Sunday, December 30, 2012

Do People Really Not Know This?

A cousin of mine just posted an urban legend to her Facebook status. I first encountered this bit of misinformation 4 or 5 years ago, and was startled that anyone found it convincing:

In 1919 when the flu killed 40 million people there was this Doctor that visited the many farmers to see if he could help them combat the flu...
Many of the farmers and their families had contracted it and many died.
The doctor came upon this one farmer and to his surprise, everyone was very healthy. When the doctor asked what the farmer was doing that was different the wife replied that she had placed an unpeeled onion in a dish in the rooms of the home, (probably only two rooms back then). The doctor couldn't believe it and asked if he could have one of the onions and place it under the microscope. She gave him one and when he did this, he did find the flu virus in the onion. It obviously absorbed the bacteria, therefore, keeping the family healthy.

What jumped out at me back when I first heard this story was the country doctor examining the onion under a microscope and finding the flu virus (which did not mysteriously become a bacteria in the next sentence in the first version I heard.) Way back in high school, some fifty years ago, I remembered learning that a virus is too small to be observed with a regular microscope, and couldn’t be seen until the invention of the electron microscope. I can’t say that I recalled offhand when the electron microscope was invented, but 1919 sounded much too early, and even if labs had them in 1919, it would have been an exotic piece of equipment for a country doctor to have at his disposal.

So I did some Googling and discovered that the first electron microscopes weren’t available until the 1930’s, and they stood several feet high. Furthermore, it is only recently that an electron microscope that can be plugged into an ordinary household outlet has become available to the public - for $60,000. I don’t know what kind of outlet the standard electron microscope requires, but I’m pretty certain that there were country doctors back in 1919 who didn’t even have electricity.

I pointed this out (privately) to the co-worker who had sent us all the email revealing this interesting piece of information, which didn’t stop her from passing on other unlikely urban legends.

This time I decided to do a little more Googling. It turns out although in 1919 it was beginning to be known that flu was caused by a virus, it wasn’t until 1931 that Richard Swope found the family of  viruses that caused flu in pigs, and not until 1933 that the virus that causes human flu was isolated by Patrick Laidlaw. Our country doctor working in 1919 wouldn’t even have known what a flu virus would look like, and might not even have known that flu was caused by a virus and not by Bacillus influenzae (now known as Haemophilus influenzae), an opportunistic pathogen that usually is harmless until another infection (like the flu) gives it its opportunity to multiply. 

Now as I have pointed out, I did not learn all of this in high school, and wouldn’t have remembered it if I had, but I did retain that fact that a virus is really, really, itty-bitty, and can’t be seen in the kind of microscope we had in our school lab. It doesn’t take more awareness than that to see the holes in the onion story. Of course, as my son pointed out, even if the onion did absorb flu virus, it’s unlikely it could absorb enough to prevent humans from getting their share. Not to mention that if onions were this efficacious at preventing flu, doctors and medical journals might think to mention it.

I did not bother to correct my cousin. She has been going through a stressful time lately and a know-it-all post from her cousin is not needed. I just find myself wondering when I see someone fall for an urban legend like this, why they believe it. Almost always there is something in the story that sounds off, like the doctor being able to see a virus with an ordinary light microscope. 

There is something else I remember from my high school days, the question, “Says who?” I wish people would use it before passing improbable tales on to me.

A Mystery Solved

The summer before we left on our trip to Antarctica, which would have been the summer of 2008, I bought a new pair of prescription sunglasses. Sometime between then and the time we were to leave, I lost them. I remembered having them last at work, and searched my office diligently, but could not find them. I wondered briefly if one of my distractible little ones had stuck them in a backpack with other items, but figured if they had, surely a parent would be asking around for the owner.

Needing something to protect my eyes from the glare off the Antarctic ice, I bought a cheap pair of those wraparound sunglasses people use after cataract surgery to put over my regular glasses. I wore them for over a year, until the frame started to crack. By then I had a pair of prescription glasses that worked well with a pair of cheap clip-on sunglasses, so I bought those.

This past summer I finally got a new pair of prescription sunglasses, courtesy of hubby. I still use the clip-ons sometimes, when I don’t want to have to carry my purse to hold my eyeglass case, but I enjoy having a prescription pair again. I wear sunglasses year round when I’m outdoors, so they are not a luxury item.

This morning, my husband handed me an eyeglass case and asked, “Are these yours?”

“I don’t know. Let me look.” Shock and surprise, my old sunglasses.

“Where did you find them?” It turned out he had been emptying the container we use for wrapping paper because it was cracking at the bottom, and there at its cracked little bottom lay the sunglasses.

“They must have fallen out of your coat pocket,” said Detective Hubby. It’s a logical guess. The container has been sitting under the rack in the mudroom where we hang coats, since it’s handy to the back door. If I had shoved the case into my pocket before leaving work in the dark, which it would have been in early January, the case could easily have fallen out while I hung up my coat, and disappeared between the rolls of wrapping paper without making a sound. Since these are long rolls which we grabbed out of the container one at a time without ever having to look into it, it’s not surprising that the sunglasses sat there unnoticed. It certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me to look there for them.

