Sunday, April 26, 2009

One Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest

(Yes, it's a re-run. But last night I spent entirely too much time at a nice restaurant gleefully talking about swine flu, I thought this quirk of my personality deserved another look.)

Sometimes I wonder if anyone reading this thinks I’ve been exaggerating my utter geekiness. “But,” I can hear someone in a sparsely populated county saying plaintively, “You live in Los Angeles. Los Angeles! Why, I bet you can walk out your front door, go to the nearest Starbucks to see Brad and Angelina making out next to Keanu while Britney nurses her son over by the cream counter. C’mon, you do go to clubs, right?”If any of you have the image of me finishing a QC Report, and then slipping into something plunging and taking my pearl-grey Porsche convertible to the hottest club in Hollywood and air-kissing Nicole Ritchie as I sashay past the doorman with a not-so-sotto “Hey, Bruno, keep that riff-raff out”, I want to present you with a more accurate visual.

Last night, I hunkered down in front of the TV to savor a long-awaited documentary on the Spanish Influenza of 1918.What makes it sadder still is that I already know a great deal about the Spanish Influenza of 1918.

In fact, Consort declared a moratorium on book reports at the dinner table due to the most recent book I read on the Spanish Influenza of 1918. Yeah, I said most recent book; I have read multiple books on the subject.

[I also hold dear an out of print book on execution methods throughout recorded history. In fact, this was the first present Consort ever gave me -- after a few weeks of social interaction, he suspected I might like it (Hands off, girls. He’s mine). As a child, I read The Book of Lists until it fell apart in my hands. Before I hit adolescence I could speak endlessly on the ten most brutal murders of the Victorian age. This, I imagine, has all but wiped out the image of my being cool to any reader, and replaced it with the image of the weird neighbor you never let baby-sit your kids.]

So, I sat through this documentary to see if it had any new information; and to feel smug. There are armchair quarterbacks. There are armchair golfers. I imagine there are armchair bowlers (the armchair bowler being in slightly better physical condition than the professional bowler). Me? I am an armchair pathologist. But I don’t rely on CSI; CSI: New York, CSI: Miami, CSI: Cleveland for my fantasy exhumations. No, for me it must be a real medical situation and, ideally, feature a bow-tied British PhD with a boiled-egg complexion, a frothy comb-over and, I can only hope, a mildly heretical new theory about the subject at hand.

So last night, as the narrator intoned “The rapid transmission of the flu can be attributed to…“ I hollered “Movements of huge amounts of troops who had grown up in small towns, leaving them relatively unexposed to disease!”

Narrator: “The first suspected case of the flu was recorded in…“

Me (hollering at screen): “A soldier in Kansas!”

Narrator (simultaneously): “…an enlisted soldier in Kansas”.

It was a pathetic little party.But then the narrator said, in what I took to be a smirking tone, “But Dr. Oxford thinks the point of origin might lie elsewhere…”


Cut to Dr. Oxford, his comb-over undulating in the breeze, suggesting that the first cases were at a military camp in France, about a year before the actual epidemic started. Such temerity! My blood -pressure rose.

“But where is the VECTOR?”

For those of you with lives, let me explain. Influenza begins in wild birds, mutates into domesticated birds such as chickens, and makes the leap into mammals, usually pigs. Only then can it be contracted by human beings. As if he heard me [which wouldn’t be surprising, as our neighbors have heard me yelling at such times], Dr. Oxford then presented pictures of young men living at the army camp smilingly holding up live chickens, and then pictures of other young men posing among pigs. I guess even when you are saving the world from the Huns, you can find time to get snapshot for the folks at home of you pointing at a pig.

“Yeah,” I sneered at the uncaring television. “But everyday livestock does not a flu make. Where were the cases?”We armchair pathologists don’t just roll over for a photograph or two.Obviously hearing me, he next presented evidence of a young man who had died at the camps in 1916 displaying the same distinctive symptoms, including a face which turned the color of heliotrope (so hard to find lip-gloss to go with that).

