The story of the swine flu epidemic and the pig who cried wolf

April 27, 2009

Influenza_Vaccination_1976 The swine flu outbreak is now a national emergency, a swine flu epidemic, coming in, it seems, from Mexico. Here in California, travel to Mexico is nothing, heck, one of my daughter’s middle school teachers pops down there to surf every time he’s got a three-day weekend.

So I should be concerned. I’m trying to be concerned. But I’m having trouble working up a healthy level of paranoia because I used it all up during the swine flu panic of 1976.

I was at Michigan State then, one of 45,000 students. Since swine flu was expected to attack young, healthy people living in close quarters, we figured we were going to be ground zero for this epidemic. We were afraid, very afraid, and relieved when the administration told us that we were all going to be vaccinated. We were herded into long lines somewhere in the center of campus; we didn’t even have to go to the health clinic. And we were zapped in the arm by some kind of shot-gun; the person giving the vaccine simply pulled a trigger; I remember thinking this was pretty amazing. What I don’t remember thinking about is whether or not I wanted this vaccine (of course I did, if I didn’t get it, for sure I was going to die), or hearing anything about possible side effects.

I went back to my dorm feeling relieved; that was done, now I could get back to parties and obsessing about boys and, oh yeah, classes and studying.

Instead, for the next day or so, my dorm mates and I found out about one scary side effect—random episodes of fainting.

My suitemate was the first to go down. She taking a shower in our shared bathroom, my roommate and I heard a thud and went in to see what was going on, and she was on the floor. It hit me a few hours later; I started to get up from the couch, and, classically, things did start to fade to black; I managed to toss myself back down on the couch safely, but was afraid to stand up again for a long time. And we weren’t the only ones; from what we heard, it seemed like more people were having fainting spells than weren’t. And we all felt altogether lousy for at least 24 hours.

I was one of 40 million people vaccinated in the U.S. that year.  There was no epidemic, a reported 25 people died from the vaccine itself. I pretty much forgot about the whole experience, chalking it up as a waste of adrenaline and time.

Until now. This time, it may be for real. So I’ll have to try to forget about 1976, and pigs who cry wolf.


Stopping to smell the cherry blossoms

April 17, 2009

IMG_3000 We took our kids to Japan for spring break. We gathered up all those frequent flyer miles that we’d been saving for a decade or so and figured out that while we couldn’t all go on the same flights, we could indeed all get to Tokyo the same afternoon. It seemed like a good time to turn my kids’ worlds upside down.

And Japan will do that for you. Jet lag, of course, helps; you’re physically out of synch. Driving and walking on the left instead of the right means that nothing is automatic—not crossing the street, not stepping onto an escalator, not turning a corner. You have to question everything you do. You thought you knew how to go to the bathroom—you were wrong. Handle the sniffles? Wrong again (you sniff, wear a face mask, but never blow). That soda you got out of the vending machine that’s now in your hand, well, kid, now you have a problem, because you need to find some place to sit down and drink it; read the sign (if you can), it seems to say that you’re not supposed to drink it on the street.

It was good for the kids to realize that our way isn’t the only way, to watch mom and dad struggle along with them to adapt, to watch us make mistakes, to be surprised. I got in trouble when I stepped onto the carpet wearing the sandals that were meant for the stone patio; the kids took note and never made that mistake. They made other mistakes though—taking their shoes off to go through airport security? Wrong! (Though it seems we were taking our shoes off every five minutes everywhere else). That lovely platter that, in the picture on the menu, looked like an entrée? It turned out to be dessert. (The kids shared their entrees and then shared the unplanned dessert—or maybe that wasn’t a mistake).

IMG_2992 They learned to bathe Japanese style, in a group, and even my body-conscious tweens didn’t balk. They learned the proper pattern for washing before entering a temple, and “purified themselves” every chance they got. We burned incense, and rang bells, and made donations and wishes. And wondered about the lives of the geisha and maiko that we occasionally spotted. And talked about why cherry blossoms are so important in Japan, why whole cities shut down so everyone can admire them.

