The girls who glow in their graves

Let’s not talk about Michael Jackson. I’m tired of Michael Jackson even though I wrote this week about the issues confronting people who love Jackson’s music but, having left Neverland, can no longer deal.

Let’s talk about “Radium Girls,” the terrific stage play by D.W. Gregory that my daughter is in this weekend in the safest city in America, not to brag about either.

The show is a powerful look at an ugly slice of history: the poisoning of young women who worked at a New Jersey factory in the 1920s. The women, many in their teens and 20s, worked for the U.S. Radium Corporation, painting fluorescent dials on watches and clocks using a substance made of radium and zinc.

Radium had been discovered about two decades earlier by Pierre and Marie Curie and was considered a miracle substance. It was a cure for both cancer and flagging energy.  People drank water laced with radium and ate radium candy. In World War I, soldiers wore watches that were illuminated with a radium-based paint. In her terrific three-part series in Wired magazine a few years ago, Deborah Blum explained how that worked:

“The paint glowed due to a rather neat little cascade of chemical interactions:  If radium salts were mixed with a zinc compound, particles emitted by the radium caused the zinc atoms to vibrate.  The vibration created a buzz of energy, visible as a faint shiver of light.”

Of course, when the soldiers came home, civilians wanted iridescent watches of their own, and U.S. Radium Corp. set out to supply them. They hired young women who each painted about 250 watch dials every day, with brushes they wet in their mouths to make a fine point.

Day after day, year after year, they swallowed the poison, and it seeped into their bones.

Some of the women died, in ghastly fashion. Their jawbones rotted; their teeth fell out. Their bones grew brittle and porous and shrank. “Radium Girls” is the story of how a few of them, even as they were dying, worked to hold the company accountable for continuing its operations, even after confronted with evidence that the radium was killing the workers. (To be clear: Not all of the workers died; one lived to age 107.)

The case, which ultimately led to greater workplace safety protections in the U.S.,  is an important part of history, yet my children learned about it, not in class, but on the stage. Something to ponder, along with why so many people I’ve asked don’t know this story. 

I didn’t either, even though I subscribe to a digital magazine called Undark, which, as it turns out, was the trade name for the radium paint.


Watching “Radium Girls,”  I wondered “Why hasn’t this been made into a movie?” and checking later, well, it has been. There was one shown at a couple of film festivals last year, but I haven’t been able to find a way to watch it. There are also a couple of books, of which this one seems the best. 

Radium, by the way, still is being used to treat cancer. But thankfully, no one’s painting it on their teeth as a fun party prank, or carrying it around in their pockets, like Marie Curie did. Scientists believe her notebooks will be radioactive for another 1,500 years. People who want to inspect them have to wear protective clothing and sign a waiver, the Christian Science Monitor reported. The bones of the radium girls are believed to glow in their graves.

In the last scene of my daughter’s show, a character struts around puffing on a cigarette — yesterday’s radium.

Makes you wonder what ours is today.

Can this poinsettia be saved?

Behold the poinsettia.

Wanted, treasured, appreciated in December, by the ides of February, it’s the equivalent of snow in March — pointless and weirdly out of place.

The problem of what to do with a poinsettia that stubbornly refuses to die even after three months of neglect has escalated in recent years, thanks to Home Depot.

A few years ago, my friend Diane informed me that on Black Friday, Home Depot offers free cookies, watery hot chocolate and 99-cent poinsettias.

 Since poinsettias cost upwards of $5 the rest of the holiday season, this seems an incredible value, and early morning shoppers at Home Depot aren’t as violent as the ones at Walmart are. So to the perennial dismay of my young daughters, Home Depot now tops the Black Friday itinerary, which I control since I’m the driver. (They get revenge by putting Forever 21 second on the list.)

There, eyes shining like the Grinch when his heart grows three sizes, I scoop up armloads of poinsettias, some for my home, others to inflict on friends. They’re 99 cents!  Whatta deal! I rush them home and arrange them just so, and they blaze merrily on the hearth, atop the piano, on window sills, throughout December.

Then comes January with a palpable regret.

I can’t stuff them in boxes like the ornaments, stockings and other holiday bric-a-brac that seems so charming in December but looks like detritus of a bad yard sale by the first day of Lent.

But being so obsessed with the preservation of life that I water blades of grass growing in a dusty stall and rescue worms on flooded sidewalks, I can’t throw them away.

This recent neuroticism arose when I read that scientists had grown a plant from a 32,000-old-seed.

Imagine that.

Or better, don’t.

Because if you think on it too long, you’ll be like me, unable to pitch scraps of tomato or cantaloupe in the trash, lest a malevolent voice in your head hiss “seed killer.”

So, the remnants of last year’s poinsettias make ugly the kitchen, their spindly stalks bereft of leaves, or equally bad, still crowded with leaves since the gaudy red goes with nothing but Christmas, and a few of the leaves have spots that seem to signal early onset fungus.

One night outside would kill them by morning, but I can no more do that than chunk a spider outside in winter.

