Friday, May 1, 2009

Bad Boats

In February I put away the flexible plastic tubes that have been hanging from hooks in the closet at the end of our kitchen for years. The tubes had to be kept clean and dry; they attached to a part that had to be cleaned with white vinegar and boiling water, and the whole apparatus attached to a nebulizer, which we called "the breathing machine." As I put the tubes away, I felt profoundly lucky that we hadn't used it this winter. I breathed a sigh of relief that my children have outgrown their childhood (nonallergic) asthma, and that they now have better resistance to disease.

And then the whole "swine flu" story broke. I try not to be a germaphobe, I really do, but if you've ever had a child who would be up all night coughing every single time the sniffles were going around her school, you might have an idea of how difficult it is to let go of some of those old habits. Mostly we wash our hands now, rather than use antibacterial wipes as we leave a public place, before the youngest one rubs his eye or the older one opens the granola bar she's found beside her seat in the car. Mostly I sleep at night, rather than leaping out of bed thinking I've heard a croupy cough starting up (once it was the bread machine coming on early in the morning; the kneading cycle made a barking sound exactly like a 3-year-old with croup). Mostly I manage not to alarm my children by telling them how risky I think it is for them to touch the handrails of the many flights of stairs at their old elementary school, or to attend a crowded concert downtown in a nearby city. But I decided not to try to hide this week's "swine flu" headlines. It's not just me being an alarmist right now.

This morning the kids told me that they know all about pandemics from playing a video game. The object of the game is to spread the pandemic, they say. The younger one says that he sometimes spends all his "points" on making his disease communicable by various means--air, water, rodents, etc. The older one says that if you want to spread it all over the world, you've got to make it very mild at first, just like a cold, so it gets everywhere, "even Madagascar," before it starts killing people.

But I keep looking at this map of where the flu is, and living on an island seems to be little protection (although it's true there's nothing on Madagascar yet). It makes me think of the title poem from Laura Jensen's volume Bad Boats:

They are like women because they sway.
They are like men because they swagger.
They are like lions because they are king here.
They walk on the sea. The drifting
logs are good: they are taking their punishment.
But the bad boats are ready to be bad,
to overturn in water, to demolish the swagger
and the sway. They are bad boats
because they cannot wind their own rope
or guide themselves neatly close to the wharf.
In their egomania they are glad
for the burden of the storm the men are shirking
when they go for their coffee and yawn.
They are bad boats and they hate their anchors.

My children can mostly wind their own ropes now--they're both teenagers. It's my job to launch them; not to anchor them so securely and for so long that they come to "hate their anchors." I want them to be "glad/for the burden of the storm," because storms can be exciting. Anthropomorphizing a boat is like checking on the progress of the flu across the map, or teaching an almost-sixteen-year-old to drive, in that the person who's watching thinks she's in control. But I'm the one with the imaginary brake. I can stomp my foot all afternoon and produce the same result as if I had been lounging around on the shore doing absolutely nothing.

And now, like Ron, I'm thinking about the Arthur Ransome book We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea. Do you also feel a little bit at sea when you listen to this week's news?


Alison said...

I've been trying not to think about swine flu any more than NPR demands that I do, but it's tough since one of the confirmed cases was at OSU. Last night, when the Munchkin woke up wheezing (most likely from an allergy, which we are trying to pinpoint), I started seeing myself as a possible carrier, and the virus as some sort of evil little stowaway, traveling back and forth to Columbus with me on my commute.

Jeanne said...

The news about OSU seems to go back and forth--first it's H1N1, then it's not, first it's a student, then it's a health-care worker. At least I haven't read or heard about it spreading on campus yet.