In late 2006 I decided to take the plunge into the wacky world of social networking and joined Myspace. It was a revelation to me--a whole new way to explore the universe outside of my very small world of writing and parenting.
I'm so glad that Jody Reale turned out to be a part of that universe. Her writing is so often snort out loud funny, but can also be poignant beyond words. Blog is such an odd word--one that covers so many writing styles (or lack thereof). What I enjoy so much about Jody's blogs at Kill Your Lunch Hour is that they are always the most personal of essays. So I'll just be quiet now and let Jody talk....
Welcome, dear Jody!
The Secret Life of Lice
My whole life I’ve wanted to belong to a secret society. Any kind would have been OK by me, although my delusions of grandeur always forced me to lean toward the kind that determines the course of world events, fixes the Olympics. The kind that orders the weather, that sort of thing. But after decades of waiting patiently for some envelope containing only an address and password to find its way under my door, or for a black sedan to swerve into my driveway while I was taking out the garbage, I figured that this might be just one more job I was going to have to do myself.
Minutes after deciding to form a secret society of women bent on world domination, I enlisted my friend Dawn as my co-founding member. We decided to call ourselves The Bush Administration. I think the minutes of our first and last meeting, which we never wrote down, included drinking most of Dawn’s good whiskey and reserving our domain name, which now seems kind of inappropriate, given the supposedly secret nature of our work. After I said, “Wait a minute. Maybe we’re already in a secret society, we just don’t know it,” and Dawn said, “Yeah, I’ve got to feed the horses,” we dismissed ourselves, never to reconvene again under the banner of sacred sisterhood.
Over the years my husband Alex and I, together with our daughter Sophie and dog Lou have formed a nice little club of our own, and we hold meetings during which we argue over who’s going to clean the fishbowl, and whether it will be ski school or ballet lessons this winter. That sort of thing. For fun, we tease telemarketers who call during dinner by pretending to be senile, or that we only speak Spanish. (The secret there is that the only Spanish we speak is the phrase, “For service in Spanish, please press 2.”)
And then, a few weeks ago, just like that, I was tapped for membership in the nation’s oldest secret society. Sophie came home from preschool with head lice.
“We’re so sorry,” her teachers whispered, “some parents would rather their kids had Ebolla than lice.” And I have to admit, I may have been one of those parents. The flu goes away by itself most of the time; you can take a kid to the doctor if it doesn’t. But with lice, my initiation to the club was a lonely undertaking that began one Tuesday morning without warning. And because I’m a first time parent with a complete lack of lousy experiences of my own, I was totally unprepared. “I don’t even know what head lice are,” I said to my mom, who was infuriated over the whole thing. “What kind of filthy people took their kid to school with lice?” She said. I said, “I don’t know, but I’d like to kill them,” I said, taking every thread of clothing we owned to the laundry room. Then I gasped, mid-sentence. Once word got out, people were going to start saying the same thing about us. We were already that family, with the daughter who had, as one parent pointed out in the nicest way possible, “A very strong and unique sense of style.”
Between looking up “head lice” on the Internet, and making frantic phone calls to the doctor, the pharmacy, the Army National Guard, I had decided that situations like these were like grenades: You either had to get away fast, or throw yourself on them for the good of your unit. I called Alex. “Let’s shave our heads and sell the house,” I urged him.
“You said that the last time we had a clogged drain in the shower,” he said.
I spent the next several hours buying every product stocked on a retail shelf within a ten-mile radius that promised to dispatch the insects crawling on Sophie with extreme prejudice. And in the tradition of Fight Club, the motto around the house was not to talk about lice. The next day, I found a live one right on top of her head, practically tipping his hat to me, saying, “Top of the morning to you!” And that was it. I’d had enough of the whole mess.
I abandoned any plans I had for the rest of the week, and spent it figuring out what it would take to genuinely end The Days of Our Lice. As it turns out, the news was relatively good. Distilled down to the simplest terms, I came up with a plan that required a vacuum, a metric ton of laundry detergent, and a nit comb, which I think I’d bought ten of the day before. And also, with millions of cases in the U.S., I discovered that we’re not the only family to have ever been infested, which means that head lice and Spice Girls albums have a lot in common: pretty much everyone has had at least one, but would never admit it. I guess that’s the difference between a secret society and a dirty little secret.