The trip to Japan, perhaps our last as a family of five before our oldest is out of the nest was, for us, like the cherry blossoms: a reminder that beautiful things only last a short time. We need to stop and pay attention to them while we can.

And for a week, that’s just what we did. We paid attention: to what we ate (strange or familiar), to the people around us, to what shoes we wear when, to which way to look when we crossed the street. And to the cherry blossoms, each branch more perfect than the next.

Now, back in Silicon Valley, of course, we’re not paying attention anymore. We’re rushing to get to a sports practice, a rehearsal; hustling to do homework, squeezing dinner in in between.

Meanwhile, down the street, two perfect cherry blossom trees are in full bloom. I haven’t seen one person stop to admire them, to whip out a camera or cell phone and take a picture, or to lay a blue tarp on the ground and call their friends for an impromptu party. And while I slow down a little as I pass them, I don’t stop either.

The Downside of Digital Mammograms

April 3, 2009

J0407126 I got my annual mammogram today—my first with the new digital technology. And all I can say is that the genius behind this gizmo was not a woman.

The device isn’t more accurate than a regular film xray (at least in women over 50 with normal breast tissue, like me, for younger women, maybe, studies are still being done); it is, at best, comparable. Theoretically, it could offer lower radiation doses; at this point it’s, again, about the same.

So advantages, not so much.

Disadvantages, huge. Because digital mammograms require LONGER SQUISH TIME!

I’m not sure how long the squish time on the old film mammogram was. If your technician hustled back to her station to hit the button, probably no more than 7 or 8 seconds. Now, I’m guessing it is at least three times that long, perhaps longer; I wasn’t counting, I was in too much pain. It is so long that the technician no longer tells you to hold your breath, because, she told me, I’d likely need to breathe. It is so long that I’m still feeling sore four hours later.

Apparently, when the gee whiz news articles about digital mammography tout the fact that the device shortens exam time, they  mean that you don’t have to wait three minutes for the technician to go check the film before she releases you. This is three minutes that you spend sitting comfortably in a chair, perhaps glancing at a magazine. They ignore the dramatic increase in squish time.

And there’s one other unpleasant little fact about digital mammography—the examining rooms need to be kept uncomfortably cool; crank up the heat enough so a half-naked woman feels comfortable and the machine gets too hot and shuts down. (Or so this is what the technician told me when she apologized about the chill.)

The person who invented this lovely “improvement” in mammography is not someone with breasts

Could swine flu sink my son’s senior spring?

March 30, 2009

J0104730 One high school in Silicon Valley has already been shut down. Santa Clara County Health officials are talking about the possibility of closing schools around the region, banning public gatherings. They are reassuring people that the swine flu emergency isn’t to that point yet, but they need to consider all the options.

Meanwhile, my oldest son is on the downhill slope of what has been a grueling senior year. College applications, college decisions, tough AP classes, a yearlong crunch to prepare for a summer drama festival—that’s just about over. Left ahead—the celebration of the end of 13 years of school, including the baccalaureate ceremony, the senior class picnic, graduation, and the grad nite party, and then packing up and taking the show he’s worked on all year over to the Fringe Festival in Scotland. Yeah, it’s a busy calendar, but it’s good busy, the reward at the end of the race.

And if swine flu catches hold, heck, if they find even one case at his high school, senior spring could simply disappear. His could be the first class that holds their graduation on Facebook and then gets their diplomas in the mail.

And this side effect of swine flu, not fear of the flu itself, is what has me checking the local papers anxiously every morning.

The solution to the ladies’ room line problem

March 15, 2009

J0399550 The Palace Theatre in New York has 1740 seats—and just three toilets in the ladies’ room. I’m not thinking about this little fact when I linger at my seat at intermission, chatting briefly with the guy next to me, instead of diving into the aisle to make a mad dash to the bathroom. So I find myself near the end of a very long line that loops back and forth around the bar area. It does not look good.

And then I hear her voice—the one-woman solution to the bathroom line problem, disguised as an ordinary bathroom attendant.

