Banned Books Week Highlight: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks



Medical advancements are often a derivative of the suffering of others. And often, society reaps the benefits without knowing the names or histories of those who made it possible for us to treat and avoid certain medical conditions. A 16-year-old Rebecca Skloot understood this when one day during a biology class when the topic of HeLa cells were being taught. In conclusion of the lesson, the name of a woman was written on the blackboard and soon erased. No other information was given, except that she was a black woman.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot was immediately intrigued and in her words, obsessed, with learning more about Henrietta. From that moment she was determined to research more about this mystery woman and subsequently ensure that she wouldn’t just remain a footnote in history. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the culmination of roughly a decade-long journey that entailed tireless work, including the delicate matter of reaching out to Henrietta’s next of kin. Skloot inevitably encountered challenges along the way, but persevered. And speaking of challenges…

This book has recently been challenged by a Tennessee mother of a 15-year-old high school sophomore who deemed the book “pornographic.” Having read the work, including the so-called offending passages, this strikes me as preposterous for a number of reasons. First, although the description is vivid in detail it is mainly informative and not at all written with the intent to arouse. Secondly, the mention of Henrietta’s husband’s infidelity and resulting venereal diseases is just that, a mention. Thirdly, this day in age the average 15-year-old picks up more offensive language and spectacle on the street or by watching the VMAs. I certainly don’t think the accounts briefly mentioned in the book is enough to justify depriving readers from learning the once buried history of one of the most important contributors to modern science.

Henrietta’s cells (HeLa cells) aided scientists in cancer and AIDS research, gene mapping, Polio vaccine development, and various other scientific endeavors. Though the medical advancements achieved with the HeLa cells are celebrated all over the world, the road to scientific victory has a checkered history peppered with injustice and immorality. Skloot highlights some of the experiments used on terminally ill patients and the details read like a horror story, mainly because in many ways it is.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks happens to be one of my most recent reads and one of the most informative books I’ve come across in years. Until recently, I hadn’t heard of Ms. Lacks or her contributions medical industry which subsequently saved countless lives. Sometimes I take for granted how crude medical treatments were over half a century ago. Add to this the factor of racial segregation and inequality and the situation becomes even more complicated.

The book repeatedly toggles between Skloot’s research and communication with Henrietta’s family; Henrietta’s upbringing, life as a young adult, illness, treatment, and subsequent death. The transitions between these sections are a little jumpy at times, but are nonetheless full of detail and provide great insight into the process of cellular biomechanics. And though the scientific details are as informative as a textbook, it is offset by the novel-like descriptions and anecdotes about Henrietta, her family and friends. The latter is done with such intimacy that I couldn’t help but empathize with Henrietta and her family as though I knew them personally.

Skloot was very thorough in her research and did an outstanding job sharing the rich history she learned about Henrietta, including her ancestry and the turbulent history regarding her descendants. I think every adult should read this book since they’ve more than likely reaped the benefits derived from Henrietta’s unwitting medical contributions.

Have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? If so, feel free to comment below with your thoughts.

This blog entry concludes my banned/challenged book highlights in honor of Banned Book Week, which continues through October 3rd. Here’s a link in case you missed my previous banned book highlight, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

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Banned Books Week Highlight: The Bluest Eye



Pecola Breedlove is a tragic character who lives a tortured life both at the hands of family as well as her peers. She covets blue eyes, fair skin and blonde hair, figuring that having such traits would make her beautiful. Pecola was, and remains, a highly relatable character thanks in large part to media perpetuation of unrealistic beauty standards.

Yet, The Bluest Eye is so much more than a story of one girl’s desire to look different. There is a devastating underlying reason that sparks such a desire, one that exposed the damage an infectious disease such as racism has on American culture, particularly black American culture. It haunts the reader’s mind long after the final passage is read.

The Bluest Eye, set in Ohio after the Great Depression, is certainly not an easy read due to the novel’s strong subject matter and graphic elements. In it, Toni Morrison unflinchingly tackles the issues of racism and the resulting poor self-esteem among black girls and the damaging repercussions it has especially when paired with the devastating occurrence of mental and sexual abuse. The story is primarily narrated by Claudia MacTeer, with whose family Pecola temporarily resides.

