Thursday, January 28, 2016


When I was a kid (b.1939), vitamins were such a new idea that the Cheerios box featured educational comics with little pixies, each representing a different vitamin, and a girl named Cheery.  Today Honey Nut Cheerios have had to be taken off the market because people are allergic to nuts, and the new recipe for the dough is announced to be “gluten free.”  We have gone from looking for good things to add to looking for bad things to remove.  

I remember having measles, scarlet fever, and chicken pox.  One of my brothers had rheumatic fever, which can affect the heart.  He did develop a bit of a heart murmur which obsessed my mother ever after, though he was cleared to compete in wrestling in high school and had no problem.  Now people in small towns nearly force their boys to play aggressive football, even knowing that it will probably at some point cause brain damage from concussions.  Our ideas about what is dangerous, esp. for children, change all the time.

Other ideas about what to do will persist without anyone even noticing.  Here’s a benign example:  people know I have a lot of books and that I write all the time.  Their assumption is that it’s like the reading they know, which was mostly in school.  They ask, “How many books do you read in a week?  Three or four?”  The number of books read in a time period is the way schools and libraries try to encourage reading.  You read it, then discard the book.  It’s over.  Consumed.  Consumer thinking.

But I read half-a-dozen books at a time.  Sometimes I only read a few pages, put the book down, come back to it months or even years later.  I read by chasing themes in content, or because there’s a side-issue that’s suddenly gripping.  On the shelves I try to keep general subjects together, which means the contents may be separated in the writing by years.  My grandmother’s books mix with what came in the mail today.

Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday” is living in the bathroom where I’m working my way through child-raising practices in self-contained tribes away from “civilization.”  More focused on coping with trauma and predation (tigers) than on diseases, there are strategies so negligent that adults often have burn marks from getting too close to fires.  No one intercepted them or taught them not to get close.  Compare with modern fire-retardant chemically treated child’s pajamas which turned out to get into the child’s system with damaging consequences.

On the other hand, children growing up in the Amazon rain forest where dangers are everywhere, are on their mother’s backs at first, then within her reach, then within her eyesight which is close in a jungle.  Lifelong, they go in groups.  But in safer places, like the Australian outback, Diamond assures us that the infamous deadly snakes are rare and there are no big mammal predators.  Children go on “walkabout” alone.

My copy of Gambles’ “Origins and Revolutions” is traveling through the house everywhere.  I have to hunt it down because I read short bits, need a quote, or am ready for the next bite.  Then I’m distracted and put it down in a new place.  I need Diamond’s information about tribes, in that constantly on-going dialogue we’re all having about whether things are getting better or worse and what changes we should make.  Once we accept responsibility for ourselves and our lives, how they evolve, we have a lot of research and thinking to do.   

Are isolated change-resistant enclaves, like the upscale mothers of Marin County — who refuse vaccination and thereby start epidemics — right to so emphasize what’s “natural”?  There are tribes who leave their children almost entirely unsupervised.  Child mortality is high, but those who survive are the ones with brains, gumption, and confidence.  The adults are admirable, except not very compassionate. There is an isolated group that cherishes their babies, refuses all abortion, tolerates handicaps.  The gene for club feet is in this closed population and the rate of affliction has risen to 15% of the babies.

Clearly the way we raise our children is an interaction among morality, danger, attachment, and all sorts of other contingencies.  Now, as this new plague traveling with the mosquitoes expanding their territory across oceans because of airplanes and climate warming, and the first horrific cases of babies with tiny heads are beginning to hint that there are other consequences due to the same virus (possibly paralysis), the best we can do is to warn women not to get pregnant.  As though that ever works!  Women have been warned not to get pregnant for centuries. Might as well warn mosquitoes not to bite.  And I’m not looking forward to the mosquito-phobes (who also tend to be bat-phobes) insisting on intense spraying of Valier this summer.  (Dandelions are also a target.)

When I was a kid, childhood diseases were considered inevitable.  We were all vaccinated for smallpox.  A classmate died of tetanus because her father wouldn’t get her the vaccine because they were poor and it was costly.  About the time I was born, the daughter next door died of polio.  Luckily we never got mumps or whooping cough, since there were no vaccines for them.  Now there are, but people still resist.  Vaccination was a group experience when we lined up in grade school, but now in the US it is likely to be a private experience, which makes it easier to refuse.

I got pneumonia and had a penicillin shot.  Since my bed was up against one of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined our house, I found “Riders of the Purple Sage” and read it in a fever haze, my first grownup novel.  Earlier, when my brother had rheumatic fever, I was put to sleep on the couch downstairs, which was very exotic to me.  I had the idea that people only slept on the second floor.  I had found “Biography of a Grizzly” which was a small book with little drawings, so I read it all night while the mantel clock struck away the hours.
That's a geyser, not a volcano.
The story happens near Yellowstone.

Engulfed in grief for poor Wahb, dying old and alone, I finished about the time the others got up and had to convince them my fatigue and red eyes were not a symptom.  When I discovered that my mother, on medical advice, had burned my entire paperdoll collection, a village that lived in a suitbox under the brothers’ bed, it seemed to me related to the death of Wahb.  

Holocaust, natural death, disease, and care-taking were combined.  Every bit of fabric was washed with bleach or Lysol.  All surfaces in the room were scrubbed.  Somehow my father’s books were ignored.  It was as though books were a kind of privileged status, protected and protective.  They made your brain big.

When I googled for information about Zika, what I got was advertising for an amusing video game called “Tiny Brains”.  So here’s what we’re teaching kids:  you are entitled, privileged and smart BECAUSE of adults helicoptering your lives and emphasizing amusement.  The adult bargain with fate is that if they pour every attention and expense into the present happiness of their children, other people’s children can go to hell.  They don’t even need school lunches.  And if you don’t obey the adults, they will withdraw that support and kick you out, the same as your boss treats you at work.  What this kind of attitude creates is genocide supporters and gated cities.

By Jim Kirwan

But the planet is relentless.  Mosquitoes, viruses, climates — old age.  No one gets out alive.  What matters is what you do until then.  There are two kinds of survival: individual and group.  Your life is shaped by how you define your group, and to what degree your group helps you survive.  So now what shall we do about Zika and the other plagues coming out of Pandora’s box?  Personally, I don’t eat boxed cereals anymore.  I get my info from books.  And the occasional website post.

1 comment:

nelliemcclung said...

remember DDT - a few sprays around Brazil and that will be that - I'd rather get a whiff of DDT than a bit from a Zika mosquito -