At Large January 2003

The Louse is in the House

A malady that does not speak its name

America gives every appearance of being a nation besotted with trashiness—divorce, illegitimacy, casual Fridays. The murder rate in the cities is rising again. Anna Nicole Smith is back for a second season on cable TV. But recent experience argues that this love for the dirty and the vulgar is only skin deep, so to speak. Social critics shouldn't nitpick—at least not figuratively.

Our country has an enormous stockpile of bourgeois propriety, highly refined bourgeois propriety. In fact, it is weapons-grade, as verified by the detonation of me at our house when our five-year-old daughter was sent home from pre-K because she had head lice.

"How could my daughter get lice?" I shouted (out of daughter's earshot, of course, for propriety's sake). "It's a private school!"

"They let us in," my wife said. And possibly our head lice, too. On inspection our two-year-old daughter—who does not go to school—proved to be even more populated than her older sister.

"Where would my baby get lice?" I shouted.

"At the country club?" my wife said.

"It's a private club!"

"They let us in," my wife said.

I felt a blush of shame creep across my face, not to mention what I felt creep across my scalp. None of the six motor vehicles in our yard is actually up on blocks. We have a huge satellite dish, but that's from a couple of marriages ago. I defy anyone to call the O'Rourkes trashy, now that my nephew is out of prison. And my wife's family was on the Mayflower (Van Lines). The piano was always moved in a well-bred fashion.

"Oh, hush—and quit clawing at yourself," said my wife, who was consulting The AMA Home Medical Encyclopedia. "'Children,'" she read aloud, "'are most affected, women occasionally, and ...' —it figures—'men rarely.'"

The head louse, Pediculus humanus capitis, is a cousin of the body and pubic lice that truly are indicative of trash. The former live in filthy clothing, and the latter are the result of reading Kahlil Gibran by lava lamp and cavorting on a waterbed. But the head louse is different. The American Academy of Pediatrics, The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Harvard School of Public Health say, respectively, "All socioeconomic groups are affected"; "It is common among school children, without regard to social status"; "[It] affects persons of all ... socio-economic backgrounds"; and "Head lice ... do not respect socio-economic class distinctions." One need not scratch one's head about the repeated mentions of status. The New England Journal of Medicine notes, "Most children get them at some point, including doctors' children."

The adult head louse is usually described as being the size of a sesame seed. But a sesame seed stuck between teeth is visible at ten yards, whereas to my bifocaled eyes lice are ...

"I think I have lice all over my shoes."

"Those are the holes in your wing-tips," my wife said.

The female louse lays one to six nits a day, according to the NEJM. She lays ten nits a day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The nits hatch in three to fourteen days, claims The Merck Manual; in ten to fourteen days, maintains the Academy of Pediatrics; in about a week, declares the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC states that the louse nymphs (a Nabokovian, and not very proper, image) mature in about another week. The Harvard School of Public Health avers maturation in nine to twelve days. A louse that's been separated from its host dies in a day or so, says Harvard; within forty-eight hours, asserts the CDC; in fifty-five hours, opines the NEJM. That journal postulates head-lice-infestation rates of one to three percent in industrialized countries. This would give the United States 2.8 to 8.4 million cases a year. The CDC estimates only 6 to 12 million cases worldwide. The AAP thinks there are that many cases among three-to-twelve-year-olds in the United States alone.

Medical researchers don't know much about head lice because they don't much care. The reason that they don't much care is, paradoxically, that they know a lot. That is, they know one important thing: there is no evidence that head lice transmit disease. Body lice can carry deadly typhus, and pubic lice breed fatal excuses. All that head lice cause is a vibrant pizzicato on the skull and an occasional secondary infection from fingernail raking. The Merck Manual, however, does say, "Moderate discrete posterior cervical adenopathy is frequent." I was halfway through calling an ambulance for the girls when my wife slammed my hand with the Merriam-Webster. That means "swollen glands."

Head-lice infestation is a Protestant work ethic of a malady. It causes effort, attention, and planning instead of excusing you from these. There are arguments that head lice cannot be communicated by anything other than live lice going for a power walk during head-to-head contact. But the arguments aren't strong enough to keep my wife from soaking barrettes, pigtail ribbons, doll brushes, and Barbie coifs in alcohol; laundering everything, including the mittens on my three wood and driver; vacuuming the ceiling; and buying the local dry cleaner a summer house in the Hamptons. What couldn't be shoved into the Maytag had to be sealed in plastic garbage bags for two weeks. Fortunately, pets do not harbor head lice—a good thing, because the puppy was getting restless inside the Hefty Sak.

Is the head louse new to America's prosperous burghers? Is it part of the contemporary "cheese burgher" phenomenon—the lumpenproletariat migrating into our well-ordered lives, bringing with them their social problems? Maybe not: propriety incarnate George Washington apparently was infested; in the "Rules of Civility" he wrote out for himself at age fifteen, he avowed, "Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others." Or maybe so: the American Academy of Pediatrics claims that lice in an individual infestation may number a hundred or more among members of what the academy calls "cultures with different grooming practices"—which I nominate for euphemism of the year.

The NEJM says that head-lice occurrence "is probably increasing in the United States." The Harvard School of Public Health hedges: "The perception that lice are more prevalent today than in past decades may, perhaps, reflect societal changes in candor in discussing such issues." The more candid lower orders seem to have been discussing such issues for a while. A look into The American Thesaurus of Slang, compiled sixty years ago by Lester V. Berrey and Melvin Van Den Bark, reveals a trove of louse terminology: "seam squirrels," "shimmy lizards," "pants rabbits," "circus bees," "having the hootchy-cootchy," "on the cootie trail," "louse-cage" (hat), "lousewalk" (hair part), "louse ladder" (run in a stocking), and "Lousy-Anna" (the state).

Anecdotal evidence for the recent spread of lice to the better-off is overwhelming, according to my speed-dial: I called some parents. People whose children are over the age of twenty-five were baffled by my inquiry. When I told them that my kids have head lice, they made a kind of phone noise indicating that my entire family tree derives from those "cultures with different grooming practices." But everyone with a child under twenty-five seemed to have had a Go-unto-Pharaoh, Exodus 8:17 experience: "All the dust of the land became lice ..."

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