There is an interesting dichotomy between Pecola and Claudia from the very beginning. Claudia loathes the “beauty” Pecola covets. This stems from an unfavorable experience with a doll that Claudia grows to hate and soon she superimposes this hate on the very people the doll was modelled from, and for; White girls. This hatred is her coping mechanism for the fact that society considers features, like that which the doll was modelled after, more beautiful than that of girls like Claudia and, of course, Pecola.

The brilliant juxtaposition of each section of the story with excerpts from the children’s book Dick and Jane clashes with the harsh reality of impoverished black America. Each time the excerpt is repeated, it appears increasingly run on, without space, without order; mirroring the mounting chaos the Claudia witnesses and Pecola endures.

The recurring theme of tarnished innocence at the hands of adults who have betrayed children’s trust makes The Bluest Eye one of the most heartbreaking novels I’ve ever read. There are so many damaged girls like Pecola in reality. And like Pecola, some just don’t have the fight in them (perhaps due to being programmed to think that their appearance makes them inferior and less of a human), and so they crumble. In the end, Pecola struggles to use a juvenile perception of love to rationalize the ultimate injustice she’s suffered. I admit, that last part took a while for me to digest since it’s as disturbing as it is tragic.

I first read this novel in high school and it continues to resonate with me even now. Shamefully, so many years after The Bluest Eye was published, the ridiculous correlation between one’s appearance and degree of beauty continues to this day. For that reason, and for many others—including the disenfranchisement of certain societal groups and the subsequent fallout—this novel remains a relevant classic.

Have you read The Bluest Eye? If so, leave a comment with your thoughts. I’d love to read your opinion.

Please check back tomorrow for my next banned/challenged book selection. In case you missed my last one, click here to read my impression of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

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Banned Books Week Highlight: Nineteen Eighty-Four



Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in a province in Oceania in a time of endless war where widespread government surveillance is commonplace. Society is ruled under a political system known as Ingsoc, or English Socialism enforced by the elite Inner Party which enjoys special privileges. The laws they enforce include the prevention and discouragement of individuality and independent thought.

Part of their arsenal include the Ministry of Truth, which the main character Winston Smith works for. The Ministry of Truth is a contradiction in terms since its main purpose is to generate propaganda and constantly revise history.

Winston, whose job is to rewrite past news articles to make sure the Party never appears incompetent or incorrect in its promises or assessments. Winston, though skilled (perhaps overly so) and efficient at his job, hates the government and fantasizes about a rebellion. Yet, his fantasy clashes with his fascination to learn the truth behind all the rewritten historical articles he’s been writing. Such desires are dangerous, especially if they were to be discovered by the Thought Police, who’s been known to punish defiance with death. Nonetheless, Winston can’t resist his yearning and so begins a chilling adventure that promises romance, mystery and misery, but what truths will he uncover?

Like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four is definitely one of the books that stayed with me the most. I occasionally think about it when seeing how technology divides as well as connects. Some critics lambasted the cruel and sexual elements included in the novel and I can understand why this would have been challenged in the era in which it was written. I believe it was Orwell’s intention to disturb readers by underscoring humanity’s most primitive instincts that arise when faced with the deprivation of individual choice; instincts that spark the desire to rebel and seek out methods of self-preservation. Just as disturbing, perhaps even more so, is the government’s way of dealing with individuals whom are bold enough to act out and how easily it rationalizes its extreme measures. This becomes evident in the heartbreaking conclusion, the culmination of a series of cruel mind games.

Still, there is no denying the grander prophetic message beyond those elements; that message being how the media manipulates public opinion and creates a social dichotomy that includes friends and family. The public is brainwashed to form a greater loyalty to the powers that be than to their own loved ones. Furthermore, they are manipulated into hating a certain political party’s enemies and their affiliates, namely a man named Emmanuel Goldstein, in a ritual called the Two Minutes of Hate. During one such session, Winston finds himself unable to rationalize why he hates Goldstein, but nonetheless spews his hatred as a contagious reaction from the crowd. Furthermore, he finds another target for his hatred and imagines committing a heinous offense, but he doesn’t act on it.

