Sunday, February 3, 2013


Ask yourself, if you want to lie in a bed, you want it lovely and clean, right?

If you want to make yourself a home, you'd want it to be spotless and smelling wonderful, wouldn't you?

If you wanted a place where your offspring were going to be born, you'd want it especially pristine, no?

Right. Then you’re just like me. And you’re just like the common head louse.

So, is this a way of bravely admitting I watched David Attenborough's brilliant new series The Life Of Lice last night?

Or is it my way of very bravely edging into a more personal story, a story certain people said should remain untold?

Yes, it’s the latter. It’s the tale of how my kids are so clean, their hair so spun-silk like, that it was once targeted as a ‘des res’ by a handful of tiny, stealthy insect visitors. It’s a personal story of anguish and pain - an inspiring, enlightening saga about the triumph of the human spirit over the lice spirit.

It’s been a long time in the making, for it was almost a year ago that this pestilence was visited upon our house, by some child or other. It’s only now I’ve felt comfortable going public with my story without our circle of friends going “Eeeuuurgh!” and banning all contact with our kids. But there are so many myths and such unnecessary stigma about the humble old head louse, good old licius headoculus, that I thought I should address it.

One night, my doctor wife announced our daughters Lani and Evie had lice, or nits in the egg form, that it was fairly common, and that it was nothing to worry about. I sprang into action.

“EEEUUURGH!” I said, moving my chair away from Lani’s at the dinner table.

Dr Wife explained that a louse must have jumped from some other kid's head onto one of our kids' heads and made herself a place she could call home.

"Euuuuurgh!" I reiterated, before freaking out. This was yet another thing about parenting they didn’t mention in pre-natal class.

People, who I'm married to, will tell you there's not much bad about lice. They're not flies for heaven’s sake. They don’t lodge in your hair and get about vomiting. They're not worms, or those South American things that swim up your urine stream and live in your bladder. What kind of sick insect does that???

“Yeah, yeah,” I said to my wife. I was reminded of how people insist rats are actually really really clean. These are the people who carry one on their shoulder, tethered to a little leash which is also attached to that person's septic nose piercing. Rats are dirty Black Death carrying things. And don't believe that other line about neat-freak cockroaches, or that toads don’t give you warts. (My wife still believes that one. I don’t know what they taught her at medical school).

I've lived a nit-free existence, and thus they've always been something to sneer at and be reviled by. I'm a boy. It's what we do.

I remembered back to my primary school classmate Walter Burley. Someone had to be the dirtiest kid in class - like Pig Pen in Peanuts – and Walter was ours. One day in third grade, he got nits. As a result he had to have his head shaved, wear a woolly hat in summer, and be mercilessly teased by his class-mates. We were boys. It’s what we did.

Looking back now, I hope it didn’t scar him for life. For now I have an adult friend who went through the same ordeal. As the only one called out of class following a lice inspection, he all too clearly remembers his classmates’ taunting. Bill Phillips, or Nitty Bill as I call him, still talks about it to this day.

But that night after our kids were diagnosed as lousy, after I’d kissed them goodnight and removed my gloves and shower cap, Dr Wife enlightened me. Scientific research has proven, for example, that lice are “not that bad”. In fact, they’re great!

It says here, in the respected medical journal Wikipedia, that head lice are harmless. They may only be a bother if they cause a secondary problem like infection due to scratching. In fact it has been suggested – by scientists and now by me – that even if you got a head lice infection it would be beneficial in fostering an immunity against diseases carried by the more dangerous body lice, including epidemic typhus. And probably cancer, scurvy and leprosy!

What’s more, people who reacted irrationally to news of our kids’ episode, the ones who put a red cross on our apartment door next to the word “UNCLEAN”, should know this: It’s not as if our kids gave birth to these little creatures. The lice didn’t crawl out of their ears and mouths. They were on some other dirty rotten little kid’s head and jumped onto ours. This is why lice are predominantly found in the child community, for as I’ve always said adults never rub heads enough. This is also why the most common adult demographic where lice are found is “rugby players”.

And it’s true they like clean hair. Their eggs don’t stick so well on greasy hair. For this I can again, thankfully, blame my wife. She’s one of those clean hair nuts. The most common thing we argue about is shampooing the kids’ hair. It has to get done every second day around our house. When I was a lad, I was a once-a-week man – every Saturday night after football. I recall one hairdresser once trying to cut my hair only to see it slip and bend greasily through her scissors. This may explain why I have the hair I do now.

