering a car, and conducting a conversation.
I’m navigating Catalina, and pull over when I feel it’s safe. I check voicemail.
“Babe,” Richard says, “something’s come up and it’s vital I talk to you. Call me on my cell.”
“Sure,” I say to the phone.
I stare at the device. Engineers invented these things for the Richards of the world, VIPs who are like birds flitting here and there building little nests of business, chirping incessantly about themselves and their work, landing and strutting about, pecking at the earth in search of the next big meal.
I thumb his number and press send. He’s on instantly, as he usually is. Richard rarely misses calls. He’s the type who can manage the phone, the wheel, and the conversation at sixty miles an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic, a man truly possessing twenty-first century skills.
“Babe, why didn’t you answer the house phone? What’re you doing?”
“Cleaning the house,” I answer; otherwise, I’ll just foster his notion of me frittering away my days.
“Weren’t you doing that yesterday?”
“Big house,” I say. “Messy family. Retentive disposition.” It’s an answer in multiple-choice format; he can pick anyone he likes.
He laughs, as if I am joking, and I have to yank the phone away or risk a busted eardrum.
“Well, sit down, Babe, because I’ve got a surprise that’ll knock you down.”
Not necessary, I think. “Okay, I’m sitting.” And as I utter this truth a nearly empty San Diego transit bus rumbles by me.
“What was that?” Richard shouts.
“I didn’t hear anything,” I say. “Maybe it’s the cell. Here let me move.” I weave in my seat, which constitutes moving and keeps everything on the level.
“Oh, better. You know I’m at the medical meeting downtown and I’ve got half a dozen of my people with me. We’re got our exhibit set up and we’re working the meeting like madmen. I’m doing a tour in the booth. I’ve told you about the booth. Doctors wear plastic badges. When they want information about a product, we swipe the badge on a machine that collects the doctor’s name, address, phone number, e-mail, and specialty. Then we chat them up about our meds.”
I’m nodding vigorously as if he is in the car with me and I am urging him to get to the point. Most times he jumps directly to his meaning without consideration for the person receiving it. Other times, such as now, he meanders along, under the delusion he is building interest, peaking curiosity, intensifying the point he is trying to make, when he’s merely putting the listener into a distant reverie. For my part, I’m back on the Cabrillo bench.
“You listening?” he checks.
“Yes. You’re talking about sales leads.”
“Good. I’ve been at it since the meeting opened and I’m a little beat. So I guess I wasn’t paying the closest attention when I grab a badge and swipe it, you know, just another badge. I hand it back to the guy and start my spiel. But I stop mid sentence. I guess my mouth dropped open, too. He just grinned at me. Just grinned without a word. Can you guess who it was?”
“No,” I say. I just want to get moving. Emily’s release time is approaching and I have a long drive.
“Bobby,” he exclaims. “Bobby McFarlane. Can you believe it? Bobby at the meeting. Bobby, a doctor.”
I am paralyzed, not figuratively but literally. Bobby, a doctor, a physician, a healer, a boy—man now—who had excelled in college, advanced to medical school, withstood the rigors of internship. Bobby McFarlane, who could barely sign his name, subsisted on a diet of auto and girly magazines, was a slovenly mess every second of his miserable life; whose hands were caked with sludge and grease and permanently stained black around the knuckles, hands so disgustingly callused they rent canvas if drawn over the fabric; whose fingernails where chipped and split and caked forever with the grime of his gutter life; who could befriend nothing more than animals as mangy as himself, and Richard—this Bobby McFarlane is a doctor? I could not make my mouth work, but no matter as there was absolutely nothing I could say in the face of Richard’s revelation.
“Babe, you there?”
“Uh,” I grunt.
“Can you believe it? Old Bobby a doctor. Hey, and not just any doctor, not just any two-bit internist. Bobby’s a … hey, guess, guess what he is.”
“I can’t,” I say. Truly, truly, I cannot.
“Bobby’s a heart surgeon. A heart surgeon. And a top gun, too.”
I lean back and examine the car’s ceiling, concentrating on the material, hoping if I focus hard enough I wouldn’t picture Bobby as a surgeon. But to no avail, for there he is hulking over some poor patient, a woman, her chest cracked, cranked open wide for all the world to view the mechanicals that keep her alive. His hands are poised over the gaping red cavity in which pulsates the woman’s heart; and those hands are bare and black with grime. And the poor woman about to receive Bobby’s hands isn’t in an OR, not in a hospital; Bobby is operating on her in a garage crammed with tools, compressors, cans, reeking of oil and gasoline, and she’s splayed over the hood of his Belair.