Orwell brilliantly depicted the disturbing human nature of pack mentality. A recurring theme is how citizens sacrificed their own convictions, among other things, in exchange for compliance. For the most part, citizens have learned to ignore their human instincts and desires so they can continue their existence. But Winston soon realizes that merely existing isn’t enough. He takes chances for the opportunity to live. Through his defiance, he’s able to sample the sweet taste of humanity, but it comes at a price that threatens his survival and the woman he grows to care for.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe this book was written back in 1948. Many elements of the story are prevalent in our society today; the confusing spin of propaganda, extremely unruly and downright horrible children whose parents are afraid of due to government interference regarding discipline. For this reason, children are among the most allegiant to Big Brother, Oceania’s mysterious leader, since the government gives them liberty to rebel against their parents. And who could forget Big Brother’s oppressive eye; the omnipresence of cameras, watching every minute detail of the citizens’ lives. Any sign of deviation from the law could lead to the torture or death of the offending citizen. One of the most disturbing parts of Nineteen Eighty-Four is how one’s own independent intelligence could lead to their undoing. It’s one of the tactics that has led to the establishment’s success; getting people too confused and too afraid to think.

Have you read Nineteen Eighty-Four? If so, please comment below. I’d love to read your opinion.

Join me as I highlight my next banned/challenged book selection, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

Click here if you missed my last post in which I highlighted The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

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Banned Books Week Highlight: The Master and Margarita

MasterMargaritaMikhail Bulgakov was defiant to say the least. He wrote The Master and Margarita between 1928 and 1940, during the anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union. It wasn’t published until 1967, twenty-seven years after Bulgakov’s death, and was censored even then. To this day, I’m sure some may be intimidated by the novel’s dark themes and the fact that the devil, himself, is one of the main characters. Yet, there is a subtext that goes far beyond the plot’s macabre and mischievous elements. Master and Margarita is a rich tale of love, reluctant duty and subsequent guilt, a critique of social, political and literary elitism, and the mercy of amnesty.

The novel’s rich, multi-layered plot is interwoven with history, religion and politics and shifts between two settings; 1930’s Moscow and Pontius Pilate’s court in Judea.

In Moscow, a mysterious stranger named Professor Woland strolls through Patriarch’s Ponds and overhears a young poet and an editor contemplating philosophy and the existence of Jesus. He takes interest and contributes to the discussion. What he has to say has the pair questioning his sanity…then their own. It quickly becomes evident that Woland is much more than he appears, and dangerously so. It is a fact that leads to the demise of one member of the intellectual pair, but not before he speaks of Pontius Pilate and the execution of Jesus (Yeshua Ha-Notsri) as though he were there at the time. Soon, Woland’s entourage—a valet, a hitman, a witch, and a talking, vodka swigging, gun-toting black cat who walks on two legs—emerges. Madness ensues and the city is turned upside down as Woland torments the residents by using their own vices against them.

Woland’s path intersects with a tormented author known as The Master (whose novel about Pontius Pilate was harshly judged by critics even though it was rejected for publishing) and his lover, Margarita, who happens to be unhappily married. Prior to Woland’s arrival the lovers were torn apart by The Master’s depression following the attack on his work. Margarita is distraught when the Master suddenly vanishes. She accepts a dubious proposition from the mysterious stranger in hopes of learning more regarding her lover’s whereabouts. Margarita undergoes a bizarre transformation as well as a cruel test that only true love could give one the tenacity to endure.

This storyline is interwoven with what is essentially The Master’s book brought to life; the unfolding of Pontius Pilate’s trial of Yeshua. Through his interrogations, Pilate comes to realize that Yeshua is not a mere criminal.  He becomes intrigued by the prisoner who knows personal details about him. His fascination grows after Yeshua heals his severe headache and correctly assesses his emotional state. Pilate becomes conflicted when he is forced to confirm the prisoner’s death sentence. Bound by his duty, and his fear of taking Yeshua’s place should he not comply, he reluctantly follows what has been requested of him. Despite having washed his hands of the matter, he is nonetheless haunted by guilt for hundreds of years.  In the end, both storylines converge for a conclusion that is poignant and powerful.