And the news was relatively bad, too. If ever there was a time I could have unapologetically used the “we can put a man on the moon…” expression, it was the day I learned that the best, most reliable treatment possible is the old-timey kind, cavemen-tested, and orangutan-approved. Now that pests have adapted and grown resistant to our high-tech, chemically-enhanced ways, the most effective treatment possible is to manually remove every last critter, egg, and nit from the head using a tiny little metal comb. This was sure to be interpreted as cruel and unusual punishment to the child who would sooner sell her kidney on the black market than volunteer for even a normal hair combing. If there are no coincidences, what did it mean that the girl with the big, curly mop of hair with a dreadlock in it that could put George Clinton and the entire Parliament Funkadelic to shame was going to have to endure a literal nitpicking of every strand of her hair? What did this whole thing mean about us? Since I didn’t know, I assumed the worst.
But you know what happens when you “assume,” don’t you? I combed Sophie’s hair for a combined total of about six hours, and she was as understanding and tolerant as any adult. Her little mop cost me three days of preschool, countless episodes of children’s television, and two giant boxes of popsicles. After the hardest labor was done, which included vacuuming every imaginable surface of the house and washing every thread of clothing we owned in hot water, Sophie and I spent the weekend lounging around with our hair up, watching too much TV and wearing pajamas. We cuddled on the couch, discussing the existential perils of being four, and who at school is allergic to cheese. A week earlier, Sophie had gone to a relative’s farm with my parents, and my mom braved whatever threat may or may not have existed, to deliver the apples Sophie had picked with her own little hands, and then she decided to stay and bake us a pie.
It was lovely, and yet, there was the nagging threat of being discovered, found out. What if all my efforts weren’t enough, and Sophie went out into the world to infest others who then wanted to kill us and wondered what kind of filthy people we were? As it was, I was going to have to tell my cousin that we wouldn’t make it to her bridal shower. Should I tell her the truth, or tell her we had flesh-eating bacteria? Once I was on the phone with her, I couldn’t lie. It was freeing, parting with that tiny little secret, which made the rounds to the rest of the family, as secrets do. “I hope you don’t mind, but Michele told me about your little problem,” my cousin Gina emailed, “call my sister. She heard about some remedy using mayonnaise.”
And when we returned to school, I let it be known that I was to be addressed as the Nit Nazi, or The Louse Whisperer. Even if parents didn’t want anyone else to know they were talking about “the big L,” no one really minded. In fact, panicked parents called me to ask if they should cancel all their play dates; others called to express their sympathy. “Aw, poor Sophie,” one mother said, “was she miserable?”
“Not really,” I said, “I was the one who suffered, and the only thing wrong with my hair is that I’m in desperate need of highlights and a deep conditioner.” I must say, I do feel just the tiniest bit more invincible than I did before. I haven’t determined the course of world events, but we all kept our hair and the house. And just like that, after all those years of pining, I excused myself from the one secret society that wanted me. I guess the burden of secrecy just isn’t for me. Sometimes it takes a little six-legged creature the size of a sesame seed to reveal some huge, invisible truths. I have changed, however, and in changing myself, the world has seemed to change around me.
Yesterday, for example, I saw this guy at the grocery store with an afro so huge it deserved its own embassy. I thought to myself, can you imagine how many boxes of popsicles it would take to comb the lice out of that thing? And the last time I walked down the Pearl Street Mall, I stopped in front of the hat kiosk, the one where every tourist in town stops to try on the same outlandish hats and then put them back on the rack for some other stranger to try on. It took all my restraint to not stage several interventions right there on the spot. I’ve also tried contacting several fashion designers to implore them to find a way to bring the shower cap into vogue.
Finally, I considered inventing a drinking game in which I read this out loud to a group of people. Anyone who scratches his head has to chug a beer. And then leave my house. But what I’ve settled on is the maxim that when life hands you lemons, you don’t just make lemonade, you make a lemonade recipe book.
And when life hands you lice, write a how-to book entitled Let’s Shave Our Heads and Sell the House: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents Panicked Over Lice. And in a throwback to my old days as a secret society wannabe, I’ve reserved a domain name. Can you believe HeadLiceHandBook.com was available? Sometimes even I can’t believe my good fortune.
Thank you so much, Jody!
I found this piece absolutely terrifying, in the most delightful way. (Oh, and I want to note to everyone that the photos are neither of Jody's daughter--nor are they of Jody's actual headlice.) And how cool is it that she created a handbook to save us all? Though I confess I hope I never, ever need it!
[Remember--Everyone who comments is entered to win $100 Godiva Chocolatier and Harry & David giftbaskets, plus books from several Octoberguest! authors! Drawing held November 2nd.]
Tomorrow: The Fabulous Alexandra Sokoloff