“Ladies, it’s too quiet in there, I wanna hear that peepee flowing!”

“Let’s go let’s go, we got a lotta people with full bladders out here, let’s go, all right, that’s the way.”

“OK, listen to that, now that’s what I’m talkin’ about!”

“Come on folks, we want to make happy bladders, happy bladders, keep it moving.”

“All right, you’re doing a good job, we’ve got three minutes; we can do this!”

At this point people in line are unbuckling belts, getting those tight top buttons open. She’s got us all on her team, we have one goal, to get every woman in and out of the bathroom before the second act starts. The first chimes ring.

“Two minutes, keep it going, you’ve got until the music starts to get into a stall, the lights don’t go down until the overture is over, just keep moving, you can make it.”

The music indeed starts just as I reach the front of the line. And when I leave–in record time–I hear the attendant murmur to herself, nodding her head in satisfaction. “That went well tonight, when I saw the line I wasn’t sure, but I think we got everybody.” And I indeed make it back to my seat in time, just as the houselights go dark.

Generation Gap at the Movies

February 15, 2009

I recently went to a screening of the movie Palo Alto, CA. Attending the show: about 60 high school kids and two other women my age; one was the director’s mom (I sat next to her), I wasn’t sure about the other. Probably, she, like me, was transportation.

The movie follows four boys, freshmen in college, home in Palo Alto for Thanksgiving weekend. The boys meet, then scatter; the movie follows each of their stories. Two of the plotlines mostly work, two mostly don’t.

But the surprise for me on the way home, discussing the movie with my teen and his friend, was that the teens completely missed the fifth, and, for me, the most interesting plotline.

For me this movie was, start to finish, homage to American Graffiti, a movie I saw in the theaters when it came out in 1973 and I was 15, the perfect target audience. My son saw it on DVD a couple of years ago and only remembers it vaguely.

The teens did get that the white T-bird occasionally glimpsed in Palo Alto, was a reference to American Graffiti, but that was it. They didn’t notice that one of the young actors looked an awful lot like a young Ron Howard, or wonder, as the white-haired old-lady character talked about her past, if she, maybe, had been the mystery girl cruising in that white T-bird back in the 60s. They didn’t connect bus driver, the only other adult in the movie, who drove around town in a deserted bus, appearing almost magically to spout philosophy, was an updated Wolfman Jack. And I’m sure there were other American Graffiti references I missed.

Though maybe, there weren’t. Maybe the young directors making this movie liked white T-birds, and the rest was all my imagination. If so, as Emily Litella used to say (another obscure reference that my kids wouldn’t understand), “never mind.”

Palo Alto without moms, kids, or strollers

February 15, 2009

51ZyAaihg0L._SL500_AA240_ It’s odd watching a movie about your home town. I just did that; I watched Palo Alto, CA., now out on DVD after a couple of showings at film festivals and in a few theaters. It gets even weirder when you catch occasional glimpses of your kid in that movie (quite a few Palo Alto teens stayed up until 2 a.m. many nights during the summer of 06, working as extras in return for free pizza).

Of course, Hollywood takes liberties when rendering any supposedly real place, so you know it’s not going to be completely authentic—while the streets and houses of Old Palo Alto were familiar, the downtown was magically imported from Los Altos, and I didn’t recognize the high school with the long indoor corridors at all. The lack of reality was a good thing in at least one instance; it meant that the beer bottle in  my teen’s hand was just a prop.

But the oddest thing was what was noticeably absent in the movie. Daylight, for one; the whole thing took place at night, late at night, on mostly deserted streets or in wild parties that, in real life, the police would have shut down by 10 pm. Police, for another; not that Palo Alto is crawling with them, but they do pass by occasionally. Adults in general were mostly missing; only two characters were over 20—a bus driver (played by Tom Arnold), and an old lady. And moms of any sort—pushing strollers, walking with children—were noticeably absent, though there was one reference to a mother inside a house (you glimpsed her silhouette through the window) as having a perfect life. This was not the Palo Alto I know.