Master and Margarita is the kind of book one could read multiple times and get something new out of it. I admire Bulgakov’s ability to satirize government policy and literary critics while prompting the reader to consider theological philosophy. He achieves this with an intriguingly balanced combination of romance, comedy and horror. I first read this novel over twelve years ago and admit that with age, maturity, and a firmer grasp of Russian culture, I’ve grown to better comprehend and appreciate its remarkable depth.

Have you read The Master and Margarita? If so, feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section.

Click here to check out my next banned book selection,  Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.


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Banned Books Week Highlight: Fahrenheit 451


Fahrenheit 451In a world where speed, noise and the latest in technology and entertainment supersedes compassion for one’s fellow man, how is it possible to preserve the essence of what makes us human?

How much of life do we truly experience through a filter of ones and zeroes?

How accurate is society’s reflection through media portrayal?

These are some of the questions Fahrenheit 451 inspires. The novel, written in 1953, explored the possibility of an ironic societal disconnection and a grim evolution of humanity, brought about by advanced technology and the abandonment of the pastimes that once added depth to human existence. Eerily enough, the contemplation this novel stimulates only grows more pertinent with time as our own technology continues to advance at an astounding rate.

Fahrenheit 451 is set in a fast-paced society in which books are banned (and burned) and mindless entertainment is celebrated. Books aren’t the only treasures in jeopardy. The very aspects of knowledge, curiosity, and imagination are also on the pyre, waiting to be ignited. Life and happiness are as frail as the paper within the books that Montag and his fellow firemen (whose jobs aren’t to put out fires, but to set books alight) are tasked to burn into oblivion. Yet, according to society, life couldn’t be better or more exciting, even if the citizens can’t specifically pinpoint what makes them happy other than frivolous entertainment and empty conversations, that is, whenever people actually spoke to one another.

Montag soon finds himself conflicted when his curiosity is ignited by the very object he’s tasked to destroy. It’s not long before his curiosity puts him in danger and makes him a target for his comrades.

After revisiting Fahrenheit 451, I was reminded why the story remains a classic and Ray Bradbury a literary legend. I saw the world transform through Montag’s eyes and eventually it became obvious that it isn’t the world that changed, but rather his perspective of it. In many ways Fahrenheit 451, written in 1953, was prophetic and foreshadowed the emphasis of technology that is prevalent today. The situation between Montag and his wife Mildred is frustrating and tragic. The pair live in close proximity and yet couldn’t be further apart, as demonstrated by the fact that neither can recall how they met. And when tragedy befalls Montag’s eccentric nature-loving friend, Clarisse, who helped spark his curiosity, the news is nonchalantly broken to him as an afterthought.

This novel is so far ahead of its time. Keep in mind, it was written nearly four decades before the internet was created. Fahrenheit 451 is frighteningly similar to the shallow, self-absorbed reality in which we currently live. On a grand scale society is connected by technology, but are growing increasingly apathetic to anything that doesn’t affect them directly. Things have gotten so fast-paced that society has spawned generations of citizens who don’t have the patience to process their own feelings, and so they act out. Individuals are so easily upset, particularly by those with opinions that contradict their own. It leads me to wonder if someday it will truly become a social crime to exchange ideas and opinions at all, much like in Bradbury’s prophetic tale. Some days, it seems like we’re damn near halfway there.

Still, I hope that enough people remain conscious and that those who have become ensnared in the rapid pace of technology will eventually awaken as Montag did. I also hope that the Clarisses of the world hold onto their fascination with the simple joys of life, such as the sensation of a raindrop.

Feel free to chime in with your thoughts about Fahrenheit 451 in the comments. I hope you’ll join me tomorrow for my next banned/challenged book selection.



