On Wonderland and Mortality

Between learning how to be an information-literate historian and dissecting the various perspectives of Greek historiographies, my brain hurts. I’ve done this to myself, on purpose, and there will be rewards at the end. Of that I am certain. Maybe I’ll be working in a library, or a museum, or teaching American history to middle schoolers. I don’t know. What I do know is this: sometimes I read so much in a given week (anywhere between 200-400 pages) that I have no idea what I just read. This is why people write in the margins of books and highlight the shit out of everything.

I understand that now even though I don’t actually do it. The closest I’ve come to making notes of any kind is to dog-ear page 139 of On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss. After scanning and skimming over thirty academic books and scholarly articles on smallpox, yellow fever, and influenza, I needed a break from disease. It made sense to read the history of vaccinations, which is still on topic, but not really. On Immunity is the kind of book that feeds on the reader’s emotions. It is not academic, but personal, smart, and well-thought out. It will remind you that we are responsible for each other, while simultaneously make you wish you could punch Jenny McCarthy right in her big, fat mouth.

But, moving on…

I’m only a handful of weeks into juggling two history courses that are very heavy on the reading. After these, I dive straight into core classes which will be very heavy on the writing. So when I came across a particular passage on page 139 of On Immunity, I was both overwhelmed and relieved at what lies ahead for me – academically and professionally. Here is the author’s take on navigating the world of information:

Being lost in Wonderland is what it feels like to learn about an unfamiliar subject, and research is inevitably a rabbit hole. I fell down it, in my investigation of immunization, and fell and fell, finding that it was much deeper than I anticipated. Like Alice, I fell past shelves full of books, more than I could ever read. Like Alice, I arrived at locked doors. “Drink me,” I was commanded by one source. “Eat me,” I was told by another. They had opposite effects – I grew and shrank, I believed and did not believe. I cried and then found myself swimming in my own tears.”


My brother and I caught the chicken pox as young kids from our friends across the street, also siblings. And, as is usually the case, we both shared our virus with our younger brother who, if I remember correctly, was not even yet a year old. I don’t recall being particularly uncomfortable throughout the whole pox ordeal (aren’t they supposed to itch?). It was summer in Upper Michigan and we had been recently let out of school. My biggest inconvenience was being stuck indoors for weeks, unable to sit near the sun which had finally reappeared after 9 months of winter. If you’ve ever lived north of any of the Great Lakes, then you know summer is very short. The only reminder I have of my summer with the pox is a small scar on my left hand and the knowledge that the virus still lives inside me, in the roots of my nerves.

It can reappear as shingles any damn time it pleases.

I’ve had to be tested for tuberculosis in high school after someone in one of my classes presented symptoms. I was cleared. (There is a TB vaccination, but so far the US hasn’t had to make it a regular thing.) I’ve also had to take a tetanus shot in my left arm as doctors sewed stitches into the top of my right thumb to keep it from falling off. Metal window blinds don’t feel so good when they slice through a finger, but I imagine tetanus feels much worse.

Every year, I get a flu shot. I know that soon I need to get another tetanus shot. And I wish I could have taken advantage of the HPV vaccine. I also can’t help but stare at people my parents’ age when I see the scar from their polio vaccination. When we have successfully rid our part of the world of some diseases (smallpox, hepatitis B, etc.) that only decades before meant certain death – and, in some countries, those diseases still do – I can’t help but feel tremendously lucky that vaccination is even a reality.

None of this really mattered to me until I became a mother, too. Like Eula Biss, I worried that my child’s body would be overwhelmed with chemicals, foreign substances that her immune system would reject. She’d become allergic or, as is still debated but debunked, autistic. But my daughter was also born three weeks after terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into building, killing thousands. Two days after her birth, war was declared. Our country, and our people, have been involved in a some war or another since my kid was two days old. She just turned thirteen.

So, for me, a possible, yet unlikely, reaction to vaccines was weighed against all the rest of the world’s horrors. The vaccines, which probably goes without saying, have won out.

4 thoughts on “On Wonderland and Mortality

  1. No humor here! I have LEARNED to appreciate your sarcasm. Just think of your poor mother who had kids with chicken pox for 8 weeks straight, if not longer. I got my innoculations at the school gym. Times were different and the world was less traveled. I don’t understand education at your level. Sounds crazy. And what are you really learning? It’s almost like you went out and picked out a shovel you liked, now you get to dig your own hole. Hope to see you in China. Love mom

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