Monday, February 13, 2006

Your mother (or grandmother, or great-grandmother) should know: gloves and the flu

An article appeared in this Sunday's NY Times advising us that our relations with our neighbors may need to change if the much-feared bird flu pandemic ever arrives. This is what will be necessary if we want to protect ourselves from contagion:

To the pantheon of social arbiters who came up with the firm handshake, the formal bow and the air kiss, get ready to add a new fashion god: the World Health Organization, chief advocate of the "elbow bump."...If the avian flu goes pandemic while Tamiflu and vaccines are still in short supply, experts say, the only protection most Americans will have is "social distancing," which is the new politically correct way of saying "quarantine."

But distancing also encompasses less drastic measures, like wearing face masks, staying out of elevators — and the bump. Such stratagems, those experts say, will rewrite the ways we interact, at least during the weeks when the waves of influenza are washing over us....the social revolution is likely to focus on the most basic goal of all: keeping other people's cooties at arm's length. The bump, a simple touching of elbows, is a substitute for the filthy practice of shaking hands, in which a person who has politely sneezed into a palm then passes a virus to other hands, whose owners then put a finger in an eye or a pen in a mouth. The bump breaks that chain. Only a contortionist can sneeze on his elbow.

It's a sobering prospect indeed. But everything old is new again, and as I read the article, an image from childhood came to my mind: the top drawer of my mother's bureau, fully one-third of which was filled with gloves.

No, not gloves like those we wear today: bulky, thinsulate, or fleece, made to shield from the cold and wet. Her gloves were fashion statements: the thinnest and supplest of leather (kid, I suppose), soft and silky materials, a rainbow of colors, short and medium and long.

The longest were actually the best: gloves meant to be worn with sleeveless ball gowns. In addition to being elegant, they did the double duty of hiding any jiggling imperfections of the upper arm (although, of course, as a child, such things never occurred to me). They sported a row of tiny buttons that opened them up in the middle as they stretched their seemingly endless way from fingertip almost to armpit.

Oh, the glamour, and the fun I had as a little girl rooting around in there and trying them on! Even then, I suppose, the fad for gloves was fading, and many of these were already relics, from my mother's young womanhood during the 30s and 40s.

But gloves as proper fashion statement were still around; I myself was outfitted as a tiny girl with short, white (and, one memorable year when I was four, little pink) gloves for dress-up occasions, making me feel sophisticated beyond belief. Oh yes, and hats, too, with bows on them.

I never for a moment stopped to think that these glorious gloves (now gone the way of the dodo) might have had a protective function, as well--after all, what did grownups or old people know that we didn't? Much as the parasols and sunhats of those fussbudget Victorians ended up having an actual purpose (as some of us discovered, much to our surprise, when skin began to collect the debt owed for all those year of sunbathing coated with baby oil)--so, perhaps, did the lowly glove. Might it not have acted to prevent the spread of illness through hand-to-hand contact, when contagious disease was so prevalent and difficult to treat?

I couldn't find too much on the subject when I researched the role of the glove, but my guess is that slowing down the spread of disease has always been one of its functions. At the very least, wearing gloves may have given people the reassuring idea that they were protecting themselves, whether they actually were or not.

On the latter point, my mother tells a story that occurred when she was in her twenties, during the 1930s. She and a friend were traveling from New York to California on a cruise ship that made the journey via the Panama Canal. They were two attractive women--my mother's friend, in fact, was exceptionally beautiful--and they received a certain amount of attention from the ship's crew and the officers, who were a rather handsome bunch themselves.

The evening before the ship was to dock for a day visit in Havana,Cuba (isn't this story quaint?), my mother and her friend were talking with some of the officers when my mother mentioned that one thing she'd really love to see was a Cuban house.

"Really?" asked the officer, raising an eyebrow. My mother nodded.

"Well, it can be arranged," he said, with a charming and mysterious smile.

The next day several of the officers escorted my mother and her friend to a Cuban house, and started showing them around. The place seemed a bit strange; there were a number of women lazing about, and the officers explained that there were rooms decorated in the fashion of different countries of the world: would they like to view them?

The truth dawned on my mother and her friend at around the same time: they were actually in a Cuban brothel. They two young women made eye contact and then, both minds with a single simultaneous thought, opened their purses, took out their white gloves, and put them on for the remainder of the tour, satisfied that they were protected from whatever dreadful diseases might be swirling around the place.

So I advocate the return of the glove: it might work even better than an elbow bump in the event of the feared pandemic. Your mother--or perhaps your grandmother, or even your great-grandmother--should know.


At 1:35 PM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous ElMondoHummus said...

It would be too bad if things came to the point of having to wear gloves for sanitary reasons, but I admit, it wouldn't be tragic. If only folks followed basic hygiene, like washing hands often, this would be a minor issue.

Then again, I myself sometimes go some period of time between a sneeze or a cough and a trip to the washroom. No one's perfect, and maybe the real point is that even a very hygienically cautious population cannot stop every transmission of infection.