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Banned Books Week

censorship-610101_1280The written word wields remarkable power. It can shape and sway the minds of readers. So, it’s no surprise that every so often comes a time when the powers that be deems a work of literature too taboo for the eyes of society. Usually, such works prompt the reader to reconsider the status quo, be it social, theological or political. They sometimes spark awareness, igniting a public appeal for change. The authors of such literature stuck to their guns and took chances where few others would dare. It’s never an easy thing, voicing one’s opinion in the face of political correctness and imposed propriety, especially when it means going against the grain. On some levels, the same holds true today.

September 27, 2015 through October 3, 2015 marks the 33rd annual Banned Books Week. I’ve put together a brief series in honor of the occasion. Over the next several days I’ll be highlighting five banned/challenged books (in no particular order) that have left a memorable impression in my mind. Today, I’ll begin with a sci-fi classic; Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.


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Summer’s Last Dance


The beach clears, the painterly sky darkens, muted pastels fading.
The vast ocean crashes into the surf, its waves now too cold for wading.
Stragglers linger, some hand-in-hand, and stroll the crumbling boardwalk,
Some cuddle close, sheltered from the wind, lips much too busy to talk.

They witness Summer’s last dance,
she twirls and kicks up sand,
Seagulls squawk their serenade,
As they hover above the land.

A vague rainbow is on the horizon,
It’s smeared across the sky.
Like rouge running down Summer’s face,
As though she doesn’t want to die.

Her moves become erratic,
Her sultry shimmy becomes a shiver,
She grows even colder when,
the sunlight becomes a sliver.

Cool amber leaves emerge,
from sands of burning ember,
As Summer takes her last bow
On this day in late September.

The silence is soon broken,
Something stirs on the beach,
A familiar presence approaches,
Just within my reach.

Notes of spice and cinnamon,
Waft through the salty air
As it wraps around me,
I know that she’s still there.

Its embrace is familiar,
And I know once and for all,
Summer didn’t die, really,
She just stumbled into Fall.

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A New Beginning: Welcome to the World, Francesca!

It is with great pride and joy that Max and I announce the arrival of our daughter, Francesca Mildred Bell! She was born at 6:37 PM on Friday, March 20, 2015, which I will forever remember as the day when my heart expanded exponentially and my life gained a greater sense of worth.

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My daughter is the one puzzle piece I didn’t realize was missing. Now that she’s in my life, the bigger picture has suddenly become so much clearer as my priorities shift. As I write this, nearly a week into motherhood, I can certainly attest to the challenges my new role has imposed as I’m given no other choice than to reorganize my life. At one time I would have found such demands to be a nuisance, but as I admire my little girl’s peaceful face, I find them a welcome necessity. As I nurture my newest and most important muse, I know that a big part of myself will also grow as a result.



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Remembering a Dream Amid the Sting of Reality

Today, as legions honor the memory of the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I reflect on how far we’ve come since his societal contributions and how far we have to go. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve only scratched the surface of his great vision for our world. Though society is vastly different than it was in the 60s, progress is often marred by pockets of hatred, violence and intolerance that is frequently sensationalized by media spectacle; so much so that ethnic rights and human rights are skewed. Of course, any issue that effects society is a human issue.

There’s more that prompted my retrospect than the commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday. Last week as my husband and I arrived for my prenatal appointment I noticed the distasteful demeanor of a fellow patient. There were only three scattered empty seats in the waiting area, not unusual in such a busy office. My husband and I sat on opposite sides of the room. I noticed the patient beside me immediately shifting in her seat, practically rolling her eyes to herself as I sat. I didn’t think too much of it until the woman was called for her appointment. She gathered her coat, walked across the room and placed it in an empty seat beside a young woman engrossed in texting on her phone. She shot me a bitter glance before heading to the examination room. My husband and I were equally baffled at first. Then it hit me, I was the only black person in the room.

