The head lice are coming, the head lice are coming! This is the cry across the land, for a note has been sent home from school. By the time we find said note from the frontlines, stuffed at the bottom of a schoolbag, the situation has gone from an outbreak, to an epidemic, to a pandemic. All is lost, we wail!
The lice are here, they are amongst us. Save yourselves, we scream at any would-be callers, let the word go forth, this house is unclean. Anyone who has fought a running battle with the mighty head louse will attest to its sheer force of will: you cannot reason, you cannot bargain, and there is no chemical shortcut – even the strongest treatment requires that you scrape your little comb through the hair to bring out the dead, then lather, rinse and repeat. It is never an easy fight.
Head lice spread faster among kids because they are affectionate. Little kids hug each other more, or wrestle more, or headbutt each other more, and the lice move from head to head. We get it because they then cuddle us, or because we all snuggle up together on the couch like a family of possums bedding down for winter. Except I never get them. There are three reasons.
One, head lice, much like the rest of civilisation, don’t like testosterone. They like sweet blood, not musky angry blood that pumps through the average dude. Granted, I am more of a dandy than a rugged outdoorsy type, but I still have enough of nature’s worst hormone to keep lice at bay.
Two, they don’t like greasy textures, and as I am a human oil slick, they can’t build a colony on my greasy quiff, although I do imagine they could use it for snowboarding.
Thirdly, I am not especially affectionate. I have no idea why I am the way I am, but I am not wild about people touching me, even my own children. My wife always points it out – I wriggle when people try to hug me, as though it causes discomfort. It’s a similar symptom that means you will always find me in the kitchen at parties, or, if I have my way, not at parties at all. Obviously, I don’t aim to be a sort-of Victorian dad with my kids, and a sort-of Unabomber at social gatherings. But the upside of recoiling from human touch is that I don’t have a scalp full of parasites, so it’s not all bad being an oily, sad man.
We first encountered lice when our daughter was in preschool. We were horrified and felt ashamed, as we made the rookie error of thinking that we had invited them into our world by being negligent. Lice don’t care if you are the greatest or the worst parent in the world – they just want blood.
There are alternative options for treatment – you can cover your head in apple cider vinegar and smell like a haunted cattery, or you can use mayonnaise and enjoy the rich aroma of a deli counter that’s about to be shut down by the food safety authority. Many parents prefer these gentler remedies, but I am more akin to Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now – I just want scorched earth and to know that I have napalmed the lice into oblivion.
Derbac M is much like watery Tippex, a kind of industrial whitewash that you apply liberally to every member of the family while you boilwash all clothes and bedlinen in a three-mile radius. You then repeat this procedure every couple of months until your children turn 21 and leave home, at which time it will be safe to rest your head on the sofa without your scalp becoming host to a Sylvanian Families version of the aliens from Starship Troopers. But one day the kids will be grown, and the head lice will visit no more, and with them the ritual of sitting in a row like silverback gorillas, cleaning each other’s pelt, shouting at each other to hold still.
Somehow you never see scenes like this in the Next catalogue, but one thing I have learned from being a parent is that skin-based parasites, hugs and headbutts are joyously unavoidable, no matter how I twitch and recoil.
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