I have a tradition of mailing out a highly unconventional holiday newsletter. The original setup was to figure out the most humiliating thing I’d done all year and describe it in excruciating detail. Some years I satirized the newsletter form itself, by making myself or my family out to be egomaniacal, or claiming to be really disappointed in my kids. After the family editorial panel (i.e., my wife) censored a couple of editions (such as this one), I toned things down a bit.
Here’s the edition from 2011, which I didn’t originally post to this blog for fear of embarrassing my family. However, I have decided to post it now, and you are free to read it if you’ll promise me one thing: whether or not you get to the end, please scroll down and read the epilogue, added today. (Obviously I have no way to hold you to this promise. You’re on the honor system.)
From the Archives – December 2011 Holiday Newsletter
I’ve been doing these newsletters for awhile now and I know the drill: a quick recap of the year, some tidbits about how the kids are progressing, perhaps a wistful observation about the treadmill of time, etc. But this year I’m struggling, as I’ve become fixated on a specific topic and cannot focus on anything else. So I better just get that topic out of the way to free up my brain for the more standard tidings.
The topic is head lice. I’m quite certain that for the rest of my life, whenever I look back at 2011 I’ll think, “Oh, yeah, the year we all got infested.” Oh, go ahead and snicker. I always used to, when I’d hear about some kid failing his lice spot-check at school. Actually, I’d snicker but also wince, acknowledging (but not really believing) that my kid could be next. Why do we snicker? Probably out of contempt. Everybody knows that having lice means you’re filthy. Not just filthy, but a filthy outsider. Who can consider the word “lice” without immediately thinking of all those immigrants being quarantined at Staten Island after failing their lice checks? (As it turns out, it’s an unfair stereotype. Lice actually prefer a nice clean scalp to a dirty, oily one. I know, I know: sounds exactly like what a louse-infested troll would say.)
Fortunately, my kids didn’t fail a spot-check at school. Erin discovered the lice herself. Of course that doesn’t make the infestation any less disgusting, but at least we were spared some disgrace. (When your scalp is teeming with parasites you get pretty good at looking at the bright side.) I don’t know how Erin happened to spot the lice, though once she pointed them out I couldn’t not see them. The eggs had amassed into something like a cobweb woven into our child’s scalp. Erin extracted a full-grown louse, teasing it with a toothpick until its bloodlust led it to climb on, perhaps en route to Erin’s own locks. She flung the louse into the sink and the little bastard was so engorged with our daughter’s blood that it exploded on impact, the blood gradually oozing toward the drain, like a Sam Peckinpah vignette in miniature.
I rapidly began a cycle of grief, skipping right past denial (I mean, how could I deny this?) and going directly to anger. I vowed to exterminate these lice with extreme prejudice. I told Erin, “If the lice bring knives, we’re bringing guns. If they bring guns, we’re bringing napalm. It is on.” Actually I probably said something less macho. Likely I was silent for a spell as the heebie-jeebies hit me full on. Once you’ve seen lice in the hair of your beloved offspring—the same offspring you snuggle with on a regular basis—you cannot help but feel the awful tickly sensation of hundreds of lice in your own hair. You begin scratching your head like a maniac. Your body goes through series of shudders from the head down.
I was serious about the no-holds-barred warfare, though. The trouble is, a parent can’t just decide things unilaterally. I had to convince Erin to bring out the big guns, which was challenging because she won’t even take Advil for a headache. We discussed the matter at length and researched all manner of home remedies and commercial anti-lice products. Finally it came down to a binary choice: either we use RID, an expensive but market-leading anti-lice shampoo, or nothing.
In the event, Erin deftly slipped between the horns of the dilemma by buying RID but not using it. Her rationale, based on the fine print she read on the box, was that some strains of lice are impervious to RID, and she didn’t want to risk irritating our kids’ scalps if the shampoo wasn’t even a sure thing. I hit upon a strategy of trying it out on myself to see if it’s hard on the scalp, but then I read the even finer print and discovered that you shouldn’t use it if you’re allergic to ragweed, which I just so happen to be. Erin did use the chintzy plastic lice comb that it came with, so at least we couldn’t return the RID.
Lice infestation is hard on a marriage. It ended up falling to Erin to comb out the kids’ hair looking for nits (eggs or leftover egg casings), nymphs (immature lice—isn’t this disgusting?), and adult lice. She decided she had to be the one to do it because I was obviously useless at it, being unable to find anything on her head. Since I’m normally pretty good at detail work, she took my incompetence to be a sign of not trying, and, by extension, of not caring. Of course, she couldn’t find anything on my head either, but she figured that was because I have too little hair left for a louse to bother with.