Grudgingly, I -- the person who didn't finish college – had to concede that the man with a lifetimes’ work in communicable diseases might have a valid point. And then I searched Netflix to see if there was another documentary covering exactly the same information, possibly from a new angle; maybe someone got the pig's perspective.

Please don’t think I’m flu-fixated. I don’t just make time for documentaries on Spanish Influenza, I also love a good “Separating Conjoined Twins” documentary; the “Large Man About to Have Surgery to Become a Very Large Woman” documentary; and who doesn’t enjoy the occasional “Black Plague Takes Out One Third of Europe!” recap? And let’s not forget the History Channel has a category I like to call “Those Darn Invaders!” Romans, Vikings, Huns, doesn’t matter to me -- as long as I am seeing some modern men with cheap wigs and bare knees being forced to run around in sodden grass whomping on each other.

Let’s just call it by name; I’m a documentary hag. I love documentaries about cane toads in Australia. I love documentaries about Scrabble championships. I love documentaries about mid-century propaganda musicals from Soviet Russia. Given an unexpected six hours to myself in the house, I brought out boxes of family snapshots that needed organizing and Ken Burns’ epic on baseball.

And I hate baseball.

I watch so many documentaries I’ve started to see the same experts over and over again. There’s nothing like seeing a talking head on The Mysteries of the Mayans who I instantly recognize from last year’s The Puzzle of the Persians. And where is Consort during all of this, you may ask? Hiding.

He hides because one time (after Daughter was asleep) he crossed the living room and glanced absently at the television screen. “What the hell is THAT?” he yelped.“Oh,” I said brightly. “It’s about the wife-swapping sub-culture in suburban America among the middle-aged and the elderly. Can you believe the woman in the leather swing has six grandkids?”Another time, he came in while I was watching Trauma; Life in the ER and happened to see what a patella looks like after it has taken the full force of a pick-up truck backing into it. So, when Consort sees me holding a new Netflix envelope, he tends to scurry.Oh, who needs him?As long as I have a talking head in a bowtie, am omniscient narrator, and someone dressed up as Elizabeth Bathory, the Hungarian Countess who sought of hold off the ravages of age by bathing the blood of virgin girls, I’m happy.


Blogger Joy! said...

Oo, honey, you are my kind of geek!

10:03 AM  
Blogger Char said...

I was obsessed....OBSESSED with Jack the Ripper and have read most books about - and still watch all the documentaries. I get that way about certain people - like Amelia Earheart, etc. Grade school while everyone else was reading Blume - I was reading those biographies. You know the ones.

10:25 AM  
Anonymous Ash said...

Yes, but have you ever been watching a documentary on the crusades and leapt from the couch, screaming, "HEY! THAT'S MY CHAUCER PROFESSOR!"?

I'm awfully glad the lady gets side work. I'm sure the University of Houston pays like crap.

10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dude, I am a total documentary hag. I must share my favorite.

I'm sure you've seen it but in the off chance...PBS did a Secrets of the Dead about people who do not get AIDS despite multiple exposures, because their ancestors had a genetic mutation that let them survive the bubonic plague. It is FANTASTIC.

And usually I'm not that into "Secrets of the Dead." I'm too highbrow. But come on - your ancestors survive the black death, you don't get AIDS? It doesn't get much more fascinating than that.

If anyone else reading this hasn't seen it, you must watch it. Whenever it is on, I call people and make them watch it. And even non-documentary hags enjoy it. It is that good.

Also, I am having a random memory of a Spanish Influenza doc I watched maybe 10-15 years ago. They interviewed this elderly man, who was talking about his mother who caught it and died when he was a little boy. And he just absolutely broke down sobbing, even though about 65 years had passed. I was so depressed and felt so bad for him, I stopped watching Spanish Influenza documentaries. No lie.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Poppy B. said...

You are my husband's doppelganger. He, too, wore out the Book of Lists. But mostly he's a book geek.

All I know--from years of studying silent film--is that Karl Brown, one of D. W. Griffith's cameramen, got the flu in 1918 when he joined the army. He sort of staggered around for a while creating the opening sequence to Broken Blossoms, went to the infirmary, and the war was over before he was well enough to travel.

