Tick, tock, tick, tock …

Ames Hazmat

How about a round of badminton while we wait for the burgers to come off the grill?

Yes, it’s that time again. Winter is finally over, Ice Season is melting into slushy, gritty memories, and we’re moving into that other half of the year: Tick season.

Here in the Ozarks, tick season runs from about the first week in April through the end of December, with occasional outbreaks in January, February, and March. By mid-May roving hordes of the little monsters will be moving through the underbrush like piranhas with legs, armored specks of concentrated evil seeking whom they may devour.

We’re all becoming pretty current on the latest tick-borne diseases in humans, and the toll on pets is equally terrifying. Repellants, foggers and sprays fill the air like morning mist; gatherings of the beautiful people are aromatic with eau de permethrin, and the rest of us bathe in Deet as if were Chanel No. 5. Continue reading

When in danger, When in doubt


The appropriate protective gear makes all the difference in the world.

In the year 2000, the first full reporting year after West Nile Virus in the US was first identified, two people in the New York City area (total population just over 8 million) died from illnesses associated with the disease. News outlets went a little crazy: dead blue jays became more popular as establishing video on the nightly news than the Empire State Building or Rudy Giuliani or even the standard crowd-of-people-hurrying-down-the-sidewalk video that had been the staple of news stories about NYC since the invention of television.

The fact that the mortality rate from West Nile is fairly low (usually only between 3 – 7% of cases result in death) did little to deaden the media roar, and West Nile white noise very effectively drowned out the fact that, during the same year, more than 2,700 New Yorkers had died of the flu.

When in danger,
When in doubt,
Run in circles
Scream and shout!

– Anonymous source, U.S. military, Infantry Journal, Vol. 35, (1929), p. 369.

West Nile was, after all, a tropical disease, first identified in Africa, that had jumped the pond and landed on our shores. It was from over there – Pat Robertson and Bill O’Reilly were right: the long-awaited African Armageddon was upon us. Suburban mothers who had claimed for years that minute doses of fluoride in the drinking water were injuring their children now began slathering those same kids in enough N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide (otherwise known as DEET) to stun a brontosaurus. Even though West Nile was not in the top 10 causes of death in the US – or the top 100, or the top 500 – it received more air time on the news than any other illness during the first few years after its appearance here. The higher death rate from people being crushed by falling furniture just didn’t have the same breathless, stay-tuned immediacy.

The flu, meanwhile, was … well, just the flu: it didn’t have anything African in its title, and you didn’t have the handy dead-bird video for your intro every night.

As the new milennium took hold, so did the new disease: the number of deaths nationwide passed two hundred per annum within only two years. When the first suspected cases were reported in Texas, some communities even rescheduled high-school football games – and in Texas, there is no more graphic indicator of public concern. From one year to the next West Nile Virus infections waxed and waned, dropping to 32 deaths in 2009, while ramping up again to an all-time high of 286 in 2012 – respectable, but still never quite making it past the “other causes” category in US mortality lists.

In 2010, firearms killed just over 31,000 Americans (not including combat deaths). West Nile Virus killed 57. Our elected officials promised to address the scourge of West Nile with all the resources at their disposal – presumably by giving everyone a handgun to shoot the virus with. Lawmakers made it clear that West Nile was threatening our way of life, while unregulated handguns had nothing to do with shooting deaths and sedentary sugar-heavy diets had nothing to do with childhood obesity. Nitric oxide and sulphuric acid plumes in the atmosphere over North Texas in 2010 were not in any way the result of unregulated manufacturing facilities in Ellis County but were instead attributed by politicians to the 2009 Gay Pride parade in Dallas.

