A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

How not to be lousy

 photo: Wikimedia commons

No.  No, no, no, no, no.
But, in fact, yes.  We’d been there before.  First came a tiny inkling, a Something Is Not Right semi-subconscious hint.  Next, the please-let-it-not-be so suspicion.  Then, the undeniable truth.  The evidence.  The shame.  The despair.  The humiliating trip to the Embarrassing Items aisle at Fred Meyers.  And then the long, painful drudgery of purification. 
Yes, we’d been there before, almost three years ago.  And here we were again.  We had… unwanted visitors.
I’m talking, of course, about Pediculus humanus capitis: the human head-louse.
Few things have made me, as a parent, feel quite as incompetent, unmentionable, and downright guttersnipe-filthy as realizing that my children and I were infested. Verminous.  Lousy. There’s a reason that word has meanings that go far beyond the literal one.  Ma’am, I hate to have to break the bad news, but I’m afraid your kids are completely lousy.  And, as a matter of fact, you’re pretty darned lousy, too.
I’m not sure when I first took firmly to heart the notion that lice were a scourge of shame that connoted something blameworthy and deeply nasty about their victims, but it must have been prior to the age of six, because I was already of that mind at the time of my first encounter with the dreaded little critters. 
I was in Mrs. Blumenthol’s first grade class at Huntington Elementary School.  I had long, wavy, white-blonde hair that I often wore in what my mother called “bunches” – that is, pigtails – sticking out above my ears.  One day, unexpectedly, the school nurse came to visit the class.  She brought a bottle of some kind of hand-cleaner that I’d never seen before.  One child at a time, she started… searching.
I knew immediately what she was doing, although I’m not sure how I knew, or where I’d heard the word, because it wasn’t one people said openly.  Lice.  It was like the dirty words that I’d heard but never repeated.  Dreadful.  Unspeakable.  It was the chlamydia of the under-twelve crowd.  We just don’t talk about lice. 
The sight of the nurse filled me with dread.  It wasn’t that I feared her intrinsically; she was a benign, somewhat bored-seeming older woman whom I’d only met when, testing everyone’s vision, she’d been mildly surprised by the fact that I could see nothing at all out of my right eye. (She proceeded to be mildly surprised by the same factoid every year until I finished the sixth grade and departed).  The nurse wasn’t scary, but the fact that she was checking heads was terrifying -- because, before the first of my classmates’ heads had been searched, I knew – knew! – that I had the dreaded critters. 
I’d been itching for days.  It was subconscious, mostly.  I was the kind of scabby, muddy, not-at-all-body-aware little kid who didn’t really register a perniciously infested scalp as important.  Scratch, scratch, scratch… play, play, play…  But at some level I knew, and was simply afraid to say anything.  The second the nurse appeared, the itching became unbearable, consuming, and horrifying.
The nurse took notes.  The nurse shared her notes with Mrs. Blumenthol.  And about a third of the class went home with Very Special Messages.  I, of course, was one of them.  I carried home my note with a sinking heart, convinced that my tiny visitors were entirely my fault.  When my mother, horrified but still loving, asked me if my head had been itching, I instantly and entirely disingenuously swore that it had not, as if lying about it would somehow lessen my self-assumed guilt. (Sorry, Mom).  In truth, of course, a little more honesty several days previously might have saved me from infesting a few other innocent kids. 
A generation later -- whether it was because my own kids were oblivious, or merely little liars like their mommy -- our run-ins with Pediculous were both self-diagnosed.  By me.  Based, alas, on my own itchy head.  Scratch, scratch, play, play… oh, damn. 
Outbreak Number One occurred via the kids’ preschool.  The school – which was wonderful in every way – had offered us a polite warning perhaps two months previously, but had assured us that all children had been checked and given the all-clear.  Well… for at least one child, it must have been the ALMOST clear. 
The twins were too young to appreciate why, exactly, Mommy had to soak their tender little heads in foul chemicals and then spends hours torturing them with a fine-tooth metal comb.  The only saving grace was that they were also young enough to not care one whit that my first personal-hygiene maneuver, before all the squealing torment, was to provide each of them with an eight-second haircut.  If I recall, I used whichever pair of dull scissors was handy and seemed easily fumigated afterwards.  My own hair was also delightfully short at the time.  If it hadn’t been, I would most likely have turned my lack of haircutting skills on myself.  The ragged look?  It’s totally in.  Trust me.
Jay’s hair was, per his usual, no more than a couple of inches long.  Amazingly, there was no evidence that any prolifically-breeding little vermin had taken up residence on his head.  Nor did he take part in any of the child-torture.  Somehow, though, his paranoia managed to outrace mine by several furlongs.  He cleansed his head with furor, and started bundling up everything in sight for quarantine, laundering, scrubbing, dousing with toxins, or (as far as I could tell) burning alive.  He bought several cans of some kind of spray-toxin that was supposed to fumigate the furniture.  He took away all of the kids’ stuffed animals and blankies.  Anyone who has ever spent more than four seconds around preschoolers might guess that this last decision did not go over well.
In contrast, after my initial hair-cutting frenzy, I reverted to my natural instincts: reading the scientific literature.  The internet being what it is – humanity’s incoherent brain-dump – I had to wade impatiently through a stack of misinformation before I managed to ferret out answers to questions I actually cared about.  I learned a lot about lice.  I learned a lot about nits.  I learned that a magnifying glass really helps, or maybe I’m just old – one of the two.  I learned why “nitpicker” is as common and apt a word in the common parlance as “lousy”.  And, oddly, I found myself empowered by my new knowledge.
