Bites, and

Dr. Jane Wilson-Howarth
(Cadogan Guides)
I imagined that Bugs, Bites and Bowels would probably scare me away from ever leaving my hearth and home again. But no: all those awful things that we fear when we are abroad are there, but they pale in comparison to the real problems that you will have with not-so-strange dangers in other lands.

Dr. Wilson-Howarth says that you might well be fearful of tarantulas, coral snakes, Delhi Belly and brown reclusive spiders, but there is something that is far more common and far more dangerous. They are known as "domestic animals and pets."

    Dogs kill hundreds of people, while healthy wolves have never killed anyone. There have been reports of deaths or severe injuries after attacks by camels, cattle, water buffalo, elephants, pigs, cats, and even sheep and ferrets... [They] also act as disease reservoirs; parrots with runny noses harbor pneumonia-causing bugs, while pet terrapins, tortoises, snakes, and even African pygmy hedgehogs are a common source of exotic Salmonella infections.

I also figured that the good doctor was going to scare me away from ever bathing in the fresh-water rivers of South America because I had heard tell of a noxious fish that crept into a certain orifice which I will not name at this moment but let us just say it is an orifice of which I am very fond and even more protective. She finishes off that one as well:

    If you urinate in South American rivers, there is a fish, it is said, that follows the stream to its source, swims inside, sticks out barbed fins and stays put. It can then only be removed surgically, perhaps by penile amputation. The tiny candiru (also called the Canero fish) is 40 - 60 mm long (1 - 2 inches) and only 4 - 6 mm broad. It is known to embed itself inside the gills of other fish; the tale of it parasitizing man seems to be a myth.

Not only does she shoot down this most painful of shaggy-dog stories, she goes on to poo-poo the danger of the piranhas, a fantasy invented by, of all people, Theodore Roosevelt:

    Large members of the Serrasalmus genus may possibly threaten someone who has been injured or otherwise weakened; this is only likely if the piranhas' natural food is scarce, if they have been provoked by waste being dumped in their river, or if they are trapped in a receding pool just before the rains.

§     §     §

The wonder (and the pleasure) of Bugs, Bites and Bowels is not only the devaluating all those fears that we've always had of what will happen to us when we are far from home, but, even more unexpectedly, telling us that so many of the healthcare instructions we have been given over the years are actually harmful.

  • "Snakes use their venom to hunt and so are often reluctant to waste it in unnecessary aggression. They can control whether they dispense venom or not and often bites are 'dry' and harmless." There are more than 40,000 snake-bite deaths a year, she tells us, but most are in India, and most come from the cobra. She also warns against cutting into a snake bite: "It does not flush out venom, but it can sever arteries."
  • Tourniquets should never be used in cases of severe bleeding. Rather, one must elevate the limb and try to tape the wound closed --- temporarily.
  • One third of American cats are infected with Rochalimæa henselæ bacteria, which causes Cat Scratch Fever.
  • In the United Kingdom, "more people drown inside vehicles than while swimming."
  • Beggars with leprosy often "touch foreigners deliberately presumably in the hope that you will be terrified into buying them off." But the only way to be infected is by long-term and intimate contact.
  • There is a disease known as "loa-loa" --- also known as "filaria" which is spread by horse-flies. One of the symptoms is that of a 7cm-long worm "meandering across the front of the eyeball." She reports that this can be "an alarming spectacle."
  • The disease we must all avoid, at all costs, is malaria. 2,700,000 succumb to the disease each year. Malaria mosquitoes "hunt from sundown at ankle level and they like sweaty feet."
  • Avoid freshwater shrimp in Asia, the Pacific and the Americas. They carry the risk of angiostrongyliasis, "a nasty little worm that can set up home in the brain or eyes." She says, "Always eat your shrimps, beetles, and snails well cooked."
  • While you are looking for exotic creatures in your food, you might remember that 40,000 people a year die --- and a million are made ill --- by the profligate spraying of pesticides. One should peel and wash fruits and vegetables not only to avoid diarrhœa, but, as well, chemicals. She also lists eighteen serious diseases one can get from unsanitary eats, including such disgusting infections as Amœbic dysentery, giardia, shigella, campylobacter, rotaviruses, cholera, typhoid, and hepatitis A and E.
This is a fine guide for traveling overseas --- and a most valuable chapter has to do with psychological problems that can overtake the expatriate:

    The life of an expatriate appears romantic and attractive. The reality is that many work six- and sometimes seven-day weeks, because they are under huge pressure to achieve and are often away from their families. Pressure of work rarely leaves time to learn a local language, and this restricts the social circle to other expatriates and a select number of highly educated locals. The community is small, introverted, and often obsessed by trivia. Life can seem terribly isolated... Pressures at work and distance from familiar supports create tensions, and many expatriates unwind with a drink. Alcoholism is a common problem. Workaholism is too...