Interesting, though, to look at Palo Alto through the eyes of young adults (the three directors were all college students), and to realize that while teens walk the same streets the rest of us do, they are truly living in a different world.

Where are the scandalous books when you need them?

February 3, 2009

0929071506.01._SS500_SCLZZZZZZZ_V1056507877_ “The best thing your kid can do is read for pleasure.” I hear this regularly; just about anyone who gives you advice about raising a successful student tells you this. And I do believe it, I believe that my passion for reading as a child gave me a huge boost academically (it sure wasn’t my high school’s academic offerings, anyway).

I expected my kids would be readers. When I had any free time at all, I picked up a book; my mother had to practically yank it out of my hands to get me to the dinner table. I figured, that, as a mother, I’d be in the same situation, telling my kids to put the book down already.

But, instead I’m dragging them away from the computer. When my kids have time to kill, the first thing they think of is going online, seeing who’s chatting, what’s new on  Facebook, or playing a game. The situation is getting a little better, they have friends who read, trade books back and forth, and at least are getting addicted to reading in bed. But they don’t seem to feel the panic I do if I don’t have a book in progress at all times; after all, the computer is always there.

I’m not blaming it all on the computer, though. I think a big part of the problem is that we haven’t had any really “adult” books create a scandal in a long time, the kind of books that everyone talks about in slightly appalled tones, the kind that kids absolutely shouldn’t be reading, so of course will at the first opportunity.

In the 50s, that book was Peyton Place. It caused endless scandals, and I’m sure turned many young teens into readers. (I read it recently for my book club, it wasn’t bad, but, these days, not so scandalous.)

I remember three from my 60s childhood, that I’d heard enough about before they came into our house that I was eager to sneak off with them as soon as I possibly could: Valley of the Dolls (1966), Lord of the Flies (originally published in the 50s but not a bestseller until the mid 60s), and Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). These three were full of drugs, violence, and sex (pretty much in that order). Completely inappropriate for a preteen, somewhat incomprehensible, but a great entry-level drug for a lifetime addiction to reading.

I’m not sure how far a book would have to go to scandalize folks these days—the books targeted at my kids (like the Traveling Pants books) are pretty explicit to begin with. But if one does come out, I plan on accidentally leaving it out (maybe on the bathroom counter) once I finish reading it myself.

The nursing home scene: the next generation

January 26, 2009

J0422766 For much of 2008, my aunt was in a nursing home. It was a good enough place, I guess, clean, airy (most of the residents spent their days in a large, well-lit atrium), and highly rated; it wasn’t, however, a high-end luxury facility, catering more to moderate income and Medicare patients.

Every time I visited I was struck by just how bored everyone seemed. Oh, they had a daily card or bingo game in the recreation room, folks that would occasionally read a few headlines and discuss them with the patients, and an ancient TV that seemed dedicated to showing videos of old musicals. But most of the patients—and all were confined to wheelchairs—just sat there. It’s not that most weren’t mentally alert, there was just nothing to do. So when I walked through to visit my aunt, I felt everyone’s eyes on me; I was something new going on, I was the show. When a patient tried to get up from a wheelchair and set off an alarm, everyone perked up, something was happening. When a woman got into a loud argument with her visiting husband, you could have sold tickets.

The nurses were aware of the boredom factor; they had one solution, which they offered my aunt when they saw her fidgeting with the blanket on her lap—would she like a baby doll? Several of the patients did carry baby dolls around, which they swaddled, and patted, and treated like real babies. Oh, most knew they were dolls all right, they’d put them down easily enough when there was something interesting going on, but it gave them something to do.

Blatantly missing, to my eyes, were computers. There wasn’t one public computer, anywhere, for the use of the residents; not one patient had their own computer as far as I could tell. Not really surprising—this was a generation that was mostly out of the workforce when computers came in, they didn’t learn how to use them, and had no interest in learning now. Indeed, if my experience trying to show my mother how to use a mouse or touchpad to control a cursor is any example, they’d find the whole thing more frustrating than satisfying.

