Reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

Please be aware that the following excerpt references cancer cells and mortality. It also reveals a scientific plot point in the book.

“Scientists knew from studying HeLa that cancer cells could divide indefinitely, and they’d speculated for years about whether cancer was caused by an error in the mechanism that made cells die when they reached their Hayflick [splitting and reproducing] Limit. They also knew that there was a string of DNA at the end of each chromosome called a telomere, which shortened a tiny bit each time a cell divided, like time ticking off a clock. As normal cells go through life, their telomeres shorten with each division until they’re almost gone. They then stop dividing and begin to die. This process correlates with the age of a person: the older we are, the shorter our telomeres, and the fewer times our cells have left to divide before they die.

By the early nineties, a scientist at Yale had used HeLa to discover that human cancer cells contain an enzyme called telomerase that rebuilds telomeres. The presence of telomerase meant cells could keep regenerating their telomeres indefinitely. This explained the mechanics of HeLa’s immortality: telomerase constantly rewound the ticking clock at the end of Henrietta’s chromosomes so they never grew old and never died. It was this immortality, and the strength with which Henrietta’s cells grew, that made it possible for HeLa to take over so many other cultures–they simply outlived and outgrew any other cells they encountered.” –pp 217

This was a great book about persistence, trust, the ethics of human subject research, whistle-blowing, international medical collaboration, relationships, love, loss, the vulnerable position of black women and of children, racism, the relationships of institutions-individuals-communities, economic development, personal and intellectual property rights, and so much more.

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Reading “Every Day Is For The Thief” by Teju Cole

“One goes to the market to participate in the world.” — pp 57

“Well this is wonderful, I think. Life hangs out here. The pungent details are all around me. It is a paradise for the lover of gossip. Just one week later, I see another fight, at the very same bend in the road. All the touts in the vicinity join in this one. It is pandemonium, but a completely normal kind, and it fizzles out after about ten minutes. End of brawl. Everyone goes back to his normal business. It is an appalling way to conduct a society, yes, but I suddenly feel a vague pity for all those writers who have to play their trade from sleepy American suburbs, writing divorce scenes symbolized by the very slow washing of dishes.” — pp 66

Reading “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison

I am trying to read more books! Here are some quotes from my first read in January. This was an extremely sad book to read, and I’d highly recommend it. The quotes I chose are poignant, but no short passages will reflect the depth or breadth of the novel.

“If happiness is anticipation with certainty, we were happy.” pg 16

“There in the dark [of the movie theater] she succumbed to hear earlier dreams. Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another–physical beauty.  Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion. In equating physical beauty with virtue, she stripped her mind, bound it, and collected self-contempt by the heap. She forgot lust and simple caring for. She regarded love as possessive mating, and romance as the goal of the spirit. It would be for her a well-spring from which she would draw the most destructive emotions, deceiving the lover and seeking to imprison the beloved, curtailing freedom in every way.” pg 122

“When Sammy and Pecola were still young, Pauline had to go back to work. She was older now, with no time for dreams and movies. It was time to pull all of the pieces together, make coherence where before there had been none. The children gave her this need; she herself was no longer a child. So she became, and her process of becoming was like most of ours: she developed a hatred for things that mystified or obstructed her; acquired virtues that were easy to maintain; assigned herself a role in the scheme of things; and harked back to simpler times for gratification.” pg 124

“We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Ever her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.” pg 205

Reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Just finished this apocalyptic book, set in the mid-to-late 2020s, in which the American president wants to “Make America Great Again.” It was written in 1993.

The diverse main cast of characters includes a dozen men, women, and children of color. Many books that I read as a child had me creating mental images of white characters. When Parable introduces two white women, they are described as ‘medium size white women with brown hair.’ Hah! A far cry from the ‘flowing [very specific shade, length, and texture of hair],’ beauty-as-virtue descriptions utilized for white literary heroines. I devoured YA fantasy, and the women were frequently headstrong and clever. Doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lack of diversity and that my mental image was never challenged. I digress.

Parable of the Sower deals in the mysticism of religion in a way that felt practical, but also one that made me mentally push back on Earthseed, the main character’s religion. It made me echo the question that the book asks throughout, about our communities and our country: “What keeps change from trending corrupt?” Considering my copy of the book was published with discussion questions, I think Butler wants us to talk about it.

Parable deals in problems which have historically plagued the country, and that have perhaps never fully disappeared and could return: workforce privatization as monopoly resulting from destabilization, de-facto debtors slavery, water shortages, widespread gun violence and drug abuse, states’ rights overpowering national unity, lack of birth control, lack of education, the precarious future of the space travel program, the way infrastructure shapes communities or doesn’t, and perhaps most interesting to me, homesteading as subsistence survivalism, instead of a bountiful, community-based, anti-capitalist exercise of choice. If any of this piques your interest, I’d recommend that you read the book.

