Sunday, August 2, 2015

Lice and Other Things Not So Nice ; A Contemplation of the Realities and Irrationalities Providing the Inspiration and Power Behind Our Most Compelling Phobiast : Part One

When my brother and I were in kindergarten, Matthew came down with a case of head lice [according to precise scientific and medical terminioogy, pediculosis capitosis humanis]. As cases of head lice go, it wasn't an especially serious bout. Matthew's case of head lice was was caught early and treated aggressively, and the overall practical and financial impact  to our family was minor. 

We'll never know for certain how the suicidal insects (why had they not heard through their own head lice rumor mill that there was a crazy lady in the neighborhood who was out to get them at all costs in a manner that caused Hitler's pursuit of the Jews to appear benign?)* made their way onto Matthew's head.  We do know that Matthew had to have contracted the critters  after leaving our home on that fateful Sunday morning. My mother had shampooed Matthew's hair in the bathtub that morning, and my mother was always both vigilant and thorough in  inspecting our heads for anything that didn't belong there, whether during what was usually nightly shampooing or daily after-school headlice-hunting expeditions. 

That day, my dad was taking Matthew to one of those chain haircut stores for a haircut, and then was taking him on to a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. Most likely Matthew picked up the  head lice either through ther use of unclean instruments used ny the haor cutter or got them in one of the many tubes or ball pitts at Chuck e. Cheese. We'll never know for certain.

Every day when we came home after school, we sat on stools at the breakfast counter in our kitchen and ate small afternoon snacks while my mother inspected our heads. On the days my father picked us up, he thoroughly inspected our heads using the same process. My father wasn't nearly so concerned about headlice as was my mom, but he had to live with her, and he knew that a key to not getting a decent night's sleep or any peace whatsoever or anything else that night  if you get my drift was for word to get to my mother that our father's inspection of our hair had been anything less than the thorough tactile  examination we received from her, which involved her going through individual strands of hair with her fingers to feel for the tiny nits, which are the eggs that mother lice attack to the shafts of hair using a special and highly potent form of natural glue  [I've always thought that if head lice glue had been used to attach those O-rings on the Challenger space shuttle, disaster would have been averted and we'd still have all those brilliant and talented people with us],  the intense visual inspecition involving ultraviolet lighting and the use of a magnifying glass, the use of a fine -tooth comb, and, finally, the thorough rubbing of our scalps and shaking of our hair over a towel for one final visual inspection. 

Matthew didn't have as much hair as I did, so his inspection was quick and painless to him. I might have given my parents more trouble about the whole process except thst A) my mother had, whether through genetics or daily modeling of the behavior, passed her obsession with lice onto me. The very last thing I wanted was for any bug in possession of sufficient audacity to make his way onto my head was to set up camp, breed her progeny there, and, adding insult to injury, invite uncles, aunts and cousins to the baby shower; and B) I genuinely liked and continue to like the feel of having someone mess with my hair, comb it, or rub or scratch my scalp. I was a most willing patient, subject, guinea pig, or whatever I might have been called. The lice check was my very favorite part of most days.

This inspection happened before we were allowed to sit or lie on any upholstered furniture in our house. The backs of our car seats were covered with plastic because we had to be transported home in cars before the inspection culd occur, although my mom could be seen lifting tufts of our hair and peeking at our scalps even as we climbed into the car. We usually underwent a simiilar thorough inspection after playing at any other friend's or relative's home, It wasn't the parents of the friends or relatives she didn't trust, M\my mother said. It was the lice she dod not trust.  They had no scruples and would let themselves uninvited onto any unsuspecting host's head. 