The scene might not look much different at first glance when my generation populates the nursing homes; we may still be in wheelchairs, looking down at our laps. But on every lap we’ll have a computer, so at least we won’t be bored. We’ll be driving our doctors crazy by checking out the medical sites and coming up with ideas for experimental drugs to treat our diseases, we’ll be commenting rabidly on political blogs, and (this is how I plan to spend my days) we’ll be cruising virtual worlds as  20-something-year-olds, our avatars scantily dressed, picking up hot guys (and being shocked when one turns out to be the 90-year-old across the room).

The Facebook dilemma: If they weren’t your friends then, should they be your “friends” now?

January 17, 2009


When I joined Facebook a year or so ago, I checked for high school classmates but came up blank. Not a big surprise, Facebook was moving slowly into the over-40 market, and we Silicon Valley folks were the first to sign on.

In the past few weeks, though, former high school classmates have started popping up and friending me. As a Facebook group, we still number in the single digits, but the friend requests are coming often enough that I dug out my dusty yearbook and put it on a bookshelf near my computer (thinking maybe if I look at people’s old pictures I’ll remember them.)

For some of my new Facebook friends/old high school classmates aren’t people I remember easily. It’s likely that I never had one conversation with them in high school, didn’t exchange one hello.

I left some of those friend requests sitting unanswered for a bit while I figured out what I wanted to do with them. Did I really want to have contact now with people that didn’t try to reach out to me when I was a teenager, a 10th grade transfer student to a new high school, and could have really used a few new friends?

It turns out that yeah, I was willing to accept those friend requests. They make me revisit high school memories that I long thought I left behind, at a time when I’m in year four of what will add up to 11 years of high school for my three kids. Having a few flashbacks has gotta at least help me relate, a little, to what my kids are going through.

And it turns out that I have a different perspective on my high school experiences these days. I moved into the school district in early December of sophomore year, coming into a high school with a complex and inflexible social structure that boxed people into a vast array of cliques; some of these cliques even had names, and dated back to my mother’s high school days, when it was a regional instead of local high school. I didn’t really understand how all the boxes worked—there were the jocks, of course, and the druggies, and the student council, but wait, I think the druggies were the student council. And the “sub-debs” which was an odd attempt at a sorority, with hazing and initiation rituals; I think you had to be a sub-deb to be a cheerleader, or at least it seemed that way, not that I had any interest (or a shot) at being either. There were the black kids (all two or three of them). There was also a line between the “business” students (that took shorthand and typing and weren’t expecting to go to college) and the college bound. And many more boxes that I only vaguely understood. And not one group opened itself to me, though I did find a handful of the also-cliqueless to eat lunch with—all nice enough, but we had little in common other than our failure to find a box.

After a few months of waiting to see if I would magically pop into a box through no effort of my own, I stopped waiting—or paying attention to the high school social scene. I didn’t try very hard to make friends; I had a group of kids that I spent my evenings and weekends with, and while it would have been nice to have more of a social life during the school day, I didn’t have time for much more. My out-of-school friends were an eclectic bunch, from at least half a dozen different high schools, identified in their respective schools as burnouts, jocks, cheerleaders, brains, and farmers (really) but we all fit together, somehow, usually very tightly in the back of someone’s truck. And those three high school years passed in a blur, with most of my memorable adolescent moments happening elsewhere. Regrets? Oh, maybe that I didn’t go to the prom, too daunted by the complexities of bringing an out-of-school guy. But other than that, not really. Resentments? Against the administration and guidance office, for sure, who looked more at a student’s family’s social status than anything else, but against the kids? Not at all.

So now, when former classmates friend me and I don’t remember them at all, I realize that it’s not their fault that they didn’t see me in high school, the walls of the boxes were too high for me to see them, either. And that the people who fit into their little boxes, the ones that seemed to navigate those treacherous waters effortlessly and happily, were likely trapped by the structure as well. And maybe, finally, as we slowly connect on Facebook, we’ll have a better idea of who each other is—and was—than we ever did back then.