But an illness as savage as Ebola has a fascination all its own—not many people are killed by sharks, either, but look at the coverage shark attacks get. Media coverage is not a meritocracy, not a reflection of carefully-calibrated social science values: it's more a kindling and reflecting of public fixations. Ebola was of interest when only a few hundred cases were known about, years earlier. The growing alarm over Ebola reminded me of this column, a decade ago, about my older boy's childish interest in disease. Oddly, it mentions two books that also appear in Wednesday's column. And if you're wondering, yes, reading this made me miss the lad, now 18 and off in California, studying, particularly the parting note about college at the end. He kept me on my toes, as you will see.
It's 5:13 a.m., and I'm sitting in my office at home, tapping happily away. I've been at it since 4 o'clock. Not the ideal work time, but my 7-year-old wakes up awfully early.
Every day, I tiptoe by his door, and--boing!--he bounces out of his room, wanting to play chess and Othello and Cathedral and Breakthru and Uno and Stratego, sometimes all at once.
I always have work to do. I sincerely want to tell him, "Scram, kid!" But I open up my mouth, and "Sure!" comes out. Every time. We end up playing until it's time for me to bolt into the shower.
Anyway, it's exactly 5:13. Here comes a quick patter of bare feet on the red-pine floor and--whoosh--I'm enfolded in a big, arms-stretched hug. Such a sweet early-morning moment. He puts his cheek against my back and says--I swear to God--"Tell me about tuberculosis."
I wheel around in my desk chair and gape at him, thinking: Where in God's name did THAT come from?
"Well..." I say, buying time, "it's an airborne lung disease that used to kill a lot of people until it was brought under control by modern medicine." I tell him what I know, about TB wards and quarantines and Eugene O'Neill. He's sitting cross-legged at my feet, beaming up at me. When I finish, he says brightly, "Tell me about another disease."
What would you do? In hindsight, I should clap my hands together and chirp, "Chess time!" But I don't. I think: OK, this is strange, but why not? It's education, right? Maybe he'll become a doctor. I pick something historic—scurvy—talking of the British navy and limes.
Warming up now, I segue into AIDS—also an important illness!--and he listens politely about HIV and immune systems and sub-Saharan Africa. I try to present the sanitized, 7-year-old version—in my tale, AIDS is something that happens to drug addicts—but keep being nudged toward the more complicated truth, such as after he asks, rather perceptively, "But, Daddy, if it just kills drug addicts, they're bad people, shouldn't we just let them die?" Then, I have to get into mothers passing AIDS to their babies, and addiction, and sex, and stuff.
It is about an hour later, I have gratefully moved on to a more comfortable area--bubonic plague—and after fleas and rats and plague-ridden corpses being catapulted over the walls of besieged medieval cities, I am just telling myself, "My, isn't THIS going well!" when, quite suddenly, it falls apart. My boy dances away, chanting, "Bubonic! Bubonic! Bubonic!" It begins to dawn on me that I am in trouble.
"Now, now, none of that," I say, arms extended, fingers spread. "I told you about the plague because I thought you were grown up enough to learn about it. Hundreds of millions of people died. I can't have you singing 'bubonic plague' all day in school. It isn't right."
In the days since, I've been trying to control my folly. My boy who, like most 7-year-olds, can sometimes act 17 and sometimes act 3, has kept begging to learn about diseases. I've tried to stick to manageable, non-gruesome, kid-friendly illnesses--like polio and pellagra. I've done research to learn talking points. (Did you realize that both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had smallpox?) I savored the existential thrill, just last night, of saying, "If you sleep past 6 a.m. tomorrow, and let Daddy work a little, I'll tell you all about rickets."
And, most importantly, I kept this all from my wife. She doesn't understand guy things like being fascinated by deadly illnesses.
That is, I kept it from her until Thursday morning. I am telling both boys—the 5-year-old has joined the fun—about cholera, also a historically important disease, and its role in the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. My rendition must be dull because my older boy opens up a book on germs that I have pulled off the shelf to crib from and goes through the contents--they teach these kids to read, which I once thought was a good thing. He points to the entry for Marburg/Ebola virus, something I know a bit about, having read Richard Preston's The Hot Zone. I start pontificating about the blood pouring from the various orifices and people's skin falling off. The boys get so excited, they want to share the cool information about this affliction with their mother. Before I know what's happening, they bolt away.
I will spare you details of the ensuing argument, though the image of my wife bursting into the bedroom, eyes blazing like an angry lioness, shouting, "Are you INSANE?" will stay with me forever. I try to muster a defense--history, medicine, science. She isn't buying any of it, but keeps shouting, "Strep! Why can't you teach them about strep! Or the common cold! These are children! Think of Barney. Barney never bounces out and says, 'Hiya kids, let's talk about the Marburg virus.' "
I try to shift the blame. "And who told him about tuberculosis anyway?" I say hotly. "That sure wasn't me. I didn't say, 'Good morning, buddy, ask me about TB.' "
"It WAS you," she hisses. "Don't you remember last week? When everybody had coughs? And you said"--here, she mimics a blowsy, pedantic voice--" 'It sounds like a TB ward in here.' "
Oh. Whoops. Yes, that was me. My arguments blown out of the water like the Lusitania, I limp off to work to brood. No, boys, I will not explain the Lusitania. Wait until you're in college. And sorry, honey.
—Feb. 28, 2003