There is everything to gain and nothing to lose by taking this one along with you when you go. Already I have vowed to never eat the freshwater shrimp I favor in the village I visit every winter. I keep imagining that "nasty little worm that can set up home in the brain or eyes." Or maybe it's the vision --- what a vision! --- of one of those tiny worms slithering across my eyeball.

--- Carlos Amantea


Christopher Reeve
(Random House)
Most disabled people can't stand Christopher Reeve because he's (1) Famous, (2) Rich, (3) Always flying off to some fancy-dan shindig.

Also he (4) Has many famous friends, (5) Never has to fight with social security or the state and local service agencies for essential equipment (wheel-chairs, catheters, house modifications, bathing chairs, special dietary needs, therapy), (6) Never has to find and fire and find (and fire again) PCAs --- Personal Care Attendants, (7) Spends all his days chasing the will-o'-the-wisp called The Complete Cure for Paralysis, and (8) Never has to fight with insurance companies that use their high-powered, highly-paid, miserable lawyers to weasel out of their contractual obligations.

I would like to suggest that this Reeve-bashing is pretty much dog-in-the-manger stuff. And I learned from Still Me (which I finally got around to reading even though it came out five years ago) that although #1 through #7 may be true, not so with #8, for even Christopher Reeve has to tangle with the dratted insurance companies that don't want to pay up for essential long-term medical and rehabilitation costs for the permanently disabled which doesn't look good on their bottom lines and you know what that does to their company stock.

I learned in reading Still Me --- an excellent, punning title --- that Reeve is a C-2 quadriplegic. This means that he cannot walk, cannot dance, cannot feed himself, cannot breathe without a special machine, cannot control his bladder, cannot take himself into the bathroom.

He also cannot roll over in bed to kiss his wife, cannot sit up by himself, cannot wiggle his toes, and cannot wipe his own eyes if he, by chance (and he does) mourn, yet again, the loss of his lovely body of so many years ago.

In other words, with all his money-friends-connections-power Reeve is one of us and has been humbled and, like many of us, has a thousand thousand regrets. Especially about May 27, 1995 --- the day that he and his horse went through the big jump. The horse made it. Reeve didn't. He is now one of us.

And if his search for a complete cure is a will-o'-the-wisp --- so be it. He's out there trying to do something worthwhile and why not? Who could possibly lose from this well-funded, perhaps someday successful, spinal cord research?

§     §     §

We old crips are plagued with a terrible disease that always piggy-backs on our disability. It's called cynicism.

It might have grown out of the words they throw at us. "Tragedy?" An old fave. "Courageous?" Guaranteed to come up regularly. "Brave?" That's the biggie. Mark O'Brien once observed that telling us that we're brave is not unlike saying that Blacks have natural rhythm.

We've had people pat us on the head and tell us that we'll be "completely cured" if we trust in god. We've had people fawn over us, turn sentimental over us, weep over us even though we ourselves have done with most of the weeping long ago, back then when we finally figured out which cards had been dealt and which had been left on the table and which had been burned up in the fire.

Maybe we should invent a new vocabulary for those of us --- despite the loss of this or that muscle, nerve, brain-part or body-part --- who don't shoot ourselves (or if we haven't got the armpower to raise a gun to our heads get one of our friends to do it for us.)

There could also be a special ten-year Job-Well-Done medal for those of us who keep on going without beating up on our wives or kids or if our fists don't work anymore maybe we could get a prize for not slapping them around with our words because for some of us that's all that's left and we get real good with them. Especially the mean ones.

You know that after all these years many of us have learned to curse our fate, vilify the gods, blast that which got us to where we are now, turned on our friends, scalded those close to us, made our own mothers and fathers desperate with our bitterness. In addition, some of us have turned into drunks, madmen, cheats, dope-addicts, angry recluses, and, even, for the smart ones, cross-toting martyrs to match the best that Western culture has been able to come up with in its 2,000 year history.

At the same time, some of us --- probably the same ones listed above --- have learned to be more loving, more kind, more empathetic, turned strong in all the hurting places, found ourselves with a new, astounding sympathy for the poor and the disenfranchised and the orphaned of the world, and, for a few have reached new heights of divinity: some of us might even be working, in secret, on our sainthood.

I picked up his Still Me prepared, as we crips often do, to sneer. I ended up in love with the man. Some readers may deplore his name-dropping (Clinton, Kennedy, Hepburn et al) but the sheer glory of the Before gives an agonizing force to the After. Before he was right up there with the stars. After ... well, he's down here with you and me, sometimes hopeful, sometimes happy, sometimes blue, sometimes infuriated, sometimes suicidal. "When two people have to roll you back and forth in order to put on your underpants at age forty-five," he writes, "it's a difficult lesson in patience and acceptance." And the bowel program?