This week saw the first home-grown case of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, in – of course – Texas, the state that gave us such giants of scientific and medical insight as Louie Gohmert and Joe Barton. (The patient appears to have contracted the disease while traveling in West Africa.) Unlike West Nile, which is only transmitted by blood-to-blood contact, such as through the bite of a female mosquito, Ebola can be transmitted by ingesting any of the bodily fluids of an infected individual, such as vomit, the effluent from diarrhoea, or particles of mucus released in a sneeze. Any person infected with Ebola can be a significant source of further spread of the disease, if he or she is not isolated and treated promptly and properly.

That said, the odds of any one individual in the United States contracting the disease from the Dallas patient are slim, especially given that the patient is currently in treatment and does not appear to have passed on his infection.

In fact, the greatest danger in any disease occurence is, and always has been, that posed by populations reacting in irrational or uninformed ways. Polio has been eradicated in most of the world – except in parts of Nigeria and Pakistan where vaccination is resisted by people who have been convinced by unscrupulous political leaders that the whole thing is just an American plot to sterilize their children; as a result, those children are being subjected to one of the most devastating illnesses known to man. During the various plagues that bedeviled medieval Europe, Jews and Muslims were often blamed for the outbreaks simply because those populations seemed to be mysteriously less susceptible: that immunity was, of course, not due to some sort of satanic conspiracy, but because Jewish and Islamic cultural traditions required regular bathing, hand-washing before meals, and careful storage and handling of food, limiting exposure to rats, insects, and infected people. Even in modern America, many people in farming communities kill snakes, foxes, coyotes and other predators on sight, allowing rats and other rodents to infest pastures, barns and feed bins; it’s no accident that modern outbreaks of bubonic plague occur exclusively in these places.

If I were going to be traveling to Sierra Leone over the next few weeks, would I be worried? You bet. Am I going to start wearing surgical gloves and a filter mask in the grocery store? I don’t think so.

Is Ebola a terrible disease. You bet it is. This year’s outbreak in west Africa is wiping out entire families, decimating entire towns — without proper care and control efforts, a lot of people die. Is this likely to be what kills me when my number is up? Probably not: so far this year, US injuries and death resulting from tipping over vending machines trying to get a snack without paying for it outnumber Ebola hospitalizations here by over 50 to 1.

I’ll lay off the free Moon Pies and Cheezits for a while and take my chances with the rest.


Dream a Little Dream.

Last night I dreamt that my family was being studied by a world-famous psychiatrist (the doctor’s first name was Hannah, but that’s all I remember of her identity) and dozens of my relatives had been gathered together for the purpose, almost none of whom I recognized. Even my father — who died some years ago — showed up in a cheap brown suit and took a stroll through the crowd and then wandered back out the way he came, without saying a word to anyone.

Dada artist Hannah Hoch might have provided a model for Doctor Hannah, although I don’t personally recognize anyone in this image.

(Personally, I would have thought the job would have required more than a single psychiatric professional — we were always a bit more like the Simpsons than the Cleavers — but I suppose my dream-insurance didn’t cover that.)

In the middle of a room full of people there was a table covered with documents: books, letters, pictures, and so on; all the odds and ends that a family accumulates over time. One large photo album had pictures of my immediate family in a variety of situations — around the table, in front of the Christmas Tree, at a barbeque — all quite normal, except that the faces were from different photos, sometimes from different ages, cut out in little squares and glued on over the existing versions: the correct faces on each body, simply taken from the other pictures. When I started flipping through the album, Doctor Hannah come over and took it from me, informing me that these materials were only for the family.

When I pointed out that I was, in fact, a member of the family, she backed off — but reluctantly, clearly suspicious, not entirely convinced.

As is often the case with dreams, other things happened that seemed significant in the context of the dream, but confusing.  There were conversations, interactions, such as meeting a little boy who was both a distant cousin and a friend from my own childhood (apparently un-aged), and being rudely snubbed by an angry dark woman who looked like Maria Callas.

Toward the end of the dream, I found myself in conversation with the doctor, and she asked me if I was afraid of ghosts. I told her that I was not afraid, that ghosts were my friends. She then observed that this was perhaps because I was, myself, “the family ghost”.