Though it wasn’t the first time I’ve endured the sting of racism, I was taken aback by the incident since it’s not something I go through very often; or perhaps I’ve learned to tune certain things out over the years. My emotions were mixed, but disappointment and anger were at the fore. I had done nothing to offend the woman or prompt such a nasty display of contempt. Prior to that day we had never met and I think it’s safe to say we mutually hope never to meet again. The incident lingered in my mind and eventually I began to pay heed to the fact that just as she didn’t know me, I didn’t know her either. And just as she judged me based on my appearance, I judged her by her act of ignorance.

History shapes who we are and clearly there was some part of that woman’s history that engrained in her such prejudice which limits her on a social and personal scale. The woman was roughly in her late 60s to early 70s, so there’s a good chance she was indoctrinated into adopting a biased perspective during her youth. Then again, her aversion to my ethnicity may have stemmed from a prior incident(s) during which she or a loved one was wronged, or perceived to have been wronged by a person(s) of a certain ethnic group. Either way, racism is a devastating condition no matter what climate it spawns from and I fear will never be fixed as long as education and social interaction remains disproportionate.

It’s a shame, really; it seems the more progress we make technologically, socially too many people are stuck in retrograde, backsliding from the great vision Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared with the world in 1963. There’s so much we can accomplish as a society if only more people would get their head out of the sand and become more open-minded.

This whole thing has led me to ponder my unborn daughter’s future. At present, I have no idea what she will look like or how her appearance may affect her down the road. Whether she resembles me, my husband or a balanced combination of both, I know it’s important to teach her about the grim reality of racism and that the act of it knows no color even if the beholder does. Yet, I know it’s just as important to demonstrate to her that not everyone sees the world through its warped and narrow scope, that the world would be bland if we were all the same. I’ll teach her that there is only one race—the human race—and that ethnicity is basically a variation on a theme. By doing so I hope to do my part in offsetting the perpetuity of intolerance.

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Short Story: Old Acquaintance

The swarming crowd cheered and prepared to count down from ten as the sparkling orb descended. Strobe lights and camera flashes played in random patterns as one year prepared to pass the baton to the next. The crowd’s drunken enthusiasm is a stark contrast to my mixed emotions. Perhaps they’re simply happy to revel in the billboard splashed streets having survived yet another rough year. Don’t get me wrong, so am I. It’s just that there’s also some uncertainty about the 365 days to come. I guess there always is, particularly for those who have lost so much.

In my case, I was laid off in the year’s sophomore season and like so many am still struggling to bounce back. The losses didn’t end there. My longtime girlfriend decided to pursue other life options that apparently don’t include me. I feel the sting of her absence as I watch couples embrace and steal kisses before midnight. Meanwhile old man winter’s frosty stubble prickles my face. The chill burns almost as much as the cold shoulder I’ve gotten from some of my family members as a result of our differences. Maybe I’m better off alone rather than to be surrounded by unnecessary drama and complication.

Then there’s all the craziness that extends beyond my life. Among it, social injustice, international tensions and domestic chaos in the shadow of a discordant government. The world has been ass backwards for a while and lately has shown no signs of righting itself. If anything, more people seem to be entering the unofficial competition to out-crazy and out-corrupt one another. Even at this year-end celebration I’ve witnessed four senseless brawls and several acts of exhibitionism. It was enough to make me wonder what possessed me to come here instead of watching the festivities from home. Maybe it was my desire to do something out of character in hopes it would set the tone for the new year.

The countdown begins. The crowd chants along with the bellowing host.

10, 9, 8…

Seven more seconds until I bid the year adieu, or good riddance.

Out of the thousands of people around me a single one catches my eye. It wasn’t some beautiful stranger or half-naked pop star writhing around on stage; quite the contrary. For some reason, my eyes locked on a weary-looking man with skin like a crinkled paper bag. He appears to be laughing at me as his gaze pulls me like metal to a magnet. Our eye contact is only broken by the intermittent interference of waving arms. He turns to walk away and squeezes through the wild spectators. Not knowing why, I decide to follow. Something about the way he looked at me fills me with such unease and interest, as though he somehow knew something about me. Maybe it was his laugh. It seemed like the product of a joke that only he knew, only I was the punchline. I struggle to weave through the swarm, something the elderly man was doing with ease. The distance between us stretched as the crowd had already counted down to five. At that moment he faced me anew. With a wink and a smirk he raised a weathered hand into the air and snapped his fingers.