But in this, we do come to the ironic problem of overprotecting: We risk weakening our immune system by keeping it from getting exposed to new infectants. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating catching Avian Flu in order to strengthen our immune system, but covering up from everything, including stuff our bodies can handle is also a bad idea.

Huh... potentially hard to balance, here... damned if we do, etc.

At 1:51 PM, February 13, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

If a kid is over-protected as his immune system is developing, he will develop perhaps asthma and allergies.

It makes sense. Allergies are just the immune system going hyper-active. If as a child, your immune system was being worked in healthy fashion, then when you get older, your immune system tends to go haywire less often due to the maintenance. Like brains, muscles, and bones. Everything has a cost to it.

But keeping yourself clean as an adult, using disinfectant, really shouldn't have be a problem if you had a healthy childhood.

It will be hard for parents not to protect their children from influenza and other things that might kill them. But to all things is a price.

One simply has to gauge, whether the rewards outweigh the risk.

To the best knowledge of humanity, and with the internet, there are no practically no excuses left for people who say "they didn't know". They do know, anyone with access to the internet or a library, knows. Now they must decide.

To do or not to do, that is the question.

At 3:47 PM, February 13, 2006, Blogger Fausta said...

Never mind the germs -- bring back gloves!
Accessorize, accessorize!

At 4:53 PM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous ElMondoHummus said...

I can't comment from the ladies end of the fashion scale, but if gloves came back as an acceptable accessory for men, that would reopen a whole world of old-school provocations. Who hasn't wanted to challenge someone to a duel by slapping them with a glove? :)

Or pull the Bugs Bunny stunt of filling the glove with bricks, horseshoes, gravel, etc. BLAP!

Okay, off topic, I know. Germs. Hygiene. Cleanliness. But durn it, Bugs slappin' some upstart with a mitten full o' iron... just can't get the image out of my mind. :)

At 4:57 PM, February 13, 2006, Blogger Motor 1560 said...

When I was just a very little guy, we visited relatives in San Francisco. It was also the first time that I realized that the world my mother was raised in was much different than the world of Los Angeles or even Pasadena where we lived.

Any excursion, required the full panoply of gloves, hat and purse. And, for me, the itchy wool Eaton suit of cap, collarless jacket and short pants. Men wore hats, straws from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Formal dress required gloves for all. And cotillion school later taught me that men removed their glove to shake hands while women did not. Formal wear also required, for men, patent leather pumps with bows.

I was very happy to return home to my near state of nature; a Southern California savage. Although, I was in my twenties before young women ceased wearing the elasticized chastity belts forced on them by their mothers; to be worn from first date to, with luck, virgo intacta, marriage. My impression is that none of it had the least relationship to hygiene so much as to social class distinctions.

If the handshake is to disappear I hope it is replaced with the hip bump, from a dance step I'm sure I did not learn in cotillion school. I may the last man in Christendom, outside of the diplomatic service, who knows how to set up and negotiate a receiving line.

At 5:21 PM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous douglas said...

Ahhh, when there was class... instead we now live in the age of shorts and a t-shirt to church!

Leave it to the NYT to be, well, I think stupid is the correct term-
"Only a contortionist can sneeze on his elbow."
Really? I sure can sneeze on my elbow, and that is in fact what I'm tring to teach my three year old to do so as to keep his hands cleaner. It's a pretty easy thing to test, assuming the reporter and editor have at least one arm. I think, what they meant to say was 'only a contortionist can rub their eye with their elbow, or put their elbow in their mouth'. I knew the quality of reporting was going downhill, but this is ridiculous!

At 5:37 PM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hmm, put a glove together with the self-cleaning, bacteria killing nano-coating that's being developed in Australia (which uses ambient light to kill germs), and you can make a bundle -- if only on people's fears.

At 5:50 PM, February 13, 2006, Blogger El Rider said...

Over the years I have gotten into the habit of sneezing into the inner part of my elbow. I work in a trading pit in Chicago and that is the only way that I won't infect my employees and anyone else who comes into contact with any paper that I have to deal with. As for washing my hands, I don't leave the pit for four hours. I think that sneezing into your elbow is more socially acceptable and I have been seeing more people sneeze that way. On the other hand, maybe I'm just noticing my friends.

At 9:15 PM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous Megan said...

I learned to sneeze in the crook of my arm while working at KFC. A wise manager told me that if you HAVE to sneeze, customers do NOT want to see you sneeze or cough into your hands.'s so logical.

And I LOVE the idea of fashionable gloves coming back into style. I remember wearing my grandmothers for dressup. I LOVE them!

At 9:33 PM, February 13, 2006, Blogger chuck said...

I myself was outfitted as a tiny girl with short, white (and, one memorable year when I was four, little pink) gloves for dress-up occasions, making me feel sophisticated beyond belief.

And my mother, red in tooth and claw, had to fight furiously with me before I would comb my hair. Girls and boys really aren't the same species.