The internet advises that poinsettias can be saved for next year, by engaging in a process that seems rather brutal. It involves depriving the plant of water and light at specific intervals, and is quite complicated, the equivalent of adding another small child to the household, which I have no desire to do. (WikiHow says to fertilize every fifth watering. The Mother Nature Network says to make sure they get 12 hours of sleep in a dark room every night. As if.)

One poinsettia endures from Christmas 2017.IMG_0064

 It was a hardy fellow, amiable enough and not too demanding. I planted it in a nice pot I picked up on the side of the road and water it when it gets dry or when I remember, which are not always the same. The plant did not turn red in 2018, which raises a question:

Do poinsettias really want to be red, or is redness something we foist on them, like foisting 99-cent poinsettias on friends?

The plant, however, might possibly want friends since I don’t have time to talk to it. Far as I know, there’s been no research on the social lives of poinsettias, as has been done on trees, which communicate with each other and entwine their roots affectionately.

So this year, I will try an experiment.  Poinsettia 1 — let’s call him Fred — can continue his uncomplicated life in my beautifully free pot.

Poinsettia 2 — let’s call him Dead — can have water and sun and Miracle-Gro and we’ll just see what happens. IMG_0069

And Poinsettia 3 — cue a deep sigh of weary resignation — will get the 12-hour nap come October, like the internet advises, although if it gets to go to bed at 5, I think I should, too. IMG_0066

I will report in November on what has happened. The hope is that this experiment will break my poinsettia habit for good.

As for what to do with Poinsettia 4, a stubborn old buzzard that threatens to bloom until Easter, suggestions are welcome. Better red than dead seems to be its motto.IMG_0065

Endomorph vs. the NIH

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from the National Institutes of Health that suggested the solution to my lifelong weight problem was math.

(We’re from the government; we’re here to help.)

In its news briefing, the nation’s premier health agency directed me to a calculator wherein I could punch in a couple of statistics, previously known only by the TSA and my mother, and learn the exact number of calories I should consume if I want to weigh a certain number by a specific date.

This interested me because:

A) I’ve been on a diet, or about to be on a diet, for approximately 35 years, give or take a decade,


B) If there is a magic number that, south of it, means weight loss, and north of it, means my jeans don’t fit, I don’t know what it is.

Yes, I know, B explains A.

Ever seduced by that old scoundrel hope, I went to the calculator and obediently typed in my age, height, weight and activity level, which, sadly, I could only say was moderate since I’m still battling plantar fasciitis.

Then, like a second-rate genie offering to grant me two wishes, the NIH asked what I wanted to weigh and when I wanted to weigh it.

I suggested 125 pounds the day after tomorrow.

The NIH, humorless bureaucrat that it is, wouldn’t play ball.

So I chose 146 pounds, on the day in November when I leave for my annual excursion to West Virginia with friends. Screen Shot 2018-06-29 at 8.09.15 AM

Game on.

The NIH said I will weigh 146 on that day if I eat 1,476 calories every day between now and then.

Now, set aside the fact that this number represents something akin to (gasp!) a diet, the sort of diet people used to go on in the 1970s before we stopped counting calories and moved to math-free method, such as eliminating carbs or sugar or white things, or eating only between 10 and 6. It’s not news that people who severely restrict their calories lose weight. More diets die from boredom than anything else.

But things got interesting when I clicked on “switch to expert mode,” and the NIH spit out a spreadsheet of what I would weigh every day between now and November if I did what the statisticians in Bethesda suggested.

There, at the bottom of the chart, past the mid-terms but before Thanksgiving, was the magical 146, beaming at me like it had just won the jackpot at bingo.

See? the NIH said smugly. It’s simple. Just do the math.

Nothing about how my metabolism is shot by decades of roller-coaster dieting; about sedentary pregnancies in which my weight topped 200; about lengthy recovery from complicated C-sections; nothing about how fat cells increasingly take over muscles as we age, even if we’re moderately or extremely active; nothing about emotional baggage that requires regular infusions of ice cream to keep the wheels moving; no mention at all about how an established endomorph like me can run a freakin’ half-marathon in the heat and still weigh a pound more the next day.

Knowing all this in my bones, I can’t see myself thin, no matter how hard I squint.

But my government wouldn’t lie to me, would it?

So I have set off on what can only be described as a grudge match against the NIH, an attempt to prove that my fat cells are tougher, more determined, more resilient than its math.  My fat cells wear leather; their numbers wear tutus.

So far, I’m winning. After two weeks, I weigh two more pounds than its cheerful spreadsheet says I should, but admittedly my accounting was a little sloppy a couple of days.

It’s not that I need to eat less, though, right? I just need to work on my math.


Lobsters and the 7 circles of crazy

The descent into madness comes quickly.

One month, you’re sitting around the breakfast table scarfing down bacon and sausage links. The next, you’re badgering the bewildered cheese guy at the deli counter about the lobsters; specifically, about how many people are buying them every day.

It has come to this, because it had to come to this.  You care for a hermit crab for a year, and eventually you start to think about lobsters.