“Are you listening to me, Babe? What are you doing?”
“I hear you,” I say. “It’s … well it’s … are you sure it’s Bobby?”
Richard roars with a robust laugh. “I know. I nearly didn’t believe it myself. Christ, Babe, he hardly even looks like old Bobby. I don’t know how to put it. Damn, but he looks expensive. That’s it. He’s got the polished face, that high sheen buffed look of success. You know the look.”
I nod, “Yes.” The look is all over San Diego, in La Jolla and up the coast in Del Mar and farther north, and in Rancho Bernardo, too.
“I asked him to join me for drinks after the conference shuts down. He said he’d like nothing more, and he wanted to know how you are, if we have kids. I said, ‘You bet. I’m an old family man.’ He winked. Old Bobby, he remembers you, he understands. Then he really surprised me, not that running into him at a medical conference and him a famous heart surgeon wasn’t enough. He’s married. Bobby’s got a wife.”
Lately, I haven’t agreed much with Richard, but I have to agree on this: I could more readily believe Bobby was a surgeon than he’d found a woman willing to marry him. I say, “It’s a shocker.”
“He said forget the drinks. Let’s get together. His wife’s with him, and wouldn’t it be fun for the wives to meet each other, and for us, me, you and him, to catch up on old times? I told him it was a great idea. Then it occurred to me. Why just drinks? Hell, why a restaurant? Let’s have Bobby and his wife over. I invited them over tonight. I figure I’d stop by the Safeway, pick up a few steaks, grill. You do some sides. I grab beer, some premium stuff. From the looks of Bobby, he’s into premium. We’ll find out what the hell happened.”
I admit I certainly would like to know how Bobby went from grease monkey to heart surgeon in the space of a few short years. I mull over the time. Samantha was turning eight. Bobby was still wallowing in the grease when Richard and I married. Oh, we had the argument of arguments about Bobby. No way would I allow him at the wedding. I won, but I know Richard was angry with me for a long time, possibly years.
“Sure,” I say, “it’ll be interesting seeing him and meeting his wife.” As a further concession to Richard, perhaps also as amends for depriving him of his friendship with the mysteriously world-renowned heart surgeon, I volunteer to pick up everything at the Safeway.
“But I’m grilling,” he says, his tone lighter than it has been in a while.
“Sure,” I agree with a lilt, as if I am happy.
I hang up, stash the phone in my bag, and pull back onto Catalina. Traffic is heavy all the way down Interstate 8 and up 15 to home, but I manage to arrive at Emily’s preschool with five minutes to spare. I pick her up at the front door. Until a week ago, I had been going into her little classroom to meet her; but for a reason she has yet to reveal, she decided she would prefer I meet her outside. I think it is emerging independence. Samantha’s separation didn’t begin until she was farther along, the second grade. Emily is a different person. Her appearance is different. She doesn’t look like me or Richard, and sometimes at night when I tuck her in—she still needs and demands tucking—I stare at her and wonder where she came from. Who is she, this different little girl? I admire her difference.
“How about an adventure?” I say, taking her hand and leading her to the car.
“How about we go to the Safeway before heading home?”
She scrunches her nose to indicate she doesn’t regard visiting the Safeway much of an adventure. Samantha would like it, but Emily prefers real adventure, a trip to the zoo or the animal park.
“Okay,” she says after a while. She’s decided she wants something. Emily is crafty; I won’t know what it is until we are trolling the aisles, and I’m feeling rushed and tired, craving an end to the shopping trip and susceptible to outlandish requests I normally reject out of hand.
She isn’t old or tall enough to ride in the front seat. To talk to her, I either look back, always dangerous, or glimpse her in the rearview mirror.
“Learn anything interesting today?”
She shakes her head and stares at the passing scenery.
I drive and try to construct new ways to ask, “What did you learn in school today?” I’ve been working on this since Samantha entered school, frustrating myself really.
The Safeway is in the heart of Rancho Bernardo, which, while part of San Diego, is a planned community onto itself. We Rbers could secede from the city and be perfectly happy and self-sufficient.
I’m not marketing for the week, so Emily and I zip through the supermarket, filling our cart with thick steaks, and burgers for the girls as they can’t abide food requiring inordinate chewing, greens for salads, a large apple pie, vanilla ice cream, and two brands of premium beer in case one isn’t sufficiently premium for Richard. Not that I can believe Bobby would care. I remember him swilling Gilt Edge from the Grand Union, and lurching around like a raging maniac after drowning himself in a six-pack.