Here are some parts I marked as I read. Slight spoilers, but not much more than above.

All successful life is
Adaptable,
Opportunistic,
Tenacious,
Interconnected, and
Fecund.
Understand this.
Use it.
Shape God.
–pp 124-125, Earthseed poem

The Self must create
Its own reasons for being.
To shape God,
Shape Self.
–pp 259, Earthseed poem

“He nodded. “All right. But tell me, what do people have to do to be good members of an Earthseed Community?”
A nice, door-opening question. “The essentials,” I answered, “are to learn to shape God with forethought, care, and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves; and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny.”
“And why should people bother about the Destiny, farfetched as it is? What’s in it for them?”
“A unifying, purposeful life here on Earth, and the hope of heaven for themselves and their children. A real heaven, not mythology or philosophy. A heaven that will be theirs to shape.”
“Or a hell,” he said. His mouth twitched. “Human beings are good at creating hells for themselves even out of richness.” He thought for a moment. “It sounds too simple, you know.”
–pp 261-262

Your teachers
Are all around you.
All that you perceive,
All that you experience,
All that is given to you
or taken from you,
All that you love or hate,
need or fear
Will teach you — 
If you will learn.
God is your first
and your last teacher.
God is your harshest teacher:
subtle,
demanding.
Learn or die.
–pp 279, Earthseed poem

“We all had to buy a few things, but Emery squandered too much money on pears and walnuts for everyone. She delighted in passing these around, in being able to give us something for a change. She’s all right. We’ll have to teach her about shopping and the value of money, but she’s worth something. Emery is. And she’s decided she’s one of us.”
–pp 313

Create no images of God.
Accept the images
that God has provided.
They are everwhere, 
in everything.
God is Change–
Seed to tree,
tree to forest; 
Rain to river, 
river to sea; 
Grubs to bees,
bees to swarm.
From one, many;
from many, one;
Forever uniting, growing, dissolving–
forever Changing.
The universe
is God’s self-portrait.
–pp 315, Earthseed poem

Reading ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ by Rebecca Solnit, Part 2

Mental illness and violence in America:
“Mental illness is, however, more often a matter of degree, not kind, and a great many people who suffer it are gentle and compassionate. And by many measures, including injustice, insatiable greed, and ecological destruction, madness, like meanness, is central to our society, not simply at its edges.

In a fascinating op-ed piece last year, T.M. Luhrmann noted that when schizophrenics hear voices in India, they’re more likely to be told to clean the house, while Americans are more likely to be told to become violent. Culture matters. Or as my friend, the criminal defense investigator who knows insanity and violence intimately put it, ‘When one begins to lose touch with reality, the ill brain latches obsessively and delusionally onto whatever its immersed in — the surrounding culture’s illness.’ ” –pp122

Language opening a landscape for change:
“Language is power. When you turn ‘torture’ into ‘enhanced interrogation,’ or murdered children into ‘collateral damage,’ you break the power of language to convey meaning, to make us see, feel, and care. But it works both ways. You can use the power of words to bury meaning or to excavate it. If you lack words for a phenomenon, an emotion, a situation, you can’t talk about it, which means that you can’t come together to address it, let along change it. Vernacular phrases — ‘Catch 22,’ ‘monkeywrenching,’ ‘cyberbullying,’ ‘the 99 percent and the 1 percent’ — have helped up to describe but also to reshape our world. This may be particularly true of feminism, a movement focused on giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.” –pp129

No violence can be isolated, it also operates in a culture and of degrees:
“Six years ago, when I sat down and wrote the essay ‘Men Explain Things to Me,’ here’s what surprised me: though I began with a ridiculous example  of being patronized by a man, I ended with rapes and murders. We tend to treat violence and the abuse of power as though they fit into airtight categories: harassment, intimidation, threat, battery, rape, murder. But I realize now that what I’m saying is: it’s a slipper slope. That’s why we need to address that slope, rather than compartmentalizing the varieties of misogyny and dealing with each separately. Doing so has meant fragmenting the picture, seeing the parts, not the whole.” –pp134

The long journey of progress:
“Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth — and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has nine hundred ninety-nine miles to go and will never get anywhere.” — pp140

Progressive ideas and setbacks:
“What doesn’t go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind. Sometimes legal, political, economic, environmental changes follow upon those changes, though not always, for where power rests matters.” –pp142

When language limits women:
“And the casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too: a Wall Street Journal editorial blaming fatherless children on mothers throws out the term ‘female careerism.’ Salon writer Amanda Marcotte notes, ‘Incidentally, if you Google ‘female careerism,’ you get a bunch of links, but if you Google ‘male careerism,’ Google asks if you really  meant ‘male careers’ or even ‘mahle careers.’ ‘Careerism’ — the pathological need to have paid employment — is an affliction that only affects women, apparently.” — pp148

Reading ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ by Rebecca Solnit, Part 1

On who exactly is so dangerous:
“Someone wrote a piece about how white men seem to be the ones who commit mass murders in the United States and the (mostly hostile) commenters only seemed to notice the white part. It’s rare that anyone says that this medical study does, even if in the driest way possible: “Being male has been identified as a risk factor for violent criminal behavior in several studies, as have exposure to tobacco smoke before birth, having antisocial parents, and belonging to a poor family.