At 9:48 PM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I liked Paul Harvey's idea for a generic greeting ritual. Use a casual salute. "Top o' the morning to yuh gov!" sort of thing. Two fingers (index and middle) unseparated, raised to the right temple or forehead.

Offers both acknowledgement and respect without any physical contact at all.

Jason B.

At 10:02 PM, February 13, 2006, Blogger Motor 1560 said...

Obviously Paul Harvey did not do enough research on the gesture which derives from the ancient feudal ritual obeisance of "tugging the forelock". Tugging the forelock requires lowering the head.

This is not to be confused with tipping your hat or the similar gesture Gary Cooper was wont to use along with "Ma'am". This was derived from tipping back the face shield of the knight's helm.

Pardon me while I look up the function for purging the brain of useless information. Does Norton have a tool for it? Too bad the brain is not more like a hard disk think of the possibilities...

At 10:32 PM, February 13, 2006, Blogger chuck said...

Tugging the forelock requires lowering the head.

I tried tugging my forelock but I couldn't find it.

At 11:16 PM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous John said...

I haven't touched a public door knob in three years (I love winter when I get to wear gloves; otherwise it involves stretching a sleeve or coat over the knob (or simply waiting for someone else to open the door)). It all started in the men's room...You ever notice how many men don't wash their hands? From what I hear on the women's side, it's not that different.

At 1:01 AM, February 14, 2006, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Too bad the brain is not more like a hard disk think of the possibilities...

Ya, think of the possibilities. I could run a magnet over your head and make you forget all sorts of things, if not go psychotic and schizophrenic and other things.

The real question is, if a human lived to be 500 years old, would his brain run out of memory space?

At 8:40 AM, February 14, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pretty much all interactions requiring physical contact are fading away, and have been for some time. The only handshakes I've given during the last five years were in job interviews, and those are used more to judge confidence than as any real sign of camaraderie.

Communication advancements make people more aware of each others' imperfections and potential dangers, which, along with greater ability to communicate and scrutinize at a distance, is making nearly all physical contact not merely obsolete, but potentially hazardous.

Would you hug a guy who's listed as a sex offender? Or who might be?

At 9:24 AM, February 14, 2006, Blogger Goesh said...

Do we have a new chapter of HA (hypochondriacs anonymous) here or what?

At 11:31 AM, February 14, 2006, Blogger reader_iam said...

Will the "bump" do the trick?

One small twist: kids today, at least the ones I know, including my 5-year-old, have been taught to sneeze or cough in their elbows, not their hands. So their arms might be just as "germ-y" as everything else.

At 11:56 AM, February 14, 2006, Anonymous SB said...

Ah cooties: the age-old question. Who's got 'em - boys or girls? I think we know the answer. You can try to hide them behind your little white gloves and your little frilly dresses and your little patent-leather shoes. But we know...we know...

At 12:21 PM, February 14, 2006, Blogger Van said...

Trends such as hand shaking usually change with time. For example, once it was considered rude to make eye contact while shaking hands, now the opposite is true.

But the elbow rub seems silly, so why not adapt the Japanese bow?

The bow advances elements of respect and honor. Also it seems like a pleasant way to greet someone. Most important, you don't have to touch anyone during the exchange.

Now, if we can only figure out a way to make a face mask socially acceptable, any suggestions?

At 2:14 PM, February 14, 2006, Blogger Fausta said...

I don't know about the Japanese bow. The ettiquete is very severe, as to who bows first, how far down, and so on.
I'll settle for a Queen Mum-like wave of the hand, made with a motion simliar to turning a light bulb.

At 6:05 PM, February 14, 2006, Anonymous Teresa said...

I was going to recommend bowing too. An elbow bump seems so silly - is there really any need to "touch" in times of epidemic? Just because the Japanese have strict rules for bowing doesn't mean we would have to employ those same rules. Just a simple short bow to show respect would be fine.

As for gloves - I've always had difficulty with fitting because of large hands, so the prospect is not too appealing to me. But ladies wore them for hundreds of years mainly because "ladies" were supposed to have soft hands. Gloves not only kept the hands soft but also free of cuts, scratches, callouses and dirt (much harder to clean hands when there's no running water!).

Since we have not only running water, but also anti-bacterial lotion - I don't forsee gloves becoming a big deal again - mainly because people like the freedom of gloveless hands.

At 5:58 AM, February 15, 2006, Anonymous douglas said...

Interesting comments... I've noticed in my life that the 'germophobes' are the ones who also get sick most often. As an asthmatic, a simple cold can end up going to the ER, so it's not a small deal to me, but... Once you have small children, the idea of being 'clean' pretty much goes right out the window, unless you don't kiss your children. In my experience, avoiding things like the cold are almost impossible, but strengthening your immune system and prompt and aggresive treatment of symptoms does wonders for staying healthy. When something serious like bird flu gets around, then we can start talking about gloves and masks and going thru life looking silly opening doors in public...

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