Since she couldn’t do her own lice check, Erin found a head lice spa to go to. It took me by surprise that such a business could exist, but of course I should have known. Off Erin went to this insanely expensive place where they gave her green tea, played New Age music, said soothing things, and petted her head a lot. They offer no guarantee of any kind that their techniques are effective. (If this had been a business catering to guys it’d be like smogging your car, where there’s a money-back guarantee.) About the only good thing I can say about the spa is that the lousseuse told Erin, “You owe your husband an apology. I can’t find anything either.” She finally ended up finding one little speck that could have been a nit. Of course, it could have been a fleck of sawdust, the broken-off tip of an eyelash, or something the lousseuse herself planted there. She sent Erin home with a gorgeous stainless steel designer lice comb.
Thus began a nightly ritual of Erin getting the kids’ hair wet and running the lice comb through their scalps, squinting at the varicolored specks that would be dislodged, and cursing the whole affair. I cannot fathom how the term “nitpicking” came to mean “showing too much concern with insignificant details” because ridding our scalps of nits now seemed all-important. We took other measures too. For example, I put Lindsay’s teddy bear, in a gallon-size Ziploc, in the freezer overnight. Whether due to the cold or because I forgot to leave an air hole, when I retrieved the bear in the morning it was dead. Please don’t tell Lindsay. I also froze my helmet pads, and we did outrageous, climate-changing amounts of laundry. Erin even decided, in a particularly frantic moment, to give Alexa a short haircut. Alexa was fairly stoic about this, but poor Lindsay was heartbroken about the loss of her heroic big sister’s glorious long locks. (I felt sheepish witnessing this show of sympathy. When I was a kid, I always took great pleasure in my brothers’ misfortunes.)
Perhaps our most disturbing treatment was slathering our heads in über-expensive lotion and then wrapping them in plastic shower caps, which we’d seal up tight like gaskets, before bed. All night, every time your head would move, there’d be this crackling, ripping sound like a martial arts guy makes. The idea is to suffocate the adult lice, terrify the nymphs, and poach the eggs. Or something like that; I was never that clear on what louse phase this treatment targeted. All I know is that you have to destroy the lice in all their life stages or the cycle will never end.
If you ever find yourself with a family-wide lice infestation, don’t expect any sympathy from friends ... mine just seemed completely grossed out. A colleague instant-messaged me one morning and said, “How’s the treatment going?” I wrote back, “Lousy.” I thought I’d at least get an LOL out of that, but nothing. No sense of humor on this sordid topic.
We’d discovered the lice in February, and over the next four months we went through everything from despondent denial (“The lice must be gone by now”), to paralysis (“I know the kids have lice but I’m too tired to deal with it”), to fear (“Could this lotion be hard on the kids’ skin?”), to fury (see above), and then to resignation: “We won’t be rid of the lice until summer because everybody at the school must have it.”
So what finally worked? Well, I’d like to edify you with the inspiring tale of how we finally won the War On Lice, but the fact is, we never did prevail. In the end, the lice just left us. It was like we suddenly weren’t good enough for them anymore. Of course we were relieved, but I had to work through some abandonment issues. Plus, we still can’t believe they’re really gone: every itch becomes a tickle that spawns paranoia, and just last night Erin was combing Lindsay’s hair after a bath and suddenly said, “You’ve got to be kidding me. That better not be lice.”
Well, I see I’m out of room. I had meant to write more, and on some cheerier topics, but that’s how it goes. All of us Alberts wish you a wonderful, parasite-free holiday!
Well, the lice did come back—in full force. In despair, we hired a lice removal specialist who made house calls. If you think this sounds expensive, you’re exactly right. But we (i.e., Erin) just didn’t have the energy to do the combing anymore, and were sick of failing at it. Well, the expert went at somebody’s head for about five minutes and announced, “There’s no lice here.” Erin, disbelieving, located some lice on the head in question and pointed it out. “That’s not lice, that’s dandruff,” the expert said. She brought out some samples of actual lice, in little Ziploc bags, and showed us. Sure enough, Erin hadn’t been seeing anything like that on anyone’s head. Thus was solved the mystery of how we were never able to get rid of the lice—they simply never existed (other than the single blood-gorged louse we’d found early on).
So did I mention this in the next year’s holiday newsletter, or mail around an addendum? Nope. I guess all our friends and family believe, to this day, that we’re a bunch of filthy outsiders spreading this hideous plague across our community. Oh well.
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