It’s not that I want to pick on men. I just think that if we noticed that women are, on the whole, radically less violent, we might be able to theorize where violence comes from and what we can do about it a lot more productively. Clearly the ready availability of guns is a huge problem for the United States, but despite this availability to everyone, murder is still a crime committed by men 90 percent of the time.” –pp24

On the freedom of women as liberation for all:
“Women’s liberation has often been portrayed as a movement intent on encroaching upon or taking power and privilege away from men, as though in some dismal zero-sum game, only one gender at a time could be free and powerful. But we are free together of slaves together. Surely the mindset of those who think they need to win, to dominate, to punish, to reign supreme must be terrible and far from free, and giving up this unachievable pursuit would be liberatory.” –pp35

On women historically losing personhood during marriage:
“The British judge William Blackstone wrote in 1765, in his influential commentary on English common law and, later, American law, “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband.” Under such rules, a woman’s life was dependent on the disposition of her husband, and though there were kind as well as unkind husbands then, rights are more reliable than the kindness of someone who holds absolute power over you.” –pp56

on same-sex marriage equality rocking the gender-unequal foundations of heterosexual marriage:
“…even people who weren’t particularly nasty were deeply unequal in the past. I also know a decent man who just passed away, age ninety-one: in his prime he took a job on the other side of the country without informing his wife that she was moving or inviting her to participate in the decision. Her life was not hers to determine. It was his.” –pp59-60

reflection on erasure/assertion of female presence, viewing Ana Teresa Fernandez’s Telaraña:
“To spin the web and not be caught in it, to create the world, to create your own life, to rule your fate, to name the grandmothers as well as the fathers, to draw nets and not just straight lines, to be a maker as well as a cleaner, to be able to sign and not be silenced, to take down the veil and appear: all these are the banners on the laundry line I hang out.” –pp75

Reading: The Defining Decade by Meg Jay

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” –Leonard Bernstein, composer, as quoted on pp 188 of The Defining Decade, why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them now by Meg Jay, PhD

Intent on healthfully jump starting her readers, Dr. Meg Jay explores which choices, made in your 20s, engender future greatness and satisfaction. Lingering past 25 in the service industry or retail often doesn’t. I cringe a little; this isn’t a universal truth. But for Jay’s therapy patients, who are used as case studies in the book and who struggle with work and love, underemployment surfaces repeatedly. A poor attitude, failing to make choices, and not taking chances are other examples that fall short.

Jay advocates for a determined, future-oriented mindset, based on a sense of self. Though it seems counter-intuitive, this isn’t so at odds with “living in the present,” an idea enjoying its moment of grace in our public consciousness. In fact, a lot of Jay’s book seems aimed at destroying the idea that fulfillment comes from the black and white separation of your 20s (present) and 30s (future): That you should travel and party in the 20s to find your True Self, root and focus in the 30s; Focus exclusively on friends in the 20s to avoid marrying too early, find committed romance in the 30s; Explore identity through odd jobs in the 20s, so as to not get stuck in a consuming office job, start a career in the 30s.

But, Jay says, the 20s are a time for rapid brain development. Considering the 20s a decade detached from your larger life path, and opting out of long term commitments and challenges, could be a huge missed opportunity during this period of growth. Jay argues that while some exploration is good, investments will be bountifully returned and you cheat yourself out of your own time by not employing focus and goal setting. Jay advocates for making bounded choices that further personal development, so that limitless possibilities don’t become flat dead ends. That your 20s to 30s are a continuum makes sense. Committing to and taking yourself seriously, personally or professionally, doesn’t turn you humorless.

Until American work culture includes the month-long summer holidays of the French, it will seem hard to advocate jumping in as though work is a silver bullet to the challenges of personal development in your 20s. But Jay still says to go for it. I don’t think she’s saying ‘do what you love,’ but to challenge yourself to engage long term in places you can grow. Jay argues for creating “identity capital:” investments in ourselves and our knowledge base through which we gain a pathway to connect.

To clarify the focus of the book, I don’t think Jay is trying to blame people who stall because they have a hard time gaining work, being fairly compensated, finding time for themselves, or meeting people because of the economy or other circumstance. It seems more about the ways people do and do not self-support when possible. Overall, I found it to be a thoughtful read, from someone who wants people to succeed, that made me want to reflect.