I woke up about this time, but, needless to say, the dream stayed with me.

.  .  .

Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung — who, with Sigmund Freud, co-founded the subset of psychiatry they called psychoanalysis — believed that there were layers of images and ideas within us all that represent basic human principles, themes that we all hold in common, regardless of culture or experience, simply by virtue of our shared biology. He called these concepts “archetypes”.

Early in his career Sigmund Freud was fortunate enough to meet the woman of his dreams: she was beautiful, she was intelligent, she was fascinated by his theories, she was clearly destined to be his soul mate. What did he do? He married her dumpy and intellectually-challenged sister, and then just made everyone’s lives miserable. He and Jung parted ways over Freud’s obsession with sex as the root of all human emotion — he felt so strongly about it that when Jung contradicted his theories he would burst into tears, and sometimes faint dead away. A carpenter might find the perfect opportunity to polish his skills by living in a really old house that is in constant need of repair: perhaps the same principle applies.

Whereas Freud traced everything back to some rather gruesome principles of childhood psycho-sexual development, Jung interpreted the behavior of human beings as the expression of our relationships to the internal archetypes. He was fascinated by frameworks such as alchemy and the Tarot, in which experience and interaction are formulated into a complex, but internally consistent, symbolic language, representing our innermost feelings and impulses through highly developed images. Both Freud and Jung saw great value in dreams as a means for the “unconscious” to express itself without being edited or suppressed by our conscious selves, and both organized elaborate systems of interpretation — Freud, typically, relating everything to sex, and Jung searching the dream imagery for evidence of the archetypes, hoping to use these symbols as guides to the underlying mind of the dreamer.

Today, many of those who study such things believe that there is, in fact, no structure to dreaming; that only upon waking do we attempt to drag the tattered bits and pieces of meaningless imagery that may have haunted our sleep into some kind of recognizable narrative. Others believe that dreaming is simply a way for our minds to sort and prioritize the vast accumulation of images and feelings that we experience during our waking hours, filing away important concepts in a sort of underground memory, a river of experience that bubbles up to provide our moments of déjà vu or inspiration, allowing our waking selves to reach beyond the daylight world for the ideas and connections that separate us from cats and cattle and coyotes.

Me, I’ll go with the middle ground: Like everyone else, I’ve found myself in the embarrassing position of telling some story about a past experience — completely sure of my facts — only to be contradicted by someone else who was also present at the time. Memory, clearly, is flawed, even when we’re wide awake: how much more unreliable might it be when we attempt to bridge the gap between waking and sleep?

On the other hand, if I had the conscious ability to assemble the sort of scenarios that I wake up from two or three times a week I’d be in Hollywood, and Johnny Depp would be camped out on my doorstep waiting for a chance at the next screenplay. Something is going on in my skull while I’m snoring into my pillows.

I like dreams: even nightmares can seem like a window into another world, a place where many of the same people live and work and play, but where the rules are different: a stairway can go up or down forever; a room can become larger or smaller from one moment to the next; a ventriloquist’s dummy can chase you down the hallway and out into the front yard, gibbering wildly from that creepy little hinged jaw and waving its disgusting little arms. (Those things should be outlawed. I mean, really.) In our dreams we have the opportunity to live in two different realities, and sometimes we get to take a little something from one to the other.

When I was a boy I dreamed about pirates and giant ants and the Blob. Now I’m thinking I ought to write a movie about the family ghost. Tonight I’m putting a notebook next to my bed: Tim Burton, get out of my way.


Cedar Fever

I was awakened this morning bright and early by a phone call, which is never a good thing.

The cheery female voice that greeted my less-than-gracious hello-noise was that of a computerized telemarketing system which proceeded to remind me that I did not yet have a plan in place for disposing of my sad remains should I drop dead at any moment, my “final major expense”, as she/it put it. Continue reading