Obviously I am a big dork and seriously behind in my documentary-watching.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Dodi said...

Squee!!!! So I'm not a freak? My favorite things to either read about or watch documentaries about are:
Appalachia poverty
Gangs (Gangland!)
Henry the VIII
Plagues (any plague will do, from the Plagues of Egypt to Black death. I'm in.)
...and any freak mini documentary TLC is playing on a weekend night in case I've nothing to read. I may have been a freakshow carnival barker in a previous lifetime.

8:32 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I would love to hear your thoughts on the swine flu!

This stuff fascinate me. I also love failure analysis documentaries and that most of the time a $.68 screw is to blame.

Peace - Rene

Thank you for the links!

7:50 AM  
Blogger Dawn said...

I just read your piece in the Jan issue of Good Housekeeping (my mother-in-law passes them onto me late) and I just want to say OH HOW I AGREE WITH YOU!!! I lile that my son sleeps in his room now, but I still love to snuggle up with him when she shows up! Just like his older sister. Hoping that the baby brother we are adopting next week likes to do the same, at times!! The years fly by!!

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought we were the same person (again) until I read the sentence "And I hate baseball."

But, exchange your flu obsession with Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, and we are, down to the detail of being asked not to give book reports during mealtimes, the same person.


5:22 PM  
Blogger marthaberry said...

I love them too. But they give me ideas. I want to investigate the subject matter of every one of them I watch. I watched one that started me on my current bend -- the Mormons. So I tuned in Big Love. Now I am a goner. I am absolutely fascinated by the entire subject: the history, the prophet, his inside circle, every aspect, including current day Mormon information. My children are afraid I will be leaving on a mission soon. I have even thought about finding some of those young men on the bikes and inviting them over so I can hear more Mormon info. I had to stop talking about it out loud after trying to divert the family vacation to hit some Mormon historical hot spots, like Palmyra NY or Nauvoo, perhaps.

I do wonder about myself sometimes.

9:17 PM  
Blogger laura linger said...

Just sign me:

Anything About Hitler Or Charles Manson (And Bonus Points If It Is About Life In The Bunker Or Includes The Incredibly Gruesome Crime Scene Photos). If it's the gruesome, the hideous, or the freakish, chances are I have an intimate knowledge of it. Oh, and plane crashes. Those shows "Seconds From Disaster" and "Air Emergency" are my version of crystal meth.

9:40 PM  
Anonymous Victoria said...

I keep the Colditz documentaries in business... I think that's whats called 'single-minded'!

11:11 AM  
Blogger Stacey Ballis said...

You definitely aren't alone...when I was a kid I obsessively read and re-read a book called What to do Till the Veterinarian Comes, a book about how to handle all sorts of medical emergencies with your pets and livestock. I did not have any pets at the time. Nor livestock. Nor any interest in verterinary medicine. But if you need assistance with your snake-bit labrador, I'm your girl. Gruesome docs also grab me, especially serial killers, the Holocaust, assasinations, and anything about cults. So if your snake-bit labrador happens to reside in Jonestown as the companion to a former Nazi, so much the better.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Heksje said...

I'm so pleased to find I'm not alone in my geekitude. You are my new best friend. :c)

2:17 AM  
Blogger EGE said...

1. Anything about Jesus on PBS -- but only on PBS. Because they're the only ones who will admit he might have, you know, picked his nose.

2. Anything about multiple personalities. And yes, I know they call it Disassociative Identity Disorder now. I don't care. The people, the people, the people, the people, the people....

4:10 AM  
Blogger marta said...

As a fellow doc lover, this post and comments put me in a nostalgic reminisce for the filmstrips of my school days. The dark classroom, the huge pull down screen, the whirring of the projector, the monotone of the narrator lulling me to sleep.. The SNAP of the film catching or breaking, the hurried panic to turn on the lights and fix it... :)

8:06 AM  
Blogger cathy said...