It has been four years and at least two prescription changes since then. The frames are still good, but my no-line trifocal lenses are expensive. I’ll see what it will cost to replace them with clear lenses and have a spare pair of glasses, but my hunch is “a lot”.

I am very glad I did not try to ask tactfully among my little students’ parents all those years ago about whether a strange pair of glasses had turned up in a book sack.  Tactful is not what I do best. Misplacing items in very strange ways is what I am really good at.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Standing Guard

D’Artagnan is now a little too chunky to climb the TV armoire like he did last year, so here he is standing guard over the new artificial Christmas tree, with a friend.

D'Artagnan Style

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eatin' Goober Peas

Yesterday my UMW circle held our traditional Christmas potluck dinner. I had signed up to make scalloped potatoes, but decided to make a similar dish, made with frozen hashed brown potatoes instead. The recipe is far from heart healthy, being made with butter, sour cream, canned cream soup, and cheese, but the potluck is only once a year.

As I grated up the two and a half cups of cheese, a ditty ran through my head, “cheese, cheese, cheese cheese, eatin’ cheddar cheese”. Those aren’t the real words, I immediately realized. The song is “Goober Peas”, and the lyrics run, “Peas, peas, peas, peas, eatin’ goober peas/ Goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas.” I had learned the song as a child in summer day camp, on one of those endless bus rides to the beach or the lighthouse or wherever else we went. I had vaguely realized that the song dated from the U.S. Civil War, and that “goober peas” are peanuts, but standing in my kitchen grating two and a half cups of cheese, it hit me that the men who sang that cheerful little ditty were starving.

As wikipedia puts it,

The lyrics of "Goober Peas" are a fairly accurate description of daily life during the last few years of the Civil War for Southerners. After being cut off from the rail lines and their farm land, they had little to eat aside from boiled peanuts (or "goober peas") which often served as an emergency ration.
There I was, standing in my kitchen trying to fend off extra calories. I had made a few changes in the recipe, using light sour cream instead of regular and a reduced calorie version of cheddar cheese soup (which promised no trans fats) instead of the cream of mushroom soup. Since I was using cheddar cheese soup, I substituted Monterrey Jack cheese for the cheddar, and tried to find a two percent version with no luck. I also substituted green onions for regular, which had no effect on the calorie count but just seemed to go better with potatoes and sour cream. And stuck in my head was a cheerful song sung by men who had no idea where their next meal was coming from, or when they would get to go home, or even if they had homes to go back to. That wasn’t the sort of thing I thought about as a child. War was a game we played, when we acted out the original version of role playing games, the kind children played in their back yards by saying, “Let’s play Army”. We played a lot of those, Robin Hood and his merry men, pioneers going west, cowboys and Indians. Do children even do that anymore? I don’t think we ever played Yankees and Rebels.

Many versions of the casserole I was making  call for topping it off with crumbs, usually corn flake crumbs but I did see one version with Ritz cracker crumbs. We don’t have corn flakes, but we do have the crackers. I pondered leaving off the crumbs, but decided to go ahead with the whole shebang. It seems appropriate. “Shebang” is a Civil War term, originally a name for the lean-to’s that prisoners of war built themselves if they could. Otherwise, they went without shelter. I learned this in a visit to the National Prisoner of War museum in Andersonville, Georgia. 

I’m a cheery little Christmas elf. The casserole smelled delicious, though, and two thirds of it disappeared later at the dinner. Before dinner we stood in a circle, held hands and said grace. The woman presiding suggested we do like at Thanksgiving, and go around the circle and each name one thing she was thankful for. Most of us named something family related, particularly that family members were returning home for Christmas. I did not say that I am thankful that I am not living in the midst of war wondering where my next meal was coming from, much as I am. I said I’m grateful that my son, too, will be home for Christmas. And so I am.

Friday, December 7, 2012


Why do the Swarovski people put six inch long ribbon loops on their crystal Christmas angels?
And why don't I just cut the loops off and put regular hooks through the metal eye that holds the ribbon instead?

Why is it that even when I turn the hook the other way, the back sides of my Christmas tree ornaments always face out?
And why is it in over forty years of buying my own ornaments, I haven’t learned to buy the ones that don’t have plain backs?

Why is it that I can remember the place and year that I bought each of my souvenir ornaments, but can’t remember my computer passwords?
And why don’t I just make passwords like “drumAK2002”?

Why do the cats prefer stealing ornaments off the tree to playing with their own cat toys?
And why don’t I just put hooks on their cat toys and hang them on the lower two feet of the tree?

Why did I even buy the ornaments that I think are so unattractive that I relegate them to the back of the tree?
And why is the back of the tree more thickly decorated than the front?

Why am I keeping the picture frame ornament with 1988 on it that holds a picture of Neal even though I have to keep taping it together? (Oh, who am I kidding, even I know the answer to that one.)
And why does it bother me that he will never be 11 years old again when I’m actually happy that I won’t?