Monday, July 29, 2013

Growing People: Birth, Life, and Lots of Choices

There's a lot to think about when you go to a sperm bank and pick out a genetic mate for your baby. Frankly, I suspect that many readers of this new book of intriguing multi-layered short stories have never thought about the choices involved in this transaction. (I'm one of them.) Just as frankly, the whole subject still kind of freaks me out. The characters in the first group of stories in "Germs of Truth" by Heather Tosteson sign up with a sperm bank and gain access to a website full of information about potential donors. What the donors look like, how smart or athletic they are; facts about national and racial background. Sure, there's no certainty that the characteristics of the father will be passed down to his offspring, but once these whole-person bios are made available to would be parents seeking, well, desirable sperm, you end up inevitably going shopping.
Out of this premise, the author spins a catalogue of engaging, thought-provoking stories. Almost all of them are thoughtful, professional, articulate people. Some have a child from a previous relationship. Many, but not all, of the would be parents are Mom-and-Mom couples. In some of the stories women discuss the potential donor options with friends or family members. In "More," a man discovers that his desirable traits have made him a donor-daddy star over three states, with enough families carrying his genetic inheritance to make for annual get-togethers.
In another story a couple has made a deal; you carry the first, I'll carry the second. But the first child proves a handful; do they really have room in their lives for the second partner to have her baby? In "More," one of the stories that has stayed with me the longest and perhaps a cautionary tale in taking the notion of a designer child too seriously, after a woman delivers her baby she is convinced she has been given the wrong infant. She feels nothing for it, so it must be the wrong one. Her husband, while sympathetic to his wife's absolutist temperament -- a touch incredibly so in my opinion -- has already made up his own mind on the subject of "right" or "wrong" babies. Nobody, he thinks, is taking this baby from me. You go, Dad, I thought as I read this story. Maybe because I am a dad myself this was one of the book's most satisfying moments.
Some of my favorite stories in this deep collection are found in the section titled "Whose life is it anyway?" They deal with the personal, emotional, psychological "life issues" among people who are almost always capable and likable. We can identify with these characters and yet, as we know they must from our own lives, problems arise.
In "Lifeboat," the central figure, Derek, a painter who has put down his brush, works as a pedicab driver who carries leftover food from high-end restaurants to various homeless shelters and other human services. These errands are vividly rendered. So is Derek's partner Phuong, a Vietnamese refugee who endures her mother's putdowns -- her dead children, the mother tells everyone, were better -- and makes a drastic intervention in Derek's life to help him get back to what he loves. It's not whether someone else hangs you in a museum, she tells him in effect, it's what you choose to do here on earth that matters. "What you miss," she says, "is the experience of painting." Exactly, I thought. This is "truth."
Again and again in "Germs of Truth," we find stories that are ultimately about health: how people discover what they need to do and how to care for those they love.