    Often I listen to music or watch TV so I don't have to think about being taken care of like a baby.

And always there's the spectre, the big one, you remember it? the one known as regret:

    I came away sobered by the comments of the chief radiologist. He showed me that the damage to my spinal cord was only one centimeter wide, and said that if I had landed with my head twisted only a fraction further to the left, I would have been killed instantly. If I had landed with my head slightly more to the right, I probably would have sustained a bruise and been up on my feet within a few weeks. I just happened to hit the rail at an angle that turned me into a C2 vent-dependent quadriplegic.

"The irony of it, hit me very hard," he says, "although I kept my emotions to myself."

    I knew there was no point dwelling on it.

He writes that. He has to say it, doesn't he? --- for once upon a time he was Superman. That's something a Superman would say.

But then Clark Kent appears and we know it's impossible to be so stoic, especially when you are where Reeve is: "a C2 vent-dependent quadriplegic." It's hard not to come back to the memory of that day again, and again (and again):

    I was told by so many "experts" --- doctors, psychologists, other patients, and well-meaning friends and family members --- that as time went by not only would I become more stable physically but I would become well-adjusted psychologically to my condition. I have found exactly the opposite to be true. The longer you sit in the wheelchair, the more the body breaks down and the harder you have to fight against it. Psychologically, I feel I have established a workable baseline: I have my down days, but I haven't been incapacitated by them. This doesn't mean, though, that I accept paralysis, or that I am at peace with it.

§     §     §

Those disabled who carp at Reeve --- and they are legion --- are missing the point. They want him to be our star radical crip, to take a stand on the sinful erosion of the ADA; to picket, chain himself (or have his attendants chain him) to busses; go to the Supreme Court Building and make a scene; to testify to Congress about the ugly profits that nursing homes are making off the disabled --- so many of us living our lives in those foul-smelling, hope-blasted, soul-rotting nursing homes, all paid for by the Feds, with special tax-benefits for the operators.

But that's not his cup of tea; he's chosen another road. He wants to fix his body --- and he's willing to devote his time and money to The Cure. And that's OK by me.

For we must not forget that Reeve is one of us. In one stroke, that almost fatal fall took from him many of the things that he (and you) (and I) value so much --- the ability to climb mountains, swim beaches, sail the ocean, roam the world, love, kiss, and breathe. Reeve is now ... and forever more ... one of us.

And no amount of talk about his riches and his fame and his friends is going to take away the pain of it ... nor the commonalty of it. He fell as far as the rest of us ... perhaps a tad more. And by god, he's dealing with it the best he can. If not like Superman --- at least like the warm and wise and the not ungentle human that he is.

--- L. W. Milam


Erri De Luca
Michael Moore,

(Riverhead Books)
The boy works in a carpenter shop in Naples. He is thirteen years old. His boss Errico teaches him about wood --- the grain, the strength, various tricks for building furniture.

Rafaniello, the shoe-maker, works in the same shop. He is a refugee from the holocaust. Although he has no money, he works for nothing to repair the shoes of the poor people of Naples. He tells the boy that angel's wings are hidden inside the hump on his back, and as time goes on, these wings will grow out of his hump. Then he will be able to fly to Israel, to be with his people again.

Just before his mother dies, the boy's father gives him a boomerang. Every evening, the boy goes onto the roof to practice the moves that will make it possible to send the boomerang to one of the stars. There he meets Maria, who lives in the same building. She is his age, and slowly they come together.

She touches his piscitiello "that has grown out of me to meet the strokes she's making with her smooth hands."

    Then Maria isn't looking at her hand anymore. She's looking at me looking at her, and slowly, slowly she starts to smile, and when I see her smile, I feel like I've been punched in the stomach, a coughing inside my flesh, a fling of the boomerang that's slipped out of my hands and emptied me.

§     §     §

De Luca is a fine writer --- and manages to get us into the unexpressed thoughts and feelings of a boy on the way to being a man. He convinces us, discreetly, subtly, that this is the way a young Neapolitan thinks and acts in 1960. Most powerfully, he gives us the gust, the magic of that time of life --- seeing the world through the eyes of one just beginning to grow into his body, one who has lost his mother, fallen in love with Maria, one who is learning jealousy and anger, who's voice "is no longer his own."

Too, he is successful making us see the world of the other characters: the carpenter, the boy's father, and most perfectly, the hunchback:

    The wings broke through the shell of his hump. It cracked like an egg, without bleeding. His jacket's gotten fuller. He says he's managed to open the wings. They're bigger than a stork's. He's decided to wait for the night of the fireworks [to fly]. In the meantime, he's practicing in his room at night.

One man's squalor is another man's paradise. This is Naples through the eyes of an excellent writer. It works.

--- Lolita Lark

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