It turns out that harboring lice has just about nothing to do with how often a parent might or might not bathe herself or her child, because the wily beasts are not killed by water -- not even if you keep your head under the surface for hours, in some kind of anti-lice snorkeling marathon.  Ordinary shampoo won’t help, either.  I also learned, to my relief, that lice don’t live for long on surfaces other that the human head.  They end up on such surfaces only by accident.  It seems that only the dumb, misguided lice wander onto jacket collars and couches, and usually starve to death there.  The Darwinian pressure, then, is toward being the genius louse who takes a daring walk from one human head straight to another.  That’s right, a walk.  They don’t leap.  They don’t jump.  They don’t fly.  They just make a mad dash for a tasty new flavor of scalp. 
So, not only does louse-transfer usually require direct head-to-head contact, but it takes, of course, at least two successful migrants to colonize a new head.  This made a lot of sense to me, because it explained why outbreaks of lice occur so often in schools, camps, and daycares, but not, for example, in office complexes.  I love my coworkers, I really do, but I rarely wrestle with them or sit with my head pressed against any of theirs.
It was a relief to know that lice are not really magically easy to acquire.  The flip side, however, is that they are magically difficult to obliterate.  I hereby refer back to the word “nitpicker’.
The deal is, the toxic shampoo wipes out lice, all right, but it doesn’t kill louse eggs, a.k.a nits. Those little buggers are glued firmly to strands of hair, right at the root.  They are tiny.  And they are as bombproof as concrete bunkers.  The only way to get rid of them is to comb.  And comb.  And comb.  Not with any comb, either.  Oh no.  You must use the special ultrafine comb that you bought – as mentioned – in the Embarrassing Products Aisle.   If even two of those nits are allowed to hatch and grow up, they will enjoy a happy breeding party, and you will be right back where you started.  So I paid special attention to exactly how long it takes nits to incubate, and to reach maturity.  Kill, kill, kill.
Fast forward three years.  In this, our second run-in with Pediculus, the timing wasn’t so great.  It was summer.  I was insanely busy.  The kids were near the end of a whirlwind of exciting and varied one-week summer-camp experiences, during which they had made physical contact with a dizzying number of young dodgeball players, costume-makers, tie-dyers, and bug-examiners.  So much head-to-head contact, so little time!   I had no way of knowing from whence the insects came, and no way of warning the myriads of other parents whose names I did not even know.  Moreover, we were six days away from leaving on a grand adventure, the Family Biking Vacation in Iceland, and I had yet to wrap up loose ends at work, do any packing at all, or learn how to say “Where is the insecticidal shampoo, please?” in Icelandic. 
Nonetheless, my panic – and Jay’s – was far more subdued this time around.  We already owned the damn comb.  We bought the shampoo.  And the kids, having reached the “age of reason” understood why all the torture was necessary.  I’m not saying they didn’t whine.  But they understood.  We managed to squeeze in the first treatment and the all-important follow-up before our departure, even though it meant I was putting in time with a louse-comb when I should have been taking the pedal-wrench to two tag-along bikes.  Somehow, it all got done.  Bikes in boxes.  Bags packed.  Lice dead.  Still no Icelandic vocabulary, but I have my limits.
It was not until we were louse-free for the second time, and happily pedaling through locales such as Eyrerbakki and Kleifarvatn, that I had time to think about not just the biology of Pediculus humanus capitis, but also the psychology.  Not the psychology of the lice.  I’m pretty sure that’s limited to, “Mmmm, tasty human scalp-nibbling!”  No, I mean the psychology of the way we Homo sapiens deal with it. 
Wouldn’t it make sense, in terms of reducing outbreaks, if we were just a trace more open and a smidgen less morbidly ashamed about the subject?  Shouldn’t kids know the warning signs, and shout them to the rooftops?  I did tell the twins’ preschool about Outbreak Number One, but I did so wimpily, relying on the anonymity I was afforded.  Shouldn’t I have been encouraged – even cheered as a good citizen – for informing the parents of all my kids’ playmates that exposure might have occurred? 
Perhaps even more importantly, why in the name of all that is small and itchy did I face Outbreak Number One in such a state of ignorance?  Why wasn’t I taught about lice in school?  My own first-grade outbreak was hush-hush.  Seventh grade “health” class skipped subjects like head colds, stomach flu, and lice, and jumped straight to horrifying photos of diseased genitalia.  This latter information, thank goodness, has been knowledge that I’ve never had to put to any sort of use.  But I’m betting that a good 50% of my seventh-grade classmates, who are now 41 or 42, have had to do a bit of nitpicking on the small heads of their progeny.
Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we came clean about the fact that “coming clean” doesn’t have much to do with it?  Ok, so your kid may be more likely to contract lice if he or she snuggles up with little buddies over a picture book, is free and loose with the hugs, or enjoys a good bout of wrestling.  But, come on, who doesn’t?  So, snugglers and wrestlers unite!  Speak freely about that little itch that is most definitely telling you something.  Spread the knowledge, spread the word.  Together we can make the world, if not a Better Place in a grand and cosmic sense, at least a little less… lousy.