Hey anon, my husbabnd died in 1986. That very documentary answered all my questions about why I was still alive. My ancestors survived the bubonic plague, they were from that very part of England. It's the only explination I've ever heard that made any sense at all. And I read all those same books Char read as a kid. I read them one summer, checking them out from them out from the library every Tuesday.

2:18 PM  
Blogger Juli said...

"Our Bones Lie Scattered," a fantastic, detailed book about the Cawnpore Massacre, and the rest of the Indian Mutiny.

8:44 PM  
Anonymous FurBabyMom said...

Hi Quinn,

I thought you might be interested in seeing this brief article. Apparently there are very many people who share your interest in the 1918 influenza pandemic, as well as other viral maladies! The title (from the AP) caught my eye: " Six-figure deal reached for book about viruses." The article begins, "The swine flu outbreak has boosted sales for an acclaimed history of the 1918 pandemic, and helped biologist Nathan Wolfe get a six-figure deal for a book about viruses."


Frankly, the current swine flu has me a little apprehensive, and I'm not sure just how well informed about the 1918 pandemic I want to be at this point. I'm already washing my hands and/or using sanitizing gel ad nauseam when I'm out and about.

Personally, I will be much happier to purchase YOUR book when it becomes available this summer! I'm really looking forward to reading "Notes From The Underwire" as I enjoy your blog so much. I really appreciate your outlook, your good values, kind heart, and great sense of humor. I'm also looking forward to gifting my friends with your book so they too can enjoy your storytelling and sense of humor.

Best to you always,

7:03 PM  
Anonymous Gigi said...

Good gawd, I love this post. SAME HERE. I once watched a two-part documentary on elephants, and a couple of months later, when the word "elephant" happened to be inserted by someone in a random conversation, I proceeded to expound upon the subject for several minutes. I only came up for air when I began to notice glazed eyes, slack jaws, and drool. Apparently not everyone was as fascinated as I by the intricacies of the life of the African elephant.

In addition to the documentaries, the weekend freak shows on TLC, and the fracas-fests on the History Channel, I am an absolute sucker for any true crime story. I can't get enough of them. Occasionally I hit the trifecta - a rainy Sunday, nowhere I have to be with the husband or kids, and an all day marathon of American Justice on A&E.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous George Capra said...

You might want to try some Greatest Factory's or things like "Patton 360"
that might encourage Consort to sit down next to you.
I'm so lucky. My wife sits next to me with a book while I watch, and from time to time I say look, and by the time she has looked up the shot to the worlds largest Road train loaded with 500 cows (in Australia) was disappeared from the screen.
I love you blog keep it up.

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Stephanie said...

After posting my rave about reading books about diseases, my friend sent me your link. I'm so glad someone else likes reading about this kind of stuff (since I don't know anyone else who does!).

I pretty much freaked out yesterday when I read an article claiming that the 1918 flu deaths weren't from the flu, but rather from strep. STREP! Could it be? Is all that I know about 1918 turned upside down?! Further investigation is now underway...

And I'm hoping a fabulous swine flu book pops up next year with all sorts of political intrigue involving WHO and the CDC and vaccines. Oh boy.

8:26 PM  
Anonymous La BellaDonna said...

OMG. I watch the same documentaries! Snuggling up, falling asleep, lulled into gentle slumber by the sounds of The Black Death Killed Fifty Percent Of ...!

I was HEARTBROKEN about that documentary on the folks whose ancestors survived the Black Death - I'd been waiting and waiting to see it, and I FELL ASLEEP! And it hasn't been rerun yet!

Quinn, you can add this nugget to your Spanish Flu treasure trove: A girl I knew lost her grandmother in the Spanish Flu epidemic. To save a lot of finger-counting to figure out how THAT works out (since I'm actually not all THAT old, and neither was she): her grandmother was sixteen when she died.

More finger-counting? Yes, that means her grandmother had already had the baby who was my girlfriend's father. She'd gotten married at fourteen, had a baby, and was dead at sixteen of the Spanish Flu.

2:03 PM  

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