The flashing lights freeze in time as does the multicolored glow of Times Square’s billboards. The ball hangs suspended. People become mannequins, some locked in precarious poses. An echo of the crowd’s reverie briefly warps through the misty air before falling flat. Deafening silence follows and the pungent scent of hot dogs, sauerkraut and pretzels grows stale. I wonder if the scene around me was the product of overindulgence, then I remember I didn’t have anything to drink. I had been determined to spend the beginning of the next year sober in defiance of the stupor I had been in for months. My sorrow had proven resistant to my repeated attempts to drown it and I knew I needed to find a different way to kill it. For a moment, I consider the possibility that I was the unwilling passenger of a contact high, but that theory faded into the ether like the brief pungent vapor I had walked through nearly an hour earlier. No way was it potent enough to generate such a display.

Loose pieces of prematurely fallen confetti had also halted in the air. I walked into several of them. Their impact against my face felt like ice pellets; much harder than they would’ve felt in real time. Still, they didn’t fall, but were merely brushed aside like sediments in thickening gelatin. The man remained in place, hands now shoved in his coat pockets as I continued my approach, my legs slicing through the steam paused above the subway grate. So many questions filled my mind as I faced him. What was so damn funny? How did he make everything freeze? Who the hell was he?

He began by answering the first.

“You think you’ve had a rough 365 days? Son, you don’t know the half of it.” The elder’s eyes crinkled as he laughed. “People who didn’t even make an effort to get to know and understand me are eagerly waiting for me to die…including you.”

I wondered what gave him the authority to discount the difficulty I’ve had all year. Somewhat offended, I nearly uttered a snide remark until I realized something about the man seemed familiar. Still, I couldn’t place him. I found that, and his statement, curious.

“I don’t understand. Have we met before?”

“Everyday.” The strange man nodded. “But I understand if you don’t remember. Many don’t. Instead, they float aimlessly through their days, not paying full attention since they’re preoccupied by troubles—real and imaginary. Anyway, I’ve changed a lot since we first met. Time is harder on some more than others, you know.” The old man stroked the scraggly beard on his prune-like face.

“Tell me about it,” I snorted. “It’s been kicking my ass these days.”

“You, you, you… Just my luck I get stuck with the most narcissistic lot,” the man muttered, puckering his face. “Son, you still can’t see past your own face. Here’s a clue to who I am… The beaten up shell that stands before you is the result of what you’ve all done with me.” He swept his arms out, gesturing the motionless crowd. “But naturally you see yourselves as the victims.”

An explosion of revelation shook my mind. How had I not seen it before?

“Wait. So you’re…father time?”

The old man shook his head. “No, just a servant whose job is to weave a certain length of it, that’s all. I merely presented a length of time, the decision of what to get out of, and put into it was mainly yours. Now, my job will end in a matter of seconds. But I, much like my predecessors, have been given a final gift to pause my abdication just long enough to reach out to a promising few, to get them to break the illusion that they are helpless victims at the hands of time. You’re among a special group I’m speaking with at this very instance because in your heart lies a promise that not even you can see in the present. However, if you keep an open mind, you’ll seize the opportunity my successor is poised to provide; the opportunity to take hold of the reins of your life and guide it towards happiness and fulfillment. But first…”

Our eyes locked anew and my mind was flooded with frenzied memories of the year gone by. It was like reviewing my life through a shattered mirror, only realizing I had contributed to making some of the jagged fragments. Of course, not all unfavorable events had been my fault, but I had indeed been responsible for more than I took responsibility for. Too often I sulked in the ashes of burnt bridges not realizing I was holding the charred matches. Too often I pushed people away, including my longtime love, by finding one way or another to avoid emotional intimacy. My desire to exude the appeal of strength had exposed one of my biggest weaknesses, my stubbornness, which led to tensions at my old job as well as in my family. It was a strange sort of agony, being shown with full clarity all the missed opportunities and wasted time that I couldn’t reverse. Yet, in all that, there was the indescribable joy of knowing that even though some things were irreversible, I still maintained the power of choice to make a difference in the future, regardless of what had happened in the past.