In third grade the students in our class were required for Opem House to create a  a poster illustrating or elucidationg a science concept that had been covered during the year. My assigned topic was symbiosis, which is essentially the relationship between two coexisting organisms, flora or fauna,  at least one of whom depends upon the other for survival. Many people think of symbiosis  exclusively as  mutualitism, or mutualistic symbioisis, in which the relationship is more or less equally benenficial to both species. An example of mutualistic symbiosis would be  the "good bacteria" that inhabit a healthy intestinal tract, keeping the person's intestinal pH in balance. Such covers only one-third of the concept of symbiosis; also falling under the the umbrella of symbiotic relationships are commensalistic symbiosis, or commensalism, in which one organism is helped while the other is neither harmed nor helped by the rerlationship, with an example of this being a hermit crab who inhabits a shell that has been cast off by another - usually deceased - animal, and parasitic symbiosis, or parasitism, in which one orgainism uses another to the other organism's detriment. Tapeworms in the human intestimal tract would be an example of parasitic symbiosis, or parasitism. An equally fitting example would be lice on any part of the body of any organism, including the dreaded head lice.

My poster representing symbiosis, which probably wans't very good, as my immediate family consists of horrible artists who cannot even draw well enough to play Pictionary, featured bees and flowers for mutualist symbiosis. Even an untalented kindergartner could have scrawled out a decipherable version of that, My dad had wanted me to draw Donald Tramp and whoever was his current trophy ife - he gets a trophy wife while she gets to spend lots of money - but my mom objected mainly on the grounds that the poster had to be drawn, and not one of use could have drawn a realistic Donald Trump, much less the trophy wife du annee. Furthermore, Mom did not think the teachers viewing the projects would be amused. My representation of commensalistic symbiosis was of spider webs on plants. Spider webs do not typically harm plants, though the spider webs derive great benefit for both the webs themselves and even more for the spiders. My illustrated example of symbioitic parasitism was a boy with head lice. My mom took a picture of Mathew standing  and scratching his head. she enlarged in onto her computer screen so that she coud sort of etch out the outline onto my poster. I colored in her lines with realistic marker colors, then applied the bugs and nits to the boy's head.  The teachers could apparently relate to my representation of parasitic symbiosis -- it had been a bad year for lice -- as they put a blue ribbon on my poster. That was the first and last time any project that involved drawing that I turned in ever received a blue ribbon. I think my mom still has the poster as well as the ribbon.

Incidentally, parasitism is sometimes referred to as amensalism.

Anyway, after Matthew came home with lice either from the chain hair-cut store or from Chuck E. Cheese's tubes and ball chambers, either because of my mom's overly agressive treatment provided both to Matthew and to me (preventive in my case; despite my wild hair, through my mother's vigilance I never came down with the despicable creatures) or because the seed for a phobia had already been planted by my mother with her slightly irrational hypervigilance in defense of our family against head lice.

All some relative has to do is mention in an email that his or her child in another state, who I haven't seen in three years, came home with head lice, and I'm washing my own hair with anti-lice shampoo.  My head is itching right now because I cannot even think of head lice without experiencing the tell-tale symptom. My mom very patiently inspects my head anytime I think I have the condition. The nurses in the health centers of both post-secondary schools I've attended have grown a bit impatient with my requests for head checks, but they eventually realized I would not go away, so they thoroughly check my head anytime i request it. My Taiwanese -American med-school classmate isn't much fonder of lice than I am, so she patiently checks my hair anytime I ask. Matthew knows that it in his best insterst to just chek my hair rather than listen to me chatter incessatly about all the bugs I feel crawling in my hair.  He checks thoroughly.  Cool guy, Raoul, and a couple of others are incredibly amused by this particular phobia. They initially played into it, telling me they saw things crawling in my hair, but eventually realized they were causing me real distress, and stopped doing so. Kal Penn is more philosophical, as in we all have quirks, and that, most definitely, is one of Alexis' quirks.

Other than my sometimes plucking out too much hair or scratching my scalp too hard, my phobia concerning lice is essentially harmless. The same cannot necessarily be said of a phobia I will discuss in the next installment.


  1. Never had lice but reading about it makes me want to scratch.

  2. Sounds annoying indeed. People have the wrong impression about head lice - that they are a product of bad living conditions, when, in fact, anyone can become infested from public venues like those you described.

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  4. I've never had them either and constantly think I do. I'm terrified that my kids will bring them home at some point. I read somewhere that they don't like tea tree oil so even though I am not a believer in the essential oil craze at all I may be making a tea tree oil hair spritz for the kids before they start school to make myself feel better.