And when I think about lobsters, this is where I inevitably wind up:

Live Lobster Tank, Seafood Section, Wegmans Grocery Store, Westwood, Massachusetts, USA. Image shot 2016. Exact date unknown.

Meaning, I’ve had it with the supermarket lobsters.

I’m sick of walking past the cloudy tanks of miserable, bound creatures, and averting my eyes, or worse, looking them in the eye.  And I resent having to do this so a handful of people who aren’t bothered by the treatment of lobsters can have an opulent meal that they want but — let’s be honest here — don’t need.

Moreover, it’s not like my comrades at the Stop & Shop are having lobster every night or even every weekend. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone picking out a lobster, and I go to the grocery store more often than most people brush their teeth.

Who are these people? Do they only come out when the moon is full? And why do their preferences matter more than mine and maybe yours?

To be fair, I’ve eaten many a lobster over the years, but it’s always been in restaurants where I never had to select the victim. If I’d had to, I would have ordered something else.

It’s one thing to eat an animal that’s already dead; quite another to point a finger and say imperiously, “You there! You shall die so I can eat!”

I’m not a vegan or an activist for any cause. I’m just an ordinary mom who feeds birds and the occasional feral cat, and enjoys straightening bent trees trapped in the snow, and kidnapped a hermit crab once by mistake. I’ve tried to be a vegetarian before, and it has always lasted about 10 days.

But I am troubled by the practice of boiling live lobsters and keeping these solitary, long-lived creatures in crowded, miserable conditions with no food, sometimes for months, as they await their fate.

To admit this publicly is to invite ridicule, to risk being thought of as a sentimental, anthropomorphizing fool or worse, one of “those people” – zealous animal-rights activists who operate on the edge of propriety. They do so because that’s the only way to get anyone to pay attention, because so many of us spend our lives in a food coma, and have neither time nor desire to think deeply about what happened in an animal’s life before it wound up on our plate. And for that, many of us “normal” people call them crazy.

Similar to Dante’s seven circles of hell, there are seven circles of crazy:

  • Runners
  • People who are still playing Pokemon Go in the middle of the night
  • Smokers
  • People who believe they have the universe all figured out
  • People who chain themselves to doomed trees
  • Peter Singer
  • People who care about what happens to lobsters and crabs

Even Singer, the controversial ethicist and the thosiest of “those people,” has written that he’s not 100 percent certain that lobsters feel pain. And I hope that C.S. Lewis and some of the imperial scientists are right, that the rudimentary structure of animals contain the letters A, P, N and I, but “since they cannot read they can never build it up into the word PAIN.”

But given that lobsters’ behavior when tossed in a pot of boiling water looks suspiciously like that of a creature in agony, and given new discoveries about animal intelligence, Singer (and many other super-smart people whose views are not as controversial) believes that human decency demands we give them the benefit of the doubt.

Sweden recently joined New Zealand in making it illegal to boil lobsters alive; chefs have to stun them first. Lobsters in Sweden headed for the dinner table must also be transported in salt water, not on ice.

It’s a start.

Fourteen years ago, the late David Foster Wallace wrote a probing essay about lobsters and pain that, astonishingly, was published in Gourmet magazine. It’s worth reading if you’ve never thought much about your long-standing habit of eating animals. As is Matthew Scully’s provocative book Dominion, which every meat-eater who professes to love animals should carefully read and consider.

Meanwhile, back to the supermarket tanks.

Can we agree that, if Stop & Shop and Publix were stringing up live lambs or chickens in their meat departments and making shoppers tell the butcher which one they wanted, most of us would soon be militant vegans, or at least buying our groceries somewhere else?

The lobsters are there because A) they’re not cute and cuddly and B) because we’ve all been told ad nauseam that they cannot feel pain, even though nobody knows that for sure, and some studies of crabs exposed to electric shocks suggest that they do.

There’s also a C):

The lobsters are there because it’s never occurred to those of us bothered by the tanks to inform the manager of our displeasure and ask the store to stop carrying live lobsters.

This is what I want.  I want to take my stack of store receipts, and the stories about Sweden and New Zealand, and tell the butcher and the store manager of my local supermarkets that I will not shop there again until they stop carrying live lobsters. It’s not like I don’t have options. There’s always Whole Foods, which stopped stocking live lobsters in 2006, and Safeway (according to PETA), in addition to superstores like Target and Walmart.

I haven’t done it yet.

But I did take the tiniest step, summoning enough nerve to ask the guy behind the deli counter where their lobsters came from and how many they sell a day. Just starting the conversation.

Uh, a dozen? he said, although it was clear he really had no idea, and he was looking at me somewhat nervously, as if I was about to smear blood on the counter and chain myself to the tank.

Just by asking a few benign questions, I’d become one of “those people.”

I’m not. Not yet.

But I am increasingly aware of the hypocrisy of loving animals and eating animals, and cognizant that those of us who love animals (just not enough to stop eating them) should be grateful for Singer and all “those people” who’ve been doing the heavy lifting on the front lines of animal welfare all these years.

I’m also aware that, if the loathsome tanks are ever to disappear, all of us “normal” people are going to have to join them.