The juxtaposition of beauty and ugliness never seemed more prevalent to me than it did at that very moment. I realized that no matter how dominant one or the other may have seemed at any given time, both were present whether in an event, situation or simply the lenses of our perception. It is something neither I nor anyone else had the power to change. What we do have the power to shift is the focus of our observation. Yet, the negative always seems like the most alluring subject to behold, or at the very least the easiest. A dangerous prospect if the idiom “seeing is believing” is correct.

Something stirred inside me as though triggered by a shot of espresso. It was the invigorating decision that I would no longer knowingly give power to the very things that I allowed to oppress me. I will no longer take solace in the resulting excuses. I am on the verge of a new beginning, a new chapter, a new year, a new chance to breathe life into the dreams I nearly slayed with my own self-doubt.

“Damn. I was a fool,” I muttered.

“Eh, don’t be hard on yourself.” The stranger waved his hand. His breathing was growing increasingly labored. “Everyone’s a fool at some point, and fools can’t always help themselves.”

“Why do you care enough to try to set us right? Time doesn’t depend on any of us, does it?”

“No. Chances are, time will always exist independently of humanity and its ability to measure it. The thing is, will time still matter if no one is coherent enough to care about it, or around to witness it? You feel it, don’t you? Each year, special occasions lose a bit of their luster, holidays lose a little bit of their vibrance and meaning, darkness fills the broadening gaps leaving less for people to look forward to. The same can be said of every other day. If this continues, people will simply stop looking forward, thereby getting stuck in the same looping cycle of despair—much like the cycle you’ve been in recently, and even worse.”

The surrounding stillness was breaking as the world around me began to move like molasses as he staggered over to the curb. I caught him by the arm as he lost his footing. His weight was deceptively heavy. I eased him to sit on the yellow-trimmed concrete. The time was nearing. He was fading, and apparently so was his power as the sights and sounds revved up gradually. Smells began to regain their potency. The world’s return to life contrasted with the old stranger’s impending death. His smile was that of a terminal patient who had seen his final wish come to fruition. Finally, I asked his name.

“No name. Just… a number. 2,014.” The corners of his mouth shook as he uttered his final words. “My successor is near.” His eyes grew distant. “Treat him kinder than you did me, and hopefully, he’ll return the favor in kind.”

Just like that, 2,014 faded into the ether. I imagined him flying with a cape fashioned out of the calendar’s tattered pages. His destination, someplace where the present can no longer do any more damage or rectification. My thoughts were interrupted. All at once I was surrounded by a thunderous roar:


Amazing. In those few stretched moments of time I had gone from longing to see the year’s end to feeling bittersweet about its passing. It was like finally getting to comprehend a misunderstood friend or relative just before watching them die. In hindsight, I found myself wishing we’d had a little more time.

Before long, the crowd thinned and like so many I made my way to the train station. A voice called to me from behind. I looked over my shoulder and saw a face I never thought I’d see again. My girlfriend. Well, newly ex-girlfriend. It was a pleasant surprise when she threw her arms around me and planted a passionate kiss on my lips.

“2015 is already looking up,” I thought.

I opened my mouth to apologize for my recent behavior when she pressed a gloved finger to my lips.

“No need to explain.” Her lips curled almost seductively. “Everyone’s a fool at some point, and fools can’t always help themselves. That includes me.”

“Who told you that?” I frowned.

“I don’t know.” Her expression suddenly matched my own. “Just like I didn’t know you’d be here, but somehow…” Her voice trailed off as she hooked her arm into mine. Slowly, we began to walk as the cleanup crews moved in. “It just popped in my head. None of that matters I guess. What matters is that we’re here now. Why don’t we start the year off different than we ended the last…Together? Happy New Year.”

“Happy New Year,” I replied as we walked into the promising, yet unknown future.


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