UPDATED: Thanks to commenter and fellow Fool Brian Orelli for forcing me to clarify what I meant by “seaweed-free” sushi in an earlier version of this query.
Once again, I’m experimenting. This is an open query designed to reach as wide an audience as possible and in the shortest amount of time. I have two aims with this. First, to land an assignment. (To be clear: I won’t take the first bid that comes along unless the publication really is a great fit and the offer is reasonable.) Second, to gather information. I’d like to write a book about building a writing career with social media — posts like these are part of the data collection process. With that, here is my proposal.
My patience has officially run thin. I’m tired of parents and parenting magazines treating food allergies as an easily-dismissed annoyance. Long before anyone was talking about swine flu, pork almost killed my son.
I propose a 1,000 to 1,200 word essay about how my wife Patty and I tackle issues that most American families never have to think about. Take parties. Try asking your friend if they would, just this once, agree to not serve food at Jimmy’s birthday bash. At best, they would think you were crazy. At worst, rude.
We rarely ask. Instead, each time nine-year-old Benjamin, our eldest, is invited to a birthday party we prepare a backpack filled with safe goodies and ship him off as if he were a soldier headed for a combat zone because, in a sense, he is. Ben is cursed with Celiac Disease and allergies to more than 30 foods. One touch of a protein-packed pizza could set off a reaction as severe as anaphylaxis.
But you wouldn’t know that to look at him. A brown-haired, green-eyed, broad-shouldered, 70-pound fourth-grader, Ben looks healthy because he is. He practices tae kwon do three days a week at a nearby studio, where he is a member of the school’s leadership team.
Food allergies are easy to dismiss because they’re like urban legends. You’ve heard about the boogeyman, but you’ve never seen him. You’ve heard your friend tell you she can’t drink beer because it contains gluten, but you’ve never seen her doubled over after guzzling a glass of brew. So it is with Ben. I can tell you that he can’t have a burger for fear it might kill him but all you’d see is the rosy-cheeked kid with the big smile and stocky build. Ben suffers in silence.
Millions suffer with him. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health says that food allergy occurs in 6 to 8 percent of children aged 4 years or younger. By contrast, 3.7 percent of adults are estimated to be allergic. An epidemic? Hardly, but enough to get political blogger Megan McArdle thinking. In 2007, McArdle wrote of how she lied in telling a waiter at a Japanese restaurant in Baltimore that she was allergic to seaweed. The fib backfired when the restaurateur, rightly, took her at her word and refused to serve her sushi without seaweed, apparently fearing cross-contamination. McArdle was stunned.
“I am under the impression that occasionally making up stories in bars (though I haven’t done so in years), and claiming to be allergic to food that you merely despise, are very common things,” McArdle wrote, using the pen name “Jane Galt.”
There really is no defending McArdle’s antics to any parent of a child with food allergies. And yet her behavior is understandable. You have to see food allergies to fear them. You have to see them as Patty and I did in December of 2001, on a cold winter’s night in our spacious yet still sparsely populated house in suburban Denver.
Not yet two at the time, Ben in prior months had suffered from food-induced hives and puking. We knew he suffered from sensitivities to some foods. What we didn’t know was just how pervasive his sensitivities had become. The pork would erase all ambiguity.
Patty had broiled a foot-long tenderloin. Ben and I were to be taste testers. Our job was to determine whether the lightly charred meat, cut into circular stacks that oozed juice, would serve as our family Christmas meal. Thing is, I didn’t need a taste test — the tenderloin had been cooking for an hour, all the while filling the kitchen with nose-tickling peppery smells. The taste test would be dessert. Or so I had believed.
What struck me first was his breathing. With each bite, Ben wheezed a little more. First, like a 40-year-old weekend warrior after an intense game of racquetball. Then, like a 80-year-old whose lifetime of cigarettes had become emphysema. His face would turn a veiny blue that almost matched the dusk settling over the Rockies out our back window.
“How much did he have?” “Is he choking?” I wasn’t sure what to do. Patty did, fortunately. She’d seen a similar reaction when Ben was still a four-month old baby. Benadryl would save his life then and this time too. She filled the plastic syringe and pushed a full, bright pink dose into his frightened mouth as I huddled behind, trying to hide (for pride’s sake as well as for his) that I was terrified.
And I’ve never been the same since.
Food allergies may not be a plague but they are an affliction that disrupts the lives of not just children, but whole families. You know this now, having heard a portion of our story. Would you like to hear the rest? Email me with questions or to make a bid.
© Copyright 2009, Tim Beyers.