At the checkout, Emily tosses two packs of bubble gum tape onto our pile of groceries. I reach for them, reminding her, “Chewing gum’s a no-no. It’s bad for your teeth, and you want to keep your teeth beautiful, don’t you?” We—I mean I—restrict the girls’ sweets intake. Though chewing gum is no worse than most confections, I personally abhor it. I don’t want the girls to grow into teenage gum snappers. I don’t think I could endure years of amplified mastication and popping.
Emily opens wide to display her teeth. She points into her pink maw. “They’re baby teeth. Who cares?”
She’s a smart girl. “Maybe,” I retort, “but along the way you’ll establish bad eating habits that will hurt your permanent teeth.”
She’s quiet and I think I have won, when I notice she is staring at our stuff jerking down the conveyor. They’re fastened on the pie and ice cream. She rolls her eyes for emphasis.
“Okay, but this is the last time.”
She smiles coyly. She knows the truth.
We arrive home and meet Samantha at the bus stop. Driving the half block to the house, the girls in the back nattering, I reflect that lately my life has been hectic. I don’t know why it should be for I live a well ordered life, everything in its place at home, every task accomplished much the same each days. I am not a person shackled to her routine, but I admit to deriving enormous solace from unvarying, predictable day. I believe people desire constancy in their lives, for it holds the ultimate randomness of living at bay, no matter how assiduously TV, radio, social media, and newspapers assault our protective walls of order and purpose with senseless murder, street crime, boiled over husbands and wives and lovers who insist on killing each other, and all sorts of political nonsense. I think it’s the very reason I’ve survived with Richard.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot
Sometimes a book comes along that informs you of something you had no idea existed. Such is Rebecca Skloot’s revelatory story of HeLa cells and the African-American woman from whom they were extracted, Henrietta Lacks. While HeLa surfaced a few times in the news, most notably in a 1978 Rolling Stone article by Michael Rogers, a 1985 book on HeLa cell contamination by Michael Gold (A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman’s Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal It Caused), and a 1997 BBC documentary (The Way of All Flesh, which you can view on YouTube), the existence of HeLa cells, their contribution to medical research, and their continuing extensive use in research, will come as new news, as they did to this reader, to everybody who has yet to read Skloot’s book.
What makes Skloot’s telling of Henrietta Lacks’ life story and her unique cancer cells so remarkable is that the author manages to explain complex scientific concepts in understandable terms and easily digested chunks, introduces readers to the myriad of ethical and legal issues yet to be resolved arising from Lacks’ treatment, and conveys the personal suffering caused to the Lacks family by the uninformed removal and use of the HeLa cells in research worldwide. Regarding the second point about informed consent and usage, readers will find Skloot’s Afterword a concise essay on these issues.
Briefly, researchers had tried for years to grow human cells outside the body without success. Doing so would allow them to experiment on cures and the effect of contaminants on human tissue, something that could not otherwise be done (outside of conducting unscrupulous and illegal travesties that Skloot reminds us took place within vulnerable segments of the population). Also, since cells reproduce rapidly compared to the long human life cycle, they could see and react to the results of their experiments in greatly compressed time.
Then, in the early 1950s, Henrietta Lacks presented herself at Johns Hopkins, where she received a cervical cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. She died of her cancer on October 4, 1951, at age 31. Even before her death, HeLa cells were discovered and being grown in massive quantities and the practice accelerated over time, all without her knowledge while she lived and without her family’s after her death, and not revealed to them, and then by accident, decades later. These cells proved themselves invaluable in cancer and viral research, in understanding the effects off radiation on human tissue and in the development of the Polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning, gene mapping, and more.
Intriguing enough, for certain; however interwoven in the story is a long running bane of American history: racism, and concomitant poverty. While Skloot doesn’t explore the topic in-depth, as it warrants a couple of volumes on its own, she does illustrate how it affected the Lacks family. For example, ever hear of “night doctors” or the mythology of how Johns Hopkins came to be?
All in all, a very strong and informative effort on Skloot’s part and a story once read never forgotten, in particular, the debt of gratitude we all owe to a woman who has not received nearly the recognition she deserves for her contribution to the health of humankind, involuntary though it was. Includes photos, a bibliography, and a helpful index. w/c