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.

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.


The litmus test of parenting

     The high point of parenthood is hard to select.  Is it childbirth? Baptism? Graduation?  The riveting portrayal of a cow in the church Nativity play? 

    There is no such indecision about the low point. It always concerns vomit.

     Sorry to be indelicate, but there’s no way to sugarcoat the topic.  What comes out the bottom of a child is nothing compared to the horrors that can spew forth from a vomiting mouth.  In my 18 years as a mother, I have come to believe that there is, in fact, a divine litmus test for parenting.

      It is called the stomach flu.

    We had it here over the weekend.  A decomposing  pizza (how come no one ever gets the stomach flu when they’ve just eaten soup?) came up all over the bathroom floor, on the side of the tub, along the baseboard, on the scale, inside the unsuspecting radiant heater, and  in the child’s — and in my own — hair.   As I am comforting her, and mourning the floor, I think, there is nothing in any parenting book that prepares you for this.  There is no “What to Expect When Your Child Slips in Her Own Vomit.”    There can’t be, or no one would ever have kids.  But it’s just as much a part of parenthood as bedtime stories, and our response to it, equally important.

     This is why I came down so hard on Caitlin Flanagan a few years ago when I reviewed her book for The Wall Street Journal .  (

    I couldn’t wrap my mind around calling for the nanny, and then standing in the doorway, watching, while your child throws up. Mrs. Flanagan is a fine writer, and no doubt a wonderful human being, but I can’t get past that image.  I may, at times, have to temporarily outsource my mothering, but it’s never going to be while I’m in the room.

     Not that I don’t understand her revulsion.

    I’ve long believed that a woman’s nose is genetically engineered to forgive any horrific odor that emanates from her own brood.  It’s why we can smile and coo while changing our own baby, while the full diaper of a stranger’s child makes us gag.   Why I can shovel donkey manure for an hour with nary a grimace, but when I kept someone else’s horse for a few months, I hated cleaning his stall.

     But regurgitated food is a whole other level of olfactory assault: repulsive, no matter the source.  It is, I think, why women were so sympathetic to the character of Vivi Abbott Walker in “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood,” when Vivi walked out on her family the morning after her children woke her in the night, three of the four of them vomiting.  Who doesn’t think about a few days alone in Mexico after a night like that?

    But most mothers (and yeah, sorry, guys, but it’s usually the mothers who are smoothing sticky heads and crouching by the toilet with a vomiting child) ride through it, control their revulsion, and the next day, cheerfully boil water and apply bleach.   

       I have a friend who, when asked for a favor, always replies, “It’s a joy and a privilege.”  I’m trying to think of the stomach flu that way.   Got the “privilege” part down;  it’s easy to be grateful for one’s normally healthy kids.

      Still working on the “joy.”  Wondering if the dish detergent counts.