Still, as wonderful as the louse is, it’s not like the concept of lice parties has caught on. So when they came into our lives we had a house meeting and decided to evict them.

A head louse. See - they're quite cute!

Here's what one really looks like. Still not too

Nicer than a flea at least, which is what
this is. Now, if your kids get fleas, that's
a whole other problem.

And this is a photo from the internet of what lice eggs,
the infamous nits of "nitty gritty" fame, look like.
Oh stop scratching your head. You probably haven't
got them.

And here's another photo, from the Mayo Foundation for Nits.
This person's nits have red circles around them. What a freak.

A match stick, two nits and a penny
walk into a bar ...

I’d have happily gone for the old fix of shaving the girls’ heads, for it would save us a lot of time getting ready in the morning. Plus I am not much good at doing girls’ hair, my two styles being what I like to call “the pony tail” and “the non-pony tail”. However, when my shaving motion wasn’t seconded, it was time for the special shampoo and comb.

This is where the “personal anguish and pain” come into it. Those combs can be quite pointy, and dragging them through a head of knotty hair can be painful indeed. But it was hard for me too. I had to search using only a pair of 45-year-old eyes that can’t see anything placed within 10 feet of me.

Still, since we live a fairly indoorsy life in this smoggy old city, after a while lice-trawling became one of the most fun activities you can have in Beijing.

"Ooh here's one!" I’d say. "Ooh – bagged another!"

I felt like the star of one of those fishing reality shows. Perhaps not River Monsters, but quite a bit like Hillbilly Handfishin’.

The author, after a haircut I had during our
nit episode.

The author, before that haircut. He's just
always looking bald and forlorn.

This is one of the Nitpickers of
New York. Proving the problem
isn't just in China but all around,
she's one of a dozen Orthodox
Jews who've found fame, and a
little cash, by setting themselves
up as professional nitpickers.
Just why Orthodox Jews are good
at this is unknown. But one of
their number, Abigail Rosenfeld,
told the New York Daily News:
"They say Jewish men make good
husbands. Jewish women are known
to be nitpickers." The business
has gone so well that the women
are now chief naming rights
sponsor of their city's NBA team
the New York Nits.

The de-lousing process was lengthy – as was washing the bedding, clothing , soft toys, etc – but rewarding. We stay-at-homers don’t get the chance for much personal glory or triumph, so I imagined myself a sort of domestic warrior for good. The Liceman Cometh.

And it was very effective. I put the shampoo in for 15 minutes, then combed, finding about a dozen illegal aliens on each girl’s head. Scientific studies have also shown this to be the most commonly cited number amongst lice infections. It’s also the second-most commonly understated figure after “number of sexual partners” among women (seven). Our nitmare was over, and everyone moved on.

But first my wife made me search her head too. Now she reminded me of a 67-year-old man called Max Mosley. Remember him? He was the head of Formula One racing. In 2008, in the most horrifically embarrassing sex scandal of all time, he was photographed in a dungeon with five uniformed women armed with whips. As part of the romantic escapade, he made them subject him to a ritual lice inspection.

And you think we’ve got issues?

An army of public relations experts was assembled to devise the best way he could recover from this. Eventually they came up with the conclusion: "There's just no way he can recover from this." He wasn’t Formula One boss very much longer.

My wife was clear of head passengers. Still, a lice inspection can really bring a couple closer together. It also brought our maid and I closer together, which is a whole other kind of weird.

Parenting, eh? Bloody hell!


  1. Thanks for this post! I haven't met you but live in your compound. After 40+ years of life, I was blessed with my first lice invasion on my pristine scalp. I'm 99% sure it was transferred from underneath the fingernails of a practitioner at Bodhi. She gave me an extended head massage(which I raved about!) and voila! Yuck, but oh well. Luckily, my husband and daughter are okay. Thanks for making me feel less dirty!

    1. Ahah! So it was you who brought them into the compound! I knew my mature-sounding, even-handed post would smoke the culprit out ...
      Joking of course. Thanks for sharing the ickiness. If my post can similarly comfort other nit sufferers, then I guess there's hope for the world.

  2. My existence has been nit-free thus far, long may it continue!

    Got a case of fleas though once thanks to my son. I shaved his head (it's easier to do that with a boy), problem solved, except the little buggers had got to me so I spent many a happy hour with the comb, finding and crushing. :)

    1. Aiyah. It's a funny old world, with lots of freeloaders in it. Thanks Sarah.

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